Homebody Yoga, Jay Fields

During the two weeks of January that weren’t a polar apocalypse, I was on the east coast visiting some friends and family. (It turns out I really don’t miss winter, although the one snow day I got was nice.) While I was with my brother and sister-in-law, they (but mostly she) gave me a slim volume called Homebody Yoga: 28 Days to Bring You Home to Your Body & To a Life Led with Purpose for my birthday. It was the only book I got while I was there (I may have purchased five novels at the great secondhand bookshop that’s also a wine bar) that I didn’t have my parents ship back to me. Instead, I tucked it in my carry-on and read it on and off for the rest of the trip.

Now, Julia is the person, years ago now, who first introduced me to yoga. She badgered me to try it enough times that I actually learned to love it (oh, how I loathed it at the start!). She’s been a constant source of knowledge and encouragement to me and has managed to spread her love of yoga to my whole family.

If you had told me a decade ago that such a thing could happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but sure enough, yoga has inextricably become a part of our lives. I think my favorite class was the one where my parents, my brother’s in-laws, and my sixth grade teacher were all practicing under Julia’s patient tutelage. It was surreal and excellent at the same time.

At any rate, when she recommends a book to me, I trust her. She understands what I’m looking for uncannily well; she has never once recommended one (on yoga or any other subject) that I haven’t loved. Homebody Yoga was no exception. This book, which essentially began with a reference to the poem by Derek Walcott below, was an absolute perfect find for my birthday month.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

During February, I like to spend time reflecting on my year and considering what I can do over the next eleven months to improve my life from the inside out. I enjoy unlocking little pieces of myself that have been undernourished or ignored, and this book offered the perfect opportunity for a month of reflection.

Fields’ book is so much more than a “how-to” for home practice though. As a writer, she’s insightful (without being smarmy), as well as warm and funny and thought-provoking. Her guidance is intuitive for both the novice and the expert, and every page had me ready to jump up and get on my mat.

Part of me wanted to wait until February 1st to crack the cover, but ultimately, I couldn’t wait. I had to do a full read-through before I officially “started” my twenty-eight days. I’m glad I did. This is a book that bears rereading. Like a good poem (or yoga pose), her advice resonates a little differently with me each day. The time I’m spending with this book and my mat has become a refuge, and Fields, my companion on a very strange, and necessary, journey.

 

For more about Jay Fields, head here.

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, Marti Olsen Laney

About a month after my husband and I started dating, he gave me, half-jokingly, a copy of The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life, by Mikki Halpin. I read the whole thing that night, and the next day, I assured him I was surprisingly well-suited for geek care. Many of my closest friends are geeks from all over the spectrum (coding, gaming, fanning, etc), and I had plenty of experience with what those relationships can require.

A few months later, I was able to return the favor when his sister recommended The Introvert Advantage. If his Handbook was meant to prepare me for what loving a software engineer and life long tinkerer would entail, this book was what he needed to fully understand an introvert who came from a family of introverts! Of course, he’s one too, so you’d think neither of us would  require such a guide for proper tending . You’d be wrong.

After I read it for the first time, he and I talked a lot about the basic premise of the book (that introverts become re-energized by spending time alone, or in reflection, or by stepping back). On some level, I think I had always known this to be true, but since we had this conversation I have come back to think on it many times. Six years later, I’ve recommended this book to so many people, I’ve lost count. I’ve reread it myself three times, and I still can’t get over how much of a difference it’s made to me.

I recently pulled the book out again after talking to one of my best friends about a new relationship in her life. I’m one of those introverts who’s drawn to the energy and charisma of extroverts, and this friend is a shining example of that. She is a dynamic, energetic, brilliant woman who can easily function on five hours a sleep a night. She isn’t phased by the idea of having twelve weekends in a row booked by travel, weddings, and lunch dates; in fact, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and she was forced to stay home for a few days, she longed to be back at the office, jumping in on meetings and taking clients out for drinks.

I’ll be honest – just thinking about her life makes me tired – yet we’ve been best friends for over twenty years. Although she lives three thousand miles away, we talk several times a week, and recently, our conversations have come around to the idea of stress on the relationships between extroverts and introverts.

Without knowing it, couples enter into relationships wearing their own temperament spectacles. Our lenses are ground from our genes, physiology, upbringing, emotional history, social class, education, and friends. Each lens has a precise prescription, so each view is true and accurate for that particular person. But only for that person. What is very important for a healthy relationship is to realize that you are looking at life through your spectacles. If we think that our view is the right view, then we have struggles in our relationships. (loc 1692)

This is one of those ideas that seems obvious on paper, but in reality, people constantly struggle to communicate a unique view of the world to others and get incredibly frustrated when they’re misunderstood. Although that particular passage comes from a chapter on romantic relationships, for me, the idea is a guide for all of my relationships.

For example, I come from a rather unusual situation – I grew up in a family of introverts. Maybe it should have been obvious to the four us before I read this book, but it wasn’t. I had always thought introverted equaled shy and quiet, and that didn’t really fit. When I realized what introversion truly was, my entire life made so much more sense! My family’s temperaments are especially tied to the odd way we approach activities like vacations or parties or visiting friends. On the one hand, we want to do it all because we’re curious, friendly people; on the other, we often are irritable about those same things because we subconsciously anticipate the enormous energy drain we’ll have from participating.

In one section of the book where Laney discusses working with introverted children, she mentions that being in a car can be stressful, and to counteract the overwhelming feeling of being physically close to others, a child could use headphones, a book, or a physical barrier (like pillows) to offer some level of protection from the stimulation. Growing up, my brother and I each had a Walkman to listen to whenever we got in the car. My father called it “plugging in,” but in actuality, I think we were unplugging. I even remember that my favorite vehicle as a child was our Colt Vista Wagon, which had two rows of back seats; my brother would sit in the first row and I would sit on the opposite side in the far back – this gave both of us physical and mental space that I realize now was crucial.

Introverted children show their need for physical contact in many ways. Like all children, they can enjoy being held or hugged. At other times, when they feel overstimulated, they may require distance. “He’s touching my leg,” they might whine in the car if they are tired. In a group, they often like to be at the back, front, or edge of the pack, rather than in the center….Introverts feel drained by having their physical space intruded upon. It takes energy for them to be around people even if they are not interacting with them. This is very hard for extroverts to grasp since space is not an issue for them. Cozying up doesn’t require energy. (loc 1997)

Even as an adult, I require a lot of personal space. I  prefer to stand on subways and to put as many seats as possible between me and other moviegoers in a theatre. It’s not that I can’t be close to other people; I just prefer to have a little separation. Friends often tease me about how I don’t like to give hugs ( I really don’t) or squish in with them on the couch, and it used to bother me. Now, I just shrug and agree. It’s part of my deal, and I don’t have to be ashamed of it.

I fully believe that the world would grind to a halt without its extroverts. (Fortunately, about seventy-five percent of the population identify as extroverts, so there’s little fear of a shortage.) Without my best friend, I’m pretty sure my wedding never could have happened – not to mention school dances I wouldn’t have attended, people I never would have met, and midnight adventures that would have gone un…ventured! After basically imprinting this book on my soul, I’m comfortable enough to know what it takes to be the happiest, healthiest introvert I can be. It’s  made me love and appreciate extroverts like her so much more (not to mention allowing me to help beloved introverts get some much-needed peace and quiet!). It’s rare to find a book that can so completely redefine a person, but for me, The Introvert Advantage is absolutely it.

For more about Marti Olsen Laney, go here.

From the Psalms to the Cloud, Maria Mankin and Maren Tirabassi

Hey, guess what? It’s November, and that means my latest book is finally here! I’m sure you’re all dying to get your hands on a copy of this magnificent treatise on faith’s place in a fast-paced digital culture. It’s basically like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Eat, Pray, Love got together and had a baby, and that baby was this book.

Just kidding. It’s absolutely nothing like that. Seriously, don’t buy this book based on that idea. If anything, buy this book because you feel bad for me. Being a full-time writer is awesome and I love it, but it’s not a big moneymaker. (Unless you’re Neil Gaiman. I like to imagine him swimming in a room full of gold coins; in fact, I assume his publisher is contractually obligated to pay him in gold coins for just such a purpose.) I write some fiction, and I still dabble in poetry (even though trying to sell poetry is like choosing to stand in the stocks and have rotten fruit chucked at you), but my bread and butter is worship resource books.

It’s pretty sexy work, I know. I don’t talk about it much here because religion is a touchy subject, and the moment people even start breathing in that direction, it gets heated. I do my best to steer clear of the topic since I never want anyone to feel pressured to agree with my perspective on the matter.

For the record, my opinion is that faith is a mountain with an infinite number of paths; the top of the mountain is not God, but a place where respect, tolerance, and justice coexist. For me, God is everywhere and accessible to any and all interested parties. My faith in God doesn’t conflict with my belief in scientific fact or my desperate hope that I will someday get to meet an alien. I have friends of many different faiths, and I have friends who are atheist and agnostic; I love them not because of what religion they may or may not practice, but because, like me, they believe all people deserve equal rights and a healthy dose of compassion.

That being said, I often struggle to live up to that in my day-to-day life; it’s gotten to the point where I notice the opportunity to be a more generous person but walk straight past it because, for whatever reason, the opportunity makes me feel uncomfortable. As it turns out, my faith is all about radical discomfort. There is very little room in it for lip service; the path is all about action, and the seed for this book came from a desire to explore what that really means.

It turns out, that’s a huge question, and not one we could tackle in a single book. As we talked about it together, and turned to others to hear what they had to say on the matter, we began to focus on an idea that I love: How do we climb out of the out-dated confines of a faith we grew up with, as individuals and in community? And as we do it, how can we translate that faith into something less focused on tradition and more connected to real-world need?

When we started this project, I was overwhelmed by a desire to connect to a more radical, messy, challenging faith than the one I experienced on Sunday mornings. I love my church and my denomination, and I know that many people involved in it are doing great work living out the verse my husband and I requested for the benediction at our wedding:

What does God require of you
But to act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

But I didn’t feel like I was doing enough of that. I was practicing a safe, comfortable, childish version of my faith, and I didn’t know how to change. When we wrote this book, we called on people of all ages from around the world to help us dig into something real. When I read over the page proofs at the beginning of October, I was reminded that the best part of this experience has been reading what they wrote. We asked for prayer and practice, and our contributors came back to us with a raw faith that inspired me. The end result wasn’t a complete answer to the puzzle, but it gave me hope.

This book isn’t a step-by-step guide to faith. It’s more like a party where it’s completely acceptable to discuss the stumbling blocks on the way to the mountain top. It’s a place where, by silent agreement, we looked around and said, here, it’s okay to fall apart, or to be on the way to dying, or to simply be trying to live a life that’s a little more thoughtful. It’s alright to be clinging to constant, avoidable failure even while others dance chaotic, arms-outspread rejoicing for tiny, nearly forgettable blessings. Once I arrived, I realized I’d found my tribe – people as troubled and lost as I was who hadn’t given up hope.

Now, I know this isn’t a book for everyone, and we wrote it knowing our audience might be small. I’m okay with that. I’ve published six books in this vein, and this is by far the one I’m most proud of. Given that fact, if any of you are interested in buying a copy (or four – to subsidize the poetry, you know?), hit me up in the comments and I’ll point you in the right direction. For those of you who aren’t, we’re still good, right? The world is full of books on lighter subjects, and I promise we’ll be back at them next week…

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, Carolyn Edwards (editor), Lella Gandini (editor), George Forman (editor)

Last week, I was having dinner with a friend with whom I used to teach preschool. She was telling me about the work she was doing in her new classroom with her new teaching team. In case you aren’t aware, in many preschool programs across the US, teachers have a week or less (in this particular case, three days) without the children present to “transition” their classrooms. Also, somewhat unusually, at this school, teachers do not instruct the same class every year; the program enrolls children from three months to five years, and in the infant program, teachers have the option of moving with the children for up to three years. As a result, it’s highly unusual to have the exact same teaching team (three or four teachers depending on class size, ratio necessity, and age) for any classroom from one year to another.

Since I left the school, I’ve depended on this friend to keep me in the loop about the changes, struggles, and triumphs that come from working in this constantly revolving scenario. After she went home, having stuffed my little brain with plans for the new year, I was inspired to pull out one of the books I read back when I began teaching there.

She and I had both been hired the same summer, the year the school opened, and at that time, the center was hoping to practice a philosophy inspired by the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It’s a common misconception that the philosophy itself is called Reggio Emilia, but in fact, it’s the name of a town that happened to be the origin of some truly groundbreaking work with young children. The book, The Hundred Languages of Children, is a dense look the history and philosophy of teaching that has developed there and is probably not a strong choice for the casual reader. I know, however, that many of you are teachers who struggle to bring best practice to the students, families, and communities you work with. Even though this book is aimed at Early Childhood educators, it is an inspiring and fierce read for people who demand more from educational practices.

The history of Reggio Emilia is especially fascinating to me. This is an entire community that decided to work together to create a better education system. Who are these people? How did they get motivated to do this? In the book, it talks about the era of change that Italy went through – how the country was working diligently for the past forty-five years to establish better rights for working people, families, parents, and children (especially children with disabilities) – but how was it possible a single community managed focus enough to create the Reggio Emilia experience?

If this had been done in the United States, it would have been an elite program, open only to families that could afford the luxury of a top-notch education. Instead, in Reggio Emilia, the system was designed to be free and available to every member of the community, regardless of a child’s economic, religious, or developmental background. It was also created, through enormous struggle, by the community. This was not a school that dropped itself into the middle of a town and expected families to jump on board. The town went through an incredibly grueling process, together, of determining what they wanted and needed out of public education. This system required buy-in, and discussion, and disagreement. It was and is not always pretty (although as a teacher, swept away by what they have managed to do, it certainly seems absolutely remarkable from the outside).

The program the Italians have established relies almost entirely on documentation collected from classroom work with the children. The teachers record conversations with the children; they spend time note-taking and photographing the children’s work. They meet with other teachers to discuss what they have observed, and they do their best to share all of this with the wider community. Unlike in the US, where research must be disseminated by widely “reputable” sources before educational systems can even consider the information, this  style of data gathering has informed the entire system of pre-primary education.

This requires a huge amount of work, but it provides opportunities for a much greater range of people to have input (parents, teachers, administrators, interested citizens), which then leads to opportunities that would have not have been possible otherwise. It is also a reflection of the type of work these professionals seek to have the children do themselves – questioning, documenting, experimenting – and in practicing it themselves, they develop their own skills to scaffold the children’s investigations.

One of the things I remember wanting when I first read this book was more of the Italians’ notes and observations about the children’s work, especially when they were first starting out. To me, coming from a more traditional teaching environment, these new ideas were a thrill, but also proved daunting to execute. How was I to go about observing the children thoroughly enough to find the right topic, then create questions and hypotheses to move the curriculum forward with enthusiasm? I found myself grateful that at the end of one chapter, they emphasized how important small projects were to eventually having the ability to work with children on a deeper investigative level over the course of months.

When I went to the end of the year celebration in June of children I had worked with as infants (they were going off to kindergarten in the fall), we were treated to an amazing twenty-minute video presentation of the children’s investigations about space. The whole school was filled with the work they had done (all of it originally inspired by the flyover of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September), and although all of it was impressive on its own, it was even more so when I heard, from their own mouths, the children’s discussions, questions, and conclusions over the course of nine months about the solar system and NASA’s role in space exploration. I was so proud of having been part of their very earliest experiences in education and yet also (blissfully) dumbfounded by what they were capable of doing and knowing at five years old as a result.

One of the most critical things I absorbed from this book is that the goal of teaching is not to indoctrinate children with the idea that every thought they have is perfect or to give them the false hope that every one will be successful.  Instead, the teacher’s role is to engage them in problem solving with their peers so that their work is meaningful to them.  Protecting them from failure was not my job.  Providing support when they felt sad, angry or frustrated was, of course, but that could be done in many ways.  This book revolutionized, for me, the belief that caring for children is not a separate idea from encouraging them to be competent, questioning individuals. This has been done magnificently in Italy, but it can be executed successfully on many levels anywhere people care enough to start asking questions.

For more information about the North American Reggio Emilia Association, go here. If you’re curious about the history and details of Reggio Emilia, the Wikipedia article here is a great place to start.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

There was something fitting about picking up this book over Father’s Day weekend. I first fell in love with it when it appeared on a syllabus for one of my classes in Early Education at UCLA, and, in fact it is, along with its “cousin,” Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, my go-to book for family dynamic issues. It’s been years now since I’ve read it, and I had forgotten just how much of my teaching philosophy stems from this book, but after spending the evening babysitting my neighbor’s children, I decided a refresher course was in order. (That came out wrong. The boys are delightful and I adore them, but right around the time I was commando-crawling out of their room hoping they wouldn’t wake up as I slid over the creaky floorboards, it occurred to me that it never hurts to take a second look at a great resource.)

Both Siblings and How to Talk are quick reads – perfect for the hectic parental lifestyle – and they include hilariously old-school cartoons, stories from parents, and Quick Reminder pages to distill information for the most harried readers. My copy is also filled with highlighted paragraphs and scribbled notes in the margin; the fact that I never mark up my books leads me to believe that upon first reading, I was absolutely terrified this information wouldn’t sink in.

My teaching career at that point was mainly hinging on a naturally empathetic nature and a high threshold for stickiness and screaming. I didn’t have many tools at my disposal, and I was panicked that I had already been hired by a lovely school desperately in need of teacher’s aides. Even though I wouldn’t be taking point in the classroom my first year, I still felt wildly unprepared (a feeling I suspect many parents share). As an educator and a student, however, I was fortunate enough to have more than my fair share of amazing professors who recommended resources like this one and were paid to spend time discussing the finer details. I learned so much from them, and as I took this information in, I was able to turn my time in the classroom into a wonderful experience.

Not everyone has that opportunity, of course. Even though this book was written in 1980, I’ve met very few parents who have read it, although I know plenty who are bombarded by complete crap on the internet on an hourly basis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the parenting sections of bookstores and  websites reading about claims to fix everything from colic to biting to tardiness, and it seems to me that most of the material is designed to make parents less secure (and therefore more likely to buy buy buy a solution).

Faber and Mazlish have a more holistic approach. Everything they discuss comes from a combination of personal experience and study with the esteemed child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott . Not only have they used these methods with their own children, but they’ve also led workshops on this subject all over the country for many years. They’ve tested what they teach, and they have encouraged their audience to experiment, question, and explore these resources with a critical eye. Through all of this, they are optimistic about the possibility of building healthy, respectful relationships within the family and classroom, and the techniques they present are simple and straightforward.

As I was pouring over the material on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare these ideas with my own upbringing. At first, I found myself being extremely critical – I could only see the things I would have done differently. After more consideration though, I realized that my parents had used quite a few of these suggestions when raising us. I don’t know if they were motivated by something they read or if it simply came from a natural instinct to be trusting and compassionate, but the foundation was definitely there. I realized that between them and the parents of my closest friends, the combined parenting styles stretched over just about all of the material covered in the book.

Wouldn’t it be great it have all that patience and skill in one family? Of course, but I’m ninety-seven percent sure it’s impossible, and in the end, I don’t think it mattered. Spending time with those families gave us exposure to a wider variety of ideas about limits, discipline, and family roles and helped to shape us into the people we are today. And remarkably, we’re all still friends, most likely because, despite our flaws and differences, we share the same values of love, forgiveness, and perseverance instilled at a young age.

That being said, I wish parents would read books like this because families deserve to live better. Parents, children, siblings – and to be honest, anyone who has to interact with other people  – should take time to learn how to communicate more effectively, and Mazlish and Faber make it easy. Cooperation shouldn’t be a desperate and unachievable goal. Shared responsibility shouldn’t be impossible. Respect should definitely not be a one way street. Regardless of age, we all want to be treated well, to have our ideas heard, and to feel like valued and contributing members of our communities. I’ve seen these ideas at work, and the results are well worth the time it takes to read the book.

 

For more about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (including details about organizing workshops), head over here.

The Urban Picnic: Being an Idiosyncratic and Lyrically Recollected Account of Menus, Recipes, History, Trivia, and Admonitions on the Subject of Alfresco Dining in Cities Both Large and Small, John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

Last Monday, after surviving my first road race (the incredible – and incredibly hot – Bolder Boulder 10k in Boulder, Colorado), I was sitting with my husband and his family in the CU stadium waiting to watch the elite racers come through. After each of the 50,000 participants finished the run, they were funneled into the bleachers by way of volunteers handing out cloth lunch bags full of healthy post-run treats, water bottles, Pepsi, and if one was so inclined (I wasn’t), a can of Michelob Light. By the time we crossed the finish line, it was crowded and 90 degrees, and I was so hungry that I tore into this lunch bag with energy I didn’t even realize I still possessed. I was tired, covered all over with salt (from sweat evaporating so quickly in the dry air that it left me coated and gritty), and completely happy. I had run the race I wanted to run, and now I was being rewarded with one of my all-time favorite things – an impromptu picnic.

You see, I’m not too picky about the definition of the word picnic. This is why, I think, my husband saw this book and immediately thought of me. I love to take my food outside, to get away from the dining room table and into the fresh air. I love barbecuing (in my back yard, at the park, by a lake), and making cold noodle salads, and cutting up fruit to eat with my fingers, and I love finding those little spots where I can eat whatever I have with me and feel a breeze on my face. I don’t need a table-cloth or blanket. I don’t need a cooler filled with delicious food (although I’m not against it!). I don’t even need to have company in order to enjoy myself. All I want is a spot of dry land and a snack, and I’m feel better about life.

This book, along with its history about picnics (both urban and otherwise), is filled with recipes to try, and my guess is that I will I learn to make about eight of them really well. I’ll pick whatever’s easiest and keeps best at room temperature and be completely satisfied. That being said, I’m sure my family will think it’s a step up from what I usually pull together (a loaf of bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, chips, and somewhat inexplicably, Red Hot Tamales), and maybe I’ll be able to spread the picnicking love to my more skeptical friends and neighbors by tempting them with Artichoke and Sun-Dried Tomato Dip (p 97), and Sesame Potatoes (p 122), and Mushroom Medley (p 166).

I can share with them that I now have official documentation (in the form of this book, which looks like someone on Amazon possibly stole it from a library before selling it to us…) explaining that it is historically acceptable to bring booze on any outing where I require them to eat while sitting on rocks. Also, I can probably relent and occasionally allow us to find a picnic table so that we don’t have to deal with the bad knees and arthritis flare-ups that apparently begin plaguing people around age thirty. With this book in hand, I can probably even ease them into more adventurous picnicking scenarios (while hiking! on road trips! without wet wipes!), which makes me happy since, even though I can and have happily picnicked alone, it’s certainly more fun with a friend or three.

The best thing about The Urban Picnic is that it strives to demystify the experience (just in time for those long summer days) for people who live in cities or who don’t have a lot of free time to create an elaborate experience. The whole point of the picnic is to kick back and relax with some food; it shouldn’t be stressful or involve hours of prep work (unless you’re the kind of person who loves to cook, in which case, there are definitely some recipes in here for you – feel free to send samples of any dishes that take longer than thirty minutes to prepare, since that’s my hard limit for culinary endeavors that don’t involve chocolate).

There’s no one right way to dine al fresco (I especially don’t recommend googling the phrase “dine al fresco” with Image Search on because  the pictures are ridiculously daunting and gorgeous), so if you’re happy throwing some meat on the fire and cracking open a beer, great! If you prefer to slow roast vegetables in foil while chowing down on chips and salsa, that’s fine! If you want to grab a yogurt and muffin from Starbucks and take it to the park, that’s a picnic! All that really matters is that this meal is a moment you’re taking for you. Whatever you like to eat, and wherever you want to eat it, slow down and enjoy the freedom from the office, the winter, and using utensils. All too soon, school buses will be revving up their engines again, the barrage of autumn holidays will start, and it will be too cold and rainy to sit outside with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and simply be.

 

Here’s a link to the NPR interview with Burns and Caton about their book.

How To Be An Explorer Of The World, Keri Smith

Last week, I had a chance to go to my local independent book shop and see John Scalzi read from his new book, The Human Division. He did a Q and A as well, and after that, he graciously sat and signed books for several hundred people. I had brought my kindle to be signed, but I knew it was going to be an incredibly long wait, so I browsed the shelves for an hour before getting into line. As much as I enjoyed getting to see one of my favorite authors speak, the best part of the night was looking at books. I so rarely go into shops (in part because when I do, I usually come out with eight or ten books that I could have gotten cheaper elsewhere) that it was a treat to wander around and get lost in the shelves.

As an added bonus, when I finally got up to the head of the line (I waited for half an hour once I made my purchase, which was great because I was finishing Lost in Clover and the time flew by), I was holding a book by China Mieville, and it prompted a conversation with Scalzi about how unfair it was that Mieville was not only a great writer but also a cool guy and incredibly fit (Scalzi may have used the phrase “pink granite” to describe him, and it might have been amazing).

In that same stack, I had what I considered to be sort of an outlier for my interests, a book called How To Be An Explorer Of The World. Now, when I’m book shopping, I always open any potential purchase and read the first chapter or so; that’s usually enough for me to know whether it’s going to languish on the “to-read” shelf or be picked up and devoured immediately. This one was a little different. It’s a collection of exercises and quotes intended to open the mind up to appreciating the “ordinary” things all around us. In the back, it has a field journal so that a reader could take this book and make notes about experiments and projects being conducted. It actually seemed like something my husband would really like, and when I bought it, I fully intended to give it to him.

Then I read it, and I changed my mind. This wasn’t a book I could give away. Instead, it was a book I wanted to take on all my vacations. I wanted to pull it out when I go to visit people. I want to have it for the day when I have children who are bored. After I read this book, I knew it wanted to be a living object, and I wanted to be the one to bring it to life.

In a 1960s IBM film about the computer there is a good description of the creative process…

The narrator states that the artist is never bored. She looks at everything and stores it all up. She rejects nothing. She is completely uncritical. When a problem confronts her she goes through all the stuff she has collected, sorts out what seems to be helpful in this situation, and relates it in a new way, making a new solution. She prepares for leaps by taking in everything. – Corita Kent (p38)

When I was in the first grade, in the winter, we would collect our jackets for recess, and then we would go back and sit at our desks until we were called to line up at the door. Because some children still needed help getting into mittens and hats and boots, this process could take quite a long time, and I began to create a little play world for myself by spreading out my coat on top of the desk. I would rest my chin on the desk and imagine these little stories that took place in the sleeves and collar and along the zipper. I would do this every day, and it got to the point when I looked forward to those five minutes at my desk more than I did the recess that came afterward. Ten years later, I wrote a monster mystery story for my English class, and it was inspired by that coat and the world I had created there.

I’m telling you about that because this book reminded me of why so many of stories start out with a tiny moment and grow from there. I get inspired by close observation of ordinary things. My first novel for NaNoWriMo started out with a man, who had just lost a very important briefcase, walking home in the rain; his attention is caught by a flooding sewer drain and the leaves snagged in the vortex of water. I started there because even though I didn’t know what story I wanted to write, I knew I could describe that scene. I figured it wouldn’t be so overwhelming to start a novel with something I knew this well, and it wasn’t.

Whenever I get stuck, this is my go-to writer’s block breaker. I call upon a memory of observation and I step back into that moment; then, once the juices are flowing, it’s easier to jump into unknown territory. I can’t help but be excited when I read a book like this  that encourages that type of thinking and has a slew of new ideas for me. I can already imagine how much fun some of these “Explorations” could be with my husband or mother or friends. It’s easy to get caught up in my routines, even when I know that my brain explodes creatively when I try something out of the ordinary.

When I think about how easy I found it to play in huge, imaginary worlds when I was a child, I get jealous of my former self. I want to crawl on my belly through the forest playing spies and have a detective agency to run from the neighbor’s swing set. I want the magic I so effortlessly knew existed then to exist now, and Keri Smith has managed to give me a road map back to that kind of joyful living.

 

To learn more about Keri Smith, go to her awesome site here.

Live More, Want Less: 52 Ways to Find Order in Your Life, Mary Carlomagno

You’re going to have to bear with me on this one, because this is not Shakespeare. It’s not even the self-help equivalent of Shakespeare. It’s a simple, clear-cut advice book that I picked up on my kindle for two dollars. I found it while googling “how to learn to pack lightly while traveling,” an extension of an obsession this month with de-cluttering my home. The closet has been purged – gone are the sweaters that didn’t really fit, the shoes I thought were cute but never wore, that dress from…when was it? High school? The kitchen cabinets have been reorganized and the out-of-date canned goods have been removed. Our spare blankets and towels have been carefully refolded and put away. The garage has been attacked, viciously. All of the medicine in the house has been examined and sorted into bins. The stack of papers balancing precariously on the shredder for the last six months has been shredded. Even bedside table drawers were emptied and carefully refilled. No room has escaped this frenetic purging energy.

And with every task completed on my invisible and seemingly endless winter cleaning checklist, I have felt a small sense of accomplishment. Very small. Of course I appreciate the fact that getting dressed in the morning has never been easier, and that I have a box of books ready to sell to the second-hand store, but for me, organization (and its delightful kin, furniture rearrangement) is a sign of unrest. I clean when I feel mentally disorganized, and that often coincides with the beginning of the year when it seems like the rest of the world is good-naturedly undergoing the process of resolution setting.

I don’t really do resolutions, though not because I don’t believe in them. I just never get around to it at the beginning of January – how could I, when I’m inevitably out-of-town or just coming off a week of vacation? My brain isn’t in productivity mode on January 2, and once the first week has gone by, I feel so behind that I can’t even imagine diving in. This year, this was made worse by the fact that I spent all autumn immersed in a manuscript, and when I sent it off the second week of December, all I wanted was a break. Well, now I’m back, and the calendar is about to change again, and my brain is still sputtering away in hiatus mode.

So I clean. And while I’m doing it, some quiet, dark corners of my brain start to knit together again. I find a deep and strange peace in the folding off clothes and emptying of trash. Part of me recognizes it as fear that I’ve barely started my next project. Another part knows that this is how my Type A personality justifies procrastination. A third part decided to pick up this book and allow January a little space to be what it is – a transition.

I enjoyed reading these brief chapters about how to find a more restful existence by doing exactly what it is I’m already immersed in. It’s like writing out a checklist and including things that have already been finished just to have the satisfaction of marking items complete. Reading Live More, Want Less made me feel less guilty about having an off month because it reminded me of what I have accomplished while sitting around waiting to do something more significant.

Maybe that isn’t a good enough reason to read a book. Maybe I should be forcing myself to do things my brain isn’t ready for, but every time I try, I’m reminded of what school is like for many children. At one of the preschools where I taught, parents were insistent that the curriculum begin to lean toward teaching every child  to read by kindergarten. This is not only impossible, it’s developmentally inappropriate for roughly 99 percent of children, and as an added “bonus,” it turns a lot of children into self-doubting students who hate and fear books. It was a nightmare, to be honest, and even though I recognize that there was a positive intention behind the request, it broke my heart to force on children a skill they weren’t prepared for. After a year with the pre-K class, my director and I had a long talk and she supported the idea of me teaching a younger class of children. She knew that my goal was to create a loving environment that encouraged multiple pathways to learning, and she also knew which parents would be excited about that approach. Together, we found a middle ground – a place where I could be happier without completely rejecting the feedback we’d received from some of the parents.

Our brains are not ready for everything all the time. Many of us accept that idea when it comes to children but have a hard time realizing that adults are no different. I’ve read some amazing books over the last few weeks, and I’ve written some short stories that are way outside my comfort zone. I’ve also spent a lot of time staring out the window, and scrubbing things, and wishing I could daydream a little less and work a little more. I’m searching for order, and, I think, for a personal restart. I suppose I’m just getting ready for this year to really begin.

To learn more about Mary Carlomagno, head over here.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed

When I was trying to describe this book to my husband last week, I was sort of at a loss. He heard the word advice, and immediately thought of Dear Abby or Guideposts magazine. When I told my best friend about it, about how it was the book she had to read in these last two weeks before she turns thirty, she nodded in that way a person can over text message from 200o miles away, and said, “I’ve read the column before. I’ll keep it in mind.” When I took a break from the book, and weeping, went outside to stand in the rain, one of the neighborhood cats came by for a little skittish love, and even though I’m barely a car person at all, I knelt down and pet her and told her about how beautiful this damn book was, and how it kept breaking and healing my heart over and over and over again. Then I went to the bookstore and tried to decide how many copies of it I could afford to buy as Christmas gifts.

Tiny_Beautiful-330You see, there had been a the moment in the book’s introduction (which I was reading for free at Amazon) when I decided I could not wait for Christmas myself, that I would instead immediately purchase this collection of advice columns from Sugar at The Rumpus:

Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded, with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Like a lot of folks, I read the piece with tears in my eyes— which is how one reads Sugar. This wasn’t some pro forma kibitzer, sifting through a stack of modern anxieties. She was a real human being laying herself bare, fearlessly, that we might come to understand the nature of our own predicaments. (p 5)

I had never heard of The Rumpus or of the Dear Sugar column when I found this book. I don’t know what prompted me to go from seeing the book mentioned on Twitter to finding and devouring it – to having it devour me – when I have never liked advice columns before. I am a bossy little sister. I’m a stage manager. I’m a control freak with a color-coded closet and a thousand spreadsheets to my name. I am that woman who doesn’t know how great the advice she got was until five years and endless proof in its favor later.

I don’t know how to take advice. I’m too sensitive, too narcissistic. It seems, sometimes, that I would rather take all the wrong roads (with enthusiasm!) just to allow experience to teach me what I need to know rather than to listen to somebody who knows better than I do. I know I’m not alone in this. We are a large tribe, we over-confident, ego-driven maniacs. To take advice, it feels, is to relinquish some of this power that we have worked so hard to accumulate, and if we lose the power, then surely the next step is to lose our tenuous grip on life we have decided we wanted or maybe gotten or possibly just dream of. To take advice means we must take risks and work harder – it means admitting that what we have or what we do is not exactly what we want.

The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good? (p 272)

I read many of the letters and responses with a sense of deep familiarity. I didn’t realize how many people had dark stories inside them that were so similar to the dark stories inside me. I read others with the excruciating realization that I was a crying because Sugar was saying what I wanted to say to people I love…but I couldn’t say those things unless the person asked to hear them because if I did, it would probably come off as cruel or selfish or tactless. A few of the stories, I couldn’t relate to on a personal level at all, and yet the raw human experience of sharing the pain of someone else’s truth still moved me to the point that I had to stand up and walk away. I had to pray for those faceless people because if I didn’t, the injustice and suffering they had to endure would have swept me away.

Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. (p 29)

What pushed me to run to the bookstore and buy every copy of this book off the shelf was not the advice though. Many of us have people in our lives – friends or family members or helpful strangers – who could listen to what we have to say and break things down for us. They could strip the truth right out of us, and in my experience, even the best intentioned (myself included at the very top of this list) do so with a calculating intensity that leaves us shaken, fragile and more often than not humiliated by our weakness. Chances are, if we’re willing and able to let a person do that, we both trust them to have conversations together later that build us back up, and somewhat vindictively, we also know that their turn will come. (This is awful, maybe, but true.) We can get advice practically anywhere, and in this day and age, from almost anyone. The difference between Sugar and myself+almost everyone I have ever met is that she splits the matter wide open, lays bare the intimate and hurting soul of the advice-seeker, and all the while, as a reader – as a seeker, myself – I never doubt her unconditional love of the person to whom she is speaking.

Unconditional love is not common-place. It is not easy. I am the daughter of a minister, and I have known many teachers from many faiths, and although they are generally kind, thoughtful, compassionate people, never have they been able to teach me, really, what unconditional love looks like. I grew up in a faith that expounded on the idea of both God and Jesus as givers of that unconditional love, and even though I have actually felt that kind of undeserved and accepting love before, I struggle to understand what it means. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find it in this book, but it appeared anyway.

Cheryl Strayed (aka Sugar) is not a religious woman. She doesn’t preach or give sappy, sticky-sweet advice. She has had a hard life and her experiences root her writing. If I had read just one column, I might not be so moved. I don’t know – I didn’t read one column – I read the whole book, and it left me motivated and sad and feeling like I’m worth something. I was empowered, but also intimidated by her reminders of how much work a joyful, healthy life can be. I felt, too, small that I don’t always give advice to the people I care about with the same generous love that she manages to give to complete strangers. The reason I want to give this book to everyone I know is because we all have secret (and not so secret) hurting places that require more than advice – they beg for unconditional love that doesn’t let us off the hook, but rejoices every single time we try to do, and be, better.

Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. (p 273)

 

If you are anything like me, you are anxious to head over here, to preview some of Sugar’s advice or here to find about Cheryl Strayed’s other books (which I will definitely be reading).

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection (2 of 2, finally), AJ Jacobs

So I finally got around to finishing this book, and I have to admit, the fact that my stomach was hurting and my legs were terribly cramped from a tough training session made reading it, if anything, even more excruciating than the last time (when I was also on the injured list – I’m terribly clumsy and have the immune system of a new-born thrust into an elementary school). It is just tough to read about someone undergoing such a concentrated effort to make every part of himself – from his hearing to his posture to his diet to his stress level (and so on) – and not feel like a complete failure at health!

Now, as far as this book goes, I don’t think he accomplished his goal (to be the healthiest man in the world) as successfully as he embodied the mission of his last book (to spend a year “living biblically”), but he certainly did his best. The problem lies more in the project itself, since it was essentially never-ending and impossible to keep up, than it does in his efforts to succeed. Jacobs went to see specialists about his hands, his sleep, the toxicity levels in his home…on and on, and it turns out, every doctor or expert considers his or her field the most important (and often overlooked) aspect of health. The lists of things he was trying to do every month to maintain optimum health were insane, and most likely damaging to both his emotional health and family life.

Now, I am definitely no expert in health. I love sloth and gluttony as much as the next guy (undoubtedly more than some), but even I was able to glean the truth from Jacobs’ experiences. The top two suggestions were the same as those we hear from our doctors at every visit – eat whole, healthy foods, and exercise every day. There is absolutely nothing flashy about that plan, but it works. If you want to go above and beyond this, you can improve your sleep, your mental outlook, and almost any body part (as long as you’re willing to commit to the specific exercises or therapies that will strengthen weak parts of the anatomy). If you want to go even further, well, I suggest your read this book first and get an idea of what that undertaking really looks like.

Good health is a wonderful gift, but many other things in life also deserve attention. Family, friends, career, hobbies, faith, service work  – each of these are commitments that require time and energy – and if you choose to devote your entire life only to optimizing your body, you’ll miss out. At least, that’s what Jacobs’ discovered, and I’m inclined to believe him. He spent two plus years pushing himself to every extreme, and in the end, moderation was the most successful solution for him. Sure, he spends more time walking and running, and his diet is largely plant-based now, but those are relatively easy changes for any of us to make if we want to. Also, honestly, it was interesting to watch him geek out over his health, if only because it meant I could take the easier road after learning from his example. And if there’s on thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that easy is always right! (Is what nobody healthy said ever.)

Check out AJ Jacobs’ adventures for yourself here.

Bossypants, Tina Fey

So, I know I promised to finish posting about AJ Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy today, but I have a confession to make: I haven’t finished it. I thought this vacation was going to be filled with time to read (or at least filled with enough time to get through the last thirty percent of the book), but it wasn’t. Not at all. I think I had about ten minutes to read sometime last Friday, and after that, I didn’t pull out my Kindle once.

So how, you might ask, did I finish a whole different book while I was away? Well, folks, I’ll tell you. Bossypants was my first ever audiobook. I’ve heard bits and pieces of them over the years since my mother has been a faithful listener for about as long as the library has been stocking books on tape (CD…mp3s…), but I neither spend enough time in the car nor have strong enough auditory skills to have been tempted before this. In fact, I would say I have been strongly anti-audiobook, an oddity since I often complain about the fact that reading in a plane, train or automobile makes me horrifically queasy (and consequently, bored), but my love of the printed word is so strong that the audiobook felt like an almost tainted experience.

My husband has no such hang-ups. Although he’s also a newcomer to the world of audiobooks, the prospect of a 1600 mile road trip had him itching for something besides music and conversation to fill the long hours. I don’t blame him. We had two days of nine plus hours on the road (plus two days of six to seven hour drives), and after hour four or five, even we start to run out of things to say.

Enter Tina Fey. We are already diehard 30 Rock fans, and a good friend had recommended Fey’s memoir to me months ago. She had listened to it on her commute, and she said she found herself looking for excuses to drive around just to hear more. I was skeptical, but since the book is narrated by Fey herself, I figured it was a safe bet for us. One of the biggest additional bonuses from my perspective was that it had no plot to follow. I get bored easily when I don’t have any visual clues to keep me focused, and I was afraid that the combination of listening and driving would make it difficult for me to follow a more action oriented story, so Fey’s autobiographical short story-esque chapters seemed ideal. It was also only about seven hours long, so even if we got bored, we could get through it in one long day’s drive.

We didn’t get bored. I was only glad that we had switched driving duties by the time Fey began her chapter on beauty tips. I was laughing so hard that my head was stuck between my knees and I couldn’t stop crying. The tears were just pouring down my face. I’m sure I looked completely deranged, but I couldn’t contain myself. My husband helpfully pointed out that all the parts I found outrageously funny were the ones that described, almost in my own words, me.

Yes, it turns out, I’m about one-third Tina Fey…and I’m positive it’s not the third that’s the successful, well-respected comedian. No, no…

Once or twice a week I would set my alarm for six am so I could get up and plug in Hot Stix…I would study the curls in the mirror, impressed with both the appliance and my newfound ability to use it.

Then, without fail, at the last second before leaving for school, I would ask myself, “Am I supposed to brush it out or leave it?” Why could I never remember?! That feeling of “I’m pretty sure this next step is wrong, but I’m just gonna do it anyway” is part of the same set of instincts that makes me such a great cook. (pg unknown)

As I was relistening to this chapter to type out the quote, my husband, unprompted, popped his head out of the bathroom and said, “Hey! Isn’t that the part when we decided you’re sort of like Tina Fey?” Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer him because my head was back down on the table and I was laughing so hard I got the hiccups.

I loved this book. I loved listening to Tina Fey read it. I felt like I was reading/watching a play/listening to a television in another room and instead of bothering me, it was, well, delightful. I started getting grandiose ideas about listening to books while running much further than my usual three miles. I imagined the books I could review without having to put on my glasses or even get out of bed. Think of the sick days! The long hours in a cramped airplane seat that would simply fly by!

Maybe I’m getting carried away (but I have a fourteen hour non-stop flight to Australia next month that will be a solid test of my commitment). All I know is, libraries better start making it easier for me to download the audiobooks I want because my wallet cannot sustain a new book habit…certainly not one that makes it possible for me to read while doing all the things that used to get in the way of reading (cooking, cleaning, and errands, I’m looking at you)…

Tina Fey doesn’t have a website, but more information is available online.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the second), Mark Shriver

EDIT: For all my audiobook fans out there, I have a special treat. Macmillan Audio has provided me with a sample of A Good Man, as read by the author. I hope you enjoy this preview. It’s from one of my favorite moments in the book.

The first half of this book is sheer joy. Mark Shriver’s recollections about his father as both a man and as a force for peace, justice and equality are soaked in love. His respect and awe of his father, his struggle to try to become even close to as good a man, his frustrations with himself for constantly falling short of the example set for him – they are both familiar and heartbreaking.

The second half of the book is even more moving. It deals with Sarge Shriver’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, of how he approached the disease with the grace, faith, and love he had exhibited his entire life, and how it was his son who fell apart watching this terrible illness rob him of a great man and father. In a moment of clarity during the middle years of his father’s decline, when the author was struggling with anger, guilt, and grief on an hourly basis, he asked Sarge how he was handling losing his mind. His father responded, “I’m doing the best I can with what God gave me,” and these were the words that returned to Shriver often in the years that followed.

At times, I feel like I’m part of the first generation to watch my parents handle the complicated care of their own parents, although I can’t imagine that’s really true. Certainly, life expectancy is longer now, and better medical care means people are able to live for longer than they have in the past, so maybe, even if this situation isn’t really new, it’s at least different. A few years ago, I worked with two authors on a book dealing with the issues around aging parentsIt was a project I pushed hard to do because at that time, my parents, both only children, were deep in the throes of handling all the care for my grandparents, two of whom had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

On September 11, 2001, on my second day of college, my parents hadn’t even heard about the terrorists attacks when I called them from my dorm in Boston; they were busy dealing with an unexpected and terrible complication in the lives of my father’s parents. I remember that phone call vividly still – how alone I felt, how heartbroken I was for my parents, for my country – the devastation in my family was immense, yet there was no room to talk about it because the world was falling down around us. I remember the fear and anger wedging themselves into my heart in the weeks that followed, and I didn’t really understand why.

In March of 2002, my father’s father died after a relatively peaceful decline. I’m sure it wasn’t peaceful for my parents, but compared to the rage my mother’s father felt in the following five years, my grandpa Clyde’s gentle loss to his old memories seemed like a blessing. I never once went to see him in the assisted living facility where he had moved that fall, and I arrived home from spring break hours before he died. I never got to see him or say goodbye. To this day, I regret the young, selfish actions that kept me from being there for him and for my parents. It is something I can never take back or change, but which, over the last ten years, I have tried to remedy by writing letters to my other grandparents and coming to see them as often as I can.

In reading Shriver’s account of his own struggles, I found myself crying again and again thinking of how difficult and beautiful these years have been for my own parents. They have never once shirked their duty, rarely taken vacations, repeated over and over that the challenges they have faced are part of what it means to be a part of a family. Nevertheless, like Shriver, I am more often angry than sympathetic, especially when visiting with the parents of my friends and seeing how different their lives have been. My parents had one week of (relative) peace between the day I left home and the day they fully took charge of their parents’ care, and it gives me a pain I can’t describe that they have been so compassionate yet suffered so much.

A year ago, almost ten years exactly after my grandparents were all moved into assisted living, my mother’s mother, one of the true good women of the world, passed away. Due to scheduling and flight prices, we chose to hold her memorial service three weeks after her death. This was hard on my parents, and especially my mother, who wanted to say goodbye, I think because, as a minister, a part of her knew that she couldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of her sorrow until she’d done that.

I didn’t want that though. I wanted the time, and I came a week earlier than my husband so that I could help my mother plan the service. I had been preparing for months; I had put a poem aside, and a hymn I wanted to be sung. My grandmother had been so influential in raising me, and in our family, I don’t believe there is any blood relationship so cherished as that between my mother and grandmother. I didn’t want my grandmother to have the kind of services my grandfathers had – not that they were bad, but they were so brief, and for such remarkable men! They weren’t enough for me, and I have been saying goodbye to them in my own ways many times since then.

I wanted my grandmother’s memorial to celebrate not just her (and trust me, she was a person to be celebrated and missed) but my parents too. For a decade, they had given of themselves completely, and even if they were too tired and sad to realize that they deserved it, I knew. I knew my brother, in his intensely private way, needed it too. Sitting next to him at the service, I felt his grief and mine overlapping. I don’t think I remember, ever in my life, the two of us crying together, but such was the power of one wonderful person. The memory of her life was enough to reach out and bring us just that much closer to each other.

This was the experience that I believe Mark Shriver had on the day of his own father’s funeral. That experience opened something up that allowed him to see his father, not just through his own eyes, but through the eyes of all the people Sarge Shriver had touched. He was able to lay down, at least for a moment, the burdens that come with the disease, with the loss, with the overwhelming and exhausting grief in order to celebrate the man himself, and the effect of such a person on his own imperfect heart.

Mark Shriver does not have a website, but information about him can be found online.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the first), Mark Shriver

I’m really not a biography person. I think I probably got away without reading a single one from cover to cover my entire school career (and this was before the internet existed for home use…or at least for use in my home…so that’s a substantial feat). I certainly don’t pick them up when I’m browsing in bookstores or online. And although biography is related to memoir, I see it mostly as memoir’s annoyingly know-it-all older sister, and who has time to listen to her?! There are adventures to be had, new lands to visit, fictional romances to obsess over!

Enter an old, long forgotten weakness. While The Daily Show and The Colbert Report usually stick to interviewing politicians and celebrities I’m not much interested in, the format and the hosts have the ability to make even the worst interviewee entertaining. In the last few years though, I’ve moved away from getting news from my favorite Comedy Central team (mostly because it’s depressing that Jon Stewart looks so old these days…and also because Tivo is usually full), so when I caught an episode last week where Colbert was interviewing Mark Shriver (son of a Kennedy and a Shriver) about the book he wrote after his father’s death, AND it actually sounded like something I wanted to read, I was shocked.

This was not just a biography either. This was a biography about a politician. For the record, I prefer my politics served up by Aaron Sorkin (as in, with a twist of snark), but for this book, I’ve made an exception. Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Sarge Shriver was the founder of the Peace Corps, instrumental in the War on Poverty, and a tireless advocate for social justice throughout his entire life.

We went to the National Press Club in Washington, where a decent-sized crowd had assembled to hear Dad’s [presidential run] withdrawal speech. He smiled throughout it, but its content, I realized long after, was startling. I obviously didn’t understand at the time how what he said then would inform my quest during the days after his death:

“What we need now is not the false security of beguiling promises or befogging rhetoric, not empty and simplistic slogans. We need the spiritual confidence borne of confronting openly and honestly the challenges— the terrors in the nights— we all know, we all must face. One of those challenges is the continuing need to empower the powerless.” (loc 552)

As we near the presidential election in the US, I have been forced to acknowledge yet again that whether I choose to know about policy, or about the people dictating policy, it has a profound effect on me, the people I care about, strangers, and the way the rest of the world views my country. And while it is impossible, as a member of the human race, not to go through stages of disillusionment with government, some years are much harder than others. I happen to believe we’re going through a particular low point right now because of the extraordinary divide that exists between the Democrats and the Republicans, the left and the right, the ninety-nine percent and the one. Healthy governments thrive on argument and compromise, and while we have perfected one, we’ve neglected the other.

Finding a book like this, about a man who dedicated his life to selfless, passionate work through difficult government channels, is helping to restore some personal equilibrium in the onslaught of campaign mud-slinging.

“Compassion is the ideal,” he maintained in a speech at the World’s Fair in 1964, “that must illuminate, from the very center, all our efforts to bring a better life to our world, within our own country, and in the farthest reaches of the planet.” As he went on to say: “It is only with this compassion that man can look upon man— through the mask of many colors, through the vestments of many religions, through the dust of poverty, or through the disfigurement of disease— and recognize his brother.”

But Dad knew that this was not easy. Even for himself. (loc 837)

I’m also drawn to the personal element of this book. The perspective of Mark Shriver, one of five children born into an insanely powerful (and tragic) political family, is that of a son both grieving and curious. Despite the tremendous relationship he had with his father in life, he makes it clear that there was much he didn’t know, understand, or appreciate about the man until after his death.

Then I thought about our kids and how, just the day before, I had watched them eat breakfast with their usual gusto. When my eleven-year-old son Tommy got up and took his plates to the sink and started washing them, I almost lost it, remembering how, two years prior, Tommy had watched Dad, Alzheimer-stricken and hobbled, grab his own cake plate after the party for his ninety-third birthday, take it to the sink, and clean it. Tommy had looked at me, licked the icing off his last forkful, and followed Dad to the sink with his plate. Tommy had observed, at a very young age, what a good man Dad was, right down to the smallest detail of etiquette. 

The great man is recognized for his civic achievements. The good man can be great in that arena, too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk, at the diner, with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church— wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion. Dad was good because he was great in the smaller, unseen corners of life. He insisted on greatness in every facet of the daily grind. (loc 207)

I look forward to finishing this book for Thursday and being able to share more about a man who strove to leave a meaningful legacy both in his own home and around the world.

Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox

There’s something you should know about me going into the summer of 2012. I look forward to the Olympic games (and in particular, the Summer Games) with a fervor bordering on fanaticism. (Usually I’m on the wrong side of that border too.) An energy that rarely possesses me takes over, and for two weeks, I’m glued to the television set, grateful for the technology that allows me to watch athletes from all over the world compete at levels far beyond what my body could ever comprehend.

I unabashedly cry during many of the events, although I can never predict beforehand which of them will have the most affecting stories. It’s the same feeling I get when I happen upon a show filming the return of soldiers to their families; although I’m adamantly against unnecessary violence, I can’t help but be swept away by the sheer joy of the reunion. The human spirit can endure so much for so long, and when, all at once, something truly great happens, the flood of joy and release is unbelievable.

When I watch athletes competing in the Olympics, I can’t help but think of the history that has brought us to this point – of the conflict, the bloodshed, the disregard for how similar we all, as human beings, are – and be amazed. Every two years, for a few weeks, the whole world watches together, and I love it with my whole being. The only trouble with something like the Olympics is that it’s hard to completely put aside that while some people win, many do not. It’s a competition that brings countries together, but at its heart, it is, still, a competition.

Maybe that’s why I fell so completely for Lynne Cox. In her memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, she embraces her tenacity and talent as a world-class open water swimmer with her desire to act as symbol of peace and partnership between feuding countries. She does it almost entirely without corporate sponsorship, instead relying on a network of friends and colleagues who believe, like her, that it is possible, nay – essential – to push the boundaries of human endurance. She doesn’t swim to get rich or famous; in fact, she has to bankrupt herself multiple times in order to do what she believes is possible. She does it because she has the drive, not only to perform at an elite level, but also to use her swims as gestures of goodwill.

When I picked up this book, Cox immediately won me over with her warmth and gift for storytelling. She begins the book by describing herself as a chubby nine-year old who loved to swim despite being slow, and as she discovers the world of open water swimming, I was swept up by her adventures. By the time I got to the black and white photographs in the middle of the book and realized she was still a well-padded swimmer even as an adult, I just about fell over with gratitude. Here was an athlete breaking boundaries no one in the world had dreamed of crossing and she wasn’t even a size 2! In fact, on one of her swims, a taxi cab driver points out she doesn’t look like a record-breaking swimmer and she just shakes it off.

If you’re gifted with a traditionally athletic body, it might not mean as much to you to discover a role model like this one as it does for me, but most of us do have something that sets us apart, a trait we desperately search for in our mentors. It may be some combination of race, culture, sexual preference, and religion, or it might be something as simple as meeting a person who does impossible things with a sense of humor (see my entry on John “The Penguin” Bingham).

No hero is the right fit for everyone, but Lynne Cox really checks a lot of boxes for me. She’s a woman. She started swimming mind-blowing distances in open water as a young teenager. She’s persevered without much money. She has respect for the planet and for the people she meets in different cultures. She sets insane goals for herself and manages to follow through even if it takes years. She is passionate about what she does. She has broken records all over the world. I tell you, it’s hard not to cheer on a person like this:

More than anything I now understood that no one achieves great goals alone. It didn’t matter to New Zealanders that I wasn’t from their country. It only mattered that I was trying to swim their strait. They had cheered me on for hours, and in doing so, they had cheered the same human spirit within themselves. Through the Cook Strait crossing, I realized that a swim can be far more than an athletic adventure. It can become a way to bridge the distance between people and nations. During the Cook Strait swim, we were united in a human endurance struggle that surpassed national borders. (pg 145)

My favorite site for more information on Lynne Cox is here.

Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, Rosecrans Baldwin

I know what you’re thinking – ANOTHER travel book? Shake it up a little! And I will. Next week. This week, I’m on vacation and I’m a little travel-obsessed. 

This was not the book I expected it to be when I picked it out at random during my anniversary book binge last month. My husband wanted me to buy a couple of books outside the genres I usually read (I took that to mean fiction as a whole), and I obligingly dove into the travel section. Who am I to argue with a man who wants to buy me more books? Plus, I actually do have an undernourished love of memoirs, autobiographies, and travel writing, so I was pretty excited.  So how could I possibly resist a book called Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”? I couldn’t. It so perfectly summed up how I feel about the City of Lights that I was powerless against it.

Here’s the short(ish) version of my relationship with Paris:

In the summer before seventh grade, we were asked to choose a language – either Spanish or French – to take for at least the next two years (once in high school, you could swap, or choose Latin instead). My mother begged me to take Spanish, perhaps intuitingthat I would not live close to the Canadian border forever, and might, in my travels, find myself living in a state where the unofficial second language would be español. I ignored her; I loved baguettes and the Eiffel Tower – I even had an inkling I might look good in a beret – and there was no way I would trade romance for practicality. So I didn’t.

Instead, I began five years of French classes taught exclusively by French Canadians, who apparently have completely different ideas about pronunciation than the French who live in France. And unfortunately, it turns out I was terrible at being bilingual anyway. Every day, the idea of going to class and trying to understand and respond appropriately filled me with dread. Every teacher I had seemed to subscribe to the same method of torture – never call on the student who’s raising her hand – instead wait until she’s cowering in her seat trying not to cry, then make sure you humiliate her for as long as possible. It was awful, and I really never got any better at oral comprehension, but I did slowly gain some traction in understanding the written language. Against all odds, I managed to nurse a  love of France through it all and held the country and its people in no way responsible for my demented training.

In college, I studied abroad and was given the opportunity during that time to go to France several times. On my only visit to Paris though, I was still smarting from a break-up, and my two closest friends were in a horrible fight that culminated in a screaming match outside of Notre Dame, where we were supposed to be preparing for a presentation to our art history class. I think I described the city after that visit as a place of “diesel fumes and rage.” Yet somehow, I was not deterred; in fact, I was pretty sure that Paris was fine, but there was something wrong with me.

So I gave it a few years, then went back with my husband and the best friend ex-pat I mentioned on Monday. Turns out, Paris can be pretty great. Terrifying, of course, because nobody French understood what I was trying to say unless I was ordering from a menu, but I could read enough signs to get by, and the food and history alone were enough to make me swoon all over the place.

In retrospect, my mother was probably right about learning Spanish. It would come in handy every day now (and I would probably embarrass myself less when trying to pronounce California street signs), but I can’t help it – somewhere in my DNA I am programmed to love France even if it doesn’t feel more than ambivalence about me back.

And that’s exactly what this book is about. Baldwin captures an experience I can only imagine and tremble at – he takes a job in an advertising agency in Paris without knowing much more French than the average seventh grader. He accepts it knowing that the transition is going to be hell; that he is going to be ridiculed for months as he batters French customs and language; and that he and his wife are going to have to adapt to all that is less than glamorous about Paris when you aren’t rich. Honestly, it sounds like hell. I don’t think I would have the guts to jump in the way he does, but I understand why he wants it as badly as he does.

For some people, France just has this hold on the imagination, and for all its faults (and it really has no more or less than anywhere else), it can be difficult to resist the ideal. The name of this blog alone will tell you that I choose not to resist (for all that the French are too sophisticated for me, as well as far too obsessed with dairy in my lactose intolerant opinion), but I also love to see the gritty underbelly – the side of Paris (and Parisians) that the guide-books forget to mention. In his book, Baldwin manages to capture both the all-forgiving school boy crush we have on France and the reality we can’t quite ignore – that Paris is a city even the locals love to hate.

To find out more about Rosecrans Baldwin, click here.