Semester 5: The Value of "Again."

Confused about Project Learn? You can check it out here.

To every thing there is a season. Someone sang about that once. For the past four semesters of Project Learn, it's been a season of newness. New books, new experiences, new films, new encounters. But now it's time for semester 5, arriving just in time for the winter season.

I was thinking the other day about why the winter season feels so cozy. As the temperature drops, we pull out our sweaters and breathe annual life into holiday traditions and resolutions. It's a season of diving down deep into our beds, our heads and our routines.

And so! The fifth semester of Project Learn (December through February) is going to be about redoing. Rereading, rewatching, retracing. Because while there is much to learn from newness, there is also much to learn from traveling the same path for a second (or third! or fourth!) time. I'm interested in what sentences pop out when I revisit a book I loved upon first read. What can you learn about yourself or the world by doing the same thing every Monday morning? And what films are just as charming the second time around?

I hope you'll read along as I spend this winter investigating the value of "again."

Books (read 8 of 12)
Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger
After Rain by William Trevor
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Dubliners by James Joyce
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Weird Sisters by Elenor Brown
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Wonder Years
Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
I Heart Huckabees

For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver
Stunt by Barenaked Ladies
Boys and Girls by Ingrid Michaelson
Quelqu'un m'a dit by Carla Bruni
Hard to Be by David Bazan

Have a weekly tradition.
Visit a place I haven't been in a really long time.
Get better at something through repeat practice.


Thinking about patience.

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting essay by Nick Crocker called The Art of the Trade-Off. In it, he argues that life is about trade-offs... and while you can do many, many things in your life, you can't do them all at the same time. He quotes David Sedaris, who identifies the four main burners in life (work, health, family, friends) and says that you can only have two of four burners lit at a given time to be really successful.

Lately, I feel as though I'm getting this message all over the place. And I've been resisting it since I read it, convinced that there was a way to trick the system or combine two burners at once or manage a gym with my family and friends (the only contrived solution I found to getting at all of them).

But this morning, I'd like to ask a question. If we accept this burner theory, why is it a good thing? Why is only having 24 hours in a day a good thing?

I think it can be summed up in one, super-meaningful word: patience.

Lots of people have thoughts about patience. The Bible loves patience. My associations with this word bring me back to nursery school where "be patient!" was commonly uttered.

Patience helps us slow down. Patience helps us be quiet, to make decisions in a still moment of clarity. Patience helps us take the long view instead of immediately reacting. Without patience, we would never taste slow-cooked pork or baked Alaska or ... cheese.

So even though much of myself still wants to resist the assertion that our time and attention is limited, I think I can step back and understand that bumping up against limits strengthens my patience. Strengthening patience brings much-needed peace to my life view, the belief that things will work themselves out just fine in the end.


The socialization of places

Upper West Side, NYC.
There is an agreed-upon format to a biography. You start in the beginning. You start with someone's birth, or at least, their childhood. You tell the stories of who they were because often, those stories influence who they became. There are accomplishments, obstacles and relationships. Combined, these represent a life- be it that of a human, a disease, or a year.

Though it wasn't on my original list (and though it's not technically a biography), I've spent the last few weeks reading a novel called New York. The format of this book really impressed me; its author, Edward Rutherfurd, tells the history of New York since the 17th century, and then traces the generations forward to the 21st century. In this way, you can see how New York shifted, how it was influenced and purchased and built up and broken down.

In short, it's a fictional biography of the city.

Something struck me yesterday during a run. If cities have accomplishments and obstacles and relationships, then cities can be tracked just as human lives are. This CLICKED with me. I have a curious relationship to new places in that I hate visiting somewhere that I know nothing about. I like to do a little pre-reading, a little historical research if you will. And even after I know a city, I like continuing to learn about its government and why its streets are shaped the way they are (see: Haussmann in Paris).

As it turns out, I socialize with places in the same way that I socialize with people I meet.

To a new person:
Where are you from? Is that where you grew up? I have a sister too. What did you study at school? And what are you doing now? That's awesome that you got to live abroad. That's too bad about losing your job, but I guess it got you here. What neighborhood do you live in? Oh, and do you like living there?

The answers to these questions paint a quick sketch of a person's life: their choices and their responses to circumstances outside their control.

Imagine if you asked these questions to a place.

Who started you? Why did they need you to be exactly where you are? Who took over next? And then who came? That's wonderful that you drew such a crowd. That's too bad that the disease struck during that century. But why did that group move to you? And who lives in you today? Why are they there?

What am I getting at here? That just in the same way that you click with certain people, I believe you can click with certain places as well. Sometimes that click happens on a first meeting. Barcelona was like that for me. But sometimes that click takes a few times, takes a little small talk and a glass of wine for everyone to relax and stop being pretentious. Paris was like that for me.

Sometimes there's never a click, as hard as you both try. Morocco was like that for me.

At this point, New York and I are very good friends. I get New York. I know why she's pissy and why sometimes she acts tough, but I also get why she's an amazing place to bounce ideas off of. I appreciate what she's been through. And just as with any friendship, she's rubbed off on me. Sometimes the words coming out of my mouth aren't mine; they belong to her. And I'd like to think that I've given something of myself to her over these past four years as well.

I love this. If the biography semester results only in this realization, then I feel it was worth it. It makes sense now why I start getting cranky when I haven't visited Paris or Ireland or Clermont or Pennsylvania in a while. It's the same feeling I get when I crave a visit with my siblings or with Maddy or Katie or Skersh. I miss people and I miss places. It's as simple as that.

You can bet anything that I'm going to miss New York if we leave her one day. I'm going to need visits back, hours in which I stroll along her streets and reconnect with her. After all this time, I see that she's beautiful and complex. Just like I hope to be.


Thanksgiving weekend

Thanksgiving is almost better than Christmas, isn't it? Four whole days of holiday; the extra day off pushes it over the edge to a mini-vacation.

We spent Thanksgiving day and the day after at my parents', where Kate and I went on a run, I made a pumpkin pie, Chris answered iPad questions and my Dad made us go around the dinner table and say what we're thankful for.

In case it isn't obvious, I am very thankful for this life of mine. I am thankful for a healthy body, a strong will and the belief that I can do lots of things. I'm also thankful for my wonderful family- both blood and married into!- and our family of friends, which has grown and grown and grown over the past year.

I met a baby on Friday, a baby who is 2 weeks old and has his whole life ahead of him. I'm thankful for friends who let me hold their little babies.

And then my family visited Brooklyn on Saturday night for dinner and left the sibs chez nous to crash for a night. It was the best.

How was your Thanksgiving?

PS I am thankful to YOU for reading this little blog. You readers, you!

My parents' cat Simon, who misses his brother Toby.

Hey favorite brother!

My pie (recipe via Erica)

Kate's pecan tarte

Jay and Laurie's new baby... Elliott!

Just talking. My fav.

Beautiful Thanksgiving Saturday on the deck.

Oscar believes he's a book.

Ollie snuggles Kate.


The saddest little peanut of all.

Hiding in a tea towel at the vet.
Is there anything sadder than a little cat with a couple of teary pink eyes? Nope. No, there's not. That's what Ollie looked like last night when the vet diagnosed pink eye in both eyes, gave him a shot of antibiotics, and sent us home with some eye cream.

Is there anything more fun than putting eye cream in a little cat's eyes twice a day? YEP. YEP THERE IS. Pretty much anything else in the world is more fun than that.

I let him sleep in my closet all day today (a luxury he is normally not granted because of his habit of eating sweaters). But this morning I couldn't blame him. The poor guy looks so sick and uncomfortable.

Of course we're headed to my parents' tomorrow after work for Thanksgiving. Why do pets always get sick right before you go away?


How to start (or restart) running.

So scared before my first 5k.
My 2011 running career lasted from January through June, during which I completed 5ks and 10ks. Amazing! I lost 15 pounds, I felt great for my wedding, I grew more comfortable in my clothes. But since June, I haven't exercised much at all.

Last week I got some blood work back and it said I have high triglycerides. This pissed me off. I eat YOGURT for lunch, people. I walk everywhere. And yet there it was, on the paper: high triglycerides. "Try exercising," it said. Blarg.

Coincidentally, I saw Kelley this week and she proclaimed her intention to run a half marathon in the spring. "Crap," I thought to myself. "That's on my life list AND my blood is bad. I guess I'm doing this."

So I made a running plan in a google doc based on a 10k schedule to get me back into the swing of the things. I hit the treadmill on Wednesday night for the first time since June and promptly got angry with myself. I am slow. Slooooow. Also, I can't run without walking. I need to take breaks. And I need a lower incline than I used to.

Do you know how annoying that is? To have put in 6 months of running this year, then taken a break, and now to find myself back at the starting point?

And yet this is the lesson of running. That it is HARD. That you should use whatever motivation you can scrounge up to make it out the door with your sneakers on. Leave the treadmill at 0% incline. Take walking breaks. Listen to music if it helps. Sometimes I think I'm not *really* running if I do those things. But that's bull.

Running humbles me. It's one of the toughest things I've ever tried in my life; it challenges my strength, my mental state and my belief in myself. I think this is why so many people have running goals on their Life Lists; because they sense it's going to break them... and then make them stronger.

Want to get started? Here's how:
1. Pick a goal
2. Make/find a running schedule
3. Go shopping for running clothes

Does that last one sound rude? Too bad. Because when you agree to haul your jiggling, cookie-filled self down the streets of Brooklyn at a given pace, you're facing discomfort. Not only does your body not feel like a runner, but you know your Converse don't make you look like a runner either. And so I say to you, if you are thinking about running, waltz into a sporting goods store and buy a pair of pants and some sneakers. There is something to be said for looking the part and if you've never been the athletic type, you're going to need a wardrobe shift to change the image you have of yourself.

As for the running schedule, I can highly recommend Couch to 5k as a beginner's program or the Hal Higdon 5k plan (he also has plans for other distances).

And as for the running goal? Well, I might have a suggestion for that. On Thursday afternoon, I accidentally organized a team of people to run the NYC half marathon in March 2012. Oops! We're calling it Runners for Reading - we'll be a team of technologists and readers who run the 13.1 miles to raise money to buy Kindles for a school in NYC. Because KIDS NEED TO READ!

Want to be part of our group? We would seriously love it. Check out our Twitter page for updates and we'll have a full site up and running soon. Start planning your trip to New York and let me know if you need somewhere to stay. Maybe I can help.

If you've been looking for an opportunity to run, then you should interpret this post as fate. And you should know one more thing:

You Can Do It. I seriously mean it.


Our days of late.

Me and Tobers a few years ago.
I keep wanting to write a post about running (news alert!), but it doesn't happen because when I get a few minutes at a computer, all I can think about is death and love. I realize that sounds dramatic, but that's a little bit what it's been like in our world lately.

My great Aunt Jean died right after we arrived in Palm Springs last week and then on Friday, my Dad took Toby, our family's cat, to the vet to be put to sleep. I held it together on the phone with my Mom, but as soon as I hung up I burst into tears. Toby! Tobster, the little buddy who was born in our basement, who peed, puked and shit on every piece of furniture in my parents' house and still managed to be the favorite pet. He was 14 and not well and I completely agree with the decision to put him down. Still.

In the wake of his death, I've been snuggling O&O closer this weekend, watching videos from when they were younger, and giving them treats. Then yesterday, Ollie developed a watery left eye and has been sneezing non-stop. Obviously I assume he is on his deathbed and can't stop wiping his face with a Kleenex. He probably has a cold, but you can't convince me of that this weekend. We'll visit the vet tomorrow night to make sure all is well.

We went to the Space party as Venus and Apollo. (Get it?)
(Clearly we will need a live-in pediatrician one day.)

So, death. What's with the love then?

When I married Chris three months ago, I loved him. A lot! But after he accompanied me to Camp Mighty, successfully released the new version of Readability last week to nationwide acclaim and did the laundry yesterday, I DOUBLE love that dude. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the guy I married would be as confident, charming and open as he was with the folks at Camp Mighty. He nailed it. Every so often I would look over at him opening his heart to a (mostly female) group of people and I would just swoon.

This morning I ran 3 miles (more on that soon, I promise) and as I made my way through Brooklyn Heights, I imagined an upcoming race I'm doing in the spring. I thought about what it will be like, the crowd cheering, knowing that Chris is somewhere up ahead. I teared up and kept running, grateful to have found and married such a supportive partner.


Speaking of love, here's some more. Here are the sites of some wonderful people we met at Camp Mighty. It's not exhaustive, but it's a good start to some fresh URLs in your feed... 

Rebecca (and Robbie- our new favorite Milwaukee couple)



I was working on a big post and then I thought, "eff it. It's Friday. Let's have some cats."

As promised:

"The brothers" from Jen Epting on Vimeo.


Written to a slow, steady song.

Headed home.
I am fascinated by nature vs. nurture. What made me me? If I grew up somewhere else, what of myself would be different? And what is just inherently, unabashedly me?

I have an image of someone rubbing their hands together with an impish grin, softly saying "Oh, this is getting GOOD." Translate that scene into a personality trait and I think you're pretty close to what I feel I am. I suppose it boils down to this:

I constantly feel like I'm on the precipice of something amazing.

Is that obnoxious? It feels a little obnoxious to write that out. But it's not like that. It's not "my life is so charmed! I have everything I want! Tra la!" Here's what it (genuinely) feels like:

A warm wind that hits your face at the start of a vacation. The first few chords of an upbeat album. Nodding your head along with someone seated next to you. Understanding pain. The truest sentence you ever read. A big, deep breath.

This is all to say that Camp Mighty was another event in a long line of life moments that felt true. From listening to speakers whose presentations were inspiring, to finally understanding why we were all there (life lists), to the humility of meeting writers who words have touched millions.

You must surround yourself with others who care. You must get out of the way of others who want to pull rank. You must get with the right people and away from the wrong people and I can't tell you what those definitions are, but I think you know them in your heart anyway. And the reason for this? Well, that's simple.

Because they will make you feel you're on the precipice of something amazing. And while I'm still waiting to see what giant, simple truth will come of my life, I can feel that it's out there, waiting for me to find my way to it. Camp Mighty, like a large, bright, neon sign, made me realize that I'm headed in the right direction.


Staying Gold.

Camp Mighty necklace.
We're sitting in SFO waiting for our flight back to New York. A combination of lack of sleep and excess of food for thought results in a distracted fatigue. I really should be napping, but I can't stop looking at people's Life Lists and thinking through this weekend.

This isn't going to be The Post About Camp Mighty. I am much too close to it to do it justice. This is a simple post about one thing that Evany Thomas said on Friday morning during her talk.

She described where she was in her career several years ago. She had a decent job. She never took her work home; at 5pm every day, she was liberated to have a whole separate life. She wondered if that was it, if she had achieved the level of comfort that we often long for.

At that moment, she realized that she had a choice. Do you lean into the worst version of yourself, the one who longs for life to roll out wide and long ahead of you towards retirement? Or do you hold yourself to the highest standard?

"Stay gold," she told us.

Staying gold is so flipping exhausting. But gold is just that- it's gold. It's shiny, bright, valuable, strong and always worth its weight, whether you're talking about your career or the way you interact with new people.

We were the newlyweds this weekend. Arguably, we haven't even made it to a point where we have a long-term comfortable option for, well, anything. And yet. Hearing Evany speak on this point was a welcome sharp object, poking us in the underbellies and reminding us that those conundra are out there.

Deep breath. Long sleep coming. Long life coming. And hopefully, lots and lots of gold.


Numbers 101 and 102.

My great-aunt is dying. She had cancer a few years ago, was treated, and was well enough to come to our wedding in August. Then somehow in the past 3 months, the cancer overtook her, spreading everywhere.

On Sunday, my siblings and I went to visit her. She's smaller than she ever was before, softer, quieter. I know she knows she's dying; she refused treatment this time around, preferring to be soon reunited with the husband she lost 20 years ago.

What do you talk about with someone who's dying? We erred on the side of asking about her life. "Who was your favorite president?" and "Did you like to go to dances?" and "What was our Dad like when he was young?"

These were my favorite answers. When you're dying, people's lives are boiled down to short words or phrases.

"A good boy." (for my Dad)
"She liked volleyball." (my aunt)
"Naughty." (relative)
"Busy." (relative)

I've spent the past 3 months reading biographies and I can say that these one-word biographies have been the most poetic of all.


You cannot read a biography without, on some level, calculating your life's trajectory. Biographies trace someone's history, explain how and why they were who they became, list accomplishments. Tomorrow, Chris and I leave on an early flight to Camp Mighty, where we will attempt to become mightier.

This is not about doing things so others believe I was once great. This is about reaching really far down and truly living the Gandhi quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

I posted my Life List last week and this morning I read through it again. So much on there is about me! So much on there is about things that I want to add to the resume of experience I have accumulated in this world. And that is not alright.

Grateful for this realization, I'm adding two more items. Two items that feel like true reaches, that feel as though they would make a REAL change I wish to see in the world:

101. Help change a struggling city into a thriving one.
102. Use my communication skills to help people understand something difficult. Could be national healthcare, the DMV, Green Card applications or something else that's known for being a black box.

These are the kinds of goals I want to think more about as I head out to Palm Springs and though I'm pretty anxious about the social experience of hanging out with the personalities at Camp Mighty, I'm aching for this to be a life-changing experience.

I will report back.