Striving for So Much Less

New Year’s resolutions don’t often work for me, but I go through the exercise of setting them anyway. I think the arbitrary reboot that New Years can symbolize is an important chance to reassess things. In that spirit, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I want to strive for in 2018. Most are big and ambiguous things that are hard to measure. Be more happy or, at a minimum, less angry. Be more comfortable in silence. Stop devoting so much attention to things that don’t matter to you. Attention spent with something to which you don’t assign great value inherently gives that person/thing/event value.

That last one is the resolution I’ve been working towards the most so far. The main culprit is my phone.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Wonder Boy would advise people to always call him instead of me. “If you are in an emergency and call Kate,” he would say, “you’re probably going to die because she won’t know about your call until a few days later.” It was not an unfair statement.

But anymore, I do answer my phone. It’s always on me or nearby. I’ll still have family comment when I answer, “Oh! You picked up your phone!” It’s my new normal. And it’s such a switch from my initial attitude towards cell phones. My oft-stated belief was that phones aren’t pagers and I’m not on call so why would I always have to be available on my phone? I still stand by that. And yet.

It is through my phone that I consume so much media. I listen to audio books, podcasts and music. It’s the device through which I watch all TV and movies, casting from my phone to the television. I track diet and exercise data there. And, much to my dismay, I waste countless hours screwing around on social media or playing dumb games.

While I still see value in my audio books and in tracking my exercising, most of the rest doesn’t align with my value system, or at least not to the extent that the way I spend my time would imply.

Moment is an iOS app for your phone that automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day.

I installed an app on my phone called Moment and it’s been horrifying. Moment tracks the amount of time you spend on your phone, tells you what apps you use for how long and, and this is the scariest part for me, how many times you pick up your phone throughout the day.

Does the measurement itself do anything? No. But if you are motivated by shame, and I am, it’s a good way to change habits.

  • I’ve deleted a lot of social media from my phone and good riddance. I work on social media professionally so I get my fill during the workday. Why do I need it during my downtime?
  • The games on my phone are gone. All but Words with Friends, because I actually use my brain when I play that one (my mom is a fierce competitor!), and it did not prove to be my biggest time suck. Deleting games has been a little harder for me than some of my other changes because games were how I passed time while waiting for people, or buses or whatever.
  • A little related to decreasing my phone use, I’ve also been trying to decrease my television watch-time. Since I watch TV and movies via my phone, one has helped the other.
  • Leaving my phone behind, which is what I unintentionally used to do all the time, is the biggest change. At work, I leave my phone at my desk and then go to all of my meetings. At home the phone is sometimes nearby, but not always. Right now, for instance, I have no idea where it is.

This is still a work in progress for me. Today is January 7 so I’ve still got 51 weeks to continue with and perfect this resolution. In the meantime, I am doubling down on making sure there is always a book in my purse or bag for downtimes. I am trying to be okay with sitting in silence. And I’m finding myself doing crafts again – putting my fingers to much better use than typing on a 375 x 258 pixel keyboard.

2017: A Year in Books

Not much time during 2017 was spent in silence or without my face between the pages of a book. If I wasn’t reading a book, I was listening to one. Consuming books in two formats meant I read way more than normal. The good news? I read so many good books! The downside to all that reading? I may have forgotten how to enjoy sitting alone with silence. Goals for 2018.

In the meantime, here are my favorite reads from 2017, listed in no particular order:

Throughout the year, I read 142 (!) books. They’re all pictured below and you can see my reviews over at Goodreads.

During 2017, I read 142 books.

Thirteen Reasons Why: I Used to Think… But Then I Learned… And Now I Think…

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.There is something very empowering in the following train of thought: I used to think… But then I learned… And now I think…

How often do you hear people speak like that? It doesn’t happen often in my circles. In fact, maybe never. That includes coming out of my own mouth, by the way. And when I talk about the state of civil discourse in our country, a lot of it, for me, is people being able to take in new information and adjust their beliefs accordingly. I’m tired of people digging in their heels on one perspective and never changing or growing. I’m tired of digging in my own heels.

How Jay Asher changing my mind about Thirteen Reasons Why

I watched Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix to see what the fuss was about. I mean, I knew the fuss was about a show focused on teens and suicide, but did the controversy go further than that? When I learned it was based on a book, a book almost ten years old, I was surprised. When I learned from my design co-op at work that the book had been required reading for her in the seventh grade, I was even more surprised.

Fortunately, I was able to read this book just in time for a talk from the author, Jay Asher, at my local library, giving me the opportunity to process the written story and the televised version of that story alongside thoughts from the author.

I used to think…

My opinion going into the talk by Asher was that the Netflix show was pretty shocking. I understood why it had people upset, but wasn’t sure what to do with that information.

The book was less dramatic to me. Had I flip-flopped the order of consumption, I may have had a different perspective. The book just felt… so much more vanilla. I found myself asking several times, “Wait. This? This got you that upset?” That said, what the book did better than the show for me was to demonstrate that Hannah, the main character, was working from a false construct. Many times she would say something like, “And no one would talk to me.” Or, “No one would understand.” In the book, the other main character, Clay, would reply, “You never gave us a chance to try.” Or, “Yes, I would have. I wanted to.” Things like that. It stood out to me. If those moments were in the show, I missed them.

And then I learned…

"If our society did a better job of taking about issues like this, there would be a lot less need for books like this," Jay Asher said about Thirteen Reasons Why.Asher, has been going to schools and libraries talking aboutThirteen Reasons Why for ten years now and has his talking points down pat. He made a lot of comments that resonated with me. I think they helped me reframe his book and the show based on it.

“If our society did a better job of taking about issues like this, there would be a lot less need for books like this,” he said.

Agreed. That’s an important point to ponder. One mom in attendance at the library talk, with her teenage daughter sitting next to her, asked the author if he was familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s argument about suicide in The Tipping Point. I’ve not read that book, but the argument essentially states that data around suicide is much like fashion trends. When teens are exposed to suicide, whether the conversation point or the actual act, they are more likely to copy the act. So by talking about the act, you are opening up the option for more suicides. Maybe. But probably not. When leaving the library, I heard two people talking and comparing that argument to the idea that we can’t teach sex education because it will make teenagers want to have sex. Both arguments presume that the thoughts aren’t already there and that teens aren’t discussing it. That is just plain wrong.

Asher made the point that he felt like he owed it to people who have experienced suicide attempts first- or second-hand to pay respect the bigness of the act. He wrote about the suicide scene intentionally, and encouraged Netflix to show it intentionally in the televised version. His argument was that in film and books we’ve been fading to black on the hard moments for decades and that’s not working. We’ve been trying to not show the things, but the things keep happening.

He talked about the schools who were sending notes home to parents telling them to not let their children watch the show or to not talk about the show at schools. Assuming the tried and true adage about forbidden fruit being sweeter – so people were likely watching the show in spite of school and parental warnings – wouldn’t it be ideal to have adults talking about it with students instead of pretending it doesn’t exist? When you don’t do that, you remove the adult from the conversation. I think back to my Catholic grade school’s decision not to teach us sexual education. Then someone got pregnant in the seventh grade and they had to play catch up. It was too late for one student and the adults’ task was much bigger. Rather than laying the foundation for healthy behavior, they had to address a big roomful of misinformed youth.

And now I think…

Suicide is too big, too scary and too way final to not engage in discussions about. Both Asher and Kurt Dinan, the writer in residence at the Cincinnati Library who led the Q&A, said that when schools and organizations encourage reading of Thirteen Reasons Why, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. When they bring in the author, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. When adults are present, it’s a sign that they are open to the discussion. And the discussion is so important.

My reaction to my co-op saying Thirteen Reasons Why was required reading for her in the seventh grade was wrong. I was shocked and I shouldn’t have been. She had teachers engaging her and her peers in an important, life-saving conversation and its one more people should be having.

The Epic Adventure: From Cincinnati to Utah and From Japan to Dreamscapes

I approach what I read with such little thought that I sometimes wonder what the connecting thread is. Throughout August I kept coming back to a common theme: epic adventure. While I myself was planning for and going on an adventure in Arizona and Utah, some of the people I was reading about were having adventures of their own. Some were EPIC tails like I used to read in English class, while others others were epics of a much, much smaller scale.

The Anatomy of Dreams by Chloe Benjamin.The Anatomy of Dreams by Chloe Benjamin

I received a copy of The Anatomy of Dreams as part of a payment for cat sitting. (The best kind of payment, BTW.) I picked it off my shelf for the cover art only. I mean, it’s beautiful. The tale inside though … its horrible. Good horrible! Like good to read but god forbid it happens to you.

Sylvie Patterson meets her boyfriend, Gabe, while away at boarding school. He and her school headmaster Dr. Adrian Keller play a crucial role in her life trajectory. Keller is conducting research about the subconscious mind, dreams and the human psyche. And what you think is real, is not.

With that last line, I sort of spoiled some stuff. But goodness! The book unexpectedly turned into a thriller and I couldn’t put it down! Was it an awesome book? Not really. Will you enjoy it? Yes, and even more so during the last third or so of it.

The Suitcase by Anne Hall Whitt.The Suitcases by Anne Hall Whitt

Anne Hall Whitt was only 53 when she wrote The Suitcase, but it reads like the memoir of a much older woman. An advocate for foster children, Whitt wrote about her own experience as a foster child. It’s heartbreaking, but also a very real glimpse into real life. It was sort of cute reading the things she marked time and change by. Access to toys and candy, freedom to play and souvenirs from her different homes.

After the reading The Suitcases, which has inexplicably been on my To Read list for years, I looked up more information about it. According to the author’s obituary, a condensed version of the story was distributed by Reader’s Digest in 21 countries. As a means by which to further the discussion about foster care, she accomplished her mission.

The Last Hiccup by Christopher Meades.The Last Hiccup by Christopher Meades

The Last Hiccup has also been collecting dust on my To Read list. I suspect I added it because I liked the cover art? It was not what I expected.

Set in Russia in the early 1900s, The Last Hiccup focuses on Vladimir who, at age 8, catches a case of chronic hiccups – chromic like they never go away. The search for a cure takes him on an epic adventure that helps him grow up but does little for his hiccups. Twelve years later, Vladimir comes home and the story only gets more interesting.

My only concern about this book, and maybe it’s a touch of a spoiler, is that I know the end will frustrate some folks. My mom asked for some books to read and I included this but think she will be so angry if she gets to the last page. I expect phone calls.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko has gotten a lot of press and space on bestseller shelves in bookstores. When my local library suggested it via my audio book app, I was all over it.

Following four generations of a Korean family, starting in the early 1900s in Korea and ending much later in Japan, Pachinko reads like an epic adventure of sorts. Rather than a hero on a quest, it’s about a family questing for a place to call home.

Author Min Jin Lee does a beautiful job of weaving together family members’ stories, with moments of great joy but also moments of great sadness. I was especially struck by the discrimination  Korean immigrants faced in Japan. It simply wasn’t something I had any familiarity with.

If you’re looking for a meaty novel – one that will help you “read harder” – check out Pachinko.

A Million Junes by Emily Henry.A Million Junes by Emily Henry

Books by the Banks is a Cincinnati literary event happening in late October. I like reading books by some of the authors visiting so I have a connection to some of the speaking panels and an opportunity to meet authors of books I like.

A Million Junes didn’t turn out to be for me so much. I liked it, but I definitely didn’t love it. I think the magic described in it skipped some necessary details for me as a reader to follow along. If I look past that, what author Emily Henry created is a very pretty story.

Jack “June” O’Donnell is growing up without her father but with all of the stories he told her before he died. These include stories of magic, ghosts and coywolves, as well as a deep-rooted hatred of the neighboring Angert family. June goes on an adventure to discover if there is any truth to the stories and to resolve the family feud.

A Million Junes is a young adult book. If you have a young reader in your life who likes a touch of magic or fantasy, they may enjoy this novel.

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

I am very okay reading young adult novels (see above), but This Raging Light was young adult. The upside of that is that I read it in just one day. The downside is that it sort of left my head as soon as I was done. So … I can’t say much more.





Hello, Sunshine by Laura Dave.Hello, Sunshine by Laura Dave

I already shared a review of sorts of Hello, Sunshine that goes into enough about the book. No need to write more!







Fractured by Catherine McKenzie.Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

Selected both for book club and because the author Catherine McKenzie will be at Books by the Banks, I was excited to read Fractured. It’s set in Cincinnati and a sort thriller whodunnit. I’ve recently tried to embrace crime novels as an extension of my love for television crime dramas. So far, it’s not translating too hot.

In Fractured, author Julie Prentice and her family move to Cincinnati so they can escape a stalker. Almost immediately, the new family doesn’t fit in and Julie makes an obviously romantic connection with a neighbor. Drama ensues, including a death. That’s established early on, using a flashback style of narrative. But who died? And who did it? That’s what you have to read to find out.

McKenzie does wrap up the crime well. But then I felt like she played a cheap trick with the reader by closing with a question. If I ignore that question, four stars! With it, three stars and I feel like that’s generous. It irritated me so much! But I don’t know how to explain it without giving away too much plot. What I will say for McKenzie is that she nailed the Cincinnati setting. I’ve read other authors’ attempts at the same with much worse results, so I was very pleasantly surprised. I read the book in just a handful of days and, as I made my way further into it, couldn’t wait to find out the answer to the mystery.

Just that last question…

Time of Fog and Fire by Rhys Bowen.Time of Fog and Fire by Rhys Bowen

Among the shows that Netflix suggests I might enjoy are Murder She Wrote and Columbo. I suspect they’re right. I like rather old-fashioned crime dramas. Bonus if they’re British dramas, which usually come with steady pacing, funny insults and much less violence. I’ve only recently acknowledged that my love of a televised murder mystery could translate into liking mystery novels. Time of Fog and Fire is from the middle of the Molly Murphy  Mysteries, which I have not read before. Much like my British crime dramas, I found this book delightful, entertaining and a little forgettable, which, for a vacation read, was fine by me. Are these books something I would put at the top of my reading lists for the future? Nope. Would I read more of them? Absolutely.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins.A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

Another of my books-as-payment-for-cat-sitting reads, A Working Theory of Love helped span different areas of my life, in a way that seems to happen so often. At work I am learning more and more about augmented reality, virtual reality and smart machines. None of these are topics about which I would independently seek out material, but they’ve turned out to be interesting and relevant to my everyday life.

In A Working Theory of Love, Neil Bassett is helping to create artificial intelligence, based on the detailed journals of his deceased father. The goal is to create a computer that can beat the Turing Test, which was established by Alan Turing in 1950 and says that for a computer to achieve artificial intelligence, it needs to convince a person that the machine is actually a person more than 30% of the time. Neil’s business partners work to code different aspects of personality into their computer and then it’s up to Neil to do the testing. In essence, he is seeing if the computer is convincing enough as his deceased father. This leads to personal conflict and deep dives into a painful past that are fascinating because of how intertwined they are with technology.

I really enjoyed A Working Theory of Love for its exploration into artificial intelligence. There were other plot lines involving romance and cults that were … less enjoyable. Still worth a read, though, and definitely an excellent form of payment for pet sitting!