Some housekeeping

This blog is about to move to its own domain at

Everything should migrate on its own and you will not have to do anything except to enjoy the new absence of intrusive wordpress ads, including if you are subscribed to posts here via email or RSS feed. If you access the site via a bookmark in your internet browser, you will need to delete your old bookmark and make a new one at the new website (Grandma: call me!).

This post will be followed by a test post within an hour or so just to make sure everything is working. We will then return to our regular posting schedule of “hmm, I haven’t blogged in a while”.

(no comment)

‘I’ve been told so many things that I don’t know whether I’m on my head or my heels,’ said Mark. ‘But I don’t see how one’s going to start a newspaper stunt (which is about what this comes to) without being political. Is it Left or Right papers that are going to print all this rot about Alcasan?’

‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N. I. C. E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us — to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.’

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 449-50.

Here’s to the one that got away

The month that got away, I mean. October; I blinked and October happened. Look, it’s Hallowe’en already and I haven’t posted in more than three weeks.

We’ve been in a pretty busy season chez Pennylegion: my husband has been busy at work, I’ve been busy at home. There have been birthday cakes to bake, retreats to go on, Hallowe’en costumes to make, life to squeeze out somehow in between all of the stuff that goes on. So blogging is the easiest, and first, thing to let go.

Ah, well. It happens. See y’all in November, then.


Watch and learn

Back a couple of cities ago, I belonged to a small writers’ group that initially formed when we were all put on a committee together to host a brunch for a visiting Bishop (really). I live too far away to meet with them any more, but I keep in touch as best I can, and I love seeing what my writerly friends are up to. A few months ago, my writerly friend Greg had an essay published in The Globe and Mail, about his quest to find the perfect watch:

Having decided long ago that I wanted a watch, I began to think about what watch I wanted. I went through a silly period when I thought I wanted a Rolex. Actually, I thought I could settle on a $5,000 Rolex as a concession to my deeper desire for a Patek Philippe watch. I live downtown and I don’t drive a car, so why not spend the equivalent amount of money for a nice car on a nice watch? I had many dark nights of the soul greedily lusting after a watch like this. I watched YouTube videos, I read reviews and read watch-enthusiast blogs. I tried to convince myself that a single beautiful watch and a few other carefully curated objects could be part of a minimalist life focused on quality over quantity.

Along the way, I contented myself with an innovative smartwatch that was made by robots and was completely mechanical and self-winding. We had a happy two years together, but the watch would lose a couple of minutes a day and I often found myself showing up late for meetings. As much as I liked it, I just knew that it wasn’t my “forever watch.” If you think I use the term “forever watch” without shaking my head at my own ridiculousness over the time and effort I have given to thinking about this watch, then you cannot read subtext.

You should read the whole piece, as it is charming.

I used to wear a watch in high school — funnily enough, when I was probably more surrounded by clocks than I have ever been, before or since. But this was back before high schoolers had cell phones, and the watch did make sure that I made my bus on time. Sometime since then I stopped wearing one, a decision that was surely reinforced once I got my first cell phone (at the ripe age of 24). Why wear a watch when I’m carrying around a phone with a clock, I ask you? And since I had certainly never found anything approaching the standard or satisfaction of a “forever watch”, I assumed that my watch-wearing days were behind me forever.

But Greg’s piece made me reconsider the idea. There are times when I would find it handy to know the time but don’t want to be forever hauling out my cell phone — like at the playground, since if I take my phone out I will start using it. If I had a watch, I could leave my phone behind. Or I could use it at the library, where the children’s section has a clock that’s quite out of sight from our usual hangout. Hmm. Suddenly the idea of wearing a watch was starting to seem a lot less absurd.

And so when we stopped at the duty free on one leg of our recent vacation to Canada and back — I bought a watch. Definitely not a $5,000 dollar watch, or even a $500 watch. Actually it cost me a whopping ten dollars. But here I am: once again a watch-wearer.

I’ve learned some things about watches in the past few weeks, and about myself. I was confirmed in my suspiscion that wearing a watch to tell time is better than pulling out a phone when I was walking to meet a friend for coffee — I was able to check the time without even breaking stride. No stopping or fumbling in my purse: just a swing of the wrist and an even step. Perfection.

I also find myself very satisfied that I chose an analog watch over a digital one. Not that there’s anything wrong with digital watches. But mine ticks — no tocks, just a nice steady tick tick tick that I find, somehow, extremely comforting. I can’t tell you why this should be so, but there’s something about a watch quietly ticking away that makes me feel as if all’s well in the world, not unlike the sound of a whistling train in the distance. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Perhaps the funniest thing to me about wearing this watch, however, is how very grown up it makes me feel. I’m not sure why this is — maybe because people my age usually tell tme with their phones and so I associate it with being older. But apparently it isn’t motherhood, being in my thirties, or my graduate degree that makes me feel as if I’ve firmly arrived at adulthood: it’s wearing a watch. Isn’t that silly? Yet there it is, all the same.

This isn’t my “forever watch”, if indeed there is such a thing. I’d like one with a face that’s a little smaller, and a band made of something more durable than pleather. But I’ll use this one until it’s worn out, and see where it takes me. Tick. Tick. Tick.

This is why I didn't like your status update

A few weeks back I ran across these two articles:

I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What it Did to Me.

I Quit Liking Things on Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s how it Changed My View of Humanity.

(Please excuse the click-bait titles. I’ll give you the TL;DR although I do recommend reading them both — liking everything on facebook turns your newsfeed into an insane and highly polarized confluence of mostly advertisements; not liking anything on facebook means that you have to actually write comments and be social, and it’s nice.)

Both of these articles struck a chord with me. I’m a long-time facebook user — my timeline goes back to 2005, and facebook was pretty new then. I remember having to have a university email address to register, and I remember the furor when they removed that restriction and facebook was invaded first by thirteen-year-olds, and then by our parents and grandparents. I use it to keep in touch with many friends and family who live far away, and I’m not likely to quit any time soon.

The fact that I’m probably a permanent facebook user, however, (whatever “permanent” means in the internet age) doesn’t/shouldn’t mean that I keep using it mindlessly. I do have concerns about facebook’s advertising algorithms, about privacy, and about the fact that it being a free service means that I am the product. And of course there’s the old dead horse about facebook’s inherent superficiality and the false sense of community that it (may) provide. I had already decided to stop engaging in facebook debates — much like how I try not to read the comment section underneath news articles — for the sake of my sanity. And I am ruthless about unfollowing annoying people and blocking just about every app or meme-generating page that crosses my newsfeed. But what about taking Elan Morgan‘s line and actually quitting the ‘like’?

Unlike Morgan, I didn’t announce that I wouldn’t ‘like’ things any more — I just stopped doing it. Either I liked a status enough to comment on it, or I scrolled on by: no more easy middle ground. And since I did that, I do actually find that I enjoy facebook a lot more. Needing to actually comment or not (and needing to decide which option to take) has brought back a degree of mindfulness that I had been missing. Leaving comments has fostered conversations, and it’s nice to engage with people a bit more than I had been. And being made to actually stop and think has curtailed my natural inclination to open it up a aimlessly scroll down for more time than I care to admit. It’s helping me to actually see what people are posting. I don’t think I’ll go back.

Thinking about habits

Something or other in my online reading (what? by whom? I don’t recall) has lately gotten me thinking a lot about habits, and led me to both Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before. Both books are very good, but they work especially well as a pair: Duhigg tackles more of the brain-science of habit (like the cue-habit-reward cycle) and Rubin focuses more on the social/personal factors of habit formation and change (like her “four tendencies” of personality, which determine how we respond to both internal and external expectations). Together they paint a broad picture of how we form habits and how habits form us. I was intrigued by Duhigg’s more technical approach, but I appreciate Better Than Before‘s practicality, as well as the emphasis on knowing yourself — since people tend to respond to the making and breaking of habits in predictable but different ways.

For example, Rubin broadly divides people into four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. (Take the quiz here). I’m an Obliger; I find it much easier to live up to other people’s expectations than my own. It’s hard for me to form a habit without some sort of external accountability; I don’t like to let people down, but can (too) easily shirk a habit if I’m the only one who knows or cares. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I do everything for which I’m externally accountable ungrudgingly, of course — witness most of last semester’s homework — but I still do it. (In terms of school work, I think this is why I struggle with courses that use contract grading; I don’t feel driven to try the same way I would if I really had to earn a grade, rather than just meeting a minimum requirement of work done.) There are many other categories Rubin looks at; one that stuck out to me was the Opener/Finisher divide. I’m a Finisher; I get a bigger charge and sense of accomplishment over finishing something (a project, a jar of peanut butter, a blog post) than out of starting a new one. I like looking at something and being able to say “It’s done!”. By the same measure, I get stressed out when I have so many things on the go that I’m not finishing any of them, and it’s hard to stay motivated when I have a long-term project that won’t be finished any time soon.

This strikes me as really useful data. This summer I’ve started working on my thesis, which I’ll have to submit and defend next April. But since I don’t (have to) check in with my advisor particularly often, I’m not working with a lot of external accountability here — and the long deadline doesn’t help, because it will be many months before I can look at my thesis and say “It’s done!”. So how do I make sure that I keep working on it?

Right now, like this:

As it turns out, a sticker chart is pretty much ideal for me. Here’s why I think it works:

1. I do love stickers. That’s not enough on its own, but it surely helps.

2. The chart keeps me accountable. I’m not keeping track of whether I work on my thesis privately; I’m keeping track right there on my dining room wall, where my husband and friends can see it. Even though they’re not checking up on me, they still know what’s going on. Having my chart visible turns it into an external motivator.

3. I can easily see what I’ve accomplished. I put on a star sticker when I do thesis reading, and a happy face when I do writing. At the end of the week, if I have at least one sticker on at least six days, I get a big sticker. My Finisher tendencies motivate me to earn a sticker every day, and to keep the big sticker chain unbroken. Even though my thesis won’t be finished for a long time, every day I get to “finish” a small step.

4. It’s low-key: I don’t have minimums for earning stickers. If I read anything at all — even if it’s just one paragraph — I get a sticker for that day. If I write anything at all — even if it’s just one sentence — I get a sticker for that day. For some people this might not be helpful since it could be a tacit encouragement to make a minimal effort. But for me, it’s more important to establish the habit of working on my thesis every day (or nearly) than to worry about exactly how much work I’m doing. Some days I get quite a lot done; others, I don’t. But I’m working on it regularly and that’s what’s going to make the difference in the long run. Slow and steady, etc. etc. (And since starting my chart I’ve read upwards of 800 pages and written one complete chapter and smaller chunks of others, so clearly something is working.)

Rubin also tackles the convenience factor in habit formation: if we want to establish a good habit, we need to make it convenient. And if we want to kill a bad habit, we need to make it inconvenient for ourselves (which could be something as simple as, say, storing the cookies in a lidded opaque jar instead of a clear unlidded one). This rings true for me. What finally got me flossing every night was moving the floss from inside the bathroom cupboard to a spot on the counter — it’s visible, so I see it and am reminded to floss, and it’s right there so it’s totally convenient. And now I floss! Who knew it could be so easy? (Gretchen Rubin might have known.)

This all has intrigued me greatly. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be thinking about habits for many days to come.

On reading and not reading

I mentioned in a post the other day that the first book I chose from our town’s new little free library was The Thirteenth Tale, which I had read and reviewed some years ago but did not remember well (save that I enjoyed it). Not wanting to spoil things for myself I didn’t actually read my review — not that I tended to give spoilers away (much) but because I didn’t want to trigger any memories of the book’s plot at all. It’s rare that I forget a book’s contents so completely, and so I wanted to come at it fresh. A second first reading, if you will.

The verdict, this time around? 
I couldn’t even finish it.
In fact, I couldn’t even finish the first third. 
The writing, you guys. The writing is so bad. It’s got the most overblown, purple prose, and I just couldn’t do it this time around. A glance over my review from back in 2009 shows that I thought that the prose was bad then, too, but had been sufficiently captivated by the plot to declare, in effect, that I loved it and would read it over and over again forever. 
So much for that. 
This did get me thinking, though, about the nature of literary taste and how it changes (or doesn’t) over time. I think that one of the reasons that I decided to put down The Thirteenth Tale is that over the last six years I have learned to read with more discrimination. I have less patience for bad writing (whether objectively bad or simply not to my taste) and I am much more willing to simply stop reading something if I’m not enjoying it. Part of this is certainly related to how busy life is right now: I’m doing a master’s degree and I have an infant, and since my for-pleasure reading time is constrained, I want to make sure that I’m using it on things that are actually pleasurable. I think that I also have less stomach for the unpleasant. It’s not far into The Thirteenth Tale that we are into the region of incest, sadism, and sexual assault. I don’t think that I’m afraid or upset to read about such things, but again, I’d rather be reading things I’m more likely to enjoy. If the writing were better, perhaps I would have lasted it out; like love, good prose covers a multitude of sins. 
At the same time, I find that I apply these standards somewhat arbitrarily: I judge books that are new to me much more harshly than books I’ve read and enjoyed before. (At least as far as the books that I remember reading, that is!) If a book was a favourite in my childhood or adolescence, chances are that it will remain a favourite despite the very real flaws that it might have. Likewise, there are some books I own that do not have, perhaps, the most literary merit, but that are light enough that they get read and re-read when I need some brain candy. 
The issue of timing also comes into play. Sometimes we read, or try to read, books when it’s just not the right time for them. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I thought it was boring and didn’t finish. A few years later I read it again, and it became and remains one of my all-time favourites. The first time I read Wuthering Heights I thought it was garbage. A few years later I had to read it for a class — and while I will never count it as a favourite, I did come to appreciate it in many ways. That year I think I read it three or four times, and I wrote two papers on it. Perhaps I would have had more patience with The Thirteenth Tale if it weren’t coming at the not-quite-end of a very stressful semester.

Of course, books can either suffer or shine depending on what books they’re following. A book that’s kind of run-of-the-mill will appear stellar if it follows a couple of flops, or like a pretty bad book if it follows a few that were brilliant. Some books are just tough acts to follow. 

Will I try reading The Thirteenth Tale again? I might. Evidently I loved it the first time around, and while I don’t always agree with my past self’s opinions, I’m still willing to hear them. What doesn’t work at the end of the school year might work a month later on vacation or at the pool. Time will tell.

TL;DR 2013/14

Oh, right, I haven’t posted in like a year and a half. Let’s catch up, shall we?

In 2013 and 2014, I retired a major debt, left my jobs, moved to small-town America, took up ukulele, dressed up as a Settlers of Catan wheat tile for Hallowe’en, drove to St. Louis for American Thanksgiving, drove back to Ontario for Christmas, started a master’s degree program, got pregnant, finished the semester, drove to Ohio for a family reunion, spent a month cat/house sitting in the fancy town up the road, made half a rag rug, painted three rooms, drove back to Ontario for a family visit, made curtains and generally nested, started the fall semester, figured I’d be pregnant forever, finally had the baby (41+6 weeks gestation), finished the semester, hosted family for Christmas for the first time, and read 354 books.

That about covers it.