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?

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!

Nov 272012

In the context of my struggle with losing so many years to illness, I read this in Craig Ferguson’s autobiography* last week and took great comfort:

Had [the baseball player who hit the "shot heard round the world" in 1951] stayed in Glasgow he would never have played baseball, he would never have faced the fearsome Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in that championship game, and he would never have learned that if you can hit the ball three times out of ten you’ll make it to the Hall of Fame.

Today I watch my son at Little League games, his freckled Scottish face squinting in the California sunshine, the bat held high on his shoulder, waiting for his moment, and I rejoice that he loves this most American game. He will know from an early age that failure is not disgrace. It’s just a pitch that you missed, and you’d better get ready for the next one. The next one might be the shot heard round the world. My son and I are Americans, and we prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.

- American on Purpose, page xiii

* (P.S. I feel bad saying this after quoting it, but Craig Ferguson’s book is not the best of the recent comedy memoirs. Personally, I most enjoyed Samantha Bee’s book, then Tina Fey, a tie between Mindy Kaling / Rachel Dratch, and then Ferguson.)

Nov 262012

These are long on words and short on eye candy. So here’s a gratuitous adorable photo. Squee!

The first day or two back after a holiday is always slow. If you need a break from all that Cyber Monday shopping, here are some interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise worth-it reads from the past few weeks.

  • Most useful blog post I’ve seen in a while: 50 Home Remedies. (Have you ever tried black pepper on a cut? I’m fascinated! And I finally learned why my go-to hiccups cure works every time.)
  • One for all my parent friends. It’s so easy to second-guess yourself when you see other families do things differently, or lose yourself in everyone’s (sometimes conflicting!) advice. But every child is different, and you have to parent the child you have. “I Use Different Parenting Styles for Each of My Children.”
  • Something that’s bugged me lately about kids’ TV: In a recent study, only 19% of kids’ TV shows and 11% of kids’ movies show females in roughly half the speaking roles. And the females they do show are more likely to be sexualized and less likely to work in a job. What does it mean for both our daughters and our sons to grow up viewing shows where being male is still the norm? Via Good.
  • And while we’re on the girls-in-society front, a whole slew of articles on body image:

Mommyish has been pushing back against every aspect of the “MILF” idea lately. Loved this rant against the whole MILF concept (there is now a MILF Diet book, my friends). And a gentler and funnier version: “Eff the MILF, I’m Bringing Frumpy Back.”

I’ve Started Telling my Daughters I’m Beautiful.”

Glad I’m not the only one who has avoided cameras since giving birth. Love the movement to “get back in the picture,” and this article that started it all.

Wordy, but this post eventually gets to real truths: Beauty challenges aren’t really about finding a mate. “[M]y disappointment with my appearance, and the squirming, insistent anxiety that I didn’t look right, I didn’t look good enough— those things felt bigger than men. They felt like they were about what I could accomplish. They felt like they were about me failing as a person.” Some wise comments too. At Eat the Damn Cake.

  • But it’s not all bad news! I passed the psychopath test (and, in context, kind of felt bad about that). I joined the Facebook feed of Toward the Stars and have been enjoying their updates on strong girls and inspiring women. And a few affordable apparel brands actually got As or Bs on a roundup of labor practices, so you don’t have to feel too guilty buying Zara, Hanes, Gap, and H&M.
  • Also this study: “The current atmosphere of parenting puts so much emphasis on what we can afford to give our child. It’s kind of nice to hear some evidence that proves that good, old-fashioned nurturing and happiness does matter.” Via Mommyish.
  • Finally, a little hope that there are solutions to the current “can women have it all” hand-wringing: In Sweden, fathers routinely take several months of paternity leave. Result: closer families and a more family-friendly culture. Via The Guardian.

Each of these could be its own post. Wish we could all sit down for coffee and actually discuss. Any thoughts?

Oct 152012

This man is thrilled that his door photographs and poems about trees will outlive him on the Internet. (Source)

This weekend I tried to Google something from my past and wound up spending an hour knocking around the Web, following the trails left by my eighteen years on the internet. Always an unsettling practice, finding out how little anonymity we have in this digital world.

What surprised me most about my own online legacy was its totally random nature. For every document from my legal career, there are strange one-offs like a listserv post from 1996, a 2003 forum question about Polaroid cameras, and a 2008 comment on a blog post about elephant-shaped laundry hampers. There’s my tutorial on making bowls from magazine pages, posted to a design site years ago and repeated on other sites. There’s also the one other person who shares my maiden name, who seems to exist only in an empty blog and a couple of family obituaries.

Even with painstakingly created spaces like this blog, you can never predict what will “take off” and reach people most often. Of the hundreds of posts on Two Wishes, the single most popular post — the one that gets two thousand hits a month — is tip about hair dye removal that I wrote in about 15 minutes.

Which brings me to my law school application essay.

The original reason for this weekend’s Google search was that I was helping a friend with an application essay and wanted to hunt down my own essay as a sample. Googling it wasn’t as crazy as that might sound — the essay was published in one of those “how to write application essays” books, which is part of Google Books. My page wasn’t in the Google Books preview, so as a final effort, I tried just Googling a unique phrase from the essay.

It got hundreds of hits!

Yes, my law school application essay has gone viral. Not viral in the Roomba Cat sense, but definitely viral to the small world of application essays. Peterson’s EssayEdge uses it in their instructional materials. And check out this section from a Penn State professor’s handbook for application essays:

Of the thousands of personal essays I’ve read over the past 20 years, one of my favorite introductions is from an application to law school, and it opens thus:

My interest in the law began with donuts. As a child, I developed early persuasive skills during family disagreements on how to divide boxes of the treats. My parents belonged to the “biggest people deserve the most donuts” school of thought; while as the youngest family member, I was a devout believer in the “one person, one donut” principle. The debates were often cutthroat, but when it came to donut distribution, I sought justice at any cost.

This opening, taking from a sample essay in the book, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, by Mark Allen Stewart, isn’t just effective because of its cleverness. It’s also efficient in detail, humorous and surprising in delivery, focused in theme, universal in appeal, and even moralistic in meaning. This writer is concerned with justice, even at an early age when decisions of right and wrong could be reduced to the distribution of donuts. Obviously, the paragraph that follows the opening discusses justice at a more advanced level, and gradually this law school applicant addresses social issues such as poverty, nationalism, and prejudice, and he emphasizes his passion to address them through law. As he later sums up near the close of his essay, “My identity rests on these convictions”— and we believe him.

I alternate between ecstasy over the compliment* and depression over the fact that I’ve lost the ability to write. Everything comes out a flabby, jumbled mess these days. And let’s not even talk about those youthful ambitions toward social justice. Guess I can take comfort that, even if I never solved the problem of world peace, my legacy will live on in hair color tips and magazine bowl tutorials.

(* Lest I get too big for my britches, there’s always this helpful advice from a different site: “This story is great for personal use however, the whole donut idea when it comes to upscale colleges may not be appealing. To personal and irrelvant, these people are much more complex and intelligent than that. But good paper.” Love the patronizing little pat on the back at the end.)

Do you have a strange online legacy? Have you ever “gone viral”? Bloggers, is your most popular post an unexpected one?

Oct 052012

Is there anything parents dread more than those weeks when EVERYONE in the family is sick at the same time? Kiddo got sent home from school on the same day that mom and dad are feverish, which is the same day that Nana the Babysitter is bedridden? Greeeaat. We’re finally on the mend*, but tomorrow we’re off to celebrate the long weekend by traveling much too far for such a short vacation. Will catch up with you all next week!

[* How did I forget that the mysterious green pills crammed in our DayQuil box were Mucinex-D with real pseudophedrine? Not only are the two main ingredients great for mucus, they both hit me as mild uppers. What cold? Let’s party!]

And if you’re at home this weekend at a loss how to fill the extra day without Two Wishes to get you through? I recommend some armchair travel over at Chic Traveler. I write for them on occasion, but the recommendation is genuine. It’s an exceptional site for travel lovers. (My own favorite post is here. You could spend hours dreaming about the amazing hotels at that link.)

Have you been hit by the germs that seem to be taking the whole country by storm? Do you have exciting plans for Columbus Day?