Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jan 29, 2019

This felt like the right book to begin 2019 with. I even held off finishing a book I was listening to just so that this could be my first finished book of the year. I'm weird like that. But I actually think Amy Krouse Rosenthal would approve of such a decision.

I read her second memoir, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a year and a half ago and have wanted to read this one, which was published twelve years before the other one, ever since. A lucky steal at my book club's Christmas book exchange let me take this book home with me.

As a word of warning, I will say that if I hadn't already loved and enjoyed Amy Krouse Rosenthal's work in the past, I quite possibly might have put this book aside after just the first seven pages. That's because, before Amy launches into glimpses from her own life, she orients the reader to the world in 2004, sharing such things as common machines of the era, the current population, and popular ways to exercise. But she also shares "What We Call the Other Driver When We're Angry" and "What We Say When We Bang Our Knee on the Corner of the Table," and, spoiler, they weren't nice words. I might have thought, If this is the kind of content that's going to be in this book, then I'm through. But I had confidence in Amy and believed she wouldn't let me down, and she didn't, but I think in order to recommend the book, I'd advise skipping the "Orientation Almanac."

As for the rest of the book, I loved it. As with Textbook, it has an unusual format that gives added clarity to things you wouldn't notice otherwise, in much the same way as poetry. This one offers short entries, arranged alphabetically (not chronologically) to highlight the lovely ordinariness of a life well-lived and well-loved.

Some might wonder if it really could be all that interesting to read about someone else's experience eating a radish or their opinion on smooth jazz, but it is, at least to me. And this is why: Amy has a way of bringing attention to things that you normally wouldn't think about and in doing so, an instant connection is made. (She searches for the best potato chip in the bag, too?! We could be best friends!!) I love that feeling of kinship, of realizing that something that I thought was just my own weird quirk is actually shared with someone else.

For example, her entry on "Safire, William": "I look at William Safire's On Language column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine every week and think, I should read this, this is about the English language, this is relevant and smart and useful, and I do like words. And then I turn the page." This happens to me all the time. Not with William Safire; I don't even know who William Safire is. But with other things. I can't tell you how many times I've checked out a book or started following an Instagram account or subscribed to a podcast because it's something I feel should interest me, but then I can't get myself to actually read or listen to it.

Sometimes I was the exact opposite of Amy, and I loved that too, such as the entry for "Parking Spot": "I would rather take the extra two minutes to maneuver into a tight and awkward parking spot that is a couple feet closer to my destination than take the big, wide-open spot a few cars down." In my case, I would much rather walk the extra two minutes and park free and clear of everyone else. A space with an open space on each side is like gold to me.

I related to almost all of the passages on some level, whether it was because it resonated or contradicted with or amused me. I'm someone who loves to people watch, and that's basically what this is: seeing little snippets and then trying to fill in the gaps with what you already know. It's trying to find those connections while learning more about yourself in the process.

I realized that this is essentially what I try to do each month with my This and That posts. I'm not attempting to give a day-by-day recounting of our month. I'm just giving a glimpse here and there of what went on with some random facts and observations thrown in for good measure.

This book went along perfectly with my theme for 2019 to "Be Present." That is exactly what Amy does when she takes a step back and examines an otherwise ordinary event with new eyes and notices how she feels and celebrates the perfectness of it. I could relate to having almost identical thoughts to this passage: "I'm turning left. Look, everyone, my blinker is on, and I'm turning left. I am so happy to be alive, driving along, making a left turn. I'm serious. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing at this moment: existing on a Tuesday, going about my business, on my way somewhere, turning left. There is nothing disconcerting or unpleasant or unfortunate about this moment. It is exceptionally nice, plain, and perfect."

But my favorite passage was possibly "Wabi-Sabi" because Amy captured a feeling I have felt many times before: that of being both simultaneously completely happy and completely sad. Until I read that entry, I hadn't ever thought to identify that feeling. I certainly never recognized it as a positive thing because to me, it feels uncomfortable to be happy and sad at the same time. But knowing that it's a legitimate feeling somehow makes it not only better, but actually kind of thrilling. I can't wait to feel it again but have a name for it this time.

(Although, I admit, the name "Wabi-Sabi" doesn't exactly invoke that feeling for me.)

Is this the kind of book that would interest you? Do you like reading about someone else's quiet life? Or do you need something a little more exciting?

My Plans for 2019 and Why I'm Not Making Any Reading Goals

Jan 21, 2019

As 2018 wrapped up and I began to look forward to 2019, I gave a good, hard look at what had worked well for me and what I could have done better. My theme for 2018 (which I think I only mentioned in passing on this blog) was to "Focus on the Important Things."

While I felt like I definitely prioritized things that were truly important, there was a missing element of engagement. Day after day, I checked off those important tasks, but sometimes I was only going through the motions while my brain was somewhere else entirely. Or worse, sometimes it wasn't even my own racing mind that took me out of the moment, but my phone.

This led me to decide that my theme for 2019 would be to "Be Present." It was only after I had chosen it that I realized it was totally one of those trendy buzzwords and that literally everyone seemed to have the same idea for 2019. I debated changing to something more obscure, more "my own," but this idea of being present in the everyday moments resonated so completely with what I want 2019 to look like, so I kept it.

I divided my goals into four categories: Habits I Want to Make, Places I Want to Visit, Projects I Want to Complete, and Things I Want to Do to Be More Present. Anytime I brainstorm potential goals, my list quickly becomes unwieldy and insurmountable, so I was careful to limit myself in each category to just three to five things.

I didn't want to bury myself in expectations which would have left me unable to actually "be present" and "live in the moment." I needed to be able to be flexible, change plans to meet the greater good, and analyze the kinds of things that would work right then. So I tried to only set goals that I've been thinking about for awhile and that I'm pretty sure I will still want to do at the end of the year (if it comes to that) as much as I want to right now at the beginning. The other thing is, I already have a good system in place of setting weekly goals every Sunday night, and that allows me to take a shorter view on things, which creates a nice balance to the longer term goals.

Here are my goals in each category:

Habits I Want to Make
  • Edit photos on a weekly basis
  • Write 2-4 paragraphs for "This and That" posts at the end of each week
  • Write book review within three days of finishing book
Note: all three of these habits are actually meant to help me be more present by not letting tasks pile up so that I have to reach far back in time to finish them or block out a huge chunk of time to complete them.

Places I Want to Visit
  • Go on a family vacation in the summer (location TBD)
  • Take my kids to the Joseph Smith exhibit at the Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City
  • Try new restaurants that are close to home (1-2 per month)
  • Go to a Utah temple that I haven't been to before
Projects I Want to Complete
  • Sew a dress for myself
  • Landscape the front of our house
  • Decorate Ian's bedroom
  • Knit a lace cowl
  • Read Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1
Things I Want to Do to Be More Present
  • Notice the eye color of the person I'm talking to
  • Observe what the sky looks like every day
  • Limit phone use by setting weekly time and usage goals
  • Write down three things I'm grateful for every night
  • Continue with weekly special times with my kids
You might notice that out of all those goals, only one of them has anything to do with reading, which is very unusual for me. In fact, since 2013 when I did it for the first time, I have set annual reading goals for myself every year.

But not this year.

Choosing (and then achieving) my reading goals has always been one of the great joys of my reading life. It introduced me to genres and classics and authors I wouldn't have read otherwise. It felt so good to check them off one by one. I loved that final push to the finish line.

But in 2018, those goals felt like a major burden. Perhaps it was because I didn't read as many books as I have in years past (only 48 compared to close to 70), but it felt like all of my reading was planned out for me and that I didn't actually get to choose anything (although, technically, I chose the goals to begin with). In 2018, I belonged to two book clubs, which accounted for about 13 books (there was some crossover between the two, and some of the books I had already read). My goals added another 16 books. Then add in the readalouds for my kids (another 16). That left just seven books that I chose spontaneously for myself (and if you're wondering about my math, it's not all adding up because some of the readalouds doubled as books for my goals). In addition to that, I read approximately 24 manuscripts for my little side job, which was more dictated reading.

All of this is to say that even though I enjoyed a lot of what I read (self-imposed or not), it felt like I lost some of the magic and relaxation of reading. It had ceased to be a hobby and begun to feel more like a job.

I was made acutely aware of this fact during the last quarter of the year when over and over again, I had to tell myself "no" to a book I wanted to read: I read one of the Betsy-Tacy books (ironically, for one of my goals) and really wanted to read the next one in the series, but there were too many other books in the queue. I received Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life at a book exchange and wanted to start it that night, but I had to get in my required pages on other books. And, you might remember, I spent New Year's Eve reading a parenting book I didn't even care about.

I realized that if I was going to "Be Present" this year, then I had to reclaim some of my reading time. My book clubs would still push me to read books I wouldn't normally read, so I could relax my hold on my own reading time. I could pick up a book that sounded interesting, but if it didn't deliver, I could set it aside, no questions asked. If one of my friends mentioned a book, I could check it out right then before it got buried and forgotten in my massive to-read list. I could read the books that piqued my interest in that moment rather than waiting until the excitement had passed.

I don't think I will never return to setting reading goals for myself. It's something that has brought me a lot of joy in the past, and I anticipate the same for the future. But I'm okay with admitting that at this time, I need a break. And I'm excited for the books that such a break might give to me. 

What are your plans and goals for 2019? Are you setting reading goals? What things are you doing to achieve balance and find purpose? 

2018 Reading Goals: Final Report

Jan 8, 2019

I cut it close in 2018. Very, very close. I basically dedicated all of my reading time in December to finishing up books for my 2018 goals, and I literally finished the last one at 10:30 pm on New Year's Eve. It wasn't the most fun I've ever had checking off a goal, but I just can't pass up the feeling of finishing before a deadline.

Here's how it all went down.

1. Read the 2018 Newbery winner (complete)
I completed this goal in the spring (March 2018), soon after it was announced that Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly had won the Newbery Medal. I remember enjoying it at the time, but the truth is, I don't remember much about it ten months later, and I don't think I've recommended it to a single person.

2. Read A Rambler Steals Home and Zinnia and the Bees (complete)
This was one of the more specific goals on this list, but I am friends with both of the authors on social media, and so I was really interested in reading their middle grade novels (firsts for both of them). I liked A Rambler Steals Home (August 2018) quite a bit more than Zinnia and the Bees (March 2018), which is kind of funny because Rambler is about baseball and Zinnia is about knitting, so you would have thought it might have been reversed. At any rate, either of these books would make fun summer reads for kids.

3. Read something by Virginia Woolf (complete)
I read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (August 2018). It is one of those books that I'm glad I've read, but mostly just because it makes me feel more cultured. In reality, I enjoyed almost nothing about the storyline, the characters, or the reading experience. That said, I think if I'd had the opportunity to study it in a class or even write a paper about it, I would have liked it a lot more. But at this point, Virginia Woolf and I are not going to become fast friends.

4. Read three older (pre-1970) young adult novels (complete)
This might well have been my favorite goal on this list. Turns out all I needed to do to find young adult novels I liked was to go further back in time. I read And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle (April 2018; published in 1949), Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary (July 2018; published in 1959), and Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace (October 2018; published in 1947). They were not full of dramatic issues, immorality, or offensive language, but somehow I still managed  to glean important life lessons from each one (cue a little bit of sarcasm). Out of those three, the first two were new to me, and the third one was a reread. It was such a fun goal, and I'm excited to find some new old titles to love this year as well.

5. Read the three books I recommended for book club this year (complete)
The three books I recommended were The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (June 2018), Dead Wake by Eric Larson (December 2018), and Walkable City by Jeff Speck (December 2018). I really enjoyed The Four Tendencies and probably think about it on an almost daily basis as I analyze myself and others. I ended up discussing it with not one, not two, but three different book clubs. I had Dead Wake checked out from the library multiple times and even started it back in September or October. I finally got back around to it in December but had to just restart the whole thing because my memory is that bad. It was a super interesting examination of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and I highly recommend it. Walkable City was definitely a drag. I didn't love the author's writing style, and there were several times when I thought, I can't believe I am forcing myself to read a book about traffic patterns. That said, little random facts pop back up into my memory anytime I leave my house and am out and about: "That street is too wide to encourage walking. They would do well to lower the speed limit on this street. Free parking on Saturdays? Don't they know that the only thing that does is make people stay longer in one place and discourages quick turnover at businesses?" So maybe I'm still glad I read it?

6. Read a classic I own (complete)
I decided to read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (November 2018) because by the time I got around to this goal, it was autumn, and from what little I knew about Wuthering Heights, I was pretty sure it would be the perfect autumn book. And it was. Take this, for example: "On an afternoon in October or the beginning of November, a fresh watery afternoon when the turf and paths were rustling with moist, withered leaves and the cold, blue sky was half hidden by clouds--dark gray streamers rapidly mounting from the west and boding abundant rain, I requested my young lady to forego her ramble . . . " I mean, right? Perfect. It was also dark and moody and oh, so incredibly twisted in an intensely disturbing and passionate way. How about this, from Heathcliff: "Oh, you said you care nothing for my sufferings, and I pray one prayer. I repeat it till my tongue stiffens: Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you. Haunt me then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe, I know, that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always. Take any form! Drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you!" That man could work himself up into a frenzy, I tell you what. It definitely was not my favorite read ever, but I liked it more than I thought I would.

7. Read three books from Honey for a Child's Heart (complete)
The point of this goal was to utilize one of the resources I own (in this case, Honey for a Child's Heart). I consulted the book lists and chose three books I wanted to read to my kids: Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (June 2018), The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (December 2018), and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh (December 2018). Out of those three, the only one I really liked was The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. In fact, I'm adding that one to my list of great first readalouds. It was very short, had lots of pictures, and had an engaging storyline--all necessary qualifications for a first read. (And as proof? Clark,age four, sat through the whole thing of his own free will, and that is the first time he has freely participated in any of our group readalouds.)

8. Read Simplicity Parenting or No-Drama Discipline (complete)
If I could go back in time to January of 2018, I wouldn't make this goal. It was not enjoyable to complete, and unlike some of the other goals above (#3, for example), I don't even feel any satisfaction now that it's over. I'll tell you why: I started out with Simplicity Parenting back in September and made it about fifty pages in before it had to go back to the library. Although the basic concept resonated with me, the writing did not engage me at all. When I finally got it back from the library, I couldn't remember a single thing from it and I had no desire to pick it back up. So I didn't. I gave myself a free pass and allowed myself to switch to any parenting book instead of the two I had selected at the beginning of the year. I went with Ignore It! by Catherine Pearlman (December 2018), a book that had been getting a ton of buzz on social media. And although it was much easier to read (I read the bulk of it in about three days), it made me into an anxious wreck of a parent. I began to question everything I said to my kids, and I was constantly afraid that I wasn't doing the methods quite right and consequently making the whole plan backfire in my face (something the author warns the reader of multiple times). I can see how this book could be valuable if you were trying to target one very specific behavior problem (a prolonged bedtime, for example), but for general disobedience, I wouldn't recommend it. But then again, I'm probably doing it wrong because there are about a million ways to do it the wrong way. (This also happens to be the book I finished at 10:30pm on New Year's Eve, so maybe that accounts for some of my bitterness.)

9. Read a book by Clara Parkes (complete)
This goal was just as fun as I hoped it would be. I read A Stash of One's Own (September 2018), which was a collection of essays about the many emotions connected with a knitter's stash of yarn. Some of the stories were serious and others were funny, but mostly I just felt validated in my obsession with all things yarn and knitting.

10. Read snippets from my favorite books on at least one Sunday each month (complete)
This was sometimes a fun goal. The problem was that I often left it until the end of the day on the last Sunday of the month, so it felt more like a chore than it was supposed to. I read:

And that concludes 2018's edition of reading goals. This is the point in the post where I usually say, "Stay tuned for my reading goals for 2019," but I'm actually not planning on making reading goals this year. So instead, stay tuned for the post where I explain why. 
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