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Friday, January 30, 2015

Freekeh Friday

It’s Friday! (Sounds of cheering from the crowd--exhausted cheering if you have small kids--but cheering nonetheless.) This morning I found something I’ve spent the last month trying to find.  It’s a Middle-Eastern grain called Freekeh. I’d had the recipe for over a month and finally found Freekeh. Fantastic!

So—although I have many other things to do today—I’m test-driving the Freekeh recipe today—right now, literally, as I begin typing this post—because this will not wait until tomorrow. “Freekeh Saturday” just doesn’t have the same tone to it.

Freekeh came across my radar a month or so ago. The recipe I saw looked good and I decided to give it a whirl. Freekeh is one of these new superfoods. I like the idea of getting a lot of nutrition from a food, but I need flavor too. This recipe would not have grabbed me if it looked healthy but bland. (This is adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. Martha has some great recipes—I’ll give her that. I don’t like her superiority complex and her distant personality. She’s human, too—would it kill her to be a little warmer? But it’s a good recipe. I didn’t use the greek yogurt as a garnish but I used everything else.) This recipe includes caramelized onion and cilantro and pomegranate seeds, among other things. Sounds good!

Side Story:

(If you’ve read this blog a few times you’ve noticed that I love telling the back story. There is usually a colorful back story to my tales and this is no exception.)

If I’d really wanted to make a production of this I would have made sure Hubby was home to be my guinea pig once I’d prepared this food. But I didn’t even know I was going to make this until a few hours ago. Hubby had lunch plans with a guy he hasn’t seen in a year. I decided I would not wait until dinner to make this because I have late afternoon plans with a friend I haven’t seen in a year. So the only option was to make it for my own lunch. (This alone is almost unheard of. I’m not sure I’ve ever made lunch that required an actual recipe. I grab an apple and some almonds and some cereal and eat in the car or leaning against the kitchen countertop. The last time I sat down for lunch (excluding when I am out) was probably 1993! The fact that I used the stove top for my own lunch is crazy! I even got myself a glass of water and sat down at the table! Who am I? Is this the Twilight Zone?

Number of times I almost set off the smoke alarm while making lunch: once.

Number of times I had to improvise ingredients: once. (Who really studies recipes ahead of time? Oh, people do that? Who knew? I had to use ground cumin as I had no cumin seeds. Turned out well.)

When I cook it looks nothing like a Food Network show, all organized and calm—much more like an episode of I love Lucy. There are pitfalls. I sometimes trip over things. Yes, things have splashed onto the ceiling. Lucy wasn’t the only feisty redhead who managed to make cooking look like a circus act. But this is me, take it or leave it. In typical Sarah fashion, I did not prepare the ingredients beforehand. I did not chop and measure and collect everything I needed because I had tons of things to do before I began cooking. It’s not really my style to gather everything meticulously and do everything with military precision. I roll with things. I improvise. I estimate rather than measure. I juggle tasks. I omit ingredients I dislike. I do it my way. (And that’s why you love me!)

My lunch turned out great! I would add more onion next time (I didn’t use a whole one, as recommended, because I was too busy to chop for more than thirty seconds.) I added more red pepper flakes as I wanted more heat. The cilantro and pomegranate seeds really made this dish, in my opinion. Well, this blog is in no danger of becoming a cooking blog. But I hope you’ve enjoyed my Freekeh Friday post and I hope you have a Super Saturday!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cheap Frills # 6: Garden Wall in Four Hours

Have you ever had an idea that was months or years in the making? I sure have. Let me share the story of the wall I’ve been working on for a few days. It’s outside our house and I am thrilled with how it turned out. A few days ago I finally set the ball rolling on something that seems to have been in the works for ages. Last year I bought some cement blocks from my local home improvement store. I thought I was going to build a semi-circular wall around a tree in our front yard, and paint it cheerful colors. Well, the tree had other ideas. Those pesky roots were bumpy and unpredictable and I lost interest when it took a lot of effort to try to make the blocks level. Fast forward til this year. I decided that I could build a semi-circular wall in another spot. I wish I’d done this ages ago but sometimes these ideas need to ferment a while. A long, long while.

Here are the before and after photos:


Landscapers might say that I’ve created a focal point in this wedge of land. The wall separates the space into a lower and an upper area, which is visually interesting. The paint adds color and fun. The wall makes the space more personal, because the owner designed and created it according to her own taste and style.

What I’d say is this: I love my new wall. It ROCKS! Color? Yes. More interesting than before? Yes! Cheerful? Yes!

This project turned out to be very inexpensive, as I already had the plants, cement blocks, paint and brushes. For something like this I use an inexpensive paint brush made with horse hair (not nylon) because the rough texture of the cement block will chew up the bristles.

If you didn’t have supplies, you’d have to buy or find them (sometimes the very supplies you need are available and even free on Craigslist). The 15” concrete blocks are roughly $1 each where I live. I didn’t use mortar between them because if I change my mind and want to reconfigure them, it will be easy to remove them. They are not holding dirt in—just providing an accent to the mini garden. The acrylic paint I chose is from the craft supply store and is inexpensive (69 cents for 2 ounces), as are the brushes (99 cents each). The paint I used isn't made specifically for outdoor use so it may fade with time. But that's okay. I don't need this wall to be there for another 100 years. (If you did want something that would resist fade you could have your paint store mix up colors that are designed for outdoor use and have a bit of shine to them, to fight fade.) I used 9 blocks and two half blocks. Your wall might be smaller or bigger than that but using these blocks is a very affordable way to add some fun to your yard.
This photo shows how I used paint colors in the same family. My dominant color is medium blue with darker blues, purples and aquas added for accents. This gives the wall some more interest but the colors are harmonious and work as a whole:
I won’t do a tutorial in a step-by-step fashion but here are some tips:abc

·         Figure out the length of the wall you want. Figure out how many blocks you will need. Place your center block first, so that the wall looks centered. (This applies if you have a very short wall—mine is less than 6’ long. With a longer wall you don’t need to worry about this as much.)

·         Try to get each layer of cement blocks level. I used a two-foot level. My wall is not 100% level but it’s close. Hey, I’m not building a bridge. It’ll be okay…

·         If you hate your paint choice half way through, as I did, fear not. Just keep going. The blue I chose looked really intense once I’d painted most of the blocks. But I added some lighter tones and darker tones and just kept going. (If you finish and really, really hate it, just try another paint color. It’s cheap and dries fast.)

·         Once your wall has been painted, add plants in front of it, behind it, inside the blocks on the top level, and on top of the wall. This makes the wall look like it is part of the scene rather than an intruder in it. This helped a lot with my mixed feelings about the colors.

This wall took four hours to make. That seemed like a very reasonable amount of time, especially because I was really happy with the result. I feel pretty silly for not doing this sooner. Those cement blocks sat out front (in a semi-organized half-square around the tree)—for almost six months. Perhaps longer! They didn’t look great but I just didn’t know what to do with them. I wish I’d figured out earlier how I wanted to use them. But I suppose life is not always a linear process. My life isn’t! It has twists and turns and dead ends and sloppy figure eights. But I’m delighted with my wall and so I’ll just focus on that. Do you have any home improvement projects that you can tackle this weekend? It’s a great feeling to do it yourself. Go for it!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In the Trees, Please

Treehouses. Small. Fun. Fanciful. An excellent setting for an imaginary adventure.

A few days ago I happened upon a treehouse while I was out walking and I took this photo of it. It’s fairly basic. There’s no roof, but it’s a place to sit among the leaves, and it’s charming. It is a more imaginative version of a deck. I love how it is built on top of two neighboring trees.

Later that day I spent an hour hunting for photos of other treehouses I’d seen in the last few years. I found one other photo but I know there are more. Here’s a treehouse I spotted near my parents’ house. This one has stairs that lead up to the entrance. There are windows, walls and a roof. Someone put a lot of time into creating it.

This last photo shows a remarkable treehouse. It’s octagonal, and many details were added to make it amazing. Even the window panes are painted an accent color (window panes? Windows? Now you know you’re dealing with an unusual treehouse. Still, in my book, simple is good enough…)

Treehouses automatically set the stage for excitement. They are designed for kids. Some even have signs barring grownups. This must be so thrilling for kids. It’s their space, their rules, their turf, their world. Are they pirates in their fort? Or people living a secret life in the jungle? Is the treehouse a Barbie village? So many possibilities…

If it’s a true treehouse, built high up among the branches, kids can look down at the world, and things do look different when you’re off the ground. I’m thinking about tree houses, but the idea also applies to playhouses, club houses, lofts, forts—anything that is a small, cozy space created just for a child. Even the upper level of a bunk bed has a touch of magic. Tents made from kitchen chairs and sheets are also wonderful. They are private spaces, separate from the grown ups’ world. Something kid-sized must feel just right to a child—after all, kids live in homes that are built for grownup proportions—chairs that feel too big, countertops they can’t reach, sinks that require a step stool to reach. Something kid-sized is fun. I remember a play space under someone’s stairs. It was a house I visited only once, as a young child. I can’t remember the faces of the owners but I remember that small room, a hideout, a nest just for kids. These things make a big impression.

When I was very young we had a book called “A Little House of your Own,” by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers (1954). It was about children making cozy spaces both indoors and out. The charming illustrations were in pen and ink. There were many kid-sized mini houses depicted in the book—ideas to get a child’s imagination going. Here is a page from it:

When I think of tree houses, I think of the simple construction of a building. Windows would be open spaces in the walls, perhaps with a curtain to keep adult eyes out. But simple is good. There are fascinating tv shows about treehouses built with the intention that people will live in them. They have plumbing and electricity. They have stairs up to them. There are bathrooms and appliances. The shows are intriguing, and the concept catches my attention. But for me, glamming up a treehouse actually takes the fun out of it. A tree house should feel a bit rustic, I think. It shouldn’t feel like a four-star resort. I love that the treehouses I’ve found were made by homeowners, not architects. You can see the human touch in them. They aren’t super fancy. Each one is different, built according to how the tree grew. And each shows that someone saw the potential in a tree, and valued spending the time to make something for a child. I love it.

One fond memory I have from my youngest years involves a tree and a house, but not what you’d call a treehouse. We had a Juniper tree near our front door. The back of it was cut away so that it wouldn’t push into the house. There was a kid-sized gap between the tree and the house and I could climb the branches like a ladder. I’d sit on a shallow ledge on the house, and just be tucked away in my own private world. It was hidden, and that gave it magic. Small spaces between the branches were like windows. I could see out but no one could see me.

I’ll keep looking for those photos I took of other treehouses. And I’ll keep on the lookout for more treehouses. Unlike so many toys of today, treehouses don’t require a game console or electricity—they just require some imagination. Treehouses bring you back to childhood and days of dreaming up a make-believe land to visit. They get you outside, among the leaves and birds. It’s a place to talk or just to be, an oasis set away from real life. Tree houses are get-away spots. And all of us—kids, grownups, all of us—need a cozy spot to get away…

Monday, January 19, 2015

Weekend with my Weeds

There’s only one problem with 3-day weekends: they make me want every weekend to be three days long!

There were lots of fun moments this weekend: a party, visiting with friends, reading, good food—and weeding. Under normal circumstances I don’t want to spend precious free time weeding. But I decided I’d sacrifice some time to weed this weekend—only because it was a long weekend so I had extra time for things on the Should Do List (as opposed to the Want To Do list). Once I got started I could not stop. I cut branches and trimmed vines. (I know that’s not technically weeding but once you start looking for weeds you see many yard work projects that could use some attention.) I pulled weeds and moved planters. I cut my hands on thorns and kept pulling. I bonded with my succulents.

In case you’re not obsessed with succulents, you might not know that this is the time of the year when they bloom, and some turn different colors.

The downside to waiting a really long time to weed is that there are hundreds and hundreds of weeds and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

The upside to waiting a long time to check on the succulents in our front yard is that I really noticed their growth.

Here are three photos I took at sunset today. They capture some of the changes happening around here.

These baby buds are the size of a pea. So tiny yet completely formed, in miniature:

I love the geometry of certain succulents:

These are called Sticks of Fire. Aren’t they something?

If you didn’t spend time weeding this weekend, my condolences.

Hope you had some fun!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wacky Wednesday #1: Super Sarah!

This may be a new feature: Wacky Wednesday. We’ll see. I can’t guarantee there will be wackiness every Wednesday but given that a) I love wacky moments and b) Wednesday rolls around frequently, there may be some Wacky Wednesdays in the future.

I wore a fun outfit today, a costume that channels my inner super heroine. Here’s Super Sarah:


I’m not sure how this idea came about. I’m not obsessed with Super Man or comics. But recently a nickname popped into my mind, one that was given to me twenty years ago by my friend Crazy Dan. He called me Super Sarah, and maybe this memory somehow grew into a costume inspiration. (Crazy Dan, by the way, is not literally crazy. He’s one of the smartest people I know, but he used to say such unbelievable things and every time I saw him I found myself saying “You are crazy, Dan.”)

Anyway, this Super Sarah idea must have been lurking somewhere in my brain. I love to sew fun outfits and a few weeks ago I realized that another sewing project had taken root in my imagination.

I made this outfit for $10 or so, which I know is a fortune to some people, but for me is a justifiable amount to spend on a costume that is just for fun. I painted an old pair of shoes red. The jumpsuit was created from two $3 blue t-shirts. Throw in a zipper, some elastic and a little red fabric for a cape and voila! A super heroine in the making.

When I arrived to pick up my daughter after school the little kids loved my costume. Oh, it’s so fun to make kids smile. Grown-ups liked my outfit, too. Outside the school I shared my philosophy with a few of the parents: it’s not fair that kids get to have so many fun clothes and costumes. We grownups like costumes and capes and polka dots and rainbows, too--and grownups need more laughs. I’m on a one-woman campaign to make grownup clothes more FUN!

By the way, where does a modern-day super heroine-in-training go to change into her outfit? Unlike in the days of the original Superman, there are no longer phone booths on every corner to use as emergency changing rooms. On the other hand, there are cell phone stores on every corner now, so in a pinch I could always duck into one of those to change.

Well, it’s time for me to go stop a train, and leap some buildings in a single bound. After that, cape or no cape, I’ll really turn up the excitement and tackle a monstrously tall pile of dirty dishes. Following that, I’ll nag until the homework is finished. I’ll throw together tomorrow’s lunches, leap over a giant laundry pile, and then zoom toward bed. Even super heroines need their rest…

Monday, January 12, 2015

But First…

Today I had my first mammogram.

I wasn’t looking forward to it but it had to be done. Unexciting medical procedures save lives and this lady wants her life for as long as possible.

This reminds me of so many other firsts:

My first wobbly steps. (Well, I don’t remember them but clearly I took them because I walk fine now.)

My first time riding a bike. (Technically I don’t remember this exact moment, either. But it’s such a milestone so it warrants a mention. What I do remember about learning to ride a bike is this: I was a shy kid, not at all a daredevil, and I was quite nervous about riding a bike. How on earth would it stay up? It took me a long time to believe that this could work. Ditto for first swim.)

My first time driving. (I was 15 in a big, empty parking lot and Dad told me to just steer around for a while. The accelerator was surprisingly sensitive. Did not hit any trees, fences or walls. Go, me!)

My first time falling in love. (Age 19. Fell madly in love. It’s an amazing feeling. We humans are meant to connect with others in an intense way. It crashed and burned two years later and I was heartbroken. But at least I tried. I didn’t let fear keep me from falling deep. It seems like all of these firsts involve risk and falling, and getting back up again. Some firsts are harder than others but you keep trying.)

The first time I talked to my future husband. (I saw him before I talked to him and I thought, “WOW—who is that?!” Lucky me, I soon discovered that his friendly ways and funny personality grabbed me as much as his looks did. I had met The One.)

When I had my first child. (The love you feel for your child is overwhelming. It’s exhausting to parent a newborn but it’s full of wonder, too. He was, and is, a treasure, full of surprises. When I had my first daughter, and my second, the joy and awe were just as amazing as the first time. But now we had pink clothes.)

The first time my birthday had a “4” at the beginning of it. (A year ago. I dreaded it, I really did. Aging is hard on the ego—I don’t care how many cutesy sayings you can find about the wisdom you earn with age. It’s still hard. But I am glad to say that turning 40 wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.) Which brings me to…

My first mammogram. (Once you’re 40, you need to do this. I’ve been a bit sluggish in making the appointment but it’s time. I was a little nervous but I wasn’t dreading it. I’m grateful we have such good medical care in this country, and I need to take advantage of that. I can say that while it was somewhat uncomfortable it was really no big deal and if anyone reading this is over 40—or has a family history of breast cancer—and hasn’t gone, please make an appointment. I’ve been much more anxious during other medical and dental procedures. This was no biggie.)

Other firsts come to mind: the first time my son rode his bike. My daughter’s first overnight at a friend’s. My youngest child's first day of school. I hope there are a lot more firsts in my life. I want to learn new skills and new art techniques. I’m excited for the day when my nephew gets his first tooth, takes his first steps and the first time he comes up with a half-gibberish nickname for me.

Firsts can be scary, no doubt. New things are unfamiliar. But even the ones we dread may provide some silver lining. Let’s celebrate those milestones.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Week in the Life of a Harried Mom

Oy vey, what a week. Want to know how it went? Here’s a summary:

One very rude awakening when Monday barged in and we had to pry ourselves out of bed to shrieks from alarm clocks. Two weeks off of school got me used to waking up when I pleased…

One trip to the dermatologist where he froze something off of my nose. First it looked like a gooey white booger, and now it’s morphing into a textured yellow raisin. I put a little concealer on it but it still looks weird.

One suggestion from my daughter that I sew a miniature curtain to cover my funky nose. I’m known for my unusual clothing choices but I’m not convinced about the nose curtain.

One trip to Children’s Hospital for dental surgery. One tired mom glad that this is behind us.

One very good book being read.

Two excavations of kids’ bedrooms. Many layers of artifacts found.

Two trips to the gym.

Two exhausted shoulders.

Two library books I can’t wait to read.
Three very loud, wiggly, often arguing, quite funny kids making messes.
Three naked Barbie dolls in the bathtub. It looks like one of Hugh Hefner’s grotto parties.

Four days of winging the parenting on my own while Hubby was away on a business trip. (I really appreciate the women and men who are deployed for months at a time. Those who stay behind and hold down the fort at home have a major juggle on their hands.)

Five a.m. alarm clock buzzing eighteen inches from my son’s head. He didn’t wake up but I did—just long enough to shut it off, stagger back to bed and doze until 6:30. (The 5am alarm was from Christmas morning, because I said they couldn't go out until 5. How the alarm got turned on this week is an unsolved mystery.)

Six loads of laundry. Still more to do. None put away. What, are you kidding? Who has time for that?

Seven gigantic piles of dirty dishes, approximately one per day.

Eight threats made when video games were not turned off after the first few requests.

Nine new gray hairs—and that’s just in the last thirty minutes. This glamorous lifestyle of mine is taking its toll!

Ten toes that need massaging. (Hubby, are you reading this? Remember that contract you signed before leaving for your business trip? It stated that my feet would get massages daily and that you’d spend the rest of the month doing anything I asked. You don’t remember signing it? I saw you do it. In fact, I held the pen in your hand—you were a little drowsy at the time—and helped you sign it. It’s airtight.)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Debunking Dunbar? (Part 2 of 2)

I’m back to talk about my celebrity guest, Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist I’ve been researching. He’s fascinating and I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little obsessed with him. But I think this will be the last time I mention him for a while, so fear not. Soon I’ll go back to other favorite topics like flamingos and how to avoid housework.

In my last blog post, I was raving about Dunbar. But in case you think I’m tipsy on Eggnog (nope—wrong again—I don’t do Eggnog!), it’s not just me. Others think he’s a genius, too. In my research about Dunbar, I came across a writer whose reaction to Dunbar’s Number turned from scorn to reborn. Rick Lax wrote an article for Wired Magazine in which he set out to debunk Dunbar’s Number. It’s quite a fun story, so get comfortable and read on.

(In case you didn’t my recent blog post about Dunbar’s Number, you’ll need some background info if you are to understand today’s post. The nutshell version is that Dunbar’s studies of cultures show that humans can maintain approximately 150 real connections to others. And in a related point, what do you mean you didn’t read my last post?!?!?!??!?)

Rick Lax came across Dunbar’s Number in late 2011, and at first he was a disbeliever. Dunbar’s theory about how many true relationships we can nurture did not match up with Lax’s stats: Lax had more than 2,000 Facebook friends--although he admitted he didn’t have a lot of contact with all of them. Dunbar maintained that to call someone a friend meant you needed an individual interaction with someone. Lax took this as a challenge and decided to disprove Dunbar’s findings by writing a personal note to each of his Facebook friends.  (For the full piece check out for Rick Lax’s article, “Dunbar’s Number Kicked My Ass in Facebook Friends Experiment.”)

Lax started alphabetically and kept his messages short. He soon realized how many friends he’d added in the last decade—and forgotten about. Likewise, most of these friends were surprised to hear from Lax.

Even before Lax started on the Cs, he realized he needed to make the process faster and he began to leave wall posts instead of writing letters to friends. He knew this was not as personal as an email but admitted that writing 2,000 individual emails would take a very long time. In writing his thousands of Facebook friends Lax realized that a lot of time had passed since he had last contacted many of them. He had very little involvement in most of his contacts’ lives. Some responded to his notes by asking if they actually knew each other.

Lax hit a stalemate before he reached the Js. He converted to Facebook’s Timeline and lost access to the alphabetical friend list. Lax had contacted 1,000 of his 2,000 Facebook friends and that was more than enough to convince him to conclude his experiment. Here’s what he wrote:   

“In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.

Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.

I walk away from this experiment with a newfound respect for 1) British anthropology and 2) My real friends. There aren’t too many of them, I now see. So I better treat them well.” (

Sarah again:

My two cents (well, I’m long-winded so it may be more like 22 cents) is this: I think it’s important to connect with the people around you. Yes, in 2015 many humans do not need to live in tribes the way we once did. But that does not mean we must be or should be like islands, completely separate from those near us. We all need others at some point. Neighbors may be the modern day equivalent of tribal members. I’m so fortunate that I live in a neighborhood where we know and help our neighbors. Proximity isn’t the only thing that bonds people but it opens a door to friendship. Several times I’ve called my neighbor Lisa and informed her that I would be over in five minutes to borrow her baking powder. I’ve watched friends’ kids when they had job interviews. Once I asked my friend/neighbor to come over and sign for a fridge when I couldn’t be home for the delivery. Neighbors have borrowed our tools, our truck and our vacuum. Neighbors may come from different countries, speak different languages, and live mostly separate existences, unlike the days of the tribe. But we have a lot in common, too, and most of us want to feel connected to our neighborhood and those who live nearby. Our tribal associations may be looser than they once were (unless you’re a contestant on Survivor) but we can be part-time tribe members. Or on-call tribe members. Yep, that works for me…

Friday, January 2, 2015

Dunbar's Number—and YOU! (Part 1 of 2)

Last month I sat looking at my Christmas card list and realized that eight people I knew died last year—seven within the last five months. Two were young. That rattled me. It got me thinking about a concept my friend Ed introduced me to: Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who studies societies and human beings’ interactions within their tribes. Dunbar studies contemporary cultures and his findings apply to many of us living today, whether we live in crowded cities, small villages or in the middle of nowhere.

I’ll write from my perspective as a 41-year-old woman living in an American suburb in 2015. When I write about American life and perspectives it’s because I live here. I don’t speak for all Americans nor do I intend to imply that America is the center of the universe or the only good place to live. But it’s what I know so I see the world through that lens.

Backing up to Dunbar’s use of the word “tribe.” When I hear that word I think of times past, when people literally lived with a certain group, sometimes nomadically. Everything they needed was hunted, gathered or made by the tribe. Life was communal. “Tribe” connotes a group that needs to stick together for safety and survival. Outsiders were looked on suspiciously as a potential threat to the tribe’s wellbeing. Tribes did not email other tribes on the other side of the world.

In 2015 in America we may not see ourselves as living in tribes. (Of course, there are groups who live separately even if they live in relatively close proximity to others. The Amish come to mind. I’m intrigued by them. More on that—someday.) But perhaps our connections to others really are the descendants of tribal connections. The tribe is less homogenous than it once was, but maybe we’re still tribal after all. In today’s society, tribe doesn’t have the same meaning it once did. But Dunbar uses this term because it describes the concept of grouping, even if the groups aren’t physically close to one another.

Adjustments to my Christmas card list last month didn’t lead me to ponder tribes for the first time. I think of the concept of tribes quite a bit, actually. Every year I meet new people through my kids’ two schools. Friends and neighbors move away. Others move in. My circle of friends and family members changes yearly. I feel overwhelmed as I think of all the people I’d like to see or catch up with. But I still only have 24 hours in a day. I must take inventory periodically and decide which connections I will prioritize.  

Dunbar has found that the average number of people one can maintain a real connection to is 150. He backs this number up in various ways. Dunbar studied tribe size and behavior but also takes a look a scientific measurements such as neocortex size.

After a while the scientific stuff starts ricocheting around in my brain like a pink pong ball on Red Bull.  I’m mean, how often in daily speech am I using the word “neocortex?” Not very often, especially on weekends! But I relate to the point Dunbar was making. Even if Dunbar’s analysis did not include a scientific look at brain size, I still would see his points as valid based on social behavior alone. We humans can’t maintain an infinite number of relationships. Relationships take time and energy and a true mutual interest if they are to grow and do well. You can’t have 5,000 real friends. (Yes, this is a jab at Facebook! Why do they limit it to 5,000? Is that a reasonable limit, in their eyes? 5,100 would be preposterous but 5,000 is completely manageable?! I am not a Facebook user. I did try it once, years ago, in order to read a writer friend’s work, which was posted there. But I don’t like how it shoves people at you and compares notes on how many friends all the other people have. So junior-high-ish! At times I’ve felt ignored by those I thought were real friends because they were so busy with their Facebook friends (people they never saw or talked to by phone), doing important things like comparing sock color. I was bothered that people I liked spent so much time doing online debates with acquaintances or friends of friends rather than connecting with true, living, breathing people they knew. I felt dumped for Facebook!)

As much as I’d love to be in touch with people I knew from other chapters of my life, it does get harder with each passing year. Maybe it’s the phase I’m in, because my kids are in elementary school. I’m still arranging play dates and I know who their classmates are. My time is spent helping them form connections. This will be different when they are in high school. For now, my time is closely bound to their world. I can’t cram 20 phone calls and 80 emails into the hours when they are in school. So I must pick and choose.

This discussion can end here if you like. I’ve made all the points I wanted to make. I find this stuff fascinating. I’m always curious about what we do and why. If you’re interested in more about Dunbar’s Number, check him out on Wikipedia or read here:


Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150…Dunbar's number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity.

In a 1992 article, Dunbar used (neocortex size in) non-human primates to predict a social group size for humans. Dunbar formed his predictions about human tribe size using average neocortex size that developed approximately 250,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene age…Dunbar searched the anthropological and ethnographical literature for census-like group size information for various hunter–gatherer societies, the closest existing approximations to how anthropology reconstructs the Pleistocene societies.

Dunbar's surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline's sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.

Dunbar has argued that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group's time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Correspondingly, only groups under intense survival pressure,[citation needed] such as subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings, have, on average, achieved the 150-member mark. Moreover, Dunbar noted that such groups are almost always physically close: "... we might expect the upper limit on group size to depend on the degree of social dispersal. In dispersed societies, individuals will meet less often and will thus be less familiar with each, so group sizes should be smaller in consequence." Thus, the 150-member group would occur only because of absolute necessity—due to intense environmental and economic pressures.

Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, proposes furthermore that language may have arisen as a "cheap" means of social grooming, allowing early humans to efficiently maintain social cohesion. Without language, Dunbar speculates, humans would have to expend nearly half their time on social grooming, which would have made productive, cooperative effort nearly impossible. Language may have allowed societies to remain cohesive, while reducing the need for physical and social intimacy.[6]

Dunbar's number has since become of interest in anthropology, evolutionary psychology,[7] statistics, and business management. For example, developers of social software are interested in it, as they need to know the size of social networks their software needs to take into account; and in the modern military, operational psychologists seek such data to support or refute policies related to maintaining or improving unit cohesion and morale.

A recent study has suggested that Dunbar's number is applicable to online social networks as well.[8][9] Whether online interactions count as stable social relationships is debatable, as virtual engagements do not stimulate the same biological responses real interactions do.[10]

Alternative numbers

Anthropologist H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth and associates have done a variety of field studies in the United States that came up with an estimated median number of ties as 231.”