Book Club Seeking New Member

I am looking for a new friend. A close friend–and one-third of my book club–moved out of town (out of state, out of the region) a few weeks ago. So, in the way I used to look about hopefully when I was unmarried, surreptitiously studying slightly geeky, attractive men about my age at the coffee shop, bar or concerts, I now surreptitiously study slightly bookish women about my age at the kindergarten dropoff or elementary school open house.

It was at the elementary open house, as I waited in the cafetorium (that’s “cafeteria/auditorium”) for the principal to give remarks, that I was especially conscious of being alone. I was in a seat with a few empty ones on either side of me, expectantly craning my neck as I studied the crowd and the new arrivals.

And I’d forgotten my book. Yes, I’d left the essential prop that, seen through the right eyes, would show my friend-to-be a few of my essential qualities.

Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life is about a Manhattan family moving in elite professional and private-school circles after relocating from Ithaca. The plot concerns a homemade pornographic video that a 13-year-old girl emails to the 15-year-old son, in hopes of showing him she’s sophisticated and interested. When he forwards the video to a few friends–who also forward it–it goes viral and rains down all manner of pain on the girl, the boy, and the boy’s family. The broad theme is one to which I often return in my fiction reading: A Family Is Tested. (I also enjoy books in which A Marriage Is Tested and A Friendship Is Tested.) A good novel has the drama and truth and dirt of gossip, but none of the guilt. That is, if you find yourself discussing a real couple’s trials, you realize: a) you can’t really know what’s going on with them; b) your discussing their problems doesn’t help them; c) you feel kind of gross having discussed another couple’s problems. Reading a novel leaves no bitter aftertaste.

I like to think my reading This Beautiful Life tells people something. It says I like to read new novels. It tells them I care (perhaps too much) about what the New York Times Book Review says (it got a good review!). Since my copy of the book is borrowed from the local library, it hints that I’m too frugal (or cheap) to buy lots of new hardcover books. And, yes, since it’s a book, it tells people I’m a bit of a Luddite. The downside to my preference for reading the printed word–as opposed to pixels collected on an electronic device–is that I forgot my book. (People don’t forget their iPhones. They lose them, and it’s a crisis. But they don’t forget them.) And so I glanced about me, trying not to look alone, while others in the room were engaged in conversations with friends and acquaintances, or engrossed in their phones.

Without a book, who did I appear to be? I looked like a mother, with graying hair, a tired expression and nondescript clothes. Maybe I even looked like someone’s grandmother, filling in for parents who couldn’t be there. (See graying hair.)

It’s the whole book/cover thing. But I’m suggesting you can judge a person not by her own appearance but by the cover of the book she’s carrying. And, whatever the advantages of electronic devices, you cannot judge a person by her iPhone.

Meanwhile, my son is starting to make friends in his kindergarten class. He already has little jokes he shares with them, inside jokes. He had been at the same daycare for more than five years, so I wondered how he would do with an entirely unfamiliar group. But as he seems to settle in, I realize that I–at least as much as he is–am stumbling about in a new social scene, looking for the people who will “get” me.

I’m out of practice. I haven’t had to make small talk in a while. And how do I look for friends without looking like I’m looking? (No one is attracted to someone who’s needy.)

Fortunately, I’m not desperate. I have a job, a husband, and a friend or two or three. And I have inner resources! And books!

Can you tell by looking at someone’s book if he or she might be a friend? Or do you need to know more than your eyes can tell you?

Eating Plants

I’ve been a vegan for four weeks, and I’ve decided I’m going to keep it up. For now.

Mind you, I’m not rigid about it (as I mentioned in comments in the previous post, I had some Gannons Isle homemade ice cream on Saturday). And I’m not going to bend myself into a pretzel to avoid every animal product and all the myriad uses they can be put to. A coworker, for example, mentioned some gins filtered using animal bones. If I happen to be fortunate enough to be offered a gin and tonic, I’m not going to interrogate the bartender about the processing of the gin.

In the past month, I’ve learned a lot of interesting, inspiring and annoying things related to going veggie, and I’ve read a few more books and blogs.

I still crave milk, cheese and yogurt, and the substitutes (soy milk, vegan cheese, almond milk, etc.) are not too impressive. But when you’re 20 pounds overweight, as I am, you’re getting the message that you’re eating too much of something (or, I suppose, everything) and the likeliest culprit, in my case, is dairy foods. Just because I like them so much, I’ll overeat them when given the opportunity.

On the other hand, a Freedom of Espresso (my local coffee shop) soy milk mocha latte from time to time is pretty good. At home, I lighten my coffee and tea with almond milk, and it froths up nicely and tastes fine, in its way. And I’m beginning to discover some of the many uses of tofu. For instance, I made some tofu-based ricotta, as a pizza topping, from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’ Vegan With a Vengeance cookbook, and it’s delicious. Really! Floured tofu fried in oil is also quite yummy.

And, yes, I’m aware that soybeans contain phytoestrogens, and there’s some concern that eating too many processed-soy foods can cause undesirable adverse effects in people. However, I’d like to point out (as you probably know) that most conventionally raised dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens and turkeys are filled with hormones to promote growth as well as antibiotics to combat the bacterial illnesses that plague animals eating foods (like grains instead of grasses, in the case of ruminants like cows) that their bodies are not well-adapted to eat. So pick your additives; at least phytoestrogens are naturally occurring in soybeans.

Venturing into animal-product-free cooking has been one of the stimulating aspects to my experiment, and Isa Chandra Moskowitz (among the most famous vegan cookbook authors) has been a pleasant discovery.

On the other hand, I’ve had middling luck with the recipes in Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet–the book that propelled me on the vegan(ish) way. A lot of the ingredients she uses are astoundingly expensive. Her brownie recipe called for $12 worth of maple sugar. I substituted less-healthy white sugar. And the brownies, with substitutions, were very crumbly and not especially tasty.

I would need to experiment a bit more to determine how to compensate for the different properties of the ingredients I used. So the brownie failure is surely not Ms. Silverstone’s fault. That’s apart from the cluelessness–yes, I said it–that makes a person attempting to promote a vegan lifestyle employ an ingredient that costs $18 per pound in her recipes.

Her book describes two levels of eating–Vegan (no animal products) and Superhero (macrobiotic and ultra-healthy–supposedly). On the Superhero side, I made the Adzuki Bean and Kombu Soup, and I was unimpressed with its squishy blandness. And, unable to find the magical kombu squash, about which Ms. Silverstone rhapsodizes, I substituted butternut. I can only say: eh.

But the Dried Fruit and Walnut Cookies were delectable. No eggs–no problem!

I’ve also made several recipes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

I checked out Kim Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch: Ultimate Everyday Cookbook from the library. Some of the recipes look simple and tasty, but I’m having a lot of trouble taking in the useful information she offers while overlooking her obnoxious “voice” or “brand.” That is: Thanks, Kim, but do not call me “bitch.” Because I hate it. I thought I could deal. But I don’t even like having the book and its “Bitch” on the cover in my house.

Ultimately, it’s been pretty easy to go vegan. I give my omnivorous husband and sons one or two vegan dinners a week–a stir-fry or legumes and rice–and the rest of the time, I make them something that has meat or cheese in it and fill in, for my dinner, with a tofu or seitan “main dish” along with the vegetable sides. (I made my own seitan! I didn’t love it to start, but it’s growing on me and the experiments are ongoing.) Sometimes I just eat a whole lot of sweet potatoes. Have you had them grated and sauteed in olive oil with garlic and fresh sage?And did you know that tofu is amazingly good (really, what isn’t?) when accompanied by Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce?

So far I’ve found a lot to like about this new lifestyle. I’ve lost five pounds so far, and I am eating plenty of food. I’m learning all kinds of new things about different foods and I’m having fun solving the problem of “what to eat” in novel ways. And the uneasy feeling I’ve long had about my wasteful Western lifestyle has been quelled–okay, it’s not gone, but it’s a little less oppressive. Eating plants and plant-based foods has been good for me, and I don’t think it’s hurting anyone else. Maybe it’s even helping.

Going to Extremes

Nine days ago I embarked on an experiment in extreme eating: no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products for four weeks. (My husband and sons are not part of the experiment. It’s hard enough to get my sons to eat any vegetables, much less an entire diet of them. And my husband is perfectly happy to make his own food choices.)

I’ve known plenty of vegans and vegetarians, and there are as many reasons for the diet as there are people who have adopted it. By good luck, most of the people I know who prefer to eat plants do not proselytize about their choices. When asked, they offer information, and I will try to follow their example.

So, why am I trying to give up meat, which I like, and cow’s milk-based foods, which I adore? Even, in fact, eggs, which are pretty darn handy in baked goods? Alicia Silverstone made me do it. Her book, The Kind Diet, sparked my conversion experience with its nonjudgmental, informative, sensible and evidence-based approach. I rarely make a big decision without doing a fair amount of research. Ms. Silverstone, a longtime vegan, logically lays out the drawbacks to Americans’ consumption of industrially raised and processed meat and dairy products: the ill effects on human health; the degradation to the environment; and the considerable suffering imposed on the animals we consume.

Many people argue with the conclusions of such authors as T. Colin Campbell, who wrote The China Study, a book that promotes the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Less easily dismissed are the environmental problems caused by the amount of resources (grain and corn, water, land) devoted to U.S. meat and dairy production and the release of largely untreated animal waste into our groundwater and waterways.

For me, Ms. Silverstone’s vegan diet began to make even more sense after I finally made myself watch the movie Food Inc., which depicted the horrific conditions in which most food animals are housed and slaughtered in this country.

Yes, there are exceptions. For some time now, I’ve been buying eggs (which I don’t eat much except for baked goods) and ground beef from a farmer at the Central New York Regional Market, who clearly raises her animals with a lot of care. However, it’s pretty easy for me to limit my already minimal consumption of beef and eggs–which would be quite expensive to purchase at the farmers’ market in large quantities.

Where I run into problems is with cow’s milk, which I love in all its forms. What I had to acknowledge, seeing the words in Ms. Silverstone’s book, is that milk cows are mammals that are forcibly impregnated on an unnaturally frequent schedule so that their newborn calves can be taken from them. Then the cows lactate in order to provide people, like me, with their own milk, which their bodies make, naturally, for their own babies. The conditions the cows live under radically shorten their natural lifespan, from 25 to an average of five years. As a fellow mammal, one who has given birth to two babies and nursed them, I felt for those cows.

And there’s really no way, short of me raising my own milk cow (or sheep or goat) in my postage stamp-sized backyard in the city, to minimize the cruelty inherent in dairy production. “Organic” milk still comes from cows made to gestate and lactate on an accelerated schedule. Nor, really, can I afford to buy milk from a small-scale, especially caring dairy farmer on a regular basis.

So those are the reasons. The “big” reasons, that is, the ones that might resonate with a lot of people.

Beyond those are my individual reasons. One is that last year I lost 20 pounds and I’d like to lose an additional 25 to reach a normal weight, one that will give me a better shot at being active and healthy well into my boys’ adulthood.

But I am something of a compulsive, unconscious eater. If I’m making my sons grilled cheese sandwiches, I’m likely to eat a slice or two of cheese. By giving up dairy, I am forced to be much more thoughtful about what I put in my mouth. And before this experiment, I had a lot of trouble with limitation and moderation. For me, it’s easier to go without certain problematic foods, instead of allowing myself some in moderation, a state I never seem to achieve.

In addition to the niggling nibbling problem, I think I am something of a milk-product addict. I may be constitutionally incapable of having “a little” ice cream/yogurt/whipped cream/Brie.

And I question the dehumanizing effects on the people who work in the meat packing industry–the ones who kill the animals and cut them up. I ask myself what it would be like to kill living beings all day, every day. I ask what it might feel like to slice them up–when I already find it distasteful to handle ground beef or to strip the flesh from a rotisserie chicken.

As an eater of vegetables, I can stop supporting the meat-production industry, which is inextricably connected to both the dairy and the egg industries–because all the animals not used as milk cows or laying hens become hamburgers, chicken wings or some other “protein product,” one that is often ground up and fed back to some other animal.

That said, I don’t know how long I can last on this diet. I used to say I’d eat practically anything (though I’m no fan of fast food, I have never gone to someone’s house and conducted an inquiry into the menu). Now I’ve added myself to the list of picky eaters for whom I prepare food. I don’t want to be one of those people with elaborate food prohibitions. I don’t want to be “demanding.”

Why keep going, in spite of that? This way of eating allows me to live in accordance with my values. I feel lighter in spirit because, for once, I’m not just talking about the environment or factory farming or animal cruelty, I’m actually doing something. Yes, it’s a small thing. But it’s something.

Further Reading:

Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life site

Nutritionist Marion Nestle on vegan eating

So-called “real men” go vegan for health

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on the dairy industry

Have you struggled to make your appetite match your ethics or your health needs?

Good and Plenty

I don’t understand women like Lori Gottlieb. She’s the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

Gottlieb’s book is a cautionary tale: She was picky about the men she dated, so picky that she realized she might no longer be fertile by the time she finally found Mr. Right. So she became pregnant through artificial insemination and had a baby by herself. In her mind, becoming a single mother enabled her to remove the deadline (of eventual infertility) from her hunt for a man to spend her life with. What she discovered, instead, is that at 41, she was exhausted by raising a child on her own, and her own value in the dating marketplace had plummeted.

Her book, based on an article she wrote in The Atlantic, describes her sundry efforts to stop harping on what’s wrong with all the men she meets and start focusing on what’s right with some of them. And, in the process, she hopes to expose her misguided history of chasing alluring but wrong men and rejecting ordinary but right ones so that other, younger, women can learn and make better choices.

Whether I was extremely lucky or extremely smart, I married my Mr. Right six years ago. Reading Gottlieb’s book I felt variously smug at my own coupled state and annoyed at the bad choices in men she and her cohort had made.

The women Gottlieb writes about (with pseudonyms, of course) seem to have gotten their dating advice from Sex and the City. (So that’s one thing I don’t understand, because I never really liked that show, though the Sex girls’ cocktails always looked delicious.) These single, urban women are presented as outrageously entitled. No matter how good a man they are dating, they imagine that not only is there a “better” man around the corner (someone more passionate, more ambitious, fitter, taller or richer), but that that man is likely to be available and eager to fall in love with them.

But when Gottlieb was ready to “settle,” her ideal man had already settled down.

I can’t argue with Gottlieb’s humble conclusion–that she had some silly requirements in her youth and is now paying the price. Her happy ending comes as she realizes that an attitude adjustment may, someday, allow her to find someone with whom she can live a contented life.

No, my main gripe is with the book’s title. I write headlines, so I understand the need to boil down a long piece into a few choice words that will grab the reader and compel her to pick up your magazine or book. But I resent the implication that I (and anyone else who married a man who doesn’t look like George Clooney and have a degree or two from Harvard) married Mr. “Good Enough” or that I “settled.”

Before I got married, I used to read a fair number of self-help books directed at single women. So I perused both The Rules and a book called The Surrendered Single: A Practical Guide to Attracting and Marrying the Man Who’s Right for You. And I made a list of 20 qualities I was looking for.

The top seven: compassionate/kind, tolerant, intelligent, curious, funny, ethical (decent), dependable/responsible. The remaining qualities were labeled “gravy” and went from “likes to go to and talk about movies” to “well-traveled.” No. 15 was “tall(er than me).” (My husband didn’t quite meet that one; he is a half-inch shorter than I am. But I am 5’11″, and the average American man is 5’9″, so I did pretty well, even on that superficial measure.)

I got all the rest. How can I express how lucky I was to meet him, or how astute I was to recognize that I had found Mr. Right?

On Saturday, we took our sons, ages 2 and 4, to the lot where we buy our Christmas trees every year. We looked the merchandise over and my husband hauled out a tree in the section for ones we could afford. The tree was so beautiful and so full, I couldn’t believe it was supposed to be in the “yellow” area. The tree guy told us he’d give it to us for $25 (a bargain) but that he’d already sold it–twice–the day before. Two families had taken it home and brought it back because it was too big for their houses. Clearly, that tree was trouble. My husband and I looked at each other, and I said, “Let’s live dangerously.” He smiled and replied, “That’s just what I was going to say.” We paid our money and took that scary behemoth home, and we kept it.

To the author of Marry Him, I want to say: I did marry him. But he wasn’t Mr. Good Enough–he was Mr. Right.

So, did you have a list of requirements for Mr. or Ms. Right? What was on it?

Hair of the Blog

It is a truth perhaps not universally acknowledged that women love to talk about their hair. It’s one of the reasons we go to salons–so we can talk about our hair with a professional who cares (as opposed to our husbands, who maybe don’t care so much).

And so I indulged recently by reading Anne Kreamer’s 2007 memoir Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters. In case you can’t tell from the title, Kreamer decides to give up her longtime habit of dyeing her hair every two or three weeks–just as she is on the cusp of 50. Not only does she grow out her own hair, she engages in various stunts to try to determine others’ (especially men’s) real reactions to women with gray hair. She posts a profile on Match.com (with the permission of her husband), in different cities, both with gray hair and with brown hair. She goes out to bars and tries to see if she could find a man to pick her up, in all her grayness. She interviews many women about their hair. She talks to hairdressers. And she conducts a reasonably scientific survey designed to suss out people’s attitudes about gray hair on women.

Kreamer’s book flatters those women who, like her, choose to go naturally gray. Her observations and data tend to validate her own decision to accept herself as she is. (She does, however, visit a few image consultants and gains valuable wardrobe advice that thoroughly improves her look, as you can see in the before and after pictures on the book jacket.)

I felt a good deal of guilty pleasure reading this book because I grew out my blond highlights about four years ago. Or was it five? Anyway, long enough ago that several of the details are fuzzy in my memory, and I didn’t even bother to record them in my journal, much less write a book on the subject.

Here’s roughly what happened: I became pregnant with my first child and out of a combination of first-trimester sensitivity to chemical smells and caution about putting the peroxide muck on my scalp, I stopped getting highlights in my hair. And once I had my baby, I had less time and money to invest in highlights. I went a few times, but it was expensive. Yes, it was expensive before the baby, but the expense seemed more insane once I also had daycare to deal with. Then I got pregnant again, and the jig was really up: I had even less time and money for highlighting and just stopped entirely. (And thank goodness my hairdresser supported my decision. Otherwise I might simply have tried to do it at home, which, from past experience, I know would have been either disastrous or just pretty bad.)

And I’ve struggled with my hair from time to time–those unbleached gray hairs can be kinky, rebellious so-and-sos. But I haven’t gone back to the highlights. Right now, from what I can see, I’ve got gray scattered throughout my hair, and especially at my temples. It’s distinguished, right? (Sure, Reid, sure.)

Kreamer offers a few illuminating points in a fairly slender, easy-reading package. One is that women who do not dye their hair tend to accept aging with more equanimity. They are less depressed at the changes of age because they face one of them in the mirror every day.

I’m not sure, by the way, if this observation applies to women who go completely gray in their teens or twenties, since they don’t have any age to really accept. I mean, who can blame them for not wanting to look decades older than they are, at least from the back? And, on the other hand, you have people like my 80-year-old mother-in-law, who has fewer gray hairs than I do–naturally. (Yes, she otherwise looks her age, but being a mostly natural brunette is a rather impressive feat. Maybe none of her five children gave her any trouble, so barely any gray hair?)

So, to sum up: I am pretty darn authentic, yessiree. And I’m in good company. A dear in-real-life friend let her abundant gray hair loose, and she looks divine. One of my favorite writers, Alice Bradley, has decided to grow out her dye. (She posted photos, but inexplicably several of them are missing. Just take my word for it that she looks good. Not so gray at the time of the photos, but pretty.)

And the fun of it is, this going-gray business, or reading about going gray, gives me another excuse to talk about my hair. Which, as I said, women love to do.

How about you? Are you ready to admit that you’ve got some gray? Or other follicular issues you wish to discuss. Please do!

The Absurd Awkwardness of Bereavement

Did I tell you my grandmother died? No? She died about 10 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010, in her sleep. She was 90.

And though she had been fading, after a fall that broke her hip and made death pretty much inevitable. And though she died at home, cared for mostly by family, after a few years of poor health and lessening quality of life.  And though her life had been full–of children (five) and grandchildren (six) and great-grandchildren (six), of travel and adventure as the young wife of an Air Force commander in the post-World War II years, of interests (bird watching, gardening, politics watching). And though she could hardly have been said to have been cheated of life or cut down in her prime.

Yet, I am sad. I miss her. Before she died, I didn’t let myself reminisce about my childhood with her as my grandmother. I didn’t spend much time thinking about how she taught my brother and me to play poker one summer day when we were visiting her. I didn’t go over the special birthday meals she used to make me–the enchiladas and Spanish rice she specialized in (no one made Spanish rice like my grandmother). I didn’t think about the treats she always had for us–ice cream sandwiches, Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, Popsicles and other sugary foods not found at my house. I didn’t recall the family gatherings of my childhood, like the one where my then-single uncle stood up on the roof of the garage and yelled, and my grandmother (his mother) said, “Oh, Bruce!” and laughed.

It seems morbid to have fond memories of people who are not dead, so I mostly waited to talk about her in the past tense. And even now, I haven’t really found the conversational opening to share “the news” with anyone outside, well, my husband and one coworker. Because I am almost embarrassed to even say she died to anyone else. (I’m not even sure how you do that: “How was your weekend?” “My grandmother died.”) She was an important person in my life. She influenced me in ways I’ll probably never get to the end of–especially because she influenced my own mother, her oldest child, in ways she‘ll never get to the end of.

But other people are suffering. Other people have coped with miscarriages or stillbirths or the deaths of their own grown children or their parents or their spouses. And I have sometimes been a poor friend in acknowledging others’ grief. Maybe I even found it awkward–and didn’t know what to say to the coworker I don’t see very often, who lost her father, and who didn’t say anything about it. And what do you say? I always say, “I’m sorry.” And I always am. But grief goes on, sadness goes on, regret goes on, and those little, inadequate words have always seemed just that. Especially when someone else seems to be “coping” and “moving on.”

Or other people are happy and celebrating. And it doesn’t seem like the right time–really ever–to say, “By the way, my 90-year-old grandmother died. I’m a bit sad.”

I’m not even sure how sad I’m supposed to be. I was having a phone conversation with my brother, and I asked him how he was. He said, “I’m okay … Sorry about Grandmommy…” And I laughed. “Why did you laugh?” he said. (I’d misunderstood.) I answered, “It sounded like you were offering me condolences.” That’s how I feel–because I wasn’t the closest person to my grandmother, so to whom do I offer condolences? Even as I feel sad myself, I recognize my grandmother’s husband, children, sons- and daughters-in-law have a greater claim on the share of grief and sympathy out there.

What’s more complicated is that my grandmother’s wishes were: no funeral, no memorial. So there’s little public acknowledgment of her death. (I’m hoping not to violate her privacy, or her husband’s, by not naming her.)

Speaking of death, I just finished reading Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about the stillbirth of her first child, and birth of her second. I had wanted to read her book for a while, since I saw an excerpt in O magazine, actually. (See my post on O.) But I didn’t think I could take such a sad, sad story. And yet I managed to read it–and adore it–without crying. Much. And it did actually speak to me, even in my very dissimilar grief. Because McCracken writes about her own particular grief and history, but her story is a universal one. We all lose people. We all must go on. Sometimes we have to pretend to be cheerful when we are not, for other people. Sometimes we don’t say “Someone close to me died” because there’s really no good way to insert those words into the conversation. (I could go on and on about that slender book packed with humor and humanity and bizarre characters and compassionate friends and profound sadness and well-earned joy.)

So I’m beginning to say the words here, belatedly and inadequately. I recognize that I was so lucky to have a grandmother who lived to be 90. I still have my grandfather, her husband, a vigorous 96-year-old.

But I am sad. I miss Grandmommy. I do.

The 4 a.m. Read

A mother of young children has limited opportunities to escape physically–or even in her mind.

So from time to time I indulge in one of the few kinds of reckless behavior that will permit me to (more or less) still function in my various duties–as employee, mother, wife and household domestic staff. Yes, instead of driving or flying to some distant locale, instead of drinking sidecars until I fall into a stupor (or somewhere else), instead of spending vast sums of money on luxurious beauty products that make me smell fantastic–I stay up late. Really late. Reading.

Don’t laugh. (Okay, laugh a little.) Some novels are worth it. They take me places I’ve never been and may never go. They introduce me to characters at a level of intimacy it would take years to achieve in real life. They let me into those characters’ minds, experiencing their experiences. And the right kind of novels–the ones I most prefer as my late-night escapes–build suspense by creating characters whose personalities and situations are somehow poised for change. And then the authors gradually introduce change, and choices, that gradually reel me in until–My God, it’s 1 a.m.! I’ve got to put this down and get some sleep!

But then it’s 1:30, and something else has happened in the book. My husband comes to bed, raises his eyebrows that I’m still up, does a bit of reading, and then shuts off his light and goes to sleep.

And then it’s 2:30 a.m. But I”m almost at the end of this chapter … so I’ll just read a bit more. And before I know it, I’m just a few pages (okay, 30) from the end, and I can’t wait to find out if the Major will overcome his compunctions and background and selfishness and habits and, at 68 years old, pursue the (second) love of his life.

(It’s Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, if you want to find out for yourself.)

So, slow reader that I am, I close the book at 4:11 a.m. More or less. And at 7 a.m. the alarm rings, and I get up, get dressed, go for a jog, lift weights, change clothes, make the boys breakfast, take them to daycare, go to work, and all the rest. Somehow, on less than three hours’ sleep. But it’s worth it, because I’ve savored a brilliant book and gotten time “away.” And I manage all of my responsibilities, more or less, and go to bed extra early that night.

I won’t say the occasional 4 a.m. (or 2 a.m.) read makes me a better person. But I will say that it almost certainly makes me a less-bad person, one who has recovered a little piece of her deepest self by embarking on an adventure of the mind. A person–whether mother, daughter, wife or harried single person–needs that every so often.

So, tell me, do you ever stay up too late reading? Or do you have another way to take a walk on the not-so-wild side–and still get to work in the morning?