Fifty Words (no more, no less)

My friend Jami in Colorado was recently telling me about an exercise she did for work. It’s a small company (< 10 employees), and a new person was coming on board. As part of the introductory process, each staff member wrote a 50-word autobiography. Exactly 50 words. (This is 50.)

This was not to take a long period of time. Less than 10 minutes, I think. Could it have possibly been 2 minutes? (I can barely count to 50 in 2 minutes, not if I think about each of the numbers, and how they look and feel.) Unless you’re doing this on a computer (which I was not envisioning happening in this exercise; for some reason I only thought pencil and paper), how could you possibly do this even remotely quickly, making sense and getting exactly 50?

And then I hit on it: verse. Ten 5-word lines. Here is what I came up with in about 4 minutes:

They called me Psycho Liz
I was that into psychology
Eventually I got a Ph.D.

Roommates, marriage, roommates, lover, marriage
I very rarely live alone
though I always love it

I thought I couldn’t love
then I met my match
it’s practically happy ever after

(he outlasts me in bookstores)

It was quite fun. Invigorating, even. Go ahead, try it yourself. (You don’t have to use the verse form.)

Doing it in a short time span is key. You don’t want to mull, cross out, rewrite, or start over. Some would call it stream of consciousness. I felt more like a bulldozer—just keep going, just keep going, five more, five more, up to 50, done.

I am thinking this could be a good format for pretty much anything you might want to capture: vacation moments, childhood memories, obsessions, happiness, fear. I found it a little fascinating, and I encourage you to try it to see if you experience same.

Choose your own topic (I have several I want to try). I’d love to hear back if anyone finds this as fun and fascinating as I do.

24 Reading Challenges

I love any kind of challenge to broaden my reading horizons, and was intrigued by a group called Book Riot that has issued a 2017 “Read Harder” challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to push readers to explore topics or formats or genres that they otherwise wouldn’t try.

Nobody’s keeping score, and I already have my reading theme thing going on, but could I possibly resist? Well, no. I decided to overlay the reading challenge on top of the themes, figuring I’d hit several on chance, plus I could steer a few theme reads down the challenge road as they fit (and appealed, of course—always the primary criterion).

Here is the list of 24 reading challenges:

  1. A book about sports.
  2. A debut novel.
  3. A book about books.
  4. A book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
  5. A book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
  6. An all-ages comic.
  7. A book published between 1900 and 1950.
  8. A travel memoir.
  9. A book you’ve read before.
  10. A book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
  11. A book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
  12. A fantasy novel.
  13. A nonfiction book about technology.
  14. A book about war.
  15. A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ.
  16. A book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
  17. A classic by an author of color.
  18. A superhero comic with a female lead.
  19. A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.
  20. An LGBTQ romance novel.
  21. A book published by a micropress.
  22. A collection of stories by a woman.
  23. A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
  24. A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

I’ve read 10 of the 24 categories so far this year (those would be the bolded titles). Given the list isn’t a driver of my reading, but rather something I remember to check in on once in awhile, 10 out of 24 doesn’t seem too bad for late April. (Most of them were also reading-theme books. Ms. Marvel would be an exception.)

I had thought that “a book about sports” would come up empty at the end of the year, but scanning my shelves I found Michael Shaara’s For the Love of the Game, a novel about baseball. Oh, I do love baseball. And I have loved Shaara’s Civil War novels, and I had no particular passion about the Civil War before I read them. But I do have a bit of a passion about baseball, so I figured he’d do well by me here as well. And he did. It’s a short, tight novel. Almost a fable.

I know I read a lot of debut novels, or at least I think I do. But it isn’t a driver of my reading. So I was ever so pleased when a friend offered to loan me HER LIBRARY BOOK COPY of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a debut novel by Max Porter. One of the narrators is a crow. I will say no more. Except I have finished the book and will return it before it is due. And I love crows.

South of the Border, West of the Sun was both a reread and a book set more than 5000 miles away. I love Haruki Murakami (mostly), and he rewards rereading. Definitely an author I will keep, hoping to reread all of his works (except maybe skipping short stories, which I always have good intentions about and almost always fail miserably at) in the order written. Sometimes his characters pop up in other books. I love when that happens.

Looking ahead, some of the reading challenges seem like slam dunks, even under the aegis of the reading theme: a fantasy novel, a book by an immigrant, a travel memoir, a banned book.

And then there are the serious challenges: A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as GLBTQ. Mostly sexual orientation is not included in author information. So while it may be that I have or will read books that fall into this category, I’m not sure I want to take that extra step to investigate the sexual orientation of the author. But I do read the occasional YA and middle grade book, so perhaps one will fall into my hands. It happens.

Another challenge: A book about war. I went through a Civil War phase and a World War 2 phase. Right now I am in a warless phase so that could be a challenge. Oh, here’s a big challenge: a collection of stories by a woman. I tend not to like short stories in general. I might like them a little more if they’re by a woman, but still, short stories. But it doesn’t say “short stories,” it says “stories by a woman.” Well. That could be a memoir.  Many memoirs are written as stories. Hurrah! That I can do for sure.

It’s a fun challenge, and I’ll report back towards end of year as to how it’s turning out. I’ve plucked much of the low-hanging fruit, as they say (except for the sports book). We’ll see how it turns out. I feel like I should get at least 20, but I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to 15. Anyone else out there trying this?

A Basket of Happiness

It is not so very often I start out loving a book. I started to love this book before I even got to page 1. In the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore writes:

This book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.

I had set out to write a different book. I had begun to write about happiness.”

I have moved past the first part of the book, Gladness, and am now immersed in Solace. Yet a part of the gladness holds on: Moore’s concept of the happy basket.

It started as an experiment. She decided to start keeping notes of when she found herself extremely happy, “happy in that deep-down, exhaling, head-back way.” She decided to keep a basket—the happy basket—to collect these notes of what she was doing at the time she experienced these deep happy moments. The experiment was to last a year, but she cheated after about 8 months and looked. Here were some of her happy moments:

Rain, after no rain. And company for dinner, after a long time without seeing friends.

Phone message from Erin. Nothing to say, really, but she sounded content. She had a good day. I could tell by her voice she was healthy. This makes a mother glad.

Frank and I held hands in bed last night, as we often do. We lay on our backs and held hands. This makes me happy, feeling the warmth and strength of him beside me.

Walking fast in the morning, down the path to the bridge.

A patch of sun and a glass of wine after work.

She wanted to analyze the happy moments—look for patterns, possible trends. What she found was that “Almost all the happy moments take place in a pause, a slowing down from job and routine.” She also found that happiness isn’t really the opposite of sadness—she found an odd relationship between sadness and happiness, but not necessarily oppositional. She wonders “if the opposite of happiness might be something else—meaninglessness, maybe, or emptiness.” I find that worth a good ponder.

I love the concept of tracking happy moments, and I know exactly those moments of which she speaks. My description would be somewhat different: You are filled with a sense of exuberance, of awe—wonder at the universe, at nature, at your wonderful luck in life.

So I decided to do the happy basket thing, but it took several days before I had one of those truly happy moments (I feared that the basket would be empty at the end of the year, but my fears were for naught). I had one of those moments yesterday. I wrote it down, along with the date and time, on a scrap of paper. Today, I found a basket to use and a place to set it. And now there are two scraps of paper in the basket.

Can you possibly not want to do it? I am going into the project assuming that almost all my happy moments will be in nature. Based on my two measly current scraps, however, I’m thinking “almost all” might be overstated. But, the data are young and the basket is large, and I am going to the end of the year.

Do you really know what makes you happy? Do you want to find out, or at least get a clue?

And really, why not? Like a gratitude journal, a happiness basket can do no harm. And even though it would be cheating, if you’re partway through the year and hit a rough spot, reading a few scraps from the basket might give you an insight, or at least a lift.

Maybe. I don’t know. I just started today. I think I know a few things about myself. But I think this fun and easy project might teach me a lot about myself that I don’t realize.

And who couldn’t use a little more happiness in their life?

The Early Birds of Spring

I went birding with a friend Sunday morning. Neither long nor far, but a fine day nonetheless. Spring birding is mostly about water. This is when the ducks and shorebirds come back or migrate through. Sunday morning we saw trumpeter swans, wood ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, canvasbacks, buffleheads, lesser scaups, a few great blue herons, one great egret, coots, and hooded mergansers.

None of these birds are new to me, but many are new this year. After a winter of frozen lakes, it is nice to have open water and birds thereon, and to look up and see a great blue heron flying overhead.

If you think seeing a great blue heron is a rarity, you would be mistaken. Throughout most of the United States great blue herons are either year-round or summer residents. Before I started birding, I had no idea. Once I started noticing birds, though, I saw great blue herons flying overhead all the time (probably one every few weeks, which is a lot for a huge bird you didn’t even know existed in your city).

Not all of the early spring birds are in water, though. There were a lot of song sparrows about, as well as downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Scads and scads of robins. And a couple of show-stealers:

A most flashy eastern phoebe, hanging out ever so close, flashing its tail and being sassy, beautiful, and back for the summer.

A fox sparrow, beautiful large rufous sparrow, this one had a very gray head. I do not see fox sparrows every year (though they are not uncommon here), and to see one is always a gift.

I added 14 birds to my year list (now at 65). I was really pleased about the 14, but of course it isn’t about the numbers. It’s about getting out—out with a friend, out in nature. I’ve seen a lot of eastern phoebes, but this particular eastern phoebe heralded spring.

There’s plenty of research out there showing that interacting with nature is good for us on many levels. I have always found nature my go-to place when I am troubled (in almost every living situation I have had, there was some sort of nature sanctuary within walking distance). But nature is also a go-to place for joy. I love birding. But in a way, the birds are just an excuse.

A couple of weeks ago I went birding with a different friend. We visited a marsh that had been teaming with life just a few days ago, but a cold snap had sent them off. A frozen marsh. We didn’t see a lot of birds. We did see one great blue heron (the first I had seen of the year) beautiful and majestic and commanding awe. But mostly we were accompanied by crows. We both like crows, so we were not unhappy. The crunch of a gravel road, being out of town. Being in nature, with nature. Looking for birds. A perfect day.

The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

The Changing of the (book theme) Guard

As March turns to April, the book theme turns from Literary Forms to Emotions.

Literary Forms was a lot of fun. Within the titles of the books I read were white papers, an autobiography, fieldnotes, an elegy, two tales, myths, a manual, riddles, a journal, a field guide, questions, short poems, footnotes, letters, and a lexicon. It was a great reading month, with several notable books.

The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, is a silly cat book. It is one cat’s autobiography, written for the young new cat in the house, to share his wisdom (and also because he kind of likes her, even though she’s young and silly). I always snort when I run across these books, but somehow they end up on my shelves. I ignore them for years, and then I am reading one. Honestly, I pulled it off my own shelf and thought “a stupid cat book, I almost certainly won’t read it; not with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas also in the pile” but then I read the back and the first paragraph and the first page and then several more and there you have it.

Hillbilly Elegy was another significant read of March. I was hoping it would give me a lot of answers to questions I have about our cultural landscape and current trends. I learned a lot; mostly that it was silly to expect the answer in one book. But I did feel like I got a piece of the puzzle.

A surprise star book of the month was Flat Rock Journal, by Peter Carey. This journal is one day, spent in the Ozarks—all very close to home (the book starts on his back deck, and from there he only walks). The connection to nature is deep—watching lizards on a tree, the songs of frogs, loving a thunderstorm. There are some flaky moments. Do you think we can talk to trees? Actually, I do rather think we can talk to trees, so just know that there are flakier things than that.

However, Flat Rock Journal did remind me of the primacy of nature, and how grounding and restorative it can be. I would even go so far as to say healing. And that gives me hope. Which leads me to the April reading topic of emotions.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit, is high on my list of books to read for the emotion theme. So is The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, by bell hooks; Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver; and Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. Today I started Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment, by David Lykken (note: the author is involved in the University of Minnesota twins study, an unbelievable long-term gold mine of information; the local connection, good data, and inclusion of humor made this the second theme book I started for the month).

The first theme book was Calm Surrender, by Kent Nerburn; a book about forgiveness. I pulled it off the shelf for the calm aspect, and when I looked closer and saw it’s mostly about forgiveness, I almost put it back, since forgiveness wasn’t really high on my interest radar. But I like this guy (I’ve read a couple of his other books), he’s local (Minnesota), and I found almost every page I randomly turned to interesting, intriguing, or compelling. Who knows, maybe a post on forgiveness will be in my future.

In the fiction arena (not a strong suit for me of late), I was really excited to run across Where Angels Fear to Tread, by E.M. Forster. That is definitely at the top of the list. Others of high interest: Joyland, by Stephen King, Empathy, by Sarah Schulman, and The Joy of the Game, Michael Shara.

I was a bit surprised at the paucity of breadth of emotion in my poetry collection. So many books of love and desire; multitudes of books of joy or desire. But also a few further afield: disappointment, consolation, longing, tenderness, eros.

Other emotions I’ve found on the shelves: compassion, yearning, shame, lonely, envy, grief, neglected, sorrow, brokenhearted, bitter, affection, pleasure.

A world of emotions, just in book titles. Do it! Go scan your shelves! Who knows?