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More Play in May: Children’s Literature

May 17, 2016

UnknownIt may say more about me than anything else, that I find so much to think about and write about in Gretchen Rubin’s May chapter “Be Serious about Play.” Today I’m taking look at her particular source of fun: children’s literature. Just the mention of book titles in this chapter rang all kinds of bells for me.

I have been a fan of young adult (YA) lit since the genre was identified. Some trace its beginning to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, even though plenty of books written before that one could fit into the category better than children’s lit. In the years I’ve attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), I not only found myself introduced to many great works of YA lit, but to the authors as well–S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, Paul Danziger, Paul Zindel, Lois Lowry, and so many more.

Rubin’s explanation of the difference between children’s literature and adult literature, not merely a superficial difference, makes sense to me:  these books deal with universal themes, particularly good versus evil. They deal with real human conflicts, social justice, life and death, fate and free will. No set of books exemplifies this point better than J.K. Rowling’ Harry Potter series. I know some adults who steered clear of these books because they were children’s books or because they had garnered so much hype that these readers thought there must be some trick.

I might have skipped them myself for the latter reason if I hadn’t read the first book before all the hoopla. I was as captivated by each book as any of my high school students were. I felt better about my appreciation for some of the strong messages when Gretchen Rubin admitted that she too “love[s] didactic writing.”

I have to take a note from the chapter in which she points out that we have “plenty of time to have fun!” My first reaction to this chapter is a desire to re-read some of my old favorites, especially now that I know right where to find them, having unpacked those boxes and given them a place of their own in the rooms we have furnished for our grandchildren’s visits. While I have so many other books on the figurative pile on the nightstand (temporarily displaced as we’re having the bedroom floors finished), I may have to venture back through Little Women, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Red Fern Grows. If I get industrious, maybe my grandchildren and I can read through the Little House series together, which my fourth grade teacher read in its entirety, a few minutes a day after lunch.

If I follow through with this plan, I’ll also capitalize on another point made in the chapter: “[E]ach common interest between people boosts the chances of a lasting relationship and also brings about a 2 percent increase in life satisfaction.”


The Merry Month of May: Focusing on Play

May 11, 2016

11200917_10205068095966103_6551643218359250248_n10485997_10202978212280317_3774038956504391750_oThe May Chapter of The Happiness Project “Be Serious about Play” focuses on adding fun to life.
Gretchen Rubin points out that experts define play as any activity that is “very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn’t create social harm, and doesn’t necessarily lead to praise or recognition.” In fact, she notes, “people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy.”

While play is distinguishable from work, she notes that those who are most fortunate find that what they do in their spare time is not so different from what they do for work.

I’ll confess that I have no problem buying into the value of play. In fact, I have so many ways to play that work tended to cramp my style. Fortunately, since I taught English, reading and writing are two things I most enjoy doing just for fun.  However, my favorite forms of play don’t stop there.

Since I turned fifty, I’ve taken on several new activities. Learning to play the mandolin has been a most rewarding form of play. I can enjoy playing by myself, but I especially enjoy playing music with others. Since a mandolin is much more portable than an upright bass or a piano, I can easily have fun wherever I go.  In North Carolina and now in Nashville, I found plenty of opportunities to play music with others who shared my passion.

One of the best fringe benefits of teaching at the community college was the policy that let teachers take a class free each semester. I took all the art classes I could–starting with Basic Design, and then Photography, Printmaking, and Photoshop. These classes led me to produce work that made their way to exhibit, and they introduced me to a larger circle of friends as well.

I acknowledge that Rubin is right: what is fun for one person is not fun for everyone. I could live forever without movies or television. I can’t go all day Sunday, however, without the crossword puzzle.

I’m most curious to know what others do when you have time for play. What do you do just for fun? Who knows? I might want to try that too.

Making Memories: April’s Lightening Up Leads to May’s Play

May 5, 2016

Before finishing April altogether, I have to take a minute to discuss the section in last month’s chapter when Gretchen Rubin discussed “the importance of keeping happy memories vivid.” Anyone who’s known me long knows I’ve been the picture taker and album maker long before scrapbooking became popular (and so commercial). Much of my  problem with getting organized back in January was hampered by my boxes and boxes of happy memories–mine and several generations of my family’s and my husband’s.

I have rows of albums for most of my adulthood, ratcheting up after children and then grandchildren came alone. I also keep boxes (cute ones from the craft store) for the various branches of our families and for friends, my own childhood family and my husband’s, college days, teaching–anything that can be categorized.

I had a discussion with a twenty-something friend this week. She listens to playlists on Spotify and keeps picture on Facebook, unprinted. I still buy CDs. (I still have 45s.) Which way is right? Either, I suppose–as long as the shifting technologies don’t eat up all our memories.

I try to heed the warning in a favorite quote from Annie Dillard: “Memory is insubstantial. Things keep replacing it. Your batch of snapshots will both fix and ruin your memory. . . . You can’t remember anything from your trip except the wretched collection of snapshots.” Recently I’ve seen people (maybe even me) so intent on capturing the shot that they missed the moment.

As I move into May when we’re advised to “Be Serious about Play” (something I do naturally), I hope I maintain balance–making and capturing memories.

Happiness Project Book Club: Responding to Feelings

April 22, 2016

One little piece of child psychology Gretchen Rubin mentions in the April chapter makes sense with any kind of human interaction: “we should acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings.” No matter what age we are, we don’t want someone else telling us how we do and don’t feel.

I’ve heard women say, in conversations about their spouses, “When I tell him something that’s bothering me, I don’t want him to fix it.  I just want him to listen and sympathize.” Rubin takes this knowledge a step further and writes down her “cheat notes” for how to respond, ranging from simply writing down what her children tell her (or waving a magic wand and acknowledging that she’d LIKE to be able to magically solve the problem) to simply listening. (And yes, I did just split that infinitive.)

One of my favorites is her suggestion to admit that a task is difficult. This dovetails with my reading of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (which I recommend to everyone!).

Finally (though now in her ordering) is one of the hardest suggestions at all–at least for me. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be quiet and listen.

In my next post, I want to take some time to discuss the section on “keeping happy memories vivid.”

No Foolin’: You Don’t Have to Be a Parent to Lighten Up

April 10, 2016

imagesIt’s no secret that I love April because it’s National Poetry Month, and I love celebrating. Starting out with April Fool’s Day adds to the fun, too. I love coming up with pranks for others to play, although I have a hard time keeping a straight face long enough when I play them myself.

At first glance, Gretchen Rubin’s focus on Parenthood in her April Chapter entitled “Lighten Up” might be off-putting to readers who have no children, but she makes so many valid points that anyone can put to use.

In this post, I want to focus on the idea she presents of “fog happiness,” that intangible kind of happiness you can’t quite put a finger on, can’t define or quantify. In her case, she defends the idea that having children increased her happiness, even though on a day-to-day basis it may be hard to convince others–or even herself.  I always think back to a piece by Dennis Prager, “The Secret of True Happiness” I read in Reader’s Digest many years ago, distinguishing between happiness and fun.

She gives examples of other activities that didn’t feel like happiness while she was in the middle of them but that produced feelings of happiness, ranging from contentment to exhilaration. She mentions a friend working like a dog throwing a party who said her fun begins afterward, when she recalls the party. This may seem contradictory in light of her March discussion of the “arrival fallacy” in which we miss the pleasure of the moment when we’re so focused on the destination. In the case mentioned here, some of the work, discomfort, displeasure is mollified by the potential end result.

Now that I’m a grandmother, with the different perspective that affords me, I remember older women telling me, “Enjoy those little ones. They don’t stay little long.” They were right. In retrospect I recall lots of fun I wasn’t relishing at the time. I do remember deciding that no matter what else was pressing, I had time to tell a bed time story, to read a poem (or ten), to listen to their prayers, to sing a few of their favorite songs. I’m glad I did.

The Happiness Project: Enjoy Now

April 5, 2016

doctorow quote

Of writing, E. L. Doctorow said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Before I jump into April, I want to look at one point in the March chapter on work, which Rubin entitled “Aim Higher.”

While setting goals is necessary for actually reaching them, it’s so easy to fall for what Tal Ben-Shaba calls the “arrival fallacy.” We sometimes miss the joy of doing what we love because we’re convinced once we finish, we’ll have achieved a bigger measure of happiness.  It’s human nature to live for the weekend, for spring break, for the end of the semester, for graduation. Postponing our own recognition of the joy along the way can result in disappointment. I’ve arrived. Now what?

We can’t always be engaged in vocations or avocations of our choosing, but when given the choice, choosing to do what we love makes sense. I know that even when I despised the endless marking of essays, I always loved teaching English. I knew I was in my element, working with students I loved teaching in a discipline I enjoyed and valued.

Finally, I appreciate Gretchen Rubins’ suggestion to make the most of small increments of time. If I wait until I have enough time to finish something I want to do, I’ll never start.  This past weekend at the Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem, poet Joseph Mills pointed out that even writing five or ten minutes a day can produce a poem, a story, eventually even a novel. This works with almost any endeavor.  Why else are FitBits so popular? Being able to see how steps add up makes a person want to find ways to keep moving, even when walking a mile or two is impractical or even impossible.

A perfect analogy for me is reading a good book. When I’m caught up in a story, part of me can’t wait to reach the conclusion and another part doesn’t want the story to end. Either way, I’m always eager to pick up the next good book.

March Madness: Aiming Higher without Hoops

March 21, 2016

I love the serendipitous nature of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project for me because each month, I run across reassurance or prodding that I need just where I am. Since I launched this project just before I had any idea our house would sell and we’d be moving from North Carolina to Nashville, my location and activities have changed, but my basic nature has not.

Even though the sub-subtitle of this chapter is “Work,” I’m only beginning to think about what I’m going to “be” next. For now, I’m thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking of today or this week, not the fall or next year.  In the chapter, Rubin mentions that “challenge and novelty are key elements to happiness.” I love that combination.  I kept this quote on my classroom wall during my years teaching high school:


I reminded my students of a truth I need to remind myself occasionally: We are most proud of things that require us to work hard. That’s why learning to play the mandolin (and not starting until after I was fifty) has been so rewarding. I also love novelty. I think I thrive on change to some extent.  Even when I taught the same course semester after semester, I was motivated to change up my syllabus. This kept me from getting bored and helped me to learn along with my students. It kept me fresh.

Another point the author makes in this chapter is the importance to being true to oneself. In her case, she was challenged to start a blog, but she got all kinds of advice about changing the title and about subject matter that didn’t fit what she wanted to do. How liberating to realize that every life decision doesn’t take a majority vote. If she keeps reminding herself of the first of her Twelve Commandments: Be Gretchen, then I also need to give myself encouragement to Be Nancy. That entails finding ways to pursue my wide variety of interests without neglecting my responsibilities and without getting so fragmented that I don’t finish anything.


I have a room filled with boxes, most of them my books or my art and photo projects.  My garage still has enough boxes of things we aren’t quite sure what to do with that we still have to park outside. I have the house to myself, a list of things I want to do. There is also a cardinal sitting on the planter just outside my window. I think I’ll watch a few minutes before I tackle my next project.


And you? Be yourself today. Surprise yourself by trying something new, even something difficult that you’ve always wanted to attempt.