After I finished the "10 books that have influenced my life" challenge last week, a friend commented he was thinking of starting a "10 books I pretend to have read" meme.

Since I know he's a busy guy, I thought I'd better help him out.

In that spirit, here's the list of books it seems like everyone else read in high school or college, but which I was never required to read and never got around to reading on my own.

I'll share my hunch of what the books are about, then I'll include the Wikipedia synopsis of the book after I've Googled it.

I invite you, readers, to tell me which ones on this list I really ought to read.

1. Fahrenheit 451

Hunch: Based solely on the cover design, since I know literally nothing else about it, I'd say this book has something to do with censorship.
Wikipedia result: "The novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and 'firemen' burn any that are found. The title refers to the temperature that Bradbury understood to be the autoignition point of paper."

2. Animal Farm

Hunch: I think this book is an allegory about the chaos of political ideologies.
Wikipedia result: "Animal Farm is an allegorical and dystopian novel by George Orwell, published in England on August 17, 1945. According to Orwell, the book reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. Orwell, a democratic socialist, was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism, an attitude that was critically shaped by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet Union, he believed, had become a brutal dictatorship, built upon a cult of personality and enforced by a reign of terror. In a letter to Yvonne Davet, Orwell described Animal Farm as a satirical tale against Stalin ('un conte satirique contre Staline'), and in his essay 'Why I Write' (1946), he wrote that Animal Farm was the first book in which he had tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, 'to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.' "

3. 1984

Hunch: It's perhaps a bit unfair to pick this one, because the concept is so culturally pervasive. That said, my hunch is this also is a dystopian novel, and it's about Big Brother taking over all aspects of Western life.
Wikipedia result: "Nineteen Eighty-Four, sometimes published as 1984, is a dystopian novel by George Orwell published in 1949. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation, dictated by a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (or Ingsoc in the government's invented language, Newspeak) under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as 'thoughtcrimes.' The tyranny is epitomized by Big Brother, the quasi-divine party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality, but who may not even exist."

4. The Jungle

Hunch: I do know a little, tiny bit about this book because of a research paper I did on "yellow journalism" during college, but it's really fuzzy in my memory. I am pretty sure it's an expose on the meatpacking industry. 
Wikipedia result: "The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Sinclair wrote the novel to portray the lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. Many readers were most concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, based on an investigation he did for a socialist newspaper."

5. Catch-22

Hunch: Because I know this title is where the saying "catch-22" comes from, I think the book has something to do with an impossible choice. Other than that, I'm clueless.
Wikipedia result: "The novel follows Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea, west of Italy. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp. It focuses on their attempts to keep their sanity in order to fulfill their service requirements so that they may return home. The phrase 'Catch-22' has entered the English language, referring to a type of unsolvable logic puzzle."

6. War and Peace

Hunch: I think this one might be set during the Crimean War and follow the lives of soldiers and their romantic partners.
Wikipedia result: "War and Peace is a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1869. The work is epic in scale and is regarded as one of the most important works of world literature. It is considered as Tolstoy's finest literary achievement, along with his other major prose work, Anna Karenina (1873–1877). War and Peace delineates in graphic detail events surrounding the French invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families."

7. Crime and Punishment

Hunch: I think this one is about a couple of criminals who did something very minor but were given harsh sentences over it and then subsequently sought revenge. (I have absolutely no idea.)
Wikipedia result: "Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless vermin. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose."

8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Hunch: I'm pretty sure this is a memoir by Maya Angelou. I don't know any details about it, though.
Wikipedia result: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the 1969 autobiography about the early years of African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou. The first in a seven-volume series, it is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The book begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother and ends when Maya becomes a mother at the age of 16. In the course of Caged Bird, Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice."

9. Lord of the Flies

Hunch: I'm pretty sure this is about what happens after an airplane full of young boys crashes on a deserted island and leaves behind a bunch of survivors. A social hierarchy develops, and I think there might be some murder or cannibalism involved.
Wikipedia result: "Lord of the Flies is a 1954 dystopian novel by Nobel Prize-winning English author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. ... The book indicates that it takes place in the midst of an unspecified nuclear war. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. Most (with the exception of the choirboys) appear never to have encountered one another before. The book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves in a paradisaical country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state."

10. Slaughterhouse-Five

Hunch: I know this is a work by Kurt Vonnegut. I believe it has something to do with humor and death. It could be anything! 
Wikipedia result: "Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. Vonnegut's use of the firebombing of Dresden as a central event makes the novel semi-autobiographical, as he was present during the bombing."

School me

Based on what you know of my personality, or what I've written in past blog entries, which of the above books do you think I'd actually like to read? Or, if you don't like that question, which one(s) do you consider essential reading material for a well-rounded person? Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook page, Rachel E. Watson.
"List 10 books that have influenced your life."

I usually ignore list meme challenges on Facebook, but I couldn't resist jumping in on this one today. 

I like that it wasn't phrased, "List your favorite 10 books," because that would be an impossible task. I'm always discovering new books, and I don't really want to be held to a list of all-time favorites.

Without further ado, here's what I wrote -- and an extra step that I didn't add on Facebook: What I learned from each book.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, the quiet but outspoken fighter against injustice in all its forms, has been my hero since I read this book at a (probably too) tender age. His example instilled in me that the pursuit of justice is worth the personal sacrifice it often entails.

2. The Sea Wolf, by Jack London. I'm not sure I've met anyone as sadistic or amoral as this novel's titular antagonist, Captain Wolf Larsen. But he seems as real as any villain I've encountered. London's mesmerizing story follows literary critic Humphrey van Weyden as he is shipwrecked, then "rescued" by Larsen, a hedonistic, materialistic seal hunter-philosopher-captain, who brutalizes young "Hump" while also drawing him into nightly discussions of ideology and morality. Hands down one of the best books I've read exploring the capacity of humanity to exercise great evil while also showing great kindness. I learned from this book that ideology drives behavior.

3. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. This classic illustrates perfectly via the relationship of two very different sisters the tension between feeling and principle. Do I act with my heart, or should I follow my head? Austen's gift to readers is that we are left to conclude which sister ultimately gets it right.

4. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I owe the shape of my writing life to protagonist Jo March -- the playwright, novelist, bookworm, fiery sister and fiercely loyal friend. She showed me how to love what is good, pursue what enriches and value what lasts. (Also: Thank you, Winona Ryder, for portraying Jo so faithfully and giving me such a good visual picture of what she should look like.)

5. The eight-novel Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. I can't narrow it down to just the first book because the series is basically one long book, and I love it all. Anne Shirley inspires me for many of the same reasons Jo March does. She's independent, creative and charts her own path in life. But she stays moored in herself and her roots. (The image below is actually the same set I own.)

6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. This complex, 928-page tome was Dickens' last finished novel, and in my opinion, is his masterpiece. It weaves together the stories of about 20 major and dozens more minor characters as it explores the deceptiveness of wealth and the spectrum of human values and motives. The lead protagonists, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, embody one of the most difficult and rewarding romances I've read in literature.

7. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. This book was my introduction to Bryson, a travel writer, language scholar and humorist who combines all three areas of expertise in all of his works I've read so far. This book explores the history of the English language, with all its influences, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. This book taught me that scholarly work can be fun as well as educational.

8. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This 19th-century novel is about an orphaned waif who grows into womanhood as a governess while falling in love with her employer. Whatever your feelings about Rochester, I love that he loves plain Jane because of her mind, her intellect, her solid character. Jane Eyre challenges me to develop those traits instead of focusing on physical beauty.

9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy + prequel + appendixes, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This one doesn't really need much of an explanation. It's the ultimate adventure/fantasy trilogy, by the master himself. I love being pulled into his world-building. Tolkien inspires me to use writing to create places people want to visit.

10. Americanah, by a new favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since I don't at this point have the means to travel much, I like to hear of the world through the eyes of authors who come from other places. I heard Adichie, a Nigerian, speak a handful of years ago at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, and was blown away by her eloquence and power. I immediately bought three of her novels. I've been keeping up with everything she's written since, and I think this one is her best so far. She tells a tale of a young woman who, much like herself, has a stake in three very different worlds: Black Nigeria, Black America and White America. Places that don't understand each other. Places that need to try.

Share your list 

What 10 books have influenced you? Feel free to share here in the comments or over at my Facebook page, Rachel E. Watson.

Up next

I'm planning to steal Kevin Buist's idea and write about the Ten Books I Pretend To Have Read.
Craft beer and quality songs go together like the yin and the yang.

Brandi Carlile is shown flanked by her friends and bandmates,
Tim and Phil Hanseroth (R-L). (Photo: Meredith Aleccia)
That's part of why I was so thrilled when those two things on my list of "top favorites ever" were paired so perfectly at the Microbrew & Music Festival in Traverse City over the weekend.

On the lush green campus of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, surrounded by food trucks and beer tents, Brandi Carlile and her close-knit, talented band pulled friendly, tipsy fans into a night of joy-filled singalongs.

Her music has inspired me and guided me out of the mud of life on occasions too numerous to count, and the show on Friday -- my fourth time seeing her perform -- was just another example that she's got a song for every emotion I feel.

In that spirit, tonight I want to share a song-and-drink pairing list Brandi's music and the festival setting inspired me to "craft." It combines beer or cider served at the tents with songs played during the concert. I picked the pairings based on how the quality of the songs matches up with the flavor or description of the drinks.

1. "Keep Your Heart Young" + the Sun Cup Lemon Wheat beer from Brewery Terra Firma. I picked this beer to go with this song because they are both light-hearted and whimsical.

2. "Have You Ever" + the 45th Parallale from Brewery Ferment. Brandi opened the concert with this song, and it immediately struck me how apropos to Northern Michigan it was. Woods, starry skies and snow to boot. A day in the 45th Parallel sticks with you.

3. "Pride and Joy" + Cranberry Ginger Cider from Northern Natural Cider House. The baseline of this song is regret, but just like the flavor of a cranberry, it leaves the mind, body and heart feeling cathartically healed.


4. "Dreams" + Screamin' Pumpkin Ale from Griffin Claw Brewing Co. This song is a guilty pleasure. The beer is basically dessert. What more do I need to say?

5. "The Story" + Little Honey Ale from Brewery Terra Firma. This beer "tells you the story" of what I like in a brew. Heavy on the honey and coriander, light on the hops, bright and clean.

Got a pairing suggestion?

If you're a Brandi Carlile fan and a beer fan and you want to give it a shot, I'd love to hear your pairing suggestions. Leave me a comment below or share it on my Facebook Community page.
I began my 32nd journal the other day. Every time I finish one and begin another, it prompts reflection over what I learned in the past year or so of writing. I've never arrived at the end of a journal and concluded, "I learned nothing this year."

This is Journal No. 32, courtesy of Ultimate Gifter
Nancy Forrest. Love the dog sweaters.
(Photo: Rachel E. Watson)
I don't believe it's possible, when a writer writes regularly, to walk away without learning something.

Here's an excerpt from a paper by Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Southern California. I think it contains nuggets of very-true truth:
We write for at least two reasons. First, and most obvious, we write to communicate with others. But perhaps more important, we write for ourselves, to clarify and stimulate our thinking. Most of our writing, even if we are published authors, is for ourselves. ... When we write our ideas down, the vague and abstract becomes clear and concrete. When thoughts are on paper, we see the relationships between them, and come up with better thoughts. Writing, in other words, can make us smarter. Readers who keep a diary or journal know all about this — you have a problem, you write it down, and at least 10% of the problem disappears. Sometimes, the entire problem goes away. 
This has been so true for me in my years of journal-keeping.

What I've learned

I'd like to share a brief list of the things I've learned via writing at various points in my life. Also, I should note: I am so grateful for all the people who have helped me discover these things. You know who you are.

  1. I remember what first inspired me to start keeping a journal to record my thoughts. I was 12 years old, and I saw Lake Michigan for the first time that I can clearly remember. I remember feeling at one with myself on that beach. I did not possess the eloquence of an adult to express it in writing, but I wanted to try. I'd been given the gift of a journal with a lock and key, and it was something that was truly mine. It enabled me to begin those first few halting, awkward entries with a sense of safety and privacy. It was a place to explore what I could say without having to share it yet.
  2. I've gained so much more confidence over the years. I was greatly helped when my mom enrolled me and my siblings in a curriculum experiment comprised mostly of reading and writing. My imagination gained traction, and my creativity took root.
  3. My friends and family began to respond well to my "story club" concoctions and adventure tales of "CCW and friends" (a series of short stories I wrote based on the lives of my little brother and his kid pals). I began to realize I could entertain people and make them laugh or cry.
  4. I high school, I used my writing to cope with growing pains.
  5. In community college, I began to see that what I can do comes somewhat naturally. I soaked up each new structure, editing and formatting tip from professors, and I began to learn from them the art of critical thinking, discussion and persuasion via the written word.
  6. In university, I studied journalism, harnessing my curiosity to find out "the hook" and to get the real story out of each assignment. It was an overwhelming challenge at times, and one I often overthought. In reflecting now, I realize the lessons drilled into me by a perfectionistic college newspaper adviser and department head have stuck with me.
  7. As I've built my professional life, the pendulum has swung toward editing. But even that has only served to sharpen my sense of what is important in each story and what truly matters to me: the written word.
  8. Now that I am solidly post-undergrad and starting to form deep roots in my work life, I am building this new home-life habit: blogging several times a week. I've decided my writing can't stay "under a bushel," as the children's song goes. I must find what I can say that will resonate with readers and connect people, and I must do it honestly. 

Share your own insights

What about you? If you're a writer or creative type of any kind, I'd love to hear some of the lessons you've learned from the pursuit of your craft. Leave me a comment here or navigate over to my Facebook Community page. Let's share our insights and boost our collective wisdom.
Ten days ago, while I was driving to yoga class before work, I was pulled over by a city cop in a construction zone. This is the story about that incident and what I observed/learned afterward while takin' care of business.

It was 6 a.m. There was no traffic besides me and the cop. I knew I hadn't been speeding. I couldn't figure out why I was being stopped. I started to get scared about what could be happening; I began shaking, then crying.

Thankfully, the police officer stopped me for a valid reason. I had failed to see a temporary no-turn-left sign that directed drivers in that lane at Michigan and Monroe to keep going straight or take a sharp right.

Image credit:
Unfortunately, when the officer asked the usual question, "May I see your license and registration," I realized that I had failed to renew my vehicle registration back in June on my birthday. I'm guessing it came in the same mailing as the notice that this was the year to renew my driver's license. But I somehow missed the registration renewal slip while congratulating myself on renewing my driver's license way early.

The officer definitely noticed I was shaking, crying, then staring at the expiration date for a solid minute before handing the papers over to him.

Thankfully, he believed my story -- that I was unaware of both violations -- and he waived the fines and gave me a citation to appear at the courthouse to get everything cleared. I do not take this for granted. As I said, I was in a construction zone, which means the fees would have been doubled if he hadn't been lenient.

Visiting the courthouse

Kent County's 61st District Courthouse in downtown Grand Rapids,
Michigan. (See it on Google Street View)
The week following the incident was a busy one, as usual. On Friday, the last day possible to get the ticket cleared, I shortened my morning workout and headed to the courthouse as soon as it opened at 8:30 so I could get in and out before work.

After going through the security checkpoint and through the foyer to the right in the Court Payments Suite, I discovered from a clerk that, before I could get the citation cleared, I would need to go get my new registration from the Secretary of State's office. I suspected that might be the case, and she confirmed.

Visiting the Secretary of State

It was a beautiful morning, with dappled sunshine and a cool, gentle breeze. I walked down Ottawa, across Pearl and south on Division to the downtown Secretary of State branch. It's in the exact center of Grand Rapids, where Fulton and Division meet -- a long, sand-colored concrete building attached to the Police Department and nestled lovingly among beds of ... more concrete.

The downtown Grand Rapids Secretary of State.
(See it on Google Street View)
I met an Asian-American man in his late 20s or early 30s at the door, which he held open for me. We discovered a line of at least seven people already waiting in the lobby for the SOS branch to open at 9. It was 8:50.

I emailed my husband, wrote some notes in my phone, then began chatting with the security guard.

"So, you see this every day, right? The line?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"What's the situation? Is there a bit of a mad rush toward the door when you open it? How do you know who gets to go in first?" I asked.
"I tell people to line up in the order they arrived. It's usually a very organized process," he said.
"How do people know what order they arrived in if there were several people there when they walked in?" I asked.
"Just pay attention to who came after you and stand in front of them," he said.

Cool, I can do that, I thought. So I started looking around at my fellow line-waiters.

People-watching while in line

I like lines because they reveal more than you'd think about the people who are waiting.

One woman who came in after me, when she saw there was a line, humphed, put her hands on her hips, exclaimed in annoyance and stormed back outside.

A woman sitting on the floor by the door seemed determined to be as close to the SOS entryway as she could so that she'd be sure to get in there first when the clock struck 9 a.m.

A man in the back corner was quietly reading a newspaper while sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Several men were leaning with their backs against the windows that face Fulton Street. They stared at the floor, up at the ceiling, or occasionally checked their watches or phones for the time.

Some people kept shifting from one foot to the other and sighing. Some stood still, lost in thought. Others, like me, were checking out the folks in line and trying to figure them out.

I noticed that everyone, no matter their line-waiting behavior, jumped to alert mode whenever the security guard walked over to the SOS doors to let another employee in.

"About three more minutes," he'd say, noticing everyone's expectant gazes.

Making a new friend at the SOS

Finally, the guard let us in. The Asian-American guy insisted I go in first, even though he had arrived at the same time I did and would have gotten inside first if he hadn't held the door for me.

"What are you here for?" he asked.
"Getting my vehicle registration renewed," I said, "What about you?"
"I just moved to Michigan from Oregon, and I have to get a new driver's license," he said.

We chatted for several more minutes before our numbers were called. Turns out, he lived in Portland, where my sister- and brother-in-law now live. I couldn't fathom his answer when I asked why he moved to Michigan. He said he and his wife have family in New Mexico, Oregon and Arizona, but they didn't want to live in any of those places, so they picked Michigan because it would be "still fairly close" to family in Arizona.

It's all in your perspective, I guess. I would never have thought to describe the Southwest and the Northern Midwest regions as being "fairly close" together. But I hope he likes Grand Rapids.

Besides having family in Oregon, we had other similarities. He and his wife met five years ago on an app called Message in a Bottle. My husband and I met five years ago online because I'm a blogger/blog reader, and he's a blog commenter and also a writer.

My new friend and I compared notes about being of the millennial generation and having these situations where you can form relationships with people in ways you never would have been able to in the past. It calls for a lot of discretion/wisdom, and a lot of tolerance from loved ones who don't feel comfortable with the idea. It's a weird world we live in.

A sobering moment back at the courthouse

After my business was concluded at the Secretary of State, I walked back to the courthouse and cleared my ticket, this time with no hitch.

I found myself marveling at the efficiency with which things happened for me once I knew what to do.

On my way out of the courthouse, though, I overheard an exchange that gave me pause.

"It's just not fair. It's not right," a young man said to his friend as they walked out of the courtroom in street clothes.
"I know man, but he'll get his. He'll get what he deserves in the end."

I've been thinking about that exchange ever since. I think a lot about how survival can be so relatively easy for some people and so difficult for others.

'Be kind'

It reminds me of a quote I heard recently that was attributed to Plato, but which scholars say was written by Scottish author and theologian Ian Maclaren: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

If I learned anything from my traffic violation and subsequent courthouse and Secretary of State visits, it's the truth of that quotation.

I don't really know anything about the police officer, clerk, security guard, Asian-American man or two friends outside the courtroom. But I don't need to know anything about them in order to be kind. I don't ever want to lose sight of that.

Share your story

Have you ever had a crazy, fun, odd or infuriating experience while visiting a government office? I'd love to hear about it. You may leave a comment below or share it at my Facebook Community page
Do you ever end a conversation feeling confused and misunderstood?

The other day, I expressed an opposing viewpoint to challenge someone's assumption. When it was clear further discussion wouldn't bring about understanding, I exited the conversation, first taking a moment to validate the other person's strong feelings.

Imagine my surprise when the person in question said I was being "politically correct" by validating their feelings.

For days, I've been trying to figure out a) Why they would say that, and b) Why it bothered me.

The StrengthsFinder

I don't yet know the answer to the first question. But then, I remembered taking the StrengthsFinder talent assessment during undergrad, and now the second makes total sense. I was bothered because the friend's comment was just flat-out wrong. I wasn't being PC; I was being me.

Below are my top five strengths. I also like to think of them as values. I might not necessarily be on my A-game in every one of the categories, but they are words that describe my underpinnings.

These are quoted directly from the quiz summary page that I got when I took the quiz that came with the book. The words are not ranked in any particular order.
Harmony: People especially talented in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don't enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement.
Empathy: People especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others' lives or others' situations.
Adaptability: People especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to "go with the flow." They tend to be "now" people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.
Input: People especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often, they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.
Intellection: People especially talented in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions. 
What I love about StrengthsQuest is that it's a curriculum that urges students to target their strengths and develop them, rather than constantly trying to compensate for areas of weakness.

For some things in life -- exercise, for one -- focusing exclusively on your areas of strength probably is not a good idea. Weak muscles need training.

But for the brain and the personality, it makes sense to develop areas of natural giftedness and to work in professional settings that allow you to use your talents, rather than those that constantly require you to do things you're not good at.

When it comes to interpersonal relationships such as the one mentioned above, knowing who you are is invaluable. You can't change someone else, but you can know yourself.

Do you want to know more?

If you'd like to take the quiz, you can either buy the book that comes with the quiz on a CD, or you can take a less comprehensive free version of the quiz.

Share your story

If you've ever had that "aha" moment when an interpersonal interaction or further education helps you better understand yourself, I'd love to hear about it. You can leave a comment below, or send me a private message at my Facebook Community page. I won't share your story unless you want me to.
Me last weekend, sporting a topknot.
(Photo: Beth Watson)
Few things can make a girl feel more confident than a high, sleek, sassy topknot. It pairs well with just about everything wardrobe-wise – work clothes, heels, flats, jeans, shorts, sportswear and swimwear – and is professional at the office, practical at the beach.

I've been choosing the topknot a lot this summer, looking for ways on Pinterest and Google images to add more pizzazz as needed.

Over the weekend, I started to wonder where the idea came from to wear topknots. My hunch was somewhere in Asia because of the way it's depicted in art and pop culture. I haven't seen that many mentions of it in Western pop culture.

This morning, I woke up with "I'll Make a Man Out of You," stuck in my head from the Disney movie "Mulan." OK, I thought, time to find out what's what with the topknot so I can get that song out of my head.

From what I saw online, the topknot is of Japanese origin. It's called a chonmage, and the style was designed to help warriors keep their samurai helmets securely on their heads during battle. It eventually morphed into a status symbol for both sexes.

Image from: Hiragana Mama
Just for fun, here's a weird video of some Japanese guys pronouncing the word "chonmage" over and over again. I have no idea why they were doing it, or why the camera is pointing at someone's shirt rather than face, but it's funny.

Back on topic: I wonder how the topknot spread to Western culture in its various current (and past) iterations? At what point did people decide long hair was cool, but not if you wore it hanging loose?

Like, for instance ... this, a kind of extremely messy topknot:

Image of Gibson Girl hairstyle from:
I've always been puzzled by the Gibson Girl hair trend that was in vogue for about 20 years before and after the turn of the 20th century. I get that it was popularized by a male illustrator, and it had something to do with ideals of feminine beauty, but I don't get why it caught on.

To me, it's pretty aesthetically overwhelming.

In 20 years from now, will people be saying that about the hairstyle I'm wearing in the photo above?

Is it possible to achieve a timeless look?

These questions are part of why fashion can tire me out. Things change so quickly, and trends are so culture-dependent and can be restrictive, if you let them.

I can't keep up. So I do my own thing, and I'm learning to be OK with that.

Question for you readers: If you could resurrect any hairstyle from the past and bring it back to trendiness now, what hairstyle would you pick? Feel free to be as silly or as serious as you want, and you can select a style from any culture.
I have struggled to articulate clearly why I decided not to change my last name when my dear husband and I wed. I will redress that in this post.

Adam and I wed on 12-8-12.
(Photo: The Dewdrop Co.)
Questions and comments I received on the name-change topic during our engagement and after our wedding ranged from, “That’s interesting. Why?” to “I believe that is unbiblical,” to a simple, “Oh,” to an unreadable stare with no reply. Some folks were genuinely curious and open, simply wanting to know my reasons. Others kindly shared examples of friends they knew who made the same choice.

I usually stammered and struggled to explain myself, or I made attempts to graciously deflect. On my wedding day, I told my new grandparents-in-law, “I’ll be a Forrest in spirit.” Though it was the best I could offer on the spot, it sort of left me feeling like a jerk who’s trying to change the subject. I'm not a jerk (at least not on my good days), and I don't like to leave dear people hanging.

What follows is the crux of my decision, now that I have had 20 months of marriage to collect my thoughts. I ask that you read with care, “letting go of any judgment or competition,” as my yoga instructors like to say. :)

The facts

I didn’t want to surrender my heritage marker as a prerequisite for becoming one with my husband. I am a Watson. I know, deeply and fully in my brain, that the solemn vows of marriage call for unity. Yet I feel, deeply in my bones and passionately in my heart, that I am an equal to my love as well as called to be one with him. My heritage matters profoundly to me – despite the coincidence that my husband and I are both of (mostly) Anglo-Scottish descent. (Funny cosmic joke, right?)

I yearn for our marriage to be a powerful example of an equal partnership. We are trying forge this partnership daily. We are learning to approach decision-making as a team, with the help of our example, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

Now that I am an adult, I find more value in the Christian egalitarian perspective than in the Christian complementarian perspective I was surrounded by in childhood. I feel strongly that keeping my last name is a good way to claim this perspective and remind me to practice it.

Guiding principles

It is no coincidence that we chose the Bible chapter Philippians 2 to be read during our wedding ceremony by a dear, egalitarian friend. We look to Jesus, who we believe is the Son of God, as our model for this partnership of marriage. In that passage, the Apostle Paul says Jesus “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God”; instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant and sacrificing his life for others. 

Philippians 2:1-8. (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)
The world might never have known what it missed had Jesus decided otherwise. But, in my understanding of Scripture, it became a place with the possibility of redemption once he chose humility and sacrifice. 

I hope and pray that I am reading that passage in the spirit in which it was written. The inspiration I draw from it drives me to set these guiding principles: 

It is not my right to determine financial goals, take expensive trips, buy expensive clothes, set my own schedule or pursue my own dreams, without first turning to my partner to include him, to ask his advice, to humbly hear his desires and to move forward with his support and blessing. 

It also is not his right to do any of those things without including me, asking my advice, hearing my desires and moving forward with my support and blessing. 

I pray that we will grow into that mindset more graciously each day.

The noise I face

I face pesky thoughts daily as we pursue this equal partnership called marriage. 

I notice that the heritage I claim through my last name came to me only through the male line, so I'm claiming a moniker that only reflects half of my genetic influences. This annoys me. The Fausetts, Moreys, Dukes and Wings on my mom's side are or were all strong, intelligent people, and so were the Nafzigers on my dad's side. But I only can have one last name. 

More inner irritation I face: I know I often expect Adam to function in traditionally male ways, taking on traditionally gender-specific tasks that I never learned to do. He's good at lots of things. But I find my sometimes unexplored expectations for him to be inconsistent with my current ideals, and that frustrates me.

Splitting up duties based on ability

Some of the traditionally male-specific tasks I alluded to above -- let’s say mowing the lawn, for instance -- I hope to learn how to perform well someday. 

(Photo: Stock art used at Quicken Loans)
Other tasks -- fixing a car -- I hope to never have to learn, and I don’t expect Adam to know, either.

But we started out our marriage crafting a balanced separation of household duties. This meant splitting tasks along ability- and preference-based lines, rather than gender-based lines. 

For example, at this point, I am not good at, nor do I enjoy, grocery shopping. So Adam, who views it as a quest, an adventure, nearly a campaign, does our grocery shopping. 

I, on the other hand, enjoy and am fairly adept at cooking. I harness my improvisation, curiosity and Googling skills in the kitchen to save time and to make the healthiest foods possible with what we have. So I do most of our cooking. 

More and more, though, Adam steps in on days when I work overtime, or on nights when a food plan pops into his head, and he wants to experiment on a recipe. (Keith Richards' recipe for bangers and mash, for instance.)

Here’s a newer discovery: I enjoy sorting laundry, but do not very much enjoy folding it. So I do the sorting, we jointly carry the baskets to our car and drive to the laundromat, where we read, write and people-watch while the washer and dryer do the work. Then, we fold our own items.

Looking ahead

Many situations as we age and move through life stages together will create the need for this kind of task-splitting. I want to approach it with common sense and an egalitarian mindset.

Our wedding rings are shown. Adam's band, a Celtic knot design
 on the exterior, is engraved on the interior with the words
"My grace is sufficient for you," from 2 Corinthians 12:9.
(Photo: The Dewdrop Co.
Adam will tell you much the same thing (although for the record, he says he is not comfortable calling himself an egalitarian or a complementarian. He sees some useful points in both perspectives.)

I am so thankful we have been given this chance to work out our vows side by side. I have great hopes for our future and much joy in our present.

Thank you for taking time to read and understand.

Note 1: This post was written with Adam's insights, blessing and understanding.

Note 2: Your comments and feedback are welcome, but please keep them kind and constructive.
I am an introvert; I am not shy.

These are two factual assertions some people I have met find contradictory. This post is for everyone, because even if you are not personally an introvert, you definitely know someone who is. It pays to understand the people in your life. It pays to understand yourself.

Susan Cain notes in her widely acclaimed 2012 book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," that cultural assumptions fuel a misunderstanding about the difference between shyness and reserve.

The latter -- which I would refer to as a personality-based tendency to "reserve" our limited social energy for our most fulfilling friendships -- is a quality introverts (hello, fellow writers) often possess in abundance.

The former is an anxiety-based social behavior with many possible causes. On, for instance, the clinical description of shyness shares space on a page with a link to the clinical descriptions of several anxiety disorders. It seems to me that shyness is not about personality so much as it is about anxiety, fear and, unfortunately, sometimes misplaced shame.

Full disclosure: So far, I have not read Cain's book. I have read pieces of Cain's PDF for those who want to teach "Quiet" concepts. I also enjoyed listening to an interview with the author on NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2012.

What 'introvert' means to me

Like Cain says she is, I have always been a person who prefers to invest in a few rich, deep, lasting friendships, rather than amassing many friends.

For me, this is not about exclusivity or hauteur. It has to do with a key point mentioned earlier: limited social energy.

What this means is that I restore my soul when I replenish my inner reserves. From what I can tell, an extrovert restores his or her soul when in the company of people, whether old friends, new friends, acquaintances, strangers -- or a mix of all those groups.

Here's the beautiful thing: Extroverts are wonderful. They are fascinating people to watch in motion. I see many a co-worker laughing, exuding joy, learning new co-workers' names, inquiring of their hobbies and getting their numbers for texting/hanging-out purposes after hours. I find these things to be so genuine and special -- for them.

It would be a step outside the norm for me to routinely make new friends so quickly.

On making new friends

Here's an example from Wednesday. After three years of membership at my local YMCA, I finally made a gym-only friend -- actually, two in the same day. It's not that I had tried and failed. It simply wasn't something I wanted to try until last week.

I recently began exercising more frequently, and I switched to morning exercise.

In the process of building this habit, I have overheard several scintillating women's locker room conversations. They were about ordinary life happenings, but told with gusto, flair and wit.

At first, I began to amass notes on my iPhone to use as quote fodder in social media posts, or to save and use for creative writing inspiration someday. Then, I began to feel a bit guilty.

I didn't feel the guilt because I thought what I was doing is unethical -- I'm well aware people-watching is a great source of inspiration for creators -- but rather because it felt like I was looking at these women's conversations as curiosities rather than getting to know the pretty interesting talkers.

So, last Wednesday, when I was feeling very energetic, I finally verbally acknowledged the presence of one of the two women mentioned.

She is about 50, and she has a daughter named Kelsey getting married in October. She was standing next to me doing her hair at the mirror. I asked her a few good questions, shared a bit about myself, and it felt like she was noticing me at the Y for the first time. I was noticing her as a person instead of just an anecdote generator.

Later that same morning, a 70-year-old woman from my Tuesday morning yoga class, who I've been smiling and nodding to when we pass in the halls, approached me. She asked if she could share a funny anecdote about a penny sitting on her locker shelf in the same spot for seven straight days. She left it there to see what would happen. No one claimed it or bothered to move it. We both giggled over it like it was Guinness World Record potential.

The grandmotherly woman's name is Lauri. I have not yet asked the middle-aged woman for her name. I'll ask when I get my next burst of energy. :)

Want to know more?

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? If you can't figure it out, take this quiz at Susan Cain's website. Just for fun, here's my result:

Giant squid attacks sperm whale. (Image credit:
A giant squid seized control of my brain today. 

I was at work at MLive, editing content for the print editions as usual, and I happened to glance at a book review of "Preparing the Ghost" on one of the pages I handed off to a designer yesterday. I hadn't had a chance to read the review in full, although I knew it was about Marquette author Matthew Gavin Frank's long-form essay on giant squid.  

So I skimmed the proofreading marks to see if anything big jumped out. Something big DID jump out.

This line in the review caught my eye: "The first live footage of (a giant squid) in the ocean wasn't recorded until 2012."

What?! My apologies to those for whom this is old news, but "What the $#@^," I said. I know I've seen footage of live squid in the ocean before. 

So I did some Internet-ing and guess what. There was no footage of a living giant squid in its natural habitat before 2012. There have been plenty of videos taken of regular squid, but not of their monstrous cousins, the 4o-foot-long ones with eyes the size of soccer balls, tentacles reaching lengths of 25 feet apiece, and beaks that could tear you apart.

The video, first aired on the Discovery Channel in a 2-hour special in 2013, was captured by a team of scientists and a Japanese film crew, 2,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean two years ago. The crew logged 400 hours and tried all sorts of techniques before they were successful -- including remote-operated vehicles, which proved not to work. 

Finally, they hit on the idea to use a submersible mechanical limb, lit by a red light that apparently the squid can't see. Once it was in place, they beamed an optical lure (a computer-generated image that mimics the motion of prey) into the ocean to attract the squid up to the light and the camera.

The moment the scientists first realized they got the squid on camera is incredible. 

Marine biologist Edie Widder, who was on that crew, later said in
an interview on CBS This Morning that scientists have launched several expeditions over a period of 50 years trying to achieve this, but never succeeded. She theorizes most of the explorers were using tactics that scared the animals away. They must have realized there was a threat. (I read in a book my husband owns that cephalopods are very intelligent creatures. Well yeah, with a brain that size!)

Since learning all of this today, I'm definitely reading the book "Preparing the GhostAn Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer."

The stories are just too wild not to share.
This blog entry is part of #HandwrittenPost challenge started by Lexical Jen over at Wordpress: Write a blogpost by hand, possibly including doodles, and post it to your blog.

Lexical Jen explains in her post the idea was inspired by a recent New York Times article called "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades."

The article cites a 2012 study wherein 5-year-old children were asked to reproduce letters in three ways: free-form, by tracing along dotted lines, and by typing. Scientists then scanned the brains of participants while showing them images of the letters written in each mode. Researchers found the children's brains exhibited the most activity when looking at the freehand writing they'd done.

While the point of the study was that teaching penmanship in early childhood will "facilitate reading acquisition" better than teaching only typing, I find the results just as applicable to writing in adulthood. As a longtime pen-and-notebook journal writer, I can personally attest I've often had better topic ideas come to me during the course of hand-writing than when I've started out with a keyboard and a blank screen. 

All of that said, here's my quick contribution to Lexical Jen's challenge:

OK, maybe not every handwritten post is inspired. But it sure can be a fun learning experience.

Want to join the challenge? Write a blog post and tag it #HandwrittenPost.

Happy writing!
Feeling stuck in life? Read a chapter from “Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,” by Lucy Lethbridge, then re-examine your career opportunities. I guarantee the exercise will make you grateful. Maybe even more so than watching an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

This book offers a fascinating, frustrating history that makes painfully evident the level of social immobility the serving class experienced in Britain -- especially the female serving class.

As Lethbridge chronicles, in Victorian England, even philanthropy ultimately existed to keep class divisions in place between domestics and their employers. One example she names is Victorian philanthropist Dr. Thomas Barnardo. In the 1880s, he established a network of children’s homes for street urchins and funneled the children into service as they became of age – particularly the female children, as the demand for male servants was dropping and demand for female domestics was rising.

Lethbridge writes: “Many social reformers of the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Barnardo among them, abhorred the demoralizing and alienating effects of industrialization and found a solution in the ideal of healing hierarchies. … “

Unfortunately, as author George Sturt wrote in his 1912 book, “Change in the Village,” quoted by Lethbridge, the service-funneling model of philanthropy did not create a happy, productive servant class or working class. Instead, charity endeavors “made of them charwomen and laundresses, so that other women may shirk these duties and be cultured.”

According to Lethbridge, Barnardo’s homes and other servant-focused charities such as MABYS offered “benevolent protection” – and plenty of ideas about “how to distract the working girl from temptation” to socialize with the outside world in pubs, but those ideas were resented by domestic workers in a changing world.

Mrs. Miles, a British author who retained servants, once “encountered her housemaid blacking a grate without enthusiasm” and asked her what was the matter. Lethbridge writes, “The maid responded that not only did she hate her work, but she would actually prefer to write books, like Mrs. Miles, adding furthermore that she was always writing and could not wait to get back to her pen and paper. ‘So I tried to show her that it would make her life much happier and easier if she would really excel in the work she had to do … instead of thinking of a life she was not educated for and in which she would probably fail,’” Mrs. Miles said.

It seems to me Mrs. Miles’ lecture stemmed not only from the conviction she held about rightful class divisions, but from a primal fear of loss of power and status if her servants became equal to her. What would be stopping them from leaving if they were allowed the full freedoms of the middle class?

That fear was founded in reality to some degree, as service was becoming a much-maligned occupation by the middle class and by the factory class.

The industrial revolution and World War I lured many female domestics into factory work or nursing jobs. At the same time, the advent of the automobile replaced the positions of four coachmen and several stable boys with that of just one chauffeur. Chauffeurs, Lethbridge notes, were much more likely to come from engineering or mechanical backgrounds than from career service – yet another threat to the established order.

Despite my interest in the subject matter, the sheer amount of information – and the organizational style of this book – have left me feeling inundated. I keep longing for chronological, rather than topical, order. Lethbridge routinely juxtaposes servant and employer anecdotes from disparate decades to support the topic at hand, but so many societal, technological and historical shifts were occurring in the time covered that it can be jarring to read a source from the 1880s, then suddenly one from the 1930s.

Perhaps readers less attached to historical chronology will forgive Lethbridge her strategy.

The journalist in me pays the author homage for this difficult undertaking. She has assembled a vast array of previously unpublished testimonials from servants and their descendants, adding to the rich cultural narrative of Britain’s below-stairs history.

“Downton Abbey” fans won’t find characters like Thomas or O’Brien in this book, probably because everyone was too busy working 5 a.m. to midnight to stand around gossiping. But, readers also will find precious few facts that contradict the popular PBS TV show's historical underpinnings. If anything, I think having read this book will enhance my enjoyment of season 5 when it airs.

Thanks, Lucy Lethbridge. You’ve done a good work.