The Year I Spent Reading Neal Stephenson (and a few other books)

It started innocently enough. I saw that Jasper Fforde had a new to me book out and I bought it immediately. Turned out that Shades of Grey wasn’t a Thursday Next book, but it was a delightful romp through a dystopian future where class is based on degrees of color blindness and assessed at age 16.

The friend who had introduced me to Fforde in the first place suggested that if I’d enjoyed the dystopian future of Shades of Gray, I might enjoy Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is a prolific writer of cyberpunk and dystopian novels. I then settled in for a year spent in parallel universes and not so distant futures.

Anathem and SpideyI started with Cryptonomicon, then Snow Crash and Diamond Age. Later in the year I read Anathem and I just finished with REAMDE. In the middle, I took breaks for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Daemon and FreedomTM by Danny Suarez, and the Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker.

(There were also a few non-fiction books thrown in there and a thousand pages of academic reading for school).

Here are a few sweeping recommendations from my year of science fiction, cyber punk, dystopian futures, parallel universe histories and stuff.

Always read Jasper Fforde’s books. He paints delicious worlds with unique rules and vivid colors, even when the book is about color blindness.

Neal Stephenson has a few tropes he’ll always go back to. There will be totally random sex in the book that has little to do with the storyline, but it’s always there. There will be a scene that features near suffocation and you’ll wonder what happened to him as a kid. There will be a few parallel story lines that eventually intersect in ways that I never see coming, but I like to be surprised instead of figuring out the mystery before the final chapter. And the Sys Admin or hacker will always be the hero.

Ready Player One was the most fun book I read this year. The author turned a night of 80s trivia into a fun romp of a book, dipping in and out of movies, music and video games. Yes, it takes place in a massive multiplayer online game in the not so distant (very depressing) future, but it is fun.

Danny Suarez’s books are very violent, but worth the read for the vision of society he presents in book two. The friend who recommended these two (along with all the Stephenson) warned me that there would be some things that I wouldn’t like (murder and rape), and he was right, but he was also right that in the end it was worthwhile.

The Engineer Trilogy was a slog for me, but since I’d already bought the whole trilogy in paperback, I finished it. It takes place in a world’s Medieval/Byzantine era where countries are based on trade (engineers, shepherds, farmers, mining) and an engineer is excommunicated from his homeland. The three books cover the wars he starts to get back home, but it seems to be written in real time. Instead of a quick summary of war preparations, it includes incredibly detailed chapters on engineering, sieges, army training and fencing. I found it tedious, but still finished all three books in less than a month, so at some level I enjoyed the books.

There’s a part of me that thinks the future of marketing is hidden in a science fiction or cyber punk book, so I combined this reading diet with grad school. I’m about to start my second quarter at DePaul in the Digital Communications and Media Arts program. So far I haven’t been able to take a class on cyber punk fiction, but maybe in the next few years I’ll be able to.

What should I read next?

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Table Runners Matter: 13 lessons I’ve learned Hosting Parties in my 30s

I wrote a list of 18 blog posts that I’d never write, but this one got some requests… so here you go.

This summer, I spent more time than I’d like to admit researching table cloth lengths, looking at centerpieces for Vegas themed Centerpiece and Table Runnersparties and consolidating RSVPs between a Google Doc and Evite. I was co-hosting a black tie birthday party for a friend and putting every event planning skill to the test to ensure that we pulled off a nearly perfect event. I picked up all the tips and tricks hosting Shabbat and holiday dinners, throwing low key and high key parties in my home and working at a  Public Relations agency.

In 2014, I’ll be channeling that energy into grad school, but here are 13 things that I’ve learned hosting parties in my 30s.

1. Table Runners Matter

For the birthday party in question, I bought red table runners and black tablecloths on the internet. The tablecloths were great – a heavy fabric that looked more expensive in person and set the stage for a black tie event. The table runners looked every $1.99 that I spent on them. Cheap, chintzy, ugly. It’s embarrassing how much time I spent worrying about table runners in my head and out loud to friends, but I wanted the party to feel as fancy as the dress we requested people wear. In the end, I found a red paper runner to layer under the chintzy cloth runner. Doubled up, they looked great and made the centerpieces pop. The waiter even complimented me on how nice the runners looked.

Why do table runners matter? And tablecloths? And centerpieces? They set the stage for an event. People may not remember that you layered paper and sheer cloth, but they will remember the feeling of walking into a well appointed room that matches the invitation.

2. Slider Bags are Your Friend

A week before the party, I did a trial run of the centerpieces. Each was a low profile bowl with red glass blobs, plastic diamonds, dice and floating candles. After I decided they looked okay, I bagged ’em up. I divided the red glass blogs, diamonds and candles into 10 bags. The night of the party, I didn’t have to try and explain my vision to helpers, I just put out the box of bowls and bags of stuff, then said, “just add water.”

I also did this for Christmas with stocking stuffers, just to make things easier when it was time to be Santa. So if you can portion it out in advance to make for fewer decisions or explanations the day of the party, it’s worth the time.

3. Be Specific

Sometimes I fail at this, sometimes I succeed, but if you want your invitees to bring something or wear something, be specific. For the big party, we just wanted people to dress up, leave presents at home and arrive on time. So we communicated that again and again. For smaller dinners and events at my house, I try to be very specific – a vegetarian side dish, fruit, something sweet, red wine, name tags (yes, I’ve asked for name tags), gluten free munchies, etc.

4. Run of Show

For events in PR, we make what’s called a “Run of Show” for our events. It lists all the things that have to happen at specific times for the event to be a success. So now for bigger dinners and parties, I make a run of show for myself. What are things that I need to do in the days before, the morning of and evening of the events. This includes shopping lists, tasks that can be given to someone else and when to put things in the oven (or pull them out of the freezer). For the bigger party, it also included phone numbers of everyone involved.

5. How Much Clean Up Do You Want To Do?

At Rosh Hashanah this year, I asked people to sign up to help set-up or clean-up. Since I was going to have help for cleaning up, we used real dishes and silverware. When nobody is going to stay to clean-up, I use plastic silverware because I loathe washing forks and knives. I always use real tablecloths and paper napkins, because it’s the right amount of laundry for me. I prefer real glasses to plastic, in part because real glasses are easy peasy in the dishwasher.

The lesson here is to strike a mix between “looks good and feels good” during the party with “spent less time cleaning than hosting.”

6. The Bathroom

Someone is going to have to use the bathroom, so I try to make sure that I’ve got extra toilet paper in easy reach, clean towels for hand drying, Kleenex, a lit candle and an easy to find plunger. Anyone who plugs a toilet should have the option to try and fix it for themselves before they hunt down the host.

I say that as someone who used the toilet after the guy who plugged it at a party at a crush’s house… In total horror, I watched the toilet bowl not empty as it should, then I searched his bathroom for a plunger. When I couldn’t find it, I had to elbow through mutual friends and strangers to find him and tell him that IT WASN’T ME, BUT I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT THIS THING IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW AND OMG YOU WILL NEVER FORGET THIS WILL YOU?

Make the plunger easy to find, folks.

7. Aprons

Let’s call 2013, The Year of the Apron. This is the year I bought one and realized that it serves a real purpose. For both Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, holidays when I am in and out of the kitchen all night, I wore an apron over a nice dress. Kept my dress clean from food spills, but let me cook in my special messy way.

8. Prep in Sneakers

You’re cleaning alone in your house, prepping veggies in the kitchen and running upstairs to get the candles and you’re doing it all barefoot. If you’re me, that means you’ll be immobilized the day after the party with a sore back and the “dogs will be barking.” Save yourself the pain and wear good shoes while you prep. Hell, wear good shoes to the party, too.

9. Room for Elijah

I’ve found that the space will grow to accommodate extra guests, just make sure you have enough chairs or that you know which guest will happily bring extra chairs.

10. Introductions and Name Tags

I’m not above making friends wear name tags at my parties or doing around the room introductions at a sit-down meal. If you have someone who only knows you, make sure to introduce them to guests or provide some activities that make it easy for solo guests to join in. At the Big Party this summer, it was a beginner’s table for Black Jack.

11. Leftovers/Single Men are always “growing boys”

As the night winds down, make sure that extra food finds a home if you aren’t going to be able to eat/freeze it. Over the last few years, I’ve learned which friends love leftovers and which don’t. In general, single men are always “growing boys” who will take food home, just don’t let them take your good Tupperware, they will never bring it back.

12. Pet Allergies

Some of your friends are allergic to your cats, so make sure first timers to your house know the score on animals and have a pet-hair-free zone for their coats.

13. Spontaneous is Awesome, too

For as much as I’ve hosted planned dinners and parties over the last few years, spontaneous parties are my favorite. A few years ago, I hosted an impromptu Eve of the Eve party for my lady friends. This year I had a “You’ve never seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset???” emergency viewing and “come drink all this leftover beer” night on my roof. Spontaneous nights are usually heavier on the potluck and have a more random guest list, but they are worth reveling in.

So, there you go, 13 things I’ve learned from hosting dinners and parties over the last few years. I deleted the lesson about supplementing home-cooked with catering, but it’s okay to order in for part of a big dinner. It’s totally okay.

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Superman Sam by Suzanne Gallant

A little boy,
Barely eight years old,
Not old enough,
Not nearly,
Died, yesterday.

A little boy
I knew about,
I knew his family
And I watched
From afar.

A little boy,
Who in his fight
With his disease
Became an example
Of courage.

Because his mother chose
To share his story
Her story, their story
In a blog and on Facebook
He became my grandson, too.

I feel his loss
As if he had been living
Next door to me
As if he was a part of me.
He was Superman.

No family should be forced
To live through what they did.
No family should suffer such a loss,
No parent or grandparent should
Bury a such a hero.

Sammy wanted to be famous,
What is sad, is that in his fight
And in his dying and death.
He became a poster child for the fight
And he is famous.

Suzanne doesn’t have a blog, but that didn’t stop her from writing this poem about Sammy. “Marilyn, Sammy’s grandmother and I go back to when Sammy’s uncle Josh was a baby.  My husband and Sammy’s grandfather were the best of friends and are buried next to each other.”

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Not Quite Haveil Havalim: An Incomplete Superman Sam Round-up

In Phyllis’s latest post, she said,

I can’t keep up with the messages and emails and texts.
I am overwhelmed with them.
I think it is in a good way.
I scroll through my Facebook feed, my email, my texts… and cry.
My friends, my sweet wonderful friends, who are doing what they do best.
Writing…sharing…posting….and of course, fundraising.
So many posts.
Articles….oh, so many articles.
(Would a good mother keep a scrapbook? A good blogger might have a list of links.)

A list of links… that’s something tangible that I can help with in a situation where I feel rather helpless. In the spirit of Haveil Havalim and in Sam’s memory, here are all the blog posts I could find. If I missed something, please link in the comments.

I’ve tried to put these into a few main categories. The first are from people as they learned that Sam had died, the second is more specifically about 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave (which reached their first team goal of raising $180,000 yesterday), the third is from other parents of children with cancer (I think there are more posts out there) and the fourth includes poetry and d’varim Torah (sermons) inspired by Sam and the Sommer family.

There’s a lot of overlap and these could have been grouped differently. Also, I know that I missed posts, but this is the first 10 pages of Google results for a few different search terms. Please help if I missed something or messed something up…

Learning of Sam Sommer’s Death

#36Rabbis, Shave for the Brave

From other parents of children with cancer

D’var Torah, Prayers and Poetry about or inspired by Sam Sommer


Mainstream Media

Reflections from Sam’s Funeral


I know this list is incomplete, so please help me by adding links that you’ve seen in the comments below. I’ve tried to make sure that I included the correct honorifics for writers, but raise your hand if I made you into a rabbi and you aren’t one or if I accidentally removed your ordination.

You can also leave your link in this Google Form.

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Amazing Grace and Broken Trees

The song Amazing Grace makes me cry, because it makes my mom cry. It makes her cry because it came on the radio when she was driving to Meadows Elementary School to pick up my cousin Cathi for what she knew would be the last time she would pick up Cathi who had become too sick to be at school.

Cathi had cancer. She died from cancer.

Growing up, I knew that cancer made adults sad. That Cathi’s death made adults sad. That Amazing Grace made my mom cry. That Cathi loved us very much, as evidenced by the homemade cards she made us before she died. But I didn’t remember Cathi, bGraveecause she died when I was very young.

When Cathi died from pediatric cancer, my parents and aunt were younger than I am now, but they were sad for the rest of their lives about how she died.

I never understood why this thing that happened before I had memory could still make them cry when Amazing Grace was sung at church or at a school concert.

I knew cancer was the reason that Cathi was wearing handkerchiefs in family photos. There was a movie about a young ballerina with cancer and she got to dance in the Nutcracker before she got too sick to dance. I knew it was why she was no longer alive.

But I didn’t have empathy for my parents and aunt’s pain. I didn’t understand Cathi’s absence or the toll her illness took on the family.

I do now. More than anything, I wish that I did not.

Sam Sommer died on Shabbat from leukemia.

Like thousands of people around the world, my relationship with his parents is largely online, though I’ve met both Phyllis and Michael in person at Chicago-area events. His mom built the rabbi side of my business when I was doing social media coaching.

Every day since Sam’s diagnosis, I checked the blog when I woke up and before I went to bed. I made small donations, sent small items from wish lists, prayed and yelled at God.

More than 30 years after my cousin Cathi’s death from a similar cancer, I finally understand what my own family must have gone through. I have cried more over Sam’s illness and death than I have almost anyone in years.

He lived a great life in his eight years, but it was cut far too short.

I have so many words and simultaneously no words.

In his memory, 36 Rabbis are doing a fundraiser through St. Baldrick’s. Pick a rabbi, any rabbi, and make a donation to help bring awareness and research to pediatric cancers. Again, I’ve never really understood why shaving your head in solidarity made sense, until Phyllis said she would not hide her grief. They are trying to raise $180,000 and are over the $100,000 mark.

In Cathi’s memory, my aunt helped start the Riley Children’s Foundation.ark.

Supporting these causes won’t bring Sam or Cathi back, but it will stop families in the future from joining our ranks and make lives better for those currently battling pediatric cancer.

Yesterday, I came across the above grave in Trumpledor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. It is a child’s grave from the 1930s, but well tended and oft visited. The broken tree said everything that I couldn’t say about Sam and the things I never understood about Cathi until now.

May his memory be a blessing. May her memory be a blessing.


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18 blog posts that I’ll never write after 10 years of blogging

I keep thinking that I should write an epic post to celebrate my blog turning 10. This  started as a temporary letter home from London, became a daily writing habit, morphed into a career, slowed to an occasional writing habit, and a public archive of a decade of my life. Though as I got older, I wrote less and less publicly about my inner life, so it’s a very public archive of my late twenties and the highlights of my early thirties.

Every time I try to start, I don’t get very far… here’s an incomplete list of  the blog posts I would write for you, if I still had the energy to write long blog posts.

  1. Internet friends are real friends
  2. Offline friends are real friends, too
  3. I finally understand why Ave Maria makes my mom cry. Spoiler alert: pediatric cancer
  4. No, you aren’t the only person who [fill in the blank]
  5. 17 reasons why Candy Crush is better than Angry Birds
  6. How a cynical single learned to love weddings
  7. Serendipity is lovely and the world is full of it
  8. Go out on a limb, your friends will catch you… or they won’t and you’ll catch yourself
  9. Owning a condo: the best worst thing you’ll ever do
  10. Yes, it’s dangerous, but it is so damn fun
  11. Hey, I knew that guy before he was famous. I’m not famous. Oops
  12. Eight reasons I’m going to Israel on vacation (again) when there is so much of the world for me to see
  13. More rules about business travel
  14. The West Wing: Greatest series ever?
  15. Doctor Who: Greatest series ever?
  16. The Wire: Greatest series ever?
  17. Friday Night Lights: Greatest series ever?
  18. Table runners matter and 13 lessons I’ve learned hosting parties in my 30s
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Coming back to Israel

In case you are one of the few people who still read this blog, I’ll be in Israel from the 10th to the 20th.

Tel Aviv – December 10, 11, 12, 13 (morning)

Modi’in – December 13, 14 (day)

Tel Aviv – December 14, 15, 16 (day)

Jerusalem – December 16, 17, 18, 19

Come to the Dancing Camel on the night of the 10th or meet up with me on Monday the 16th in Jerusalem.

Or make me an offer for dinner, lunch, coffee, long walks on the beach, shopping, day trips, etc.

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