Putting my dad to work — he kindly went through the TOC of the new Sri Lankan cookbook and corrected all my transliterations. I got a *few* right…

In my defense, the issue is that there are gazillion ways to transliterate Tamil words, and if you just google, you’ll get a lot of variations. Especially since some of the letters just don’t exist in English — three variants of an ‘l’ sound, or a ‘ng’ sound, for example. But my dad is something of a purist and a scholar about Tamil, so this way, we get pretty close to how it would sound in Sri Lankan Tamil.

Measuring a Life

I’m trying to figure out at what point I started measuring everything in time. It was recent — I didn’t think this way in college, or in my 20s or 30s. Somewhere after 40, I think.
A few months ago, I started calendaring as many to-do items as possible, as I took them on, blocking out time in the next few weeks to do them. If I couldn’t find the time, then I had to say no.
This afternoon, I had a conversation about a possible task, and the only real question I had was ‘what’s the time commitment?’ (3 trips to D.C., plus a few conference calls. Manageable, esp. since I have a sister in D.C.) I told them that I’d commit to it for a year; no promises after that.
Last night, I blocked out vast sections of my calendar — 7:30 – 9:30 every morning for writing. 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. + weekends for family & relaxation. Somehow, all the other work (and internet!) is supposed to happen between 9:30 and 5 p.m. on weekdays, which seems sort of impossible now, but I am going to try my damnedest to get there. (Okay, there will clearly be a little FB on weekends too.)
Getting there clearly involves staffing out a good portion of the work, which demands money. Money can buy time, but first you have to have the money. Right now, I am spending money I don’t technically have, betting that the time I get back will result in more money in the long run. There are limits to how long I’m willing to bet on that, though. I’m not sure what the limits are yet.
This is the year I try harder to invest in my writing career and in my family. The first question and the last question is where do I spend my attention and my time?

Shallow Work

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-stye tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

I started off agreeing with the premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, that there are some types of work that demand focused, deep thought. I find myself seriously cranky about having it opposed to what he calls ‘shallow work’ in the quote above. Not that I disagree functionally about how those different kinds of work operate. But there’s a presumed value to deep work, and a consequent devaluing of shallow work that I think is deeply misleading.

Shallow work is accretive by nature, is the thing. Any random blog post I write here may be inconsequential, but the accumulation of a long series of them about cancer, or parenting, or writing can accrete into something valuable and worthwhile and even new. (Not that novelty is the most important thing either, and now I’m looking at doctoral programs that expect you to contribute something ‘new’ to the sum of human knowledge, and wonder who came up with that requirement anyway.)

Consider parenting — any given dinner you make for the kids, any given holiday you celebrate with special foods and activities, can probably be skipped without much trouble. (Though Kavi did get teary a bit when we told her that I had to cancel our Easter party and egg hunt to go help my parents this weekend; we were quick to console her with the promise that we’d do a belated one later this week. These things matter to children, beyond all reason.)

As an adult, you’re not going to remember one Christmas more or less, one dinner table or car errand conversation. Few of those individually will be significant. But a) a few of them will be significant, though you can’t predict which ones in advance, and b) the accretion of them creates significant value. Taking your elderly relative for a daily walk. Dropping off casseroles to the chemo patient’s families. Washing the children’s soiled bedding.

When Newport says these kinds of tasks don’t create ‘new value’ in the world, it’s true that they are unlikely to produce world-changing paradigm shifts, or brilliant, ground-breaking novels, or new math. Fair enough. But the world is made up of the bonds between people, and the daily maintenance of those bonds (women’s work, so often) is critical to the continued functioning of the world. It is the essential labor on which all else rests. If Thoreau’s mother didn’t do his laundry, would he have written Walden?

Seriously, if I didn’t have novels to write, I’d be tempted to write a companion book to this one, titled _Shallow Work_. Because that one quote made me just a little bit furious.


I’m in CT for a few days, helping my parents with some medical stuff. I’d hoped to spend at least some of the time writing — on the plane flights, in the early morning and evening. I couldn’t settle down to writing on the plane, though — I alternated between playing puzzle games on my phone and reading. My brain is so scattered these days.

The reading was good, at least — I finished reading Roxane Gay’s _An Untamed State_, which was brutal and beautiful. I put it down feeling a little despairing, though — is there anything that woman can’t write? She just amazes me — short stories, essays, memoir, novel, all with her trademark combination of searing honesty and gorgeous prose.

I might have just gone back to my phone game after that, but they were serving drinks, so I ended up chatting with my seat mate. He asked me about my cool laptop cover (a photo I took in Sri Lanka, printed by GelaSkins), and somehow we segued into talking about what we do. I told him I was supposedly working on a novel. It turned out that he (Patrick Harlin) was actually a professional composer, heading to Connecticut for three weeks for a residency program. He was going to hide in the woods and write music.

We talked for a while; the contrast between our lives was so acute. He’s 33, finished a doctorate, composing full-time. He has deadlines he has to meet, but generally seemed to feel like he was able to support himself without compromising his art. Living the dream. I’m 46 now. At 33, I was in the midst of my Ph.D. program, and just about to sell Bodies in Motion. No children yet, no cancer, no political career — I had reunited with Kevin, and we were both so focused on our work.

If I believed in signs, I’d feel like the universe was trying to talk to me, seating Patrick next to me on that flight, heading off to his residency. Telling me it was time to stop being distracted, go deep. He was reading a book, _Deep Work_, which I’ve now picked up from Amazon. I’m not sure it’ll tell me anything I don’t know already (cut down on social media and other interruptions; make the space where deep work can happen), but it’s supposedly full of inspiring stories along with useful strategies. Maybe it’s like advertising — you need to see a product several times before you’re ready to buy.

(photo on my laptop: from the train ride from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Heading into something dark and green and unknown.)


I keep coming up with new reasons why I keep writing novels that don’t get published. Why I keep writing mediocre novels that almost certainly shouldn’t be published. Why I mostly don’t write novels at all.

But while all the reasons are true (children! cancer! teaching job! Trump & running for office!), I am starting to think they are not the real reason.

They are extremely plausible excuses, but they are all also exceedingly effective measures for avoiding doing the real work.

I got derailed in 2006, when I wrote my first novel too fast, under contract, and it was cancelled. I’m not sure I ever got properly back on the rails after that.

(No need for advice. Based on past experience, most of it won’t be relevant to me, and is sort of distracting too. Just processing out loud.)

Oak Park Spring Break Staycation

Stopped for a little French snack at Léa (which is now serving dinner too, apparently — looks tasty). I picked that restaurant because it was a) on our way to the post office, and b) Kavi’s outfit looked very French that day.

They decided they quite liked pan au chocolat — I thought the bittersweet chocolate might be a little too bitter, and Anand was initially suspicious, but in the end, it was all devoured. Kavya loves chocolate in all its forms.

After the post office, we stopped by the library. (Anand: “Mommy, is this the library you own?” His concept of a trustee is a little muddy. But in some sense we all collectively own our public libraries, so not so far off as all that.)

The kids loved the current Idea Box exhibit, which features artwork from various local elementary schools. Their favorite was the three dimensional piece they’re pointing at in the second pic, which I was pretty impressed by too. Anand was, I think, a little jealous of his classmates who had work selected — “I didn’t know the art was going to go into the BIG library!” Something to aspire to, kid.

Stopped at Cafe Descartes (on Lake, next to the movie theater) for samosas. Nicely spicy; Kev and I got one heated up to share there (it was a bit chilly walking around yesterday late afternoon), and the fancy presentation startled me. . Also three in a bag to take home with us — should’ve gotten more, as they were quickly devoured.

We’d just missed the last mango lassi, which disappointed Kavi, so clearly I will have to take her back sometime soon. The kids got to split a cookie liberally coated in sprinkles, so don’t feel too sorry for them. Love having a local coffee shop that also serves samosas and mango lassis. Looking forward to their Saturday Punjabi pop-ups returning this summer!

Anand was getting restless by this point in our peregrinations, so Kevin walked him home while Kavi and I dealt with bank stuff. I had various little things to do with my business writing account, but the big thing was finally opening Kavi’s first savings account, which we’ve been meaning to do for forever. She’s been carefully accumulating her birthday and Christmas money. Picture: Kavi endorsing her first check!

After opening her bank account, we wandered around shopping for a bit, until I got too cold and tired and needed to head home.

Kavi: “I could shop forever! I could live in the mall! If you wanted to take me to the mall and leave me there, I’d be fine with that!”

Although she did say that it was a little frustrating going to shop after shop and not buying anything because things were too expensive for her budget. (I should show her that Gilmore Girls episode where Rory and Lorelei are too skint to shop, and try to go window shopping instead, and find it is not nearly as much fun as they had hoped.) Kavi wasn’t ready to spend any of her newly-deposited bank money on a $24 pair of sunglasses, no matter how cute they were. Eventually we stopped in a store that sold $2.50 sparkle tattoo pens, and Kavi picked up a few; she went home happy.

Pictured: We stopped at 16 Suitcases (such cute clothes!) and Kavi discovered a notebook that matched her outfit. She has a thing for notebooks right now. I don’t know what she’s putting in them, but she’s going through them at a furious rate. Ironically for this photo, she prefers notebooks *without* lines.


I am feeling mom-guilt that this week, the first year that UIC and the kids’ school have had spring breaks that actually coincide, where we could have gone somewhere, I haven’t organized any trips. We are not going to Sri Lanka, or Disney World, or the Wisconsin Dells, or even to visit the parents (which is what we usually do on family vacation).
Monday I worked all day. This afternoon, Kev and I took the kids with us while we ran errands in downtown Oak Park. Look, kids — an exciting UPS store! Hey, there’s mommy’s bank! Let’s go straighten out that PIN issue! That’ll be fun! Tomorrow, I told Kavi if she wants, I’ll take her to the YMCA (a block away), to go swimming. Exciting. And then I was gone this evening for a library board meeting.
Five minutes ago, I found myself on the Wisconsin Dells site (I’ve never been, but apparently they have many indoor waterparks, and are only a 3 hour drive away.) I don’t actually want to go there. I am trying to use Spring Break to either a) rest or b) get through some backlogged work, for my own peace of mind. Tell me I don’t need to pack the family into a car tomorrow and drive to Wisconsin.


I did the first class as part of the free LiveStrong course at the Y (for cancer survivors) this evening. (Not available at all Y’s, sorry!) It runs for several weeks, M/W, from 6 – 7:30. I am not normally an evening exerciser, but a) it’s a lot of free classes, and b) if I complete the course, I get a free Y membership. So I’m giving it a go.

I was one of the youngest people in the nine-person class, which is not surprising; I was young to get cancer too. Throughout the class, they gave two versions of the exercises — the full-out version, and the low-key version. I mostly could do the full-out one, except that my cardio capacity is still sort of pathetic. I suppose that’s why I’m exercising. I’m reasonably strong, though, so that’s nice.

The format was a couple rounds of group exercise (jumping jacks, squats, etc.), circuit training. Then 15 minutes of cardio, where you were supposed to push yourself for 12 minutes, then cool down for 3. Then some rounds of strength training on the machines, to whatever level you wanted to work at. Then some more rounds of group exercise, circuit training, but strength-focused (stiff-legged deadlifts, resistance band leg lifts, etc.). Cool-down stretches.

Some of it was almost too easy for me, and I might have to ask them to bring in heavier free weights for me. But I’ve got a ways to go on cardio. So, good overall, gets me into the gym twice a week, we’ll see where I am at the end of the program. They do assessments at beginning and end, so you can get a real sense of what it does for you.


Nice gardening moment — last night’s pizza delivery came with an older man, maybe mid-50s, heavy accent that I couldn’t place, but might have been Middle Eastern.

“Flowers not freeze?” [gesturing to the pansies, hyacinths, and muscari I’d potted up earlier in the day]

“No, pansies are tough; they should be fine. Even if it snows a little.”

“Not freeze??” [making sure he understood me, I think]

“Not freeze! They’ll be fine!”

[big smile] “Beautiful, beautiful! Buy at Menard’s?”

I didn’t actually get them at Menard’s (local hardware store), but I’m sure Menard’s has them too, so I nodded yes. He went off with a little extra spring in his step — I suspect there’ll be pansies added to his yard sometime this week.

Garden proselytizing is the best proselytizing.