Archive for March, 2012

DIY Marriage Retreat

Just before Christmas I went to confession with a priest I’d seen a few times in the past.  I went through my standard litany of sins.  Basically, I’ve continued to screw up in the same ways over and over again since I was about 19.  This particular priest is very free in his counsel and rough with his penance (fast every day for a week?).  That day he “strongly advised” that my husband and I go on a retreat together.  I protested.  Between our special needs seven-year-old and our nursing-on-demand co-sleeping 14-month old, we’re not exactly at the stage of life where we go away for marriage retreats.  He pushed back, “Do something.  Get away for a weekend?  I won’t make it your official penance but you need to try to do something.”

I relayed the advice to my husband on the drive home from Mass.  He immediately wondered what I’d said to  make him think our marriage was in trouble.  Really, I hadn’t said much of anything but this priest has apparently heard enough confessions that he can sense when investing time in the family’s primary relationship is in order.  My husband scoffed at the idea initially, just as I had.  But by the end of our ten-minute drive home we had come up with a plan:  The One Day DIY Marriage Retreat.

The very next time we saw a pleasant forecast for a Saturday we booked an all day babysitter for our three older children.  Believe it or not, we’d never both left them for that amount of time before.  But they were thrilled at the prospect of an entire day with a fun babysitter.  We packed up our easygoing baby who was a week shy of his first birthday and hit the road.

We’d prepared carefully for our day together.  We both immediately agreed that we wanted to spend the day in Manhattan.  We love New York and seldom get to enjoy it unencumbered with small children and a wheelchair.  I left the details of our day up to my husband who had fun designing our itinerary.  We wanted the day to include Mass, good food, fun, and honest, productive conversations.

Several years ago I read, and enjoyed, Holly Pierlot’s A Mother’s Rule of Life.  I never very successfully incorporated her scheduling ideas into my life but her hierarchy of priorities, the Five P’s, has stuck with me over the years and has always been a useful tool when I need to step back and take stock of my life.  Briefly, the Five P’s are Person, Prayer, Partner, Parent, Provider.  The idea is that if you give those areas of your life priority in that order, things will fall into place.  I have found this to be true for me over and over again on both the “macro” and “micro” levels.  We decided to organize our retreat around the Five P’s and we spent a few days beforehand writing each other one-page letters on each of the Five P’s.  Eric had scheduled five 75-minute conversation slots for each area and the idea was to read the letters silently and let them guide our conversation.

We opted to drive into New York to save a little time and give us flexibility as to where, exactly, we went.  We left at 8:00 in the morning and the day proceeded, roughly, in this order:


Breakfast at a diner (Person conversation)

Go for a walk

Coffee (Prayer conversation)

Go for a walk


Lunch (Partner conversation)

Go for a walk

Coffee (Parent conversation)

Walk back to car

Drive home (Provider conversation)

Dinner in our neighborhood

We spent almost the entire day in Greenwich Village and we could have eaten dinner there and used that for our final conversation.  But we knew we could eat just as well but for far less money in our own neighborhood.  And we wanted to keep dinner free of any scheduled conversation.

How did it go?  It was an amazing day.  We both spent a lot of time mentally preparing for a difficult day.  We both wrote very honest letters about the various areas of our life together.  Some of  the things we brought up were new, some were old, worn-out disagreements.  Some things were huge and some things were small, but significant.  We knew that it would take a lot of energy to be productive.  But each time of conversation worked well.  We silently read each other’s letters and, more often than not, found that we shared the same concern or that one of us had completely misconstrued a problem.  But the letters allowed each of us to “say our piece” without getting interrupted and it was a good use of our limited time.  Between reading that and ordering food we typically had about an hour left to talk about the things we’d written.  We found that to be a pretty good amount of time.  Of course, we could have spent hours and hours discussing some of the things that came up but our goal was to “get the conversation started.”  We wanted to get any festering grievances out into the open and touch on things that we could then return to later.  We found ourselves naturally returning to various points on our “fun” walks throughout the day.  And, of course, things in some conversations were closely connected to things in other conversations.

I’m very glad we included Mass in our day.  Because of our baby we sat in the entrance but it was still one of the most quiet and recollected masses we’d been to together in a long time.  We’d been stuck in a rut for awhile by that point of not getting to daily Mass as a family much at all and going together on our retreat day was a good reminder that Mass is something we do.  Even if there are seasons when it is more of a challenge, we wouldn’t dream of planning a day like this together without Mass.

Our “fun” times in between turned out to be very typical for us.  We wandered around window shopping and chatting.  We ended up running four or five small errands but checking things off our “to-do” list together was actually a pretty nice way to spend time together.  And it gave us a few spots of needed downtime in the day when we engaged in parallel play more than intense focus on one another.

Having our baby with us was no trouble at all.  He was a tiny bit fussy by dinner time but not so much as to make the meal less enjoyable.  Having one child along, instead of four, felt like an enormous break.  And the other kids didn’t miss us one bit.  They had a fantastic time with their babysitter.

If we had it to do again (and I hope we will!) we wouldn’t change much.  We were a bit tired of talking endlessly by the end of the day but we persevered through the last conversation.  We didn’t try very hard to be frugal.  The cost for the entire day, including babysitting, was less than we would have paid for a marriage retreat so we felt the expense was worth it.  We didn’t fight–or even come close–at all, though we were both very honest in our letters and each of us brought up hard things.  We hadn’t had the sense that our marriage was in any way in trouble or suffering but our day together did bring forward many small ways that things were a bit frayed on the edges.  The most important take away from the day was the importance of making time to invest in our marriage relationship on a regular basis.  That said, we haven’t even planned an evening date since then, though we promised ourselves we would.  Perhaps my deciding to write this post today was my sub conscious reminding me to get on that already.


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We’ve been living in our urban neighborhood for about two-and-a-half years.   We love our neighborhood but it isn’t perfect.  One of the great benefits of urban living is that there are people everywhere so the probability of finding friends is statistically much higher than if you live in a less-dense area.  Our neighborhood has some diversity but it is overwhelmingly Portuguese and Brazilian.  The language on the street here is Portuguese and, while many of the residents here speak English . . . many don’t.  We’re mostly okay with this situation but we wouldn’t mind if there were a few more native English speakers in the neighborhood.  We don’t want to “gentrify” the neighborhood but the population of 50,000 in our neighborhood can absorb a sub-community of English speakers without fundamentally altering the character of the neighborhood.  To that end we’ve been enthusiastically recruiting people to our neighborhood since pretty much the day we moved here.

We have fairly high ideals for what a neighborhood community–especially one founded on shared faith–can look like.  Friends of ours used to live in an old, close-in, relatively dense suburb near the city we lived in and their neighborhood was a model of Catholic community life.  One family living there wanted a bigger community so they vigilantly recruited people to move to the neighborhood.   It worked and now the neighborhood is a thriving community of Catholics (of various stripes) living near each other, raising families, educating their children, and praying together.   Since the suburban town and, more importantly, the immediate neighborhood were somewhat small, the guy doing much of the recruiting would often pounce on houses that were about to go on the market.  On at least one occasion he offered to buy a house personally if he couldn’t find the owner a buyer in 48 hours (it worked–good friends of ours bought the house).  Unfortunately, the size of the neighborhood also means that some people who would like to move to be part of this community cannot find housing that works for them.

In our neighborhood, this just isn’t a problem.  Or, at least, it’s much, much less likely to be a problem.  According to zillow.com there are currently about 19 homes for sale in the suburban town I’m thinking of that could be considered a reasonable walking distance from the parish church.  In my zipcode, which is just over one square mile (which is to say, entirely walkable) there are currently 197 homes listed for sale.  And that doesn’t even include listings with the main real estate company in our neighborhood.

Density offers many, many advantages.  One of them, is that there is usually something for everyone.


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I bought a cookbook, and I’m really excited about it.  It probably isn’t fair to review a cookbook I’ve owned for less than a week but I’ve read every word and I think I’m a decent enough cook to know that these recipes are going to be good.

Well Fed:  Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat  by Melissa Joulwan is looking to be a good investment in my health and sanity.  Joulwan blogs at The Clothes Make the Girl but I was not a reader of her blog prior to buying the book.  I am not a strict “paleo dieter” and I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic but, in a nutshell, the paleo diet works on the premise that human beings were most healthy prior to the advent of agriculture.  The paleo diet has a few variations but Well Fed  is free of grains, legumes, dairy, soy, and sugar.

My own views on what constitutes a good diet are definitely a work in progress.  We’ve always been fairly healthy eaters.  We both like to cook and we’ve never been a big processed-food family.  We first encountered the Weston A. Price Foundation several years ago and we remain convinced that they have quite a bit right when it comes to how humans should be eating.   We used to do quite a bit of home fermentation and I’d like to get back to that before too long.  But despite eating an above-average diet that looked “crunchy” and super healthy to a lot of observers, I have mostly been pretty unsatisfied with my health over the last several years.  I don’t have any particular problem–just lots of little things that add up to a lower quality of life than I’d like to have.  My vocation asks a lot of me and I didn’t feel like my body was up to the task.

About a year ago I hit–as I periodically do–a wall, of sorts.  I’d been running regularly for a few months by then and my body felt sore and creaky.  I had wild mood swings and I was at least 30 pounds overweight (a guess since I didn’t yet own a scale).  I tried a low-carb diet for a bit which did result in some weight loss but I felt terrible.  Then I tried counting calories but I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to make my calories count with healthy food.  Through the early fall I gradually slid back into bad habits and hit another little wall in late October.  My husband and I decided then to try a grain free experiment.  I’d known instinctively for years that wheat is a huge problem for me but I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up bread.  But we tried it for most of November and this time I was motivated enough to really stick with it for more than a few days.  And I felt a lot better.  Cutting out grains didn’t solve every problem in my life or turn me into a saint, but it removed a lot of obstacles.

But, of course, then Thanksgiving came.  And Christmas.  And since Christmas I’ve probably been 50-75% successful at eating grain free.  That’s a big improvement but it’s not enough for me personally.  And I’ve done a terrible job at kicking sugar out of my diet.  My initial grain-free period in November was also sugar free but I’ve been struggling to limit sugar since Christmas.

And I sorely needed some inspiration for meals.  Enter, Well Fed.  I first heard of the book from Sally at Castle in the Sea and I was intrigued.  I don’t know Sally in real life but I’ve been reading her for years and I think I can safely say that she is not one to be swept up in hype and she strikes me as a frugal person.  If she liked this book, I wanted to give it a good look.    

What I love about this book is that the “paleo” thing is really beside the point.  She doesn’t make the argument for the theory and nutrition behind it.  She wants to eat really delicious food every night of the week without spending hours slaving away in the kitchen.  She explains how to do a weekly “cook up” to stock the fridge with ingredients.  Then she outlines a few basic formulas for “hot plates” or salads inspired by various international cuisines.  There are also more complicated recipes in the book all of which also include several variations.  The book is rather slim, at first glance, but the variety of recipes is almost endless.  We tend to cook from a pantry already and this book seems like the perfect companion to that approach.  And I think I’m going to try her weekly cook up model at least a few times to see if it might be a time and money saver for me.

Her book also doesn’t try to make “regular” food into “paleo” food with weird ingredients.  It’s just good, healthy, nutrient-dense food that could be served to any normal person.  The recipes work whether you can spend a lot or a little on meat and the entire book makes me want to eat ten cups of vegetables a day.  I’m hopeful that between my certain knowledge of how I should, personally, be eating for optimal health and this new burst of inspiration, I’ll soon be able to reconquer the creeping bad habits I’ve regained in the last few months.

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After a couple of weeks immersed in a long novel I was ready for a quick read in an entirely different vein.  I picked up Style, Sex, and Substance:  Ten Catholic Women Consider the Things that Really Matter,  edited by Hallie Lord.  The book was billed as an encouraging read for Catholic women and I found it be so.  Of the ten authors who contributed to the book I regularly read only two of them, sometimes read a couple others, and was almost completely unfamiliar with the others.  In fact, I’m chagrined to admit that I’d never heard of Barbara Nicolosi prior to this book despite the fact that she’s involved with an organization that used to employ me (I’ll try to assume our time didn’t overlap).

The ten essays were light, encouraging reading but, I confess, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging.  I think each of these women has a lot to say and all of them seemed to suffer from having to condense their thoughts to just one short chapter.  I wonder if a tighter unifying theme might have brought more out of these talented women.

I enjoyed Simcha Fisher’s chapter on motherhood which was no surprise since I enjoy her regular columns quite a bit.  I also really enjoyed Rebecca Teti  (whom I’d never really read before)  on women and work.  That surprised me as I generally don’t care for essays on themes of “women’s work” or “new feminism” or anything in that category.  Perhaps I’ll explore all that a bit more down the road.

My favorite chapter was probably the last by Barbara Nicolosi on engaging the culture.  Her defense of the arts has gotten me thinking a bit.  Of course, I completely agree that the arts should be a big part of of our lives.  Music is a big part of our life and the other fine arts have as a big a place as our time, talent, and budget allows.  But Nicolosi gives far more respect film and television than I ever have.  It’s had me thinking a bit about how I engage “pop” culture and the various new media.  Again, perhaps more on that later.

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Hometown loyalty

The New York Times yesterday published an opinion piece, “The Go-Nowhere Generation.”  The authors are concerned at what looks to them like a new tendency for young people to remain living in their hometowns rather than moving on in pursuit of opportunity.  The concern is that this apparent lack of initiative on the part of “Generation Y” is going to further stall economic growth.

I sincerely hope the authors are wrong in their analysis.  

First, I’m no social scientist, but I’m not sure their historical examples really support the idea that it has always been the preferred and default position of Americans that moving away from home is best.  Their examples:  the Pilgirms (who were fleeing religious persecution), Hemingway (who spent some time in Paris writing about home and then moved back to that home), WWII solidiers (who left home for a few years to defend their home) and the Peace Corps.  So, first of all, there’s a 300-year gap in that historical narrative.  Second, Hemingway and the WWII soldiers weren’t exactly leaving home.  And, come to think of it, the Peace Corps lasts only two years.  Are we supposed to believe that these examples point to an established habit of leaving home among young Americans?  

Yet, the authors do have some statistics on their side when they point out that 20-somethings are forty percent less likely to move to another state than they were in the ’80s.  I wasn’t a 20-something in the 80’s  but I definitely have memories from the nineties of high school teachers encouraging me to “get out of this town”–referring to the small, run-down, New England, mill town I grew up in.  The prevailing attitude seemed to be that only the dropouts and deadbeats would remain living in our hometown.  Those of us who wanted to be successful would move on.  

I bought in to that attitude completely.  By the time of my first trip home during my freshmen year of college (I went to a private school near Boston, about ninety minutes from home) I had developed a healthy distaste for my hometown.  After college I moved to Washington and then to Minnesota where we were living, sort of, in my husband’s home town.  And there, finally, things began to thaw for me.  I’ve already spent some time writing about that but I want to add that the real paradigm shift came for me from a surprising place:  Facebook.

I joined Facebook, very reluctantly, just before moving away from Minnesota (according to Facebook, I joined on my birthday).  I joined only because I wanted to keep up with family, in particular my younger cousins who have all been moving into adulthood over the last few years.  But, of course, I was quickly sniffed out by my many old high school friends.  I hadn’t spoken to a single one of them since the Thanksgiving after graduation (a fact I’m not proud of) but suddenly I had a little window into their lives and the thing that stood out to me more than anything else was that the vast majority (yes, even the “successful” ones) still lived in my hometown and many of them were still good friends who regularly got together.  I was shocked.  

And it finally dawned on me that I  was probably the screwed up one in this scenario.  And maybe the trend noticed in this New York Times piece is the beginning of a cultural awakening.  Maybe (among other things, surely) the time young people spend on Facebook (rather than driving) is an effort to stay connected, to stay rooted to home.  Maybe that poor guy who turned down his dream of teaching high school so he could stay in his hometown working in the tire factory realizes that there are things more important than one’s day job.  Maybe less kids are getting their driver’s licenses because they’re actually fine carpooling with friends and living a slower, simpler lifestyle.

Some of the evidence in the article seems to support the idea that Generation Y does seem to have a laziness problem.  But I think the parents of the current young people bear as much responsibility for this as the kids themselves.  We often think in dismay about our neighborhood baker.  Georgie’s grandfather founded this bakery in 1903.  Georgie’s father took over from him and Georgie himself began his apprenticeship–both in the baking trade and in the habits of hard work and discipline–as a small boy.  Georgie has two children.  His daughter just started college and his son is about to graduate in May.  But he’s already making plans to close his business in a few years when he retires.  A century-old artisan bakery will close its doors for lack of an heir.  We’ve asked Georgie a few times why his son won’t take over.  And the answers are consistent:  his son didn’t grow up in the business so he’s not ready for the hard work required and Georgie doesn’t want him to take over.  Georgie moved his family way out to the suburbs rather than keeping them living in one of the houses he owns in our urban neighborhood just steps from the bakery.  

Meanwhile, his son is graduating in the face of 8% unemployment and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have preferred to inherit an established business in what might have been his hometown.  I just can’t see that the “Go-Nowhere Generation” has it all wrong.

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It never fails to rub me the wrong way when the lector steps up to the ambo for the “Prayers of the Faithful” and dutifully reads off a prayer that has become standard in many parishes, “For an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”  My husband and I often remind each other of an astounding quote from Cardinal McCarrick (in 2006) who was, at the time, our bishop.  He was giving an interview and he was defending the fact that he only ever discussed vocations to the priesthood and religious life rather than to marriage.  (Oddly enough, when I did a google search for the exact quote I hit a blog that was reposting an e-mail my husband had circulated at the time):

Some folks think that I don’t emphasize marriage or lay vocations enough. If that is true, and I hope it is not, the reason would be clear. There is not a crisis in the shortage of people entering lay
vocations, nor, thank God, in entering marriage. In so many parts of the world, a priest and religious vocation shortage troubles the Church. Perhaps more than anything it is a result of smaller families
since parents with only one child understandably hesitate to encourage him to be a priest or her to be a religious sister . . . .

My husband went on to say:

True, lots of people get married. But how many people follow the Church’s teachings on marriage? How many Catholics get divorced, and how many annulments are granted on the assumption that people had no idea what Catholic marriage actually entails? I don’t have exact statistics, but I believe there is in fact a terrible crisis in the shortage of people entering the Catholic vocation of marriage.

Ironically, in the second half of the quote the Cardinal all but admits that the reason there is a shortage of priestly and religious vocations is because there is a terrible shortage of Catholic families
having babies.

In the five years since that interview was published we have yet to hear any prayers of the faithful offered for an increase in vocations to married life.  And it’s too bad because authentically living one’s vocation is hard work.  And lonely.  We were at our parish for Stations of the Cross yesterday evening and we were surprised to see that our resident seminarian, Dave*, was “home” for the weekend.  He’s not a close friend but we always enjoy getting to chat with him and we’ve had him to our house for meals a couple of times.  His family lives in another state.  He asked us to pray for him because he’s been really struggling with loneliness.  We promised, of course, and headed home.

Over dishes I suggested to Eric that we invite Dave to join us for dinner on Saturday night.  Eric was at first hesitant, “I’m not sure he really counts us as good enough friends to give up his Saturday evening for us.  And he said he was feeling lonely but he probably doesn’t need to socialize so much as figure out if he’s called to the priesthood.”  My husband might be right about that but my read of the situation is different.

When we were engaged and first married we typically attended daily Mass with the Dominicans.  It was the house of studies for the province so the community was large and active and since any given priest would only get a chance to preach once a month, at most, they always put in extra effort to do it well.  There were always about an equal number of Domincan priests and brothers and lay people (such as ourselves) in attendance and I think most of the priests tried to keep this in mind when writing homilies.  But I still remember one day when a young deacon gave a bang-up homily exhorting his Dominican brothers to fully live their vocations as friars and preachers.  I was inspired–but not to run off and join a Dominican convent.  No, to go home and fully embrace my vocation as a married Catholic woman.  Next time I saw that brother I told him and he expressed concern that preaching only to his brothers had been alienating to us sitting behind the grille.  “To the contrary!”  I said, “Seeing you all trying to live your vocations inspires me to live mine.”  The Domincan friar looked pleased and humbled, “It goes both ways,” he said.

I have no idea what particular cross Dave The Seminarian is carrying at the moment.  But I do know that living a vocation requires courage and fortitude, among other things.  And I suspected that spending an evening in the midst of a family might help.  Not that we’re perfect, but we’re trying.  And we can show him that we’re all in this together.  The various vocations are all different but they are all paths to holiness littered with joy and suffering.

Dave couldn’t come for dinner.  The pastor had him booked. But we’ll see him at our house for Easter dinner and, in the meantime, I’ll be offering up the unique challenges of my vocation for him.

*Not his real name but if you want to pray for him, I’m sure God will know who you mean.

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I first read Kristin Lavransdatter  when I was first married.  I’d never heard of the book but Eric and I were at a used book sale together and he pulled it off the $1 shelf and handed it to me.  “It’s about some girl in medieval Norway.  I never got into it, but it’s supposed to be good.”  Well, with a recommendation like that!

I read it during slow times at my circulation desk job in a small academic library.  I considered myself fairly well-read at the time so I was a little chagrined at how many people exclaimed about how much they loved the book when they noticed me reading it–and I’d never even heard of it.  My first copy is the eighth printing from 1931.  It was either a very large printing or all the previous ones looked very similar because I’ve since encountered the exact same edition in lots of used book sales over the years (there is also a three-volume edition from Penguin floating around).  It’s an ancient book with paper thin pages and I enjoyed it immensely.  I was newly married myself and I came away thinking that Kristin’s marriage was just horrible and depressing.

Spending a couple of weeks with Kristin again, almost nine years later, I found myself, understandably, relating much more to Kristin-the-Mother this time around. And her marriage, while certainly less than ideal, seemed much more normal to me this time.  My marriage is heaven on earth compared to hers but it was easier to understand, now that I’ve lived through more trials as a married woman, how a difference in temperament can cause problems and how destructive small miscommunications can be if left to fester.

I was just now browsing some of the Amazon reviews for this book and, overall, they are pretty favorable but there was more than one reader who really hated this book.  One complaint was that none of the main characters are really likable.  This is certainly true.  Kristin is one of the most frustrating characters I have ever read.  I just want to reach into the pages and shake her until she grows up and sees reason for once.  But then I have to admit to myself that I’m generally just as much an idiot as Kristin.  In different ways, of course.  I’ve never run off with a man against my family’s wishes while engaged to someone else, for example.  And I don’t tend to hold grudges.  But I do find myself saying the same exact things in confession over and over again.  And I dwell on my sins more than I should.  There is one scene where Kristin’s parish church has been struck by lightning and is burning to the ground and–in an astonishing fit of self-absorption–she asks her parish priest if the fire is God’s punishment for her own sin.  The priest rails at her, “Do you really think your sins are important enough for God to destroy a beautiful church?”  (paraphrase).

There is little to cheer the reader over the 1000 pages of this book but it is very real and there is a glimmer of hope at the end.  One senses that Kristin is finally starting to “get it” during her final years.  I thought when I first read the book and I thought again that Kristin should be required reading for high school students.  It paints a vivid picture of how sin can eat away at your peace and poison your entire life though, again, there is the hope of redemption in the end.

As for the much-discussed new translation by Tina Nunnally:  I liked it but the difference wasn’t as great as I expected.  The original translation by Charles Archer uses archaic language and that certainly takes some getting used to.  But after the first few hundred pages, I did get used to it and I hadn’t remembered it as a stumbling block to understanding the book.  The new translation is in a very straightforward style.  The introduction to the new translation claims that this style was a hallmark of Undset’s writing style.  Since I don’t know Norwegian I’ll just have to take the translator’s word for it but I’m certainly in favor of sticking closely to the author’s original style.

I was pretty disappointed in the notes in the new edition.  Medieval Norwegian culture is pretty different from the modern world and the older edition had much more extensive notes explaining various aspects of daily life and the political situations referred to in the story.  There were also diagrams of the various estates.  All of this was missing in the newer edition which had far fewer notes.  For that reason, I’m glad I have the older copy as well.

One really minor note:  the new Penguin edition is very sturdy and attractive.  I don’t like worrying about whether or not my book might fall apart while I’m reading it.  The volume I just spent two weeks reading mostly while nursing my baby to sleep looks practically brand new.  I like that in a book.

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