Yeah, About that Reading Challenge …

Remember a year ago when I wrote about a 12-book reading challenge that I wanted to tackle for 2015, and it seemed totally realistic, and I began by reading three books in a month-and-a-half? Well, I kept going, devouring new books left and right, and ended up surpassing my goal and finishing the year with a whole new set of titles that challenged, entertained and educated me! Well, then my infant became mobile, I applied, interviewed for, and accepted a new job at a new university, moved two states away, started the new job, bought a house, moved into that house, dealt with a broken water heater, hosted visitors every month from August to December, had a first-birthday party, a third-birthday party, celebrated the holidays, and went on vacation with friends in Palm Springs. So, 27 excuses later, I definitely did not finish that reading challenge.

I did make progress, although didn’t blog about it after February. So now, on my last night of Christmas/New Year’s vacation, I thought it was finally time to post an update, at least about what I can remember. Maybe this time next year I’ll be completely done.

A Book Recommended by Someone with Great Taste

wheredyougoUnlike me, my best friend, Melody, does an incredible job of making time for books, and she is constantly offering high-quality recommendations. So for this category, I read one of her suggestions: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” by Maria Semple. The story  is centered around a precocious teen girl, her brilliant/neurotic architect mother (Bernadette), and her also-brilliant, overworked father, set in upscale hippie Seattle. After suffering a series of mental breakdowns, Bernadette disappears, and the daughter starts an investigation to find her. Told largely through letters, emails, and records, it’s funny and tragic and moving. I was disappointed in the ending–it felt rather abrupt and unfinished. But overall, a lovely book. Apparently Richard Linklater and Cate Blanchett are doing the movie, so, yay!

A Book You’ve Been Meaning to Read

writingforstoryI checked out “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Non-Fiction,” by Jon Franklin from the UT library literally years ago and just kept re-reserving it every time it came due again. When we decided to move to Tucson, I finally got my act together to finish it.

Franklin has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper writing, and this book shares his painstaking process for how he crafts his masterpieces. It’s full of tremendous advice, tools, and perspective on researching, structuring and editing stories, and demonstrates that writing is hard work, not a mysterious art. But the most useful parts were two of his articles reprinted in the book, in original format and also with footnotes explaining the different storytelling techniques he uses. They are masterfully written and must-reads for anyone who puts pen to paper (so to speak) for a living or hobby.

A Book Published This Year*

commaqueenMy dad gave me “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” by Mary Norris for my birthday. Norris is an editor at The New Yorker, and the book is part-memoir, part grammar and language exploration. As someone who writes and edits for a living and has always loved language, I was excited to dig in. I enjoy the parts of the book where Norris gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the copy department works at The New Yorker, but other parts, mainly her own personal history, are less compelling. I’m about halfway through the book, (I think–Camden lost my place) so I’m only partially counting it as a 2015 read.


There have been a few other books that I’ve started, but the only other significant one I finished was “Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times,” by Jennifer Worth. Unfortunately it really doesn’t fit in any of the categories in the challenge. My review: it’s amazing and beautiful and heartbreaking, and I’ve never been so grateful to have given birth in the 21st century. I’ll get around to watching the show one day–after I read a few more books.



Learning Tolerance from an Identity Crisis

The thing that drives me crazy more than almost anything in the world is when someone is unwilling to consider life from a perspective other than his own. I think that 98 percent of the world’s problems would be solved if we were better at that. (The other 2 percent could be solved if everyone took a moment to enjoy a slice of pesto gouda cheese on a turkey sandwich regularly. TRUST ME, that stuff is powerful.)

I do not claim to be perfect in this arena. I have plenty of judginess welling up inside me at any given time. However, I generally am intentional about trying to imagine what’s behind other people’s behavior and words, what life must be like for them, what forces are pushing and pulling them around, even if (sometimes especially if) I disagree with them. I’m sure part of it comes from being a writer. It’s my job to learn people’s stories.

And part of it comes from noticing more and more that my own truth, who I really am and what I really want, is not so easily defined. It’s often fractured and contradictory. Less Instagram, more kaleidoscope.

Here are some truths about who I am:

In January I returned to work full-time after the birth of my daughter. Some days I ache to be with her. Others I am grateful for the break from constant providing and for the opportunity to flex my non-mom muscles. Sometimes I feel both of those things in the same hour. Or in the same second.

I am bone tired, nothing left in me at the end of the day AND yet really want to stay up to watch another episode of Bloodline on Netflix. (Is anyone else watching this show? Does it actually exist? I have seen literally zero mentions of it anywhere ever. Kyle Chandler, people!)

I am both delighted at my son’s rapidly expanding independence and set of skills AND terrified that he will suffer some catastrophic, Final Destinationish injury.

I crave a simple, meaningful, uncluttered life. I CRAVE ALL OF THE CLOTHES.

I am a calm, confident mama bear raising interesting, kind, strong children. I am a weeping mess with an embarrassing lack of patience and no clever parenting hacks.

Ketchup is great. Tomatoes are gross.

You see? Two truths at once. All over the place.

As I try to better understand myself, love my husband, take care of my children, spend money wisely, get enough sleep, and make BIG LIFE DECISIONS, these dualities can get in the way. I don’t know what to make of them. And some of them interfere with me being perfect. How annoying.

And yet there they are. I must acknowledge them, work with and through them, for better or worse. I must remind myself and hope that other people realize that one part of me does not define all of me. And that’s why I’ll try to do the same for them.

I came across this post from Design for Mankind the other day (thanks for sharing the link, Alysa Bajenaru!) that so eloquently captures this struggle:

We know that labels are for jars, and we know that we are not jars. And yet, it is an easy trap, boxing ourselves into characters or avatars, for brevity’s sake, of course. We have 140 characters, 5 minutes in the elevator, 10 minutes at a dinner party to explain ourselves, to introduce the passion that beats within our soul. To announce to the world, or whoever is in front of us, yes, yes, this is who I am. This is how I will define myself.

Nailed it. Later she writes:

And so, the new goal is this: I am what I am. I am what I have done in the past, and what I will do today, and what I plan to do tomorrow. I am a combination of my contradictory thoughts, my elemental surprises, my deepest character flaws.

After all, it is with the same hands that I scramble eggs, and braid hair, and type on keyboards. It is with the same mind that I dream of hiking and yurt-living, but with clean sheets and a fully stocked refrigerator, please. And it is with the same heart that I seek to live a life filled with love for my neighbor, and yet still find myself the passive aggressive toe-tapper at the local post office.

And it is with the same eyes that I look at your avatar and squint, knowing there, too, is much, much more.

Doesn’t that perspective sound nice? And like it would solve roughly 98 percent of our problems?

Reading Challenge Update #2

One-and-a-half months in on my 2015 Reading Challenge, and I’m feeling pretty good, having already finished three books. And that doesn’t even acknowledge a few others I’ve got on my nightstand and desk at work that I’m working my way through since I started them before the challenge. Hopefully this isn’t like a marathon runner who sets an overly ambitious pace at the beginning of the race and then passes out on mile 20. Not that I’d know the feeling because running is terrible.

Tales of Woodsman PeteFor my second book of the challenge, I tackled “A book in a genre you don’t typically read,” with a graphic novel called “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” by Lilli Carre.

It’s super short, so I finished it with just a couple of quick pre-bed readings. It was quirky and had a folk-art quality to it that I like. And while it was certainly enjoyable, I do wish I had picked a meatier book for my first graphic novel. I don’t feel like I really got a good sense of the genre’s strengths and potential for compelling stories. I’ll probably try another one in the future.


downloadNext I took the plunge with Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” for “A book that’s currently on the bestseller list.”

I love mysteries, but had been hesitant about this one because the general aura around it seemed to be pretty gruesome, and I don’t like stories that ruin your life. (I’m looking at you, 21 Grams.)

But I was also super curious about the book and the movie and didn’t want anything spoiled if I did end up reading it.

After talking to a few different people who had read the book, I decided to give it a shot. My hope was that the suspense of the plot and quality of writing would balance out the unpleasantness of the subject matter.

For me, it did. This text I sent Travis pretty much sums up my response to the book:



I sent that Friday afternoon after finishing part one. I completed the book by Sunday night.

I hate spoilers and will try not to give anything away, but proceed at your own risk if you haven’t read it.

I was hooked from the very first page, which also immediately had me stumped as to what to make of the main character, Nick Dunne. His way of explaining how much he loves (-ed?) his wife is to imagine peeling back her skull and exploring chunks of her brain. You know, real sappy stuff.

While the vitriol the characters express at times is alarming and twisted, I do think parts of the book realistically depict how two people can shift from happily ever after to … less happy in just a few years. Of course ultimately the plot follows a more sensational path that bears no resemblance to average marital strife. But even in that sensational universe, there was only one plot point that seemed out of character to me. (If you’ve read it, I’m thinking of the way things conclude with the money belt in the cabin.)

That’s not to say I didn’t find it unsettling. I did. And it’s certainly not for everyone. But Flynn is a very effective storyteller, and I found myself repulsed by and yet sometimes bizarrely rooting for the two main characters. (Ok, rooting for them against my will. Like, something bad would happen to them, and I’d think, ‘Oh no!’ And then I’d realize I was feeling sympathy for a terrible person. It’s like feeling concern for Frank Underwood. Shudder.)

So to sum up, I enjoyed it, as strange as that seems. It didn’t ruin my life. And I think Ben Affleck is just the most absolute perfect casting for the movie, which I definitely plan on seeing.

Three books down, nine to go.



Reading Challenge Update #1

I did it! I read a book! In some kind of miraculous surge, I finished a book less than three weeks after starting it. I think reading it on the Kindle app of my giant iPhone 6 Plus was the key because I always had it with me.

InterruptedThe first book I chose for my 2015 Reading Challenge was “Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity,” by Austin’s own Jen Hatmaker. This checks off the “A book by a favorite author” category. It was a quick but convicting read, focusing on Hatmaker’s awakening to a deeper, grittier faith, one that compels us to truly care for, engage with, and serve our neighbors and communities. A great read for anyone interested in social justice and living missionally.

Next up I’m tackling “A book in a genre you don’t typically read.” Now, I have pretty wide-ranging interests and enjoy everything from historical fiction to mysteries to Malcolm Gladwellian non-fiction. So I decided to Google a list of book genres to find something that’s so atypical that it wouldn’t even occur to me. And there on Wikipedia I found it: graphic novel. Perfect! Never read one, never been particularly interested.

Tales of Woodsman PeteSo I turned to my favorite pop culture blogger, who I remembered loved graphic novels. And I discovered she had been laid off. Nooo! But all her graphic novel recommendations are still online, and I came across “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” by Lilli Carre. Here is the description:

“a collection of vignettes and stories about a solitary albeit gregarious woodsman with a loose grasp on his own personal history and that of the outside world. He forms relationships with his inanimate surroundings and muses to a dead audience, specifically his bear rug Phillippe.”

I’ll take it!



What I Love Right Now

These are the things currently making my life a little better. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.

The Gilmore Guys Podcast

gilmore guysI want a ringtone that is these guys impersonating Miss Patti exclaiming, “Rory!” I never knew it was funny until they said it. Now it is amazing.

My friend Brittany recommended this ridiculous, hilarious podcast to me, and I’m so glad she did. Kevin, a die-hard Gilmore Girls fan, and Demi, who had never seen the show before, “recap” each episode of Gilmore Girls (which I re-watched in its entirety during my maternity leave). I use “recap” loosely because they go on tangents of tangents of tangents. But they are glorious tangents. Regular segments include the Fashion Report, freestyle rapping about people who leave iTunes reviews, and Pop Goes the Culture, a supercut of each GG episode’s pop culture references. Oh and making up fake podcasts about other shows: Friends Fellas, Parks and Rec Pals, About About a Boy. They love Emily. They call Chad Michael Murray “Chad Michael Mudface.” Good stuff. They do swear quite a bit, which is weird to listen to compared to how tame the Gilmore characters are. But generally I love it. As my friend Brittany said, “I didn’t think I’d want to listen to twenty-something guys talk about anything, much less Gilmore Girls,” but I’m happy to listen to these two talk about anything, especially Gilmore Girls. BONUS: They’re both UT grads. Hook ’em!

(Kevin is also the creator of this brilliant “Sorkinisms” supercut that highlights all of Aaron Sorkin’s lovely but recycled dialogue on his various TV shows.)

Frozen Basil Cubes from Trader Joe’s

This one doesn’t really need an explanation. It’s great. There.


Lush Cosmetics Shampoo Bar

Lush shampoo barMy brother- and sister-in-law gave me some Lush products for Christmas and I immediately became a fan. They use natural ingredients, no animal testing – all that good stuff. I decided to try their shampoo bar, and lemme tell you, it’s pretty awesome. I was skeptical, but you just rub it a few times through your hair and BAM: suds city. My hair generally gets greasy pretty quickly, but with this it stays clean for longer than usual. I have the Jumping Juniper one. Also, it’s only $10.95, so it’s easy on the budget.

Everlane T-Shirt

everlaneI’m on a mission to aim for quality over quantity in my fashion choices and to be more aware of how and where things are made. Everlane is an online startup clothing company dedicated to “radical transparency” on factories and pricing. I tried their basic white v-neck – it’s a steal at just $15 – and am very pleased with the quality. I also like that their website tells you how tall the models are and what size they’re wearing. That way I knew to order one size larger than I normally would, since the models don’t have any – what’s the word? – boobs or hips. (P.S. – If you order something through this link, I get a nifty store credit. Then you can get your own referral link to get your own credit. Yay for free stuff!)

Endless Reader App

This app has been a lifesaver for keeping Camden occupied when I’m nursing and when we had a lot of travel in the fall. You drag and drop letters to spell a word, and then drag and drop that word and a few others to make a sentence. Then there’s a cute little animated video that reflects the sentence. I was amazed at how quickly Cam picked it up, and now he actually recognizes some of his favorite words. Educational, entertaining, and not at all irritating. Win win win!

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Reading Challenge

All year my social media feeds are flooded with new challenges people are signing up for: abs, real food, writing, not shaving, remembering to take out the trash. What have you.

I can honestly say that I’ve literally never cared about any of them. You go girl with your 30 days of crunches. I’ll be over here binge-watching The Good Wife on Amazon Prime Video. (I see what all the hype is now about that show! I mean, Christine Baranski’s jewelry alone is worth the watch. Those chunky rings. But I think Julianna Margulies is too hard on her daughter about the faith stuff.)


The other day I finally saw one I could get behind:


I LOVE reading. It’s all I want to do on vacation or a plane. Or a train if I ever rode those. But with a toddler and infant and full-time job and two dogs and dishes and Facebook and Netflix, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find time or energy to read. I’m also a rather slow reader, so it takes me awhile to finish something even when I do find time. I have 121 books on my Goodreads to-read list. I have stacks of books in the house that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

So when I saw this challenge (from a website called Modern Mrs. Darcy, shared by The Art of Simple), I was intrigued. I liked the categories, and it sounded like something that would motivate me to CREATE time to read, to really make it a priority. But in a fun way, not a 30-days-of-crunches way.

First on my list is Interrupted, by Jen Hatmaker. I’m putting that in the “book by a favorite author” category because I adore her writing. And because the Kindle version was on sale the other day for $1.99.

And since one of the categories is “a book recommended by someone with great taste,” I’d love your book recommendations. Because I’ve managed to surround myself with people who have great taste.

I was also drawn to this challenge because, while I’m not making any resolutions this year, I do want to try and live more intentionally in 2015. Making decisions and spending time on things and people I really care about. Hopefully that will also include more posts here. But it definitely won’t include a month of crunches. Just to be clear.

P.S. – If you’re like me and feel like you don’t have the time, check out Austin Kleon’s 7 tips on how to read more.


Our Girl

My due date came and went, I took off work two weeks early (SURE she would come any day), refused to spend more than 60 seconds outside (thanks, ENDLESS SUMMER), but finally, with a little help from a friendly induction, our baby girl arrived.

Introducing Ada Beatrix Mueller.

Other than sleeping through our alarm, being 45 minutes late to our own induction, and temporarily losing Travis’s cell phone for the day, everything went very smoothly. Thanks, Ada!

It took all of two seconds for her to completely melt my heart.


She was meant to be part of our family.



Meeting big brother for the first time. We weren’t sure how much he understood about the whole sibling thing, but the moment he saw her he yelled, “Baby sister!” and gave her a kiss. Such a sweetie.


We were able to ditch the hospital after one night and get home to be together as a family.





I feel so privileged to be her mom, to have a daughter.

Fun fact: In addition to being my great grandmother’s name, Ada is also the name of Lord Byron’s daughter (and she was the first female computer scientist). So I’ll finish by quoting the poet:

“Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart” 


“I uh ooh, Mama”

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

That’s what you said to me in the tub last night, and it just made my whole life.

Daddy has been trying to get you to say, “I love you, Mama” for months now, and this was the first time you uttered any kind of sound in response. Way to deliver the good stuff, little man.

You also said “I uh ooh” to Maeby and Daddy. (Doodle was avoiding you, as usual. Sorry he’s so grumpy.)

Today you are just 4 days shy of your 22-month mark.

A couple of weeks ago you proved once again how adaptable you are by being an absolute trooper for Grandma while Mama and Daddy left you for six days to go on vacation to Cape Cod. While we were at Mayflower Beach we talked about how much you’d love it there.

You are OBSESSED with brushing your teeth. You climb up on the little white IKEA stool and say “teeth!” while nodding your head. I turn the water on for you – as low a flow as I can manage (you are NOT great for water conservation) – and you hold your Eeyore toothbrush under the stream and then suck on the toothbrush, occasionally putting your hand under the water, drawing it to your mouth and then “spitting.” You throw a fit if we try to make you stop before you’re ready. I suppose there are worse habits for a child to cling to.

Last night at dinner you put a tortilla on your head and before he corrected you, you caught Daddy laughing at you. I gave in, too. I think this was the first time you’ve ever noticed that you could do something to make us laugh, and you ate it up, putting that tortilla back on your head over and over again.

When we ask, “Where is baby sister Ada?” you lift up my shirt and gently kiss my belly. You are already such a loving big brother. Ada is due in less than three weeks, and I pray that you two will have a deep and joyful partnership.

While you are generally an easy-going kid, you have been known to have a complete meltdown because, for instance, we tried to give you the rest of your smoothie that you asked for. Or because I offered to help you put your shoes on. Or because it’s time for a diaper change. Just throwing this out there to balance the warm-fuzzies.

Also, I’m afraid it really is time for your first haircut. Your precious curls may have finally outgrown their cuteness and are veering into sketchy convenience store clerk style. Not really what we’re going for.

I love you so much, and am hoping to soak up these next weeks of our final days being a family of three. It is difficult to imagine another life than the one we have right now with you, but we’re excited for what comes next.

I uh ooh,

(This is an email I wrote to Cam a few days ago. You know, like that Google commercial where the dad emails his daughter throughout her childhood. Because I am a sap, and after I saw that commercial and it made me cry, I created an email address for him. Then I forgot about it for a year, couldn’t remember the address or the password so was forced to create a new account for him, then started writing to him semi-regularly.)

First Word

It’s official, we’re calling it: His first word is SOCK. Because, you know, that’s vital to communicating when you can’t say anything else.


Technically the first intentional sound he made was “Aah aah.” As in “Ooh ooh aah ahh,” like a monkey. For some reason out of everything we say to him over and over and over again, making a monkey sound is what he responded to. Not “mama” or “dada” or “more” or “dog.” Nothing there. But when he sees that monkey inside the cabinet of “Where’s Spot?” he knows exactly what to say.

Holiday Home Tour

All the fancy blogs are featuring home tours right now, showing off beautiful, festive, creative holiday decorations and handmade wreaths. In that spirit I decided I should share what we’ve pulled together in our home. Please excuse the junky iPhone-at-night photos and don’t let those distract you from all the glory.

I had every intention of using this DIY to Christmas up our fireplace, using our existing ampersand in the middle. I suppose it's possible I could get my act together to do it in the next four days, but that seems unlikely. So this rendering will have to suffice.

I had every intention of using this DIY to Christmas up our fireplace with a “Merry & Bright” sign, using our existing ampersand in the middle. I suppose it’s possible I could get my act together to do it in the next four days, but that seems unlikely. So this rendering will have to suffice. And the moving blanket and toys give the hearth that lived-in look. Pro tip: you can just haphazardly throw in a clipping from your Christmas tree on top of fireplace logs, giving you instant “I sort of tried” seasonal greenery.

The stockings were hung by the football with care...

The stockings were hung by the football with care…


On the day I set up this table, it looked adorable. Now it looks like this.

Here's my tutorial for creating a wrapping station in your house: throw the rolls of paper you borrowed from your mom into the Pack-n-Play (Pack-and-Play?), which for some reason you can't remember has been dragged into the living room. Voila!

Here’s my tutorial for creating a wrapping station in your house: throw the rolls of paper you borrowed from your mom into the Pack-n-Play (Pack-and-Play?), which for some reason you can’t remember has been dragged into the living room. Realize you’re out of scotch tape. Voila!

I like to leave unwrapped, un-taped packages strewn about the house, to experience the will-they-or-won't-they thrill of being accidentally discovered by the gift recipient.

I like to leave unwrapped, un-taped packages strewn about the house, to experience the will-they-or-won’t-they thrill of the gift recipient accidentally discovering it.

For our tree, we went with toddler-proof chic, only decorating the top half and weaving all the lights deep inside and on the back. The great thing about this is that it kinda looks like you were drunk when you did it. 'Tis the season!

For our tree, we went with toddler-proof chic, only decorating the top half and weaving all the lights deep inside and on the back. The great thing about this is that it kinda looks like you were drunk when you did it. ‘Tis the season!

I did make a really cute advent calendar/card holder, though.

I did make a really cute advent calendar/card holder, though.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Merry Christmas, y’all.
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