Sunday, July 17, 2016

A lonely run



The sound of her own feet on the pavement was music to her ears. The only other sounds were the four paws running next to her and the gentle backdrop of rain. She hadn’t known it was going to rain – obviously if she had, she’d have run earlier. When it started, she considered waiting it out. It is awfully hard to motivate oneself to go out into the rain when one is currently dry, and even more so when it involves the thankless task of running.

However when the ‘pros’ win out over the ‘cons’ she is never sorry. In fact, running in the rain was Zen-like once the initial hurdle of wanting to stay dry is overcome.   She was focused, driven, and at peace. Her feet pounded out her progress and her heart accelerated to match. Her breathing was efficient. In. Out. In. Out. Drops of water kissed her face and the smell of damp earth rose to her nostrils. She barely noticed the stopwatch ticking away as she took each step.

With each step she grew more comfortable with her pace. The body’s protests slowly fade into background noise if you ignore them for long enough. She suppressed them and enjoyed the harmony of her two legs propelling her forward. She was strong. Indestructible.

Lola halted unexpectedly, as she often did on a run when she needed to relieve herself, or spied something of interest, or simply decided she’d had enough. In this case, it was the former. She stopped her watch as the dog busied herself in the bushes. 

She has been so preoccupied that she hadn’t noticed the man until he was right beside her. He waved and kept running. She jumped and recovered quickly to respond politely, she didn’t want to offend him. The can of worms was open. She was unaware of her surroundings. Alone on a trail she’d never run before. The rain coupled with the late hour washed the trail in a weird dusky light. Suddenly, she could see herself from an outside perspective: pink shorts, blond pony-tail and red tank-top. Small and insubstantial compared to the woods around her. It was a familiar scene – it was how many a horror movie had started. The girl, happy, content, confident, runs alone – safe and secure in her life… until… It was not a unique hook.

Why is this an interesting draw? Why should a girl with the audacity to be alone outside be enough to trigger fear? Is it that the girl is alone or that she is happy? Which one were we supposed to avoid to in order to prevent the same happening to us?

She restarted the stopwatch and the two resumed their mission. Her breathing became more rapid as she pressed forward, each breath a single wish forward. Forward. Forward. Her heart hammered away in her chest. She lost herself in the painful meditation of a run.

The land rose steeply on each side of the trail, vines grew up trees and the undergrowth looked foreboding. Wasn’t she at enough of a disadvantage already without nature handing any would be attackers the higher ground? She kept her eyes up, aware that she was unaware. She had already missed someone once and he’d nearly ran into her. She felt as though she were being watched. These hills have eyes.

At that moment, she was especially thankful for her canine companion, an especially strong pit-bull terrier mix. Like many of her breed, she had gotten a bad reputation. Lola had been abused, starved and abandoned before the humane society had happened to intersect her path. She had every right to be distrustful, short-tempered and mean, but she wasn’t: she was violently loving. She was blissfully unaware of her own size and would fling all sixty-five pounds of herself into new guests in a form of greeting.

She encountered no one for a while. The two were an isolated pair on an asphalt trail in a grey, rainy forest.

Two small figures appeared in the distance. As they grew larger it was apparent they were a couple. They pulled to the side and one extracted something from the other’s bag – a water bottle. They shared it and chatted. She smiled and made eye contact as she passed. She did not feel alone. She did not understand why this couple made her feel less alone… What did they offer her? They were not obligated to be kind to her. Was it the solidarity? A woman would simply not turn on another woman like that or allow harm to come to her. It was camaraderie? It was na├»ve.

After drinking from their bottle, the couple returned to their bikes and proceeded in the opposite direction. After they shrank from view, there was not another soul in sight.

Maybe she had felt protected because they would have heard her scream. So what? Did that automatically mean they would respond? If she heard someone scream in the woods, would she run towards it or away from it? She honestly didn’t know.

Regardless, they were gone now. A scream is only as good as the ears it falls on and she was once more wrapped in the deadening velvet blanket of green leaves. It would be an ineffective strategy.

Scouring her surroundings for any potential threat, she brainstormed. If screams were useless, what would be her options?

She could pack a punch. She actually enjoyed boxing and trained regularly. She had the muscle memory needed to put all of her strength into a jab, to follow with a right hook, then a left elbow and a right elbow to the eye. Her favorite combination included all of those and wrapped up with a knee to the balls or chest or face – whichever was in the line of contact. She rehearsed in her head and it gave her a little peace. It was not enough though. She would have the element of surprise – to look at her, one would not expect such a calculated response. That is all she would have. She was smaller than most would-be attackers. She was far from an audience or a telephone or anyone she knew. Any defense would have to be enough to get her away.

Her breathing was not ragged. It was regular and deep. Intentional. She took in more air and noticed her heart speed up, fighting the lungs crushing down around it. Everything in her was competing for the limited space of her small yet sturdy rib cage.

She did have Lola. The dog was sturdy and could appear intimidating if you were unfamiliar with her. Maybe appearance was enough. A deterrent. How infuriating that she was thinking of herself in this manner … because the girl has a dog, it’s not worth the effort to attack her. Still, it was some consolation.

Lola certainly was loyal. She had yet to be confronted with any real danger to her owner, but at times of questionable safety, for example when she had seen her owner sparring, her protective nature became clear. She bit at the hands of the previously trusted sparring partner. Only snapping. Warning. She barked and would not let him pet her.

Her bark was loud and threatening. It was also rare. If only she’d been taught to bark on command. That would be a useful skill. As it was, Lola approached new strangers with enthusiasm, wanting to be petted, knowing that most of them thought she was cute.

Her bark is bigger than her bite. What a stupid phrase. What is the unit of measurement involved? How do the two things even compare? She understood that it was metaphorical… maybe the size was referencing the amount of fear involved. Still… She could count on one hand the number of times she had seen this bite employed as an attack. Once on a bunny, the dog had bitten down, locked on and used the powerful muscles of her chest and neck to fling her head to one side. The rabbit was dead before it hit the ground.

Another time, it had been a smaller dog. Lola was not aggressive and generally tolerated other dogs well. It was unclear what happened to change that in this particular instance. She had bitten down onto the much smaller dog’s neck but luckily only got a grip of ear and superficial tissue. Onlookers had screamed and tried to intervene, but she was having none of it. It was primal. As the smaller dog yelped and other people joined the fray, she remained unswayed from her goal, her jaws clamped down in a mortal vise.

No, her bite was certainly bigger than her bark. What damage it could do, to muscles, nerves … maybe bone.

Her thoughts returned to the trail as she passed an old mill. Several smaller trails branched off, curving upward into the undergrowth. She longed to take one of them, but knew she would feel even less safe there. She wondered what the news commentary would be if her body were found alongside one. Well, John, she really shouldn’t have been running alone. We all know that it is unsafe. No commentary was ever offered regarding the criminals choosing to commit the crime. You know, he really shouldn’t have attacked her in the woods like that. That part must go without saying… of course you shouldn’t murder, but what not everyone is aware of is the mortal sin of venturing out into the wilderness alone. The people must be warned. What an excellent way to demonstrate a moral for hundreds of would be victims, just like her.

Being on a new trail, she had settled on an out and back run. She would run forward until she had covered exactly half of her goal distance, then she would return along the same trajectory. On a map, traced broadly, it would look like she was running away from something. Only when you zoomed in close would the narrow triangle be evident, a very delicate knife.

The benefit of an out and back run was that on the return trip, the scenery was familiar. One could anticipate the curves, inclines, puddles. The problem was that every step was already mapped. At the turning point, it was only halfway. There was just as far to go. It was going to hurt twice as much. Every new sight was calculated in respect to the finish line, still several miles away. The daunting task ahead was demonstrated in striking clarity. It was a psychological roadblock more than anything.

The bike approached with impressive speed. More noteworthy was the lack of helmet and normal attire. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, clothes that conveyed the message “tourist” not “athlete”. His build was bulky, large but not toned. He was not the typical bike enthusiast. She eyed him as he approached. From as far away as she could appreciate it, he met her eyes. Met them directly, unsmiling. The go go go of her heart picked up. She broke his gaze but felt it on her regardless. A bitter taste materialized in her mouth. She noticed a side trail down that led to a populated sidewalk up ahead. She focused on it and pulled herself towards it, looking nowhere else. When she finally reached it she turned and looked over her shoulder, ready to run towards humanity in the hope that someone would help her if it came to that. The large figure was still visible, but slowly shrinking and on the wrong side of the trail – clearly unaware of the etiquette. Her breathing was ragged now: her careful practice of regulating air completely derailed by the tiniest amount of adrenaline.

She continued through the woods.

The man on the bike had been Arabic. She couldn’t say for certain he was Arabic, he could be American. He had olive skin, dark eyes and plentiful dark facial hair. Was she a racist? This thought startled her. She examined her consciousness – No. she would have feared him equally, white or black, Arabic or Asian. Her fear in him had been well-established far off, before race was evident. The only clues her instincts had needed: large size and facial hair. Why the facial hair? She wondered. I guess it is inherently male.

She didn’t mind being sexist like she would have been offended by her own racism. Sexism, it seemed was biology. It made sense. It was why she had been taught growing up to not be alone outside after dark, why she was supposed to carry mace. As early as learning to drive she had learned to carry her keys poking out of her fingers like a tiny dagger. The message over and over had been: you are unsafe, be careful. Apparently, it had sunk in.

The trail rose into a bridge that arced the busy roadway below. Trees and vines on either side of the trail gave way to mechanic shops, a McDonalds. As years of competitive training had engrained into her she leaned into the incline, accelerated ever so slightly.

Untrained runners slow down on hills. As the body’s demand for oxygen increases, reflexively you slow to decrease the debt. In races, these runners would be passed on hills. Ignoring reflexes and instinct and charging only 20 or 30 feet past the peak she knew could significantly alter her standing in a race.

A group of bikes crested the trail. She slowed about halfway up. Lola tugged her forward, rapidly increasing pace to make up for her partner’s slack. She liked to think it was because Lola was a runner at heart, that after all the miles they’d logged together Lola had learned her tactics. Of course, this wasn’t the case. Likely Lola had seen a squirrel or bird that she longed to chase – she was all instinct and no strategy. Lola was a brawler, she would charge out at the first bell already giving it everything she had, disregarding all the rounds she still had to go.

Regardless, this quick speed increase snapped her out of surrender. She accelerated and the pair sped together down the far side. The scenery once again became trees and vines. It was silent but for the dripping of rain and occasional rolling thunder. The canopy enveloped her and the dusk returned.

They approached a crosswalk – an intersection between the trail and an actual road. The stop signs were posted on both sides, perpendicular to the trail to make their meaning clear. Those on the trail were to stop, those on the road were free to press onward. Such things infuriated her. Why should the gift of inertia be granted to those in motorized vehicles? She was fighting her own physiology, continuing forward when every cell within her wanted to rest. To slow down and stop only to restart – the amount of energy involved was astronomical. She pondered this while the wood paneled car with the elderly driver crept past. Maybe stepping on a pedal was equally hard for him.

She resumed her previous pace. Her lungs, spoiled by the rest, protested.

There was a lone figure ahead. His elbows were at ninety degrees to the rest of his body and he appeared to be moving with unusual flair. It was a power walker. For some reason, this fact made him seem less threatening. As she realized this, his hands dropped and his gait changed. She opened her stride, sped forward. She slowed her breathing as if to demonstrate that she was unaffected by this quick pace. Just try and catch me. The dog, unaware of the subtle signs of danger bounded forward playfully.

The man smiled as she passed him. He has a full head of white hair and headphones large enough to be found on the head of a rapper. He wore an upscale sweat suit and had a generally tidy appearance. He could easily be a congressman out for a stroll. Or someone’s grandfather. She nodded and gave a quick wave. She continued the new sprint for another ten yards before daring to look over her shoulder. The power walking had resumed.

He had ceased the jaunty movements for her benefit? She decelerated, heart racing.

She had seen no other solo females out for a run. They must have listened to the rules more clearly.

Finally, she reached her goal distance. She reeled Lola in as she slowed to wait at the crosswalk that would lead her off the trail and back to her car. She gasped for air, sweaty but accomplished. She was in her own mind as the lights changed and cars began to pile up, waiting for their turn. A dark SUV rolled up next to her and a male in his thirties looked at her. She felt his eyes slide down to her breasts. She became acutely aware that her tank-top had ridden up and her tanned abdomen was showing. Her legs were covered in mud from the trail but felt strangely vulnerable as though her shorts were shrinking, like they might just disappear and leave her exposed as her clothes sometimes did in dreams. At those times, she would wake up in a panic, thankful to realize that she was in her own bed and not on stage completely naked.

A small chill spread across her sweaty skin. She fought the urge to lengthen her shorts and pull down her tank top. You’re being dramatic, she counseled herself, he is not looking at you. She glanced back to his face. His car was still stopped but now obstructing traffic. He made a point to look her up and down once more before smiling at her eyes and accelerating forward. She was in the field of vision of over a dozen people. Those who happened to be looking her direction would have seen the interchange and thought nothing of it. It was, after all, nothing. Still, they could see her. If it had been something … they would have reacted, right? She was back into the public, protected by society. Good and Evil were now equally balanced… right?

Stop being silly, she told herself. 

 Disobeying the clear “WALK” command, she ran across the street as fast as she could. Her car was the only one in the parking lot. Lola jumped into the car and she clambered in herself and locked the doors immediately behind her, just as she had always been taught. And they headed home.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

On my love of books

When I was 14 I had a boyfriend who made fun of me for my interests. I will admit, there are a few caveats to that statement: first, because I was 14, my parents preferred that I call him my ‘friend’. Second, he didn’t make fun of me for all of my interests (hopefully even 14 year old Katie would have kicked that punk to the curb). He made fun of me for one of my interests: an especially important one.

It came up when he asked me about my favorite store. I don’t remember the context, but logic would indicate that it was before a birthday, Christmas, or some similar tradition in which it was appropriate for him to buy me a nice gift. (Experience and proper recall on the other hand make it more likely that any time he felt obligated to spend money on me, it was for a much less nostalgic reason). Ah, teenage years, when social pressures, emotions and budding freedom far outweigh any sort of reasoning, accurate mental capacity or self preserving behavior.

I did not have to hesitate at all when answering him, I stated “Barnes and Noble”, easy. He laughed for several minutes while gasping for air (come on, was it really that funny?). He told his mother and then she laughed too. He explained that they had passed that store yesterday and discussed why anyone in their right mind would bother to even enter a store that only had books? I was confused and maybe a little embarrassed – no one likes to be laughed at. Mostly though, I was sad for them, because I couldn’t begin to make them understand.

I was confused because, even with deep thought, any valid reason to dislike the store evaded me. Barnes and Noble smelled the way that Christmas morning felt – warmth and coffee and paper. The visual is reminiscent of Christmas as well: piles of packages, shrouded in paper, gleaming with potential. The gentle jazz or soft upbeat pop of Jason Mraz or a similar artist floating softly through the air dulls the sensation of crowds. It feels slower, even sacred. The millions of pages around you contain the heart and soul of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The atmosphere is haunted, but in a good way.

I visited our local branch often. I would rarely arrive with an agenda, but instead, preferring to take my time, wander through the aisles, and acquire a tall stack of options. Occasionally I would luck into an armchair or seat in the coffee shop, but more often I would wind up on the floor. The industrial carpeting typically swathing their floors offers minimal cushioning yet there I would sit, more uncomfortable with each page I turned, completely unaware that my legs were falling asleep. Oblivious to the world around me, people would step over or on me and I would mumble an apology lost in whatever universe I’d happened to pull off the shelf.

Here I am posing for a picture in a Barnes & Noble in Cleveland because that is a normal thing to do.
Circa 2009.
I love all bookstores. Although B&N has wonderful ambience and the smell of coffee is heavenly, there is more to it than that. It’s not the atmosphere, the clientele or the aesthetic – it is all in the product. It is that you can buy nearly anything. In need of adventure? – hunker down alongside Katniss as she waits, alone and scared while packs of children hunt for her in cold blood. Or perhaps you seek life experience – hear about the exploits of a humanitarian turned navy seal in The Heart and the Fist. You can buy inspiration – for instance, Greg Mortenson building schools in the mountains of Pakistan. Or broaden your horizons – experience first hand the hardships faced by a young girl in Africa in Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. You can teach yourself to knit, pick up a Tai-Chi hobby, or prepare to survive a zombie apocalypse if that is more your flavor. You can change the way you think with Malcolm Gladwell or Atul Gawande. The possibilities are literally infinite.

There is a quote that I’ve seen often on pinterest (which is as close as I can come to citing it, because there is never an author attributed) that says “travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer”. It’s used to inspire people to travel more, to use their money on life experience rather than… whatever else they are using it on. (It sure is catchy and would make a fantastic marketing campaign for hostelworld or studentuniverse or even Airbnb – feel poor? Spend your money our way and you’ll feel richer!)

 It is no secret that I love to travel and I get homesick for places I’ve never been on a daily basis, but this statement is completely wrong in so many ways. From a logical standpoint, using the simplest definition of the word “rich” (to have wealth – thank you Webster’s), you can buy savings bonds or stocks or investments – really anything that will appreciate value after you’ve paid for it – boom, richer. Likely the intended meaning uses the second definition, “of great value or worth”; you can add metaphorical value to your life by trading monetary value in for travel. Adventure. Memories. Experience. In my opinion there are innumerable things that you spend your money on that make your life more worthwhile – flowers, good coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, a new dress for your mom or a “this reminded me of you” gift for your dad… the list goes on. But small things aside, travel is certainly not the only way to acquire value for your life – memories, adventure, experience – these can all be yours for the low, low price of $0.01. (Especially if you aren’t picky about pre-owned and dog-eared). You can live lifetimes through another’s pen and see the world through their eyes - that should certainly make you richer!

Clearly my affection for books is rooted pretty deep. In fact, I think it is an integral part of who I am – I feel safer when I have a book in my purse (and not only because I could use it to bludgeon any potential attacker!). It’s nice to know I can always escape to a different place if the one around me is not living up to what it should. It’s nice to know that I can learn more, grow more, be better, be challenged, be inspired – that possibility is right at my fingertips. It’s nice to know that I can wait patiently, if needed, for more than the 30 seconds it would otherwise take me to grow frustrated. It is possible I am obsessed with books.

I blame my mother for this. I have plenty of obsessions I owe to my father – A Christmas Carol, The Music Man and the radio broadcast of a baseball game on a summer night. Early rising, gardening and the skill to cook without a recipe (definitely no thanks to mom there!). Or the “I can probably build that cheaper myself” mindset (which often results in 20 phone consults to dad and a sharp increase in sales at the local home depot). My dad loves to read too, but my mom is what you would consider a bookworm. After I moved out of the house to go to college, she secured control of my account at the local library. She added it to her growing collection of library accounts – hers and dad’s included – that she used to maneuver her way up waiting lists and strategize how to read every book ever written about anything.

She started us young. I would like to think I was an easy child but I’ve seen the home videos to prove the opposite. My brother was the easy child. He would contentedly play quietly at pretty much whatever he was expected to. He had a very nice pleasant life playing with his toys and being spoken to mostly in simple directions and praise for good behavior.

That is, until I happened.

There is a distinct turning point in young Jimmy’s life where I become large enough to discover that I have the capability to wreak havoc. Upon gaining control of my arms and legs I quickly put them to use toppling towers, knocking over little people (our name for those Fischer Price miniature people that we had as toys – I was not yet looking for people smaller than myself to bully) and generally disregarding any structure Jimmy had set for his playtime. It was at this point that the phrase “…katie, no. Katie! No!... KATIE…. DAAAAD!” began to occur regularly in these videos.

Mom had her hands full with us (read: with me) and to buy herself some needed time to exist as more than a mom and preserve her sanity, she videotaped herself reading to us. She pulled out the old camcorder, pulled up the rocking chair (could have given Mr. Rogers a run for his money if she’d invented a theme song) and would read aloud showing pictures and turning the pages for the benefit of the camera. I tease her for this now – outsourcing our intellectual development to a digital version of herself – but I admit, it’s pretty genius. It was still our mother’s voice, she would still engage us in the story: ask us questions and draw us in. The only thing missing from the virtual experience in relation to the actual experience was the warmth of a lap. (…and the emotional and psychological security that comes from knowing you are being held by a person who loves you but I guess you can’t win them all).

At the outset of this experiment, I was too young to really appreciate the value of a book. As a nine-month old, even the most simple of plots went above my head and rhyming did little for me. Jimmy would sit, riveted. I would spit my pacifier out repeatedly and he would lovingly (and increasingly forcefully) return it to where it originated.

As I grew older, I came to love these books too. Mercer Meyer was a big hit. Dr. Seuss. Bernstein bears. Mom and dad would read to us over and over and over. My Aunt, a high school teacher, would get us books for every birthday and we would wear them out within weeks. We loved to be read to: mom, dad, baba, grandma, ciocia – you’ve got a lap? Yeah, you should be reading to me probably.

Jimmy was reading on his own before kindergarten. Typical Jimmy stunt. I honestly don’t remember if I could or not – whether I was ahead of schedule or on time. I suppose this is the plight of a little sister with a smart brother – we mark our achievements as relative accomplishments. I remember my self-imposed standard more than my actual ability.

As we grew through school age years we graduated into chapter books. During one summer that is especially memorable to my mom, our local library hosted a contest with the goal of improving summer reading for children in the community. For every book that the child (with or without help of the parent) read, they would get a point. The total scores were compared for prizes. Our family’s score by the end of the summer was over 300, followed most closely by our good friends at around 200. The nearest competitor was in the low 20’s. The contest was altered the following year so that reading a book got you a chance to win a prize. For each book, one ticket was rewarded, these tickets could be placed in cans for various prizes, raffle style. Welcome to the participation ribbon era. It may have lessened our haul, but it didn’t lessen our reading. 



We grew through middle school and high school reading appropriately more difficult books. Then the bell tolled and time came for AP English with Mr. Stavar – A legacy at Perry High School, his class is known for being one of the most difficult available. He had a painting in his room, made by a former student, which depicted him in the fires of hell and read “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE”. He’d had the quote on the wall for a long time and the student incorporated it into her senior art project. She really ran with it and he embraced it – prominently displayed the painting proudly for years to come. The rumors were well-earned for his class was exceedingly difficult, but in the paradox that is education, also extremely rewarding. We learned analysis of plot, diction, character development – all the buzzwords you see in the AP prompts. He taught us how to deconstruct a book and once covered his entire whiteboard with notes of a group interpretation of Great Expectations. Although I hadn’t heard this quote yet, it was then that I first began to realize what John Green meant by “books belong to their readers”. It changed how I would read forever. Stories convey feelings and themes. They are bigger than the words on the page or even than the words in my mind. They are their own kind of magic. I’ve long dreamt of writing to Mr. Stavar, reaching out to say thank you. While I regret my attitude and state of mind overall as a teenager, my parents got the brunt of it, to most other adults I tried to remain as mature as I could. Despite this, I am certain I was lacking in gratitude. Working as a high school teacher must be an incredibly thankless task – constantly surrounded by moody, insecure teenagers willing to do largely anything to fit in. At that age, I’d yet to learn the importance of being true to yourself; nor that I value intelligence significantly more than presumed ‘coolness’. That it is important to surround yourself with people who challenge you and push you. That those who belittle you or would make you feel less for spending hours studying, pouring yourself into a project far beyond its requirements, or even mock you for liking a bookstore… those people are not worth the time or emotions they take. My priorities were off. I’m not convinced that even I like the girl I was. For what its worth, Mr. Stavar, if you ever see this… Thank you. It worked. I understand how reading makes us connect more closely to each other and to our culture. I understand the importance of critical thinking and know how hard you worked to instill that skill into us. I understand now how the ability to convey ones thoughts concisely (ok, that evidently did not stick), with clarity and genuine emotion are fundamental to ones ability to accomplish largely anything. You inspired and educated me and I truly hope that the butterflies you produce… even if they don’t emerge until long after graduation…. I genuinely hope that it is worth the hours you spend sacrificing over the cocoons. Your voice is getting through.
Mr. Stavar and Myself at the Academic Decathlon.  My Facial expression here is explained by the fact that I had just received coffee.  The coffee was only available outside of the area available to students and clearly understanding my addiction, Mr. Stavar purchased it and brought it to me.  Mr. Stavar's facial expression is explained by the fact that we were currently teasing him for developing a soul and liking his students.  
I did not take any English classes in college. For reasons I’ll never understand, I decided that if they weren’t necessary for my biology pre-med major, that they would simply weigh me down. Thanks to the superb teaching staff at my high school and AP classes, I was able to skip several requirements– among them: all English, Calculus 1 & 2, Chemistry 1, any Social Studies. I was able to keep my right brain somewhat stimulated with my classes in anthropology, philosophy, foreign language and colloquia courses that were discussion based. I continued to write papers as needed and read for fun (often as I walked to class, enlisting the help of a friend to link my arm through his and ensure I didn’t walk into anyone or oncoming traffic). Occasionally, I would blog, but this often fell by the wayside unless I had something to say.

It was hard to find time to read in medical school. That sentence could be filled by anything really: it was hard to find time to …. in medical school. Fill in the blank. Choose your own adventure – well, lack thereof. I missed having things outside of medical school to talk about. Even when we would gather on Friday or Saturday nights, the talk would often turn to a recent patient. A coming test. Some terrifying infection that could be lurking the food we were then consuming. We were a fun crowd. People that could discuss things beyond the ivory tower of our curriculum were refreshing. Whether it was sports, books, movies: it didn’t matter. But the people I connected with most… they were the ones discussing books. It’s a powerful link. It’s more worthwhile than what celebrity has recently fallen from grace, which of many bad options you’ll be voting for as president or (depressingly common) where the most recent act of terrorism was perpetrated. When you discuss what someone is reading, you are actually learning the recent shape of their internal monologue, which conflicts catch their mind or heart, where their mind goes when it wanders.

If you want to know someone, really know them, read their favorite book. It is fairly simple, step one: determine their favorite book. Step two: read said book. Read it well. Highlight, underline, dog ear. As much money as I spend on books, they are not works of art – they are a good pair of tennis shoes, meant to be worn in, broken, and filled with your memories. Step three: discuss. It is important that it be done in that order. Don’t discuss much in advance. Especially, don’t ask why it is their favorite book. Try to see it without that bias. See if it speaks to you in that way without prompting. Once you’ve finished and reached the depressing finality of a last page, or if you’re lucky an epilogue, or if you’re desperate, the last foot note, only then you ask. Ideally by then you have formed your own decision – you know if you love it or hate it. And you know why. Maybe you loved it for exactly the same reasons. Maybe you hated it for a completely different reason. Now you get to hear why they loved it. Listening as someone tells you why this story, of the millions of stories out there, why this one has attached itself to their heart in a unique way… it is the closest you will come to seeing right through them.

If you’re going to undertake this game, you should know in advance what your own favorite book is. It’s a little unfair to ask a question you can’t answer yourself. It’s a hard question – picking a favorite leaf on a fall day, so many different options that are worthwhile in their own ways.

A high school English teacher recently made me ask myself this question. He was never my high school English teacher. I’ve never taken a class of his at all, but apparently teachers never take a break, they are Will McAvoy – on an eternal mission to civilize. Mr. Earl is my best friend’s father. Along with the rest of her family, they have been ancillary supporters throughout my medical school career – sympathizing with the struggle and celebrating the triumphs of match and graduation. This particular bit of inspiration was from his facebook page. I’m quoting directly: “Teacher and author Donalyn Miller had us do a cool exercise at a session this weekend for the Michigan Reading Association. She had us create a reading autobiography by listing ten books that changed us in some way throughout the course of our lives... So I thought I'd bring it to my friends on Facebook. What ten books have changed you in some way? They don't need to be classics or fancy learnin' books... Any book will be fine as long as it changed you. Give me those lists! (If you can't think of ten, think of as many as you can.)”

At the time I read this, I was at work on a “mental break”. All three of my patients were breathing on room air and had not had any problems for several days. Our NICU was experiencing a rather annoying lull. I decided to devote some thought to this list. Selecting a top ten is much more reasonable than picking a single book out of the millions available and I appreciate the intriguing twist where the goal is to select books that not only appeal to you but shaped your life in some way. The following is my response to that prompt. I will try to share concisely why each book has earned its place among my top 10 but please note that these are not ranked, the order of the list is random. If you happen to be reading this, please share your list in the comments or as a message or however you see fit – I would love to hear them!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. In this book, set in the 1960’s, the Price family moves to the Congo carrying with them an evangelist message. Themes of colonialism and misguided imperialism are evident throughout the novel where their mission does not go as planned. They encounter many unanticipated obstacles and hardships and learn repeatedly that Africa is not simply a less-smart version of their hometown. I read this book in the summer before senior year of high school in preparation for AP English. It inspired a new destination on my bucket list and made me rethink my life plan of moving to an abandoned and desolate part of the third world and fixing it. It did not lessen my dream to relocate, but changed my thoughts on what making the world a better place would look like. For the first time, I was able to appreciate the rose-colored glasses of my own culture that filter how I interpret everything. In the interest of preserving your own experience, should you ever pick up this book, I won’t go into any more detail on plot or specifics on how it changed my views.
“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in a different place” – The Poisonwood Bible

The Holy Bible by… God. Discussion of how this particular volume has affected people has been ongoing for centuries. It can be heated or intellectual and deserves a far more lengthy discourse than it is going to get here. I grew up to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I know this is not a popular opinion, but regardless of your thoughts there, it has shaped my life in more ways than any other single writing. Religious affiliations aside, it is worth reading. Don’t join the shouting mobs until you know what you’re shouting about. That’s my small piece of advice. My favorite

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."  James 1:27, NIV

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure The World by Tracy Kidder. Kidder details the life work of Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician who is best known for his humanitarian work around the world. He has co-founded Partners In Health, a charity that works to bring medical care to underserved and resource-poor areas of the world. I happened to be reading this at the same time as I was traveling to the third world for the first time. In El Salvador, as a teenager, I encountered poverty on a different scale than I’d ever experienced previously: entire families in a single room home, a single broken pair of flip flops that could not be thrown out because the only other option was barefoot, and treatable infection that raged on simply because the medication was prohibitively priced. After growing up in a small, upper-middle class, ethnically homogenous neighborhood, it was the perfect one-two punch to my young self-centered mindset. Farmer, as written by Kidder, eloquently voiced the injustice I was observing first hand; he was also actively pursuing a solution. I knew by that point I wanted to be a doctor, but it was this book and the story of Paul Farmer that demonstrated the kind of doctor I wanted to be. More than that, now as my life is taking a new path, he still provides a role model of the kind of person I want to be. In fact, this book has helped me identify and connect with so many similarly minded people along the way – I’ve discussed it outside a movie theatre in El Salvador, sitting next to a man affectionately known as Oso (bear) who was working to get a Spanish translation of the book for a friend. It’s come up in college interviews, anthropology classes, and in the back of a Matatu in rural Uganda.
 “Patria Es Humanidad” – A sign in cuba, described in Mountains Beyond Mountains which translated means, the only nation is humanity.

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun by Peter Godwin. Godwin, a New York Times reporter with the unique experience of growing up in Zimbabwe (at the time Rhodesia) and experiencing firsthand the effect that President Mugabe has had on a once prosperous place. His parents still live in that country and he has returned several times as an adult to visit and report on the current state of affairs. He describes with chilling clarity the brutality of the current regime, the blunt and precise quashing of any opposition and the rampant greed and corruption that have ultimately led to the inflation of the Zimbabwean dollar such that citizens now use it to paper their walls. It is probably evident by this point in my list that social injustice, inequality and even simple poverty are causes that are close to my heart. This book struck so close to home because it was happening, even as I read the book. It continues to happen today. Based anecdotally on my conversations with other people, no one knows. No one cares. Sure, the world seems to be coming apart at the seams all around us, but that does not make any one life any less precious. It is difficult to care about all the people without falling to pieces every time you turn on the news. Still, it’s worth it. Step one is knowledge, then compassion, then maybe someday it won’t be such a rare occurrence that I meet someone who can point out Zimbabwe on a map. Someday.
 “In my part of Africa, death is never far away. With more Zimbabweans dying in their early thirties now, mortality has a seat at every table. The urgent, tugging winds themselves seem to whisper the message, memento mori, you too shall die. In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal.

Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That’s what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death.” - When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This is the first book of Atwood’s that I encountered – it was for my senior paper for AP English. I spent days on end pouring through the book, writing notes in the margins and composing my essay on whatever scraps of paper I happened to have on hand in the back of cross country buses, lying in bed or not paying attention in other classes. (I probably should not have procrastinated such a lengthy project, but I think the week of sleepless nights was good practice for college, medical school, residency and life in general.) It would be easy to hate this book, but it remains one of my favorites and Atwood one of my favorite authors. She invents alternate reality as easily as if she were actually experiencing it. Post apocalyptic and dystopian settings seem to be her forte. This book helped me realize, rather early in life the importance of being a feminist. Using reductio ad absurdum the story demonstrates the dangers of gender inequality. Where it could go. What could happen. If feminism isn’t your preferred hook, you can still draw inspiration from the ‘captor struggling with the purpose of life’ angle; how to survive in a world where your value is determined by someone else. How to thrive. 
"Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down." - A Handmaid's Tale

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This book follows the story of Tom Builder, set in the 12th century as he struggles to live out his dream to build a cathedral. The best word I can use to describe this book is going to be inaccurate. It is an Epic. (No, not in the traditional sense for any English teacher reading this… there is no Iambic Pentameter or invocation of the muses) Regardless, it feels Epic. It spans generations, it demonstrates sins of fathers revisited on children. Grudges flow through the story like poison causing consequence after consequence. The effects of small choices change lives even decades later: choosing life over love or love over life results in equally punishing results. I cannot imagine how to verbalize how this book has shaped my life except to say it is likely the single book I have read over a dozen times. I repeatedly circle back to it and it draws me in every time. Also, I have never looked at a cathedral the same way again. An inevitable side effect of the story of a builder is that one must discuss the art of building. Regardless of your religious affiliation, we can all agree that cathedrals are divine - too tall, too delicate, ornate and intricate. They only become more so after experiencing first hand the stakes involved in constructing them.
"He had been granted his life's wish-but conditionally.” - Pillars of the Earth
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. As with many books, the context in which I read this book is as important to its effect as the book itself. I was on a plane destined for Africa when I started. I was alone and knew very little of where I was going, apart from the lack of running water and rare electricity. I did not have an address, a grasp on the language or a single friend on the continent. I had plenty of reasons to be afraid but I wasn’t. Strayed details a similar experience on her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She sheds typical creature comforts for a more simple way of life for a few months. Like me, she did it entirely voluntarily. She was alone too. She grew and changed and learned what she was truly capable of. She faced predators and starvation and at one point hiked for several miles after losing her hiking boots. There is something freeing in living out of the bag on your back. When things don’t go your way, you make do. Sometimes she cried and it showed that it is okay to be scared or sad or angry even when you only have yourself to blame for it. She articulated all of her introspection and made it clear that an internal story is still one that is worth telling. Most importantly, she demonstrated that I am free to do whatever I want. Hiking alone as a female is atypical and she encountered a lot of questions, intimidations and critics along the way. Not only did this not deter her, it steeled her determination; what speaks to your soul does not have to make sense to anyone but you. Your calling is yours and yours alone. Only you determine whether to follow it or not.
"Fear, to a great extent is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked." – Wild
Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is A Better Way For Africa by Dambisa Moyo. Here we go, back to the Africa books… I know, but I promise this is different than those listed previously. Dr. Moyo, an Oxford and Harvard educated economist describes exactly how the current policy of aid to African nations has led to a downward spiral of greed and dependency. Charitably motivated endeavors often wreak havoc at the local level despite good intentions (for example, donations of mosquito nets for an entire village, while a brilliant idea on the surface, it results in putting the local proprietor who makes mosquito nets out of business… years later, when those nets have begun to fall apart or more are needed, the community has nowhere to turn except rely on another donation). Monetary donations are often given to corrupt and centrally located governments with no mechanism to stimulate economic growth. It contributed to the punch this book packed that I read it sitting on a cement floor by the light of a headlamp while occasionally picking bugs off of myself in what would be considered a relatively luxurious African home. I learned that despite any well-meaning attempts to help “those less fortunate”, I had been going about it all wrong. Thankfully, Moyo also presents solutions. Even if Africa is not a soft spot for you, as a tax-paying voting member of society, it is worth the education on what works and what doesn’t – maybe we can stop wasting money and use it to actually make a difference.
"In a perfect world, what poor countries at the lowest rungs of economic development need is not a multi-party democracy, but in fact a decisive benevolent dictator to push through the reforms required to get the economy moving (unfortunately, too often countries end up with more dictator and less benevolence).” - Dead Aid
Harry Potter (and all the things) by J.K. Rowling. Maybe this is a cop out, since it includes a subset of 7 books and extends my list to 16, but it would be impossible for me to select one of these books that affected me more than the others. My first encounter with Harry Potter was in fifth grade. We had a substitute teacher for several months who decided that good behavior from the class would be rewarded by her reading aloud to us from a book I had never heard of, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I quickly became caught up in the plot and determined to know what happened next. During free-reading time, I would select that book from the shelf and read ahead, growing more annoyed with the reading aloud as I grew further and further ahead. Of course, the next step was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I probably borrowed that one from the library, but at some point I began to purchase them. My brother and I enacted a deal where we would alternate purchasing each book (this was back when our allowances were limited and amazon didn’t exist) and whoever paid for the book would have the right to read it first. In general this worked well for us until one of the books (Jimmy and his crazy good memory could tell you which) did not come out until the night before a family vacation, by this time amazon existed and we had pre-ordered it. It arrived shortly after we embarked and spent the duration of our 25 hour round trip car ride sitting on the front porch, just waiting to be read. Like many in my generation (wow, that makes me sound old… so, that’s a thing I say now apparently) Harry was approximately my age. His internal dialogue, his struggles and insecurities were similar to my own. I mean, I didn’t have my parents murdered when I was a baby or an evil powerful wizard trying to kill me once a year or anything, but the more simple aspects of growing up: fighting with friends, learning that you are not the center of the universe, learning to control your own mind and emotions and learning right from wrong were things we grew through together. Harry learned that life isn’t fair, that wishes don’t often come true even when you can perform magic, that true friends will still be there even when they’re mad at you, that those we love who have died remain with us in a myriad of ways and he learned that doing the right thing is often much more difficult than we were led to believe as children. Rowling drew us all in with her magic and united us all behind Harry in his role as a small player in the universal fight between good and evil. These books are easily the most memorable of my formative years, and despite being written as children’s books, I can still easily get lost in them today.
"And now, Harry let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure." - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Dr. Richard E Cytowic. I read this book as a senior in high school. I was in the process of deciding what I wanted to do with my life. This book details Cytowick’s exploration of the disease synesthesia – in which sensory stimuli are interpreted by the brain as stimulating a different sense. For example, when listening to music, one afflicted with this condition might see colors across their field of vision rather than the typical sensation of hearing a sound. Or, as in the man described in the title, instead of tasting food as most of us do with a sensation in his mouth, he would instead have tactile sensations in his fingertips. What you or I might taste as vanilla ice cream, he would taste as round and wavy. It is a complicated and fascinating pathology and as an eighteen year old I was blown away by the mystery of the human mind. This book encouraged my path towards medical school and at the time I hoped to one day become a neurologist and discover the great secrets of the brain. (Unfortunately, come third year of medical school, I discovered that neurology is more often migraines and strokes than synesthesia and great mysteries. Alas, this book was still crucial in shaping the path my life would take).



Perhaps the most important thing about the books on my list and the dozens that wound up at the number eleven spot is how they facilitate interactions with other people and a more clear understanding of how I frame interactions in my mind. In a world where twitter limits you to 140 characters and Facebook statuses are likely to be overlooked if they extend far beyond three sentences, it is crucial to remember that the whole of our experience cannot fit within those parameters. It is a pretty common rant these days, “although we are more connected than ever, we are also more alone”. It’s common because it is true. Actual conversations have fallen by the wayside, replaced instead by texts and tweets and posts and likes. We filter our pictures and our experiences to present a two-dimensional snapshot of life. We discuss the news, our food, our day, the commute… Sure, it is nice to have the camaraderie, but it takes much more to crack through the bullet-proof exoskeleton that is ‘alone’. We shy away from politics, religion and race – it is a condemning blow to a friendship to disagree or offend.

I am told I cannot have opinions about racism in America, policy in Africa or refugees in Syria. I cannot truly understand without a different skin tone, different geography or different religion. Some of these I cannot change and never will but my opinion is valid because of the experience books allow me to have. I may not understand fully, but it is a building block. I have the foundation I need to incorporate the stories of those around me. I will never understand, but neither will you. We are all fighting our own battles and living our own stories. The dragons I have to slay may be different than yours or they may be more similar than we realize. Each story, each page, each word brings humanity closer together. Books are long, complex, sometimes hard to get through and at others you don’t want them to end. They are absolutely and completely vital to our society.


I can’t end this post without saying thank you to all of the people who influenced this post in some way or another.

A break from touristy things on family vacation to sit and read.  NYC, circa 2006, photo credit: Maryanne Sawczuk
 Mom and Dad, for teaching me to read and teaching me to love it. Ciocia, for buying me endless amounts of books as a child.


Ciocia receiving a Teacher of the Year Award.  I am certain it was not for her education of me personally, but she manages to dodge a lot of photo-ops by being the one behind the camera, so here it is. 

Jimmy, for forgiving me for the books of yours I destroyed by carrying them everywhere and continuing to loan them to me regardless, and for keeping the bar set high.  
My brother (and the cat that Mom would like us to think of as our sister) reading.


Uncle Jim, for mailing me your own copy of every book you found interesting and asking my opinions of it after. 
The "card" enclosed with The Best American Essays of 2014. The book arrived, wrapped in newspaper that was covered in illustrations and addressed to: Katie Sawczuk, Essay Princess.


Mr. Stavar, for teaching me to read critically. Mrs. Stavar for teaching me to write well and encouraging me to continue it. 
A card that Mrs. Stavar presented to me at the end of eighth grade.  I will keep it forever, thank you for believing in me.


Mr. Earl for inspiring this list. Aloiya for always encouraging me to write, keep writing and then to write some more. 
Inscription in the journal that Aloiya gave me to commemorate graduation from medical school. It currently resides on my bedside table for a place to quickly write down thoughts before they escape and a source of reassurance when I need it. 
 

 It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets