Jun 092014
 
big ben IG

Actually, I wasn’t in a huge picture-taking mood this time ’round. This was the only photo I shared on Instagram in the entire 4 days of our London trip.

I still have one more London post up my sleeve in coming days. (And Amsterdam. And, well, every other big trip we’ve taken in the last few years that I never blogged about….) In the meantime, here’s a little photo tour of our four days in London.

parliament and big ben

We stayed at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, located just across this bridge from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Most people don’t think of the South Bank of the Thames when choosing places to stay, but it was a highly convenient location, with Waterloo Station and subway lines two blocks away, bus stops right outside the hotel, or of course an easy stroll by foot across the bridge. We also really enjoyed the hotel. First morning’s check-in was a disaster, after a sleepless transatlantic red eye that left us too tired to do anything but sit in the lobby for three hours waiting for a room to be cleaned. I didn’t think any hotel could overcome that rotten first exposure (not technically their fault since we arrived many hours before check-in time, but still…), but really everything else about our stay was a delight. We paid with hotel loyalty points, and a shockingly low number of points at that (thanks to the Club Carlson credit card that gives you a free night for every loyalty stay), and they even upgraded us to a junior suite with a fold-out couch that made a whole separate bedroom for Vera.

Our hotel was also a block away from the London Eye, so we have plenty of photos that look like this:

london eye and aquarium

The area right at the foot of the London Eye was tourist central, but we were big fans of this carousel. Mr. T and I flipped a coin for who got to ride with Vera, and I lost. At least it was fun to photograph!

carousel near london eye

Other favorite spots included the Battersea Park Children’s Zoo. It’s small and pricey, but the animals were adorable, and there was a fantastic playground. We figured Vera spent enough time tramping with her parents past great buildings and museums — she should be able to spend an afternoon somewhere extra fun for kids. (And honestly, Mr. T and I are always up for a zoo visit. We love cute little animals at least as much as Vera.)

battersea zoo playground

Mr. T originally researched the zoo because it has meerkats. We used to watch Meerkat Manor every day before school, so we’re big fans. Seeing meerkats in person was just as exciting as we hoped, but the otters next door stole our attention and then stole our hearts. Their tiny otter heads peeked repeatedly over the dividing wall to check what was going on over in the meerkat pen. Once we walked over to the otters themselves, they squealed and came running over to us. We talked to then, they squeaked to us. Friends were made.

battersea park zoo otters

Of course we visited Buckingham Palace — which is to say, the fancy gates outside Buckingham Palace. Happy to see it, but we actually had a more memorable time at St. James’s Park next door. Just a few yards away from the tourist hordes, we stepped into this peaceful, lovely scenery.

st james park

And a playground with a big sandbox! Meerkats burrow underground in sand tunnels, so our new friend from the Battersea Park Zoo felt quite at home.

sandbox and meerkat

One morning, Mr. T got up early to see the Tower of London. He has a particular interest in ancient historic sites, and I could take it or leave it on this visit, so we figured he could move faster without a family entourage.

tower of london and skyline

Love the ultra-modern buildings across the river in the background. Well done, Mr. T!

We met up at Leadenhall Market — one of the random places I remember fondly from my first visit to London in 1993. There’s not much to see at Leadenhall, but it’s atmospheric and worth a quick look. (Sharp-eyed Harry Potter fans might recognize it as the setting for Diagon Alley in the movies.)

leadenhall market

On the night after our British Museum visit, we were all starving and Vera was campaigning for French Fries. We happened across Ed’s Easy Diner, which was fun and turned out to be quite tasty for burgers and fries. And if you don’t know Mr. T’s real first name … let’s just say we found the place extra amusing.

Ed's Easy Diner

Another favorite meal was at Cafe in the Crypt in the St. Martin in the Fields church off Trafalgar Square. The cafeteria meal was just adequate, but the atmosphere was relaxed and the setting so unique.

Cafe in the Crypt

The rest of the time, we spent many hours riding double decker buses around town, or just walking about catching sight of all the iconic London images.

phone booth

Our South Bank hotel location meant we crossed a lot of bridges. I love this “grainy black and white” built-in filter on our camera — even something as mundane as crossing a bridge starts looking like an outtake from an old European arthouse film.

BW bridge

And finally, more riverfront views, more crazy camera filters, and another favorite memory of the trip … just wandering along the river, enjoying the sights on a warm spring evening.

parliament at night

 

Have you ever been to London? What were your favorite memories?

Jun 042014
 

Recently a group of my online mom friends had a discussion of how much alcohol they drink each day and how much is “too much.” No one was anywhere near out-of-control alcoholic territory, but as a non-drinker married to a mostly-non-drinker, I was a little shocked to learn the role alcohol plays in many people’s lives.

The discussion left me uncomfortable. At first I couldn’t put my finger on why, except that it was weird to think how my everyday experience differs from the experiences of so many others. (Certainly explains part of why I’ve always felt like such a dud at parties!) And my shocked reaction left me feeling like a prude, which was hard to mesh with my usual open-minded self-image.

Over the next few hours, I started to piece together what made me uncomfortable about the discussion itself: As much as everyone sang the praises of drinking to relax at the end of the day, to have more patience with the kids, to cut loose at parties, much of the subtext was “Alcohol helps me feel less like stressed-out, awkward me” and “Alcohol makes me feel less, period.”

I wondered to my friends whether there was something … inauthentic … about spending life in that altered state.

My friends said, basically, that I don’t know anything. Some said I was making an everyday occurrence into something bigger than it needs to be. Others pointed out that they actually feel more authentic once they’ve relaxed beyond their day-to-day anxieties, their shyness, or whatever. I took their word on the subject. They have more experience than I do. Plus, my authenticity theory was put together out of vague intuition at best. Authenticity seems like a good goal, but who says it’s necessary all the time? I’ve taken antidepressants and had an epidural during pregnancy — does that mean I avoided being “authentically” depressed or “authentically” in pain? (Some people say yes on both fronts, but I strongly beg to differ.) That ended the conversation, and I haven’t thought about it since.

But then last night I was reading another Brene Brown book and came to a passage that makes the same point on authenticity, alcohol, and all our other addictions and distractions. She says it much better than I ever could, so thought I’d share:

I’ve had a couple of friends respond to my “I’m a take-the-edge-off-aholic” with concern about their own habits: “I drink a couple of glasses of wine every night — is that bad?” “I always shop when I’m stressed or depressed.” “I come out of my skin if I’m not always going and staying busy.”

Again, after years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our _________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using ________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection*

I feel like the bolded (by me) bits lay out the key distinction. What does it mean to be authentic or inauthentic? When does a few drinks after work, or an hour playing computer games, or a little time on the smartphone while your kid is playing, stop being a way to decompress and start becoming a problem? Brown’s answer is to ask whether the relaxation method brings you closer to connection with others or just numbs and distracts. Does it stop you from feeling your full emotions? Do you use it to escape from the reality of your life? If yes, it might be time to reconsider that choice.

I plan to use this framework in the coming days to take a look at my biggest problem area — killing time on phone and computer. For all the times that my phone and computer are necessary tools or a harmless means of downtime entertainment, there are plenty of other times when they stand in the way of being fully present with Vera or provide convenient means for procrastinating my life away. I love the subtlety of Brown’s questions for trying to tease out that distinction.

(*Ps, Since I recommended Brown’s previous book so highly, thought I’d note that I didn’t enjoy this one all that much. Her psychological theories still ring absolutely true and her writing is strong, but Imperfection is light on content compared to her other books.)

May 292014
 

Somehow I’ve been extra lucky on the book-choosing front recently and discovered a string of really good books in both fiction and non-fiction. Thought I’d pass along a few recommendations in case you’re looking for a summer vacation read. (And if you’ve read something lately that you particularly enjoyed, be sure to leave a note in the comments. I’d love to check out something new!)

witness wore red

The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice. Saw this on our public library website, and reserved it based entirely on the wonderfully melodramatic name. The author, Rebecca Musser, was raised inside the polygamous Mormon offshoot now (in)famously headed by Warren Jeffs. After becoming the 19th wife of Jeffs’s elderly father, she left the community and later served as government witness for legal cases against the group. I’m not a big memoir fan so had low expectations, but I thought it would be interesting to skim for the peek at life inside a polygamous cult. Turns out, this book delivered so much more. It’s a surprisingly page-turning account of how one person’s religious and social views were shaped in childhood, what it took to make her challenge those views, and how she created a whole new worldview as an adult.

Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, by Ken Follett. If you enjoy historical fiction — or even just fiction — these epic tales of WWI and WWII are a must-read. Follett does a masterful job at creating vivid settings and characters who feel real. Devoured all 1,800 pages of these two, and I’m excited to finish the trilogy’s end in September. In fact, the third book is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered off Amazon. Want it at my doorstep the moment it comes out!

taking the leap chodronTaking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, by Pema Chodron. Buddhist-style mindfulness has been a life-saver during my long illness. In the most troubling times, these practices taught me how to make peace with difficult emotions and how to worry less about the past and future and focus more on the present moment. And among the handful of mindfulness authors that I’ve read, Pema Chodron stands out as the master. If our society truly rewarded wisdom and the ability to share it, Pema Chodron would be the most famous woman around.

I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). I am late to the Brene Brown bandwagon. Had a few brief exposures to her work, but the advice that many people find so inspiring mostly just made me roll my eyes. To each her own and all that, just not for me…. But this was sitting unread on my bookshelf from a long-ago book club intro offer, and the title looked interesting. Turns out, it predates Brown’s career as a self-help guru. She started out as an academic sociologist researching shame — what makes people feel shame, and, more importantly, what helps them resist shameful feelings — and this book is a summary of her research. It’s a bit more academic than her other books but does an excellent job of providing examples and putting complex feelings into simple words. After reading it, I can see shame and its effects much more clearly in my own life and in the society all around.

first rule of survivalAnd finally, a few page-turners for the beach this summer: The Hidden, by Jo Chumas — an atmospheric thriller set alternately in Egypt in 1940 and in the aristocratic harems of a generation earlier. 2013 winner of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson — a South African police procedural that entangles its central mystery within a web of police politics and conflicting motivations. And The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson — the Amazon page describes it perfectly: “A reluctant centenarian much like Forrest Gump (if Gump were an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka) decides it’s not too late to start over.” As long as you can suspend disbelief at the not-exactly-realistic storyline, it’s a delight.

Your turn! What books have you most enjoyed lately?

May 282014
 

One of these days I mean to post about our favorite places here on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, the New York Times did a pretty good job of it last weekend. A bit heavy on the high-end restaurants, and a few strange choices (there is nothing to see in Lincoln Park), but they did name three of the places we’ve eaten this week (Seventh Hill, Ted’s Bulletin, and Eastern Market) and a favorite lesser-known activity (US Botanic Garden), so I give them credit. You can find the original article here.

May 232014
 

Sorry to switch topics so abruptly from health issues, but … welcome to my blog! I get bored sticking to any one topic. Plus I’ve been extra sick this week and prefer not to think about illness when I’m at my worst. It might seem odd to go from describing a semi-homebound life to detailing transatlantic family vacations, but I deal with the downsides of illness by escaping into travel. Between researching future destinations, planning specific details, actually taking the trip, and then revisiting photos and warm memories, two good-sized trips can carry me psychologically through a whole year.

Our latest family escape was to London and Amsterdam this spring, and I’m excited to share a few tips and favorite photos over coming weeks….

The British Museum's stunning interior courtyard -- the largest covered square in Europe.

The British Museum’s stunning interior courtyard — the largest covered square in Europe.

My husband’s biggest goal for London was to see the British Museum. (“They stole all the best stuff, from all over the world, and it’s all in a single building!”) I was interested, but worried how that would go down with our 5-year-old. She’s in a tough zone where she’s too old to just toddle along with Mom and Dad but not old enough to appreciate museum exhibits in the way they were intended. We planned a weekend visit to take advantage of the museum’s Kid’s Activity Backpacks, but we got held up and arrived after they closed the program for the day. Vera was disappointed but still reasonably open-minded about the museum. We had ten minutes, tops, to come up with Plan B before she lost interest.

We sought out the famous Easter Island statue, which unexpectedly saved the day. I posed for a photo, copying the statue’s unique expression. Vera hid behind my leg:

First recorded instance of duckface??

First recorded instance of duckface??

But then, suddenly, Vera ran to another statue and said, “Daddy! Do like this one!” She and her father posed together, copying the position of the person in the statue. And then we did another. And another. And another.

Joining a friendly canine for a "play bow."

Joining a friendly canine for a “play bow.”

Meanwhile, Mr. T has his wrist mauled by a fiercer version.

In this way, we kept Vera busy through room after room. Mom and Dad were patient with the endless photo shoot (frankly, she wasn’t the only one having fun!), and in return Vera was patient (… mostly …) if Mom or Dad wandered off to look at something else or to read an explanatory card or two.

This picture cracks me up every time.

This one cracks me up every time.

We even managed to take a few regular museum-y photos. Though not always exactly as planned — see, e.g., the photo-bomber who popped up unexpectedly in Daddy’s artsy archway shot:

vera photobomb

Thanks to our super-tough, basically indestructible camera, we even handed the equipment over to Vera for some artistic creations of her own:

The young photographer at work.

The young photographer at work.

If you ever find yourself at a loss for how to keep a young one entertained at an adult museum, I highly recommend the family photo shoot! All it takes is a short lecture on respecting the artifacts (even mature kids may not realize they’re not allowed to touch), a camera, and your sense of imagination and fun.

May 122014
 

 

…I hope you are not saying that CFS patients are not as ill as HIV patients. My HIV patients for the most part are hale and hearty thanks to three decades of intense and excellent research and billions of dollars invested. Many of my CFS patients, on the other hand, are terribly ill and unable to work or participate in the care of their families.

I split my clinical time between the two illnesses, and I can tell you if I had to choose between the two illnesses (in 2009) I would rather have HIV.  — Immunologist Nancy Klimas to the New York Times (emphasis added)

Imagine yourself with the Flu. You’re a day past the “sleep 20 hours in a fog” stage, but you’re still pretty sick. You can get up for a few hours at a time, make yourself a sandwich or take a shower, maybe drive to the coffee shop for a latte. But you never really forget that you’re sick — with everything you do, your head throbs, your body aches, your brain feels fuzzy, and you can feel your bed calling you back to horizontal. One minute you’re too warm, the next you’re too cold. Noises seem too loud, smells too strong, light too bright. You might read, watch some TV, take care of your child or talk to your spouse, but all the while your body and your brain put out a distracting thrum of competing messages: “I’m siiiiiick. I don’t feeeeeel wellllll. Go lie dowwwwwwn.” After a few hours, it’s time to give in and take another nap. Exhausted as you are, sometimes you feel too rotten to sleep.

Most of us have been there. If possible, we just drop out for a day or two and rest till it’s over. But now take those few days of Flu and stretch them out over 9 years. What balls would you drop? What would happen to your job, your family and friends, your hobbies — your life?

To quantify it, imagine that research found most people with Flu lost between 50% and 85% of their normal functioning. Imagine the 10 things most central to your life — say Job, Family, Friends, Faith, Hobbies, Cooking Meals, Cleaning House, Self-Care, Fitness, and Travel. Picture writing each one on a notecard, then putting those cards face down, shuffling them, and taking 5 or 8 of them away. What’s left? What would the your life look like without the things you took so firmly for granted? What if you rarely left the house? What would those changes do to your self-image and self-esteem?

Now imagine that there wasn’t much your doctors could do. In fact, what if many doctors didn’t “believe” in the Flu, or thought that, deep down, Flu was just a bodily expression of some psychological damage. What if most of the other people in your life felt the same? What if they told you things like “I would understand if it was Lupus or something, but come on, the Flu? You really need to snap out of this Flu thing.” What if, despite a million severely affected Flu sufferers in this country, the disease received fewer research funds each year than Male Pattern Baldness? Imagine so many public misperceptions about Flu that even government health authorities repeated discredited data on their websites. Imagine the lack of a Flu test meant it was almost impossible to get disability payments for Flu — even for the 25% or more of Flu sufferers who were too sick to ever leave their house.

Imagine that one of the top 3 causes of death for Flu was suicide. Imagine that every other patient in the Flu community understood the hopelessness that could lead someone to that dark point.

The Flu analogy is the best way I can think of to describe my past 9 years with Chronic Fatigue. I know it’s impossible to convey the reality of chronic disabling illness to someone who’s never been there, but today is International Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Awareness Day and I wanted to give it a try. Some people with CFS are well enough to work and others spend years at a time confined to their beds, but for me, the best comparison these days is that “a few hours at a time between rests” stage of Flu. My biggest issue is fatigue and the way my brain never seems to work the way it should. There’s pain, but I would gladly take on even more pain if it meant getting my mind back. I struggle with the most basic activities of daily life — the other day I crashed and had to rest because a bath was too exhausting – but I’m lucky to have heroic levels of support from my husband and my mother. I also have finally found a primary care doctor and a specialist who believe in me and are willing to keep trying treatments for as long as it takes. Even when the chances of actually getting better seem low, it’s huge at least to have doctors on your side. Not everyone with CFS has that luxury. Still, it’s hard to keep hope alive when everything goes downhill year after year. I feel useless sitting around the house all day. I try to practice mindfulness and live in the present moment, but on bad days I struggle with feelings that a life spent sitting around is a wasted life. I parent as best I can, try to maintain relationships, clean far too rarely, and read and write when I can. But mostly I watch the years tick by unused.

In coming weeks, I’ll follow up with a few of the medical and social basics of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Please read on, for your friends and extended family and coworkers and neighbors who are out there on their couches and in their beds, suffering in silence. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is more than just the “yuppie flu.” It’s not in our heads. And it’s slowly killing a million people while society looks the other way.

Apr 292014
 
Last month, in Amsterdam.

The elusive whole-family photo. Last month, in Amsterdam.

This poor, neglected blog hasn’t seen regular action in years, but lately I’ve been feeling the pull to write again. Or should I say, feeling the pull to communicate again? The actual writing has grown incredibly painful — writer’s block times a thousand. I’m stumbling around trying to move past it, hoping that more regular writing practice will help the words start flowing again.

Long story short, sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll be back to give this whole blogging thing one more try. Expect a rather random mix of family travel, health experiences, interesting facts on consumer life, philosophical musings, useful tips, and cool finds. (Blogging experts usually tell you to pick a subject and stick to it, but when does life ever fit neatly into a single topic??!?) If we’re lucky, I’m also hoping to pull in some smart and interesting blogging friends as regular guests.

When last we left off, I was struggling with disabling illness, raising a toddler, traveling whenever possible, and hoping to write a book. Two years later, I am struggling with disabling illness, raising a preschooler, traveling whenever possible, and hoping to write a book. Big changes. One of the frustrating things about disabling illness is the way it monopolizes your time and narrows your options. One day looks very much like the next. But the smaller my horizons become, the more I value Internet communities and treasure the comments from people who find value in this blog. Please do stick around — I look forward to “talking” with you soon!