Thursday, April 30, 2009


Jacobs begins his story with a description of the especially bushy beard he grew in his biblical pursuit. The inside flap of the book has side-by-side pictures of the author with and without beard. It reminds me of two pictures on display at my husband's grandmother's house of my husband's Uncle Donald, who had a picture made of him with a beard and mustache, then shaved and had another picture made without. The pictures were framed in a double frame and sent to his mother. I am not sure if she had been bugging him about shaving, or what. It seems, in fact, that Uncle Donald might be the type of person to embark on the same kind of journey that Jacobs did.

Monday, April 27, 2009

May's theme

The theme for May is religion. I just received The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. He is also the author of The Know-It-All (see January's posts). I first heard about this book on NPR several years ago.

This book came to me by way of the Auburn Public Library in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Let's talk about sex

Some say that when you give a gift to a spouse you may as well make it something you can enjoy, too. I suppose sex everyday for a year might fall into that category. Charla Muller's memoir of her husband's 41st year is truly reflective and she demonstrates how making time for one another enhanced not only their sex life, but many other aspects of their relationship as well and strengthened their marriage. I can be quite cynical, but generally I am pretty romantic when it comes to love and marriage, so it was refreshing to read something from a woman's point of view about marriage that wasn't focused on husband bashing. That being said, I didn't really like this book. If a person is going to write about sex then write about sex. There were too many cutesy euphemisms that I found distracting - things that I would say and giggle about when I was in high school the Big O; "being with" a man ;or "have a go" (which frankly I think sounds more like date rape). Also, despite the fact that Muller claims to have grown up with 80s brand feminism (the same as I did) she consistently uses the word "girls" when referring to her women readers and "moms" when referring to mothers. Both of these make me cringe. My daughter calls me "Mom" as an endearment, but I cannot stand being referred to by others as "Paloma's mom" or when with a group of other mothers being referred to as "the moms".

I actually felt sad much of the time I was reading this book. Muller goes on quite a bit about how regular her family is, and I find it heartbreaking sometimes when I realize that however hard I work hard at lowering my own carbon footprint there are families like hers who don't seem to think about it at all. She seems almost proud of the fact that she drives an SUV (wouldn't dream of owning a minivan - as if those are the only two driving options anyway) and the fact that she only occasionally remembers to recycle. The consumer culture is alive and well despite the dire predictions about our economy. There is a lot in this book about shopping for make up, hair color and the like. There are way too many generalizations about men and women. There is almost a whole chapter dedicated to explaining how women need to have their make up and hair color - two things I don't do. I like my grey. And there is a lot about men and sports. My own mother and stepfather once took me to a Baltimore Colts scrimage (a long time ago) although I protested that I wasn't interested. My mother said something like I should learn to like sports if I want to have common interests with men. No thanks. I found a husband who is not interested in sports, and we have plenty in common. Muller actually takes this advice from her parents and buys season tickets to some such team, then argues with her husband about whether he only loved her for her tickets.

I think perhaps the most depressing aspect of this book was reading about how seldom Muller's friends and acquaintances had sex, and how hard they tried to avoid it. Muller herself claimed she and her husband "hardly ever" had sex prior to his 40th birthday. Certainly I can understand that children can cramp a couple's style, but hardly ever? There was a lot of information about games women play to avoid having sex - taking a long time to get ready hoping their partner will fall asleep, or going to bed long before or long after their husband has. Do gay and lesbian couples cotton to such nonsense, or are these strictly heterosexual games?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Other books

I am usually reading more than one book at a time. Sometimes it is for work, other times it is just to break things up. Besides the "Year of" books I've been writing about I recently read the following:
Doctoral Education and the Faculty of the Future By Ronald G. Ehrenberg and Charlotte V. Kuh - Read my review of this on the Internet Review of Books

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barabara Ehrenreich.

I am currently reading JavaTrekker by Dean Cycon. Owner of Dean's Beans. I will be co-leading a discussion of this book in Orange, Massachusetts later this month, where I will meet Dean himself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bonus Book

For her husband's 40th birthday, Charla Muller gave her husband sex every night for a year. It seems like quite an ambitious undertaking. 365 Nights arrived by way of the Attleboro Public Library.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Adios, Siesta Lane

Whenever I travel to a developing country I return inspired to pare down and simplify. Minato's book made me feel the same way. She is forced to leave her cabin when the property is sold, and takes the lessons she learned with her.

Of the books I have read so far this year this one had the most poetic prose, it also included quite a few poems, most written by Minato, but others as well. There are also lovely line drawings, by Jan Muir, interspersed throughout the book. Minato's writing is inspired and I quite enjoyed the book. I can't help but notice some irony in the fact that a book about slowing down arrived with a message, highlighted in yellow, that it is a "2 week loan only" which forced me to read the book faster than I might otherwise.

On being resourceful

When I started trying to simplify my life 14 years ago I became acutely aware that the part of me that wanted to get rid of stuff and live more simply with clashing with my innate anal retentive sensiblilities. I am jealous that Minato has transcended this and can use socks for headbands, and a dryer lid for a pie pan. "Categories dissolve! Anything is possible! I begin to look at objects for their form and material instead of their culturally prescribed use." I can sometimes get over purchasing something new if I think I can make something that will fill a need, but I have a very hard time using anything for something other than it's intended use.

Flora and Fauna

Minato's time at Siesta Lane allows her time to learn to identify birds and flowers. "Into a poem I'd toss flower names like lilac or narcissus that had literary illusions or nice sounds, but were completely out of context. Since turning my attention to the land, I have learned to distinguish a lanceolat from an ellipical leaf, a damsel fly from a dragonfly, the call of a barn own from that of a great horned." My own yard is beginning to bloom with daffodils and hyacinth, and the crocus are starting to fade. I have my husband, and the previous owners of my house, to thank for the gifts I receive every year in my garden. I have a hard time remembering the names of the flowers from year to year. I try to keep in mind that even if I don't know the name of a particular plant, it is no less beautiful.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


According to the book the average person in the United States acquires about fifty-two items of clothing per year. Can this really be the case? Does each sock count as one item? I begin to wonder how many new pieces I buy or otherwise obtain each year. I will have to start keeping track. I generally think of myself as conservative in my buying habits, especially when it comes to clothing. I have a pretty generic, sensible librarian's wardrobe that I only occasionally update.


Does anyone not like potatoes? Minato describes digging up the potatoes from the ground (something which I have had a part in one time, and then got to eat the very potatoes) and then enjoying the cooking of them as much as the eating. Whenever I think about how much I like potatoes I can't help but remember a paragraph my daughter wrote about them in first grade. The assignment was to use as many of her spelling words as she could:
My Mom is making mashed potato casserole. She has to chop cheese. My Dad has to shop for the ingredients. I love it very much. (I think chop, shop, cheese and much were her spelling words for that week. The assignment hung on my refrigerator for years, much longer than any other. The paragraph so lovingly demonstrated how our family worked together to prepare our meal, and also that mashed potato casserole was clearly a comfort food to her. The recipe comes from the More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre. It is quite simple to prepare. Mash potatoes, add cooked spinach, sprinkle cheese on top and bake in a casserole dish.

The web of life

Minato talks of growing up in a large Catholic family and sharing everything with her siblings. Her parents sent all seven of their children to Catholic school. "A Catholic education, in their opinion, came before stuff. And Catholic training reinforced the idea that people are connected, that what happens to a prisoner across the world is our business. Later I expanded the web to include nature. Eroded soil anywhere, I concluded, concerns me." This idea also one of seven the basic principles of Unitarian-Universalism - respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

Minato recounts a conversation with a friend, a political refugee from Guatemala, in which the friend tells how her daughter never seems satisfied with what she has, she always wants something else. She says "we are safer here, and healthier even, but we did lose something coming to this country. We lost contentment. Here we are guaranteed the 'pursuit' of happiness. And you know what? I am tired of chasing it."

There is always something more we want. What will make us happier? It is a question I often ask myself when I am contemplating a purchase: Will I be a happier person if I own this? In most cases the answer is no. Two major exceptions that come to mind are the new bathroom (see previous post) and my bed. I think it is especially hard to raise children in a culture where more and bigger is always seen as better. Even in a recession it doesn't slow down. Even without commercial television my daughter always seems to know what the must-have items are. I wonder if she will ever tire of the pursuit of happiness, and just be happy.

Indoor plumbing

The subtitle of Siesta Lane is "One Cabin, No Running Water, and a Year of Living Green." The individual cabins do not have running water, but the inhabitants of Siesta Lane do have a shared bath and kitchen. Minato mentions that friends and family find "walking a hundred yards outside in total darkness to the bathroom strikes them as barbaric." I certainly don't get the idea that she is trekking all the way to the main house each time she gets up in the middle of the night, but perhaps she is. My guess is that she is just getting away from the living spaces and using the darkness for privacy. I think about this a lot as I am getting my house prepared to install a second bathroom. Right now we have only one bathroom and it is on the first floor of the house. It is an older home and like many of the houses in my neighborhood, the bathroom was built next to the kitchen since the plumbing was already there. All of our bedrooms are on the second floor and for the seven years we've lived in our house I have dreamed of having a bathroom up there, so I don't have to go down the steps and to the furthest end of the house whenever I need to get up in the middle of the night. I recall that when we first moved into the house, my daughter, then five, brought to my attention that there was only one bathroom in the "new" house, whereas our previous residence had had two, and that seemed to be more convenient. I explained to her that the "new" house had no bathroom when it was built and that people used to have to go outside to use the bathroom, at which point she agreed that we had a pretty good deal. Even as I remember this, I anxiously await the luxury of simply going across the hall.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Siesta Lane

I received a copy of Siesta Lane: One Cabin, No Running Water; and a Year of Living Green by Amy Minato through Interlibrary loan via the Agawam, Massachusetts Public Library. Minato goes to live communally with a group of people who live either in cabins or yurts with a community kitchen and bath in Washington state. One thing that strkes her early on is the fact that virtually all the tennants of Siesta Lane have real jobs, and other interests, that take them away from their home on a regular basis. This includes herself. I thought about the gains and losses and compromises each was making in their decision to live this way. Gas is an expense when one lives far from others, a fact which contributed significantly to our decision to live in town. However, I feel a bit jealous of the peace from noise that they must enjoy. Living so close to town means that on nice weekends I hear a constant drone from the sound system at the nearby sports fields. Sometimes it seems enough to make me want to move.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Giving it up

Carlomagno's book was easy and quick to read. For those in the simplicity movement, you probably won't find much new here. For those who aren't you will probably find some food for thought. Most of the things Carlomagno gave up are things I already have lightened up on having started on a simple living journey about 13 years ago. I did enjoy reading the book, however. I seemed to have saturated the simple living advice - anything I read now appears to rehash what I have already learned. Since this book was memoir, and not preachy at all it was a good read.


Today, just after I read Carlomagno's final chapter on giving up multitasking, I read that apparently mulitasking is a myth. We simply cannot do more than one thing at a time. We only switch between tasks, and don't focus on any of them. This I believe. It is difficult not to multitask. Even as I work at not doing it, I find myself attempting to check my e-mail and voice mail at the same time, as if I could answer more than one thing at a time. It does take some concentration, and discipline, to put down one thing to focus on another. This is something I work hard at as a reference librarian. There is often "down time" when I am sitting at the reference desk, this is time that I might try to catch up on some professional reading, or grade papers. I have to stop what I am doing though to help someone who approaches the desk. It is tempting to keep trying to do two things at once when the question is a simple "where's the bathroom", but I don't do it. My custom is to set down what I am doing and make eye contact no matter how easily the question can be answered. Some of the patrons could probably take a lesson from this. They talk on their cell phone while they are trying to also have a conversation with me. One gentlemen approached the desk asking where the Park Ave. exit was, while he was still talking to someone else. I pointed in the direction of Park Ave., but before I could explain that he would have to go down the steps to get there he was off still chattering away with someone else. He came back 2 minutes later, still on the cell phone, to tell me he couldn't find the exit. What a surprise.


Carlomagno's month of giving up chocolate is the one that goes the furthest in lamenting what she is missing. In all previous chapters she explains what she learned from doing without. As for chocolate, she only learned that she loves it better than anything else.


Carlomagno gives up cursing for October. She decides that each time she utters a swear word she will put a dollar in a jar and donate the money to UNICEF. The fact that she only has $20 in the jar at the end of the month indicates some success in this endeavor. Most of the money was deposited during two separate incidents - one involving a parking space dispute, the other, a game of Scrabble. One of my colleagues at the College tried a similar experiment, but in order to "up the ante" she decided to donate the money to an organization she hated. It held her a bit more at bay.


Giving up coffee?!
As I have mentioned in previous posts, coffee goes far beyond simply being a morning pick-me-up at the Hayes-Bohanan household. My friend Sabrina calls it our religion. Indeed it is a spiritual practice. We hand grind our fresh fair-trade, organic beans each morning. We have become coffee snobs and will not drink old coffee, or coffee out of a styrofoam cup. We usually carry around our own ceramic mugs in case we end up somewhere where coffee is served so we don't have to drink from paper, which doesn't taste as good and also fills up land fills. In contrast,
Carlomagno doesn't talk much about preparing coffee at home in the chapter. She mostly discusses the 3 to 4 times a day she goes to a coffee shop. At $3 to $4 for each cup of coffee this can really add up. I started to think about everything I read so far about what she spent money on regularly: alchohol; shopping; eating out; taxis; coffee - do other people really live like this? She must make a lot of money. She specifically mentions in the shopping chapter that she "owed nothing and owned nothing".


During the month of August Carlomagno gives up taxis. Of course for a New Yorker this is a bigger sacrifice than it is for those of us who live in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. She survives the month with sore feet, and a fatter wallet, and uses the money to treat herself to a pedicure. She learns her way around the city better as she walks, and takes buses and the metro instead.

My husband and I have almost always been a one-car family. When we have lived in places with public transportation we tried to use it whenever possible, and in our current location have opted to live next to where we both work, so the car can stay at home, unless it is our turn to drive our daughter's car pool. Our decisions are based both on finance (we not only save on gas, we get a discount on our insurance for not commuting) and in our desire not to waste fossil fuels. On the rare occasions that we need to be in two different distant places at the same time, we find that our friends are happy to help.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


I used to watch a lot of television. I think that when I was in college I watched 30 hours a week - 2 hours more than the A.C. Nielsen Company says the average American watches. This was when MTV was in its infancy and they actually showed music videos, which I understand they almost never show now. I kept MTV on for background noise while I did my homework, in addition to watching the sitcoms and dramas I liked then. I stopped watching much television after I moved in with my husband. We never wanted to pay for cable, which limited our tv watching drastically. We moved into our current home 7 years ago and were never able to get any reception with our rabbit ears, and we simply were not going to pay for cable or satellite. Whenever we have an opportunity to see television we are stunned at how many channels there are, and how little is actually worth watching. We have a netflix supscription and have limited most of our viewing to what we have on our list. I watch about 5-7 hours a week now. One thing I have noticed about giving up commercial television is how often people talk about commercials. They are very much a popular culture touchstone. I hear a lot others ask if I've seen the commercial about...; or tell me that something reminds them of something they saw in a television commercial. To be sure, I used to do this a lot myself. I just notice it more often now because I never know what commercial they are talking about.

Carlomagno discusses her childhood viewing of Happy Days; Laverne & Shirley; Taxi and Three's Company. This made me realize that we must be closer in age than I thought, since all of the '70s shows were also ones I grew up on. I just assumed she was younger, she seems so much hipper.


I have a love/hate relationship with dining out. I love not having to plan the meal, and clean up afterwards, but the cheapskate side of me hates paying 4 times as much for a meal that I can make at home. Every once in a while I will make a commitment to eat out only once a month, but then I find myself on the run and find grabbing something while I'm out will be easier, so I rarely stick to the commitment. I usually eat breakfast out once a month, and lunch and dinner 2 or 3 times. Carlomagno apparently ate out almost every meal. During the month of June she learned to love cooking and to plan her meals better. I find that planning meals at the beginning of the week is the best way to avoid eating out. We always have plenty of food in the house, sometimes we just don't have the gumption to figure out what to put together into a meal. I still have some of the organic vegetables I froze over the summer in my freezer, and when I plan meals, I can be more deliberate about using them.

Carlomagno discusses the siesta - eating the big meal in the middle of the day and resting afterwards. This lovely custom is still practiced in some European and Latin American countries. I wish we did it here.