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Limiting my choices

parnassus cooking travel section bookstore

It took me a long time to realize this, and even longer to admit it. But I am a person easily overwhelmed by too many choices.

Give me a couple of options and I’m fine. English Breakfast or Earl Grey? Chocolate or vanilla? Red or white wine? I can make a quick, painless decision when the options are few. (Chocolate and red wine, always.)

But put me in front of a vast array of choices – booking a vacation rental on Airbnb, grocery shopping without a meal plan, clothes shopping of almost any kind – and I start to panic, then shut down.

I realized this again recently, when I headed to the mall to run a few errands. I only go to the mall about three times a year, but I needed to go to Target, which is attached to our mall. I also had two store coupons that were about to expire, and I was looking for a dark gray cardigan to replace my ancient one.

All of the above were fairly simple transactions. I bought the items on my list at Target (though I still spent more than I intended to), used one store coupon and decided to toss another, and searched for a gray cardigan (to no avail). The overwhelm set in when I decided to do a little extra browsing – and couldn’t find anything I liked.

strawberries

I love browsing and having a ton of choices in a few specific settings: the farmers’ market, the library, the bookstore, the florist. Mostly because I know that a lot of the available options are things I will definitely love. (This is one reason I love a good series, literary or otherwise: it eliminates decision fatigue.)

At my favorite stores, it’s easy for me to zero in on what works. I enjoy consignment shopping because the options aren’t endless (and I can look for my favorite brands). I can also shop with a few specific items in mind. But a department or big-box store with too many choices is a recipe for disaster.

I do like to try new things: a different style of dress or shoe, a new flavor of ice cream or (nearly always) a book I haven’t read. But it’s amazing how helpful this bit of self-knowledge has been.

Sometimes, when I’m faced with a dizzying array of choices, it helps to narrow them down: to choose from four flavors of frozen yogurt instead of 20, or limit my shopping to one or two stores. I can usually find what I’m looking for, and I’m left feeling much less frazzled.

Of course, there are some things I never get tired of buying, and sometimes the decision-making is part of the fun. But for those times when it’s overwhelming, I’m doing my best to remember: narrow the choices.

Do you struggle with decision fatigue?

stripes silver flats

Summer, as I keep saying, is in full swing around here. And while I am loving the chance to wear skirts and sandals as I hang out in Harvard Yard or walk to the farmers’ market, I’ve also had a few Big Meetings lately. Between the heat, the humidity and the importance of said Big Meetings, I’ve found myself facing an all-too-familiar dilemma: what to wear?

I am not what you would call a fashionista. I grew up taking fashion advice (sometimes gracefully, sometimes grudgingly) from my trendy mom and sister (and borrowing their clothes). I still inherit hand-me-downs from either Mom or Betsy on my occasional trips home. (Those pieces often end up becoming my favorites.)

One of the things I love about working in higher education is its mostly-business-casual dress code. I do not own a suit, and I wear heels about three times a year. In the winter, my style uniform is a snap: a dress or a sweater-and-pencil-skirt combo with tights, my knee-high black boots or booties, and one of my many scarves. But summer is too hot for leggings and boots – and I struggle to feel like myself in pantyhose and blazers. So I’ve spent a little time lately figuring out my version of summer power dressing.

I suppose it’s no surprise that some of the elements I love year-round – stripes, cardigans, my favorite “brave” necklace, the silver hoop earrings I wear every day – figure into my summer power outfits. I’ve splurged on a couple of “dressier” dresses and dusted off my one pair of not-too-high black heels (though I carry my silver flats in my bag). I’ve spent more time ironing lately than I have in a long while. And I’ve remembered – again – that the most important element is confidence. I don’t need to buy designer clothes or rush out and buy a suit. I simply need to look – and feel – like the most polished version of myself.

What are your tips for summer power dressing?

pink hydrangeas flowers

The hydrangeas are everywhere this summer.

I love watching the seasonal progression of flowers in New England every year – from crocuses to tulips and daffodils, then on to iris, peonies, roses and sunflowers. But I’ve never noticed so many hydrangeas as I have this year. We are in the thick of summer – hot, languid, blue-sky days that end with hazy pink and gold sunsets – and the daylilies and hydrangeas, vivid splashes of color, seem to pop up on every corner.

I read a long time ago on Lindsey’s blog that the color of hydrangeas is determined by the pH composition of their soil. This fascinates me, especially since there are often multicolored flowers on one plant. How does the same soil – or slight variations of it – produce so many shades of beauty? (On a walk to the beach the other night, I spotted four hydrangea plants growing in one yard – all of them sporting different-colored flowers.)

blue hydrangeas purple door

The hydrangeas also fascinate me as a metaphor. I believe place has a strong influence on who we are, and who we become. I’m a native Texan who has lived in Oxford and now in Boston, and all three places have powerfully shaped who I am. The particular terrain of each season of my life – the beautiful and difficult elements alike – also has its effect on me. Like the hydrangeas, I must draw on the gifts (and the trials, and the weather) of my environment to create something rich and beautiful. The hydrangeas can’t choose what color their flowers will be, but I can choose what I make of my life.

This summer, despite its many delights, has been a difficult season in some ways. I’m turning back to my tried-and-true comforts: tea in the morning from my favorite mug, lunches and coffee dates with friends, the words of Julia Cameron (in The Sound of Paper) about self-care and building a creative life.

As I walk through my town on Boston’s South Shore and my work neighborhood in Harvard Square, I keep noticing the hydrangeas. I love them for their beauty, but I’m coming to love them for their resilience too.

harvard yard memorial church view

One of the perks of working at a university: life slows down a little in the summer.

Of course, there are still students around: taking courses, working in the research labs, flying in for brief seminars or leadership programs. The number of high school students goes way up after Commencement, and the tour groups are out in full force.

But some pockets of campus, like the libraries, are quieter than usual. And lately, I’ve been spending some time over at Lamont Library.

donatelli reading room lamont library harvard

Lamont is one of the undergraduate libraries, located off the southeast corner of Harvard Yard, still on the main campus but off the most-trafficked paths. It’s smaller than Widener, the university’s main library, and it feels friendlier, less grand and imposing.

While Widener is composed mostly of dimly lit stacks (which stretch several stories underground), Lamont has a nice mix of shelves and reading rooms. It has lots of windows and more than a few quiet spaces where you can curl up in an armchair (or spread out at a desk) and spend a while working, reading or studying. (I’ve also seen a few students napping in the comfy chairs.)

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

I always stop to peruse the New Books shelf near the front desk on my way out, and sometimes I pop downstairs to the media stacks to check out a DVD. But Lamont is also simply a good place to perch for a few hours.

The air-conditioning hums quietly, the summer sun slants in through the windows, and the books, with their colorful spines, make a welcoming background for my work. And the views – especially from the third floor facing north – are quite lovely.

memorial church memorial hall harvard university

An-Unwilling-Accomplice-cover-199x300Since I discovered the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd a few years ago, I’ve enjoyed following Bess’s adventures as a nurse and amateur detective during World War I. Bess is a young Englishwoman of good family (her father, known as the Colonel Sahib, is a respected career military officer). She trains as a nurse when war breaks out in Europe, and the books follow her travels around France and England, caring for wounded men and investigating murders.

In the series’ sixth book, An Unwilling Accomplice, Bess is asked to escort a wounded soldier to a ceremony at the Palace, where he will receive a medal for gallantry. She’s surprised the soldier asked for her by name when she doesn’t remember him, but the ceremony goes off without incident. The next morning, however, Sergeant Wilkins has disappeared.

To her dismay, Bess is accused of negligence, but the mystery deepens when the sergeant is accused of murder. To clear her own name, Bess embarks on a journey to find him, driving around a lonely part of England with her longtime friend Simon Brandon.

I love a good mystery, particularly one with multiple threads, and this plot – which includes murder, escape, more than one case of mistaken identity, several wounded soldiers and a mysteriously competent village doctor – definitely delivered. The setting – a trio of isolated villages near Shrewsbury, England – was new to me, though I’ve read hundreds of books set in the UK. (I admit I wish there had been a map, to keep up with Bess’ and Simon’s endless driving.)

The plot twists kept coming, though I did guess at a couple of them before the end. Bess is, as ever, thoughtful and stubborn, and endlessly willing to use her training to help people, even those suspected of wrongdoing. I love Simon, who is enigmatic but kind and honorable; he’s often a minor character, but he plays a major role in this book. (I’m hoping for a little romance between him and Bess one day.)

As a fan of the series, I was glad to see Bess again, and I also enjoyed the appearances by other familiar characters: Bess’ parents, her London landlady Mrs. Hennessy, her flatmate Diana, and especially Simon. The book’s resolution involved a slice of World War I history that I didn’t know about, and most of the plot threads were satisfyingly tied up. If you’re looking for an engaging historical mystery, I recommend this one (and Bess’ previous adventures).

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for An Unwilling Accomplice. I received a free copy of this book for review; all opinions are, of course, my own.

july books 2 sunflowers

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson
We tend to think of “kitchen technology” as limited to fancy gadgets. But all kitchen utensils, even the humble fork and wooden spoon, represent years of kitchen history. Wilson’s tour of the evolution of cooking – from open hearths to gas stoves to shiny modern kitchens – is witty, entertaining and well researched. Recommended for foodies.

A Pattern of Lies, Charles Todd
Stranded in Canterbury over a short leave, WWI nurse Bess Crawford finds herself drawn into the mystery of an explosion at a nearby gunpowder mill. As she searches for the key players in the drama, they prove elusive. A solid mystery based on historical events. Full review coming in September as part of a TLC Book Tour (the book comes out Aug. 18).

Malice at the Palace, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Her Royal Spyness) is asked by the queen to help welcome a Greek princess to London. But when a young woman is found murdered at Kensington Palace, Georgie gets mixed up in yet another mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 4).

A Little Something Different, Sandy Hall
Gabe and Lea are perfect for each other. Everyone sees it: their creative writing professor, the baristas at Starbucks, even the squirrel on the college green. But will they get together? Hall’s debut weaves together 14 (!) different viewpoints (including the squirrel) to tell this sweet love story. Not a lot of character development, but the ride is so much fun.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Amid the pre-Go Set a Watchman buzz, I picked up this classic again. It’s the fourth time I’ve read it and I still get chills when Atticus walks out of the courtroom, and the ending makes me cry. So beautiful and powerful.

We Never Asked for Wings, Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs for years, relying on her mother to raise her two children. But when her aging parents move back to Mexico, Letty is left to care for her children alone – with no clue about how to be a parent. A heartbreaking yet hopeful story of a struggling family. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 18).

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
I have so many thoughts about this book – which Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird but which was never published until now. Both the book’s origin story and its content have sparked lots of debate. I would say: if you’re curious, read it and judge for yourself. (Lee’s narrative voice is still strong here, but I think Mockingbird is the better book.)

Book Scavenger, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
When Emily, age 12, moves to San Francisco with her family, she finds a mysterious book with a hidden cipher inside that leads to a treasure hunt. But someone else is after the prize, too. A fun middle-grade bookish puzzle for literary geeks.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

 

cosmo brown don lockwood singin' in the rain

I’ve been thinking lately about heroes and sidekicks.

I realize it’s a somewhat simplistic way to break down a cast of characters, and not all stories fall into this mold. (So many of my favorite stories center around heroines instead of heroes, but that’s a post for another day.)

I’ve done my fair share of swooning over traditional heroes, literary and cinematic: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, Jack Kelly from Newsies, Han Solo from Star Wars (I love a man with a cheeky sense of humor), and – forever and always – Gilbert Blythe. But when two (or more) men get equal attention in a movie or a book, I often find myself falling for the sidekick.

Take the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Like everyone else, I adored Captain Jack Sparrow and howled with laughter at his antics. But I developed a crush on Will Turner: hard-working, dark-eyed, honorable. (At least in the first two movies. We won’t talk about what happened later.)

Or take a classic film I’ve loved for years: Singin’ in the Rain. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the ostensible hero, and he certainly charms Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with his smooth voice and dancing feet. But my favorite character has always been wisecracking, loyal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). He never misses a chance to make a wry quip, but he’s much more talented (and much less egotistical) than Don. Cosmo comes through for his friends when the chips are down – and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” comedy routine is one of the best scenes in the movie.

From the same era in Hollywood, see also: Phil Davis in White Christmas, played by Danny Kaye. Funny, kind, a gifted comedian and dancer, and considerably less conceited than Bing Crosby’s character. I could watch “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” over and over.

In The Holiday, Eli Wallach’s character (a wise old Hollywood screenwriter) tells Kate Winslet’s character, “In the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”

I know what he means by that: it’s time for Iris to step up, take control of her life, believe she’s worthy of being loved by a good man instead of that sleazy Jasper. But I think the best friends (Cosmo, Phil, Ron Weasley) sometimes get a bad rap.

In the best stories, the sidekicks are complex, wonderful characters in their own right. And sometimes, when the heroes hew too closely to type, it’s the sidekick who shakes things up, saves the day, or has more freedom to be an individual. (I’m thinking here of A.C. Gaughen’s recent Scarlet novels, a YA retelling of the Robin Hood myth. Scarlet herself is the center of the story, but I preferred Gaughen’s nuanced portrayals of two “merry men” – John Little and Much Miller – to her moody, troubled Robin Hood.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll always love Atticus Finch, Lord Peter Wimsey, Joe Willard (from the Betsy-Tacy books) and Rick Castle. But you can also find me swooning – just a little – over Legolas, Mr. Bingley and Sirius Black. And if I had to choose between the stars of Singin’ in the Rain? I’ll be backstage cracking jokes over the piano with Cosmo.

(Image from Well Did You Evah)

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