Tag Archive for: authors and books

(in no particular order)

  • Books. Well-written books like the one I couldn’t put down today because the language and sensibility of it were so inspiring. I’m not a huge fiction reader but “The World as We Know it” by Joseph Monninger blew me away. Phrases like “‘Everything is a story. If it didn’t happen right in front of you, it’s a story,'” and “…after Ed released his fish, our shadows joined. Both of our shadows stretched across the water, and as he moved, I moved. Our arms and wrists worked the fly rods in the same rhythm, and our fly lines turned vaporous whirls around our heads. We might have been a coin, or a single dark cutout from the afternoon sun…I understood that we had been occupying the same outline of darkness in an otherwise bright world.”
  • The way my fingers fly across the keyboard when I’m typing as if they know where to go before I know where I’m headed. And sometimes they trip and automatically add a letter where they are used to putting one, like adding a ‘g’ at the end of a word that ends in ‘in’ because they are so habituated to typing i-n-g in succession.
  • The flavors of thai basil, juicy citrus and dark chocolate (not all together).
  • The soft look on Eve’s face just before I wake her to start a new day. That exhausted relaxation that comes with adolescence when the most important work you’ll do all day is rest your body and mind in anticipation of the exponential growth to come.
  • Finding one pure moment to focus on in the day. A sort of tunnel vision that allows me to gain access to all of the depth one particular experience has to offer. Generally this comes during yoga or a walk with the dog when I least expect it.
Speaking of books, my latest book review can be found here.

Occasionally, I re-realize things that send shock waves through my life. Generally this happens after a bit of struggle and strife and when the shining moment comes for the pertinent message to penetrate my thick skull, I am astonished. And then, the more I think about it, the less astonished I am at the actual notion and the more shocked I am that I forgot this lesson in the first place.

My most recent realization? Humans need their actions to feel meaningful in order for them to be motivated.

I know. Duh.

Author Dan Ariely puts it so well in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. He conducted experiments to determine whether people will continue to be motivated to complete tasks they knew were meaningless even if they were paid to do so. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the interest level falls off sharply when the work is disregarded or set aside without acknowledgement. Somewhat surprisingly, he noted that even the slightest form of acknowledgement (looking over the page of work and nodding your head before setting it aside) was enough to keep most people going for a long time despite the fact that they were paid the same amount as those whose work was not acknowledged.

I began thinking about the implications of this when it comes to my life. I know that when I had a job that made me feel as though I was making a difference in someone’s life, I was not likely to grumble about it or drag my feet to get to work. I can’t say that I am ever excited to get out of bed to the tune of an alarm clock before the sun rises, but I have always been much more likely to do so if I felt like the tasks ahead of me were important. (This may be why I hate packing school lunches so much. If the kids acknowledged the food as delicious and appreciated and I didn’t see much of it come home and go into the trash, I might be happier making lunches every morning pre-dawn.)
When I quit my job to stay home with my kids I can honestly say that the monotony got to me. It is discouraging to change diapers again knowing that there will be more coming soon. The same tasks day after day, performed in the service of a non-verbal companion seemingly incapable of truly appreciating them didn’t exactly feel meaningful.
Then I thought about the implications for my kids. The one year Eve went to the local public school, she came home with reams of papers to complete every week as homework. She quickly became discouraged despite the fact that her homework was always completed and turned in on time. Or maybe because of that. At some point her teacher learned to expect that from her and Eve was no longer acknowledged for being a student who was timely and efficient. At her first conference, the teacher verbalized her lack of concern for Eve by saying, “Oh, she’s fine. I don’t worry about her. She sits quietly in class and turns all of her homework in.” That was nearly the extent of the entire conference. Eve felt meaningless. By December, she knew that the only way to get any attention at all from her teacher would be to misbehave. She couldn’t intuit any sort of global meaning or ultimate pinnacle that all of the paperwork was leading up to (nor could I, for that matter), which led her to believe that it was all just busywork. Meaningless.
She checked out mentally and emotionally. She began pretending to be sick every day and begged me, in tears, not to make her go back to school. She was not being bullied or harassed. She was not performing poorly in school. She was somewhat bored, but more importantly, she was frustrated with the lack of meaning her days contained. I wonder how many kids feel that way. I wonder if we could find some way to help them understand the context of their school work and help them feel as though the assignments they are completing are important in some way, whether they would perform even better.
I also thought about the implications this lesson had for my relationships. How often do I let people know that they matter to me? I suspect not often enough. I suspect that there are times when Eve or Lola or Bubba would love some acknowledgement of their efforts. I know I would. When I was really struggling with depression several years ago, it was truly a crisis of confidence that I mattered. At my lowest point I truly believed that I was entirely replaceable. Bubba could hire a housekeeper and a nanny to take over my daily duties and nobody would miss me a whit. I know now that they would have missed me, but I still struggle from time to time wondering what value I bring to the world. Spending five years researching and writing a book that never gets published is a particularly effective way to become convinced that your work stands for nothing. Especially when so many of the other tasks I perform on a daily basis are “consumed,” like the food I cook and the laundry and the housework. I know from experience that something as simple as a comment like, “Mom, great dinner tonight! Would you make this again?” can sustain me for days as I shop for groceries and do dishes.
As so many people find themselves out of work right now, I wonder if we wouldn’t all do ourselves a big favor by finding ways to occupy ourselves that feel meaningful. Whether or not it brings in money, volunteering to help organizations in our communities or friends or family members can give us such a big boost in terms of our own self-worth that it may just elevate our spirits to the point where we catch the eye of a potential employer. Short of that, I think I will make a concerted effort to remind the people in my life how much their actions mean to me personally.

My latest book review (a fictional novel which is a departure for me) can be found here. It is a quick, fun read about book-banning in a small town in the South.

Other things going on here over the long holiday weekend include some angst (on my part, anyway) about this little guy. I’d tell you his name, but there is some dispute about it, given that he doesn’t really belong to us. Or maybe he does. I’m not sure at this point.

The day before Halloween I was in the driveway cleaning out my car (a weekly necessity thanks to the carpool snack consumption that goes on inside) and I heard a pathetic maiow. I looked up to see this skinny black kitten watching me and slowly, tentatively making his way toward me. I managed to convince him to come to me and I scooped him up and brought him to the garage. I called all of the neighbors to see if he belonged to anyone and we decided to keep him around until at least after Halloween to keep him safe. By the time I heard from one neighbor who claimed him, it was November 1 and he had settled in quite nicely to our garage and back porch with several periods a day of snuggling inside on the laps of Bubba and the girls. We couldn’t let him live inside because of our other cat, but he seemed perfectly happy to play and sleep outside and come cuddle a few times a day.
When I told our neighbor I’d bring him back home, she said, “Whatever. He lives outside, anyway. He’ll come back on his own.” This cat was not destined to live inside their house, in any case, so she figured he would just roam the neighborhood at will and roost at their place. We disrupted that, I’m afraid.
At this point, two days after Thanksgiving, I’m not sure they’ve seen him at all. We have settled in to this pattern of feeding him in the morning, snuggling with him often during the day, and feeding him again at night. Bubba generally claims him for an hour before bed, messing with his tail and ears and paws in a show of masculine affection.
I know, I know. We have stolen the cat. I have considered not feeding him but that feels mean. We have plopped him back inside the fence of the neighbors’ yard and he promptly jumps on top of the posts and follows us back to our place. They won’t let him inside their house, so there’s no keeping him away (and we’re not terribly motivated to, in any case). Lola has expressed some concern from time to time that we are doing the wrong thing and I understand her sentiment, but this little guy is so lovely I can’t stand it. I have this squishy morality going on in my head that says he can go home anytime he wants – roaming the neighborhood until he gets there (they live next door) and, if they offered him any affection, he would choose to stay. I know we’re tipping the balance by feeding him.
But wouldn’t you?

I recently began reviewing books for BookPleasures and my second assignment was this series of travel guidebooks geared toward children. The author has written several and I offered to review the ones she wrote for Chicago, New York City, and Walt Disney World. The reviews are below and, while the books are suggested for 8-12 year olds, I would say that I think anyone with kids over the age of four or five could find a vast array of vital information in these books. Here goes:

Planet Explorers Walt Disney World: A Guidebook for Kids
If you are planning a trip to Walt Disney World, this is the perfect companion for your travels. The sheer size of this massive amusement park can make it overwhelming to navigate, but Laura Schaefer’s guidebook breaks it down in a fun, easy-to-read style.
The park is organized in to different areas in this book, each with its own list of restaurants, rides and attractions. Schaefer offers a wealth of good information about each ride, having devised a way to catalog them for kids of all ages (S=scary, D=dark, A=awesome, T=thrilling, W=wet). She also posts height restrictions so you can skip the ones your kids are too small to ride without much drama.
Each section also highlights fun facts like when certain attractions were built or if there are renovations or new rides being planned. There are tips on when to go do certain things or how to find characters roaming around the park.
The illustrations and photos, maps and fun facts are a fantastic complement to the vast amount of information packed in to this book. Most of the sections contain hyperlinks to things they might want to know more about like Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Samurai swords.
This book is a great way to help plan your trip through the park and come to an appreciation of the work that goes in to maintaining a place like Walt Disney World.
Links to the other two reviews are here for NYC and here for Chicago. The books all follow a similar format, so the reviews are quite similar as well. That being said, if you are planning a family vacation anytime soon, Laura has written Planet Explorer books for Disneyland, Disney cruises and Philadelphia as well as the three I reviewed. Do yourself a favor and find one that fits your travel needs.

Thank goodness for AJ Jacobs. This is a man who knows how to write for attention-defunct brains. His chapters are short and concise and sprinkled throughout with humor (to keep my monkey mind on task), and I can sit down to read one and complete it in a relatively short time, limiting the amount of interruptions, both external (“Mom! I need my jeans!”) and internal (I probably ought to throw that load of laundry in pretty soon.)

He does all of this, in many cases backed up by research that he explains in a simple, digestible way.
When I was reading My Life as an Experiment on my recent vacation, I was struck by one chapter in particular where Jacobs spends thirty days avoiding multitasking. Like most of us in Western societies with access to a multitude of technological toys and the perception that we need to be PRODUCTIVE above all else, he noticed that he had become increasingly unable to do anything with his full attention. I could give you examples, but I suspect many of you are lowering your heads right now under the weight of your own realizations. He did some digging and discovered that there is more than one research study showing that multitasking is, in all reality, much less efficient and more time consuming than simply doing one thing at a time. It also tends to split our attention to the point where we don’t produce quality work like we would if we were single-minded. Over time, multitasking erodes our cognitive abilities to the point where our attention spans become pathetic little fleas, jumping from one side of the dog’s rump to the other to find a tasty meal. Yikes!
I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter describing Jacobs’ attempts to eliminate multitasking in his own life and decided to try it on my own. Disclaimer: I decided this while on vacation – away from home without the normal tasks of cooking meals, keeping house, driving kids to and from school and other activities, etc. I suspect it wouldn’t have seemed nearly as possible an undertaking if I hadn’t been lying near the pool in the sunshine when I decided this…
Upon arriving home, I began. For ten days I resisted efforts to empty the dishwasher while making my latte, check Facebook or email while writing a blog post or a book review, help Lola rehearse her lines for an upcoming play while folding laundry and watching the Oregon Ducks play football. It was hard. Really hard.
But I learned some valuable things.
1. When I multitask, I often start 57 things and only ever finish about 20 of them in a day. I have this frantic perception that if I don’t at least start something RIGHT NOW that I’ll forget I wanted to do it and it will be lost to the ether. When I explore that notion, I realize that if I forget I wanted to do it, it probably wasn’t all that valuable a task in the first place and, it doesn’t much matter that I started it if I don’t ever finish the damn thing.
2. The more balls I have in the air, the more I have to worry about one dropping. It turns out that only doing one thing at a time is really calming. When I’m writing a book review and force myself to trust that All of Those Other Tasks Who Shall Not Be Named will wait, some part of my brain is given permission to shut down and rest for a bit. And that book review or blog post or letter to a teacher gets written much more quickly.
3. When I practice not multitasking with people (typing an email while I’m on the phone with my mother, playing a board game with Lola while helping Eve with homework, etc), they feel good. I can honestly say that, while it was terrifically challenging, using this tactic with Eve on her most recent homework project contributed to our ultimate success in completing it.
It occurred to me yesterday that multitasking is overkill. When I think about it, our bodies are already working really hard on several fronts simultaneously – pumping blood, creating white blood cells to knock off that cold virus we picked up from our kids, taking in visual information and processing it, moving our bodies through space, breathing, the list goes on… To ask them to do more than that is cruel and unusual punishment.
My single-mindedness has fallen off a bit of late. Old habits die hard, I guess, and Bubba has been out of town a lot lately. But when I recall the feeling of utter calm that came over me when I asked myself to do only one thing at a time, I am motivated to continue striving to get better at it.

I recently joined Book Pleasures as a reviewer and my first assignment was a long but rewarding book. I’ve posted the review in its entirety here, but I highly recommend you pop over to their site for any other book reviews you might wish to see. Their reviewers represent all different genres and the list of books there is staggering.

Book Review
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America
By John-Manuel Andriote
ISBN: 978-1-61364-678-6
University of Chicago Press

In this revised and updated version of his comprehensive book, the author takes a look at the AIDS epidemic in America from its explosive beginnings to present day. He traces the strange origins of what was first known as the “gay cancer” and, through exhaustive interviews and vast amounts of research, paints an extraordinary picture of the way gay culture was significantly altered because of it.

Andriote, himself a gay man who was present as AIDS made itself known, spreading like wildfire through the gay communities in cities like San Francisco and New York, has a unique perspective on what life was like for gay men before and after the epidemic hit. He watched as this population, actively discriminated against and almost completely disenfranchised, came together as a cohesive unit to address the issues that AIDS presented for them. The book is a fascinating history of the movement almost entirely started by the gay community to demand recognition and respect in the face of this deadly disease. It traces the roots of the comprehensive in-home care systems (known as the “San Francisco model”) that ensured that those afflicted with AIDS could receive effective, appropriate care based on their individual needs. Far from treating AIDS as a solely medical issue, the gay community quickly recognized the need for housing, food, and counseling as well as medical treatment.

The author looks at the drive for acceptance and acknowledgment by gay men and women and the monumental barriers put in their way by the political and cultural establishments of the 1980s and beyond. The reader quickly begins to understand how incredibly hard it is to navigate a bureaucracy like the United States government when you are part of a group so hated and stigmatized. Nonetheless, the early efforts of those determined to fight for funding and research and treatment for AIDS were tireless and passionate and served to change the gay community itself from a set of disparate individuals not prone to sharing struggles or finding commonality amongst themselves into a unified, organized force for change.

The book itself follows some of the most dynamic individuals in this struggle up to present day as well as the course of AIDS policy throughout the years and changes in political leadership in the US. The path taken by many of the organizations created in response to the AIDS crisis is a primer for any other service organization, as the author does a thorough job of exploring, through the lens of history, some of the mistakes and missteps as well as acknowledging the triumphs and lessons learned by these grassroots efforts.

Victory Deferred is a testament to the passion and spirit of the gay community when faced with a catastrophe within their ranks. He shows that the fight is far from over and, indeed, has gone a bit off-course in the last two decades, but his even-handed and painstakingly complete account of this crisis serves to enlighten and educate the reader to a degree I would not have thought possible.

If you’re interested in buying this book click here.

Review by Kari O’Driscoll for BookPleasures.com

I like maps. And my GPS. Even when I think I know where I’m going, I like to plug the address in to my iPhone and get directions as a back up.

When we were in Tuscany with the girls in 2004, I found the Italian approach to road maps a tad frustrating, to say the least. Not only do they seem to lack accuracy in scale, they don’t note the toll plazas and when you’re faced with the prospect of changing lanes to exit when you don’t have any change and there are locals whizzing by you at 125 mph, it often seems easier to just stay on the motorway. Except that the next opportunity to get off might be miles and miles down the road. And it is probably getting dark. And the two- and four-year-olds in the back seat are most likely getting hungry.
I decided that the Italians, who truly enjoy their hours-long lunches, complete with wine, might be better off outsourcing their mapping jobs to the Germans. They were the only ones who seemed more perturbed about the lack of accuracy than I was.
So I like to know where I’m going. And how long it will take me to get there. And I hate being late. So sue me. I get that it’s a control thing. And I’m working on that – the being comfortable not being in control part, I mean. But I still need a knock on the head every once in a while.
Cue David Whyte and his amazing book, “The Three Marriages.” I have written about it before, but I am reading the book again, having decided that I would get more out of it if I read it with some friends. So we have a mini-book-club thing going and I am much more mindful and deliberate about reading it this time and am able to go another layer deeper in to the subject matter.
It came as no surprise to me that, after a day of pinging around the house, lost to purpose and wondering when I might get some inkling of energy back to begin to engage in writing and creating, I read these words:
“Eventually we realize that not knowing what to do is just as real and just as useful as knowing what to do. Not knowing stops us from taking false directions. Not knowing what to do, we start to pay real attention. Just as people lost in the wilderness, on a cliff face or in a blizzard pay attention with a kind of acuity they would not have if they thought they knew where they were. Why? Because for those who are really lost, their life depends on paying real attention. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.”
It was the last line that really stopped me in my tracks. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.
And sometimes, when I am desperately seeking a path TO somewhere (home, the dentist, Eve’s friend’s house), my vision hones in so tightly as I look for clues that I fail to notice the breadth of the world around me. I am so focused on the end point, the goal, and what I imagine it to look like, that I might drive right past it because it doesn’t seem to fit my expectations.
In the case of my writing goals, I am reminded that it is more fruitful to pay attention to where I am right now and simply take the next step than it might be to fantasize about what the final product will look like or how it will be received. I may well discover an entirely new path that contains delightful surprises or challenges me beyond what I thought I could do or leads me on the journey of a lifetime.
I need to get lost more often so that I can pay more attention.