This is What Happens When I Go to the Bookstore

I thought it could be different this time.  This time, I pre-ordered the books I wanted from the Strand.  I’ll just walk in and go directly to pick them up.  It’ll be quick.  Five minutes.

The problem was I had to go by the tables chock full of beautiful glossy works, old and new.  It was like those tables were alive, reaching out to me, like the trees in the Wizard of Oz, except instead of apples they threw books.  Well, that’s a stretch.  No books were thrown.  I picked one up, and then another, and then another.  No one made me do it.  No one even suggested it.  I felt a little high when it was over.

When I reached the desk to pick up my order, I already had six books in a stack, the same number of books I ordered.

The high diminished when I got home to face the many, many books on my shelves I have not read.  Then I read an article on the BBC about “Tsundoku: the art of buying books and never reading them”.  I’m not going to go too far in my fact-checking.  I’ll accept this as a thing, as an art I currently practice.  I’m surrounded by this art.

Though to be fair, I’ve already read 3.5 of these new installations.  I chose the week my husband was out of town and I was home alone to read “The Outsider” — smart! Totally terrifying.  Today I’ll finish up “Something in the Water” and I’m very glad I read it after our scuba diving honeymoon five years ago.  I’m very excited for the Feynman book — his writing on science is simple, elegant, and refreshing — like the perfect glass of water on a hot day.

This always ends the same way.  Struck with remorse, I vow to not buy any more books until I finish the ones I bought.  But this time will be different.  I’m not making such a vow.  I’ll enjoy these books, read or not.

Matrices for Life

As a former consultant, I’m well-versed in the concept of using a matrix to make sense of things.  Matrices bring a first layer of order to a heap of complexity.   

I was reminded of the power of matrices the other day when I walked into a bar, opened the menu, and was presented with a cocktail matrix on page 2.  Picture below.  

Cocktail Matrix from Pouring Ribbons


I love cocktails, but feel distress when I don’t know what seven of the nine ingredients in the drink are, and feel exhausted just thinking of the lecture that could ensue if I ask.  And how do you even know which cocktail to start asking about?  This matrix gave me exactly what I needed.  I was able to narrow things down to a desired quadrant, and check out those cocktails, and ask a few questions.  I also just loved so, so, so much that someone running a cocktail bar thought to use a matrix.  

This matrix led me to think of another matrix a wise person once shared with me about reading books.  This person sets up the following matrix:

Book Matrix

Obviously the jackpot is when you read a good story told by a good storyteller, but it’s more interesting when you come across an OK story told by an exceptional story teller, or a gripping story told by a mediocre story teller.  You think, I liked that book but didn’t love it.  Why?  And you can narrow it down to one of these two quadrants.  I’d love to see book reviewers use this matrix.  Although for reasons of diplomacy, I doubt a reviewer would put a book in the lower left quadrant, Quadrant 3. 

But it makes you think — what makes a good story?  What’s good storytelling?  Which books would you put where?  For me, I don’t think so much in terms of a bad story, but more a story I’m not super interested in.  Yet I find myself flying through the pages, tearing through to reach the end.  That is the mark of Quadrant Four, for me.  A lot of non-fiction books end up in Quadrant One when I read them.  The story is so fascinating but the writing is painful and it’s like walking up a sand dune to reach the end.  Who ends up consistently in my Quadrant Two? Kristin Hannah (fiction) and Erik Larson (non-fiction).  

I’m eager to discover more matrices in unsuspecting places, eg, not for management consulting.  Anyone have some good matrices to share? 

Adventures in Silence

I love quiet.  Pushed to the brink, at times, by New York City and my two loud children, I ruthlessly hunt for quiet.  The quiet in the living room right after I put the kids to bed is nearly ceremonial.  

I worked in a Quaker school for four years, drawn to it for many reasons, not least including the silent Quaker meetings.  How surreal to sit in a congregation, 3 blocks from bustling-on-a-good-day, wacko-on-a-normal-day Union Square, in silence.  To share silence with 300 people.  Most of whom are high school students pulled away from phones, quiz study sheets, contagious giggles.  They may have an easier time of it than the adults.  

I swim.  During lap swim, I typically swim in the “medium” lane, the lane for those who are not former Olympians (“fast” lane) or 78-year-olds who walk back and forth (“slow” lane).  The medium lane contains the greatest spread in speeds, further compounded by some of us who might be fast at freestyle but seem to go forward but then a bit back with every breaststroke.  I shared the medium lane with two people the other day.  We looked like aliens – our swim caps giving us smooth ellipses for heads, our goggled bug-eyes registering no human recognition.  We exchanged not one word, as we performed a kind of do-si-do at the ends of the lane, gauging the speed of the incoming swimmer and the one who just pushed off, what stroke they are doing, what stroke I’m going to do, how fast I’ll go.  It worked.  No one bumped into each other; no one had to stop or turn around awkwardly 3/4 of the way to the end to escape collision.  We performed this silent choreography for 20 minutes.  In the locker room afterward, I got dressed next to the woman I mentally called “fuschia bathing cap”.  I reached over to move my makeup bag and ended the dance by a “oh sorry, I’ll just move this over,” in a mere whisper.  She glared at me — most likely because she didn’t hear what I said and I just looked like a mumbler.  But I was wishing I hadn’t spoke — it was a needless perversion of the silence in which we’d operated in the pool.  

I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary last week.  He was dismayed by children’s TV trends of the 70s and 80s — the whooping and fighting and slime on the head and pies in the face — what he perceived as the robbed dignity of children viewers.  On his show he sought to show them the meaning of one minute.  He had the screen focus on an egg timer and stay there for its 60 clicks.  How powerful.  The silence, the observation, the reverence of time.  So much can happen in silence.  

Time Management: Time tracking and lists

Two summers ago, after constantly reaching the end of a week and wondering where my time had gone, I read Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” and I began tracking my time.  For two weeks, I wrote down everything I did and how long it took, in a grid with the day’s 24 hours broken down into 15-minute increments.  It was cumbersome, so I moved to an app which is now my addiction.  For nearly two years, I have recorded everything I do and how long it takes, every day, with the exception of vacations.  I have rough goals for how much time I want to spend on various types of activities per week (e.g., about 50 hours on sleep, about 35 – 40 hours with family, about the same for work, 3 – 5 hours on exercise), and it’s interesting to examine my pie chart for the week and see how it all shook out.  What I love most is no longer wondering how I spend my time.

Below is an image of my time tracker for yesterday and the week of June 25.  (I know this appears to border on madness but seriously, try it — it’s addictive!)


Despite having a handle on how I spend my time, something was missing.  What are my goals for what happens during those hours?  What am I seeking to accomplish during those 35 hours of time with my family per week?  Or writing time?  I have loved Laura Vanderkam’s concept of seasonal fun lists, but it wasn’t until I chatted recently with my writer and illustrator friend Erin McGill that my mind was blown by the power of lists.  

Erin has a brilliant system (The Erin McGill Method) which I just implemented for myself.  I can easily integrate her method with my time-tracking, and after just a few weeks it’s been life-changing.  

The Erin McGill Method:  Erin makes a list for each calendar year.  The list has three categories:  Work, Personal, and Home.  Within each category, she has 4 Big items, 4 Medium items, and 4 Little items: 36 items in total to accomplish over a year.  You can further break these down by season — selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Little item to do, in each category, each season.  That’s nine goals for say, a summer.  Totally doable, realistic, and satisfying.  My challenge up until now is I create monstrous, overwhelming lists in my head (like clean and decorate three rooms in our apartment during the month of July) which make me want to hide under the covers rather than start the task.  Using The Erin McGill Method has totally eliminated that feeling of gross overwhelm.  And what if you have 6 Big things on your Work list?  Well, save two of them for next year.

I sat down to make my Year List and made some modifications to Erin’s system.  First, I added two more categories:  Family and, because I’m a giant dork, Fun.  Yes, I have put Fun on a list.  But I would challenge anyone to make a Fun list, because that’s where a lot of your activities that give you a zest for life come into play.  Some items on mine? “Try rock climbing” (big) and “Get a record player” (medium).  It’s easy to forget about fun when juggling work and kids and life maintenance, but if it goes on a list, you’ll do it and it will sweeten everything else.  “Take another cocktail class” (Fun, Little) is a great foil to “Clean the hall tree” (Home, Little).

I began my year in July, so my list spans July 2018 to June 2019.  As I have five categories (60 goals in total), I’ve set out to accomplish 15 goals per quarter.  (My first quarter — July, August, September — doesn’t square exactly with a season but that’s OK.  I like how one of my quarters — January, February, March — will correspond to the beginning of a new calendar year.)  Once I made my year list, I made my “quarterly” list, selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Small goal from each category.  Next to each item on my quarterly list, I wrote down which month I’d focus on that item.  Then I made a July list, with only the things I’m focusing on for July, with specific weeks (bigger tasks) or days (smaller tasks) assigned to them.   

I’ve shared my First Quarter list below.  You’ll see I didn’t feel the need to spread 15 goals evenly across three months, as some months have more time for certain kinds of activities.  Some of these tasks are so simple — like “find that roast recipe”.  That is part of a yearly goal to cook 6 new dishes (Personal, Medium), but all I’m doing this summer is simply finding the recipe.  NBD.  This approach helps me take goals that might feel lofty and amorphous (“do more hands-on projects with the kids”) to concrete and manageable: “Do a craft with June”, which we already did two weekends ago.  Done! 

My First Quarter (July – August 2018) List

I am loving this.  I routinely used to read my ENTIRE to do list on the Notes app on my phone, emerge feeling scattered and overwhelmed, and then zone out, paralyzed, in front of an episode of Riverdale.  Now I don’t need to consider anything except for this month’s list, because I know I have budgeted time later in the year for the other things.  I’ve found myself using those hours I track in more efficient and productive ways, as my goals are smaller and more realistic than they used to be, and therefore, they are getting done!  

If you are struggling to make sense of how you use your time, or feeling like you are never making a dent in your to do list, I can’t recommend these strategies enough. 

Fact-Checking Fairytales


“One book”

BRK recently created a new, nested, hybrid book — Sleeping Beauty stuffed inside Pete’s Dragon stuffed inside Cinderella.  This gives new meaning to reading “one book”, as one book now contains three.

She takes great care to stuff them inside each other at exactly the same spot, so that we read up to the mean step-sisters tearing apart Cinderella’s version 1.0 ball gown, then on to Nora buying Pete a new set of clothes while Elliot the Dragon looks on approvingly, and then the entirety of Sleeping Beauty before continuing back to Pete and Elliot, and concluding with Cinderella.

Throughout this adventure in reading, BRK has lots of questions.  I oscillate from delighting in her curiosity to cringing at yet another pause on our march through 68 pages before The Battle of Tooth Brushing.

Here’s a sample, with my reactions underneath:

(Sleeping Beauty): How did the three fairies rush to rescue Prince Phillip?

Great question.  Did they run? Fly? But since they are fairies can’t they just dissolve and then reappear anyplace they want? 

(Cinderella): Where’s the hush? (in reference to “Suddenly, a hush fell over the garden, and a cloud of lights began to twinkle and glow around Cinderella’s head.”)

How do you explain “a hush fell” to a 3 year-old? 

(Pete’s Dragon): Is the teacher nice?

Hmm, I want her to think of teachers as nice.  But this illustrator seems to have not.  

(Pete’s Dragon): How is the Gogan family mean to Pete?

Because they make him do all the work and yell at him.  Oh no, sometimes I yell.  

And then the questions take a turn toward fact-checking, toward identifying inconsistencies.

(Cinderella): Why did she have the glass slipper?

GREAT QUESTION.  YES.  Why, when the spell broke at midnight,  did everything turn back to its sorry state except for the glass slippers? I have no good answer, but something smells fishy.

(Cinderella, again):  Why did the spell break at midnight?

YES.  WHY?  If you are a fairy godmother, and you can turn a pumpkin into a coach, mice into horses, and a dog into a footman, why on earth does your spell expire at midnight?  

If you have the power to perform magical spells, why do you have random limitations like the spell breaks at midnight?  Or in the case of Sleeping Beauty, a deep sleep instead of a nonfatal spindle prick?   It would make of an incredibly boring story, but still . . . BRK is onto something here. 

Appreciating Life’s Annoying Minutiae

IMG_6140The other day, I was showing my freshman Physics students how to calculate the instantaneous velocity of an accelerating object  . . .  an object that is speeding up, or slowing down.  In this case, the object we were discussing was speeding up.  The object was the NYC L train leaving the station at 3rd Ave and 14th street.  We had gone down to the subway station as a class (there’s an adrenaline inducer) and collected distance-time data using stopwatches and a measuring wheel.  We received odd looks from commuters, and collected some fairly useful data.

Back in the classroom, the students first calculated the average velocity of the train for each time interval.  Then, using the concept that the average velocity is the sum of velocities at the beginning and end of the time interval divided by two, they began to calculating the instantaneous velocities.  So, they had to do a lot of multiplying the average velocities by two, as the subway train started from rest.

And the following conversation ensued:

Student: “I did it.  I multiplied the average velocity by two.”

Me: “Great.  Now keep doing it.”

Student, with alarm in his eyes: “Until when?”

Me: “Until you’ve done it for the whole data set.  For both trains.” (We did two trials!)

Student, with more alarm: “You mean ALL the data points?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student, after a long sigh: “That’s annoying.”

Me: “I know.  Welcome to life.”

A few students gasped.  I continued.  I told them I was completely serious.  And that life has some magical, fantastic, beautiful parts, and some incredibly annoying, mind-numbing, tedious parts.  And they are all important.  And the mind-numbing tedious parts typically lead to some kind of reward.

I like how becoming a parent has drastically increased my tolerance for the annoying mind-numbing parts of life, and has enhanced my appreciation of the magical parts.  And of course, given me more of each kind of moment.

But I feel like it’s essential to truly be able to sink into and appreciate the annoying parts.  Just get’em done, with minimal drama.  Multiply that column of numbers by two.  Scrub a surface until it’s clean.  Edit 100 pages for typos.  Make 5,893 sawing motions into a pumpkin.  To embark on a task that is repetitive and annoying and just do it.  And then reap the fruits of your labor.

I like that we had that conversation that day in class.  When I think about what they will take away from freshman Physics, it’s hard to imagine more than a few of them will remember the details of analyzing the acceleration and velocity of a moving object.  But I’m hoping the class will help them appreciate the ubiquity of annoying minutiae in life, the importance of doing them, and the rewards you reap when are you through.

Post-Script:  This is the same class in which a few weeks prior, I paced around the room, hands cupped over my mouth, repeating “MAKING A GRAPH IS NOT A HARDSHIP”.  No one complains about making graphs anymore.  Progress.

Maybe I Should Stop Eating Candy Corn


From today’s WSJ piece on the LD50 of sugar

As an older generation might say, this fall has been a doozy over here.  One unexpected twist was that since September 28, one month ago today, I’ve been to the dentist seven times.  Yes, that’s right.  Seven.

A routine cleaning on September 28th revealed a back upper molar missing part of an old filling.  This led to the placement of a temporary crown on October 2.  On October 9th, the temporary crown was re-positioned with sedative cement due to intense pain I’d been feeling the prior three days.  On October 10th, after taking one bite of a delicious dinner I made — an occurrence almost as rare as a total solar eclipse — I found myself crunching on the temporary crown.  So, on October 11th I went in to get the temporary crown reset, but luckily the permanent crown was ready! Happy Day!

Except two days later, on my birthday, I began to feel intense pain.  So, I went back to the dentist on October 19.  And on October 20, I was sitting in the endodontist’s chair, having a root canal.  On October 24, while eating a protein bar at my desk, I bit into what felt like a rock.  So I was back at the dentist today, thinking I’d lost part of a filling in another tooth.  The good news is the filling is intact.

The bad news is I’m terrified of eating any Halloween candy this year.  An non-candied apple is kind of as far I’m willing to go with my mouth full of time bomb silver fillings from the early 90s.  So maybe it was a blessing-not-in-disguise to see today’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the LD50 of various popular Halloween candies, a chilling reminder of sugar’s murderous behavior.

The LD50 is the dose of a substance lethal to half of a test population, typically rats.  Every substance has an LD50, even water!  Sucrose, the main sugar in candy, has an LD50 of 13.5 grams per pound of body weight.  For a 125-pound person, this translates to about 200 fun-size candy bars, 250 gummy worms, and just over 1,000 pieces of candy corn.  I LOVE candy corn — I know, it’s disgusting, but I love it — though don’t think I’d ever eat 1,000 pieces in one sitting.  Gummy worms on the other hand?  I kind of could picture mindlessly munching 250 of them, if I were watching a gripping enough movie.  For now however, I will sit longingly staring at the bin of candy corn, wondering if I’ll be brave enough to take a handful and possibly end up at the dentist again next week.

My favorite part of this article?  The personalized equation they offer:

(Your weight * 13.5)/9.3 = the number of fun-size candy bars that would kill you

This equation takes the LD50 of sucrose (13.5), multiples it by your weight, and then divides it by 9.3, which is the number of grams of sugar in an average fun-size candy bar.  Go ahead, give it a whirl.  Maybe this can inspire the next blockbuster murder mystery — was it death by fun-size Milky Way or Three Musketeers?