Monthly Archives: May 2014


When I visited Lyon’s botanic gardens recently, this bee house was the first thing I saw. Pretty neat! I’ve written about bees in Lyon before. Find that piece here. And look forward to next week’s post about the botanic gardens!


Last week, I set myself a personal challenge: put away my laptop–for a week.

Since I missed (international?) Screen Free Week–it was earlier in May–I figured I would do my own screen free week, concentrating on the screen that I’m behind the most. Although I also have an iPhone, I mostly use it as an alarm clock and to communicate with my boss, so I didn’t feel it was worthwhile to include that screen in my micro abolition movement.

So, I set myself an achievable goal: one week–Sunday to Sunday–with no laptop use.

And then Sunday rolled around and, after being out of the house for nearly twelve hours and suffering either from allergies or some sort of cold (not sure which), I decided to watch the most recent episode of Game of Thrones as I wound down. So I booted up the machine.

As I pressed the power button, my earlier resolution to go screen-free crossed my mind. I paused. And then I went ahead, pressed the button, watched the episode. Monday morning rolled around and I woke up earlier than usual and I had a few messages I wanted to respond to. I could have done it on my phone, but that seemed silly–I’m a fast touch typist but this skill doesn’t carry over to touch-screens. I did what I needed to do, got off the computer, got to class.

By that time, my screen free resolution was officially over. Nevertheless, I came out of the experience with a few reflections:

1. Think About It

Sure, my resolve crumbled, but between the time I decided to do a screen-free week (Thursday) and the time I officially called it quits (Monday morning), I pushed myself to go out and do things I wasn’t necessarily feeling like doing when I needed to go.

I kept telling myself that I’d rather do X than stay home and surf the Net, because as much as it seems like I’m going to get “behind” somehow, I’m not going to remember or appreciate the hours I spent slumped in my computer chair reading articles (scintillating as they may be)–I am going to remember day trips, going places, the friendships formed through parties and spending time with people.

I have a pretty severe broody streak–and I mean this in both the chicken and human senses. I like to stay put, guard my nest, take care of things at home (this is the chicken sense). I also get obsessed by ideas, emotions, my own state of mind, and my instinct is to try to grapple with all of this mentally.

My belief in the interchange between “body and mind” (to get Cartesian about it) is growing, but it’s still more a rational understanding than an internalized notion. That is to say: I know that, rather than sitting around trying to explain to myself why I’m unhappy, I’m much better off spending that time going on a run, or doing yoga, or really doing anything except sit on my butt and click yet another link.

That’s why I wanted to do the screen-free week in the first place: to break my broodiness. But, as it turns out, I did that fairly successfully just by thinking about it.

2. Book Yourself

This may only apply to me, but I find it difficult to deal with truly free time. I worry about how much time things will take, whether I can get back on time (if I have an afternoon/evening commitment), and whether I’ll have the right supplies with me. Here in France, I usually have afternoons free between French class and picking up the kids, but I don’t use them very well.

I’ve started really scheduling my free time, and although that might sound like I’m just sucking the joy right out of those times, it’s proven the reverse: by knowing the parameters of a situation, I can totally relax. I can set a timer and stop thinking about the time. I can come prepared and end up stringing together duties and pleasures–like by bringing a pen and extra paper to French class, I can head out directly to do some sketching afterwards.

Plus, of course, you don’t have to follow plans–but they provide a starting point. And I have also started using this for my “computer time.” Instead of using the computer to fill vast stretches of unplanned time, I am trying to be a bit more disciplined. I write down emails I need to respond to and ideas for posts or essays, so that when I sit down at the computer, no matter how many tabs I have open, I have a concrete list of tasks I want to accomplish. I try to do those before mindless browsing.

3. Moderation is Key

Finally, as in most things, moderation is key. Actually stepping away from my laptop entirely would be a real hassle this week, as I need to learn some songs for church (for which I use the hymnal’s website), buy plane tickets (something I could do on my iPhone, but definitely don’t want to), and write emails to my parents (again, something that I could do on my phone but which would take dramatically more time and probably result in not-so-great correspondence).

My goal wasn’t to not use a laptop, but to do other things. So, by focusing on going and doing, I actually have been successful, despite the “failure” of my willpower to follow through on a screen-free week. Since making up my mind to reduce my time on the laptop, I have:

  • visited Lyon’s botanic gardens
  • gone to a yoga class after church
  • read/sunbathed on the terrace
  • made and preserved cherry jam
  • made and ate a cherry pie (including from-scratch pie crust)
  • picnicked in the parc with other au pairs
  • went to a bar in the quartier where I originally lived in Lyon
  • went to a free outdoor concert

… and that was just three days! However, since that was just three days, and I’ve been under the weather for the past week, I can deal with a little screen time, a touch of couch potatoism.

Threatening myself with no laptop at all made me get out and do stuff, but being able to come back in and chill out, connect with friends and relatives far away–that’s also good. Being totally “unplugged” or the opposite–both extremes are not sustainable. Even if I had gone for a week without using my laptop, I’m sure I would have glutted myself afterwards (as I tend to do when I get back from unplugged traveling). The more balanced path is the sustainable one.

Spring stereotypically means change: reevaluating, replanting, renewal. I am itching to move on to my next step: postgraduate studies at University College Dublin. I’m leaving Lyon in less than three months, and it’s springtime.

What that means is that I want to spend more time outside and less time grappling with blog posts. It’s not that coming up with words is a problem, but making sure those words convey thoughts that are clear and well-ordered? I already feel as though I’m falling down on the “job,” and I want to create a sustainable rhythm that I can carry with me into my summer of traveling and my studies next year.

So instead of posting on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I will be posting regularly on Thursdays. I know, a big change. This will be either an essay or a collection of resources and images I’ve stumbled across over the week.

My hope is that with less frequent posts I will be able to better refine the content I do publish. This should also allow me time to gather and curate better images to integrate into text posts. I will also be adding a new category of posts: Reviews. While not all my reading/viewing will be dissected here, I want those posts to be easy to find. In the fall, I will most likely shift my emphasis to topics I am covering in class partly as a way to reinforce other forms of studying.

What you can look forward to (starting with next week, posting on Thursday, May 29):

  • continued, regular posts
  • higher quality “long posts” with better images
  • a new mixture of links and other information I’ve found, passed along to you
  • occasional, surprise, photo posts (when I have an image I’m dying to share)

And if you’re in our back yard, you can also look forward to cherries:

Cherries in Madeleine's net. 19 May 2014, France.

Cherries in Madeleine’s net. 19 May, France 2014.


Me and my canoe

One year ago, almost exactly, I graduated from college. This weekend, photos of friends from the year below me started springing up on Facebook immediately after the graduation ceremony. The ceremony I didn’t attend.

For reference, you do not need to show up to your ceremony (at least for most schools) to receive your diploma. Mine came in the mail a few weeks later. I scanned it and it is now lost somewhere in the house. Oh well. There are things I am sentimental about, but no part of graduation falls on that list.

Because it’s not really normal to skip out on your graduation ceremony–especially at a small school where you know everybody in your year (and probably in most other years as well)–I spent a lot of May answering the big question: “Why aren’t you going?”

The short answer was simple: I didn’t feel like it.

Despite being “good at” school (whatever that means), I hated it, and had hated it since I was about 2 years old. I was done. Very very done. I didn’t need a graduation ceremony to tell me that, and I didn’t really want my grumpy, unsmiling face there to ruin the celebration for others.

I didn’t want to listen to ambiguous speeches about our future from leaders I didn’t respect. I didn’t want to listen and wince for several hours baking in a synthetic black tent, and I certainly didn’t want my relatives to make a giant carbon footprint for the pleasure.


“three egg day”

Plus, I had already graduated. Not in the dictionary sense, of course, since in a literal sense the definition is focused around the degree. But anyone who has graduated from anything knows that ceremonies are not really about the piece of paper. Even in kindergarten, “graduation” is about leveling up, about some kind of invisible metamorphosis. The piece of paper is our shed chrysalis, I guess.

I forget what I was doing during the ceremony I didn’t attend. Thanks to Facebook, I do know that three of our three hens laid eggs that day, which my father considered a good omen for my graduating class (I posted a status about that). Around the same time, I got my ears pierced. I sold my saddle. I unpacked my things from school.

I have no regrets about not attending the ceremony.

I do think that milestones and markers are important, though. The old adage about the only constant in life being change has some truth to it. Further, as much as it’s important to live in then moment and look ahead to the future, it’s also important to look back.

We can become too obsessed with progress to remember where we’re coming from. A year ago, I could hardly stand to look back, I was so ashamed. Now, I’m looking back for a moment. What shakes out of my memory about that time–those four years–are mostly the good and interesting moments that did happen. This reveals a bizarre characteristic of our perception of time: so often in the moment, we focus on the negative (or at least I do), yet in retrospect we see things in a rosy light.

Lately, I have started to try applying a sort of retroactive memory effect to my experience of the present. The night after some of my younger-class friends graduated, I went to the Night of the Museums in Lyon. Walking around a crowded, lit-up museum in the middle of the night was an experience I hope I’ll never forget, but at the time I was chilly, tired, lonely. Simultaneously, I was also aware of how cool it was to be there.

I tried to hold onto the experience as it was unfolding in the same way that I will hold onto and relish the memory of that night. I had a good time. And, really, I had a good time in college, too.


Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail have a few things in common–most notably, long trails and long titles–but are quite different books. Long walks in nature are right up an environmentalist’s alley, so despite the title of this blog, they were books I was excited about reading. Neither totally lived up to my expectations, but both were thought-provoking. Here are a few of those thoughts.



I actually wrote an essay about fear and hiking once, so this book resonated with me. The overview is that the author decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail partly in an effort to deal with big stuff in her life–her childhood, her mother dying, her divorce, her drug problems–and she basically succeeds (“from lost to found” kind of gives it away). The point is not what she did in her past or goes on to do in her future; the point of the book lies squarely on the trail, on the self-discovery that takes place as she shoulders an ambitious pack and loses her toenails.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Strayed does not shy away from describing the physical discomfort and emotional disquiet of her trek. From my own hiking experience, I doubt she’s hyperbolic about her physical woes (especially considering she hadn’t broken in her boots and overpacked in the beginning). Among other things, she’s a somewhat petite female–just from trying on hiking backpacks at REI, I can tell you that it is very hard to find a pack that truly fits. And for reference, a long hike like the Pacific Crest Trail can require something like 50 pounds of supplies. Carrying 50 pounds is a much different experience for a 100-pound woman (like Strayed, or myself) than for a maybe 200-pound man (Bryson).

Solo-hiking as a youngish female is also an extremely different experience than hiking with a buddy as a middle-aged man (Bryson). At times I felt that Strayed’s story verged on the repetitive: she was anxious, then she had a physical complaint, then she has some anecdotal experience with someone at one of the trail stops while resupplying, then she’s anxious again, etc. I think the book could have been much shorter and just as effective, perhaps even more intense. And the experience was an intense one.

A Walk in the Woods


A Walk in the Woods is a book I’ve been meaning to read since reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue in high school. Bryson’s tone is light and clear, mixing detailed factual information and humorous personal observation in down-to-earth, easily digestible prose. So, that’s good. And if you’re looking for a general-interest book about the Appalachian Trail, it’s a solid choice. Living rather close to the Trail and having friends who have hiked portions of it, I’m not as bowled over by the history of the trail as maybe I could be.

Bryson has a book contract before he steps out, so he has a lot of the mental load taken off him–one of the biggest worries plaguing Strayed during her walk is money: she uses basically all her savings, carefully meted out along the trail, to do the hike, and she’s doing it on a budget. It might seem like hiking is always a budget activity, but there are still options. While Bryson spends many nights in trail shelters, there are also more days in hotels and more solid meals than Strayed records. He doesn’t spend outrageously, but the small luxuries add up–and the apparent freedom of his budget is a huge luxury.

Bryson also decides to section-hike and skip large portions of the trail, so it’s important to note that this book is not about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but is rather about the Trail itself–as an experience, as something of a natural wonder. This gives A Walk in the Woods a more varied structure so I found it to be a slightly more engaging book. There is more history and a wider range of information–in a journalistic vein–than Strayed provides about the PCT, although it should be noted that she also includes this sort of information.

While I did enjoy AWITW, I was a little bored in the end. As far as I can tell, Bryson doesn’t “rediscover America on the Appalachian Trail,” he just walks a little bit, gets somewhat bored by trees, and spends some strange weeks with a friend who volunteered to go along with him. It’s very tame. That’s not to say there isn’t interesting information about the Trail in here, and it’s funnier than your average trail guide. But it’s not a trail guide, and it’s not a particularly good story.

And then what…? 

Neither book totally lived up to my expectations. That’s not to say they’re not worth reading; they are. However, don’t push them to the top of your list. If it comes down to getting out and actually hiking or reading one of these books, hiking would be far more worthy of your time and effort. But for most of us, dropping everything and hiking for several months is something that–at the very least–would require significant life rearranging. In the meantime, we can get two tastes of very different trail experiences through these voices.