Category: Reading

Reading for clues

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I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.

I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.

I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.

Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.

Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.

The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.

I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.

A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.

The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).

What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!

I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.

The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.

I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.

My poetry book club: an interview, with notes

Photo by Nancy Forde. Humour by all of us, and some more than others.

 *Note # 1: Last month, in honour of Poetry Month, my poetry book club was asked to take part in an interview for a literary blog. And then due to a staffing change our chance at modest book club fame fell through — but we’d already answered the questions and posed for a group photo (any excuse to get together and eat cake, really!). So I’m posting our photos and responses here instead.

*Note # 2: Yes. We are called the Smeops. No. No one will ‘fess up and take credit for the name.
*Note # 3: Please imagine a friendly omniscient interviewer voice leaning toward the microphone to ask these questions. Like Carol Off on As It Happens. Humour me?
Note # 4: These are the books we’ve read since our first meeting, October 17, 2010, though not in strict order of reading. (And here is my blog post on that inaugural meeting!)
Pigeon, Karen Solie
Morning in the Burned House, Margaret Atwood
I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being, Johanna Skibsrud
Bloom, Michael Lista
Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock
The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje
New and Selected Poems, Vol. II, Mary Oliver
Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze
Groundwork, Amanda Jernigan
The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
Note # 5: There will be no more notes. There will be questions and answers. Questions, more answers. And so on. And so forth. Until the end. At which point there will not appear even one more note.
Photo by Nancy Forde. We are, from left to right: Eugenia, Amanda, Christyn, Matthew, Maggie, Craig, Carrie, Karl, and Nancy.
Why did you decide to start a poetry-only book club?
Geez, these questions are hard. Reading poetry is a lonely pursuit, and that seemed a shame and possibly unnecessary. It feels great to share a good poem. – Karl
I didn’t help start it, but I wanted to join because I find that reading poetry alone is not as much fun as reading or discussing it with others. I love hearing how other people responded to or interpreted a poem, and frankly, even how different it can sound when read by other people. – Eugenia
Well, I usually tell people I like poetry over a book club because we are all restricted with time, and if for some reason you can’t read a whole book of poetry before the meeting, well you still get a feel for it and can comment, something that doesn’t usually happen in a book club.
 Second, it’s not common and so has that mystique about it as well as a little bit of my third point …
We get to be the “cool” kids. Everyone wants to be in our club! Joking aside I know I personally feel a little boost in my ego whenever I say I belong to a poetry club.
 Oh, and the food, wine, and “adult time” are also big draws. Plus I laugh the most there than anywhere else. 
 Amanda
Good question. The inward nature of the goings-on between poem and reader seems at odds with a book club. Maybe it is. And yet in my opinion, this poetry-only book club does work, somehow: we sporadically gather, chosen book at hand, noteworthy pages marked up, and if we’re so inclined, tip our experience of a poem outward into the room, in hopes of getting a little closer to it, and in hopes of being understood by the others sitting there. I didn’t start this club, but I joined in order to read and talk poetry with good people who like to do the same.  Maggie
The poetry-only book club was Karl’s idea. At first, we were only three, and we got through two Canadian collections together (P.K. Page and George Johnson), and then one of us moved, which left just me and Karl, awfully small for a club. Who reads poetry, we wondered, and more importantly who wants to join us and talk about it? I remember putting the idea out onto Facebook and my blog, and I remember my surprise and pleasure to discover that poetry-lovers are everywhere. All you have to do is ask. That was two and a half years ago. At some point, we named ourselves The Smeops. We first met to discuss Pigeon, by Karen Solie. After that, we read Morning in the Burned House, by Margaret Atwood. Our next book will be Seal Up the Thunder, by Erin Noteboom (aka the amazing YA author, and our neighbour, Erin Bow), who is an on-again-off-again Smeop. She didn’t want us to read her poems, but she hasn’t come for awhile, so this is our way of getting back at her. – Carrie
I enjoy poetry, but am more apt to pick up a novel before a collection of poems. By joining the club, I give myself a reason to read poetry. – Christyn
The club had already begun when I was kindly invited into the fold when I had recently moved into Waterloo from having lived rurally for a decade. Carrie asked me if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I am an English Lit alumna and, as a single mother, the idea of having adult conversation not related to Dr. Seuss (or, only sometimes related) was enticing. If I can’t get a sitter, everyone is accommodating and allows to me to host [I lied: *Note # 6: Nancy is a consummate host, and we love coming to her house! The photos were taken there, in her kitchen, and her cozy back room.] It’s wonderful to have a “night out” in my back room discussing the potency of words with people who are great fun and all have different opinions/approaches. A chance, also, to get to know members of this new community and feel some belonging. – Nancy
How does your club choose which books you will read?
Members suggest them. – Karl
Randomly. – Maggie
Haphazardly, at best. We don’t have a group leader, and at times we wish we did, but no one wants to be “uber-Smeop.” So we muddle on collectively. Occasionally, we meet without a specific collection, and bring favourite poems to share. We’ve chosen a few collections after hearing a particularly amazing poem read aloud. Those meetings are some of my favourite. I love hearing someone read a poem out loud. We have some brilliant readers in the group, although Karl will dispute his talents. Nancy can bring us all to tears. Craig does voices. I’m pretty sure he did a Yeats poem performed as heavy metal — that really happened, right? Back me up, someone. – Carrie
I think it was, more specifically, “Yeats as Metallica,” not to be confused with my own “Babstock as Jim Morrison.” Not one of my prouder moments. It was the olives talking. – Karl
People come across poems, throw out suggestions. I read “I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being” one night because a friend had sent the link to me via my blog and we all thought we might take on Johanna Skibsrud collection as a result.  Nancy
In your experience, how do the discussions in a poetry book club differ from those in a regular fiction-based book club?
I’ve not been part of a fiction book club. Anyone? – Karl
They don’t, really, at least in my experience. Members in both types of clubs interpret the works in individual ways, and share their reactions based on life experience and personality. – Eugenia
Maybe we can say that our poetry club is more than just an excuse to get drunk on wine? Sorry, that observation’s based on the book club experiences of certain household spouses who shall remain nameless. – Craig
I rather wish we could spread our idea more and show people that poetry is for everyone, not just the few literary elite. In the group we all come from different backgrounds and yet, for the most part, we generally agree on a work of poetry. We may differ in opinion on exact poems, but I’d say on the whole we agree — and we tend to like the works that are the most “readable.” (Erin would make fun of me for that word!) – Amanda
I’m not convinced there is any definitive difference. There may be a little more talk around form, language and sound as opposed to plot, character and theme, but this is of course a generalization, considering the many books that dabble in more than one genre. – Maggie
An observation: often, even people who love reading poetry feel inadequately equipped to talk about it — until they come to our book club, that is! Our conversations are lively, sometimes in-depth, occasionally moving, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Poetry wrestles with the Big Themes: life, death, memory, love. So does fiction, I realize, but a poem is so distilled. There isn’t plot to discuss, or character development; instead there are big ideas, compressed. With a poem, it’s tempting to say, “I liked this one,” or “I didn’t like that one,” so the challenge is to go beyond that and understand why (Matthew tries to keep us focused!). – Carrie
Poetry covers so many facets of life and its experiences and interpretations, that our discussions are similar (all over the map). I find that the poetry club elicits an emotional side of me that a book club never did. In the few hours we get together, every emotion can be covered. There are tears, moments of silence, confusion, anger, and lots and lots of laughter. It’s a safe place to examine life. I love seeing how each of us (so different in so many ways) will take away something so similar, yet so different from each of the collections. I walk away every time with a new perspective of life and a new nugget of knowledge. – Christyn
Well we have a historian, a few writers (who’ve also published poetry), a computer scientist, teachers, someone who works with the deaf, I’m a trained actor. We all have different passions and we certainly can disagree. But I think it’s the ability to read a collection and get a sense of a poet within a month. My favourite part of the night is when we’ve all brought found poems or ones we’ve loved or love or just discovered and we read them aloud to one another. So, whereas a book club may discuss that one book’s plot, climax, character development, emotions about certain chapters, etc. I would think the fact that we read poetry that can sometimes have been composed over decades by the poet—at different times in their lives—we get perhaps a broader spectrum of the person penning the poetry: when they were in love, depressed, enlightened, lonely, pensive. Also, it’s amazing to see the different reactions even a poem of 10 lines can evoke. The poet writes the poem but it can hit each of us in its own subjective way (as books can), but because the words/content of poetry or on a much smaller scale than entire chapters of words in books, often I think we talk about how one “line” or one “phrase” or even one “word” made the poem for us (or ruined it, etc.)  Nancy
Photo by Nancy Forde
Can you share a few of the club’s favourite collections?
My favourites so far: Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, and Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (not strictly speaking a single collection). – Karl
I’ve particularly enjoyed the times when we’ve goaded ourselves into sharing poetry that we’ve written. There’s great vulnerability and exhilaration in doing that. I’ve sometimes thought that a good poem is like a good wedding, because attending someone else’s wedding can make you want to reflect on your own commitments, and a good poem can make you want to cobble words together yourself. That doesn’t ring true for everyone, of course, but there’s some kind of consonance there for me. – Matthew
We hardly ever have consensus on a collection, but the poet who garnered the most positive response was Billy Collins. – Eugenia
And of course I’m going to list Billy Collins as a fav 😉  Amanda
Fortunately, there’s little consensus, which keeps the discussions lively. But every once in a while, we stumble across the sublime, and there’s pause for thought. These are the intimate moments that are great to share. – Maggie

We’ve found that a collection of poetry is almost always uneven, but the joy is looking for that poem that resonates. We don’t always agree on which poem was magical, but we like disagreeing. I’d say disagreeing keeps us together. – Carrie
The most favourite was Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room(also the most light-hearted). We also have others that bring about lots of laughter and inside jokes! – Christyn
I think Billy Collins was popular with everyone across the board and Margaret Atwood is so hard not to appreciate. I missed out on a couple of collections but fell in love with Mary Oliver and I absolutely was thrilled by Michael Lista’s Bloom, though not everyone loved it. We have good fun about who loves what and why (or why they seriously do not).  Nancy

On the practice of patience

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Heavy subjects on my mind, but no clarity. As I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation, I won’t talk specifically about what happened at the Boston marathon on Monday afternoon. What felt so very strange was watching the raw photos and eyewitness accounts on Twitter only minutes after the explosions happened, with no context, no analysis, no filter — much like being a witness to something rather than being given a story, or told a story. In the evenings I am reading the Little House on the Prairie books to the kids, and when Pa has to go away to work he walks hundreds of miles, and his family waits for him to come home, with only one letter, months into his absence, to assure them that he is well and alive and will be returning to them.

I wonder if people used to be better at waiting, more practiced at patience.

Now we want to see and know instantly. I can text my husband from the grocery store to ask what’s missing from my list. I can text him a play-by-play description of the swim race my daughter is swimming in, even though we are 100 kilometres apart, and send him photos of the event. I like this. I’m comforted by it.

But I also recognize that I expect it, almost. I feel like I need to know. I also feel like I need to express, immediately, whatever it is I’m thinking. What are we recording in our blogs, in our Facebook statuses, our tweets? It’s the minutiae of where we’re at, in this moment. It’s the stuff of life, the stuff that does not keep, no matter how we mark it, and broadcast it to our friends. This too shall pass.

In the end, I’m not sure our narratives, the ones that are being written now, the stories that matter to us and stick with us, are all that different from the books that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote. She wrote her childhood experiences first as a memoir, but that version was rejected by publishers. Finally, she shaped her memories into something different, going from first person to third, eliding experiences, leaving great swathes out, altering the tone, turning the minutiae, the scraps, into a whole arcing storyline. I feel like I’m telling my story in real-time, here on the blog, but that it’s not the same story I would tell if I decided to write a book about my life. Do you know what I mean? And yet, in both mediums, I am hoping to land on something universal, something lasting, some deeper human connection.

This blog plays the part of witness, I think.

Right now, today, I am suspended. I’m waiting. It feels like I’m waiting to find out about EVERYTHING. No amount of texting and twittering and Facebooking can tell me what’s going to happen. In this way, I’m not so unlike Ma, and Mary, and Laura, and Carrie, waiting to find out what’s happened to Pa, going about their daily routines, keeping busy, keeping their spirits up, hoping for the best. No matter how immediate our access to information, Life remains largely mysterious. The shape of our lives remains mysterious, as it is happening to us. And so we pluck out the scraps and offer them for examination. We photograph our meals and our cups of coffee. We record the kilometres we ran today. But it doesn’t really tell us, does it, where we’re at, and what is happening to us, or, more precisely, what is going to happen.

I suspect that the instantaneous nature of contemporary communication only distracts me from this truth. Patience remains an art that needs to be practiced, and appreciated. And so I wait as best I can.

Time to pick up the kid from the school bus

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I would just like to say that today has gone by too fast. This week has gone by too fast.

I would also like to say that I’m not looking forward to my evening run in the still-cold, still-blowing, still-flecked-with-occasional-snowflakes springtime. At least it will be light.

After saying those things, I would like to confess that a pleasure of mine this week has been re-reading blog posts from last winter, when Juliet was being launched, with all of the excitement and busyness that surrounded that time. I note that we had lilacs budding and lettuce growing in March last year! I note also that we were “cooking with the kids” regularly, and that we had guests over much more often. The difference between then and now, aside from the weather, is an uptick in our evening activities. AppleApple swims three evenings a week, and practices soccer three evenings a week (sometimes back-to-back on the same evening), while Albus and Kevin are out two or three evenings a week, too. I can safely say that supper is disrupted five out of five weeknights. AppleApple can go all week without getting a hot meal. (And I haven’t even mentioned the weekend activities.)

Next up, the season of weekend soccer tournaments, with two kids now involved in rep play.

As always, the balance is so imperfect. Forget balance, I think. Live life where you’re at, so long as it’s working for you. So I’m appreciating the dog walks with the little kids in the evenings, and I’m thankful that my mom comes to help out when we’re going in the several different directions all at once.

I’m also happy to be reading almost every night to the kids. We are now into one of my favourite Laura Ingalls Wilder books: On the Banks of Plum Creek. It’s structured in such a quietly dramatic way: the borrowing to build the new house, the debt, the wheat, the hope, the plague of grasshoppers. The kids were solemn as I read last night about the glittering cloud of grasshoppers that descended and ate every green thing there was to eat. “But that’s their food! And they have the debt!” said CJ. I’m not convinced he’s got the concept of debt down, but you never know. He was really worried about it.

We were all solemn, thinking of the enormity of the loss for this family. And yet, the mother responds with gentleness, not grief. “We’ve gotten by before, and we will again.”

It made me feel utterly spoiled for choice. What do I have to complain about?

Oh, but how could Ma be so patient?

“At least they can eat the prairie chickens!”

But that whole garden lost, and the plums on Plum Creek, and the wheat … and the debt. Could I bear to wait and wait in hope as they must?

But I’ve run out of time, completely! Must race to get to the bus stop before CJ gets off.

Experiments in the key of Carrie

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Dear readers,

Shortest break ever, huh.

A few things. If you are a blog subscriber, please don’t unsubscribe. I will continue to post updates from time to time. Like now.

I find myself throwing around two vastly different ideas on how to continue blogging, with the intention of keeping it a healthy outlet and connector, rather than a time-consuming distraction or vanity-feeding outreach. My first idea is to become a weekend poster, or “slacker blogger” as suggested by a friend. As an all-in personality, this suggestion sounds tough, but just might work. I’ve got the notion that I would like to pour my daily blogging energies into the writing of a non-fiction book, so maintaining an irregular, special occasion, weekend blog would fit well with that. My second idea is to form a paid subscriber base that would make blogging a job rather than a hobby. I throw that idea out there, while acknowledging that it’s problematic from a number of angles. One is that I have serious inborn qualms about mixing creative endeavours with monetary ones. Two is that I may not have the time to give paying subscribers what they’re paying for, and that would be stressful.

So many other things to write about!

* March break: over and done, and after a long week home alone with the children I am inspired to find alternative plans for our summer holidays. My half-baked plan to let the kids look after themselves while I put ear plugs in and worked was a total fail. What was I thinking??

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* Making tea: I read a little article in Geez magazine on making your own infusions/tea by using ingredients like dried orange peel, ginger root, cinnamon stick, cloves, etc. So I’m drying the peel from the orange my son ate this morning.

* Ingratitude is on my mind. How to help my children express and feel gratitude for the many offerings they receive, rather than sulking or complaining about the things they wish they’d received instead? Hm.

* After my last post, I was grateful to hear from readers who hadn’t commented before. The one-sided nature of blogging can feel lopsided and strangely weighted, like I’m writing to a mirror-self, and that sometimes bothers me. I appreciate when people comment, or tell me in person that they’ve related to something I’ve written. It makes writing feel like less of an isolating, interior occupation — which writing so often does. I would miss that about blogging. I think I would miss it too much to stop altogether. That is my weekend reflection. What other medium allows me to connect, in a genuine and honest and real and perhaps most importantly immediate way, with so many people all at once?

So, thanks for reading. Til next time. xo, Carrie

P.S. In response to my vague idea about blogging for subscribers (above), a reader emailed to say: “It occurs to me that it might be possible to think about a blog not on a subscriber model (which might pressurize a daily post), but on a supporter model, which could be more fluid.” She also sent a link to this TED talk by Amanda Palmer on “The art of asking.” Here’s the link. Here’s a taste: “For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet … is taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”

Wow. Thanks.

Just another merry Monday

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shovelling with dogs, Monday morning, early

Slow start. Hi there, Monday. Why you be so Mondayish week after week?

::

I’m thinking of starting a regular lost-and-found feature. The latest on the list:

* one Playbook, lost and then miraculously found at the bottom of my sports bag where it had rested patiently since last Sunday’s soccer game, going to and from exercise studios

* one black Celtic hat and pair of pink mittens: CJ’s, last seen Friday, or maybe yesterday, who can remember? This lost hat & mitt combo represented this morning’s final crisis before leaving the house, late, to catch the bus.

::

It felt like a weekend of non-stop-ness. Maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time getting going this morning. Even the fun parts were relentlessly timed. For example, coffee date with son. (These coffee dates/errand running, with each child getting a turn, have become regular Saturday morning events.) Thankfully he did not complain about having to eat his onion bagel with garlic & herb cream cheese in eight minutes flat.

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The turn-around time was terribly tight: I was off to a swim meet in Brantford with the swim girl. There is something very similar about all of these pools, and the meets too. Noisy music; insanely tight seating (this time on deck); a dad seated directly behind you with a bullhorn of a voice hollering at his kid in the pool who clearly will never be able to hear or follow the directions being given; technical glitches with the scoreboards; expensive race sheets that you have to buy or you won’t know when your kid is racing; searching endlessly trying to locate your child’s cap, goggles, and suit amidst the multitudes of other similarly clad children; sitting for butt-numbing hours on end; child races, heart rate accelerates, sitting again; boggled by the limited supply of bathrooms in these facilities; wishing you’d brought a better snack; trying to read/work while keeping an eye on the race progression; chatting with neighbouring parents; waiting endlessly for swim kid to locate lost items at the end of the day (this meet it was a GIGANTIC copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that took us half an hour to find in the littered stands, no exaggeration.)

Watching your kid swim two fantastic personal bests in races that amount to a total of just over 2 minutes. Seeing her take deep pleasure in the reward of her hard work. Marvelling at her race-intensity. Being proud. Figuring it’s all kind of worth it.

*

Also this weekend: babysitting exchange at our house. Eight kids plus two dogs overnight. Kevin was in charge of food, and he really outdid himself. Two casseroles of homemade mac-and-cheese, a graham cracker-chocolate-cookie-cake that had everyone rushing for seconds, and a triple batch of pancakes and sausages for breakfast. “I love having kids around to cook for,” he sighed with satisfaction, to which I said, “Wha???? Don’t we always have kids around to cook for?” Apparently cooking for other people’s kids is more fun than cooking for one’s own brood.

*

Add in two giggling girls awake at 5:50am, a swim practice, a sledding miscommunication, two soccer games (no subs and a tie for me, two goals and a win for her), a carshare car, and a Super Bowl supper, and we were done. We were toast. We were ready for bed early. And the alarm sounded early. And it was Monday. It is Monday.

Deadline to meet tomorrow. Must. Get. Writing. Not. Blogging.

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