Another winner in one of my favorite series by Alexander McCall Smith…

To be perfectly transparent, I love Alexander McCall Smith, and am apt to like mostly anything he writes. I love his approach to the good life, the warmth that comes through in the pages of his books, and the ethical questions inherent in all of his books. However, my two favorite series of his are the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency Books and the Isabel Dalhousie Novels. I even suggested Isabel as the name for our daughter, but fortunately to save me from being too outwardly crazy, we discovered that Isabel is a name that runs in our family, from my husband’s great-grandmother from Spain, to Isabel de Clare, an ancestor of mine from medieval times.

I just finished his book, “The Novel Habits of Happiness,” which I loved- the newest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series. In the book, Isabel grapples with issues of mortality and love, both in her daily life with Jamie and Charlie, her husband and son, and with her newest “case,” a little boy who claims to have been reincarnated. He makes a sad, but astute observation, and one I see often in my psychiatric practice, that our lives go by so fast:

“Isabel thought of Charlie, upstairs with his new stuffed meercat on his pillow. He had been a baby just a few months ago, it seemed, and she had thought it would never end. ‘I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.’ That line of Auden’s that contained a truth about everything, not just love. And we had to act as if things were not going to end, because if we did not, then we would do so little in life.”

I found myself getting irritated with the constant yelling, tearing things up, messes, that parenting two small children under three involves, but when I read that quote, and though I realize it intellectually and teach people about death anxiety (see Irvin Yalom’s excellent Staring at the Sun for more information about this topic), it suddenly came to me on an emotional level. Isabel and Marcus were tiny babies a short time ago, and I have no way of knowing how long my time with them is- all of us are subject to fate, accidents, illness, death. Why waste my time getting irritated with them? I think that, though I slip and am not perfect, that Alexander McCall Smith taught me in a paragraph how to face parenting with more equanimity. The realization of the paragraph brought tears to my eyes while I was reading it. Thank you, Mr. Smith!

Putting away childhood interests…or not.

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What were your hobbies as a child? I think we grow into other things, but that perhaps constitutionally we have some interests that are a deeper part of who we are that we don’t give up. Talking with my husband, both of us have similar interests to what we had as children.

There is a resurgence in things that make us feel like kids, or at least, the things we wish we had been able to do as kids. Play and crafts are in. Adult coloring books are suddenly best sellers. There are summer camps, kid-style, for grown ups. Things that people traditionally learned to do as children are new for adults, like knitting and other hobbies. There are many suggestions why this is- some seem sort of snide, such as “recession makes us feel like being regressed,” etc.

I, however, am not one of those snide people. I am currently enjoying a return to a hobby that I used to love- writing and paper. When I was little, I used to make journals, and pretend to have a stationery store (yes, I know, other people were frying ants with magnifying glasses, playing ball, etc). Even in psychiatry residency, I used a fountain pen- influenced by a math major at my college that I was in awe of: WHO DOES CALCULUS PROBLEMS IN FOUNTAIN PEN?! Some supremely awesome mathemetician who is unafraid they will make a mistake, that’s who.

However, at some point, I stopped using paper, pen, and satisfyingly smudgy pencil, and tried to go paperless. I’m still keeping some things on Evernote- it’s just easier to reference things. But I’ve never gotten the hang of taking notes on keyboard, or with the round, fat-tipped stylus I bought for my iPad. Who thought anyone would want to write with a rubber Q-tip, anyway.

So, here I am back to paper again. My current loves: Rhodia paper (never going back to Moleskine again), my Visconti Van Gogh Starry Nights fountain pen, J. Herbin ink in violet scented ink and Stormy grey with gold flecks…and I am waiting with (no joke) bated breath for my new Midori Traveler’s Notebook and inserts- so cheap! So customizable! So functional! I can hardly wait. If you’re a Traveler’s Notebook (TN) fan, tell me any of your favorite hints for customizing or hacking your notebook!

Sewing FAIL…

Measure twice, cut once. Now I know what that means! I didn’t actually mis-measure, that I’m aware of yet, but made another mistake on the skirt I’m working on. I ordered an “easy” pattern from Craftsy called it an advanced beginner pattern, and McCalls called it an “easy” pattern. I should have listened to Craftsy! The skirt had really pretty sateen fabric provided in the kit. I pre-shrank my fabric, ironed it, read the directions carefully, and pinned the pattern piece (there’s only two different pieces- the front and the back are the same, and there’s a waistband piece) down. I cut it out and success! Except when I looked at the craftsy photo, it turns out they opted for a horizontal orientation to the fabric, and I, thinking of the extra few pounds from Christmas over-indulgence, opted for a vertical orientation. Oops. I’m still going to complete the skirt- maybe it won’t look so bad…. :)

I also am working on the knit hat in rice stitch- it seems like it is coming out ok. I found an android app that helps me keep track of the pattern- Beecount. It seems pretty basic but is what I need for the job, and it was the right price: free! I like the rice stitch so far, even though I think I made a mistake when I frogged some of the knitting and restarted- I started with purl and think it was probably a knit line. I’m hoping it’s not too noticable because I don’t feel like frogging it again!


Well, back to my short vacation from work and lots of responsibility- it’s sad when staying home and cooking, straightening, organizing and knitting is a vacation, but it’s a lot easier than my normal day as a physician!

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Current projects, and trying to learn to sew…

It’s been awhile since I was on my blog! That doesn’t mean that I’ve been away from my interests, though. For fans of the Kristin Lavransdatter series, I’ve been reading the “Master of the Axe” series, also by Sigrid Undstet. I haven’t found it as compelling, but we’ll see. It might be because it is from the perspective of a male, and part of what I found gripping about the Kristin series was the authors ability to put into words the daily feelings I have about being a mother.

I finished “Divergence” by Veronica Roth- mostly because we’re having a book club meeting later this month- ladies, book +movie adaptation and maybe some wine; sounds like a good time. I thought the plot line was interesting, but the book read to me like the Hunger Games series + Twilight. A little painful.

I’m working on some ribbed fingerless mitts (a pretty mink color) from “Make it Knits!” from Interweave, and a charcoal and camel colored hat in rice stitch, which I have never tried before. I’m learning rapidly I need to keep a counter to remember whether I’m on a “purl first” row or a “knit first” row, after having ripped out multiple rows. Argh. Anyone using an Android app they like for this?

I’m working on my first sewing project, a skirt in a pretty sateen that I found on Craftsy. I’m hoping it’s not too ambitious. I found a book of really simple clothing with an Eileen Fisher meets Japanese aesthetic that I really like- things that I can’t find in the area I live in that look comfortable and nicely made. I can hardly wait!

I’ll post some photos later.

The Handsome Man’s De luxe Cafe

I don’t know how Alexander McCall Smith writes so many books, but I really liked the last one in the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. If you haven’t read any of these, they’re worth your while- the author is a professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, and lived in Botswana at one point. He always has something profound to say about life in each book, without being too pushy, and there’s always some ethical dilemma in each book.

My favorite quote from the book, and something I see a lot in my practice of psychiatry, where people see their childhood through the lens of a child, rather than the adult they are, and keep making the same mistakes over and over without seeing the pattern:

“Of course, that was the sort of thing we all did when we were young. You cannot judge somebody of eighteen by the standards of somebody of thirty, even less by the standards of somebody who was forty. And those things that we did when we were young were not so important, really, provided that we stopped doing them as we grew older and saw them for what they were.

Mccall Smith, Alexander (2014-10-28). The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (15) (p. 165). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.”



Kristin Lavransdatter

I have found another book that has changed my life. Every once in awhile, a book resonates so strongly with your feelings, opens your eyes to a new experience, that it because a part of your life. I have a few books like this- not very many, because how many books really meet this criteria- and they are all treasures to me: Les Miserables, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Remains of the Day, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Never Let me Go….

The new book is actually a trilogy, by Sigrid Undset. I read them altogether, in a new translation by the person who translated the excellent Smilla’s Sense of Snow. After I was done reading the book, I immediately wanted to start reading it again, sure I had missed something but also sad at the loss of these characters who became a part of my life, Kristen Lavransdatter, Erlend, Simon… I can see myself reading this book several times throughout my life. I read on another blog (I immediately read every blog about it that I could find on google, to see what others thought) that it’s a book that speaks to many ages of people- teenagers who related to the reckless, passionate and forbidden relationship of Kristin and Erlend; tired, busy mothers; and women whose children have left the nest, and have a sense of wistful longing.

For me, the book really made me think- like Kristin in the middle book of the trilogy, I’m a busy mother (I don’t have a pile of boys like she does, just two kids, but I’m also a full-time psychiatrist and department head for a hospital) who sometimes forgets to enjoy the little moments. I feel tearful about it now, thinking about the loss that Kristin Lavransdatter reminds us is coming for us: our children will leave us or we will leave them some day. We will wish we had enjoyed every time our children had awakened in the middle of the night, warm and sleepy, afraid of the nighttime and wanting hugs from mom- did I remember to enjoy the kiss on the soft, fuzzy head of my one year old? Did I take the time to experience the cuddling two year old, who padded up to our bed in the wee hours of the night, wanting to lie between us, or did I complain they woke me up? I feel like I should be thankful in some way that Sigrid Undset reminds us of this before this time has passed me by.

Even the relationship between Kristin and Erlend reminds us to be kind to each other- remember how much you loved each other at the beginning, and do you really want to say something that jeopardizes that? Kristin and Erlend waste a lot of time, not knowing it is near the end of their lives, being angry with each other, wanting the other to make the first move and be humble. They could have spent that time in the comfort of the presence of the other- that person they risked so much to love in the first place. Kristin nurses her resentments, and Erlend carelessly treats his relationship with Kristin. How many of these sins have we all committed?

I’m reading her other masterwork, the other series for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize. I’m not sure it will mean as much to me as the Kristin Lavransdatter series, but I have high hopes. More to come. A few photos of my love and our two sweet babies…


Ombre Cowl

I finished a project finally! It’s a cowl, with four pewter buttons. I originally had planned it in a pretty mink brown color, but the yarn I had intended for mitts, a purple ombre yard whose name escapes me, was completely wrong. So my mom, a much better knitter than me, suggested swapping yarn, since this was just a simple tapered rectanble of knit stitch, and better suited to the purple ombre yarn. I think it came out pretty nice.

I’m working on some mitts now (though the brown yarn doesn’t seem like it’s working for the mitts, either) and a hat in charcoal and camel color that I found in a recent interweave knits magazine. The hat is in seed stitch, which I haven’t tried yet, so I’m anxious to see how it works out.


Genealogy helps you live for today!

I thought last night’s “Finding Your Roots” was pretty interesting – more interesting than I sometimes find the show. “Finding Your Roots,” is a genealogy show that, some may disagree with me, often focuses on celebrities with slavery in their family trees. Famous sports figures with slave owners and slaves in the family! People with absent fathers with slavery or abolitionists in the family! Famous journalists with slave owners and slaves in the families- with a bonus that one slave owner was hacked to death with a hoe (honestly, didn’t Henry Louis Gates look just a little TOO happy about that story?)! To be fair, there are other discoveries, but I feel like more attention is paid to the roots of civil rights issues; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the host is a famous scholar of African-American Research. On the other hand, I have to admit to a tiny internal sigh when **YET** another guest has roots in slavery. To a certain degree, I like “Who Do You Think You Are?”, another series, a little better  because of this.

However, I really appreciated hearing about Ben Affleck’s family, partly because he often had something funny or insightful to say about the time or the family member. One thing that he talked about at the end, is that genealogy is important because you see that there is an end date for each of these people in your family – and that makes you think about making the most of today. I think this is such a simple, but profound statement: Elizabeth Dicer, that woman who was arrested in the Salem Witch Trials, who is an interesting grandmother in my family tree and footnote in history – she was as alive as you and I once. And now, she’s bones in a grave somewhere. Did she think of this during her time? Did she get caught up in daily life – must grind flour, wash clothes, iron – or did she spend as much time as she could with the people she loved? Granted, women didn’t have as much chance to really achieve as much as they do now, and technology has made some things in our life much easier. That means that we don’t have an excuse to not make the most of our days. In my job as a psychiatrist in a small town in Central California, I so often here, “I’m unhappy and depressed because I live here” (First of all, civilization, including the beach, and two of the biggest cities in California are no more than a few hours away, and there’s a Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods and Sephora 45 minutes away). This often makes me think, “C’mon, you’re only in a prison of your own making! People like Victor Frankl and Nelson Mandela made great strides in their internal life and contributions to the world, despite being in prisons (concentration camp, in one case) not of their own making.

Khandi Alexander, another guest, mentioned that whenever she has hardship, she reminds herself about the trials of her ancestors, that they were strong enough to overcome, and that their blood runs through her veins. I think of this too, sometimes- I can manage this small issue, if my relatives had to sort out their lives, with people dying around them, the first year off the Mayflower; if Franklin Delano Roosevelt, my sixth cousin a few times removed, managed to make changes while suffering from polio, I think I can work through my minor aches and pains!

Genealogy enriches my life in ways I had never been able to name before, and I’m sure, am still learning about!

new knitting project…

I think my last project was too ambitious for my knitting skill level. The other thing was that the circular knitting needles were oddly shaped, where it was difficult and frustrating to try to get the yarn off the end of the needle. Next time I’ll buy functional needles, not pretty ones!

Anyway, I’m working on a scarf-let from Interweave Knits (I can’t find a photo of it- but I’ll post my completed project) made from garter stitch with four buttons. I had bought the supplies for three quick beginner’s projects, but picking yarn out is very difficult, apparently. The yarn I had chosen for a different project, fingerless ribbed mitts, was all wrong- beautiful, but the variegated yarn didn’t show the stitches and was impossible to see whether I had purled or knit! My mom, a champion knitter, looked at the yarn and suggested that I switch the pretty purple yarn for the garter scarf, and the brown tweed yarn for the mitts. It was a great idea. Here’s photo of the scarf so far.


Emotional Investment in the very long book

I've just started the Kristin Lavransdatter series, which I had forgotten about from my Barnes and Noble days, and was reminded about on Maybe Matilda's book wish list on Goodreads. I've been reading a lot about Medieval history and the Norman invasion lately, mostly because of my discovery that one part of my ancestry can be traced quite far back, to this time period and before. Realizing that you have a personal interest in history (even though ALL of us should have some stake in history- we all had ancestors in the middle ages!) somehow makes the stories more memorable.  So this book, a trilogy about a woman living in Norway in the Middle ages, is right up my alley these days. The author even won the Nobel Prize in the 1920's or late teens- bonus!

The book is really great so far- it’s been re-translated by the same translator  who did Smilla’s Sense of Snow many years ago, and the clean, fresh approach to the writing shows. The previous translator apparently felt it necessary to insert a bunch of thees and thous, and this wasn’t apparently the intention of the translator. I’ll take the book introduction’s word for it- I can barely order food in another language.

The introduction made a good point, something I had not thought about before but wrote about in terms of the inspector Gamache series: there is an emotional attachment to the world of the long book. The introduction says it so much more nicely than I could: “A particular poignancy attends the reading of very long novels, especially those which, for all their undeniable charms, you’re unlikely to read again. Weeks, even months of your internal life are given over to some new cast of characters, who vaporize when the book is closed.”

Of us who read Les Miserables didn’t feel loss and sorrow at the death of Jean Valjean (unless you’re made of STONE or some kind of sociopath- just saying!). When Henning Mankell essentially killed off Wallander in the Troubled Man, sorry if I spoiled it, I closed the book, and actually felt angry at the indignity of such an ending for a character I had followed for his entire adult life.  I think it would be interesting to see whether readers of this kind of fiction have closer social ties to others as a result of their reading, or maybe because they’re drawn to these books about the emotional lives of others because of their empathy. Whatever the reason, I know why I feel inexplicably sad turning the last page of a much loved book and closing the cover.

If you’re interested in the book, follow the link here.