Saturday, June 8, 2013


Major Announcement #1:

Starting today, Words from the Sowul has a new home:

Yes, I now have my own self-hosted website! After you're done here, click over to the new site to see the "Welcome" post, which will explain why I chose to move the blog. Please leave me a comment and/or sign up for email notifications when new posts are published!

This will be my last post from Blogger. Most of you click through from Facebook, Twitter or StumbleUpon, so you don't need to worry; I'll just be directing you to the new website. If, however, you went old-school and bookmarked this blog, please change it RIGHT NOW to the address above, or you will be out of the loop on future Words from the Sowul posts. Ready? Go!

Did you change it? Good!

Major Announcement #2:

I've just finished a big revision of my novel, Waist, and am looking for new readers. If you are interested in reading the novel and giving me your thoughts, please email me at (or Facebook message me if that's easier). I'm looking for people who are familiar with the historical and literary fiction genre, and are willing to give me feedback somewhere beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." There will be no deadline or pressure, though if you want your feedback included in the next draft, I would need to hear from you by the beginning of August. I look forward to your responses!

Farewell, Blogger! I am very grateful for your generous hosting over the past 2 years.

Here it is, once more:

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Lesson of the Boggart

This morning I was listening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and I had one of those (all too frequent) moments when I thought, "J.K. Rowling is a genius."

The scene I was listening to was the first Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson taught by Professor Lupin, where he introduces Harry and his class to a creature known as a boggart. Boggarts live in dark, concealed places. No one knows what shape they take when alone, but when they come into contact with a wizard, they assume the form of the thing the wizard most fears.

The way to get rid of the boggart, Lupin tells the class, is to say the spell, "Riddikulus" while simultaneously thinking of a humorous way to change the thing you most fear. For example, Neville Longbottom most fears evil Professor Snape, so Lupin suggests that Neville picture Snape in Neville's grandmother's green dress, feathered hat, and red handbag. When Neville succeeds in forcing the Snape-boggart into his grandmother's clothes, the class laughs, and after a series of similar shape-changes and more laughter, the boggart is defeated.

Isn't that the most wonderful analogy? Think of the thing you fear, figure out how to make it humorous, and voila, your fear is defeated.

For example, I'm afraid of heights. Well, falling from heights. I don't have a problem with airplanes or tall buildings, but I hate Ferris wheels and tall ladders. I picture myself falling through the air and shattering on the ground. But what if I changed my mental image? What if, instead of picturing myself falling, I pictured a bunch of balloons sprouting from my head, raising me up into the sky so I could float at my leisure? What if I pictured myself growing wings? Or having the ability to reverse the ground and the sky? Maybe having that mental image would help me not take my fear so seriously. Maybe if I could think of a strange and silly outcome, and laugh at it, I could actually get on that Ferris wheel and enjoy myself.

What is your boggart? How would you "Riddikulus" it away?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

CI 4

Yesterday I finished editing draft 6 of my book. Ahhh! I would say it feels good to be done, but I'm going right into draft 7 on Monday. It won't be a revision on the scale of draft 6, but there are few scenes I want to fix before sending it off to more readers.

In the meantime, here are some of my recent Current Influences:

What I'm reading/recently read and LIKED:

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. A must-read for all women and all lovers of sociology.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Very long and too padded with detail about the Princeton admissions process, but well-written with a strong, very flawed female protagonist. (The admissions information is interesting, but there's too much of it. Skim if you must; it's worth the read.)

Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah. Beautifully written, as her novels always are, but kind of forgettable.

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella. A fast, fun, whimsical read in true Kinsella style.

What I'm reading/recently read and DISLIKED:

Family Pictures by Jane Green. I used to love Jane Green. I still love her earlier stuff- her writing style is so refreshing, like a fast ramble. But this one was extremely far-fetched and based on impossible coincidences. Though the characters were well-formed, the relationships between them felt awkward and forced, and the story jumped around way too much.

Summer Breeze by Nancy Thayer. Amazon kept recommending Thayer to me, I think because I buy a lot of Elin Hilderbrand's beach-themed books. Thayer is nothing like Hilderbrand. Her writing doesn't flow well, and lacks detail.

I've read others that I didn't actively like or dislike, but wouldn't recommend either way.

What I'm watching...

I finally finished The Dick Van Dyke Show, so now I'm floundering for a new series. So You Think You Can Dance just started, but I don't like the audition episodes, so I'm waiting for the Top 20 episode. I watched 1 1/2 episodes of Smash on Amazon, and I like it so far. Also recently watched:

Inside The Actors Studio. I love this show, and Bravo has been airing a lot of reruns recently to celebrate its 250th episode. My favorite guest so far has been, surprisingly, Jim Carrey. I was so impressed with the elasticity of his face! He truly is an artist. George Clooney was incredibly modest; Kate Hudson was lovely and charming.

Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Styles. A great movie for anyone interested in the social position of women in the 1950s.

What I'm listening to...

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban narrated by Jim Dale. This is how addicted I am to Harry: it's only been 6 months since I finished listening to the series, and now I'm starting again. Years ago, I borrowed all the audiobooks from the library (except Sorcerer's Stone) and loaded them, one track at a time, onto iTunes. It was frustrating and painstaking, and I had to re-order the tracks several times, but it was worth it.

The Freakonomics Podcast. Economics meets sociology: love, love, love.

Have a beautiful June day!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Making Lists

Hello, my name is Leanne, and I am a list-oholic.

If that's not a thing, it should be.

I am addicted to list making. I make to-do lists every day, and edit them several times over the course of the day. I could not live without my digital appointment and list-keeper, iCal. It's the one window that is always open on my computer. In fact, I often neglect to shut down or even re-start my computer because I might need to access it. When I first bought my MacBook and discovered that my previous digital list-keeper, AnyTime, would not run on it, I practically had a breakdown. I obsessed about it for days, trying to find an Apple equivalent, before I gave in and adjusted to iCal. When I got my iPhone and found that the iCal app would sync and keep track of my appointments but not my to-do list, I remember saying, "Then what's the point of this stupid phone?" (I got over that quickly, though: I Love/Hate My iPhone)

Pre-computer, I used notepads and special PenTech pens. My favorite accessory throughout high school was my day planner. I spent an inordinate amount of time picking them out every year, and if I couldn't find one to suit my needs, I'd make my own. Nothing thrills me more than crossing out an item or checking a box, whether it be by pencil, pen or mouse click.

I once wrote a list of reasons for why I broke up with a guy. I kept the list to remind me of why I didn't want to be with him in case I ever weakened and thought about getting back together. (It worked.)

Have I convinced you that I have an addiction? Have I convinced you that I need help?

The thing is, I love being a list-maker. It keeps me on track with my goals and dreams as well as my regular household chores, and even helps me keep in touch with my loved ones. I do a lot of rescheduling. For example, today's to-do list included:

-Go to pharmacy
-Return books at library
-Vacuum upstairs
-Cook dinner
-Write in journal/reschedule
-Edit 10-15 pages of novel/reschedule
-Write blog post/reschedule
-Call Grandma/reschedule

Those "reschedules" remind me not to check off that I've completed that item for the day, but to reschedule it for the next time it's needed. All of the writing items are rescheduled for the next day, except the blog post, which is twice weekly. Calling my relatives and friends are often rescheduled weekly or bi-weekly. I wouldn't necessarily forget to call them, but it makes me feel better to know that I have a reminder anyway, just in case life gets busy and I allow too much time to slip by. As you can see, I rely very heavily on my list. It allows me to free my mind from the need to remember, and instead focus on accomplishing things. 

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I need to take a break from list-ing. I need to set it aside, close the window, and just live through a day or two without feeling so "on." I do this during vacations, of course, but other than that, I rarely take a break. I'm just too much of a list-oholic, and I don't know how to break the hold. I don't even really want to.

I wrote a short story last year called "Sunday Girl" about a woman named Susie who had to, simply HAD TO accomplish everything on her list every day, no matter what. She did it at the expense of her marriage and other relationships, and even her own health. (The "Sunday" part of the title referred to the day she sat down and planned out her entire week, down to the last workout and cello-practicing session.) She was a great character, but I never came up with an ending for the story, because I didn't know how she would break the habit, never having broken it myself.

What do you think? Do I need to break my list habit if it's helping me live the life I want? Or am I actually missing out on life by spending time making lists? How would I break the habit, if I wanted to? Is anyone else out there a list-oholic? Maybe we could start a group.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Old Normal

The other day, I went to get a blood test. I have to get my thyroid levels checked every couple of months, so blood tests are pretty routine for me. I wouldn't say that I enjoy the experience, but it's such a nonissue for me that I don't really think about it. If someone told me I had to have a blood test every day for the rest of my life, I'd be annoyed at the scheduling inconvenience it would cause, but the actual stick-a-needle-in-my-arm part wouldn't bother me at all. It's almost like a game to me, where I do everything a split second before the phlebotomist tells me to. I tell her which arm has the best (only) vein. I point to the exact spot where that vein is. She tells me, "Make a fist. Squeeze it." I'm already doing it. If the blood isn't flowing into the tube, she tells me, "Pump your hand open and closed," but I'm already doing that too. I know when to release my fist and the exact second to apply pressure when she takes the needle out. I'm pretty sure I could be a phlebotomist myself.

This particular day, I'd just had a conversation with my endocrinologist in which she said something about how, after having cancer at such a young age, I must be tired of going to doctors and having medical tests done much more often than the average person. I was surprised at the question; I told her that I'd never thought of it that way. I just deal frequently with the medical side of life. First my parents took care of it for me, and then it gradually became my job. Now it's sometimes a nuisance because I have to answer the babysitting question each time I make an appointment, but it still feels like a normal thing to do.

People sometimes refer to a major lifestyle change as "The New Normal." I've been doing this stuff so long that I didn't even remember that it wasn't normal. I guess for me, it's "The Old Normal."

Here's the thing, though. That feeling of "no big deal" when it comes to medical procedures is not transferrable to family members. After the conversation with my endocrinologist, when I was waiting for my blood test, I heard a baby crying inside the lab. As a nursing mother, I couldn't help but listen and feel my heart ache for the poor baby and her mother. The little girl cried for a long time, and then her mother carried her out, pushing a stroller with her other hand. She was a very small Asian baby, maybe 4 or 5 months old, younger than Edwin, and she had little bandaids all over her skin, as if the phlebotomist couldn't find a vein. My heart just about broke for her, and I wondered what condition she was being tested for. I felt awful for the mother, too. I couldn't help but put myself in their situation, and I wondered, would it be easier for me to deal with Edwin having medical tests done because I've had them so often myself? Would I be able to talk to him calmly, tell him "it's no big deal," and really mean it? Or would I feel each stick of the needle as if it were my own skin? Would my personal medical nonchalance make it easier or harder for me to witness these things as a parent?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know this: seeing my child in pain could never, ever become "The Old Normal."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Marriage Review System

My husband's and my wedding anniversary is tomorrow. We've been married for four years, though we've been a couple for more than eleven, so the four years doesn't feel very long in that context. In those eleven years, we've been tested by difficult situations, and found we were stronger together than we were separately. We've experienced good news and new adventures, and found we were happier sharing those things with each other. We've laughed much more than we've argued, and we've never stopped respecting and being proud of each other. I've always been certain that, though we are very different people, Nick is my perfect match, my balance, my soulmate, if you will. (Or Sowul mate, one of my favorite twists on our last name.)

I think a lot about relationships in general, so it's not strange that I spend time trying to decipher what makes our marriage good, and how to keep it that way. This year, Nick, as a New York State public school teacher, has been required to do an Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that evaluates and grades his teaching performance. This new evaluation system seems to be attempting to make a school more like a private corporation, as I assume most employees at corporations have to do yearly performance reviews. I don't object to them; I think evaluating one's work is important to professional growth. (I do object to how teachers are being evaluated, as they have much less control over their product- a child's capacity for learning- than a corporation has over the quality of their bicycles or tax preparations or what-have-you. But that's another post.)

Americans are great at putting systems in place to evaluate people in the workplace. But no one's ever suggested that we should similarly be evaluating our personal relationships. This would, of course, have to be a voluntary thing, but I think it's a great idea. Americans have more success sticking to careers than they do to marriages. If we gave ourselves yearly evaluations, maybe we would have more happy marriages. At the very least, we would all be more aware of, and in tune with, our personal relationships.

We could call it the M.R.S. Marriage Review System. (Get it? The Mrs.?)

Each evaluation would have to be unique to the couple, of course. Some would prefer to have a simple discussion; others might want to answer a series of questions. A simple jumping-off point might be to ask your spouse, "Are you happy?"

I'm not a relationship expert, of course. But if you find this thought even a little intriguing, talk to your spouse about it. An anniversary is a good time to think about whether you're happy with where you are and in what direction you're headed.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thank You, Television

My husband and I finished the last episode of The Office yesterday. Though I wasn't impressed with the episode itself (it was a little sappy for my taste; the Michael surprise was nice, but it didn't feel like Steve Carell was in character) it did make me nostalgic. The wonderful thing about TV shows is that the characters become part of your life in a much more permanent way than in a movie or even a book (possibly excepting a book series). They become to feel like your family and friends, and you look forward to seeing them every week. It's like getting together with people you care about for good times and laughter, without any social pressure on you.

Certain TV series have gotten me through rough times in my life. The first show I ever became completely addicted to was Friends. I didn't start watching it until my junior year of college, which was late in its eighth season. The next semester, I was student teaching a few hours away from my family and friends, and I was often lonely and bored. Renting Friends on VHS (yes, VHS) from my local Wegmans and watching re-runs on TV made me feel happy and comforted. It may have even saved me from feeling depressed. I watched the finale of Friends from the living room of my roommate's house my first year out of college and on the job. It was the first place I lived that my parents didn't contribute to, and I remember feeling proud and independent as I watched that finale.

A couple of summers later, when I lived alone in my one-bedroom apartment, I watched What Not to Wear every day at 12:00 while I ate my lunch. The emotional transformations of the women on the show inspired me to higher self-esteem and self-confidence. (I also picked up a lot of tips that I still use on how to dress my body shape.)

As a result of issues with my thyroid medication (combined with difficult life events) I've suffered periods of depression, sometimes brief, sometimes lasting up to a year. It's surprising now, considering how happy and fulfilled I am living a life with many interests and hobbies, but there have been times in the past when I could only manage to go to work, come home and watch television. Shows that lifted my spirits during those times were I Love Lucy, How I Met Your Mother, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Simpsons. 

Several shows got me through my pregnancy. During the first trimester, when I felt so sick I could barely get off the couch, I watched Gossip Girl and Greek. (Not great shows, but they did make me feel pretty and thin for a few minutes.) During the last trimester, when I spent too many evenings bored at home, my husband and I watched a lot of The West Wing (we actually watched an episode or two in the hospital while I was in labor) and re-runs of Deal or No Deal (I'm kind of obsessed with how brilliant that show is). I remember those evenings fondly, watching TV and playing gin rummy, balancing the cards on my huge stomach. It was the last time we could count on watching an entire show without getting interrupted by Edwin.

The Office was special because it was the first show that my husband and I really bonded over. Before that, he was Seinfeld and I was Friends; he was The Sopranos, and I was Sex and the City. But after my first episode ("Diversity Day", which made me want to cover my eyes in shame for Michael Scott) I fell in love with it as much as my husband did. Watching that show became a special bond for us, and over the years we've started to enjoy more and more shows in common (The Daily Show, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation, to name a few.)

So it's the "end of an era" (yes, I stole that from Friends) for the Office. I'm grateful to that show and to all of the others that got me through some tough times.

Have you ever turned to TV during trying times of life? Which shows did you choose?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why Little Decisions Matter

I'm the kind of person who needs to know what I want out of life. I need goals, dreams, a direction. I need to know what I want my big picture to be. For a few years in my twenties, I didn't have that. I knew I wanted to be married to my husband and stay close to my family, but other than that, I felt stuck. It was a terrible feeling and I resolved that I would never again allow myself to feel lost. In general, once I have my big picture, I'm good at making big decisions. If they fit in with my goals and dreams, they're a yes. If they don't, they're a no. Sometimes it takes a little while to work out (see 5 Things to Do When Making a Big Decision) but in the end, I'm happy with the result.

I am not, however, good at making little decisions. If I go to a bookstore, I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to read and sometimes leave without buying anything. If someone says, "What kind of takeout do you want for dinner? I'll get whatever you want," I instantly feel paralyzed. (Incidentally, this kind of thing happens a lot, because my husband and my dad both spoil me.) I need my choices narrowed down before I can make a decision.

Though it doesn't happen often, the converse is also true: I can't make a decision if there are too few options. I've been having trouble deciding what to wear recently because, though I can now fit into all my pre-maternity pants (YAY!), most of my shirts are stretched out from wearing them over my pregnant belly last spring. So I end up repeating a lot of outfits, which doesn't matter much to Edwin, but it bothers me.

Unfortunately for me, while choosing a takeout place or an outfit doesn't seem to matter much in the scheme of things, spending time on the little decisions does have a cost. If I spend ten minutes a day thinking about what to wear, that's ten minutes that I'm not thinking about the topic for my next blog post. I could start writing a post in my head that will be recorded online forever, and works toward my overall goal of being a professional writer, but instead I'm worrying about which pair of shoes to wear. It is rumored that Albert Einstein wore the same thing every day. If it meant he had more headspace to devote to E=mc2, I think that was the right choice.

So what's the solution? I need to find the right number of choices for things I do on a daily basis, and a system for making less typical choices. In terms of meals, 2-3 possible things to eat makes me feel like I have variety but doesn't take long to think about. In terms of exercise, I do most workouts on certain days of the week, with some variations for weather, so that doesn't take much headspace either. In terms of clothing, I guess I need to buy more shirts.

For less typical choices, the strategy gets trickier. Do I limit myself right off the bat? My sister and I used to use a system for choosing a movie to watch. One of us would pick 4 or 5, and the other would narrow it down to the final choice. That worked well for a group decision. When it's just me, I can try to pick a category and narrow it down from there. That used to work on regular library trips: Choosing Books.

What kinds of decisions are you best at? Are you spending the right amount of time on the little decisions, or are you letting them take over your time to think, dream and plan toward what you really want out of life?