Monday, September 08, 2014

Moving!

www.serenamcclain.com/blog

Can you believe I've been writing here at this blogspot address for 10 years?! My nostalgia-loving butt is going to miss this site, but I'm excited to announce that I've got something SO. MUCH. BETTER.

Update your bookmarks, change your feeds, and come find me at www.serenamcclain.com/blog!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Will Smith on Hustle




"The only thing distinctly different about me is that I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be overworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. But if we get on the treadmill together, there's two things that can happen. Either you're going to get off first, or I'm going to die. It's really simple. So let's go back to what I do when people reject me. I'm either going to get back in, or I'm going to die. The majority of people who aren't getting the things they want, or aren't achieving the things they want, is strictly based on hustle. It's strictly being based on being outworked, on missing crucial opportunities. If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready."
                                                                                                                                   - Will Smith

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Breaking Good

Things are a little hectic up in this joint right now. At work, my boss is on sabbatical, so I've had to fold his duties into mine, and on the personal front, I can't seem to stop trying to do all of the things. This isn't a complaint. I dig it. Usually.

Now? I need to buy myself some time so that I can work on finishing www.serenamcclain.com! I've wanted a new online home for a while, so I'm stoked to get it up and running. The problem is that I write slowly (obsessing over almost every word), and when I have to write about anything related to me, we're talking glacial. The ice caps melt faster than I can write an about page. So, instead of just leaving this space blank for a bit, I'm going to combine my love of pop culture with my collection of quotes and just keep the next month simple. I'm calling it breaking good :-)

TFIOS

I think this post may break one of own blogging rules*. Oh well, we're all a little hypocritical, right?

*The first rule of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Gilead: Book Review



















Gilead (by Marilynne Robinson) took me by surprise. I'd listened to Rebecca and Jeff discuss it on the Book Riot Podcast, so I was fairly certain there would be tears. I just misjudged completely what would make me emotional.

Let's back up. Gilead is the story of a much older father writing to his young son, attempting to cram a lifetime of learning and relationship into what he thinks are the last few weeks or months of his life. In an almost stream of consciousness, the father (a preacher) weaves family history with spiritual struggle in a way that's entirely unpretentious and, yet, rendered beautifully.

I fully expected to cry at the father's anticipated death. Instead, I found tears pouring down my cheeks at the points where his struggles are my struggles and when he nails ideas I've only begun to circle around. He speaks of each of us being alone, essentially being unknowable to each other and comparable to distinct civilizations. Somehow, it was in these words that I felt known, unalone.

Robinson captures so eloquently my desire to know, really know, my family. Parents lead such interior, seemingly secret lives from their children, and to be able to share in what makes them them seems precious.

"I'm trying to make the best of our situation..."



































You need only look at my dog-eared copy to know that there are so many highlight-worthy passages in this book. I can tell it's one I'll keep coming back to.

Do you have books you read on the regular? It's somewhat abnormal for me.

Listen to Ravena and I talk about this and other books we've been reading over the last two weeks!






Sunday, June 01, 2014

Where have all the mix CDs gone?

found music, 05.30.14

I realize I'm a bit of a sucker for nostalgia, but can we reminisce for a moment about where all of the CDs have gone?

I was digging through a few old purses last week in a desperate search for my expired passport when I uncovered this relic of the past. It shared a snazzy envelope with a mix of Muse songs and was tucked in next to a "best of" Foreigner set. [I know I'm not the only one to want nothing more than to be able to belt out I Want to Know What Love Is while driving down the highway.]

Anyway, I digress. Is anyone still making mix CDs these days, or are the kids just trading Spotify playlists? If so, where's the magic in that? Can you accidentally stumble upon a playlist someone made for you five years later and become instantly overwhelmed with the rush of emotion you used to feel when you listened to those songs?

Serendipity is such a charmer. It was awesome to rediscover this mix CD and pop it in, having totally forgotten who gave it to me or what was on it. I didn't even mind that a couple of the songs made me tear up as, in the popular vernacular of our times, I had all the feels ;-)

Do you still make mix CDs? When was the last time you made one?

P.S. I consider finding an eight-year old fossilized chocolate bar a sign that every now and then I can muster great restraint.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

That's What She Read: The Brief Wondrous Episode

Oscar Wao Graphic

A new episode of That's What She Read (TWSR) went live last Tuesday, and if you like books, I reckon* there's something in there for you. Ravena and I sat down with Amy from Lemon and Raspberry and Megan from The Nerd Nest, discussing everything from superheroes and trickster gods to John Quincy Adams and Sherman Alexie.

I'm really enjoying our periodic "supper club" episodes and the opportunity to talk to other awesome readers. It should come as no surprise that my to-read list grows with each new episode. Megan's discussion of Burgess's invented slang in A Clockwork Orange immediately set me on the hunt for my own copy with the original British ending.

If you're interested in expanding your reading game even more, Amy has started the L&R Book Club, a "non-fiction, leadership/business/self-helpy/personal development" book club. In the latest episode of TWSR, she talks about their current selection, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.

"I love the idea that creativity is not mystical, that it's not that the muse is going to come down and anoint you with her powers. It's that creativity is a job, and you just need to get the structure in place to be able to leverage the creativity that you already have." - Amy T. Schubert

I would totally join this book club if I didn't dislike Facebook so much.

Even Ravena has me thinking about reading the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.

As for me, I'm still feeling gushy about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (part of the amazing Indonesian cover above) by Junot Diaz. Listen to this mega, book-filled episode of the podcast to hear more about it and all of the other books we discussed!


*Why, yes, I did bust out the Texas vernacular.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Kara Walker is a fucking genius



This is what art is all about for me. It's the visceral, fuck yeah reaction you get in your gut from simply an initial glance. It's a message so fully formed that words aren't even needed.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

63 Distractingly Delightful Tips for Writers

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A little over a week ago, a small group of friends and I held the kickoff meeting for a new writing group. Most of us are somewhere in our novel-writing journey, and this seemed like a way for us to both encourage each other and help each other grow as writers. Plus, if it's good enough for the Inklings, well, you know...

Our plan is to keep the group small at first in order to work out the kinks. Everyone is understandably nervous about sharing and critiquing work. We used our first gathering to discuss things like meeting frequency, what everyone hoped to get out of a writing group, etc., and we now have a name thanks to Scarlet! Introducing the Interrobang Writing Group. I've already learned something because I had no idea what an interrobang was. ;-)

At some point toward the end of the night, Abbie asked everyone where they found writing inspiration. The type-A overachiever in me decided to get semi-comprehensive about it and ended up pulling together a list of links for the group covering everything from general inspiration to feedback/critique to some nitty-gritty tools. I even included a spreadsheet I pulled together a couple of years ago with information on potential places to submit stories. After discovering I had 63 links* to articles, video, and audio, I decided to format it and will share it with my newsletter subscribers this week. 

Why am I telling you this? If you want a copy of these 63 distractingly delightful tips and my spreadsheet of places to submit your writing, you should sign up for my newsletter ASAP! Just enter your email address below, and I'll make sure you get a copy. Besides, the last edition of the newsletter included a yummy photo of Idris Elba, and who doesn't want that?


I want to go behind the scenes!

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*My favorite inspiration comes when I curl up with a good novel, and the best tip (IMO) is to just write.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Dream Thieves: Book Review and Podcast Update

I finally picked up the second book in the Raven Cycle, The Dream Thieves, and it was awesome!

In the follow up to The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater once again transports us to the fictional town of Henrietta, Virginia (a town I'm convinced is set in the rolling hills somewhere between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg) where Blue and the boys continue their search for Glendower, a real medieval Welsh prince and warrior who led a revolt in September 1400 against English rule of Wales. He disappeared mysteriously in 1412. Though rumors of his death and burial location exist, it has never been confirmed, making him perfect fodder for spooky legends (e.g., being first immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1). The Raven Cycle series takes the legend of sleeping kings approach wherein the king is not really dead but instead in a tomb waiting to be woken. In The Dream Thieves, whomever finds Glendower and wakes him will be granted a favor.

Can you tell I love the throwback to a real person from history?
The Dream Thieves is filled with legends and ley lines and talk of St. Mark's Eve/the corpse road, but there is plenty of real-life happening and kids just struggling to fit in. Where I feel The Raven Boys focused quite a bit on developing Blue into the fascinating, strongish female character that she is, The Dream Thieves focuses less on her and more on Adam and Ronan. In the sequel, we learn more about the consequences of Adam's sacrifice (vague because no spoilers) and a bit about what lies underneath Ronan's anger management issues. Seriously, these are some emo boys.

One of the things I enjoy about these books is Stiefvater's natural writing. These are teen novels, but I never felt like I had to make allowances for the quality of writing. She has created a vivid world, both real and imagined, and her words give me all the tools I need to visualize each wacky, beautiful thing.

If you want to hear more about what I've been reading the last month or so, check out the latest episode of That's What She Read, my bi-weekly book podcast with my friend Ravena. We release a new episode every other Tuesday, and we'd love for you to listen along. You can also join the book discussion over on the That's What She Read Goodreads group.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Role of audience in documentary filmmaking

Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River, Washington. Photo: Mikal Jakubal


























There is a low-stakes battle being waged inside this head of mine. The head versus the heart. The personal versus the professional. The pragmatic versus the radical. When stepping back and really thinking through what I take away from a documentary (and what others will take from that experience), which of those matter most and should come out on top?

Let me back up. A few weeks ago I attended a screening of DamNation at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival. The film explores the shift in attitude from a country built on dams (from the mill dam's role in the industrial revolution to the great dam-building era of the New Deal) to one in which the detrimental effect of many of these structures has given rise to an effort to remove certain dams and restore rivers. Filled with sweeping vistas and many charismatic rivers of the west, the film is gorgeous, visually spectacular. My inner aesthetician totally wants to fist-bump the cinematographer.

Back to the future? A century old I.W. Taber photograph shows the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley and Toulumne River before the dam and reservoir buried this national treasure in a scene from DAMNATION. Photo: Matt Stoecker


From the cultural and religious significance of salmon for many tribes of the Pacific Northwest to the evocative landforms now buried by Glen Canyon Dam, it makes a play for our heartstrings by blending the historic and spiritual. It also attempts to appeal to our inner wild thing with dam-scaling graffiti artists and a bit of a "fight the man" vibe running throughout the film's narration. The inner activist in me now wants in on the fist-bumping action.

However, as I sat in the theater, I looked around at all of the fleece and the shiny, white faces ready to take action and couldn't help wondering what my people would get out of this film. What would the ranchers in San Angelo, Texas make of this message? Would my grandfather--a helps with local elections, writes letters to the city council kind of dude--be moved to write a letter to editor next time an article appeared about a new dam being built? Texans appreciate the land and the water they have dominion over. In fact, more often than not, they'll work it like a bitch to extract every possible tiny bit of appreciation out of it that they can. And these aren't just Texas communities. They exist in every state. I work with them. I reckon (because that's how we do) this isn't their film.

Who was this film meant to appeal to? In my estimation, it's a documentary meant to appeal to and mobilize your base. Something to excite them to send their Congressional rep an email or drop a check in the mail to (hopefully) an effective environmental group. Maybe they'll be amped enough (until they realize it's not as sexy as the movies make it) to want to take on a dam removal in their neck of the woods. What it likely won't do is win that city council battle over removal of the municipally owned dam. The implicit bucking of authority and rules combined with gratuitous (even if artistic) female nudity would cause my grandfather and others like him to immediately discount the more salient arguments made for restoration.

I have DamNation to thank for my continuing mental thumb war--the pumped up girl who dashes off 'getting radical' posts versus the pragmatist who knows what it takes to make real change happen. What I do know is that documentaries can be powerful tools for change when wielded appropriately, and part of that power lies in identifying your audience--critical in developing your message, film and corresponding call to action.

Who do you strive to appeal to when you create?

Keep your eye on this space because I will be announcing a couple of exciting documentary-related projects inspired by all the questions of audience and social change brought about by this film. Sign up for my newsletter below to be the first to hear about it!


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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Go do something. It's Earth Day!

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I ordered a test run of postcards for work and fell in love with Artifact Uprising. The paper quality is sumptuous!

I hadn't planned on writing a post for today. Reading a few lines of text is the last thing we should all be doing on Earth Day. However, I took on a "green" theme for the month of April and couldn't let today pass without sharing at least a little.

I struggle to write about the environmental side of my life. While I'm incredibly passionate about it, I spend 45-50 hours a week swimming in it. It wakes me up in the middle of the night and sends me driving three hours on a Saturday morning to help a local group with an event. It's evenings speaking at a public meeting because that's when everyone else can participate. I love every minute of it, but burn out is a real thing. Self-preservation means I tend to choose to leave that part of me at work. Plus, I tend to have a lot of passions, and they need their air time, too. :-)

So, no discussion on what you should be reading or watching or listening to. Instead, I think it would be awesome if we all spent 30 minutes today thinking about how we can level up whatever we're doing for the earth. You recycle and bring those cute bags to the grocery store. Can you pick up one more good habit this year?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The River Why and more bookish rambling

The Yough

Confession time. I'm a river-slash-book lover who has never read Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. I've never even watched the movie. Drinking by the Rappahannock with one of the movie's leads (former board member...not Brad Pitt) is the closest I've come. Instead, it was the enchanted, river religiosity of David James Duncan that further exposed me to the transformative, motivational power of words.

My introduction to Duncan came years ago when I got my hands on a collection of his essays, My Story as Told by Water (do yourself a favor and look up the incredibly long subtitle). His essays painted salmon, trout and the spirituality of the fly fisherman in the way that makes the breath catch in your throat. And, while this is a pivotal work in my personal canon, it's his novel, The River Why, that I want to talk about today.

The River Why is a bit of a modern-day Walden, following the young Gus Orviston, a fly fisherman from a fishing obsessed family, as he leaves his family and isolates himself in a remote cabin on one of Oregon's rivers. On a journey of self-discovery, Gus boils much of his days down to eating, sleeping and fishing as he tries to follow nature's biological rhythms. While I found Gus a bit too self-indulgent at times, Duncan's beautiful prose would lure me back in.

“And so I learned what solitude really was. It was raw material - awesome, malleable, older than men or worlds or water. And it was merciless - for it let a man become precisely what he alone made of himself.” 

When Duncan gets it so right (like he does below), the excitable, effusive girl inside of me wants to leap up, pumping my fist in the air and shouting "hell yeah!"

"Fisherman should be the easiest of men to convince to commence the search for the soul, because fishing is nothing but the pursuit of the elusive. Fish invisible to laymen like me are visible to anglers like you by a hundred subtle signs. how can you be so sagacious and patient in seeking fish, and so hasty and thick as to write off your soul because you can’t see it?"

If you've got a low tolerance for impassioned soap-box rhetoric, you may want to approach this novel with a bit of trepidation. Duncan is not particularly subtle and doesn't sugar-coat his views on how we treat the planet. Of course, that's only a tiny part of what I like about him.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Texas Traveling: Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock
Photo via im me

We traveled far and wide when I was growing up, but the only legitimate hike I can ever remember doing as a family was climbing up Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas. Honestly, I have no idea what possessed us to stop. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to tire two annoying kids. Whatever the reason, that majestic rock embedded itself in my conscious and became a bit of a mile marker in my life. I found myself revisiting it later in life, first, with my friend Audrey and later with my brother. Standing atop that pink granite rock felt powerful.

Enchanted Rock rises 1,825 feet above sea level which, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is akin to a 30 to 40 story building. Not too shabby for Texas. Evidently, there are more than 40 different climbs you can do and a whole slew of information about what you can and cannot do when climbing. However, there is a fairly straightforward (though steep at times) trail up the front of the rock for those who aren't rock climbers (raises hand).

Enchanted Rock. Texas. Years Ago.
Look how young we were! I'm the one with the red hair in the photo near the top.

If you love a good story, the rock is shrouded in mystery and legend. Visitors talk of seeing spirit fires (flashes of light) at night and how groans and pops have been known to permeate the night. Don't worry, it's just the rock expanding and contracting with temperature changes. If you prefer something a bit more lively, just ask the park rangers about the legend of the young Native American maiden who is said to haunt the rock.

While Enchanted Rock pales in comparison to some of the west's more famous rock features, it's worth planning a day trip to Fredericksburg for those making the trek to Austin. Both Enchanted Rock and Fredericksburg are in an area of Texas that historically had a large German settlement. If you choose to spend some time in Fredericksburg proper (and you should), there are a ton of shops as you stroll downtown, wineries known for use of the famous Fredericksburg peach, and several German restaurants worth a try.

A word to the wise, consider a trip to the rock in the spring or fall to avoid the scorching Texas heat on this bald rock and arrive early to ensure you make it in (particularly important on weekends).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creatures of Habitat: Adventures in Mapmaking

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Awesometastic maps by Herb Lester Associates.

I signed up for a fun new class a couple of weeks ago, Map Making: Learning to Communicate Places Beautifully. It's my first Skillshare class, and I'm thoroughly stoked! I'm a huge fan of maps and will admit to being one of those troglodytes who decried the spread of GPS and e-mapping. I don't like having a machine telling me each step to take. Have you ever had one of those things change its mind on you? Also, what if I want to see where I'm headed? Too complicated! Give me a paper map to plot my course on any day. Can you tell I have a frustrating experience with Google Maps on Friday? :-) The one nice benefit of having a map in my phone is that I suddenly look like less of a tourist when I'm trying to figure out where I'm going in a more urban environment (i.e., where I want to look cool and like I fit in).

This class isn't about turning you into a cartographer. It's more about exploring the beauty and creativity mapping can unleash.

How does this fit in with this month's Girl Goes Green theme?

As part of the class, each student creates a project to develop as they move through the lessons. I'm a huge fan of the way maps allow us a creative outlet for communicating concepts (beyond the traditional "this is how you get from Point A to Point B), so I decided to work on creating a map of the various creatures (both human and aquatic) that have relied on the Patapsco River throughout history. Here's a brief write-up I created to kick off my project...

The Patapsco River Valley was first settled by the Piscataway tribe and home to what are crazy historical fish like American shad, alewife and blueback herring. As Europeans moved in, the valley became a hotbed of industrialization with textile and flour mills littering its banks and small mill villages popping up. While traces of much of this history is gone, the modern day valley still provides habitat for thousands of park visitors each year who float the river, picnic along its banks and cast a line for those historic fish. I want my map to illustrate the rich life this river brings to the region and the human and ecological communities it serves.

Plus, as you guys can probably guess, I'm totally making a coffee map of Northern Virginia if this first project doesn't wind up looking like a hot mess.

P.S. You should totally take the class with me!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My story as told by water, part IX

summer sun

I have always despised the burning, choking sensation of chlorinated pool water rushing in through the nostrils. Sadly, it took me years to master not breathing through my nose. Imagine being the girl with the flesh-colored nose clip through those formative, awkward* years. Luckily, this skill developed** shortly before I joined a swim club held at one of the local high schools while I was in grade school and attempted to swim competitively.

Just as I was not particularly outdoorsy, I was not especially sporty either. However, I'm fairly certain the attempt to ensure some type of athleticism is a prerequisite for being an American youth. Out of all the athletic activities of my youth, swimming was the thing I seemed to fail the least at.

I was never the best. I don't recall actually winning any races. I do remember not sucking--brimming with a bit of confidence for receiving a ribbon for placing in breast stroke. A contradiction even at that age, I strove to collapse in upon myself walking around the pool to hide my thick middle and, yet, had an internal confidence (nee cockiness) for even being part of the club and competing. In the water, I was free, unencumbered by clumsiness or extra weight.

Recently, the orthopedic surgeon advised me to leave the treadmill behind and once again take up swimming to avoid further damage to my knee. While I've certainly swam laps here and there in recent years, this will be the first time in decades where I've actually attempted to train. Thankfully, I've got a handy new app to get me swimming a mile in six weeks and the confidence that I can still do that fancy underwater flip and keep on going.

*One could argue that I'm still in my awkward years.
**There is the slight chance that my brain has switched things up in order to protect the innocent and that it wasn't until much later I gave up my nose clip. Ah, the joys of the aging brain. I suppose we'll never know. The horror, though, of a swim meet with a nose clip!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Exploration, Science and Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice stills

Chasing Ice starts off like a modern day disaster flick, splicing news clips of catastrophic flooding amidst footage of a spate of climate deniers. However, do not be fooled into mistaking this remarkable documentary for an environmentalist's attempt to incite panic and preach to his own congregation. The film chronicles award-winning nature photographer James Balog's (who also has an advanced degree in geomorphology) effort to collect evidence of the Earth's changing climate by documenting melting icebergs in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and other countries.

Chasing Ice stills

Pulling together a group of young scientists, Balog forms what he calls Extreme Ice Survey and, using time-lapse photography, documents conditions at 18 glaciers beginning in 2007. Chasing Ice uses tangible science, visual evidence and stunning glacial backdrops to highlight the fact that we are witnessing the disappearance of these gargantuan glaciers at a breathtaking rate.

Chasing Ice stills

The film also explores the challenges involved in mounting an effort this ambitious, including Balog's battle with his body's own fragility as he is forced to undergo yet another knee surgery during the project.

I'm sure the cynics among us will question how interesting watching ice melt could be, but to open your heart and mind to Chasing Ice is to have your life changed. As for its "interestingness", I fell asleep in the theater during Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Chasing Ice had me leaning forward, pretty much on the edge of my seat, and jotting down ideas once it was over for how to get this into the hands of everyone I know.

If you watch and/or are interested in learning more and taking action, the Chasing Ice site has some additional information, including what you can do about climate change. Also check out the Extreme Ice Survey site for a discussion of why glaciers matter and the different types of glaciers. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't direct you to American Rivers website for information on federal and state policy changes that can help our communities better adapt to a changing climate.

Chasing Ice is currently streaming on Netflix (among other places), so for many of you, watching it is just a couple of clicks away. Hell, I'll even stream it via a Google Hangout if there's enough interest ;-)

All photos above are screen captures I took from the film.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Girl goes green for Earth Month!

girlgoesgreen

I'm pretty green most of the time, but I try not to go off on "lunatic fringe" rants (because, when you do what I do during the day, you do get lumped into that category) too often because the guardians of the Internet tell me that running a blog means I have to have a limited number of categories. ;-)

An.y.way, there will be no rants this month. Instead, I will share...
  • some awesome documentaries for the environmentally conscious;
  • a couple of books that I think will appeal to everyone from your treehuggers to someone who just loves the outdoors;
  • one of my favorite outdoor temples;
  • another My Story As Told By Water; and
  • what being "pretty green" means to me.

Let's figure out how you can embrace the planet in your own way this month!


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gilmore Girls, Season 1 Report Card

Gilmore Girls S1 Report Card

Our Gilmore Girls, season 1 report card is ready for sharing! Scarlet and I finished up the first season with episode 14 of Friday Night Dinner: A Gilmore Girls Podcast, which went live this past Friday.

And, ladies, don't fret about the lower scores. You need room to grow...as we know you do!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West with the Night and Beryl Markham's exploring, sassy awesomeness

I have my friend Sara to thank for introducing me to Beryl Markham. I was skeptical when she first pressed her memoir, West with the Night, into my hands, but for years I've harbored the desire to spend a year or so living and working in Africa, so I decided to start reading and see where it took me. Thankfully, Markham's exhilarating life and way with words was the type of book that I virtually lived in.

Originally published in 1942, the book chronicles her remarkable, early life. She was known as an adventurous pilot who became the first person to fly non-stop from Europe to America and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. While her stories of learning to fly are fascinating and her description of actually crossing the Atlantic wrought with tension, it's her life as a whole that I find so motivating.

Imagine being a woman in the 1920s/1930s and how limited your options supposedly were. I don't know if anyone tried to hold Markham back, but if they did*, she clearly told them to shove off. Not only was she an accomplished aviator, she was amazing with horses, becoming Kenya's first female licensed horse trainer as a young adult. She also seemed to own her sexuality, living passionately and supposedly carrying on several well-known affairs throughout her life.

If you're looking for something awesome to dig into during Women's History Month (or, let's be real, any month), pick up a copy of West with the Night. I made sure to share my copy and spread the love, pressing it into another coworker's hands last week.

*I read the book several years ago, so I've lost some of the finer details.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sanity savers for finishing my first draft (aka how I spent most of my sabbatical)

working weekend

The idea for the novel I finished drafting on my sabbatical first came to me in 2011. Tucked into a booth at Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, Virginia, I was overcome with the need to record it somewhere, to not lose it, so I pulled out my work notebook and wrote the first three paragraphs of what I'm now calling Thistledown. It wasn't until a year and half later that I carved out any significant time to advance the story further than that.

It was such a significant portion of my sabbatical (and writing stories such an integral part of who I've always been) that I want to share a bit of what it's currently about and a few of the "tools" that kept me motivated and inspired. The copy below is my initial take on what you would read on the inside flap or back cover, followed by what I'd tell you if I had to do it in 140 characters. Suggestions for reworking these are welcome. Collaborative copy editing, FTW!

At its heart, Thistledown is about getting past all of the prickly barbs we erect to protect ourselves and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Cassie is a 30-something Baltimore native struggling to truly connect with the people and things around her. Born into a tight-knit family with a propensity for secretiveness, she has made a habit of keeping everyone, including those closest to her, at arm's length. Her struggle to deal with her grandmother's decline reawakens an interest in the family history, and old family secrets threaten to surface. Upon discovery that one of her grandmother's old cameras can capture images from the past, she finds herself thrust into a 120-year old mystery at an abandoned mill. As she falls further down the rabbit hole and learns more about the fate of the girls who worked the textile mill, past and present begin to meld, and Cassie finds herself willing to tear down the barriers she has erected in her own life. 

The Twitter-friendly, I just met you on the street version...

A young woman grappling with vulnerability discovers a fantastical camera among her grandmother's things and uncovers an intriguing mystery.

or

Life is full of mystery. A fantastical camera, a 120-y.o. disappearance, and a cast of colorful characters may hold the key to unlocking it.

Okay, 140 character limits are hard! I suddenly want to rail against the invention of Twitter (just kidding...I love you Twitter).

During my sabbatical (which I've started thinking of as a wonderful preview of what retirement could be like), I focused on the last quarter of the book. I was incredibly naive going into it and absolutely underestimated how difficult writing the ending would be. Not only did I want to do a good job weaving all of the different pieces of the story together, I also failed to comprehend the challenge of writing two pretty dark scenes I had planned. To get myself in the mood, I mainlined dark, moody pop/culture.

Listening
Holst: The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War
Lalo: Symphonie Espangole in D Minor, Op. 21-IV 

Watching
Luther, seasons 1 + 2
Sherlock, seasons 1-3

Coffee was also fairly integral to my ability to perform.

coffee

When I couldn't make it to the coffee shop, Coffitivity saved my life. I am only slightly exaggerating. It was astounding how much my focus increased once I downloaded this app to my phone.

The other app I used is Evernote. I used to save my research, outlines, etc.

As you can see, I kept it fairly simple. I never used any fancy writing software, though I'm up for hearing why I should. The final thing that really kept me going was Neil Gaiman's voice in my head pretty much telling me to just sit my ass at the computer and write. It was particularly helpful as my mind would wander, and I would start to dream of all of these cool research trips I needed to take.

Even though the first draft is finished, I'm far from done. I've set a schedule for editing what I've currently got so that I can hopefully pass it along to a few people to read and provide cold, hard feedback. I'm committed to seeing this thing through before allowing myself to wander off into a new story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Postcards, Pennsylvania and the things that inspire us

Wissahickon Creek

Today is my first day back in the office after six weeks off, so I thought I'd kick this season off with a new series. You've probably figured this out by now, but I am fascinated by history, particularly the smaller, intimate stories that we aren't necessarily taught in school. The rabbit hole you can fall down when picking up an old photo or random artifact is one I will readily plunge into almost every.single.time.

I was with friends this weekend at an antique mall in Hagerstown when I came upon a booth with a wall of postcards handily organized by category. By the time my friends made it to the booth, I was grasping a stack of a hundred or so postcards, flipping through them with a manic gleam in my eye. It was an entire category dedicated to dams! Let's put aside the fact that I love the fragments of personal history captured on a postcard, there is potential value in a photo or rendering of a site at a particular point in history.

The card above is postmarked January 3, 1907 and was sent to a Virginia Peale at the Abington Friends School, which, at the time, was a Quaker boarding school for K-12. As you can see from the text on the front (above), they are essentially coordinating a ride. Think of having to communicate in this way today! I can't decide if the amount of planning required appeals to me or if I mourn the difficulty in spontaneity.

After looking up Fairmount Park, I realized that I've been in the Pennypack section of it before. I actually planned a press event there several years ago. The park itself was founded in 1867 and encompasses roughly 4,000 acres in the Schuylkill River watershed. Wissahickon Creek is one of Schulkill tribs. If you look up modern day photos of this site, you will find (thanks to the protection of this parkland) that the photo looks very much the same. However, around the time this postcard was mailed, the area and industry around the stone bridge would be quite different. At this point in our history, grist, saw and paper mills peppered the river, mills that were once owned by the likes of Richard Townsend (immigrated from England with his friend William Penn and founded the Philadephia area) and William Rittenhouse (among others). Other, more modern industry (we're talking late 1800s here) were print and dye works, as well as several ice companies.

Maybe I'm a bit mad, but this simple postcard inspires me so much--from art project (who added the glitter?) to the jumping off point for a future story to research into the Quaker's settling of the Philadelphia area.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sabbatical reading list

Reston Used Bookstore

I'm feeling bittersweet this morning. It's the last day of my sabbatical. I'm trying desperately to maintain the zen-like feelings I worked hard to discover and quell my rapidly rising heartbeat every time I think about what my inbox must look like. What better way to remain calm than to talk about books, specifically what I read while off!

You would think I'd have finished a huge stack of books, but the combination of reading weightier titles and spending so many hours writing resulted in a shorter finished pile. Here is a brief look at what I curled up with during these snowy weeks.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - After hearing about this book for years, I finally bumped it to the top of the list, and I'm so glad I did! You can read my full write-up here. The quick and dirty summary is that a Jesuit priest leads a mission to another galaxy after discovery of other life. The story shifts back and forth between the mission itself and debriefing of the sole survivor who has returned scarred and silent decades later.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - This is a novel of split-second decisions and the impact they have. The story begins when our main protagonist, Theo Decker, is just a boy. He is orphaned after a tragic bombing at a New York museum. While struggling to get his bearings following the explosion and escape, he makes a few decisions that color the rest of his life. The story follows Theo from a wealthy Park Avenue home to the seedy Las Vegas desert and the monied world of antiques restoration and sales. I found myself rooting for Theo through every bad decision he makes and wanting him to thrive. While it seemed to drag a bit in certain sections, I dug it, and the nuggets of writing on art and antiques were enough to keep me going. If that turns you off, don't worry. This is Donna Tartt we're talking about, so it has drugs, sex, murder and deception, too.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler - This is the story of four best friends from a small town in Wisconsin and how their lives and loves still intersect years later despite the different directions their lives have taken. For me, Shotgun Lovesongs really boiled down to a moving look at male friendship with a side of introspection on what success means to different people. Butler's writing is solid and leads you along in a lyrical fashion. Lots of warm feelings upon finishing this book.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer - I picked up Cinder when my BookBub (regular email notifying you when there are e-book sales) email mentioned it was on sale. I was drawn to the potential for a dystopian Cinderella set in the future wherein she's a cyborg and a plague threatens the kingdom. After The Sparrow and The Goldfinch (weird bird thing going on there), I also needed a bit of brain junk food. Unfortunately, starting this right after finishing the talented musings of Tartt and Russell was a bit like running into a brick wall. Tartt and Russell are masters of prose, and the first couple of chapters of Cinder read a bit like bad Cinderella fanfic. Luckily, I ended up being stuck somewhere with only this e-book with me and picked it back up. If you end up getting this one and are willing to stick with it past chapter six (page 48 on my Nook app), you just might get hooked. At this point in the story, Meyer diverges from the Cinderella formula and definitely snags my interest. I enjoyed the direction she took the story and don't want to spoil it for those you who may read it. Just know that this is a series (books 1-3 are already out), and it ends on a cliffhanger. I enjoyed the book enough that I'll buy book two (Scarlet)...again, brain candy kind of read. Also, if you're looking for a second opinion, my friend Steven also read Cinder with me and experienced a similar trajectory (disappointment-->interest).

For more of what I'm reading currently, you can add me on Goodreads or listen to That's What She Read!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sharing is caring

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Slide from Austin Kleon's SXSW 2014 Interactive keynote address.

Every now and then I find myself blown away at how much technology has done for our ability to connect and learn. Sure, I have moments where I'm overwhelmed by the self-imposed pressures of it all, and in many ways, I'm still very much an analog girl. However, have you ever stopped to marvel at how challenging it was just a few years ago to keep up with friends that moved or how in the dark you were when you couldn't attend a certain conference? Now I can stream Austin Kleon's keynote address at SXSW while walking around my apartment, follow #SXSW on Twitter to keep up with what's going on, and play NPR's Austin 100 online and convince myself it's okay that I'm not really there. Being able to do this absolutely got me over the hump today and motivated me to create.

In celebration of all that is lovely online, I'm going to shut up and share some of the things around the internet inspiring me in different ways.

Austin Kleon's SXSW Keynote - The folks at SXSW have streamed it twice now. I'm unsure if they'll post it permanently online, but if you have a chance to see it, give it a go. Subscribing to his newsletter is a safe bet for the periodic delivery of goodness to your inbox.

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Slide from Austin Kleon's SXSW 2014 Interactive keynote address.

the art of working in public by Robin Sloan

Megan Ellison: Hollywood's latest player by Matthew Garrahan (recommended by Ann Friedman)

Anything featured in The Ann Friedman Weekly - Seriously, do yourself a favor and sign up for Ann's weekly newsletter. Smart, informative and everything I want a newsletter to be.

It's the year of the bush--time to rediscover all female body hair by Emer O'Toole - I can't be the only wondering whose brilliant idea it was to make the Brazilian bikini wax something we're all supposed to implement.

Sam Mendes's 25 Rules for Directors by Bennett Marcus

Bullet Journal - I'm currently using March as a trial run for this type of journal/list keeping. I'll let you know how it goes!

Kara Haupt's #babevibes on Twitter and Instagram - Part art project, self exploration, empowerment...whatever you want to label it, it's rad.

Kristin's essay on falling in love with Pittsburgh

Megan's DIY periodic table mirrors

Coup - A fast card game for fun on the fly. We played a few quick rounds over coffee at Northside Social this past weekend, and it was fun.

Behind-the-scenes photos from Freaks and Geeks

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New That's What She Read is live

A new episode of That's What She Read is available for your listening pleasure! I plan to write about my sabbatical reads later this week or next, but I wanted to pop in and provide a quick preview of the new episode.

If you're not familiar with the podcast, my friend Ravena and I spend 30 minutes to an hour chatting about the latest books we've read and/or are reading. Our taste in books diverge quite a bit, so we cover a variety of titles ranging from fiction/literature to science fiction/fantasy to erotica, graphic novels and fanfic. Every couple of episodes we snag some friends, feed them dinner and get them to chat about their own recent reads. Basically, we love reading and talking about books and book culture.

This month we are instituting an actual posting schedule, so from now on you can count on a new podcast every other Tuesday. We've also got a new Goodreads group where we'd love to continue the conversation--because, let's face it, we say things people probably want to refute ;-)

This episode I offer my thoughts on Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Baker, The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani and many more. I may rant a bit about people labeling women talking to other women about romance as "chick lit", but when men write about men talking about similar topics, it's literature. I went off the rails and decided that all's fair and that these books should be labeled "dick lit".

What are you reading?! I always need new books to feel guilty about not reading.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Amtrak: a writerly recap

Grain-fed outside of Fort Worth

All of the great Twitter buzz about Amtrak needing to institute a writing residency (which they later did) had me laughing to myself. Don't get me wrong--it's a lovely idea! I've been a romanticizer of train travel from way back. I bought my first North American rail pass on Amtrak in early 2000 (maybe 2002/2003?) and spent that December traveling to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then later down to Dallas, Texas. The idea was to spend the time writing on my way to visit family and friends, and it was awesome. The train was comfortable and not overly crowded. I met such interesting people, including a fellow budding writer looking for quiet inspiration, gazed at whatever landscape we were passing in the observation car and dined with strangers. I can't say that I got a lot of writing done, but I left inspired and fulfilled.

In fact, it held such warm memories for me that I decided to travel to Texas via Amtrak again in December 2011. I can't decide if the marked difference in my trip was the result of more people looking for a railway adventure or the fact that I was roughly ten years older and in need of more comfort in my life. Instead of a romantic journal across a swath of America, laptop and idealism in tow, we're talking Lord of the Flies and a descent into madness. Before I re-read my Twitter account of the trip (below), my initial inclination was to offer a bit of reality for all of the starry-eyed dreamers. However, after reading through my notes and thinking back on the trip, it occurred to me that even in its most uncomfortable, trying moments the trip provided me with stories, rich characters and the knowledge that this girl will book a sleeper car for anymore long train journeys. So, go ahead, sign on up!

Departure // Washington, DC to Austin, TX
 
Train travelogue, hour 9: I have read (a lot), drafted one blog post, and carried on one lengthy conversation. #thrilling

Train travelogue, hour 10: Once again demonstrated my prowess at changing into comfortable evening attire in a bouncing train restroom.

Train travelogue, hour 22: 2 Bigelow teas, 1 Starbucks Via, water. Caffeine deprivation is a concern.

Train travelogue, hour 28: Shooting video clips from the observation car and continuing to change my mind on where I'm hopping off in TX.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Spending time in common areas has led to interaction w chatters. Do believe I've heard my first line of the trip.

Train travelogue, hour (almost) 36: There is now banjo playing in the observation car (as we roll through the ozarks).

Train travelogue, hour 39: Found a corner of the floor to curl up in. Hoping for sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 45: My seatmate finally got off the train, so I'm trying to hold onto my solo seat. I. Need. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Stopped in Dallas, I feel my final destination is within reach. Also, After the Apocalypse is my #FridayReads.

Train travelogue, hour 52: It will prob disturb you that I think I look better than I should after this long. http://t.co/KzXxOG96

Train travelogue, hour 55: Here.

Return Trip // Austin, TX to Washington, DC

Train travelogue, hour 4: Close to Fort Worth. Spotted what appeared to be starving cows a couple hours back and am still haunted by them.

Train travelogue, hour 8.5: Watching mating rituals in a condensed setting makes me realize even more that I'm not cut out to randomly date.

Train travelogue, hour 9: The observation car is like a crazy, mad bazaar. Screaming children, conversations in at least 4 diff languages.

Train travelogue, hour 11: Have I told you that some serious drinking occurs on trains? They sell booze, and people very much byob.

Train travelogue, hour 14: Seatmate got off in Little Rock, and I survived the new influx of passengers. Safe for at least 2 hours. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 23: I survived the night and was rewarded with sunrise glancing off the St. Louis arch and a dusting of snow.

Train travelogue, hour 27: I'm about an hour away from Chicago and in desperate need of this layover.

Train travelogue, hour 30: I take the train in order to people watch and absorb atmosphere. However, Chicago's Union Station is my own hell.

Train travelogue, hour 33: My people watching has stooped to a new low. Am periodically peering over at my seatmate's salacious chat convo.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Broken, I reached for the wine. Yes, folks, I have been driven to drink white zin by the train.

Train travelogue, hour 38: Honestly, I'm super prickly. Just stopped in Indy, and a family of about 30 loud assholes boarded. #midnight

Train travelogue, hour 46: Not even wine could salvage what we had. The train and I have broken up.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Outlook brightened by conversation with a nun about bears and dancing in a meadow at night. Also, waterfalls.

Train travelogue, hour 54: Running 2 hours behind schedule. Disembarked in Staunton in favor of rental car. Fuck this (chanted internally).

Monday, March 03, 2014

Low-risk radicalism: install a tiny public library

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I'm prone to love almost any idea based in the sharing of books or what we're reading. If I have to engage in small talk, "what are you reading/OMG you should read" is my comfort zone, and I find the idea of leaving surprise books for people ridiculously appealing. I've been itching to install a tiny "library" in public for more than a year, and when I noticed these trellises in a high-traffic area outside my local Caribou Coffee, I finally decided to make it a priority.

The library itself is actually just an inexpensive mailbox purchased from Home Depot and appropriately decorated. It doesn't hold a ton of books, but it's the perfect size for something that may wind up stolen or taken down by stodgy property management (like my last public installation, which disappeared in less than 24 hours). Maybe this is just a trial run for filling this tiny space with books!

I tucked the following books into this library: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis. This means I can buy more books, right? (P.S. I did.)

If putting up your own tiny library seems like too much effort, consider something like BookCrossing and leave a copy of a book in a random location.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

sabbatical week 2 + 3

I finished my first quilt! It's so not perfect, but I love it.

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My own version of Chasing Ice. #mustseedoc

La Colombe, 02.22.14

It's mind boggling to think that the first month of my sabbatical is over. There is a tiny part of me that is filled with anxiety at all that I haven't accomplished. I haven't even touched my business plan, still haven't whipped this blog into shape, continue to labor over the ending of my book, and haven't solved all of the world's problems. Screw empowering anxiety. Let's put doubt aside and focus on what I have gained. 

It's not true that things remain dormant in the winter. Do you remember that personal growth I mentioned a few weeks ago? Tiny buds of change have taken root inside me and are threatening to full-on bloom like a motherfucker. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night with new items for my work to-do list or in a cold sweat from worry that some politico is going to kill my project. There has been no festering anger over someone's stupid decision, and the vise (aka stress) gripping my heart has released its hold. Don't get me wrong, I'm not like many of you who dream of quitting your "day job" or escaping the "cubicle". I don't have a cubicle, and I freaking love what I do. I eat stress for dinner and convert it to fuel...to action. Still, it can be tiring and unhealthy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've let go of the proverbial reins, handing them off to capable coworkers. I fill with a mama-like pride I didn't think possible as their brief texts or emails come through with tasks from my to-do list that they've knocked out of the park and have passed on the opportunity to review reports I'd previously planned to make sabbatical time for. These may seem minor to you, but if you were in my heart, you'd know just how huge these are.

Instead, there has been Russian-themed birthdays and dancing and snow. I've sewn my first quilt, watched four documentaries (all awesome), finished House of Cards, and laughed at Jim Gaffigan. I've written chapters and thousands more words and consumed copious cups of coffee. I've even made time for real life things working 50+ hours a week hasn't allowed for--like doctor's appointments and calling the IRS and talking to new men (I think you call it online dating).

I've got roughly four more weeks left. Let's see what we can make happen!

Friday, February 21, 2014

5 favorite recipes from Pinterest



For the better part of a decade, the only "real" meal I can remember cooking is spaghetti or similar pasta dishes. The kitchen intimidated me, and I had no real interest in the culinary arts (ha). I still don't really, but over the last few years, I have developed an interest in actually eating real, home-cooked food. Eating out and frozen dinners can only take you so far, and eventually, I was just over it.

I overcame my intimidation with a handy three-prong approach, which you, too, can embrace.*

(1) Claim your space. I got a lot more comfortable in the kitchen when I moved into my own apartment and wasn't sharing with a roommate. Roommates are great, but mine fancied herself a chef (i.e., dominated the kitchen and shared her food...where's my motivation in that scenario?).

(2) Enlist help. I'm a smart girl. I can read and follow instructions. Still, it sounded more fun to invite a couple of friends over and have them "teach" me. Yep, I cobbled together myself some lessons ;-)

(3) Just do it. Buy the ingredients, look up recipes and try. Timing large meals (I'm now in charge of cooking Christmas dinner for my family each year!) is still super challenging for me, but whatever. I put on my big girl pants and get it done. If you're like me, this means you'll decide to leave out ingredients you don't like and otherwise wing it when necessary.

Look at me rambling on before getting to my actual point. It really is difficult for me to give you a simple list ;-) Anyway, what I really want to share, in addition to my witty humor, are a few tasty recipes I've made over the last couple of months. Pinterest has been really helpful for keeping track of recipes I've made or want to make. If you can't tell, I've been really into my slow cooker this winter.

*Satirical statement folks...just in case you don't get my humor.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pain which cannot forget...



Often the books that affect me most deeply are the ones in which I struggle to frame why the book was so impactful and why it should be devoured, posthaste, by everyone. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is one such book, which, if you've heard of the book at all, you'll know is both a relevant and ridiculous goal. Relevant in that it is a book written to be impactful and to make you think about life's tougher questions, topics that are tackled over and over again in self-help books and spiritual tomes.

Why do bad things happen to good people?
                                        What is the will of God in a world full of hateful acts and immense suffering? 

Ridiculousness in that the book has hardly gone unnoticed. Since it was published in 1996, it has won several awards and generated plenty of reviews. Of course, when you find yourself thinking about a book with tears streaming down your cheeks as you drive to a meeting in Annapolis, you kind of don't care about all of those other articles and just need to work through it on screen for yourself.

I realize I've probably painted a picture of this dark, preachy novel, but it's not that at all. The story is told through the discovery of life in another galaxy (the planet Rakhat) and the Jesuit priest, Father Emilio Sanchez, who mounts an expedition to meet and learn more about this alien race. He's joined by a diverse cast of characters (agnostic, atheist and Jesuit alike) who have been his family for years. It flashes back and forth between the discovery in 2019 and 2059/2060, when Sanchez has arrived back on Earth. As the only survivor of this expedition, he has returned an incredibly broken man (both physically and spiritually) and is being asked to account for what happened while on Rakhat. Those who rescued him reported back that he was found acting as a prostitute and had killed a child.

Over the course of the novel, we learn of the great beauty and depravity experienced on the expedition. It touches on issues of faith and fate and intent, and provides a glimpse into the anthropological study of cultures. There are even parallels to be drawn to atrocities like slavery we've seen in our own culture.

A couple of days after I finished The Sparrow, I found myself reading a post on Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss called A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma and found myself drawing parallels between Woodiwiss's advice and the Jesuit priests who ministered to and, at times, interrogated Father Sanchez upon his return. Because, let's be frank, trauma is probably the kindest way to describe some of what happened on that trip.

The Sparrow is a page-turner that gives you plenty of weighty issues to chew on, but maybe that's just me. I definitely recommend it. Let me know if you read it so that I can put together a Sparrow drinking party discussion club.