“Out, out, brief candle:” An English Professor and Stephen Hawking

Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

The death of Stephen Hawking struck me with an unexpected intensity. I spent an hour online, just before bed, trying to determine whether or not this was one of those “celebrity death hoax” things. And then I spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, listening to my husband sleeping and wondering to myself, “what now?” A literature professor devastated by the loss of a theoretical physicist. Some things really are stranger than fiction.

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.

I’ve wrestled with my emotions these last couple of days, trying to decide whether or not to write about this. I feel like an imposter. An interloper! I’m not a scientist. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with it. In high school, I took every class in the sciences that I could, from earth and planetary sciences to medical chemistry, from animal behavior to human physiology. I even started college as a biology/pre-medicine major and explored courses in geology, physics, and astronomy. But, I have never been “good” at science. I failed my first year of college chemistry because, when the professor started lecturing about “moles” and “imaginary numbers,” I got up and walked out of the room, never to return. (Okay, I retook the course a semester later and did alright). I love the word “quark,” but don’t ask me to explain what it is. I only remember that “mitosis” is a thing because it’s a word in one of my favorite songs, “Imitosis” by Andrew Bird.  

I did end up becoming a doctor, after all, but with a penchant for philosophy rather than physics; and despite my personal difficulties with the subject matter, I have always considered myself a fan of Hawking’s. I’ve read some of his books, watched the recent biopic The Theory of Everything a few times, and always found him a welcome, quirky addition to any television show where he appeared as special guest. Yet, despite my being interested in his life and work, I didn’t expect to respond as intensely to his death as I have, with this deep sense of loss. It feels like a dear colleague, even a family member, has passed, and unexpectedly at that.

However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

Of course, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in the 1960s and lived on, actively, for an incredible 55 years. He was also in his 70s when he passed away, so he lived a full life despite his disease. His death, then, should perhaps not have come as such a shock, and yet it feels shocking. Somehow, as nonsensical as this sounds, I expected him to live forever. He was Stephen Freaking Hawking, after all.

As I’ve thought about his passing over these last 48-hours, I realize that part of my shock and grief must come from a sense of severe disappointment that it has happened now. I feel we are living in a particularly dark, cynical, and mad age. Our society has fallen prey to forces that aim to discredit facts, create prejudice against science, and reject the virtue of honesty. Ignorance, bias, anti-intellectualism, and a gleeful embracing of actual “fake news,” has become a rallying cry and a way of life for much of our population.

And in the midst of these attacks on education, on invention, and on truth, we lose a man like Stephen Hawking, who devoted his life to seeking and spreading knowledge, and who did so in a way that embraced the reality that people approach science from different perspectives and backgrounds, and at varying levels of preparedness. He was a people’s scientist, a brilliant mind guided by a simply human heart, and a man whose voice and conscience we need more of now. The void he leaves behind seems impossible to fill and makes that darkness seem even more impenetrable and unavoidable.

I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.

So, it is loss and sadness that I feel, yes. But more than that, it is despair. These unrelenting attacks on common sense become harder and harder to bear every day, especially to someone who devotes his life to the pursuit of truth and to equipping others with the tools they need to think for themselves, and to appreciate that ability. This is a great burden to lay upon the death of one man, I know. And in spite of my melancholy, I do want to remember Stephen Hawking for the good he has done for the world, and for me.

Hawking the Writer

I first encountered Hawking when I was a senior in high school. I had completed all four years of my diploma requirements by the time I was a junior, so I was able to take whatever extra electives I wanted in my final year. One of the classes was “Independent Reading” (shocker!) I’ve always been more of a fiction reader, but I took the opportunity in that class to read a lot of non-fiction, everything from a biography of Harry Caray (“Hooooly Cow!”) to Hoyle’s Rules of Games. Another book I remember was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’m sure I only understood about 34% of that book, if I’m being generous. But it blew my mind anyway, and it led me to The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time, and On the Shoulders of Giants.

Reading Hawking also led me to Carl Sagan (thanks to a friendly librarian who understood card catalogs better than I did). I read Sagan’s Cosmos, Contact, and The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan led me to other books, such as Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys, which led to movies like October Sky, Space Camp, and the like. So, Stephen Hawking literally opened up an entire universe to me, a kind of intellectual quest that was and continues to be nearly spiritual in its own way, and a genre that, otherwise, I may never have explored. Most recently, the road from Hawking has led to my reading books like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science. Had I not been a wandering, wondering, lost-but-eager 17-year-old kid who just happened to stumble across Hawking at that one opportune moment, I don’t even know what kind of reader, or person, I would be today.

Hawking the Human Being

Since first reading Hawking’s works, I’ve learned a lot about him as a person. According to his family, Hawking once said, “it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” To me, this sentiment expresses the type of person Hawking was, at least as I’ve come to know him from afar. He had his human faults, like anyone else, and these have been expressed in biographies written about him, in the latest film about his life, and by Hawking himself, who despite his rare brilliance was also humble and self-aware. Still, to me, Hawking has always balanced an appreciation for the everyday human experience and human needs, with the genius required of him by his pursuits in theoretical physics. It seems to me a rare ability to be able to live with one foot in the “real” world and another planted firmly amongst the stars.

Some of the most impressive and personally meaningful things I’ve learned about Hawking include his support of women, both in the sciences and in general. He called himself a feminist and supported equal pay and opportunity for women, something the sciences and academia still struggle with despite our supposed “progressive” cultures. Hawking was also a champion for truth. He is famous for his statement that, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” This message resonates strongly today, in an age that celebrates personal opinion above objective fact, an age that suggests we should all be free to abide by our own perceptions of truth rather than challenging us to aspire to creditable fact.

I’ve tried to recall all the times I saw him on some television show or another. I can distinctly remember him appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, although I know that’s not even close to a complete listing of his presence in pop culture. That desire and willingness to reach out to popular audiences always impressed me, and it is something I see in upcoming scientists. I know they, too, must have been inspired by his desire and ability to bridge that sometimes ominous gap. Hawking also had a great sense of humor. He joked constantly about himself and his “grand” pursuits and gave of his time rather freely for someone who must have been incredibly busy. And finally, his philanthropy efforts, both with his own foundation and with other charitable events and organizations, are just another reason to respect him as a human being, one who cared deeply for the human race and who seemed to genuinely worry about our future together.

Hawking the Marvel

Of course, what most impresses me about Stephen Hawking is simply how impressive he was. Intellectually and physically, he was a mystery and a marvel. The more I learn about Stephen Hawking, and the more I try to decipher his work (only the mass audience stuff, as I’m not nearly capable enough of reading his academic work), the more I realize how little I know about life, the universe, and everything. That kind of thinking used to leave me feeling depressed and desperately anxious. Will I have enough time to learn everything I want to learn? To do everything I want to do? To begin living the kind of life, and being the kind of person, I want? My stoic teachings have helped me learn to stop questioning and start doing, but Hawking’s life demonstrates this philosophy in action.

I look to Hawking and other personal heroes, now, and find some of that anxiety, thankfully, has dissipated. I’ve learned to understand these women and men as human beings, too, with their own struggles and challenges. Hawking certainly lived a life filled with challenges; yet he refused to let them stop him, as many of us would. He also found time to spread positivity and passion and encouragement to the millions of people around the world who needed to hear the purest of messages: you can do it.  

Hawking once said, “my goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” I think he must have come closer than anyone else in living memory to achieving this. His appreciation for the simple facts of life, his understanding of the bigger mysteries, and his joy in the mundane, must have made the experience of life the greatest event of all. I can only hope to achieve an ounce of that kind of perspective, that kind of drive, and that kind of focused passion. An ounce of the Hawking model would be a dream to me.

So, farewell, giant. May we build upon your shoulders.

And may we prove ourselves deserving of your legacy.  


My Word for 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Road in Etten, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774)

I noticed a trend this year, one that apparently has been around for some time but which I have either missed or ignored, wherein people choose one word to make their “word of the year.” The idea is to start the new year with a single focus, a word that can inspire a philosophical perspective, an emotional change, some kind of personal growth or achievement, etc. I decided, considering I’m continuing my stoic journey this year, and with much more focus and intention than I have given it in the past, this “word of the year” might be a beneficial opportunity.

My word for 2018 is: SEE. To see. To notice. To be attentive.

In 2018, I’m continuing a path that I began a few years ago, around my second year of doctoral studies, toward outward living; toward charity, kindness, and compassion, and away from non-essential distractions. This has been a very slow process for me, not helped at all by the tumultuous last couple of years. I have been wholly consumed by politics and global affairs, much of which I have very little control over but which has “demanded” my attention, my energy, my words, my time. I haven’t been able to see clearly enough how deeply all of this has influenced my mental, physical, and emotional health, and how little it has helped my relationships with other people (in some cases, it has actively hurt them).

So, in pursuing a much more intentional stoic course of study and commitment this year, I want to embrace this word, see, in a variety of ways, and allow it to help me achieve a stoic way of living, which is to say, a life free from unnecessary distractions and a perspective that allows my attention to be drawn only to those things over which I have control.

This year, I want to see my surroundings. I moved with my husband to a new state, a new region of the United States, four months ago. We have found time to explore some new-to-us things, and to take an adventure or two, but I want to do much more of this in the coming year. I want to put away my “smart” phone, to step away from social media, and engage with my new city, with a new community, and all the new goals and opportunities they might bring. There is, for example, a group in the area that meets weekly to discuss science and philosophy and art, and all sorts of interesting things. I located it before we even moved here, and yet every week goes by without my even attempting to drive over and sit in on a meeting. These are the sorts of opportunities I see as valuable, and so I want to begin engaging with them.

I want to see my husband more clearly, and help him see me more clearly as well. Again, stepping away from these digital devices and spending quality time together will go a long way in helping us do this. I want to manage this, too, in a budget-conscious way and find ways for us to be together without the stress and strain of financial burdens. Part of stoicism is breaking free from financial debts, as well as embracing what is good for me.

To that last point, I want to see ways of politely but effectively saying “No” to what I do not want to do, and see ways of saying “Yes” to those things that I do. I am often mistaking these two things and, instead of embracing the things I am genuinely interested in, the things that will help me live a better and richer life, and become a better person, I say “Yes” to the things I think I should do, whether because I’m worried about what people will think of me if I say no, or of disappointing someone, or of looking bad at work. I hope to see more clearly the paths that will lead to “Yes” and to accept those that are truly right for me. This also means saying “No” when I already have enough to do.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b

I want to see the people in my life for who they are, not for the ideals I hold them to, and then respond accordingly. This means seeing my family, friends, and colleagues more clearly and completely, and either deciding to accept them without judgment or to move on from relationships that are not positive ones. This is a path I began to take years ago as well, and most of the negative influences have, I think, been removed; but I also want to be an authentic friend, brother, son, cousin, uncle to those I am keeping in my life, which means seeing who these people are, truly, and how they affect me, and allowing myself to be seen by them.

Finally, I want to see my priorities clearly and objectively. I want to learn how to acknowledge the difficulties in front of me so that I can better plan how to accomplish what I want to accomplish and achieve what I want to achieve. To this end, I have cut my reading goal for this year nearly in half, so that I can instead spend more time writing. I will be working on major projects, such as ongoing preparations (a years’ long project) for academic tenure; writing, preparing, and submitting work for publication; and attending academic conferences for professional development, personal fulfilment, and networking. I need to see how important these activities are to me and begin a true pursuit of them, rather than limiting myself to a perpetual state of “eventually.”

We are just a few days into the new year, but already I have noticed a distinct change in my perspectives. I hope seeing my plans and goals, strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, more clearly will help me to grow as a person, a writer, a teacher, a spouse, a friend. This might sometimes mean accepting that I am not who I thought I was to someone else, that I cannot always be what and whom everyone wants me to be, and that I will sometimes be a disappointment. Again, over others’ perceptions, I have little control, and so I need to let that go in order to focus on the things that I actually can do, and the things that will make my daily life richer and more meaningful, and perhaps even more peaceful.

Most importantly, as I work my way slowly through stoic readings, I plan to incorporate daily reflective writing; and as I work my way slowly through a literary reading of the bible, I plan to incorporate weekly and monthly reflective writing as well. In addition, I am keeping a personal journal and will be writing on the blog, as well as working on my fiction and non-fiction. My final hope in all of these writing exercises is that I will begin to see myself more clearly. I ask my students to see their progress through reflective journaling about their own work over the course of a semester; it is time that I see my own forward—and backward—motion in the same way.

What a Year for a New Year

So, here we are on the cusp of another new year. I don’t quite know how to feel about this new year’s eve. I didn’t know what to expect of 2017, and I feel somehow even less sure about 2018. 

Of course, every year brings its ups and downs. I know there will probably be some good things in 2018, just as there were in this last year. In 2017, I finished my PhD, achieved my second publication, and accepted a faculty position in a new state. I know there will probably be some bad things ahead, too, just as 2017 had its share of difficulties. This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. And I know that the good and the bad, though they come every year, are not always fairly balanced. 

But stoic teachings remind me constantly that, while I can’t always control what happens to me, I do have control over how I respond. So, I’ll try to respond to the good and the bad in the same way, with patience, acceptance, and maybe even a bit of levity. And while I enter the new year without any expectations, I do have one wish: that you will find health and happiness in the days ahead. That you will find genuine friendship, be treated to happy surprises, and experience many more ups than downs. I wish that, on the inevitable bad days, you will find strength and support, and the empathy of others. 

They say nature abhors a vacuum. After a year such as this, I think it’s important to remember that hate, as a force of nature, will try its damnedest to seep into every crack and crevice, at every opportunity. In 2018, let’s insulate ourselves with love and let it be our impenetrable armor; let it fill us to the brim so that there are no cracks, no crevices–no vacuums–for hate to enter; let us live our days with decisions made of love, in everything from our driving habits, to our patience in the grocery check-out line, to the way we treat our co-workers, friends, and family; let’s love so hard and so long that we become exhausted with it, and then take a nap and carry on. 

This year, if we could all accomplish one thing, let it be that we love until our spirits feel truly warm, and safe, and bright, and until hate has been left out in the cold for good. Let’s make 2018 a year of love.

Happy New Year. I’ll see you on the other side.

(P.S. To most of the world who are ahead of us in time zones, I know you’ll get to the new year first – but no spoilers!)  

Happy birthday, darling.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

This is the first day of my life. Swear I was born right in the doorway. I’ve always been a wanderer at heart. As much as I like the idea of settling down, burying roots in the ground, and becoming an integral part of some place—some home—I realized at an early age that new places and experiences were even more important to me. New Mexico. Arizona. Florida. New York. Pennsylvania. California. Nevada. Always on the road, on the go; always believing in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I thought I would feel torn by these two desires for the rest of my life: a need for place and a need for space. It was an impossible dichotomy. Until the day, eleven years ago, when you came into my life and bridged the divide. With some surprise, I realized home is not a place. We’ve buried our roots in each other so that, now, when every day feels new and every decision seems to lead through a new door, I’m always and ever at home with you. You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet and hold the earth in place.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed. They’re spreading blankets on the beach. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of life’s events. As the years have passed, we’ve been witness to new births and new marriages. We’ve seen lives end and begin, relationships start and fail. We’ve cried with friends, fought with each other, and persevered in the face of those who would prefer we didn’t exist at all. So many times, our sunny days have become stormy and dark; and more often, our cloudy skies have been pushed away by the winds of love and laughter. After more than a decade together, if I’ve learned anything at all, I’ve learned this: we’ve never been great at predicting the future, but we’ve got a perfect record of facing it together. And all the roads we have to walk are winding. And all the lights that lead us there are blinding. But after all, you’re my wonderwall.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

Yours was the first face that I saw. I think I was blind before I met you. The perpetual bachelor. That’s how I saw myself. I had no dreams or illusions about finding that “someone special”; in fact, for a long time, I convinced myself that that kind of life, that kind of romance, was antithetical to my personality, and that I would be better off alone. But one late-summer day, you walked into my bookstore, of all places. You were wearing a tie someone else had tied for you, fashioned with spiky, gelled hair and a perfect, beautiful smile. You were loud and you were shy; you were flirtatious and affectionate; you were naïve and romantic. I hated every bit of it. And I fell madly for you. Once, so arrogantly, I thought I knew it all. In that moment, I realized I had never known anything. The idea of soul mates is still a strange one to me, and I continue to be embarrassed by public displays of affection. Maybe some things never change, but since I met you, I’m open to every possibility. Take me by the hand and tell me you would take me anywhere.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go. I’ve never been a very good planner. As each year comes to an end and a new one begins, I tell myself that I will do a better job of it all: planning, scheduling, budgeting. Making lists and checking boxes. Keeping in touch with old friends and family, and spending time appreciating the now. But I’ve never quite managed to follow through. In one way, though, I think I’ve figured things out. Even if I can’t quite plan for the future, I know there’s a bright and beautiful one ahead. There’s adventure to come, new sights and sounds to experience, and new people to meet. I also know that, before you, my heart wasn’t in it. I was a kind of dead man walking, going through the motions in a haze of superficiality. You inspired me with the courage to take the first step, and it has been you in every step along the way. So, put your body next to mine and dream on.

Artist Credit: Brian Andersen

But now I don’t care, I could go anywhere with you. And I’d probably be happy. I tease you about turning thirty and about getting older in general. This is easy for me, considering I’m 4 years older than you. And you’ll probably hate me for making this whole thing public. For both of these things, I’d like to apologize. I can’t help being a little bit selfish today, on your birthday, in sharing my love for you with the world. If something were to happen to me, what I would most hope the world could know about me, is you. My hopes and my dreams, my ambitions and successes, are wrapped-up in the wildness and the balance and the inspiration of you. Remember our proposal video, and the story that I wrote? The final scene shows us together, well-aged in some far distant future, but together. I know you feel anxious about getting older, but I’m so excited for it. I was a simple blank before you, a man standing alone in the wind, pretending that was his destiny. A man with goals but no vision; a man with desires but no drive. You made me come alive. And now, I’m so alive. If growing older means one more day, or ten thousand more, of being alive like this, with you, then bring on the future. And when one or both of us is gone, then I believe the fierce energy of us will burst into the atmosphere and live on, playfully, in the love that surrounds everything, in the love that lives in everything, and in the love that makes worth it, everything.

Happy birthday, darling.   

1 John 3:17-18

Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband. 

I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.) 

Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”? 

I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences? 

Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.

Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger. 

When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place. 

For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both. 

October Book Swap

For about two years (wow!), I’ve been participating in a private book swap with about 15 friends/participants. The host schedules about 3 swaps per year, so every few months we get a new partner, time to shop, and time to ship. I have participated in every round so far because it is just so much fun to shop for books and personal gifts for someone who loves these sorts of things just as much as I do. Something I’ve neglected to do, though, is share my own gifts from others (except in our private group page where we all talk.) I would like to change that from now on!

This swap, taking place in October, was a fall/Halloween theme. Now, Halloween is my favorite holiday – my husband and I even got married on that holiday! I’ve been lucky to get swap partners in the past who have been thoughtful enough to think about not just me, but my anniversary. This year, as you can see, I got an awesome framed decorative “skeleton couple,” which I have set out for the season (but to be honest I’ll probably keep it out all year). In addition, I receive three awesome books from my wish list: Thank You for Arguing; Tropic of Capricorn; and Poe: A Life Cut Short. I’ve already read the Poe book, and it was good! It put me in the mood to see The Raven, John Cusack’s film from about a decade ago. I usually watch it once per year, around Halloween of course.

I also received two cool bookmarks, one from Iceland (along with Icelandic chocolate!) and one of a young Kurt Vonnegut, along with a Kurt Vonnegut doll. As plenty of people know, Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorites (he and Poe are probably my two favorite male writers). I’m so grateful for all these gifts, plus a pumpkin candle that smells absolutely incredible (we have been watching Halloween-themed movies since October 1st and light it for the viewings — atmosphere!), and a personalized drawing from my swap partner’s  daughter (which is now hanging up in my office, using the little Poe magnet I also received in this swap! See it sitting there on the Ackroyd book?) And of course, the card is perfect. 

When people ask why book blogging is so great, why I continue to bother with it, this is a great example. It’s not about the gifts (although giving and receiving are both great); it’s about the community. I’ve known some of these folks for almost a decade, now, and whether or not we’re all still keeping up with our blogs isn’t even the point. Wherever we are in the world, and we are everywhere, the connections we first made through our love of books and writing about books has gone so much farther and deeper than that. It’s not anything I ever expected to happen, but I’m sure grateful for it.

RBR About Town, Vol. 1

Nearly two months ago, my husband and I moved from Chicago to Las Vegas. We lived in Chicago for almost a decade, after meeting in Los Angeles back in 2006 (I was attending graduate school for my Master’s degree). Something I’ve regretted is that I never took the time to write about and reflect on, or share, new experiences in these different locations. To be sure, there were a lot of really wonderful things about both Los Angeles and Chicago that I could have written about and would have liked to have recorded for myself, to look back on when memory starts to fade. I do have some notes in journals and the like, and plenty of Facebook posts, but all of that was rather haphazard. Ideally, I also see myself breaking free from the chains of social media someday, so perhaps that is not the best place to store my memories after all.

Now that we are in Nevada, probably permanently, I would like to avoid past mistakes and begin to record my thoughts, memories, and experiences in a more permanent place and in a more thoughtful way. So, I’ve decided to share a little feature every once in a while, maybe monthly, called “RBR About Town.” Here’s Volume One!

Last weekend was beautiful. Now that we are into October, the 100-degree days have faded into the rear-view mirror. Most days have still been above 80, and last weekend saw temperatures in the upper-80s/lower-90s. So, we decided to do as much as we could outdoors while spending as little money as possible. A few weeks ago that meant driving out to Spring Mountain for some hiking, but it’s about a 30-minute trip each way and costs something like $9 for parking… yeah, not outrageous, but we’re on a budget!

Anyway, we began our day by running some errands. Afterwards, we stopped in a little cafe called Pour. The place was cute enough and the menu was filled with all sorts of healthy options for fruit and vegetable smoothies. I’m a coffee fiend, though, and have been on a mission to try something at all the cafés in our area (there are so many! Apparently, this area is known for its coffee… they call it the Second Seattle.) When I spotted the “Sin City” caramel mocha on the menu, I knew it had to be mine. And wow, talk about making the right decision!

This iced drink came in a handled mason jar and was topped with whipped cream (I’m not sure what kind – I don’t think it was house made, but it didn’t seem like the typical variety either). On top were drizzles of caramel and mocha sauce. The drink itself consisted of espresso, milk, and vanilla syrup. It was absolutely delicious. After we got our drinks, we went out to the small patio (the location is unfortunate: a small business lot with mostly vacant stores, sitting right on an extremely busy street) to enjoy the warm weather and cool latte. While relaxing, we were treated to a view of two hearts written in the sky above the Las Vegas strip. After what happened last Sunday, this was truly beautiful to see.

By the time we finished our drinks, it was well-past 2:00pm and we were both getting pretty hungry. I’m not sure what it is, but we always have our meals later than most people. Luckily, it has been fitting our schedule quite well (or maybe we just adapted our meal times to our schedules?) We’re both night owls, so while I do have to get up earlier for work a couple of days, we tend to stay up past midnight every night. Anyway, Jesse has been craving Teriyaki Chicken since we moved, and I’m a big fan of sushi, so we decided to do a quick online search for Japanese restaurants with decent reviews. There were quite a few in our area, which is surprising only because we live in the desert; but honestly, Las Vegas has everything, so I’m not sure why we doubted that we’d find something. The place we ultimately chose is called Blue Fin Sushi & Roll.

Despite rather poor service (our waiter was incredibly awkward and the service person was rude), the food itself was good and very well-priced! I got a 6-piece roll for about $7 and Jesse got a giant bowl of Teriyaki Chicken for $9.50. This was a really pleasant surprise because, in my experience, inexpensive Japanese food can turn out to be pretty awful. There were some incredible-sounding rolls on the menu, but they definitely got more expensive depending on the kind of ingredient and type of preparation. I decided to go with a pretty simple baked California roll with crab, avocado, cream cheese and eel sauce. In retrospect, I might have asked for the Yum-Yum sauce instead, but overall I was pretty thrilled with this meal. Great size for lunch, tasted good, and reasonably priced

After lunch, I convinced Jesse that we needed to go to a bookstore (or two). There was a place nearby called Books Or Books (what a great name!) that had populated in my search engine when I looked for Barnes & Noble locations a few weeks ago. It was one of only a few independent/used bookstores that I could find, so I figured we’d better take a look and see if it was any good. In Illinois, I used to go to a place called Half Price Books all the time, and I loved it. In fact, they now own thousands of books that used to be mine, as I took only a few boxes with me when we moved here (still pretty devastated about that).

The store itself was a little hard to find because it is in a small retail space between a number of larger stores, and the sign above it reads, simply, “Books.” I mean, that’s more than enough to get me in the door, believe me, but it had me imagining myself striking it rich so that I could buy them a big old sign to place out on the main road. Everyone should be able to find the bookstore! The proprietor was a nice older woman with a cute little dog — does it get more indie bookstore than that? I forgot to get her name, but I’m sure I’ll be back at some point. And I’ll be sure I ask.

Anyhow, the store itself is small, but it is well-organized (some of the classifications seemed odd, and I did spot a number of books in places where I wouldn’t have expected them, based on genre, but what do I know?) One disappointment was that there weren’t any new books for sale. Many indie resale shops I’ve been to have at least a small section for popular/anticipated new releases. I was looking for Dan Brown’s new release, Origin, which is the latest in the Robert Langdon series that I love (Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, etc.) (Shhhhh.) Still, I did find a 50th Anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve been wanting to read again before the movie comes out next year. It was in great condition and I only had to pay half-price, which is apparently the standard for everything in the store except for special editions. YES!

After our trip to the indie book shop, we decided to head down the road a few miles to Barnes & Noble so I could get my Dan Brown book after all. We ended our day out with a long walk around the mall, which has become a new favorite spot. It’s especially helpful in the summer months, when we want to take walks without melting or burning up in the 115-degree temperatures. Whenever we go to this mall, people walking around with clipboards ask us if we want to earn $5 for watching and reviewing a short film/advertisement. I honestly have no idea what they show people (maybe a commercial?) because we always say no; but now I’m starting to think, why not? Every trip to the mall could pay for the next Sin City caramel mocha!