Spring 2017 Must-Reads

Book with Ranunculus

It’s 85 degrees and sunny here in Indiana, which gave me the jolt I needed to share my favorite spring reads with you before summer is upon us! According to Goodreads, I’m 7 books behind schedule to meet my goal of reading 95 books this year. I think I have an idea why (other than the fact that 95 books might have been too lofty of a goal). Podcasts, man. There are so many good podcasts available, and they are taking up the space when I used to listen to audio books. The other factor? I’ve slogged through a few books that were book club picks. Normally I would ditch a book I wasn’t into, but when it’s a book club pick the Obliger in me feels obligated to finish it. So before I get into the books I did love this spring, I have questions for you. Are podcasts taking the place of books in your life? And what do you do when you come across a clunker of a book club selection?

My spring picks are heavy on the fiction and very light on the non-fiction. I read some heavy stuff, so as summer approaches I’m going to focus on some fun, lighter reads to get me back in the groove (and hopefully back on track with my oh-so-lofty goal).

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Fiction

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

I received an ARC of this book via Jellybooks in exchange for my honest review. After reading and loving Ready Player One, I’ve been on the lookout for books that will indulge my love of 80s nostalgia and geeky characters. The Impossible Fortress does just that in a fun and quirky format. Billy, Alf and Clark are typical nerdy teens in 1987. They love TV, video games and dreaming about girls they couldn’t possibly end up with. When Vanna White appears in Playboy, they have a real life mission: to get their hands on the magazine and make a few bucks from their fellow students in the process. They hatch a plan to steal the magazine from the local convenience store. In order for their plan to work, they need to swipe the store’s security code. That’s where Billy comes in. He strikes up a friendship with the store owner’s daughter, Mary. What was supposed to be a superficial plan to befriend her becomes something more when they discover their mutual love of computer games and coding. Billy’s never met anyone like Mary, and he’s faced with an impossible choice of letting down his friends or losing the trust of the first person that really gets him. Each chapter starts with lines of code, and while they mean nothing to me they lend a fun feel to the book. Rekulak does a wonderful job of mixing old school gaming and 80s pop culture into a deeper story of first love, friendships and adolescence.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those authors that I forget how much I love until I pick up one of her novels. She does multi-dimensional characters and family stories so well. Patchett’s story of two families torn apart and stitched together following a kiss at a drunken christening party sucked me in after only a few pages. It’s been a long time since I read a novel in which I had such strong feelings (both good and bad) for every character. Bert Cousins shows up uninvited to Franny Keating’s christening party with a bottle of gin. A few hours (and many Screwdrivers) later, he’s kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly, setting into motion two divorces. The six Keating and Cousin children band together as a wild pack, united in their hatred of Bert and Beverly and fervent in their loyalty to Fix Keating and Teresa Cousins, the spouses left behind. Over 5 decades, we see the way the sins of the parents and a childhood accident cloaked in secrets affect the children as they grow and scatter. Patchett writes characters so vivid, witty and flawed that I had a crystal clear image of each of them in my head. I absolutely adored this book.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

I picked up this slim novel to read in Mexico, but didn’t get around to it until after I got home. I’m glad, because I think it would’ve been a case of right book, wrong time. Though Woodson deals with heavy topics (death, addiction, and grief), it’s not a heavy book. But it is a book that needs to be savored, and I can’t imagine being in the right frame of mind with a margarita in hand and my toes in the sand. Another Brooklyn is a coming of age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. August and her girlfriends believe anything is possible as long as they have each other. This was easier to believe when they were young, but as they become young women and face the evils in both their neighborhood and their own homes, friendship doesn’t seem to be enough. Woodson’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, even when it’s very sad. I devoured this in just a few sittings.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

This is such an unusual book, I’m recommending it with reservations. When I find myself writing down passage after passage to remember later, then it’s usually a good sign that someone else will enjoy it as well. The Course of Love is the telling of a love story from the heady, passionate beginning all the way through to the other side. It explores what happens after marriage, after kids, after we’ve disappointed the other person in a myriad of ways. Having been married for nearly 20 years, it was fascinating and comforting to read about characters struggling to maintain a marriage through the ups and downs; loving each other, but not always liking each other. Passages like this had me nodding my head and thinking, “Yes – that’s so very true!”

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.

If you’re not interested in drawn-out observations on a few characters, or following along the course of a normal marriage, this is not the book for you. But if the idea intrigues you even a little bit, I’d love for you to give this novel a try

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Is it too early to say this is going to be my favorite book of the year? Scratch that – it might be one of my favorite books to date. Frankel’s novel is a timely exploration of the issue of transgender children. Rosie and Penn are a loving, irreverent team in both marriage and parenting. They allow their five quirky and free-spirited boys to be who they want to be. This is all well and good when one of them wants to wear an eyeball sticker on his forehead to school everyday. But what about when their youngest, Claude, decides he wants to wear dresses and change his name to Poppy? This is the story of how an ordinary family handles an extraordinary secret. It could easily have turned into a preachy novel that insisted a reader feel a certain way. Instead Frankel crafted a novel that makes the reader think deeply about how gender relates to the essence of who we really are, and the power a secret has over everyone who knows it.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This is my audiobook pick for the spring. (I did manage to listen to a couple!) I believe Jamie Golden from the Popcast green-lighted this as “ear candy,” and I have to agree. Samuel Anderson-Andersen hasn’t seen his mother in decades, not since she abandoned Samuel and his father when he was just a boy. He thought she was just an ordinary Midwestern girl who married her high school sweetheart and left when life with them became too trying and dull. Imagine his surprise when she reemerges as a national celebrity – the “Packer Attacker” – after she chucks a rock at a divisive political figure. Soon an alternate version of his mother is presented: a radical hippie, former prostitute and participant in the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. Alternating between the past and the present, Samuel and his mother tell their stories and try to come to a place of understanding. The story is interesting, both riveting and humorous at times. I loved listening to it.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I read this in anticipation of the HBO miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Nicole Kidman. They (the book and the show) are both so good. The story of kindergarten bullying and helicopter parents with their knickers in knots about it is juicy, dramatic and just plain fun. I also found it supremely satisfying to know who was playing each character in the show as I read the book. (Hint: the casting is spot on.) It’s been out for awhile, but if you haven’t read it yet I’d toss it in the pool bag this summer for sure.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

In Nadia Turner’s small church community, everyone knows everyone. When Nadia’s mother commits suicide in her senior year of high school, she is unable to escape the stares and presumptions of her church family. A secret fling with the pastor’s son leads to a pregnancy and an abortion. Nadia escapes her southern California town for a bigger life, and as a means to leave the past behind her for good. She manages to do so, until her father falls ill and she is forced to return: to past hurts, to a friendship changed, and to elders who think they know the truth about everything. I loved the way Bennett handled every character with such care. Despite their flaws (and they all have them), she helped me to understand them even as I was shaking my fist at them. The Mothers is another contender for the best book I read in 2017. The movie rights have been opted, with Kerry Washington as the producer. You have plenty of time, but read it before the movie comes out!

Young Adult

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cadence’s summers are always the same, and as a member of the wealthy Sinclair family, they are fabulous. Summer means escaping to one of the houses on her grandparents’ private island off of Cape Cod with her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and their closest friend, Gat. All is well until the fifteenth summer, the first summer on the island after their grandmother has passed away. Her grandfather is unmoored and using his power as the family patriarch to push everyone’s buttons, while her aunts’ simmering jealousies and greed begin to bubble over. There is a mysterious accident that summer that leaves Cadence struggling with amnesia and debilitating headaches, so much so that she misses all of summer sixteen on the island. Frustrated with the recovery progress and angry with her cousins and Gat, who have all but ignored her since the accident, Cadence returns to the island during her seventeenth summer to sort it all out. And that’s all I’m going to say, because the end of the book blew my mind.

Middle Grade

Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

This is the first time Eli and I have taken on a book of short stories to read together, and we could not have started with a better book. This collection of 10 short stories comes from a partnership with We Need Diverse Books and comes with an impressive list of contributors. Each story was easily readable in one sitting, and they were indeed diverse and wonderful. It was a lot of fun, opening the book each evening and not knowing exactly where it would take us. This book would make a great gift for an upper elementary or middle school teacher to keep in the classroom.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

It’s been a Woodson kind of spring! After reading Another Brooklyn and then one of her short stories in Flying Lessons, I had to get my hands on more. Her writing is lyrical and has the power to transport the reader to different places and times. In this case, the reader is transported to rural South Carolina and New York in the 60s and 70s. These are the two vastly different worlds Ms. Woodson grew up in. South Carolina is home to loving grandparents, church and running barefoot. But it also home to fearfulness and different way of behaving around white people. New York is noise, concrete, and never having enough room or food. But it is also home to Jacqueline’s mother. Straddling these two worlds, Ms. Woodson helps readers young and old understand what it means to feel not at home anywhere and the power that dreams have to make you feel whole.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

Eli and I both adored this book and each of the Fletchers. Imagine four adopted boys, two dads, a dog, a cat, and an imaginary tiger all under one roof. (Hint: it’s never boring!) It’s the beginning of a new school year for the Fletchers, and everyone seems to be going in a different direction. New schools, new friends, new interests, new cantankerous neighbor that would arrest the entire Fletcher family if he could. This made for a wonderful read aloud, and Levy manages to mix the humorous moments with touching reflections on how hard it is to be a kid sometimes. If you have fond memories of the Quimby family or if your kids are fans of the Penderwicks, the Fletchers will fit right in with those beloved families. We can’t wait to read the second book this summer!

Non-Fiction

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

When the rave reviews for this novel began rolling in last year, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I was so anxious to read it I bought a hardcover copy – something I rarely do. Besides the glowing reviews, I was drawn to this book for the author’s experiences in two different regions in which I have a connection to as well: the South (he writes of his time in Kentucky, I lived in Tennessee for 10 years) and southeastern Ohio (he grew up in Middletown, 20 miles east of where I spent my college years in Oxford). I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the hillbilly culture, and by default my own extended family on my dad’s side. My dad grew up poor, one of 13 children in rural eastern Illinois. Unlike many of his siblings, my dad moved away and moved up, making a career for himself in the corporate world of telecommunications. As a child we visited his hometown often, an easy trip of 100 miles. I didn’t understand how or why, but my cousins’ world seemed 10,000 miles away from mine. The way they talked, the things they were into, and their plans for the future were so different from my upper middle class suburban life. Even for those who didn’t grow up in this family dichotomy, the topic is still of interest as a result of our deeply divided election.

Vance does an excellent job of taking readers into the world of the working class white Americans of the Rust Belt. Reading his story and the tales of his peers, you understand just how hard it is for this group of Americans to move past poverty, addiction and crime. Still, I was hoping I’d be left with more than just understanding. I can’t put my finger on it, and I’m not sure it was the author’s intent to inspire anything more than insight into this demographic, but I finished the book feeling a little unsatisfied. I guess I’m not sure what to do with the knowledge. How can I turn it into something useful? I’d love to hear from others that have read the book, and learn what they took away from Vance’s insight.

What have you been reading and loving lately? Tell me in the comments and I’ll add it to my To Be Read List!

Books I read and loved this spring, with picks in fiction, non-fiction, young adult and middle grade.

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My List of 100 Dreams

Inspirations and ideas for making a life list of 100 dreams. Your ultimate resource to turn dreams into action!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

I recently shared the experience of conducting a time study on myself, and how it shaped the way I plan my days and weeks. This self-reflective project was inspired by reading Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. In the book, Vanderkam shares how she was encouraged to come up with a list of 100 dreams by a career coach. The idea behind the exercise is that you can’t plan for and accomplish the things you want to do in life if you don’t know what they are.

The list of 100 dreams is supposed to be a list of unedited list of things you want to accomplish or want more of in your life. It’s similar to a bucket list or a 40×40 list, but in longer form. It doesn’t have to be big, sweeping accomplishments (although most of us probably have a few of those things we’d want to put on there). Small and simple belong there as well, because even the smallest of dreams have a way of being pushed aside because we believe there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

A few thoughts after I did this exercise myself:

  • It’s harder than I thought. I steamrolled through the first 25 or so, and then got stuck. Getting to 100 seemed impossible. So I put it away and would return to it whenever another idea popped into my head or I felt inspired to sit down and write for a few minutes.
  • That being said, I ended up with more than 100, as I’ve continued to jot more down as I think of them.
  • You can organize your list by category if you like. I did this after I made the complete list. I didn’t do it initially because I didn’t want to be bogged down in details. I also didn’t want to censor myself if I felt like one category seemed too robust, or inauthentically add things because another category looked lonely.
  • Nothing is too big or too silly. After all, these are your dreams we’re talking about.

Now that I have my list, I refer to it often. I used it in setting some goals for the year and in planning a Happiness Project for myself this year. I also use it when planning my weeks and filling in my block schedule. For example, I’m on a quest to see all the movies nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category. (See? I told you nothing is too silly!) I’ve had this desire for the last few years, as I love the Oscars but found that I rarely had seen more than a movie or two that had been nominated. I wrote it down, and once the nominations were announced I wrote them all down on a sticky note. In order to see them all (there are 8) before the Oscars on February 26th, I would’ve needed to see 2 movies a week. That’s a stretch, and I knew I probably wouldn’t see them all before then. BUT … I penciled in times to see a movie each week. Thanks to being intentional about scheduling time to see a movie, I was able to see 5 of the nominated films. I’m confident I’ll watch all of them by the end of April. It’s an example of dreaming, planning and executing, and it makes me very happy.

So just for fun (and so you can see I have some loftier dreams and goals beyond watching movies), here’s my list of 100 dreams. I highly encourage you to make one as well. It’s really fun and eye-opening, and a great way to learn more about yourself.

CAREER

  • Start my own freelance writing and social media management business (In process!)
  • Get a new headshot
  • Write every day for a month
  • Implement block scheduling (Done – and it’s working SO well for me)

HOME

  • Get photos from our trip to Spain and London in an album.
  • Get photos from our trip to Disney in an album. (Only took 4 years!)
  • Make yearly photo books of our random photos and my Instagram photos. (2016 done; need one for IG photos)
  • Do a Project Life photo book.
  • Turn backyard into a peaceful oasis with good landscaping and a variety of bird feeders. (Paid a local nursery for a one-on-one consult and walked out with a detailed plan of how it should look and what we should plant. Worth every penny for those that suffer decision paralysis like me.)
  • Decorate our home to make it ours (In process. Made a list for each room and trying to tackle a bit at a time.)
  • Be prepared for life without Mike (and vice versa)
  • Play every game we own once, decide what to keep and what to donate (In process. Keeping a notebook to remember what we’ve played so far.)
  • Make the recipes I pin on Pinterest (A never ending task, I assume.)
  • Fill up my Indiana beer cap map
  • Get a kitchen table and chairs I love
  • Sell and purge stuff we don’t use
  • Own a hammock. And use it.
  • Incorporate a power hour into my week (Getting so many random things done this way *cough* Disney photos *cough*)
  • Invest in good gardening tools
  • Fill the freezer with beef again (This time we split a half a cow with our neighbors to save some money.)
  • Fully fund emergency fund again

CONTINUING EDUCATION

  • Become fluent in Spanish
  • Read all the Harry Potter books (In process, on Book 5)
  • Read a variety of books from my TBR list each month (Forever in process, but trying to be more intentional about reading a diverse selection instead of just working my way through the list from oldest to newest.)
  • Take a macaron class

SELF

  • Finish painting bird picture
  • Choose books and puzzles (crosswords, Ken Ken, etc.) over mindless phone scrolling
  • Set intentional goals for enjoying each season: a food + a craft/project + a trip/outing (In process. Made a list for spring.)
  • Take a break to read mid-day (Kind of in process. Scheduling it daily, but it often gets pushed aside to finish other tasks.)
  • Take a should-less day each quarter
  • Get a massage once a quarter (Had one in January)
  • Create a seasonal uniform
  • Sleep in nice pajamas
  • Try meditation
  • Go bird watching and take photos at Rookery Preserve

TRAVEL

  • Spain (2014. I’m totally counting a previous trip of this magnitude!)
  • Canada
  • Grand Canyon with kids
  • New York City with Elena
  • Washington, DC with kids/see the cherry blossoms
  • Italy
  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Go back to 30A beaches with Mike
  • Wizarding World of Harry Potter
  • See a football game in Green Bay
  • Baseball Hall of Fame
  • Tube down a river or creek
  • Hike in Turkey Run
  • Try cross-country skiing
  • Go to an all-inclusive resort with kids
  • Acadia National Park
  • See the northern lights
  • Take a cruise with kids
  • Mackinac Island
  • Pacific Northwest
  • Music festival with Mike
  • Book retreat
  • Rent a beach house for more than a week
  • Rent a cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio
  • Take kids to Great Wolf Lodge

HEALTH/FITNESS

  • Run a 5k with Eli
  • Ride my bike to places instead of driving when I can
  • Get down to the 140s in my 40s
  • Try yoga with Elena

RELATIONSHIPS

  • Have a monthly date with Mike (Haven’t missed a month yet this year!)
  • Make once-a-month Sunday dinner with my parents and sister a routine (Got everyone to agree on last Sunday of the month.)
  • Organize an 80th birthday party for my parents
  • Eat at Bluebeard with friends when we can sit outside
  • Watch a Colts game with my sister
  • Go through the 36 Questions with Mike
  • Host a Christmas book exchange with my book club (We did a Blind Date with a Book gift exchange and it went over very well. Hopefully a new tradition!)
  • Take more photos at family gatherings
  • Take a day off during the week with Mike
  • Meet Mike for lunch once a month (Haven’t missed a month yet this year!)
  • Host a progressive dinner (Helped organize and hosted in my neighborhood. A little too stressful for my taste, but I’m glad I did it.)
  • Perfect a meal to take to friends in need
  • Get better at gift-giving and surprising with small treats
  • Spend weekend with my niece and her family
  • Have friends over to watch a football game

PARENTING

  • Be consistent with screen rules
  • Take more candid photos of the kids
  • Spend one-on-one time with each kid at least once per month (Haven’t missed a month yet!)
  • Try fondue as a family
  • Explore new cuisines with the kids (In process. Took Elena to Chinese restaurant this month.)
  • Take the kids on the canal paddle boats
  • Movie night once a month, rotating who picks (Haven’t missed a month yet!)
  • Make an apple slab pie with Elena
  • Work through the “Do You Know?” questions at dinner
  • Have “the talk” with Eli and revisit with Elena

MISCELLANEOUS

  • See “Hamilton” (Saw it in January 2017 in Chicago. Worth every single penny.)
  • Be a guest on the What Should I Read Next podcast
  • Volunteer with ARPO
  • Volunteer with Second Helpings
  • Be a regular at Sun King and try more new beers
  • Foster a dog
  • See all the movies nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture in 2017 (Saw 5 of 8 before Oscars, working on other 3.)
  • Participate in Indy Food Swap
  • Eat fried chicken at Mississippi Belle
  • Eat at Milktooth
  • Take Gus to Marott Park
  • Meet Peyton Manning
  • Build a gingerbread house from scratch

Have you ever made a list like this? If not, I strongly encourage you to  start one! It really makes you think about what’s interesting and important to you. What are a few things that would be on your list of 100 dreams?

 

 

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You Have More Time Than You Think: How a Time Study Brought Balance Into My Life

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2016 was the year when it seemed that my productivity goals all seemed to fall into place. I’m an odd mix of a productivity junkie (anything with the keywords “be more productive” or “get things done” is like click-bait to me) and a dreamer. Sometimes I dream about big things, sometimes I’m a fiend about getting little things done, but rarely have those big dreams and little things intersected into anything that resembles a balance of accomplishment.

Something clicked when I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. For years I told myself that when X, Y, or Z happened, I’d finally have time to do the big (and little) things I wanted to do. When Eli goes to school full-time, I’ll be able to really launch my blog. When I stop spending so much time blogging, I’ll get my photos organized. When I finish this project, I’ll get my writing career off the ground. I know we’ve all said similar things, only to find that we’re no further along. Those extra magical hours never materialized.

Vanderkam encourages readers to conduct a time study on themselves. For a minimum of one week (which contains 168 hours), you are to write down everything you do and how long it takes you to do it. Sleeping, eating, watching TV, commuting, housework, scrolling through Facebook … it all gets accounted for. I did this for a week last summer and it was so incredibly informative. Some things were good. I get an average of 8 hours of sleep a night. I exercise roughly 4 hours a week. I don’t spend excessive time in the car or watching television. On the flip side, I spent more hours than necessary on housework, email, social media and, oddly enough, socializing.

After you conduct a time study and know where you can cut back to create pockets of time, Vanderkam suggests making a list of 100 dreams. These are things you’ve always wanted to do, from the very big (Go to Paris!) to the very small. (Put our Disney photos in an album.) Creating extra time in your week is wonderful, but what purpose does it serve if you don’t spend it intentionally? And how can you be intentional about the way you spend your time if you don’t identify what’s important to you?

Once you have your list in hand and a general idea of how you spend your time vs. what can be minimized, Vanderkam recommends planning your week using the strategy of block scheduling. Listing out the hours in the day, you give a name to how you’ll spend those hours. For someone who lived by a never-ending to-do list, this was revolutionary. I’d make lists with items like fold laundry, meal plan, write, email Lisa, call Amy. Then the laundry would never end, or the email would turn into 10 emails, which would bleed into a few minutes on Pinterest … you get the idea. Things that had to get done got done, of course. We always had meals on the table, clean underwear, and phone calls returned. But those nebulous, dreamy plans or those someday maybe projects never got started. I mean, who has the time, right? It’s one of Gretchen Rubin’s Secrets of Adulthood: “Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time.”

How block scheduling helped me organize my days and reach my dreams.

I’ll go deeper into block scheduling in a future post, but for now here’s the gist. I plan out the week with goals in mind for my 4 necessary life categories: work, home, self, and relationships. I have 3-4 goals for each, and as I plan out each day, I schedule blocks of time to work on those things – and only those things.

Making my list of 100 dreams was both a fun and useful way to get a bigger picture of what really mattered to me. What stood out was that my big dreams involve travel, creating a cozy home in which we are surrounded by meaningful things, getting the most out of my time with the kids while they’re still around, and finding creative work that satisfied me while helping us reach our financial and travel goals.

When those things are laid out there, you have a more clear picture of how you want to spend your time. I keep coming back to housework, because apparently I have a strange issue with doing too much housework. (I spent a whopping 24.75 hours in a week cleaning, cooking and doing laundry. AN ENTIRE DAY OF MY LIFE EVERY WEEK. Even I recognize that’s not normal.) Would I like to spend 6 of those 24 hours folding every last sock and polishing the toaster? Or would my 6 hours be better spent on a baby step that will get me closer to my big goals and dreams?

I started block scheduling on a (mostly) regular basis in mid-October, and a few months in I see a dramatic difference in my quality of life. I feel more balanced. I feel a satisfaction in my work and personal life I haven’t felt in, well, ever. I have a sense of peace about my days – I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing at exactly the time I’m doing it. It’s far from perfect. I still have weeks where it feels like I’ve been derailed and nothing gets done. I still have to fight urges to engage in time wasters. But I feel progress and hope, which feels pretty darn good.

Just for fun, I’ll share my list of 100 dreams in the next post. Then I’ll do a deep dive into my block scheduling process so you can give it a try as well. For now I’d love to know: what would you do with a few extra hours every week?

 

 

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