The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

At this point, I’ve read 47 books in 2018. They were mostly fiction (27), some memoir/essay (eight)) and some non-fiction (seven). (If you want to see everything I’ve read/am reading, here’s a link to my Goodreads profile.) It was really hard to pick my top ten because I never read books I don’t like. I normally know if I’ll like a book within the first couple of pages, but I have been known to quit books 20 pages in, 50 pages in, or even halfway to the end. Life is just too short to read books I don’t love.

Here are my ten favorites from this year, in no particular order.

Educated by Tara Westover

Westover’s ability to create a compelling narrative is unreal. She has this incredible ability (especially at a relatively young age) to make sense of the unbelievable events of her childhood with wisdom, clarity, kindness, and beauty. This is a story about how history shapes the present and the future. It asks questions who is authorized to create history and where that power originates. It acknowledges that truth can be hard if not impossible to pin down without discounting the value of searching for it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
This book was almost a mix of poetry and prose. Ward’s writing style is juicy and delicious but never overly descriptive or boring. I would love to spend a day in her head just to know what it’s like to sit down at a computer and type (or write) with that kind of language. Beside the beautiful writing, the characters are richly drawn, the plot is compelling, and despite the heart-wrenching agony it evokes on nearly every page, there’s a strong thread of hope and redemption, too.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The writing is sharp, simple, and evocative. There is so much sensory detail but it’s never flowery or overly wordy. Just enough description to make you feel like you’re right there. Speaking of right there, it’s set in Nigeria. I knew basically nothing about Nigeria before picking up this book, so beside being completely captivated by the story, I learned something about Nigeria and its stormy politics. The book is heavy. SO HEAVY. I was up reading it in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and it definitely did not relax me. But I loved it so much I was almost grateful for that sleepless night just to get a chance to spend 2.5 uninterrupted hours with it.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I liked this book a lot but I fell in love with it on the final page. Okay the final sentence. This is a classic heroine’s journey; Ifemelu comes up against challenge after challenge, to figure out who she is, what she wants, and where home is. Adichie is an unbelievably sharp observer of details and it’s those details plus her beautiful writing style that make this book sparkle.
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin 

I laughed. I cried. I thought about feminism, dumb things I did in my 20’s, my relationships with my grandmother, my mom, my daughters, my friends. I thought about what it means to reinvent one’s self. What else can you ask for in a book? It was delicious and quick- great vacation read.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs 
The way Brennan-Jobs describes her experiences is remarkable in the level of detail but also the plainness of her language. She relays her memories, her feelings, but she rarely lets you know how she feels about the events of the past now that she’s had some distance from them and can see them with an adult perspective, but somehow it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.
Not only is the writing clear and bright, but the story is also one of hope and resilience. Though the author never comes out and says it, as a reader, I understood that through her travails, she learned that money can never be a substitute for love and happiness, that what you think you want isn’t always what is going to actually make you happy, that there is power in knowing who you are and what you want, and that you can grow into a strong person despite a shaky foundation.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko 

This was heavy, at times difficult to read, beautiful, and tender. It explores culture, family, and identity while shining a much-needed light on the trauma and injustices that often characterize immigration to the US. It should be required reading for all Americans.


Sunburn by Laura Lippman
This was the perfect summer vacation book. It has it all: richly drawn characters, an unpredictable plot, expert storytelling, and it makes you question your assumptions about what it means to be a “good woman.” At least that’s what it did for me.


An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones 

This is the type of book that stayed with me for days after I closed it for the last time. Jones alternates between three different narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre. Celestial and Roy are newlyweds when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit. While Roy is in prison, the friendship Celestial and Andre have shared since childhood turns into romantic love. My heart ached for each of these richly drawn, relatable, intensely lovable characters. It reminded me of The Light Between Oceans in that you can’t help rooting for each character, even though one’s redemption will be another’s loss.

And while it was about love, loss, letting go, the nature of love, the bounds of marriage, it was also very much about race. I’m not sure what’s “okay” to write publicly about race as a white person but here goes: I do not spend any time worrying that the men in my life will be killed by the police or wrongly imprisoned. And though I am aware, on an intellectual level, that this is something Black people deal with on a daily basis, it’s still not something I consider very often or on an emotional level. Reading this book heightened my awareness of my white privilege.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt 
Insanely gripping. The writing was gorgeous, the plot was tight, and despite making me cry my eyes out about once every chapter (at least) it left me feeling hopeful. If you liked All The Ugly Wonderful Things, you would probably like this one, too. It’s about identity, family, and coming to grips with mortality.


I swam 50,000 yards in one month…This is what I learned

I smelled like chlorine, my skin itched, and I had goggle marks around my eyes for the entire month of November. 

I loved it.

I decided to take part in “Swimvember” a swim challenge coordinated by Multisport Mastery and Jen Harrison triathlon coaching. Each swimmer earns points just for swimming (there was a minimum yardage for a swim to “count”), and through bonus challenges, like specific workouts, swimming twice in one day, meeting a certain yardage over a few days, and tons more. 

I went into this thinking I could stand to have some external motivation to swim more than I currently was (generally 0-1 times per week), and if my swimming improved, it would be a bonus. 

My earliest memory of swimming is begging my mom or dad to take me into the water. Though I grew up spending my summers at the beach and taking swim lessons, I was terrified to put my face in the water and had no idea how to actually locomote underwater until I was six or seven. I remember winning the six and under category in our local beach’s kickboard contest and burning with the shame of knowing I’d actually walked while holding my white styrofoam kickboard out in front of me. 

Eventually, I learned how to swim to the point where I’d probably stay afloat if I fell off a boat. I started swimming for exercise in college. I enjoyed it even though I was slow. I didn’t know how slow I was until I started doing triathlons and found myself consistently exiting the water dead last. The entire transition area would be empty except for my bike, standing all alone among the dozens and dozens of empty racks. 

Over the years, I’ve bought swimming DVD’s, taken swim lessons, attended swim clinics,  and faithfully (and very intermittently) attended Masters. Gradually, my swimming progressed from abysmal to mediocre to about average, at least by triathlete standards. 

But I never believed I could be a decent swimmer. I thought good swimmers grew up doing swim team. I feared swimming more frequently would be a waste of time; that I’d ingrain the flaws in my stroke even deeper.

Swimvember changed that. After swimming 25 times for a total of 50,000 yards this month, I have become faster, stronger, and more confident in the water. I am astounded and thrilled, but I’m also a little embarrassed that I never thought to apply the stuff that works for everything else in my life to swimming until now. 

Because this is what I know works in the water and everywhere else in life:

Show up
There were days I just didn’t want to swim. Days that my arms were tired from the day before, days that I’d gone to bed a little too late to hear my alarm going off at 5:15am, days that I just felt like working out in my basement instead of running out to start my freezing cold car in the dark, and letting it warm up while I sipped some instant coffee. Sometimes I cut my swim short because I ran out of time or energy. 

But I showed up. And all that showing up counts. Even the easy, minimum yardage swims counted for a point, added to my momentum, helped me build strength, swim by swim. 1500 yards isn’t much on its own, but stacked on top of all the other swimming, it adds up. The short, easy session you show up for is always better than the perfectly planned long one that doesn’t end up happening. 

Get uncomfortable
The more you do things that are out of your comfort zone, the wider your comfort zone gets. After years and years of swimming for 20 to 45 minutes at a time for anywhere from zero to eight times a month, I’d gotten comfortable with my little swimming routine (or lack thereof). But it wasn’t getting me anywhere. 

It was only when I got out of my comfort zone—doing swims as long as 3700 yards, swimming twice in one day, swimming 10,000 yards within four days, swimming on back-to-back days as often as I could—that I grew as a swimmer. A month ago I thought of a 2400 yard swim as a big deal. Now it feels pretty normal. 

Do what works for you
Figure out what motivates you and use it to your advantage. I like to compete. I thrive on external accountability. That’s why I like having a training partner, hiring a coach, signing up for a race, or in this case, joining a virtual swim challenge with the opportunity to earn points. 

I was in this thing to win all the points I could, despite knowing I wasn’t even in contention for the top ten, and despite the fact that literally, nothing was at stake. I just wanted those damn points. I wanted them so bad Dan is wondering how he can implement some kind of points system in our marriage. 

When I got into Barton Springs Pool, a pool I’ve been wanting to swim in ever since I heard of it ten years ago, I realized why I was one of only three people swimming in it. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a Polar Plunge. I didn’t care if this was my relaxing 40th birthday weekend in Austin with my husband while the kids stayed with their grandparents. I didn’t care if I couldn’t feel my hands, feet, or face. I didn’t care if I feared I was going to get raped in the deserted, open-air locker room while I changed my still damp body into dry clothes after swimming. I didn’t mind coming to the pool at times that I’d previously thought were way too inconvenient (traffic, dragging kids to childcare, etc) when a point was at stake.

I can’t quite articulate the pleasure I got from pulling up the group spreadsheet and entering my points.

Maybe an arbitrary point system wouldn’t motivate you, but something does. Figuring out what that is is half the battle.

To Get Your Personal Essay Published, Try This.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you might have noticed that an essay I wrote got published at the Washington Post. (Click here to read it). It explores why, as someone who eschews mainstream sports, I find so much joy in my young daughters’ loyalty to the Red Sox.

In it I write, “This morning I received a text from my dad, asking me to tell the girls the Red Sox won the World Series…”

Do not think for a minute that I received that text, enjoyed a visit with my creative muse (PS if she’s reading this, WHERE ARE YOU, B***H??), banged out that essay and submitted it while my kids made their own breakfasts and reminded themselves to brush their teeth, wear pants, and to at least stuff a jacket in their backpacks.

Because that is so not what happened.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself looking at other writers’ wins and thinking they’re lucky, they’re talented, they write faster than I do, they need less sleep than I do, they have more childcare than I do or… you get the idea. The truth may be some combination of any or all of those things but it’s also that they worked hard.

And while I can’t speak for all writers, I can speak for myself when I say, behind every success is a combination of a little luck and metric shit-ton of hard work. It was lucky that the Red Sox won the World Series after I’d been tinkering with that essay for six weeks. But all the luck in the world wouldn’t have helped if I hadn’t started the process of writing and rewriting six weeks earlier.

How exactly can you make luck and hard work work for you to get your work published? Here’s my advice.

1| Write about something you care about
It doesn’t matter what it is. But if you don’t care about it before you begin the excruciating task of writing about it, there’s no way you’re going to care about it when you’ve read it so many times your eyes are bleeding and you don’t even know what the pages say anymore.

I literally cannot get over the beauty in the bond between my kids and their grandparents. I’m getting vehrklempt just writing that sentence. That’s why I started exploring the topic of this essay in the first place. I have no interest in sports. So why do I love that my kids root for the Red Sox?

What started as a bunch of word vomit in a spiral notebook became an exploration of my relationship with my dad, a guy whose idea of a perfect day is sitting on the porch with an ocean breeze, a cigar, and the Red Sox on the radio. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say at first, but because I was curious about the topic, I kept writing until I knew what my message was.

2| Accept feedback
I wrote a version of that essay and showed it to Dan. He said something that sounded like “Blah blah blah blah… and I’d delete the paragraph that just might be the best thing you’ve ever written in your life.” I ignored him. Then I showed it to my writing friends, who both said it kind of sounded like two different essays, so I needed to pick one and go with it. And also, that paragraph I was so in love with didn’t fit. I told Dan what my friends said and he said, “So they agree with me.” Doh.

I rewrote it and showed version two to one of my writing friends. She said it still wasn’t done. I wrote version three and showed it to her. She said she thought it was done. (Neither of us quite realized the Red Sox were playing in the final game of the World Series at that very moment.)

3| Be flexible
When my dad texted me that the Red Sox won, the first thing I did was tell my girls. The second thing I did was rewrite a paragraph to include that piece of important,  timely information. Then I submitted it.

But what if the Red Sox hadn’t won? As a friend recently suggested, I certainly could have hit Control + F and replaced every “Red Sox” with “Dodgers” (In which case the essay would probably have been published anyway and my dad would have disowned me). Alternatively, I could have tinkered with the ending. I could have said that no matter who wins the Series, nothing can break the bond between my kids and their Papa. And who knows, there’s always next season. Then I could have waited till next season to submit it. I might have tried to submit it for Father’s Day or made it relevant to some piece of Red Sox news. I would have even read the paper (or more likely, relied on my dad) to keep those events on  my radar.

Or perhaps I would have shifted some of the story to focus on football, depending on my kids’ interest in the Pats this winter, and submitted it around the Super Bowl.

To get your personal essay published try this

If you try my tips, let me know how it goes. If you have others, please drop them in the comments. And for a fabulous resource written by a seasoned pro, I cannot recommend Susan’s Shapiro’s The Byline Bible highly enough.






What happened when I quit Instagram

Instagram and I had a toxic relationship. It started innocently enough. when I joined in late 2016, thinking it would be a fun way to connect with other runners, CrossFitters, book lovers, writers, and the odd friend or family member. I thought I might find writing, speaking, and run coaching clients on Instagram, too. I thought it was going to be fabulous, and it was… at first.

But it quickly got out of hand. I found myself mindlessly watching videos or looking at pictures that Instagram had thoughtfully curated just for me. I’d be reorganizing my closet, then I’d be searching #blackcardigan (maybe there was some interesting way to wear a black cardigan with which I was previously unacquainted and therefore I should not give the black cardigan I never wear to Goodwill??). And #blackcardigan was just the beginning. Twenty minutes later, I’d be drowning in random people’s random ass feeds looking at random stuff that was less important than just about every other thing I could possibly be doing at that moment.

If I was waiting for a pot of water to boil? Just gonna see what’s happening in my Instagram feed. Stuck at a red light? Tap that Instagram icon. And if I’d recently posted… forget it. I’d stop brushing my teeth for a quick second to see if anyone had liked it in the last 48 seconds.

I tried to change my habit but was never successful. When I considered getting off Instagram altogether I told myself I couldn’t because I needed it for work. But the fact is, I’ve never gotten work through social media.

Meanwhile, Instagram was robbing me of my precious time and attention.

And it wasn’t just Instagram; it was my whole phone. And maybe it wasn’t Instagram or my phone. Maybe it was me. Although I’m inclined to think it wasn’t. It is well-established in the medical literature that our brains are wired to become addicted to the random rewards we get from our phones (e.g. unpredictable likes, texts, comments, etc).

In any event, I knew something needed to change. First, I got a flip phone.

Once I had my flip phone, my iPhone became my mini-tablet; something I use it when I’m on Wi-fi, but I can literally take it or leave it. I have been finding it very peaceful to go places without it or to simply turn it off anytime I don’t want to be distracted. (I still get What’s App and Voxer notifications on it because the fact is, typing out a text message on a flip phone is a bitch, and I also find it hard to resist the impulse to check email on it. Mostly I use it for apps like My Fitness Pal and Spotify and as a camera).

Though I have Instagram on my iPhone, I logged out when I got my flip phone and I have yet to log in. The first time I considered logging back in, I thought “Instagram has taken up waaay too much of my time and I hate how I feel after I’ve been on there for too long. I think I’ll wait another day to log in.” The next day, I thought the same thing. The third day, I thought, “It’s been a couple of days. What if I waited a week?” The following week I was camping in Montana with no W-Fi so the point was moot. When I returned from Montana I realized I felt better without Instagram in my life. At this point it has been almost a month since the Montana trip and I hardly think about Instagram anymore.

That said, I’ve given some thought to what my life has been like without it and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Things I miss about Instagram
-My friend Kelly’s feed
She is an excellent photographer. When I see her photos, I’m not only impressed by their beauty, but I also see a kindred spirit and I send her a mental high five. Kelly and I went to occupational therapy school together and have since traded our scrubs for artistic pursuits. I love seeing what she’s creating and (selfishly) feel validated when I see another fomer OT using her creativity to make art.

-My sister’s feed
She’s not on Facebook and she’s one of the few people I know IRL who I follow on Instagram. Even if she’s posting photos of what she ate for lunch or photos of her kids (aka things I would find boring on almost anyone else’s feed), I’m enthralled by the details of her life. You might think I get enough of the details based on the amount of time we spend on the phone together but it’s never enough, considering we live thousands of miles away from each other. Plus, her kids have some of my DNA, which makes them part mine, so how could I not want to see pics of them. #psychoauntie.  I also miss coming up with  inside joke hashtags when I comment on her posts.

Things I don’t miss about Instagram
There will always be more in my Instagram feed than I can keep up with and there will never be anything I need to know right now, or really ever. And yet. The scrolling. It was like some outside force would attach itself to my thumb and despite every rational thought in my brain— This is unimportant. This is probably photoshopped to death. My kids are trying to talk to me. I should be emptying the dishwasher. Dinner is not going to make itself. PAM , WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING ON INSTAGRAM!? — I couldn’t stop.

The anxiety
Instagram is, at first glance, an easy escape. You can be in your own messy kitchen surounded by whiny children and a sink full of dishes while your mind is on the runs, the squats, the yoga flows, or the coconut cream pies that come up in your feed.

But that “escape” doesn’t offer the same mental break as a soak in the tub, or a  few stolen deep breaths in your bedroom. Instead of giving our minds time to be still, to think, or just wander, it floods them with information. There is a reason people say their best ideas come to them in the shower or on a run. We need time and space to let ideas and experiences marinate in our brains before we can create new ones. This isn’t new age nonsense, it’s science.

Not only that but this so-called “escape” fueled my anxiety. Looking at everyone else’s life (e.g. the life they chose to share online) often made me wonder about my own life. Even if my questions were fleeting, lasting only the fraction of a second until I scrolled down to the next post, they were there. Should I be doing that workout? Should I be wearing those shorts? What if my house was that clean? How is her forehead so perfectly blank? Should I get Botox? Maybe facial acupuncture? What if I had abs like that? What if I had a writing space like that?  Each of these questions carried so little weight on their own, but their cumulative effect was heavier than I realized until I stopped feeding them entirely (no pun intended). Again, this experience is not uniquely mine. Science has shown a positive relationship between smartphone use and anxiety.

Hashtagging my life
Being on Instgram meant that anytime I saw something beautiful, did something interesting, or ordered a craft cocktail, I felt the urge to post it. If I felt like posting it, I would momentarily check out of the actual experience to take a photo, find the right filter, compose a caption, and of course attach the perfect hashtag or 20.

If I didn’t decide to post it, I was nevertheless momentarily checked out of the actual experience as I asked myself whether I really wanted to share it, if I could even capture the beauty in a photo, or if posting it might annoy or offend the person with whom I was sharing the experience. Posting selfies also made me overly self-conscious of my wonky eye (e.g. the residual effect of Bell’s Palsy).

And then there were the running posts. Before Instagram I never took my phone on a run. It was one of the only times I’d ever fully unplug. Running means lots of things to me, but one of the most important is that it’s a time to just be. Stopping to take a photo (not just a photo but the “right” photo, optimally one that I am actually in, let’s not even talk about the gymnastics that requires) is my anti-running.

There is no contest. I prefer being (more) present in my own life and (trying to) stay focused on my own pursuits over checking on everyone else and hoping they like my feed.

Why I’m Using a Flip Phone

It’s black, shiny, brand new, and it’s a relic. It’s modern technology as far as the year 2005 is concerned.

It’s my new flip phone.

I never took an online quiz to see if I had a phone addiction. Dan never said he thought I loved my phone more than I loved him. I never got in an accident because I was texting and driving, though that’s not to say I never drove while distracted.

I was living distracted and I hated it.

I hated the feeling that there was always to do, more to know, more messages to reply to. I hated how I felt after I’d brushing my teeth and set my alarm for the next morning, standing in the bathroom with my phone plugged into the wall, idly scrolling through Instagram, absorbing the details of other people’s lives while I disengaged from my own life.

Dan would call from the bedroom, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I’d call back, too ashamed to tell him the truth: Nothing I’m proud of, nothing that deserves my attention, nothing that’s more relaxing than reading my book or cuddling in bed next to you… Then I’d put my phone on airplane mode and crawl into bed, wishing I’d put my phone down earlier.

When my phone is around I can barely be still enough to think my own thoughts, feel my feelings, or appreciate what’s around me. I hate it.

I find myself Googling every question the second it pops into my mind. One minute I’m ordering the double A batteries I need on Amazon, and 15 minutes later I’m poring over product reviews of a coconut shampoo that could be a cheaper alternative to my pricey Deva Curl products, even though I know I’ll stick with the tried and true expensive brand. I’m searching for the recipe for a flax egg and next thing I know I’m pinning a Paleo brownie recipe I’ll never bake and the dishes still aren’t done, the laundry is still waiting to be folded, and my daughters are still reminding me they need a snack.

Before I can even feel crappy for a minute or two, maybe even let the feeling pass, I’m texting my sister or my best friend every single “WTF”,  “I can’t even,” and “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS CRAP!?”  

In front of me is a sunset, a delicious meal, the morning sun casting a pink glow on the Flatirons and I’m wondering how to capture it for an Instagram post, thinking of hashtags.   

My kids want to show me their art, their forts, their dances, and I give them a cursory look and a distracted “Uh huh”  while I scroll through photos of other people’s kids on social media. When I let myself imagine how this scene would look from the outside I am disgusted. I didn’t let myself go there too much.

I didn’t need a Buzzfeed quiz to tell me I’m not happy with the way I used my phone, so I started a new ritual this spring: a digital sabbath. I’ll never stop eating bacon or lobster but I love my version of Shabbat. From Friday night to Saturday night my phone is off. It’s not that I don’t want to be connected to my friends and family. It’s just that I have not found a way to use my phone for the things it was originally designed for—texting and talking—while avoiding the Pandora’s Box my sexy little rectangle holds inside its hard, smooth exterior.

The objective of my most recent Toastmasters speech was to persuade my audience. I decided I’d try to persuade them to shut their phones off—for a day, for a night, or for an hour. I told them stories about my own digital sabbath and how I feel after 24 hours of being phoneless.

I described the feeling of just being wherever I was, enjoying things like a novel or a movie instead of battling the nagging urge to check my phone. I described the discomfort of being stuck in a crappy situation with no way of texting my husband and begging him to bail me out, only to be pleasantly surprised when he showed up and saved me of his own accord. I described the peace I found in starting my day without the distractions of everyone else’s agendas the second I looked at my email.

I described the clarity, the connection, and the gratitude I felt when my phone was off.

I cited research on the addictive nature of phones, including this staggering statistic: The average American checks their phone 150 times a day. That’s once every six waking minutes.

While I practiced my speech, it hit me like an Amber alert in the middle of the night. I could feel as good as I feel on Saturdays every single day… if gave up the convenience of having access to the entire world in my pocket. In return, I’d have my attention back. Sure, I might still be distracted—life’s messy and I’m no Buddha— but at least I wouldn’t have to fight an ocean of information I held in my hand to stay focused.

Two weeks ago I went to the Verizon store. The manager could not move my contacts from my iPhone to my flip phone.

“We’ve never seen anyone go backward before,” he said.

Today I’m fumbling over the keys of my new phone, composing clumsy, time-consuming two-sentence text messages devoid of smiley faces, thumbs ups, or heart emojis. I’m not checking my email constantly, mindlessly looking at Instagram when I have a minute here or a minute there. I’m keeping a notebook and a pen in my bag so I can write down ideas, to-do’s, and questions. I’m looking at my kids when they talk to me instead of my phone.

It has been less than a month since I activated my flip phone but I feel like I’m moving forward.