All posts by Tania de Sostoa-McCue

Musical Scores for When You’re Sick of Instrumental Music

Last semester we Koalas wrote a series of posts about our work and study playlists. At the time we had a conversation about listening to instrumental music and how it was particularly helpful for my fellow Koalas when studying to quiet the mind or get the juices flowing or inhibit the jitter juices or…something. Maybe it’s because I fall asleep to the sweet sounds of a James Newton Howard mashup playlist—and have for two years—but the very idea put me right to sleep. I prefer lyrics and beats and catchy music from the radio.

But three quarters of the way through my first semester of grad school, something happened. I’m used to being surrounded by noise, but noise of a particular variety (namely those of children at all decibels). Suddenly, come November, all of the new noises in my life felt like they were culminating in Just. Too. Much. Even the commute I take up to MSU felt way too loud.

Classical music, although awesomesauce, still doesn’t work for me when studying. I needed something that contains drama and sound but without human voices. Recently, I’ve found myself listening to the Hunger Games musical scores (yet again, James Newton Howard saves the day). I like these soundtracks because there are four of them so I get some variety, they are familiar enough that I can tune in and out of particular songs at will, and they can be, when I need them to be, unobtrusive. I am familiar enough with the movies that they keep me engaged in a low stakes kind of way. So while these particular scores might not work for you, I would recommend digging up the musical score of a favorite movie or two and giving them a test drive while studying.

 

When It Gets Game of Thrones-y Outside

Ever since November we’ve been living in a Game of Thrones state. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Winter is coming” to my husband in the most menacing voice I can manage (hint: I’m not really menacing, so he laughs at me). While we enjoyed some warm weather at the start of winter, I actually looked forward to the cold and the snow. Winter without snow is depressing in Michigan, and winter without cold is disconcerting.

I might be the only one appreciating the cold, albeit from the safety of my home, buried under three blankets, in a robe and a sweater. Perhaps with a cat on my lap. Seriously.

Winter is a great time for a good wood burning fire; I’m lucky I have a wood burning fireplace and that my husband loves making fires (not in a dangerous way). But for those of you who don’t have one, I suggest a small space heater with a photo of a fire behind it and a heavy dose of suspension of disbelief.

Here ya go. Go wild kids.

Step two to winter survival (or enjoyment, go your own way) is a good book and a great cup of tea. I’m a huge fan of Teavanna’s looseleaf teas.

The vat of tea I’m currently working my way through has popcorn in it. You’d be surprised how good it is.

So at this point I’m either studying or cozying up with a good book. The way grad school is going for me, I’m generally studying. If you’re in the boat with me, I have to say that my fellow Koala bloggers have shared some excellent study playlists if you want to check those out.

On the fun side of things, I have recently been devouring comfort books (AKA books I’ve read before). But since some of you may not have read them, I’m gonna recommend them to you.

Winter book coverA few months ago Marissa Meyer released the final book in her Lunar Chronicles series.
These are YA books, which I am a huge fan of. They also pull of some unbelievable elements I could never execute. When my best friend offered me the first book, Cinder, I read the blurb and laughed out loud. It’s a play on the Cinderella fairytale, only it includes cyborgs, a worldwide plague, people who live on the moon and are creepy bad guys with supernatural powers. There are four books in the series, each including a new character that originates in a fairy tale – a pilot named Scarlet (Little Red Riding hood), a computer hacker named Cress who’s been trapped and isolated in a space satellite (Rapunzel), and a beautiful princess, Winter, who has been disfigured and is kind of a little insane (Snow White).

This sounds crazy and I feel you. I only read the first because it was so out there I needed to watch the train wreck. But I love, love, love these books. They have some diversity in there (though they could have more). For the most part the pacing is great and the writing really worked for me. The other characters are fantastic—funny and sweet and complicated. I also have an affinity for a series that keeps you engaged and lets you linger in a world, which Meyers totally delivers.

In sum, Tania’s winter blues recommendation (and my winter high recommendation, because I love this weather): Fake fire, blankets, sweaters, a cat or two, some tea and a great book.

Motherhood and the Academy

Confession: I was supposed to do this a long time ago.

Technically, I don’t need to confess to anything here. It’s not like you know. But it’s important, I think, to put this out there. Because over the course of last semester, I heard so many students say the same thing. With guilt and shame, with frustration and with stress clear through their voices.

Wonderful addressed this beautifully in her last blog post about how we can take care of ourselves when life gets in the way. Life certainly got in mine.

Many of the people I work and go to school with know that my life is often overwhelming and very busy. I commute, I work, I go to school, and most importantly, I am a mother of two really freaking cute little boys.

Coming back to school after a 10-year break was a really hard decision to make because my husband and I knew the transition from staying at home with my kids to being gone for entire days, sunup to sundown, was going to be a challenge and struggle for all four of us. Ten years out of the academic life is hard to come back from—for me at least—because it involved retraining my brain to click into academic mode.

As a mother, I’ve found that my brain is always “on,” particularly when I’m around my children. Even when they aren’t in the room, I’m always tuned in to the whole house, watchful and waiting and curious. (I overhear some fantastic imaginative play, it’s funny and weird and sweet.) When I’m here, being my school self, my brain is on in a completely different way; learning to switch between academic/work Tania and Mommy involves a lot of conscious effort. I suppose my kids are old enough that I might not always need to be tuned in so much but it just happens anyway.

But the truth is, I don’t want to. When I can’t switch out of academic and work mode, my mind is never truly at home. And the first thing I promised myself when I decided to take this on was that no matter what, my children would come first.

Now, I’ll be honest here. Other mothers in the academy and I have talked about this: going back to school and figuring out how to juggle and sacrifice and not sleep and not have a social life are sacrifices we are making to better our lives. And living a willingness to do these things models so many things we want our children to learn. Right now, my children are watching me work hard. They are watching me learn and fight for the things I am passionate about.

They are watching me believe in myself.

But I don’t always get it just right. I get frustrated and I’m tired and sometimes when I’m home, it’s so hard to enjoy my family when my brain is always being pulled toward the assignments and projects I have to do, or staying on task with my job. It’s that learning how to balance that wears me down more than anything.

But what this means is that there are many, many times I have to make choices about what I can and cannot do. Sometimes, I have to choose not to do that reading, or assignment, or make myself wake up at 5 am just to fit it all in. And when I choose not to do the thing, so that I can do this other thing, most important thing—enjoy and love my children and be present in their lives while I can—I have to deal with that guilt and shame and frustration with myself because of the things I’ve dropped.

So often we in the academy here push and push ourselves to do better, to get it right, and to never drop the ball. And we say things like, “I fail,” or “I can’t do this,” and “I suck.” I hear it all the time. And lately, on my long freaking commute, I’ve been wondering if all the kindness and love and self-worth I work so hard to give my children isn’t something I need to give myself.

So this long, long blog post works in a few ways. To paint a little portrait of what it’s like to be a mother in the academy. To talk about the many things we’re all asked to do, and how hard it is to do them all. But most importantly, so ask each of you to be as kind to yourself as you are to others.

Writing Music Recommendations: Beat-Heavy Playlist

When I study, I definitely need music that keeps me on track, and honestly, awake. I am a serial playlist hopper—perhaps it is symptomatic of my incredibly short attention span. My playlists tend to be a mix of recent songs I’ve heard on the radio and some old favorites. I like music with strong, heavy beats or with some sort of majestic upswell (what can I say, I’m a majestic creature). I get tired of things pretty quickly so these things are ever-rotating. Which is why I love being able to follow other people’s playlists on Spotify. Spotify is the bomb!

 

So You Think You Might Want to Participate in NaNoWriMo (And You’re Scared)

I have participated in National Novel Writing Month (affectionately called NaNo) since 2007, a memorable year in which I distracted myself from my horrifically soul-sucking job by ignoring my duties and writing a cheesy romance novel. It was messy and poorly planned (I believe I may have started late that year), but it was also the first time I’d really tried to write a long story. The experience was stressful and terrifying and incredible.

nanowrimo_logoNaNo is a sort of lurking beast in my life—it’s always somewhere in my mind throughout the year—but it’s a beast I’ve fallen in love with. The best thing about NaNo is that it is all about process and journey. We operate in a world where there is an emphasis on product that can be borderline paralyzing. This mentality is actually the biggest reason I see people drop out of or talk themselves out of participating in NaNo.

The thing about NaNo is that while it is goal-oriented (word count), there isn’t anyone waiting at “the finish line.” You can’t really get it wrong. The purpose of NaNo is to get people writing—to create productivity, to encourage creativity, to push people out of comfort zones, and to foster positive feelings. I can’t stress that enough. NaNo is meant to make us feel good! We’ve tried something new. We’ve pushed past our comfort zones. We’ve been creative. Yay!

That right there, new friend, is all you need. Sure, it’s immensely gratifying to make it to that 50k words. But honestly, the NaNo that really feels like my greatest achievement was 2008, when I wrote 2000 words. Total. Because I had a one-month-old baby and sleep was a distant dream. But damn. I wrote 2000 words of a story I hadn’t planned with a one-month-old baby. That has win all over it.

In sum, you can do it. What it is can be totally up to you. What I love most about NaNo is the camaraderie. Friendships made, creativity spurred, and that feeling of “Wow, I didn’t think I had that in me.” Are you sort of on the fence? Come find me. I’ll convince you, and no matter where your journey goes, I’ll cheerlead the crap out of your journey, because it is all always valuable.

My NaNo success tips (tailor or ignore these at will):

Find an accountability buddy: Whether this is online or in person. Having someone to talk to, to motivate you, to keep you accountable to your personal goals has been so vital to my success every year.

Work in writing sprints: I do these with my buddy. We sit down—online, we aren’t in the same place— and either set a small word goal or a time limit (something totally manageable, like 20-45 minutes). We don’t talk or allow ourselves to do anything else. It’s just time to write. I find it super effective.

Set manageable goals: What time do you write best? How can you utilize your time? Are you goal- or deadline-oriented or not? I personally love making a spreadsheet. I have a daily word goal (1667 words per day for 30 days=win). My spreadsheet includes my total words as I go and also tells me how far ahead or behind I am. This is good because then I can plan for days when I won’t be writing, but can also allot time in the days ahead to catch up.

Be forgiving: Do not allow this to become a time or exercise where you beat yourself up. I cannot stress enough that this is supposed to be fun! Give yourself rewards! Celebrate your success on social media. Buy yourself chocolate. 

Interested in signing up or checking things out? Check out their website. There are a ton of resources there, including information on meetings and write-a-thons in your area. There are discussion boards for almost everything, including research help and genre specific information. And you can find buddies. Buddies are good!

DIY Autumn Retreat, Just in Time for Midterms

It’s time for sweaters, falling leaves, and tiny black kittens stealing your socks.  Longer nights and crisp autumn days conjure visions of apple treats and curling up with your favorite book.  So here are some key essentials for your adult autumn relaxation retreat.

Adult Hot Caramel Apple Cider: Looking for a cider with a kick? Look no further than this easy take on an old classic!

caramel_apples Favorite brand of Apple Cider, such as from Uncle John’s Cider Mill, heated for 30 sec
Caramel vodka
Pinch of cinnamon
Mix to your heart’s desire, and enjoy!

Mini Caramel Apples: These treats from At Home in Love might have Pinterest fail written all over them, but so long as you have some caramel and some apples in any form in the end, we’ll consider it a win. Be sure to tag #WCMSU in your #pinterestfail pictures though, because with this “October Meltdown” going around, we need the laugh.
 
Knitted Throw: If you have the time and needles, try one of these free, quick knitting patterns!

halloween_party_bookFor those who want instant warmth, check out your local yarn shop or boutique to pick up a cozy, inexpensive throw in your favorite colors.

A Good Book: If you’re feeling overloaded with school work and heavy reading, maybe a little light reading is in order. With that special brand of nostalgia one can only harbor during the back to school season, why not indulge in a double whammy trip down memory lane. Remember your favorite spooky stories as a kid? What better way to remember some great childhood memories with a little Halloween spice than to go ahead and grab an old copy of an R.L. Stine book? Or seventeen. It’s awfully cozy under that blanket, after all. No need to get up unless you’re out of cider.

 

Strategic Pseudonyms: An Overview of Women Authors

I had written this post in March, because March was not only reading month, but it was also women’s history month. Unfortunately that didn’t work out. Rather than scrapping this, I realized that confining conversations about women’s history to one month is ludicrous. I’m not interested in relegating women’s voices to one month, especially in context of this post, which talks about one aspect of the road female authors have had to trek: adopting male, and more recently, ambiguous pen names in order to legitimize or ensure success for their works.

bronte_sistersIt won’t come as a surprise to many that female authors have historically had to navigate sexism and prejudice in order to publish; upon submitting poetry for publication, Charlotte Bronte was advised that women had no place in literature. In their time all three Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) published under male pen names (Currer, Acton, and Ellis; I’ll refrain from commenting on name choice there).

Other well known authors of yore you might know under male pen names: author of Middlemarch, Mary Ann Evans, who published as George Eliot; George Sand, known for writing Valentine and Indiana, was in fact Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant. And while Louisa May Alcott did publish Little Women under her own name, some of her early publications were written under the pen name A.M. Barnard.

Post 19th Century a variation on this trend emerged with female authors adopting ambiguous pen names using initials or androgynous names. A great example of this is Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose name is Nelle Harper Lee. Another would be Pamela Lyndon Travers, who published Mary Poppins as P.L. Travers.

jd_robbThis is a trend we still see today. J.K. Rowling has published both under a male pen name (Robert Galbriath, crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling), and was asked to publish the Harry Potter series as J.K. rather than Joanne after being advised that using initials would help attract male readership. Prolific romance author Nora Roberts has been publishing her crime series, the In Death books (there are currently 50, which she’s been publishing since 1995), under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. Even 50 Shades of Grey author, Erika Leonard, did this (E.L. James)

These are only a few examples of women who have struggled to have their voices heard as a result of their sex. Looking back historically, this might not come as a shock. From this vantage a history of sexism is clearer–hindsight and all of that. What is more troubling to me is the current trend in the publishing industry of removing gender from particular genres under the idea that attaching a female name will detract from readership, particularly those targeted at male audiences, such as crime novels.

Curl Up With Something Yummy for Valentine’s Day

A good book!

Rumor has it that Valentine’s Day was just upon us. Rumor, I say, because Valentine’s Day has never been my thing: I’m a romance year round kind of person. And while lots of people like to get their romance on with a partner, I’ll admit I’m picky enough that I want  the freedom to chose my own adventure.

In honor of Valentine’s, or if you’re like me, simply because you’re an addict, I thought I’d share some romantic book recommendations based on what I’ve been reading lately.  If the thought of romance or Valentine’s Day fills you with horror, come find me and I can recommend something suitably edgy and decidedly non-romantic.

chefs_tableFor some lighter, yet adult romantic reading, I’d recommend Chef’s Table, by Lynn Charles. In it we meet Executive Chef Evan Stanford and Patrick Sullivan, the head cook at Johnny’s Diner. Over the course of their careers and lives they’ve each lost sight of something – for Evan, the connection to his roots and Patrick, passion and drive that take him beyond the contentment of diner cooking. Evan meets Patrick when he’s feeling burnt out and disconnected from what he loves, and in him sees an enjoyment in cooking he hasn’t felt in a while. Shared interests become friendship which then turn into romance. Enjoyably, this book won’t put you through the ringer; instead in it we get two characters falling in love and challenging each other to achieve and enrich their dreams. This book is a light read, romantic, sexy, and a great mental getaway.

selection_cassIf you’re in the mood for something fun and romantic and dig Young and New Adult, I’d recommend the Selection Series, by Kierra Cass.  Here we have your usual dystopian world, but this one is more of a dystopia meets The Bachelor setup.  Thirty five girls are selected from various castes to come live in the Palace and “compete” for Prince Maxom’s heart. Sounds swell right? Any girl would die for this…except maybe American Singer, for whom being selected means leaving behind the boy she loves and a family that depends on her income for survival.  This series was a fast read, and despite the rebel attacks, very fun.

mcrae_malteseMaybe you’re feeling like you want love with a little grit, or romance with a little edge? I recently read the first two books of what’s going to be a six book series – Starling and Doves, from the Love in Los Angeles series by co-writers Racheline Maltese and Erin McRae. In Starling we meet Alex Cook, a PA on who works on a primetime TV show. When the showrunner of The Fourth Estate plucks him from behind the camera, Alex quickly, and resentfully, becomes a star. He quickly falls into a relationship with Paul, one of the show’s main writers, and just as quickly baggage they’re both carrying pulls things apart. This book is written in a more spare style and definitely breaks some romance novel conventions. These books get a bonus for inclusion of polyamorous characters, which I never see. I will warn that they both, especially Doves, have some darker themes.

outlander_gabaldonIf you are really dying to know what my favorite romance of all time is? Head over to read Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Picture this: the year is 1945 and Claire and Frank Randall, recently reunited after years of service in the war, are on their second honeymoon in Scotland. You’ll have to bear with me for the part where I tell you that Claire accidentally falls back through time to 1743, because while time travel might not be your bag, but I think that’s just because you haven’t met Jamie Fraser. This book (and series) is rich with historical detail and intrigue, and the start of my favorite romantic pairing of all time.  Espionage? Check. War? Check? Hilarious, frustrating, infuriating, terrifying, mesmerizing and loveable characters? Check.

load_the_dice_gemelLast but not least, for those of you how want to get your kink on for the holiday, I’m going to recommend the episodic book, Load The Dice, by Moriah Gemel. If you’re curious about BDSM, or want to read something that really focuses on important community structures – such as Safe, Sane and Consensual BDSM – as well as a romantic kinky story, maybe skip going out to see 50 Shades of Grey for a more responsible portrayal of this lifestyle. It’s sexy as heck, it’s a character study, it examines the development of trust and love, and it’s very well written.

Regardless of where your holiday takes you – to bed with a good book in my case – I hope you enjoy your romance responsibly!