The Psychology of Weight Loss


I’m sure you’ll all recognize this common tidbit of weight loss advice: “Eat less, move more.” I hate it. It may be true, but it’s also pretty useless. Eat how much less? If I’m hungry after I eat my reduced, pre-planned portion size, should I or should I not eat again? How often can I have dessert? If I have dessert once a week, should it be today or tomorrow? How do I decide? And that doesn’t even begin to cover exercise: how much should I exercise? Is there such a thing as too much? What kind of exercise is best? How many days per week, and how much time per session?

Basically, how do I structure my lifestyle, food rules, exercise schedule, and habits so that they stick? How can I keep from giving up and throwing myself on the couch with a pint of Half Baked and the new season of Daredevil? (Aside: DO NOT spoil Daredevil for me, I’m saving it for my maternity leave!)

There’s this construct that healthy eating and exercise – and ultimately, the outcome of “being in shape” – come from making good choices – “being good,” as many of us say (i.e., “I’m trying to be good”). How and why to make good choices, increase willpower, and motivate oneself every day are the subjects of memes, mantras, articles, books, and posters. It also translates to this fascinating paradigm of “virtuous foods” and “bad foods” that always makes me feel bad for pizza. While everyone seems to have a different idea of what specific foods are virtuous (gluten, anyone?), society implicitly agrees that you can tell if a person has “self-control” or “good judgement” – virtue, essentially – by their visible fitness.

But regardless of who you are, the majority of the actions we as humans take every day are actually not conscious choices. Our brains prefer to run on automatic. In the back of our minds, we’re constantly filtering and interpreting stimuli and running automatic scripts that make those decisions for us. (I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which goes into great detail about the successes, biases, and errors in judgement that result from our automatic thinking. Highly recommend.) This morning, I didn’t decide whether or not to drop my son off at daycare and start working – it’s Wednesday, so that’s what we do. Have you ever set out to go to the bank and found yourself turning into your favorite coffee shop, which just happens to be on the way? You make that turn so routinely that it’s an automatic thought pattern.

If you’ve ever tried to change a habit – whether to break an old one or create a new one – you know how deeply ingrained those automatic scripts become. As it turns out, the best predictor of someone’s weight, happiness levels, or economic class is her current weight, happiness level, or economic class. People often overestimate future happiness and are not very good at anticipating what they will want in the future.

It’s tempting to feel defeatist, faced with this aspect of human nature. But in reality, this keeps happening because we keep trying to override the unconscious, automatic cognitive processes that have taken root over years with “willpower.”

Willpower – passing up a cookie at the office, for instance, or eating only one slice of bread from the bread basket, or somehow eating one serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – is driven by the executive function of inhibitory control. The award for most entertaining study on inhibitory control goes to Walter Mischel’s classic and cruel Marshmallow Test, in which poor unfortunate four-year-olds are told that they may eat the marshmallow in front of them, but if they wait, they can have two. (The video shows an example of the test being run more recently; the original experiment is over 40 years old.)

I won’t get too far into inhibitory control in this post, but it does appear to be correlated with success in academics and other life skills down the line, and it seems that it may be improved with training. Mind In the Making, by Ellen Galinsky, includes exercises and strategies that can improve inhibitory control and other executive function in children. Perhaps worth a try for adults, if you’re concerned with your inhibitory control.

But ultimately, the bulk of our decisions, especially in connection with our goals, cannot be made as an override to established automatic patterns of thought and habit, because inhibitory control – willpower – is a limited resource, even if it can be improved over time. The answer, then, is to invest the time upfront to automate our choices. Align automatic thought patterns and behaviors with the goals we want to achieve, and we won’t have to suffer ego depletion or “decision fatigue” by the end of the first week.

So, for example, I wanted to journal each night, but as soon as I would get into bed, I always immediately popped open the browser on my phone and would lie in bed for 45-60 minutes on Facebook, until I was exhausted and ready to fall asleep. “OK, after this last article I’ll put my phone down. Ah, one more scroll through the old news feed. How cute is that video! Oh, that article looks interesting, too…is that true about superdelegates? Gotta check Wikipedia…” Finally, I moved my phone charger to the living room and began turning my phone off each night before lying down to start journaling. At first, I tried turning it off and leaving it on my nightstand, but then a question would occur to me, and I would turn it back on to start Googling…with, perhaps, a quick stop by Facebook – you know, while the browser is open. It’s incredible how much resistance I felt to making that change! “I can just put my phone down,” I told myself. “Really, I can. It’s not that hard! It’s just Facebook. That’s too far away! Anyway, how will I know what time it is when I wake up?” This is actually a more ridiculous reason than it even sounds like, because we have a clock in our room.

Reading on my phone was such an ingrained habit that I required the physical inconvenience of actually moving the phone into another room in order to break it. I also had to overcome the internal, psychological barrier that I should be able to just put the phone down myself without requiring such drastic measures. I had to shift my self-talk to get past this: instead of, “I should be able to do this,” I had to ask myself, “What will make me most likely to do this?” I had to recognize that a quirk of pride and shame were getting in the way of my success. Now, my undesired habit is broken, freeing up my time to read and journal when I set out to do so. As an added bonus, I also no longer read Facebook in the morning while I’m lying in bed – if I get up before my son, I have a bit of time to make a cup of coffee and write, instead.

So when it comes to weight loss, the question that I’m asking myself is, “What habits do I need to automate that will set me up for success? And what is my current self-talk that could get in my way?” I have two weeks before the baby comes to really start to work through that question and come up with a strategy…so here we go!

For background on this experiment, see my introduction and ground rules posts where I explain what I’m up to.

Image credit: poppet with a camera

Ground Rules

In case you missed it, yesterday I announced that I will be posting every day about my research and self-experimentation on the topic of weight loss after pregnancy. Today, I shall outline my ground rules.

Rule #1: There will be baby photos.

I may have interruptions for baby pictures and my bibliography. I’ve enjoyed having a record of what I’m reading, and I straight-up refuse to apologize for baby pictures.

harley hat
H looking fly at three months old

In fact, I’ll go ahead and set the tone now with an old baby photo of my firstborn.

Baby photos aside, I think there are some traps inherent in blogging through weight loss after a pregnancy, and so I want to plan for a couple of things and keep them right in front of me (and anyone who cares to read along) the whole time.

Rule #2: Maintain a healthy mental attitude.

Ultimately, I want to get back into shape as quickly as possible because exercise makes me happy and mentally stable. Being strong, being sore, and playing hard, despite how unpleasant that may sound to some, make me feel good and give me essential energy for doing the important stuff. And I think (maybe this will be a topic for another post, once I get some solid research behind it) that it improves my cognitive function, too. Certainly, feeling energetic and taken care of are baseline requirements for me to be a good parent. I’m not trying to punish myself or achieve a particular look. I’m not trying to achieve a thigh gap. My thighs will never, ever have a gap in them, and if they do, it’s not good news; it can only be because I’ve fallen prey to some kind of muscular wasting disease. I may always have loose skin on my stomach and cellulite on my butt. That’s all really beside the point. Loose skin and strong thighs never kept anyone from climbing hard, running fast, lifting heavy, or feeling good (I feel like that would make a good t-shirt).
Continue reading

An Experiment

An idea struck me today as I was reading Gretchen Rubin’s 10th blogging anniversary post, 10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Blogging. In it, she writes, “It’s often easier to do something every day than some days.”

Putting something on the checklist to do every day is easier than deciding whether to do it from one day to the next. There’s no energy spent thinking, “Is today the day? Tomorrow might be better for it. Yeah, I’ll do it tomorrow.” That’s true about exercise, whether or not to eat sweets, drinking, tooth brushing…any habit, really. 4528869007_4484c3d401_z

Gretchen knows from habits. Besides the fact that she wrote Better Than Before, which is a thoroughly-researched book on habit change that I loved, she also has been blogging for 10 years. Now that is a habit. I’ve never done ANYTHING for 10 years straight, except breathe.

So I thought about posting every day, and I could feel my overloaded mind reeling. After all, I have a full-time job, a toddler, a baby on the way (in like 2 weeks), and I’m doing my best to maintain my own mental, social, and physical health in my “spare” time. Writing the types of posts I have been creating to date – long, thoughtful, thoroughly edited meditations on big topics – realistically, these are not posts I could produce every day. At least not at this time in my life. So what could I do instead? I wondered. Continue reading

What I Read in March

March has been interesting. We’re deep into the show Continuum, which does take up most of my reading time (post-Harley bedtime), but I did read four books this month (or I guess three and a half, because one of them was technically a novella).


The Kingdom of Gods, N.K. Jemisin. Starring the trickster god Sieh, who featured heavily in the first book of the trilogy, the conclusion of the Inheritance trilogy was twice as long as the others and twice as heavy. It took on the themes of change – big, epic, world-shaking change, change in gods, the ultimate change of death. It could not have chosen a better main character, of course. How could anyone but a trickster lead a story like this? I am very impressed by Jemisin’s ambition and execution. There have not been many stories as original and epic as this – if any – since Tolkien first wrote the Lord of the Rings.

The Awakened Kingdom, N.K. Jemisin. This was the novella. It was about a baby godling finding her true nature. That may be all I need to say, yes? Except to add that it was an enchanting read.

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield. I’ve been told to read this by approximately one billion of the seven billion on the planet, so I did. Pressfield frames difficulties and obstacles in writing – psychological, primarily, really any obstacle – as “Resistance,” which is the enemy. The cure? “Turning pro,” as he calls it. Working through it. Sitting down and creating, even when the artist feels no inspiration. I do agree with that perspective, even if I still struggle with it myself. I do try to write every day, even though most of it never will see the light of day. And I think everyone has some kind of creativity that they need to serve – it’s just part of our humanity that we need to honor in order to be whole.

Siblings Without Rivalry, Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber. The authors of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk felt that the interactions between siblings merit a separate book, and I agree. I LOVE How to Talk, and the lessons I took from it probably could be the subject of another entire post (acknowledging rather than dismissing feelings is my favorite, probably because it’s the least intuitive to me). Siblings applied the same concepts of their first book to the fraught topic of brother and sister interactions, which we are fast approaching, with Harley’s brother on his way in just a few short weeks. I appreciated the book a ton, but I also found that most of the things in there were familiar – mostly because my own parents used many of the same principles when I was growing up. But one that was interesting and challenging to me was that of avoiding roles. The idea is not to cast your kids into roles, especially in contrast to their siblings, because it can be limiting, to try to give them opportunities to act outside the “role” they might tend to acquire, whether because of birth order or temperament. So this is a bit difficult, because I do think it’s important, and by my reading, Faber and Mazlish agree, to appreciate each child for their uniqueness. But what is the line between appreciating that uniqueness and casting the child into a “role”? I’ll give myself as an example, and my sister, who hopefully will not mind. As a child, I was the quiet, sensitive, smart one. My sister was outgoing, energetic, socially adept. I suppose the authors would say that for two girls like that, develop the social skills of the quiet one, affirm her ability to connect with people, and for the outgoing one, develop her learning abilities and affirm her intelligence. But appreciate the strengths. Still, seems like a tricky line to walk. I suppose that is the benefit of not having to treat kids exactly the same, which is another major point of the books. Give each kid what they need, the authors argue. Don’t try to make things “equal” – mostly because it’s impossible! I think that is the approach that my parents took, which hopefully will make it easier for me to do the same thing.


Elizabeth Craft is a TV writer and producer living in LA.

She says so at the beginning of every Happier podcast, which I listen to faithfully each Wednesday when new episodes come out. Since the beginning of the podcast, which she creates in collaboration with her sister, Gretchen Rubin (the author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, among other books), I’ve been jealous of her. She and Gretchen do not live near each other, but they have this great project they do together, and they are both making their living by writing, and she has worked with Joss Whedon, for God’s sake (she worked on Dollhouse, which I really enjoyed, despite its early cancellation after only two seasons).

Nevertheless, to the extent that she talks about her work, it does sound very much like work – her “happiness stumbling blocks” are familiar, like the head writer who manufactures fake emergencies to put pressure on writers, or the “evil office donut-bringer” who derails her dieting plans. Even she of the enviable writing job has to deal with parts of the work that she doesn’t like. One of my favorite things that I’ve heard so far is that she and her writing partner created signs as a reminder for one another to hang in their office. The signs say, “This is a fun job, and I enjoy it.”

They need to be reminded!

Incredible. But not completely foreign. I’m familiar with the phenomenon. Anyone who enjoys adventure sports has probably heard of the term “Type 2 Fun.” Type 2 fun is not actually enjoyable at the time of the experience. It is defined by a very difficult experience that is only fun in retrospect. You might be camping in the snow, for example, and freezing cold all night, but when you complete your objective or trip, you want to do it again as soon as possible. That’s Type 2 fun. There are lots of backpacking trips I’ve taken that I can identify quite distinctly as Type 2 fun. It’s worth it to be tested, to be sore. To have a heavy pack cutting into your shoulders or (and?) an icy wind raking across your knuckles as you crimp hard on a small hold. Ultimately it makes the campfire, the river and mountaintop views, and the hard-earned dinner and sleep even more delicious. And what I often find is that the difficulties are, in themselves, worthwhile – you come out stronger, more confident, more knowledgeable, more humble, and much more connected to the grit of your insides and the harshness of the world outside.

And it feels so familiar now, even though I haven’t had a trip like that in years. It’s because parenting is Type 2 fun. It explains so much!

It explains why older folks at the grocery store want to remind you to “Enjoy it, it goes so fast!” at the precise moment when your toddler is grabbing all the mints and magazines off the impulse rack and throwing them on the ground, or standing up to try to take a nose dive onto the linoleum. It explains why I miss my son as soon as he goes to sleep, even though the process of putting him in bed feels like a soul-shaking battle almost every single night (forgive me if I ever thought my patience was tested before having to put a toddler to bed in order to binge watch Netflix).

It is not fun, in the moment, to explain (patiently) to a two-year-old why he must make an “Aaah” sound instead of an “Oooooh” sound to allow you to brush his teeth. It is not fun to have to consider your words so carefully, hoping to avoid having to pin him down to wipe the feces off his rear end without smearing them all over the floor, and then choosing a wrong word and having to do it anyway. It is not fun to watch him throw the food you spent hours cooking all over the floor and then demand a cheese stick two hours later. It is not fun to discipline when he hits.

But Type 2 fun! That explains why when I look back at him in the car while he giggles and tries to whistle, or when I talk about his silly stories and costumes to someone else, I find myself saying and honestly thinking, “He is such a fun kid.” He is worth it, just like the summit of a particularly painful mountain. I think it’s why parents often enthusiastically tell those without children – the young and childfree, watching our struggle in bewilderment – that it’s the best experience of our lives, and we definitely don’t regret it. “Sure,” they say, backing away slowly. “Sure, you don’t.”

I can understand their skepticism. Doesn’t everyone wonder why mountaineers or marathoners or Tough Mudder racers do it, sometimes? Don’t most people watch their suffering with confusion and disbelief? Did you know there is an obstacle in the Tough Mudder in which people run through electrically charged wires? They don’t have to do that! Why are they doing that?! 

In the society we live in today, we don’t have to have kids. In fact, it’s easier not to. We don’t have to climb mountains, and we aren’t driven to run marathons. The first mountain climber probably was forced to migrate to find food. The first marathon runner had urgent news to deliver to Athens and no iPhone with which to electronically message it. But marathon running is at an all-time high, people are finding new mountains to climb all the time, and huge percentages of the population have kids – every day they’re having kids! Imagine!

So the other thing about Type 2 fun is that it’s impossible to really explain well why I want to do it again. I can only describe the experience of struggling through it, perhaps miserably, and then being psyched to try it again. You either get it or you don’t.

If you, like me, are pregnant with a second (or third, etc.) child, I know you get it. I don’t even have to ask. Someday we’ll get to be the old folks in the grocery story smiling at the young parents in a mix of envy and relief. I’ll always hold onto that, as I’m hallucinating from sleep deprivation and trying to rock my newborn to sleep, and you can, too.

What I didn’t have to know

Humming from the backseat, then a squeal. “Look, Mommy! There’s a – a – a -”

I glance back at Harley and see that he has a big, impish grin on his face. He is pretending. “What do you see, baby?”

“A cliff!”

“Oh no! Call the Paw Patrol!” I exclaim. He giggles.

Even though we are just a mile or two away from our apartment building, this is a new route, and everything is new to us. We moved to Connecticut just over a year ago – I’ve spent 1/29th of my life here. It is still a foreign land to me. But it has been nearly half of my son’s life, and it’s likely all he remembers.

I narrate what I see as we drive down the road, a habit I picked up when he was a speechless infant and that I now can’t seem to shake. “Shelton Land Trust open space.” “Some for sale signs.” We’re driving through a wooded suburb. “Welcome to Trumbull,” reads another hanging sign, curlicued and quaint with painted wrought iron flourishes. I am still not used to the stubborn quaintness and stylized rusticity of New England. It is grating to my sensibilities in a way I don’t fully understand. It feels false. I don’t tell Harley this. I don’t tell anyone this.

I see a log cabin ahead on my right that catches my eye. The old structure marks itself out distinctly against a backdrop of pointedly tasteful Colonials and Cape Cods. There is a sign in front of it, dark brown wood with burned letters painted in yellow.

“Golden Hill Reservation
Paugussett Indians”

A silhouette of a wolf underneath holds a “Private Property” sign.

There is more on the sign, but in my shock, I can’t read it in time, despite slowing down and craning my neck. We are already past.

I am silent for a minute as I continue down the road. The log cabin is clearly surrounded by a suburban American neighborhood, even visible through the trees behind the cabin itself. “There’s a reservation here? Is this all part of it?” I wonder aloud.

Harley tries to echo “reservation,” but it comes out “wezoobasin.”

“Could it…could it just be that one house?” Saying it aloud feels ominous and jarring, especially with a little toddler’s voice echoing behind me. “No. But…” There were clearly other new suburban houses behind it. I know that this is the Nichols section of Trumbull. I’ve been told it’s “very desirable” by numerous real estate listings sent to me by my husband’s family. It’s certainly expensive.

I feel unsettled. Could it really just be the one house? It seems impossible, like a satire of America, the land of an entire tribe of Native Americans reduced to a single half-acre plot of land in a semi-planned suburban community, ignored by its affluent neighbors living within range of a stage whisper.

When I go home, I immediately look it up online. It’s not even a half-acre, I learn. It’s a quarter of an acre. The Golden Hill Paugussett Nation has not been able to gain federal recognition but does hold recognition from the state of Connecticut. They also have a larger parcel of land in Colchester. I also learn that they are not, in fact, ignored by their neighbors – the reservation’s existence has been challenged multiple times over the years, in 1939, 1975, and as recently as 2009.

When you search for this reservation online, you will find a Facebook page. The visitor comments are full of people who are “inspired” by “old traditions,” interested in “shamanic traditions,” and just recently found out that their great-great-great grandfather was Native. The responses are polite but brief.

The wall posts by the page’s administrator are often art and photographs featuring Native faces, tagged with #NativeLivesMatter.

I am made suddenly, uncomfortably, deeply aware of what I don’t know. What I have been ignoring. All the issues I’ve never considered because I didn’t have to know about them at all.

I am also aware of my inclination to go on ignoring this. Ignoring the sense of discomfort that comes up somewhere in my gut whenever I pass the log cabin on Shelton Road.

Right now, I think all I really ought to do is educate myself and hold off from following my fear, which only wants to protect me from discomfort, bless its heart. But this is the good kind of discomfort. The kind we all need to lean into a little more. Expansive discomfort. It happens when my mind was smaller than it should have been and I’m forcing it to stretch bigger. I must keep stretching my heart out, as well. That can hurt, too. If I follow my fear, my heart and mind stay much too small.

Fear will have to follow me.

What I Read in February

Not quite as much, this month.

Yes, that’s a blurb from Naomi Novik on the Jemisin book. What can I say? When I like an author, I trust her!

I read four books, all by women, two by a woman of color. It wasn’t really on purpose, those were just the books I wanted to read, but I want to keep track of the voices I’m amplifying in my life. One thing I’ve decided to do this year is to honor my curiosity – I will pursue any inquiry, book, or skill that interests me. I got into the show Continuum this month as well, which ate up my reading time a little bit, since I tend to read from 8-10 after Harley goes to bed. I also just got really tired in general. So, to the inventory.

Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik. Sixth book in the Temeraire cycle, which is an alternate history featuring the Napoleonic Wars WITH DRAGONS! (Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it? Peter Jackson thought so too. He optioned the story a few years ago, though I’m not sure what he’s going to actually make with it, or when.) This one took place in colonial Australia, as the main characters were transported to the penal colony for their actions in the last book. I did enjoy Novik’s use of the narrative and character arcs within the story to present the impacts of imperialism and mercantilism on the entire world, from Europe itself to Africa, Asia (China in particular), and Australia. She seems to have been very thorough in her research, and although I am unfamiliar with the history of Australia and can’t testify to its specific accuracy, I can say that the Napoleonic Wars themselves read very well. It’s amusing to read her take on how the military tacticians on both sides might have incorporated dragons into the supply chain logistics and battle tactics of the time.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Won the Pulitzer in 2011 for fiction, apparently. This one was pretty dark – and unlike the rest of the books I read this month, not fantasy, although it did include some speculative elements – but Egan punctuated the sad mess of her characters’ lives with enough humor to keep from totally dragging me down. I probably am not a sophisticated enough reader to fully appreciate everything she did with it, but I did enjoy her writing and the book’s structure, which stretched quite masterfully across time, cycling through the points of view of characters in a music-centered social circle in New York with sometimes-tenuous personal connections. This book really seemed to focus on how people struggle with their own identity and how that struggle impacts their relationships with others, sometimes violently. It was quite sad but ended on a relatively hopeful note, and Egan found a way to humanize her characters, even when they were guilty of serious crimes (whether legal or relational), without condoning or trying to justify them.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin. Really stunning and original epic fantasy, first of the Inheritance Trilogy. Also very dark. Jemisin completely tosses the Tolkienian swords-and-sorcery framework out the window, which is great, because I think the best authors have done what they can with that particular genre. This world bears no resemblance to Middle Earth, and its gods and godlings are very present and not like any of the traditional gods of fantasy. Jemisin portrays the political and social structure, while steeped in magic and authoritarianism and intrigue and unlike any in our world’s history, with a ring of brutal truth. One god, who is worshiped fanatically and exclusively, has essentially enslaved all the others in mortal form, subordinating them to his chosen ruling family, the Arameri. The amount of power inherent in this arrangement predictably leads to the Arameris’ absolute corruption. This slice of a truly millenia-spanning story is an epic chapter, focusing on Yeine, a warrior, leader, and daughter of an Arameri heiress who relinquished her claim to the throne and eloped from the Arameri seat of Sky to her husband’s land, and Yeine’s journey from that land in the outskirts of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to treacherous Sky after her mother’s suspicious death.

The Broken Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin. This is not precisely a sequel to the first story, although it does come after the first. It is its own chapter, maybe a bit less epic in scope, but I enjoyed it. Its storyline follows Oree, a blind street artist with the ability to see magic, and her encounters with the gods. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t have some of the characters I really enjoyed from the first book.

Took a break from reading in the last week of February, but I’m now halfway into the last book of the trilogy. Its main character is one of my favorites from the first book: Sieh the Trickster. After this, I’m ready for some nonfiction, and my to-read pile is totally stacked.

On Resilience

Things are just starting to settle down, I thought to myself last night. Everything finally feels natural and even a little bit…peaceful. Our first son Harley is two and a half years old now. He’s very verbal and expressive, capable, generally happy (for a toddler), and able to self-amuse, for the most part. He’s not in danger of choking or falling into sharp corners. We spend evenings taking care of his dinner and evening routine, playing with him a bit, and then letting him play by himself or watch some cartoons while we read or clean up the house. (Or watch with him, if it’s the Octonauts. Did you know there is a kind of crab that can grow over six feet tall? Look up the Japanese Spider Crab.) Even with the odd tantrum or impossible demand, it’s quite enjoyable, compared to the first two years. I have been thinking about what changed and why it took so long.

I don’t have a lot of non-blurry pictures of Harley in action…he moves fast.

Part of it, I am sure, is that he has simply grown into a safer stage of development. Gone now are the high-stakes risks of choking and falling, and gone are the difficulties of trying to figure out what he needs using nothing more than the pitch and tenor of his cries and an elaborate parental game of Charades where the penalty for failure is an even shriller, more urgent scream.

I also think that part of it is a change in my own mindset. I’ve tried to encourage him to be resilient and to try hard by not interceding when he is trying something difficult, as long as it’s not dangerous. I sit back and watch him with an encouraging smile, and when he gets frustrated, I acknowledge his frustration and that he is trying hard. When he accomplishes something – sometimes even surprising me – I celebrate with him, telling him that he did it, even though it was hard, he kept trying, and that’s called perseverance. He jumps up and down with a wild grin and yells, “Yay! Per-seer-ins!”

He may or may not have become more resilient because of this technique, although I hope it will help him develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. What I know for sure is that by practicing the encouraging smile and holding back my hands – also my go-to when he falls and bumps his head or whatever, at least until he reacts on his own – I have learned to have faith in him and his inner resilience. Where before I was masking my deep anxiety with a very studied calm, now I find that I truly do believe that he can do it. I feel ease. If he doesn’t, that’s OK – he can try again another time. I have learned to give him space. I have learned that he is his own person and responsible for his own sphere of influence – whether and how much he eats, sleeps, or tries to solve a problem. I am responsible for setting clear boundaries – you must sit at the table to eat; chicken, broccoli, and potatoes are on the menu for dinner, not lollipops; now is the time for being in bed; we can’t play with this because it’s dangerous, and then otherwise for getting out of his way. I’m not perfect at it, but the practice itself has shown me to be comfortable with these healthy boundaries, and it has lessened my anxiety to a pleasantly surprising degree.

In about two and a half months, my newly peaceful world is going to blow up spectacularly when we bring a newborn home from the hospital. Knowing this makes me appreciate the quiet evenings all the more. But I hope very much that I will be able to learn more quickly with Cyrus this faith and ease I have learned from Harley. That I will remember to set up healthy and safe containers for him to sleep, eat, and play, and then back the hell off. That even as I am playing Charades with a nonverbal baby, I will smile encouragingly and release my anxiety – he will be fine if we guess wrong the first time. I do not have to be a knot of anxiety, snapping at my husband for failing to guess that he is too warm instead of hungry. I hope I will be able to just have faith that he will be OK.

I hope that as I try to teach my boys to be resilient, that I will learn to be a little more resilient as well.

Book Review: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

“Until a few years ago a simple, quiet, primitive place on the shores of the Colorado, Lee’s Ferry has now fallen under the protection of the Park Service. And who can protect it against the Park Service? Powerlines now bisect the scene; a 100-foot pink water tower looms against the red cliffs; tract-style houses are built to house the “protectors”; natural campsites along the river are closed off while all campers are now herded into an artificial steel-and-asphalt “campground” in the hottest, windiest spot in the area; historic buildings are razed by bulldozers to save the expense of maintaining them while at the same time hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on an unneeded paved entrance road. And the administrators complain of vandalism.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


I found Desert Solitaire to be a thoroughly maddening book. I suppose it is the author who makes me crazy. His depictions of the desert, arresting and fantastic and spiritual, alongside musings on civilization, or culture, or whatever he wants to call it, boggle the mind. But although his casual contempt of modern man, vague misanthropy and less vague misogyny do rankle, I cannot pretend that they are foreign to me. I have railed uselessly against cities and then returned to them, eagerly and willingly, just as he describes doing at the end of his season as a Park Ranger in the book. I have been vaguely dissatisfied with people in general and men in particular, even as I hold human life and humanity in the highest regard. But in my sympathetic irritation, I am disinclined to excuse all that I know is flawed and contradictory in those sentiments, even as I recognize them in myself.

But perhaps I do excuse them, regardless. I doubt that I would hate the man if I could have met him before he passed. I hear in his sarcastic tone a rueful, self-deprecating humor. His exchanges with others – admittedly self-reported – are witty and endearingly self-conscious. I underlined many of his musings just moments after my eyes rolled so far at his arrogance that they nearly fell right out of my head, leaving me quite unable to continue reading this story made up by this self-satisfied, casually misanthropic, anarchistic atheist. And yet continue I did.

Indeed, his paradoxes resonated most, his penitence for how he treated his fellow man and their works. Unapologetically flawed and yet…apologetic, too. The smallness and insignificance deeply felt within a city, after all, is sharper and more painful than the smallness and insignificance that one feels at the base of the towering, uncaring mountain, the empty desert, or the roiling, mindless furor of the ocean. The city presents an intensity and eminence of caring – none of which is directed at oneself. No staggering mass of stars is quite so alienating. It is instantly recognizable, the frustration and misanthropy inspired by a seething mass of humanity and tourism, even as he appreciates individual humans and tourists.

In short, I hated this book for making me love it. I am both annoyed and entertained by the hypocritical savant who wrote it, above all, perhaps, for being a pain in the ass in the same ways that I am a pain in the ass, and worst of all, for making me aware of it.

“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”  -E.A.

What I read in January: More than I thought I could.

January 2016 books

I read eight books in January, totaling a little over 4,000 pages. No one is more surprised than I am, believe me. That’s very likely more than I read for the entirety of last year, not that I was keeping track. I used to read a lot as a kid, probably right up until I left home for college. But ever since then, I’ve avoided it a little. Not that I haven’t read at all – I did read for school, and I would pick up a book here or there that caught my fancy. But not like this. Not like I used to.

I think part of it was that I felt like I had so much to learn that I couldn’t get from a book. Properly directing my attention, which has always been prodigious, is an ongoing struggle for me. I paid endless attention to books, as a child. I could read for unbroken hours, a whole day even. I used to finish my schoolwork as flawlessly and quickly as I could with the express purpose of getting back to the book I’d hidden in my desk without hearing reproach from my teachers. It was hard for them to complain, since I did so well in school, probably in no small part due to my endless and avid reading. But I did miss out on the things you learn outside of books: how to be a friend. How to make new friends. Social rules. Small talk. How to make a joke. How to take a joke. When to break the rules. Who I am outside of a book. What I could make and do. I had decided, at some point during my then-brief and intensely focused life, that those things didn’t matter. How that came to be is another story, perhaps. But of course they do matter, as I know now, and I was forced to spend most of my late teens and early twenties learning them, making up for lost time. So I turned my attention to them and away from reading.

Finally, this fall, after struggling for the past two years with the stunted attention span that comes from the sleep deprivation and constant multitasking required by new parenthood, I decided it was time to come back. I decided I would stop scanning Facebook at night before bed and instead pick up a book. I would read books on airplanes instead of magazines. I would get my attention span back on track, dammit. And I would start with a fantasy book recommended by my cousin: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I knew I could get into that.

My decision kicked off a month of mindless, voracious consumption. Doesn’t sound very romantic or intellectual, does it? It wasn’t. I immensely enjoyed the time I spent this month reading. But it was all done very much in the spirit of binge-watching every existing episode of Battlestar Galactica. I finished The Name of the Wind and its follow up, The Wise Man’s Fear, about a musician-warrior named Kvothe, in quick succession, and was dismayed to find that the third book of the trilogy hasn’t been published yet. I found the second book of the series orders of magnitude better than the first, and I felt it provided depth that enriched what I’d read in the first book, although I did enjoy both. (As a result, I might have unrealistic expectations of the third.) I turned to historical fiction with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which managed to be a book about both the development of the theory of evolution as well as spiritual growth. It was a very good read. I picked up Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, a book I’ve been meaning to read about the infamous eco-anarchist’s first season in Arches National Park as a park ranger. I was simultaneously captivated and appalled by this book, which about a quarter of the way through I naturally began to read in the voice of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. I am quite sure I have another post coming about that one. (Update: Here is that review.) I wanted more nature stories after that, so I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. I love Bill Bryson – he’s funny and smart and always puts in the legwork whenever there is relevant history or science to be mined for interestingness – but this book was not my favorite of his. So I returned to fantasy with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City. These were YA books, come to find out, and very quick reads. I enjoyed them very much for what they were. I think there is one more out there, but I had some dragon-themed 19th century alternate history to catch up on, so I switched to Victory of Eagles, the fifth in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik featuring a very fun twist on the Battle of Waterloo, and finished it up yesterday.

I stacked up the books and surveyed them. This, I suppose, is what I read when I’m grabbing any interesting-looking paperback within reach – mostly fantasy, with a touch of history and a sprinkling of wilderness-related narrative nonfiction. Coward that I am, I avoided setting a Goodreads annual reading goal until I’d finished this month and set my goal to put me well ahead of the curve for my goal (50 books this year). With my son due at the end of April, however, I will never keep up this pace. I’ll end up falling asleep in books again come May, with newsprint letters impressed on my cheek and forehead where I fall, losing track of my place and which book I’m reading, anyway, and where I’ve left the damn thing. I’ll be lucky to get through one or two per month, then. But for now, heavy and round as I am and cold and windy as it is outside, there’s not much better for me to do, to be quite honest.

I didn’t consciously plan out my reading list or set any expectations. So far, the pool of authorship is rather lacking in diversity – all American, all white, mostly men. I managed only two books of eight by women. I don’t regret any of the reading I did, to be clear – it was all time well spent, and I think if you have an interest in the genres in question, you may enjoy these. But I do want to be more intentional about my choices in the future, both in topic and in authorship, because I strongly value getting as many perspectives as possible, from people who are as different from me as possible. I think we all need more of that.

I learned that I’m not interested in giving books stars or ratings. I have tried, in the past, but it just frustrates me. I don’t think the value you get from a book can be quantified so neatly. Desert Solitaire probably drove that point home more than any other book this month, for me. I both loved it and hated it. I argued out loud, rolled my eyes, laughed in amusement and horror, underlined both profoundly insightful and unbelievably delusional paragraphs, and sympathized with the author even as I was irritated with him. There is no way to assign a number from one to five to that feeling. I could give it each of those ratings, and more besides. In every case, it feels presumptuous, reductive, and disrespectful to authors, whose work we readers summarily rank and dismiss as though their books were particularly troublesome brands of pens on Amazon. I didn’t like that he killed that poor rabbit: one star. I, too, hate civilization: five stars. It generally has very little thought or engagement with the content of the book and more often than not misses the point entirely. Imagine contemporaries ranking classical paintings! Why is the nose on the side of his face? This Picasso guy is a hack. One star. That nude lady is hot, thanks, Rubens! Five stars.

Overall, this month was encouraging. I was gratified to see how my attention span had recovered – with a newborn, infant, or toddler, it can feel very much as though it might never come back – and very heartened to realize how much time I was able to find to read (although it admittedly does not say much good about how I was managing it previously). I’m on a bit of a roll with Temeraire, so I’ll probably start there. I’ve decided to make these “What I Read” updates monthly and regular. I’ll let you know in March how February goes.