The Absurdly Simple Honor

If we did simple exercises for thirty minutes a day, we would greatly improve our strength, health, beauty and life expectancy.

If we studied one hour a day, we could relatively soon learn languages, master wide knowledge and develop new professions.

If we sensibly invested $1/day, we would in 30 years control substantial wealth.

If we did the absurdly simple honor of planning our free time, we would enlarge ourselves into a whole new dimension of freedom. Yet we often fail to do any of these things, so great is our contempt of the future, so massive our ignorance of ourselves.

– Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living

For the last four months I’ve had an abundance of time on my hands, and I filled that time with all sorts of activities. I trained for a marathon. I searched for jobs. I read widely, often four books at a time from subjects including natural history, behavioral economics, and business. I developed side projects that could one day lead to new careers. I traveled. I found new ways to spend money on coffee.

Without the daily demands of a job, it was easy to find time to do the things I’d been putting off, to binge on whatever I felt interested in that day, to indulge myself without accountability.

I could argue that there is some  discipline to making sure I wasn’t sitting on the couch, re-memorizing the lines of every Seinfeld episode. That’s too convenient, though. Just because I was being constructive, that what I was doing by not waking up in hungover stupors averaged out to a net positive doesn’t mean my actions don’t deserve reflection. It’s juvenile to argue you’re building yourself up when there aren’t any stakes. Steel is forged in fire, not in the comfy confines of a life without risk. It’s easy to read when you don’t have to go into work. It’s fun to sit down and come up with 10 ideas for businesses you’d start if you don’t have to start them. To master Duolingo. To read all of your magazines cover to cover.

Filling our time isn’t planning our time.

For the next four weeks, my time will be filled with work again. And maybe for weeks or months after that. With my work last year, I allowed myself to become seduced. It became the identity I needed, to the detriment of everything else. I allowed myself to believe that because work was filling my time, that I didn’t need to plan the rest of it. I could let slide that which I needed to do.

There was still free time, I just didn’t do myself, as Grudin puts it, one absurdly simple honor.

Because developing yourself is an honor, transforming your interests into passions, your hobbies into livelihoods, your pocket change into a nest egg; each is of devastating importance. Each is within our grasp, no matter the demands of our work, or our family, or our lives.

It’s an hour a day, or a half hour a day, or 10 pages of a book a day. It’s sitting down once a week to make a plan for the week. It’s taking time each month to think about what you can do with a month. Free yourself to live a life beyond the one that you’ve known.

Don’t ignore what you could do. Don’t ignore who you could be.

Don’t ignore yourself.

 

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Books Read in December ’14

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.

December was a productive month. I finished two Coursera Entrepreneurship classes, ran a marathon in Tucson, made progress toward the launch of Connect A Book, and traveled around Europe. Through it all, I kept up with the focused reading I expected to do, including actionable guides for writing and business plans.

Additionally, I read two biographies (Ted Turner and Paul Otlet) that were compelling in their own ways. The two men lived completely different lives – Otlet, born in 1868 in Brussels, dreamed of a world where all information could be cataloged and connected, and was left to imagining how that might one day be possible. Turner, born in Cincinnati in 1938, was in many ways responsible for connecting millions around the world, thanks to the many influential television channels he created. That Turner took advantage of the quickly advancing media technology that was becoming available, while Otlet suffered from an inability to realize his projects (he tried to document the world’s information with millions of note cards) is shown in the contrast between the results of their outsized ambitions: a still-looming media empire versus a small museum in Belgium.  I’ll be reading another pair of biographies this month, as I incorporate them into my reading on a more regular basis.

I’ve fallen off highlighting and note-taking books, a decline I suspect is mostly due to the limitations of a consistent work space while traveling. The effect of this was immediate: one of the books I read left no real impression on me, and having no notes to reflect back on means it was functionally a waste of time.

For the rest of January, I hope to keep up the pace at which I’ve been reading, and to write more about certain themes (technology, futurism, science). The reading schedule I set up is more demanding than last year’s, and I want to insure that the reading continues to be useful and informative, a tool for enhancing the projects I want to work on, and that it doesn’t end up as a way of avoiding them.

Fiction

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers – I picked this up on impulse at The Last Bookstore, then inhaled it over the course of a flight and morning in Tucson. This is one of Eggers’s strongest novels, combining a meditation on America’s international relevance with a character’s struggle with middle age masculinity.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – A story of a mixed-race family in the 70s that centers around the sudden death of a daughter, told impressively and fluidly from the perspective of each family member. This was our December book club selection.

Non-Fiction

Call Me Ted by Ted Turner – I knew two things about Ted Turner before reading this: he’s the largest single landowner in America, and he had something to do with TBS. Now I know he started Cartoon Network, too (and CNN, and did a thousand other impressive things). For me the most valuable takeaway from his biography was getting a sense for how Turner analyzed opportunities to grow the business he inherited from his father at the rate that he did, how he thought about acquiring other companies, and when he branched into new markets.  I took this from Mark Cuban’s 6 great books for entrepreneurs.

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age by Alex Wright – I became interested in Paul Otlet after seeing this Tumblr theme, then researching him more in-depth. He had an incredible capacity for envisioning a better, more connected world, and pursued it endlessly, setting up international organizations, pitching ideas to other great thinkers of the time, and developing his own institutions and museums dedicated to holding the world’s information. An excellent book that captures the time period, as well as Otlet’s boundless ambitions.

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams – I met Dee while producing a segment on Tiny Houses for The Jeff Probst Show two years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see she’d written a memoir (loosely) about her decision to build a tiny house. This is smart and charming and funny and life-affirming and you will giggle and be moved.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber – The structure of E-Myth Revisited centers around how a entrepreneurial pie shop owner will reshape her business. I found the narrative helpful and instructional, and look forward to reading Gerber’s other books. It was recommended reading for the Coursera entrepreneurship class.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow – Though this is my first exposure to Doctorow, it certainly won’t be my last. I enjoyed this look into how creative industries continue to shift, and how artists can be expected to work and make a living in the coming years.

The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder –  Kidder’s book is referenced in the Innovator’s Dilemma, which I read in November. Already partial to nearly everything Kidder writes, I pursued this, and can say it’s a great companion to the more technical Dilemma. There are many parallels, too, between hardware companies in the 70s and web-based companies today that should keep Soul relevant for a long time.

Rework by Jason Fried – A thoughtful examination of assumptions about starting and maintaining a business,  from a company that’s stayed small despite launching many successful products.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty by Rita Gunther McGrath – This book is designed more for thinking entrepreneurially inside a corporation. There are some helpful strategies in the beginning, the book becomes less helpful for independent entrepeneurs as it continues.

Writing for a Good Cause: The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits by Joseph Barbato – Though this isn’t immediately applicable to the ideas I’m working on, I chose to read it to get a better understanding of how nonprofits target donors, craft letters, and function.

How to Be Danish: A Journey to the Cultural Heart of Denmark by Patrick Kingsley – I went to Denmark for a week.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.

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2014 Annual Review: 10 Things That Went Well, and 10 That Did Not

This has been a great year for reading, a good year for travel, decent year for working, a fine year for baking, and a poor year for pushing myself. In the hopes of expanding upon those simple reflections, I’m taking a page out of Chris Guillebeau’s playbook and thinking back on 2014 with these two questions in mind:

What went well this year?
What did not go so well this year?


 

What Went Well in 2014

I worked for three production companies in three different capacities. I’ll have been to Europe twice, as well as up and down both coasts. There were plenty of highlights from 2014. This list of 10 things includes some personal accomplishments, some professional ones, and some general thoughts about the year that leave me feeling positive and rewarded. In no particular order:

  • Time with family – This is the first year in quite a few that I’ve spent extended time with my family outside of the holidays. There were several weddings, a weeklong Thanksgiving in Boulder, and a spontaneous Texas excursion with my sister-in-law. I told myself in the midst of the rocky employment situations earlier in the year that I would take advantage of any and all time off to do the things I ordinarily can’t, and I’m pleased that I followed through on that desire.
  • Travel – I was able to go on great road trips (through Utah and the Southwest), fly to great states (Oregon, Washington, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and Arizona, to name a few) and travel to Europe twice (the UK and France to start, Denmark and the Netherlands coming up). Though the traveling I had planned at the beginning of the year was more far-flung than this, it was refreshing to be able to explore so many modern cities.
  • Reading – Daily reading has been the foundation of my year. In making it a more conscious practice, I’ve ended up reading significantly more than I did last year, tackling more ambitious books, and  discovering new interests. I’m using that all as a springboard to launch a new project. See next.
  • Connect A Book – Though this project officially launches in a month or so, I am pleased with the initiative I’ve taken so far in committing my time and resources to making it come to fruition. The process is informing a good deal of my reading selections and my self-directed learning, as well as giving a structure to a period of time that had been getting hazy from lack of work (or work as I would have previously defined it).
  • Running – I set personal bests in the 10k (39:09) and marathon (3:26:48). That the marathon took place in Tucson, and in consecutive years (I did the Los Angeles marathon last year), makes me confident that I can move forward with a plan to combine stateside travel and running into one exploratory hobby.
  • TV Producing – In contrast to last year when I worked as an Associate Producer on three consecutive shows, I worked as a producer (segment + coordinating) for two shows this year. In those positions, I was given more control over creating segments, editing show content, and implementing ideas. It was gratifying to be given autonomy and I hope to have more opportunities in 2015. The year ended with a longer hiatus than I’ve had before, which does leave me uncertain about what comes next in terms of the “TV career”.
  • Investing – I contributed monthly to a Roth IRA, and began a few other investments, including Lending Club. Ultimately I’m happiest with a presently occurring mental shift that has me thinking less in terms of investing money for the future and more in terms of investing money in projects now, and in me now. They are not mutually exclusive, but the latter is more tangible, more actionable, and, for now, more necessary.
  • Friends – The longer spans of time off allowed for a weeklong road trip through Utah with a good friend, mid-week Channel Islands camping with my girlfriend, and generally more socializing, which I shy away from when I work.
  • Awareness of the world – Aided no doubt by John Oliver’s new show, my time working on a late night news program, and a subscription to The Economist, I am keeping abreast with world news and developments. This wasn’t something I set out to do, but upon reflection, it is a good quality to develop.
  • Mindfulness – Being more aware of my self and my interests has allowed me to navigate professional situations that were unhealthy, and avoid ones that would have been disastrous. It has helped me to maintain an even-keeled and healthy attitude, while also keeping me from being too short-sighted and overwhelmed with frustration. This was more a side effect of several books I read and a renewed interest in running, so I aim to make this more intentional in the year and years to come.

What Did Not Go Well in 2014

As a counterpoint to those things that went well, I had a number of difficulties, failed endeavors, trying time off, and personal frustrations. They are:

  • Creative writing – I abandoned Ordinary Poems, the latest incarnation of a creative writing project, after a dozen new entries. I didn’t blog regularly. I didn’t do freelance writing. I didn’t work on TV scripts or film scripts or short stories. In terms of a disparity between how I think of myself and what my actions show, there are none larger in my life. Absolutely must change.
  • Passion for work – This year in the television industry was particularly disillusioning in terms of shows being mismanaged, projects floundering without direction, and rudderless coworkers. I turned down a fourth job in hopes of spending time on a project of my own, as well as taking a step back to reassess what parts of the industry I like, and what I am willing to put up with upon my return.
  • Music listening – This tanked, due to a lack of commute time and a newfound interest in audiobooks that cannibalized any headphone time I did have.
  • Overall fitness – My focus the latter half of the year shifted toward biking and running and my overall level of fitness (upper body and core strength) declined. Though I plan on continuing to do long distances runs, I don’t want success in that to come at the expense of a modicum of strength.
  • Volunteering – My time at 826LA became more specialized, as I chose to work solely on Personal Statement-related trips in place of the buffet of volunteering I’ve devoured in years past. I did enjoy the time I spent this year, but I want to return to supporting the organization as a whole.
  • Expanding my sphere – Through the first half of the year I was content with television being my arena, so I didn’t put energy into meeting people in different communities, with different hobbies, in different walks of life. The result of that, mixed with my own professional uncertainty, is regret for not mixing it up more. I’ve already started working on this, and expect next year will bring new groups and new people into the swing of things on a regular basis.
  • Getting out of my comfort zone – Similar to the above, though more of a personal regret and less of a social one. The travel I did went smoothly, the work felt manageable, and I don’t feel like I grew as much as I could have. I’ve put some plans in place to make next year different.
  • Regular baking – Sure, I made a decent number of pies. I made some tarts. And cookies. That being said, I made no scones. I made no bread. It’s time to rethink the baking title if I don’t start doing some real baking.
  • Identity beyond work – This is where I struggled the most this year. What do I write in that Twitter profile? In my website’s About section? At parties? To my extended family at Thanksgiving?
  • Setting goals and implementing systems – I’ve experimented with a number of daily systems (based around running, reading, scheduling), and it’s helped focus some of my thoughts. That said, I haven’t done more than this for experimenting’s sake.

 


 

When I started this year, I was in the middle of a road trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles. I was heading back to a job where I’d been recently promoted that had benefits and the security of it all was a novelty to me. It seemed like it was going to be a steady year that would have planned vacation days and PTO and consistent work and that I’d be able to fit in some time for self-development around all that and what a year it was going to be.

Then the whole staff got let go. And I found a few other jobs, and then did some traveling, and chose not to do a job, and did some reading and building. I found myself reacting to situations rather than creating opportunities.

This coming year will be something else entirely.

 

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Books Read in November ’14

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.

I set out this month to focus my reading after a relatively haphazard (but interesting!) October, and I made good progress toward that goal. The pending launch of an entrepreneurial project affected both the recommendations I got from family, as well as the reading I sought out for myself. Additionally, I’m in the process of taking the Coursera specialization on Entrepreneurship and in doing so I’m taking advantage of their recommended readings. In scanning down the list below it’s clear I’ve started with the bigger names in business, like Buffett, Thiel and Christensen, though I do look forward to seeing what niche readings will come from this foundation.

I also continued with the side readings in Natural History with two of my favorite writers in the genre, Diane Ackerman and Stephen Jay Gould. As the project I’m working on takes shape, I realize more and more the credit they’re both due for inspiring it. Though many of the business books I’ve been reading on my iPad, I endeavor to get the actual books for the natural history writers. This makes it easier to take notes in them, flip through them for highlighted passages, and to share them with people. Despite the broad scopes of their books (evolution and genetics, the senses), Ackerman and Gould approach their topics with intimacy, and I can’t help but feel that having the book bolsters that sensation.

For this next month, I expect the entrepreneurial reading to continue, with an added focus toward actionable guides toward marketing, social media and business plan development. I’ve also got some quality travel time coming up, which I hope to fill with the books I’ve picked up over the year that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – My mother recommended this to me based on the strength of the writing, and it really is remarkable how Doerr describes the world as experienced by a young blind girl (incidentally, this paired nicely with the Ackerman book A Natural History of the Senses I read this month). It’s already ending up on many best-of lists, and I encourage you to check it out. Next to Station Eleven, it’s one of my favorite works of fiction this year.

Non-Fiction

Choose Yourself! by James Altucher – This was my introduction to Altucher, and I am happy to have made the acquaintance. Choose Yourself! is motivating and actionable and, for me, right now, pertinent. My next year is nowhere near as obvious as I would’ve expected. Reading this has steeled me against that uncertainty.

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, by Warren Buffett – James Altucher recommends this book if you want to learn to be an entrepreneur. I was already interested in Buffett’s annual letter-writing, and this collection does a great job of dispersing his insights on running a business, investing, and analyzing markets (which is especially helpful given how little I knew about the first and last when I started the book) in a way that is simple and clear.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel – A recommendation from my father, Zero to One pulls no punches in helping would-be entrepreneurs decide if their startup is worth their time. Not everything that’s worth doing has been done, and it’s poisonous to think that way.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal – I found this book while looking up mindmapping / brainstorming software. It’s a quick, informative read that provides regular exercises for those developing products that I found helpful in framing my own ideas.

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson – This book was suggested as part of the Entrepreneurship class I’m taking. I found it had much more to say about education and learning than actual business, but since those two areas I’m partial to hearing about and understanding more deeply, it was a satisfying read.

The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen – Since reading this I’ve come to understand how widespread this book’s influence is. The nuanced analysis of how companies can do everything right and still miss out on obvious opportunities was a great antidote to the common myth of “small companies disrupting everything happens because they’re just better.” This also came from the Entrepreneurship class.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – In terms of helpful, strategic books I read this month, this and Hooked are at the top of the list. The Lean Startup has a broader perspective than Hooked as it takes in the formation of a company into its scope. I imagine I’ll come back to this in six months and a year.

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman – After reading Ackerman’s The Moon by Whale Light, I could hardly wait to read more of her work. This book delivers on a very interesting premise: a meditation on each of the senses, as seen through the lens of history, culture, genetics and personal experience.

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould – I’ve mentioned already in these writings how I enjoyed Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack, so I was prone to liking this essay compilation, the first of Gould’s books. This is not nearly as broad or cultural as I found Dinosaur to be, though it was still interesting and readable.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.

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Books Read in October

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.

Realizing I read about twice as much in October as I did in September was momentarily gratifying, and then internally puzzling, as the sense of satisfaction that came from having done more dissolved and left me with a sense of not knowing what it was for. Though I indulged my curiosity with books on design, sustainable food and traveling through Russia, I didn’t feel any sense of progress, as if I was juggling too many ideas in the air while not being able to focus enough on a select few to make any solid connections. While the tangible results of pages read and books complete made it seem like I covered a lot of ground, I did not feel as in control of the reading as I should have.

Part of this uncertainty comes from enrolling in – and then dropping out – of a Coursera course on Science Fiction & Fantasy. The motivation for the course was admittedly unclear: it seemed interesting at the time. That unfocused desire waned in the face of a more compelling project, and though the two books I read for the course were worth the effort, they ultimately weren’t additive. Reading sometimes works as a kind of self-hypnosis; feeling that you’re not reading the correct book is a surefire way to snap out of that. I encountered a similar uneasiness while reading Travels in Siberia that even Frazier’s impressive writing couldn’t subdue, a realization that stemmed from a mind more interested in something else.

I’ve recently committed to taking on a sort of entrepreneurial endeavor. Having a direction should focus my recently scattered reading, as the book selection will be motivated by their potential impact on the project. This means an intentional lessening of the time devoted to books picked as morsels for a peckish curiosity. That there is still value in reading widely I have no doubt, it’s just a tendency I need to temper in order to make progress in other areas.

The point of these monthly posts is to judge the efficacy of my reading, and the past three months have showed me adept at indulging my interests. There’s little doubt in my mind how pleasurable that reading has been, and that it will have impacts in the future is assured. There must be a shift now of reading almost entirely for pleasure (to satisfy curiosity, to delve into stories, etc.) to reading as a tool for work.

Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – This book was recommended to me by Lauren as a similarly styled alternative to the apocalyptic California, which we read for last month’s book club. Station Eleven has an interesting narrative style that allows for a unique interplay between character development and the world’s ending, as the author chooses to focus on characters that existed before the major pandemic, some that bridged the gap between old world and new, and others who came of age after the world was ravaged by the flu.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass  by Lewis Carroll – It’s possible I’ve read this as much as any other story in my life, and of course and seen it in its many incarnations. If you haven’t refreshed yourself on the source material in a while, I recommend you do so. This was on the reading list for the Coursera class on Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Dracula by Bram Stoker – Another book for the Coursera course, Dracula proved itself as a powerfully structured story. The prevalence of movies based on the titular character is reason alone to familiarize yourself with the story; the reason I’d endorse is to read a story told solely through the vantage points of interwoven journal entries and correspondences between characters that manages to still create a suspense and horror that feel modern.

Non-Fiction

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber – An Ira Glass interview turned me on to this book, which Glass describes as a “surprisingly well-reported Michael Pollan-ish book written by a professional chef.” I thought it was a terrific perspective on cultivating food and how different modern communities are treating the natural world. Also, farm-to-table isn’t sustainable, so we need to stop acting like that it’s the end-all be-all of food ideas.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier – The New Yorker excerpts of Ian Frazier’s van ride through the great expanse of Russia have stuck with me since they were published several years ago, so memorable in their description of that curious land that I grabbed a hardcover version of his book from a used book store. My interest waned in the middle as I found my thoughts occupied with embarking on a new project, but that has little bearing on the quality of the travelogue and the way Frazier incorporates millennia of Russian history into his numerous jaunts to Russia’s many outposts. For a non-fiction companion piece of the desolate nature of life in Sibera, complete with a more thrilling narrative, try John Valliant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley – A year ago my parents sent me a box of science and technology-oriented books without a letter or a reason. Genome was one of those books, and it stayed dormant on my shelves until reading Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack, which sparked an interest in genetics. Though the human genome may never be one of my specializations, it’s such a controversial subject, and the writing about it contains so many nuanced connections, told from the perspective of people with experiences ranging from personal stakes to professional distance. That buffet of opinions – subjective, objective, passionate, ill-informed – is enough to keep me returning occasionally for more.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty – Our spooky October book club selection. This memoir had good insights and was told from a young mortician’s perspective, which ends up being a double-edged sword. It’s unusual, and that helps in marketing the book by giving journalists and interviewers everywhere an easy-to-grasp angle. The book feels incomplete, though, as if there just weren’t enough stories yet to expand to book length.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman – This book is from that same box of books described above, and I read it more out of general interest – having not read any design-specific books before – than anything else. I enjoyed the look into the design process of everyday objects, and find myself thinking about some of the points on a regular basis. The fundamental concepts are enjoyable, but the book as a whole is showing its age. References to setting VCRs are one of many now-obsolete technologies that are simultaneously amusing and distracting.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.

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Pumpkin Cream Pie with Pistachio Crust

Pumpkin Cream Pie with Pistachio Crust

The afternoon sun brings out glistening sweat on our foreheads and arms, baking us. The sensation is not lost on the nearly 400 bakers on the UCLA lawn, each representing their craft at the 6th Annual KCRW Good Food Pie Contest. Standing by rectangular tables under eight pop-up shade canopies which protect pies half as well as an iPhone-addled babysitter tends to children, we tempt the attendees with tastes of our pies – the creams, the cooked custards, the fruit-filled, the nut-based, the ones for vegans, the World Pie and the savories.

Just taste our pies, please, before they melt down into some unidentifiable puddle. My Pumpkin Cream Pie (with a Pistachio Crust) seems to be a pacifist in the fight against the heat, accepting its pending soggy transformation. We solicit passersby with our smiles, beaming salesmen selling free samples, hoping to not be left unselected like so many junior high dodgeball players. It’s working, relatively. A quick scan down the adjacent table reveals pies with so much more remaining than my own. Is that the contest, though? Get rid of the pie puddle quick? Not the main one, at any rate. The mind of each baker soars past the sweat-soaked aprons and Indian summer suffering, focusing instead on the dream of hearing their pie’s name, and theirs, announced. What sweet satisfaction to hear the crowd’s murmurs sliced through by the adjective-laden title (whose crafting must’ve equaled the pie’s own prep time).

My thoughts are brought back to the present as my silvery plastic pie server snaps, the second to fail my pie’s pistachio crust. The handle is severed, so I press forward with just the blade, scooping the now near-liquid cream onto plates, followed by a quick chisel into the crust to provide the waiting pie-ficionados. The beads of sweat that first formed on my hands as I put the disposable serving gloves on have since wrinkled my fingertips, lessening my already weak grip. Still, there is pie to serve. Or, a semblance of pie. A Substance Formerly Known As Pie. I try and distract myself by checking out more of the pies nearby. The End-of-Summer-S’mores Pie near me is catnip for kids. The Cherry Cream Cheese Pie seems like a barbaric attempt to fuse pie with cheesecake, and I won’t stand for it. I’m not proud of some of the other thoughts I have, so in a meditative way, I acknowledge their existence, then let them go.

The crowd, for their part, has been curious, good-spirited, and eager. Pies can get messy and gooey, difficult to slice, and though that doesn’t affect the taste so much, the experience of a sliced pie isn’t the same when the pie is scooped. This patience on the receiving end lends credence to the idea that baking is ultimately an act of sharing. Though baking tends to be an experience more personal than public (not much of a crowd to watch bread being baked at 5am), an expression of one’s interest, experience and ability, it is also a means to an end, a result to be shared, split up, sampled and savored. That I am able to share this pie with others is icing on the top of my own striving, as I am driven by a desire for improvement, in my ability and the results of my baking. I push myself in crust and concept.

In previous contests, delusions and inexperience kept me from a fuller understanding. To me, the mere act of baking was worthy of some accolade. Look at me, I’m being unique. I was more concerned with having baked, similar in vein to writers who love having written. Now, though, I’m concerned with what goes into the pie, subtle improvements, different categories, and, through it all, effort. The effort becomes the focus, and understanding that is a lesson worth more than the validation any colored-ribbon might bring.

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Books Read in September

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.

September was a good month for reading. Though there weren’t as many connections in the books I completed this month – each book was recommended or found from very distant sources – I’ve already started seeing the overlap in the books that last month has led me to, and it’s invigorating. To continue tracing those connections is one of the goals in writing about reading, and I’m happy to see it coming to light so soon.

Fiction

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham – A few years ago, in the midst of feeling frustrated that the television work I was doing wasn’t an accurate representation of my interests and abilities, I started an interconnected interview series, wherein I would speak with one person, have them recommend me another person to speak with, and so on. During these wide-ranging conversations on lives lived and choices made, books often came up in the discussion as either essential to their lives or as a necessary companion for my own experience. The Razor’s Edge was referenced several times in those talks, and though I grabbed the book soon after, it wasn’t until last month that it made it into my reading queue. I am so glad that it did. Much of what I’ve been thinking about personally over the past few months was reflected in the central character, and it was gratifying to see an author carry out those ideas to certain extremes. For those who are wondering just what impact they’re having on the world, this book suggests answers to that question from some great angles.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – As a Spanish Literature major, I’m predisposed to liking magical realism in most of its forms. Russell’s story about an alligator theme park in Florida certainly flirts with the core elements of magical realism before transforming into something more solemn by becoming a stark tale of innocence lost. A great non-fiction companion for this book is The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman, an engaging perspective on alligators and, incidentally, how they’ve become such an attraction in Florida.

Non-Fiction

Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould -I found this during the last days of the Brand Bookshop as its shelves were being ravaged by fans driven by ever-deeper price reductions. I felt I owed Gould, whose name I recognized because of a Simpsons episode (naturally), at least a passing familiarity. The collection I picked up, one of a series, is filled to the brim with excitable essays on anything from the annals of paleontology to the celebration of the millennium (timely, I know). He brings to each essay such a synthesis of disparate information that one cannot help but be impressed at the breadth of influence. In the months to come you’ll see this book referred to time and time again as it singularly sparked an interest in evolution and genetics and has already bogged down my to-read lists with books on the genome and Darwin and so much more.

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham – I could (and likely will) write many dozens of essays about the mental discipline / catharsis / lunacy of running, as anyone could who’s been through the various stages of running, the painful early days, the successful race days, the excruciating post-injury days that feel like you’re past your prime days, but I don’t think those essays could have the special connectivity that Mipham embues his writing with by creating such effective parallels between running and meditation. Even for someone like myself who still hasn’t fully embraced meditation as a daily activity this book gave me the capacity to think about running and being present in a more nuanced way.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey – At this point I’ve lost the initial recommendation source for this book. It started as a blog, and as such, has been linked to and reposted ad infinitum on topics like productivity and inspiration and (I’m sure) prodigious coffee drinking. This book reads like the site it started out as and perhaps should be treated as a curious reference material when you’re looking to justify how you work. There’s not an argument for how one should work, nor is there much organization in the book that argues for how certain types of people (do writers tend toward benzodiazepines? Musicians toward inverted sleep schedules?) work in certain conditions. The former is not a knock against the collection, as it makes no such promises of advice; regardless, people will seek out that kind of guidance as they seek to make mentors of those who’ve accomplished so much. Key takeaways: drink coffee, take walks.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.

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Books Read in August

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I tackled, and why.

I normally try and alternate between fiction and non-fiction books but this month I found I focused more on narrative stories than anything else. Each of the novels I read were published in the last 3 years, and that’s a trend I’d like to buck in the coming months with more of a focus on time-tested works. The non-fiction was a recommendation from a friend, interrupting what has been a decent streak focusing on history, which I hope to continue as well.

Fiction

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – This was our August selection for our group’s book club. The story, which focuses on a squad of young Iraqi war veterans doing a publicity tour throughout the US in 2003, was really interesting. It gives a perspective on American public opinion that is (once again) relevant, given our current tenuous situation in the Middle East. The characters are distinct and well-developed, owing in good part to a visceral writing style. This was a very enjoyable read.

California by Edan Lepucki – This is the September selection for the same book club. Though set in the possibilities-filled world of a country just-collapsed (most of the details are kept vague), and following a couple trying to survive on their own in this near-future, the book never gains much momentum. It seems more concerned with keeping secrets hidden than permitting the characters’ conflicts the chance to breathe. The results of this submission are a conclusion which only hints at something darker, but instead ends up reserved and noncommittal.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – I will preface this by saying I have not read as much Murakami as I’d like to have read by this point (oh, 1Q84, how you taunt me), and so can’t comment – the way some reviews of this book have – about the many repeated themes and tropes in his books. Mostly this story made me reflect on how I thought of myself in relation to my high school and college friends, how our dynamics changed over the years, and to what extent I was responsible for any of those changes. The book is an interesting study of the dissolution of a nearly perfect circle of friends, and how it changed each of their lives. It reminded me of a solemn, introspective version of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

Non-Fiction

Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould –

 

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind –

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – After finishing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I asked my friend and science communicator Cara what I should read next in the genre. This was one of her two favorites, and it did not disappoint. The world of what happens to our bodies after death (not in the George Saunders sense) is expansive and fascinating, and for someone like myself who hasn’t given that whole process much thought beyond a sticker on a license, totally engrossing.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above or not, please let me know.

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