How Motherhood Changed My Understanding of Time

Time is such a funny thing, isn’t it? The concept of time. It’s rather grand in theory and is the kind of thing that makes your brow furrow if you think about it too long. Time. Time. TIME. It completely loses its meaning.

What does time mean anyway? Well, until recently I never concerned myself too much with the passage of time other than to use it as a filler during small talk. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s already [insert month]. This year is going by so quickly!”

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Upon conception, though, time is measured very differently, carefully even. With the help of an app, I could easily tell you at any moment exactly how many weeks (and days) pregnant I was. I’m not sure about you, but until then I had never measured my life in terms of weeks minus the occasional vacation countdown. (Baby’s progress, meanwhile, was measured in comparisons to increasingly large fruits and vegetables. Thirty weeks? Baby is the size of a butternut squash. Kind of a strange custom, really, but a lot of things about pregnancy and motherhood are strange.)

All you think about when you’re pregnant is time. “How much time do I have to finish the nursery?” “When will baby be born?” “Will we ever have time to play board games again when baby comes?”

It should prepare you for what’s to come, but it doesn’t even come close.

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Will the time ever come where I can see my legs again?
Pictured: Me at 37 weeks

Time stopped the day Baby Bear was born. It stopped the moment he was born.

After a 36-hour labor (an amount of time I will never forget), I was practically delirious. Luckily Papa Bear was a little more with-it than I because otherwise I’m not sure I’d remember anything from that first day. At no point did I really know what was going on around me or what time it was. All I could do was flit in and out of sleep with this incredible baby on my chest. Our visitors brought us bounties of food (including a steak and a long-awaited Portillo’s hot dog; I never seem to forget food), I know I showered at some point (the best shower I’d ever had), and I waddled to pee under the watchful eye of a nurse a handful of times. Otherwise, everything is a blur. I was exhausted and so overcome with emotion that even when we decided on his name I was not entirely alert.

In the days after his birth, I felt awestruck and more nostalgic than I’d ever been. Which was a strange feeling given that I had this new baby in my arms. I looked back and reminisced about the entire birth experience. I felt sad that each new day took us further away from that glorious moment when we first laid eyes on each other. Glorious sounds a little flamboyant, but that’s the only word I can use to describe it. Though I felt like we were still in a daze and had a hard time remembering what day or time it was, I already wanted to slow down and make sure I was truly savoring everything.

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Please, never let go. (Okay, maybe let go, we’ll cut your nails, then come back.)
Pictured: Baby Brown Bear’s 6-day-old hand grasping my thumb

But then, miraculously, life continued on. Our whole lives were building to this moment and yet it passed like any other. Papa Bear and I adjusted to parenthood–this probably shouldn’t be in past tense–and have had to succumb to the now advanced pace of time.

When Baby Bear was three weeks old, he and I started attending a wonderful group for new moms (about which I will write more later). At the time, he was one of the youngest babies there. While it had taken so much effort and planning to arrive even somewhat on time, I sat there in bewilderment as the moms of older babies seemed to be so at ease with their babies and their new lives. They were relaxed and took all the things their babies did in stride while those same things still caused me so much anxiety. I admired these ‘older’ moms and hoped that some day I’d feel that way too.

I didn’t recognize it as it was happening, of course, but one day I looked around the room and realized that my eight-month-old was now one of the oldest babies there. As I tried to reassure these ‘younger’ harried and frazzled moms that life gets easier, I marveled at the fact that these babies were even born. How was it that the world didn’t stop turning when Baby Bear was born? Logically, of course, I knew this was ridiculous, but I couldn’t shake the sensation. My life monumentally changed; I no longer had a paying job, I wore yoga pants nearly constantly, I spent a lot more time with my dog, and, oh yeah, I had a baby to care for every second of my day. Was there a little tremor, at least, when he was born? Could other people feel it too?

Every single day seems to pass differently than it did before. It is simultaneously more and less structured. I no longer worry about catching the bus to catch the ‘L’ (good riddance, rush hour commute). Now, my life is measured by library times, nap times, bath times, and bed times. The weeks and months pass at an alarming speed, but that’s partly because of how much can change between each one. During one week, he peers up at me with his little toothless grin; the next, he is accidentally biting me because he hasn’t adjusted to his teeth yet.

As annoying as it can be, his life is being measured by what milestones he is hitting (or not hitting). Mine seems to be going in reverse of his. One day he will no longer fit in my arms. With each passing milestone, we are one step closer to him leaving for college. It might be a little bleak, but it’s true. Try as I might to savor each and every moment, I often catch myself scrolling through Facebook and then feeling overcome with guilt that I’m not just staring at his angelic sleeping face because it won’t always be there.

See, that’s the problem with parenthood that I wasn’t really prepared to handle: I have no idea how much time is left to enjoy each thing. It can be anything from something as innocuous as how long he’ll end up napping that day, to something more important, like how long he’ll want to keep nursing. I sometimes wish I knew. Not so I could feel better when I zone out, of course, but so I could just appreciate it even more. Mom guilt aside (that’s a whole other topic), I just want to be able to thoroughly enjoy each moment without thinking of and worrying about how fast it’s all going.

Every single parent we know has at one point told us to “enjoy it because it goes fast.” Of course I understood what they meant, but I really couldn’t wrap my head around it until it started happening to us, too. Last week, a friend said to me, “I can’t believe he’s almost one!” I stopped her, but then realized that his first birthday is only a couple of months away. It made me want to grab him, squeeze him, and never let him go.

Even now, as I type this, I have to fight the urge to let him sleep instead of waking him so I can snuggle his nine-month-old self. That’s another funny thing about parenthood: as excited as I am for him to go to sleep so I have some time to myself, I often find that I miss him only an hour or two later. In all of this blur of time, he’s become my best little buddy.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that motherhood has completely morphed the way I view and experience time. It’s no longer just something to casually remark upon. It is now something to be truly cherished. Baby Bear, I never want to take you or anything you do for granted. You are my miracle.

Plus, all of this is just another reason not to worry about setting him down to fold that pile of laundry or scrub the tub. Because, really, given how fast these babies grow:

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Easy Veggie Tacos

Summer is almost upon us, and one of my all-time favorite summer dinners is veggie tacos. They are simple yet delicious and take only about 15-20 minutes including prep time. Plus, they’re healthy and light (unless you go back for thirds), so they are an easy, guilt-free option. Maybe not as much when paired when margaritas or an ice-cold cerveza, but at least it’s not doubly bad!

Vegetarian Tacos

Another great thing about this meal is that you can use whatever veggies and toppings you have available. I’d always suggest the beans to give you more substance and a protein boost, but otherwise you can play around until you find what you like best. The following is just one suggestion.

Ingredients

For the tacos

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, chopped
  • 1 yellow squash, chopped
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • A handful of leafy greens
  • 1 can low sodium black beans, drained
  • 3/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/8 tsp. Cajun seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 package of tortillas (I like wheat tortillas)

For the toppings

  • Shredded Mexican cheese mix
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 1-2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • Guacamole (homemade or bought)
  • Salsa (homemade or bought)

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Instructions

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add onions and cook until nearly translucent.

Add the jalapeño and cook together for a minute, then add the zucchini and squash. Cook for another minute or two, or until the squash and zucchini are just slightly soft.

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Add the can of beans. Stir and add the chili powder, cumin, Cajun seasoning, red chili flakes, and salt and pepper. Add the handful of leafy greens and mix.

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Cook for one to two minutes, or until leafy greens are a little wilted. Remove from heat.

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Chop up the toppings you want. I like to put them in little bowls and let people serve themselves. A taco bar, if you will.

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Warm tortillas in the microwave or oven, then add cheese, veggie mix, and whatever toppings you desire.

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Enjoy! For extra fun, serve with chips, guac, and salsa and a cold beer or margarita.

 

 

Snowdonia: A Board Game Review

Ah, Snowdonia. A train game unlike any other.

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Perhaps my favorite part of doing these little game reviews is finding out more of the backstory behind them. Snowdonia’s research didn’t disappoint.

The game is based on the real Welsh mountain of Snowdon, whose Welsh name is the nearly unpronounceable “Yr Wyddfa.” Designer Tony Boydell said he wanted to design a single railway game and was inspired to base it on Snowdon, which he had visited as a young boy. The original working title of the game was Mountain Railway, but luckily the publishers thought Snowdonia had a little more zing to it and rightly changed it before publication. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Boydell says the Welsh name is pronounced “Ear with-fuh.” If you’re interested in reading the full interview, you can find it here.

I also want to drop a quick shoutout to Boydell, of whom Papa Bear is a big fan for his witty BGG blog, Every Man Needs a Shed. It’s fun to love a game and find out the designer is pretty cool too.

The Basics

Time: 30-90 minutes
Players: 1-5
Ages: 10+
BGG Rating:
7.5*
Baby Brown Bear Status: 
Owned

The year is 1894 and you are the head of a company that provides labor for the construction of the great Snowdon Mountain Railway. You must allocate your laborers wisely, perhaps by earning contracts or making use of your additional, drunkard worker, to excavate, lay track, and build the rail and stations up the mountain. The weather is ever-changing, though, and you must pay close attention to the forecast as it greatly affects your construction abilities. Whichever company contributes the most wins all the glory (and victory points).

Snowdonia is mainly a worker placement game. In keeping with the theme, the game ends at the end of the round when the last track has been laid and the railway has completed its ascent.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Setup

Despite its many components, Snowdonia is not a very complicated game. Below, you can see the initial setup for a five-player game.

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In the center of the board, you have the stock yard, where you find the following resources: iron ore (orange cubes), stone (gray cubes), and coal (black cubes). Underneath the stock yard is the event track. If a white cube is drawn when you replenish the stock yard, an event space is marked and the game completes the corresponding action on its own.

To the right of this event space is the weather forecast. While it is a little hard to see in this picture, the weather is determined by the back of the contract cards, which are seen here face-down in the bottom right-hand corner of the board. In this example, the next two rounds show sunny weather (yellow discs), which increases excavation and track work rates. Blue discs represent rain, which decreases those rates; gray discs represent fog, which prevents any excavation or track work. These work rates are shown in the two tracks above the contract card deck. The contract cards, meanwhile, have various bonuses both for a one-time boost during the game and extra victory points if they are fulfilled at the end of the game.

Across the top of the board are the action space cards, where you assign your laborers each turn. Surrounding the board are the track cards and station cards. On them are brown cubes that represent rubble to be excavated before track or stations can be built.

Below the board are the train cards, of which each player may only own one. The trains are helpful in different ways, but they all allow you to hire your extra (third) laborer and send him up the mountain to do some work.

Turn summary

Each round consists of the following:

  • Assign laborers. Each player starts with two laborers. In clockwise order, each player assigns one laborer to one of the action spots along the top of the board. Once all players have placed both laborers, each player with a train may spend some coal to hire their third worker from the pub and shoot him up the mountain. Available actions are:
    • Take resources from the stock yard
    • Excavate rubble
    • Convert resources into steel bars or stone
    • Lay track
    • Build stations or buy a train
    • Visit the site office to select a contract
    • Move the surveyor up to the next station
  • Resolve actions. Starting from the left (action A) and working your way to the right (action G), actions are resolved in numerical order. Contract cards may be played during this phase according to the action shown on the card. For example, if a contract card has an A on the bottom of the card, the player can use it before all A actions are resolved.
  • Restock contract cards. Someone needs to shift the contract cards over and discard any card that is in the left-most position. Each space should have a card.
  • Check the weather forecast. Someone also needs to shift the weather discs to the left and look at the top contract card on the deck to see what the third weather spot should show. Take the disc of this color. Then, move the track and excavate work rate tracks according to the current forecast.
  • Restock the stock yard. Finally, someone needs to pull the appropriate amount of cubes out of the supply bag for the number of players in the game.
  • Complete any events if applicable. If any white cubes are drawn, play the next available event spaces.

Any time a player claims a track or part of a station, she places a cube of her color on that box. This is how she will tally up her points at the end of the game.

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Here you see the middle of a five-player game. Some of the rubble is gone, some of the stations are built (as indicated by the colored cubes on the station cards), and two of the surveyors are out at stations one and two. Three event cubes have been played so far and laborer assignment has started for the next round.

These actions continue until the last track has been laid as a result of a player action. Then, each player counts victory points by category (station cards, track cards, contract cards, trains, and the surveyor).

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This shows the end of the game. As you can see, the last track has been laid by the purple player. 

My Thoughts

This one is pretty simple.

Cons

Honestly the only con I can think of is that we have all these other games I want to play, too, so I can’t justify playing Snowdonia all the time. I suppose another is that we don’t have any expansions, but that’s not the game’s fault either!

Pros

There’s just so much to love about this game. Let’s see…

  • Weather variables. The fact that the game has a weather component is really interesting to me. In real life, a sunny day would allow you to get more work done, just like a rainy one may slow you down. Apparently there is snow in an expansion that actually forces you to put rubble back on the board, which is a brilliant addition to the theme. I haven’t played that version yet, but I’m excited to check it out.
  • Length. Once you learn how to play, which doesn’t take long at all, Snowdonia is pretty fast no matter how many players you have. Even with all five players, I don’t think I’ve ever played a 90-minute game as stated on the box.
  • Straightforward. I really respect a designer who can create such an entertaining game without making it extremely complicated. Snowdonia is very straightforward but still multi-faceted, and I admire Boydell for that.
  • Player count differences. As I’ve stated before, I love when games play differently depending on the number of players present. Snowdonia definitely does that. The unique thing about this game is that I actually have no preference for the number of players because they all play so well. Yes, they’re different, but they’re all really fun and engaging.
  • Choices. Like any great strategy game, Snowdonia is a game of meaningful choices. One of the neat things here is that when you’re assigning your laborers, you can choose any open spot on the board, regardless of the spot’s number. For example, I may want to excavate the last pieces of rubble off a station so I get those victory points. But I know based on the future weather forecast and the work rates that the second person to excavate will get those points. Well, I can put my laborer on spot two and hope someone else puts it on spot one without realizing my sneaky behavior. It’s unlikely it would go unnoticed, but hey, you gotta try. The surveyor is another neat choice you have. It seems like moving him might be a wasted turn (though not as much so in expansions, from what I’m told), but I’ve been part of many games where that surveyor has crept up enough to score game-winning points.
  • Event cubes. The number one thing I love about this game is that it advances itself no matter what you do. You think you’re competing against the other players, but man, when those event cubes start coming out rapid fire, you realize that you’re all just playing against the game. It’s like a ticking clock, really. A beautifully designed ticking clock.

In short

I absolutely love this game. It’s actually probably my favorite to date. I can’t think of a single other game where I don’t have at least a little preference of how many people play; I’d play this one with any number of people, any time they want to play. This is even a good solo game! And I don’t even like solo games. At $70, it was a little more expensive than most of our games, but its cost-per-play is probably at about $3 now. I’d say that’s worth it.

Any other Snowdonia lovers out there?

Top 10 Book Club Books Part II

Have you finished adding all five books from the first half of this post to your to-read list yet? Or better yet, have you read any of them since last week?

If you’re anything like me, you spend an awful lot of time scouring Goodreads to decide what to read next. You’re also drawn to “best of” lists because they make you excited to read new things you haven’t come across on your own. Well, look no further. Here you’ll find the remaining five books that I think make for the best book discussions.

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Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 5 to 1

Drum roll, please. Here are the best books I’ve ever discussed in book clubs.

5. Outliers: The Story of Success

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Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
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Malcolm Gladwell was my introduction to the “pop nonfiction” genre. His books were–and still are–everywhere. While I’ve only read the first three of his five books (in addition to Outliers, I’ve read The Tipping Point and Blink), I can see why they are so popular. He has a remarkable ability to explain complex sociological or economic issues in plain language and in a way that is interesting to the masses. In Outliers, Gladwell explores why people are so successful in their respective fields.

According to Wiki, his goal was to communicate to readers that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That is to say that success is not entirely a result of an individual’s efforts, but can be circumstantial, cultural, etc.

For example, he points out that many of the best Canadian hockey players are born in the first part of the calendar year. Since the hockey league eligibility cutoff is January 1st, kids born in the first few months of the year are bigger and stronger than kids born towards the end of that year. Because of this, he says they have an “accumulative advantage” in that they are identified as better athletes than their younger peers, coached more, and given more opportunities to succeed in the sport. Though it’s been a long time since I read this book, I remember thinking about this exact theory when I found out I was going to have Baby Bear in July. If I’m not mistaken, most American sport eligibility cutoffs are aligned to the academic calendar, meaning Baby Bear will potentially be among the youngest and smallest, and therefore may not be a highly successful athlete. I’ve come to terms with it.

Gladwell also says success can be attributed to the “10,000-hour rule,” which is basically the idea that to become an expert in anything, you must have at least 10,000 practice hours. By that estimation, I should be a parenting expert before Baby Bear is 14 months. Time will tell.

Okay, so that’s more information than I originally thought I’d write about this book, but it goes to show how some of these things have stuck with me over time. This is partially why I think it’s a good book for discussion; it’s memorable. My club also had some great dialogue about the case studies peppered throughout the book and tried thinking of any examples we had seen firsthand. Having become a parent, I think I’d enjoy reading this book again to try to examine how Papa Bear and I, and our community, may be setting Baby Bear up for success or failure in ways we can’t even imagine. I might have to give it another go to see.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
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rarely re-read books, but this is another I’d love to read again, and soon.

In this novel, a totalitarian regime has assumed power in what was once the United States. Based on extremist Christian ideals, The Republic of Gilead has created a caste system where women are valued mostly for their reproductive abilities. The story is told from the perspective of a handmaid whose only role is to procreate with married men in the ruling class. Once a baby is born, she must turn it over and leave for their next assignment. She, and most women, have little to no say in their lives much less any rights.

Published in 1985, this book is still incredibly relevant in terms of its social and political commentary. It made me sad, angry, and honestly a little frightful for the future. I’m always impressed by and fascinated with authors who can conjure up entirely new worlds and be so imaginative with language. Atwood does both of these things in The Handmaid’s Tale, all while telling a beautiful and moving story.

A dystopian novel at its core, Atwood interestingly prefers the term “speculative fiction” over “science fiction.” She says it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale is about something that could actually happen today rather than something that humans are unable to do yet (like travel to another universe). It’s intriguing to consider the novel from that perspective, and I think it helps explain why book clubs are drawn to dystopian novels much like they are drawn to World War II novels. Both genres have worlds that are hard to fathom, though the latter is based on a world that actually did exist. You can’t help but consider how things could come to be so appalling or reflect on how you would react in those situations. Both of these things make for fruitful discussion.

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
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This is one of the few books I have already re-read. I loved it so much in high school (which says enough right there, because what high schooler loves any book they are forced to read?) that I recommended we read it for a book club about a decade later. I was not disappointed the second time around.

A classic and oft-parodied novel, it is the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome man who becomes enamored with hedonism and begins to wish that his portrait would age instead of him. As he begins to act more and more selfishly, he notices that his wish has come true and that his portrait is, in fact, growing older and more cruel-looking. While he at first feels a little remorseful as he affects the people around him, he soon gives in and begins to conduct a life of corruption. When he at last faces his conscience, he discovers it is too late. The ending is famous, but I won’t give too much more detail in case you haven’t read it yet.

I once saw Wilde’s writing described as “sumptuous,” and I can’t really think of a better description. Reading it, I strangely felt like I was simultaneously devouring a juicy peach and riding on a thrilling roller coaster. Some of my book club friends had a hard time combing through Wilde’s long-winded prose, but the story is so enthralling and Wilde is so witty that everyone ended up enjoying the book and had plenty to discuss. Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890 and considered to be extremely controversial, Dorian Gray‘s themes are extremely significant today. Hedonism, morality, and the importance of public appearance…dare I say we could talk politics here too? I hate to imagine what some of our politicians’ hidden portraits look like given how they act in public!

Fun fact: the Albright painting that was commissioned for use in the 1945 film of the same name now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. Hometown folks, go check it out!

2. The Shining

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The Shining by Stephen King
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Yes, this is a horror novel and I know it’s scary. But don’t skip over it! This is seriously one of the best books I have ever discussed in a book club. It didn’t even stop with book club, actually. I kept asking everyone I came across if they had read this because I wanted to talk about it all the time. Partially because I was scared but mostly because it was so good.

Most everyone knows this story. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic already haunted by his own demons when he moves his family to the isolated (and haunted) Overlook Hotel. He is to be the off-season caretaker. His son, Danny, has a supernatural ability, called “the shining,” which allows him to see and experience the horrible things that have occurred in the hotel. (Remember the confession bear meme I posted in this post? I shudder to think about it.) The you-know-what really starts to hit the fan when the family is snowed in and the hotel decides it wants to “keep” Danny by way of Jack. This will make more sense if you read it.

There are two things you must know.

  1. The movie is almost nothing like the book. Yes, the plot is loosely the same, but there are several serious differences [spoilers in the article]. So many that King has publicly stated his dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. So if you think you know everything about the book because you’ve seen the movie, you’re mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is wonderful for a lot of reasons. But it’s not the same story and the characters are totally different.
  2. It’s not just a horror novel. While it does have some of the scariest and most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever read (those hedges though!), this is a complex story with highly developed characters. King did an especially incredible job building humanity into Jack. We are witness to his slow descent into madness, try as he might to fight it. It really makes you wonder what’s scarier, what your mind and body are capable of or a haunted house?

It was really fun to discuss King’s writing style, especially because it blew us away. Obviously King is an extremely successful author, but we had no idea how deep this story would be. We talked a little about what scared us the most, but most of the time we focused on the characters and their development throughout the novel.

For even more fun and discussion, watch the movie after you discuss the book. My book club always reads a scary book in October (so original), and for this one we made it into a combo book and movie night. It was fun!

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
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When I first decided to write this post, I immediately knew this would be my number one book. We had such a tremendously engaging discussion about it that, to me, it was the model of what all book discussions should be like.

The novel is composed of letters written by a mother, Eva, who is coming to terms with the actions of her high school shooter son, Kevin. The letters are written to her estranged husband and recall their lives before Kevin was born, through his trying childhood, and up to the point of the massacre (Eva’s trips to see Kevin in prison are also highlighted). Eva’s memories make it clear she has always found Kevin to be challenging, though as he ages and she fits all the  pieces in her retrospective together, it’s clear he demonstrated sociopathic behaviors for years. Unfortunately, he usually seemed to reserve these behaviors for Eva and acted like a nearly perfect son for Eva’s husband and Kevin’s father, Franklin. Matters grew much more serious when Eva and Franklin added a daughter, Celia, to the mix and Kevin suddenly had a little sister.

Without saying too much more about the plot, I can tell you that the content is deeply disturbing, especially because of how believable it is given the pervasiveness of school massacres nowadays. Eva struggled with motherhood before Kevin was even born, and knew her relationship with him was off when he was an infant. She justly fell  into a depression, especially given that he acted so differently with Franklin. Was he always evil or did it develop over time? Can babies be born evil? The nature versus nurture debate is as old as time, but that makes it no less lively. And while Kevin is certainly the character who has the most impact in the novel, he was not the only thing we discussed.

My book club and I were also drawn to Eva’s relationship with Franklin. How would a woman react if her husband did not see any of the warning signs she did about their son? What would that do to their relationship? What would it do to her mental health? Now that I’m a mother, I’m especially flummoxed when I try to think of how I would possibly cope with a child like Kevin. There’s already so much guilt I feel as a mother (about things I logically understand I should not feel guilty about) that I cannot possibly imagine trying to cope with the legitimate worries, guilt, and fear Eva feels. Unfortunately, there are parents of high school shooters out there who must face the fallout of such horror in real life. Luckily, we only examined Shriver’s fictional account, but it felt chilling nonetheless.

What Are Your Thoughts?

What books have sparked your book club’s most interesting discussions? What would you change on this list? Let’s start a discussion about discussions.

Top 10 Book Club Books Part I

I could talk about books all day long. In fact, I’d love to do just that. But since it’s not exactly practical, and it would take forever to type up an entire day’s worth of discussion, a wee blog post must suffice. Well, two blog posts.

I previously mentioned that I’ve been part of several book clubs over the last decade or so. I also suggested a few of my book club dos and don’ts to help others either get started or just maintain momentum for their own clubs.

Here, I’d like to continue exploring that topic by presenting some of my favorite book club books so far. It should be noted that I have a horrible–absolutely awful–memory and yet these books have stayed with me because they sparked such rich conversations.

books

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Let me preface this list with a small clarification. While there is certainly some crossover between these books and my all-time favorites, they are not necessarily the same. Some books lend themselves to thought-provoking conversations but still may not be completely up my alley. Similarly, some of the books that I think are just mind-blowing may prove to be uninspiring to others.

“Did you like the book?” “No. I don’t even have much to say about it.” “Okay, great discussion. Have some more hummus.” On the positive side, food. On the other side, that’s not why we’re here today. Focus, Mama Bear. Focus.

While I loved all of the following books, they are my favorite specifically for discussion. My all-time favorite list will eventually come up in a different post.

Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 10 to 6

Without further adieu, here is the first half of the list of books I’d recommend you add to your book club’s to-read list. For what it’s worth, the order is fairly insignificant. They’re all very good.

10. And the Mountains Echoed

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And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
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This heart-wrenching novel tells the tale of three generations of one family: parents forced to make a horrifying decision, children torn apart and never fully able to recover, and a granddaughter trying to make sense of her own life. Hosseini’s beautiful storytelling ability evoked several emotions from our group and made us discuss familial sacrifice and belonging.

9. Man’s Search for Meaning

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
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This short nonfiction work was not the easiest for some of the book club members to finish, but it was one of the most impactful for those who did. It’s only 165 pages and is broken into two sections: one about Frankl’s time as a Nazi death camp prisoner and one about the existential search to find meaning in one’s life. World War II books seem to attract book clubs (as evidenced by the next recommendation actually), but this one was incredibly different from any other I had ever read.

Unlike many other accounts of prison camps, Frankl provides more of an analysis of people’s psyches than detailing what exactly occurred in the camp. Though it’s been several years since I read it, I remember being especially affected by the idea of a prisoner finding humanity in some prison guards and finding a lack of humanity in some fellow prisoners.

Furthermore, his theory of “logotherapy,” which he details in the second half of the book, really resonated with me when I read it. The main idea behind this concept is that human beings are driven by the need to discover their individual meanings in life, that all lives have meaning, and that people are free to find this meaning (even those in horrific situations). Though I luckily cannot relate to being a prisoner, I read this when I had just finished college and was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. This book helped me examine the meaning in my own life in terms of what was ahead. And while the other members of my book club were very mixed in terms of age and life experience, it made everyone take a look at their own lives in a similar way. Any book that can do that is worth discussing.

8. All the Light We Cannot See 

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
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Our February 2016 pick, this Pulitzer Prize winner is the most recently discussed book on the list. Another World War II book, this time fictional, it tells the story of two young people trying to survive the war. The first is a blind French girl who must leave her home in Nazi-occupied Paris and adjust to life in a small seaside town that is increasingly affected by the war. The second is a German orphan who is more or less coerced into joining Hitler Youth and becoming a technical specialist of sorts. They both encounter several memorable characters before their paths collide.

Even though it was a bestseller for so long, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now I am so glad we read it. The chapters are short and the story is captivating, so the other group members and I found ourselves reading it rather quickly. That said, it was the kind of book that made me want to slow my pace a little to actually savor the prose. Put simply, this book is beautifully written. Its imagery is profound; I felt like I could run my hands along the streets of Saint-Malo and smell the salty sea air myself. There was a lot to discuss in this book, from Doerr’s writing style to the war and its effects on the people on both sides. Plus, a book that everyone ends up enjoying is a big bonus.

7. The World Without Us

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
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If you ever want to feel like a terrible human being, but in a positive, I-will-be-better kind of way, read this book.

The World Without Us is a thought experiment conducted by Weisman, the premise of which is, “What would happen to the Earth if humans suddenly didn’t exist anymore?” To find out how long it would take nature to reclaim what is rightfully hers and to see what legacy humans would leave behind (answer: so.much.plastic.), Weisman interviewed scientists and other experts and used abandoned sites such as Chernobyl, Ukraine to illustrate his findings.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t focus too much on what humans are doing wrong so much as the world we would leave behind. Even still, this book really makes you think about the impact of your actions. I’ve always had a crunchy side to me, but reading about how something as commonplace as a plastic bag will be here for thousands of years to come made me cringe, hold my baby close, and whisper to him, “Please be a positive change in this world.” While it’s unlikely humans will ever just disappear without some damage to the animals or environment around us, it’s somewhat comforting to know that if we did, it wouldn’t take too long for things to start growing over what we’ve claimed as ours.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d say “eye-opening.” Our discussion was rife with ideas of how to make changes in our own lives, even small ones. Any book that forces you to think outside yourself is a good one to discuss.

6. In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
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This was one of the first books I ever read for a book club. It’s a nonfiction crime story detailing the murders of four members of a small-town Kansas family. Capote was culturally significant in his own right, but this book is particularly interesting because it is considered by many to be the first piece of literary nonfiction. Capote himself called it a “nonfiction novel” and it reads exactly like that. It includes dialogue and narrative from multiple perspectives, and is full of suspense. These qualities made for an extremely engrossing read.

Critics have said there are a number of discrepancies from what actually occurred and what is represented in the novel, which it seems Capote repeatedly denied. This was one of the things that made our book club discussion so engaging. We talked about the prose and the overall writing style, sure, but we also had a little debate about how much we personally believed and about how much it mattered either way. Journalism ethics for the win!

To Be Continued…

Check back soon to read part two of this list where I’ll reveal my top five favorite book club books. I might even have to throw in an honorable mention section because this is so hard!

In the Meantime

What are your favorite book club books? Or your favorite books that you’re dying to discuss but haven’t had the opportunity yet? I want suggestions!

 

 

 

 

 

Dominant Species: A Board Game Review

Though it was published in 2010, another old game by board game standards, Papa Bear and I just recently started playing Dominant Species. Because it is so vastly different from Dominion, I wanted to review it next.

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Interestingly enough, when I looked for more information about the designer, Chad Jensen, I found a 2006 interview he conducted with Dice Tower founder Tom Vasel. In it, he said that he started “tinkering with existing games […] 30 years ago! [He] would invent games using a simple deck of cards and parts from Monopoly or Risk, for example, and them try them out with [his] friends.” He said he started designing games in earnest around 1995.

This interview came out shortly before his war game, Combat Commander, debuted. He also mentioned in the article that he would soon begin “casting [his] Euro-themes around and see if any of those publishers bite.” Well, it turns out GMT Games bit Dominant Species only four years later. Nominated in several categories, it won the 2011 Golden Geek Best Strategy Board Game award.

The Basics

Time: 2-4 hours
Players:
2-6
Ages:
14+
BGG Rating: 
7.9/10* 
Baby Brown Bear Status: 
On loan from a game group friend (thanks, buddy!)

Dominant Species is set in year 90,000 BC. You represent an animal trying not only to survive but also become dominant in as many different terrains as possible before an impending ice age, when the game ends. In the meantime, your goal is to accumulate as many victory points as possible. You do this by having species present in different terrains and by being dominant in some of them.

Although this is primarily an area control game, it does use card drafting, tile placement, and worker placement mechanics as well.

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. This game is much more involved than Dominion. After all, it has a 20-page rule book. It’s so involved that our friend gave us homework to watch a run-through video and then surprised us with real homemade aptitude quizzes before we started.

Therefore, my “overview” won’t be a complete explanation of the game. If you are interested, I would be more than happy to start a dialogue with you. Otherwise, you can find numerous videos and rules summaries online.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Here is one of the aptitude quizzes. I was so impressed that he took the time to create, administer, and grade them. Very clever. There was also a true or false page and the final statement was, “[Baby Bear] is cute.” I obviously put, “VERY TRUE.” It’s incredibly heartwarming to me that these guys enjoy (or at least pretend to enjoy) the babe so much. He’s become a board game group mascot of sorts, and I couldn’t be prouder.

A throwback to 9th grade biology

In this game, it is helpful to remember the animal taxonomy system: animal (kingdom), phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Remember, your “animal” is what you represent broadly. In food chain order, they are: mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids, and insects. When the game refers to “species,” it means your cubes, since they represent different kinds of species within your animal classification. Phew. I hope my biology teacher would still give me an A today, but I think that might be a stretch.

Setup

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All of the following pictures (except one) show the two-player version of the game. This is the initial setup. The hexagonal tiles represent different types of terrains.

Basically, each player chooses an animal and each animal is represented by an equal number of species on the earth. Each animal is able to survive in a certain type of terrain based on what elements are available there. For example, in the above picture, the amphibian is able to survive on terrains where water is present (as evidenced by the three blue circles on the player board).

Turn summary

There are three phases in this game:

  1. Planning phase
  2. Execution phase
  3. Reset phase

Planning phase. This is where players choose what actions they want to take in this turn by going in initiative track order and placing their action pawns on available “eyeball” spots. A detailed list of what each track does is available in the rule book. For now you’ll just have to get a taste from my picture. Otherwise we’d be here all day.

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Domination was strong this turn. We obviously needed points and wanted domination cards.

Execution phase. Once all action pawns are placed, the execution phase begins. Going in top-to-bottom and left-to-right order, each action pawn is removed from its eyeball spot and the corresponding action is performed by the owner of that pawn.

Reset phase. During this phase you remove species that go extinct (are on terrains without any of that animal’s elements) and one animal may gain victory points from the Survival Card (related to tundras). This is also when you reset the board (draw new dominance cards, flip wanderlust tiles, etc.).

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It’s a big, sturdy board that gives you most of the information you need. If not, the player boards are extremely helpful.
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A lot of speciation occurred. A lot of amphibians became dominant. A lot of points were scored.

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Here you can see how many points are awarded to the animals with the most species on a terrain. Not shown: tundras earn the animal with the most species one point and that’s it.

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My only picture of our six-player game to show you the difference with the species on the tiles and the action pawns fighting for their placements on the right.

My Thoughts

Cons

I like starting with the negative first, especially for games I really like.

  • Learning curve. Okay, obviously this is a long game and it has a fairly steep learning curve. This is another case of “I’m glad I watched a run-through video and had friends teach me,” because solely relying on the rule book would have been daunting. I like to think that I understood what I was doing very well the first half of the first game I played (especially since I won), but it was probably a little longer than that. However, I will forever deny that luck was on my side. It was all strategy, baby. Don’t worry about the second time I played (when I lost).
  • Scoring. At the end of the game, you score each individual tile for victory points based on the number of species of each animal on the tile. A tie always goes in food chain order, so the mammals (the highest on the food chain) gain first place points, and so on. While I tried to circumvent this problem with the dominance cards so that I had the most species on any given tile with a lot of potential points, I still found it a little irritating that some of those points went to something basically determined by the luck of the draw. I suppose it’s just one more aspect you need to keep a close eye on towards the end of the game.

Pros

Now we can end on a good note.

  • Control of destiny. Yes, your turn order is first determined by food chain order. However, the initiative track allows you to change your turn order if you so choose.
  • Dominance cards. In both plays, I found the dominance cards to be incredibly powerful. Some players may argue that these cards give players too much power, and that if you’re higher up the food chain, you likely won’t get first dibs on the best ones. However, to my point above, you can change the turn order, albeit incrementally per turn. And you can place your pawn on the domination spot early on if you really want a card. I’ve only played twice, but I think it’s critical to take advantage of these cards.
  • Level of engagement. Surprisingly, Dominant Species has never felt like a long game despite its considerable length. Both when I played the six-player game and when I played the two-player game, I was interested in everyone’s turns, not just my own. In so many games, especially once you understand the rules, it’s easy to zone out when it’s not your turn. That’s probably one of my biggest complaints about games, actually. I don’t want to be bored, even when I’m not playing. Which is what makes me love this game even more.
  • Theme. I think the designer put together a thoughtful, well-crafted theme. I love how the animals need certain elements to survive in their respective terrains. Amphibians and water? Check. Insects and grass? Check. I also love the choices you have during the execution phase. Speciate to spread yourselves across new terrains? Adapt to survive on new elements? Yeah, that makes sense. When I played the six-player version, we brought up biology a few times. You have to appreciate a game that does that.
  • Player count differences. As I mentioned in the Dominion post, I really love when a game plays very differently from one player count to the next. Now, I’ve only played with the two extremes, but they were markedly different. In the six-player version, you only have three action pawns and the board can change so drastically by the time you need to play your next pawn. However, you generally always have an idea of what your strategy is because you have so much time to plan. In the two-player version, you have seven action pawns, meaning you have so many actions and decisions to make each turn. It was overwhelming trying to figure out first what I absolutely needed to lock down, then what I didn’t want my opponent to do, and finally how all of the action pawns would play out in order. I felt a lot more pressure in the two-player version because of this.

In short

Play this game. It’s long, yes, but it’s interesting and unique. It has a little bit of everything: battles (or at least a good amount of competition), cool mechanics, and an on-point theme. It provides good fodder for table conversation and keeps everyone involved throughout the game. Plus, the player boards help you remember what each track does, so it’s not like you have to remember all the rules to be successful.

I’m curious to know what you think. What’s your take on Dominant Species?

DIY Moisturizing Hair Mask

Like many women, I’m guilty of occasionally thinking the grass is greener when it comes to my hair. I recognize, however, that I’m lucky in that my hair dries straight and requires no dye or color treatment (minus a lemon in the sun every so often like I’m a preteen).

This is really helpful for me because I am lazy when it comes to doing anything with my hair. Ninety percent of the time I wear it in a basic pony; before becoming a stay-at-home mom it was still probably around 65%.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy getting dolled up and doing my hair and makeup, but I also very much enjoy having a pony and bare face. I’m also perpetually running behind schedule (a classic procrastinator), so by necessity I’ve developed three getting ready routines:

  1. Full hair and makeup for nice events that will have some sort of photographic evidence (e.g., a wedding)
  2. BB cream, powder, mascara, maybe eyeliner (if we’re getting fancy), and a 50/50 chance of hair being dried for when I need to look presentable but no one really cares, including me (e.g., work)
  3. Chapstick and nothing more for most other occasions (e.g., watching six episodes of True Blood in a row and telling myself that Baby Bear is still probably too young to understand what’s on the TV)

Given this information, it should come as no surprise that I am also lazy when it comes to scheduling regular haircuts. In fact, I probably have only two a year.

You see, I really like to switch up my look with dramatic haircuts every couple of years, which I think is a result of refusing to dye my hair but still wanting change. And, I figure if I’m going to grow it out and cut it all off anyway, I might as well wait long enough to donate it and help out people in need. As a result, I’ve donated roughly 70 inches of hair in the last 12 years. (While I’ve historically done Locks of Love, I’ve since discovered that I’d rather support Pantene Beautiful Lengths and will likely donate there next).

Since I put my hair in a constraining pony so much, go so long between cuts, and want to donate the healthiest hair I can provide, I like to treat myself to a seriously easy DIY hydrating hair mask every so often.

Here’s how you can do it yourself.

DIY Hydrating Hair Mask

After reading through suggestions, I realized most of the masks recommended used the following, plus more. Since I already had these at home, I just messed around until I found something easy and effective.

Ingredients

  • Equal parts extra virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil (start with 2 tbsp. of each and alter as needed depending on your hair’s length)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 of an avocado, pitted and smashed
  • A towel on standby

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Okay, so I accidentally left the avocado pit in for this picture. I’ll award points if you creatively figure out how to use it for your hair.

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Slowly add the coconut oil and whisk until it’s melted and mixed in with the olive oil. Then add the smashed avocado (careful, it might be hot!). It will be fairly lumpy.

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Wet your hair using warm water. Grab your towel and keep it nearby.

Bring your head and your oil concoction to your kitchen sink. Over the sink, slowly dip the ends of you hair in the oil. Since the avocado is clumpy, use your hands to spread the mixture up the strands, avoiding the roots.

Once your hair feels saturated, secure it with a bun or push it out of your face if it’s not long enough to tie up.

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I repeat: do this over your kitchen sink. I learned the hard way that you do NOT want to clog your bathroom sink with oil and avocado. Papa Bear was not pleased.

Wrap the towel around your head to keep oil off your face and clothes.

Let the oil sit on your hair for at least 30 minutes. I’ve done as little as 30 minutes and as long as 4 hours, but the latter was because the landlord turned our water off for a burst pipe. Perfect timing.

Shampoo and condition your hair as you normally do. The first time it dries, it might be a little oily. After that, it should be silky and smooth!

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I felt like such an idiot posing for this picture. 

In addition to this hair mask, I take biotin vitamins to help my hair grow a little faster (and to help make up for my trichotillomania habits, but that’s a post for a different day).

Your Turn

Tell me what YOU do to keep your hair healthy. I’m always looking for new suggestions. Of course, I’d prefer ones that don’t require too much effort.