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?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love Another Mother

In writing a Mother's Day post, the simplest thing I could do is remind everyone to value their own mothers or take time to be grateful for their children. I could have written a nice little story about things my mother taught me and applied it to my own first experience of being a mother, and that would be that. Simple, honest, loving.

Instead, I'd like to point to something that I think needs some societal attention: mother-to-mother negativity.

We modern women are very hard on ourselves. We expect ourselves to have full careers, beautiful homes, strong marriages, and perfect children. At no point in women's history have we been more successful, but at no point have we faced more of a challenge to "do it all." Because of this, women often take their own feelings of inadequacy out on each other. In a recent high-profile example, editor of "Real Simple" Kristin van Ogtrop trashed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, despite the fact that Sheryl and "Real Simple" are both about empowering women, albeit in different ways. Women commit this crime on a daily basis. We gossip and criticize. We pass judgement on others without knowing the full story. I am just as guilty of this as other women. It's in our natures, or at least our collective nurtures.

I say: let's fight it. Let's fight the urge to go negative on other women, and particularly on other mothers. Everyone thinks they know the one best way to raise children, even though we should be aware that each parent-child combination contains a completely unique set of personalities, problems and outside support. If you believe strongly in breast-feeding, that's wonderful, but it does not give you the right to tell a bottle-feeder that she's depriving herself and her child. If you used the "cry it out" method to get your children to sleep, don't pass judgement on the mother who feels she needs to sleep next to her child. For some children, for some parents, that's the only thing that works. If you go back to work after three months, and your co-worker takes an extended maternity leave, neither of you is a better mother or better worker than the other. You're each making the decision that is best for you and your family.

Let's say you're out in a restaurant and a child is screaming at the next table. It's disagreeable. You might want to say to your dining companion, "Why doesn't she take her kid out of here?" Instead, look at the mother and smile. This might be the only chance she had to catch up with a friend. Maybe she had a babysitter, but it fell through. She's not getting the opportunity to enjoy a lunch that might be an unusual treat for her. She's probably feeling stressed and embarrassed at her child's behavior. Instead of judging her, support her. (And try to distract the screaming child, if you can!)

Give your mother, grandmother and godmother plenty of love and appreciation today, but don't forget to extend some positivity to other mothers, be they friends, co-workers or strangers in a restaurant. We all have our own stories, our own difficulties. We all work hard to be the best we can be for our children, spouses, parents and employers. Let's not have to work to impress each other, too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Games and Dreams

Sometimes it takes a long time to get my son to sleep. I walk him around the room, rocking him in my arms, humming or shushing until his eyelids droop. This can get kind of boring after awhile, so I play little games with myself. I name all the Presidents of the United States in order, or all fifty states (it's harder than you think). I think of all the authors or composers I know whose names begin with a particular letter, or I make up stories about the rest of a character's life after a novel ends.

My favorite game was suggested to me by my sister a few weeks ago. She told me the story of a man who would write down 25 things that happened each day that he was grateful for/happy about. Then he would put the list under his pillow and fall asleep thinking of those things. This is a wonderful exercise! I don't write them down, but just naming the 25 things in my head as I walk back and forth seems to make my spirits lift, my heart rate slow down, and my son feel lighter in my arms. Even when I've had a bad day, I can still find 25 things to be grateful or happy about. They don't have to be big things. Items on my lists recently have included green on the trees, listening to bird calls, my son's funny expressions, and my husband giving me a back rub. It only takes a few minutes, but it seems to help me process every day in a positive way.

I also have to use games like this to help ME get to sleep sometimes. If it was easy to get Edwin down, I might play the 25 Things game as I'm attempting to drift off. I also like to think about my dream house. I have two: a big sprawling ranch in Colorado, and a small cottage on the coast of Maine. I imagine what each room would look like and what kind of lifestyle I'd have there. (Colorado: hiking, riding horses, a gourmet kitchen, lots of fireplaces, and an outdoor hot tub; Maine: biking to town for groceries, spending the day writing on a screened porch smelling the salty air, a big lovable dog at my feet, and my husband cooking dinner every night on a butcher block island.) If I really can't sleep, I pull out the big dream: what I'd wear to the premiere of the incredibly successful movie adapted from my novel. (That's what dreams are for, right?)

What do you think about during the parts of your day when your mind can wander? What do you dream about before you go to sleep?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Writing My Fears (Why I Didn't Want Children)

This past December, I wrote a post called Reading Your Fears. I've reached the next level: writing my fears.

I'm struggling a little with the current draft of my novel. The novel is written from four perspectives: two younger women named Rachel and Hannah, one younger man named Billy, and an older woman named Greta. I'm happy with the four characters and how their stories compliment each other. Now that I'm getting down into the nitty-gritty, though, I'm focusing on making each of their voices (the way they think and talk in the context of the story) feel unique. Rachel and Hannah are easy, because I feel I know them so well, and they are, for the most part, extensions of myself (Rachel is more like my teenage self, and Hannah more like my adult self). Billy isn't too difficult either, though it's always a challenge for a female author to write a male voice. The character I'm really struggling with is Greta, the older woman. For long time, I couldn't figure out why. I just knew that writing in her voice felt uncomfortable, like an actor performing a character completely foreign to himself, or a musician playing a secondary instrument.

Well, I've finally figured it out, and it only took a conversation with my friend a few days ago, a scary incident involving my son cutting his toe, and letting my mind wander during yesterday morning's workout. In the middle of my balance-ball squats, I had an epiphany:

I'm uncomfortable writing Greta because she embodies my greatest fear.

When the novel opens, Greta is a deeply unhappy person. Her only son died a few years previously (this isn't too much of a spoiler; I won't tell you how old he was or how he died.) She loved her son as deeply as any mother can, and now that he's gone, she has nothing to live for. She's distanced herself from her husband and co-workers. She has no comfort, and most importantly, no hope for the future. She's merely existing day-to-day.

That is my greatest fear.

A few years ago, I went through a period of time when I didn't want to have children. It wasn't that I wasn't ready, or didn't think my husband and I could handle it, I just didn't want them. I even saw a therapist about it, because I didn't understand what my issue was; when I was younger, I always thought I would have children. One night, I had a major break-through while watching a news special about children with terminal illnesses making jewelry to raise money for other sick children. I started to cry, and it was at that moment that I recognized why I didn't want children: I was afraid. I was afraid that my children would become ill, like I was. I saw what my cancer did to my parents; I didn't want that happening to me. I didn't think I could bear the pain of loving a child so much and watching him be seriously ill or even die.

After awhile, I realized that I didn't want to hold myself back from a wonderful, life-changing experience just because I was afraid of what might happen. My husband often assured me that if something terrible did happen, we would be able to handle it together, and that helped a lot. About six months later, I decided I was ready to take the leap, and Edwin was born the year after that.

But losing Edwin is still my greatest fear, and that's why Greta is so hard to write.

Strangely enough, now that I've realized my problem with Greta, I think it's going to be much easier to write her. The author Jodi Picoult has said in interviews that she writes about the things she fears as sort of a talisman against them happening to her in real life. Maybe writing Greta will be sort of a therapy for me. Maybe knowing she's inside me will be my talisman against my greatest fear.

Maybe the act of writing this post released my fear to the world.

How can you release your greatest fear?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Appreciating the Magnolia Tree

Last week, Laura Vanderkam wrote a post about savoring the bloom of the magnolia tree. The value of the magnolia tree is not only in its beauty, but in the brevity of its bloom. If we let other things sidetrack us, if we let the short window of its pink-flowered life pass by, we won't get another chance (at least not this year).

This weekend, my husband and Edwin and I went to visit the blooming magnolia at my in-laws' house. It was in full flower, a gorgeous shade of pink. My mother-in-law ended up getting some fantastic pictures of us with Edwin beneath the tree. Hopefully, we can be there same time next year, to take more pictures and compare Edwin's growth.

Enjoying the magnolia during its brief window of bloom made me think about savoring the stages of Edwin's development. Right now, he's going through a bit of stranger anxiety. If he hasn't seen a face for a little while, that face better not get too close, because Edwin will crumple and start to wail. When that happens, his arms fly out to wrap around my neck and he burrows his tearful face into my shoulder.

I'm probably supposed to be bothered by this stage, or at least feel sorry for the person Edwin cries over. But I'm not. (Okay, I do feel bad when it's a close family member.) I'm loving the fact that my son is securely attached to me, that I'm the one who can make him feel better, just by being there and holding him. I'm loving that his arms fly around my neck and his face nestles into my shoulder. I'm loving the role of boo-boo kisser and protector from strange people. I don't have to be a veteran mother to know that life is short and this time goes all too quickly. Before I know it, he'll be toddling off on his own. Then will come the day when he wants to be left alone to play. And finally, the heartbreaking moment when he asks me to not drop him off right in front of school and please, mommy, don't kiss me goodbye.

My son's window of needing me might be longer than a magnolia's bloom, but it's even more precious, and I'm going to keep appreciating it until the last flower drops.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I'm From Here

When I went off to college, I chose a school six hours north of home. I thought my hometown was kind of boring, and I wanted a change. I loved my family, but I needed to separate from them. I swore I wasn't going to move back home after I graduated.

Ten years after I left college, I'm still living in my hometown. I moved back home for two reasons: one, I got a job in my old school district (which just happens to be one of the best in the state for music), and two, my boyfriend (now husband) whom I met at that college six hours north of home, happened to be "from here" too. In fact, we'd been at the same music festivals in high school, but hadn't met. It just seemed natural that we'd settle here; after all, both of our families were here, and we found it easier to get jobs here too. (To our credit, neither of us lived at our parents' houses for very long. I moved out after six months. You're welcome, Mom and Dad!)

Now that we've been settled here for a decade (wow, that sounds even longer than "ten years"), I'm happy we're here. I've learned to appreciate the beauty of the Hudson Valley. I don't associate the area with my childhood and teenage memories, because I've made memories here as an adult. Most importantly, I love being near both sides of our family. I appreciate having much of my husband's extended family in the area too, since all of my aunts, uncles and cousins have always lived scattered around the country. One of my husband's cousins became one of my very best friends (hi Jen!).

Sometimes, though, I wonder what would have happened if I (or we) hadn't come back home. Would I have stayed close to my own family? Would I have made strong relationships with my husband's family? What would that have meant for Edwin? Now he sees all of his grandparents at least once a week. How would their relationships with him have been different if we weren't living so close?

I also wonder how different my social life would be, especially where it overlaps with work. I admit that I've never made much of an effort to form a social circle at work. Other than a group of music teachers I'm friends with, I pretty much keep to myself. I like to keep my social life separate from my work life; it's one of my coping mechanisms for compartmentalizing the stresses of my job. Even though there are plenty of wonderful people at work with whom I am compatible, I've never felt motivated to make more friends because I'm pretty happy with the level of socializing I already do outside of work. Would this be different if I hadn't moved back to my hometown? Would my social life have revolved around work instead of family? Would I have wanted to take such an extended maternity leave, or would I have felt too isolated from my social family?

Everyone has had the opportunity, at some point or another, to either leave or stay. Which did you choose, and why? What do you think would have been different if you'd gone the other way?

In other news, I'm finally getting paid to write! One of my proposals was accepted on Elance. Writing career (or side career) here I come!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Re-kindling the Mommy Flame

I'm going to make a confession: I've been feeling a little burned-out, motherhood-wise, for the last few days. Edwin has been particularly difficult, fussing and crying more frequently and being unpredictable about everything from his nap lengths to how much he'll eat for dinner. It's been harder for me to do things around the house, let alone for myself, because he's been so much needier than usual. Yesterday he had two total meltdowns while we were out shopping with my sister, something he's never done in public before. (There's something about dressing rooms that he doesn't like.)

I love being a mother and I love Edwin, but I can't help but look back on our pre-baby time with a touch of nostalgia. I suppose that's only natural. Here, for my own re-kindling and your enjoyment, are some things I miss about being childless, along with some corresponding compensations for having a child.

What I miss: The freedom of being able to go out whenever I wanted, stay out as long as I wanted, and not have to bring fifty pounds of necessary stuff with me (not counting the baby).
My compensation: Having cute, often smiley company for walks and shopping trips.

What I miss: That moment when you wake up on your own and realize that you can go back to sleep for a couple of hours. 
My compensation: Snuggling with my son and having him reach for me at night. 

What I miss: Being able to pick up and go to our favorite vacation place for a spontaneous weekend getaway and not worry about how we can afford it.
My compensation: Experiencing our favorite places in new ways as we introduce them to Edwin; having vacations become more precious because they are more rare.

What I miss: Not having to plan my day around nap times and lunchtimes.
My compensation: Learning a new skill set that allows me to get things done in small, unpredictable windows of time.

What I miss: Doing laundry once a week or less.
My compensation: Getting that satisfied feeling of completeness when the laundry is done. (Okay, that one's a stretch.)

What I miss: Having to answer only to myself; not being needed so often and so much.
My compensation: The feeling of being the most important person in the world to my little boy.

My verdict? Of course, the compensations outweigh what I miss. I love my son and I'd never want to be free of him. But I do need to make some time to be on my own. I know I'll value it highly and it will leave me feeling refreshed. In the meantime, here's hoping that Edwin's "fussy time" will end soon, and that a new nap/sleep schedule will emerge from the chaos.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knowing Your Characters, Knowing Yourself

Sometimes I find it interesting to apply writing advice to real life. Here's a meaningful one:

Get to know your characters before you write. The story will write itself because the characters will tell you what they want to do.

Isn't that a great metaphor for real life? If you get to know yourself well, your life will be easier. You'll be more comfortable making choices and feeling good about the outcomes, because you'll know they're the right choices for you. You'll have confidence in your path because you'll know what your dreams and ambitions are. You'll have stronger relationships with others because you'll present a clear picture of yourself. Even if and when life hands you difficult situations, you'll know how to handle them in your own way.

This advice has worked for me, both as a writer and in real life. My stories always flow much better when I know my characters; they really do tell me what they want to do. And my life got much better once I understood my own personality, strengths and weaknesses, and dreams. It took most of my twenties to get to that point, but I feel good about myself now and I know where I want to go in life.

Spend some quality time with yourself today, and see what you learn!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Choosing a Baby Name- Part 2

In my last post, Choosing a Baby Name- Part 1, I told the story of how my son was named Edwin Michael Sowul. I explained our thought process over weeks and months until the day of his birth, and cited many reasons for choosing that exact name, including multiple family ties and letter symmetry. In short, I thought my husband and I had come to this major decision for our son completely on our own. It turns out, however, that I was somewhat wrong about that. Societal norms played a role as well.

The Freakonomics podcast last week was on whether a person's name has any bearing on the direction of her life. It had several segments stemming off the original chapter on names in the Freakonomics book. I'm not going to get into every segment, as it was quite a long podcast. The one that intrigued me most posited that certain types of parents choose certain names for their children, and their choices say more about the parents than about the children themselves. 

The researcher they interviewed on this subject claimed that parents proud of their intellect and erudite tastes tend to name their children in a way that sends a signal to other parents of the same type, such as choosing an obscure name from an obscure novel by J.D. Salinger.

In a similar vein, more down-to-earth people tend to name their children simple, traditional, American names. Girls' names are often popular and feminine; boys names are short and have strong consonant sounds. 

Based on this research and on the usual political values of intellectual vs. down-to-earth people, the researcher concluded that in general, liberals tend to choose more unique names, while conservatives choose more traditional names. In addition, liberals choose softer-sounding names for their boys, while conservatives go for harder consonant sounds.

Here's why I found this interesting. We named our son Edwin. Clearly, this is a liberal name. It's softer-sounding and more unique. This makes sense. My husband and I are both very liberal. We're those annoying snobs who watch Jon Stewart religiously, only read the New York Times, and yell at the TV when FOX news is on. (Well, I do that last one. My husband can control himself better.)

The funny thing is, our runner-up name, and the boy name I've loved since well before I was even married, is Jack. By the guidelines above, Jack is clearly a conservative name. It's short, has a hard consonant sound, and is very popular right now (Jack/Jackson was the second most popular name in 2012.)

So the question is, if we'd gone with Jack Sowul, would that have said something different about us? Would people have assumed us to be more traditional, conservative people? Does the fact that we chose Edwin instead tell the world that we're intellectual, liberal snobs? And does it even matter?

What do you think your name says about your parents? If you have children, what do their names say about you?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Choosing a Baby Name- Part 1

This week, on the Freakonomics podcast, there was an episode titled How Much Does Your Name Matter? It got me thinking about everything my husband and I went through when choosing our son's name. Here's the story:

In the past, I'd wondered at parents who chose their child's name and broadcast it to the world before he/she was even born. What if they changed their minds? What if a Brutus came out with narrow shoulders? What if a Brady didn't get his mother's red hair? True, maybe those parents didn't care about following stereotypes (more power to them), but I did. I didn't want to give my son the wrong name to carry with him through life.

So my husband and I decided to narrow our options down to three or four and wait until our son was born to decide for certain. We wanted to see him, hold him, and determine his name based on how he looked and felt.

As it turned out, that was a stupid idea, because when the moment came for us to name him, it was too overwhelming a decision. You can't tell a baby's personality or future based on how he looks minutes after being born. Furthermore, the name we gave our son turned out to be the first name we both liked and the front-runner throughout the process. So we might as well have just chosen it, stuck with it, and shared it with the world. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably do that. My husband says his first thought when my son came out was, "Why didn't we decide on a name?" In that moment, he could only remember one name out of our finalists, and it was Edwin, my grandfather's name.

I'd gotten the idea for naming Edwin after my grandfather months before. My Grandma Evelyn (Edwin's wife) passed away four years ago this week. In life, she was a very spiritual person, connected to the universe in a sometimes mystical way. Since her death, I've dreamed about her several times, and she always tells me things. Within a month of learning I was pregnant, I dreamed that she told me I would have a boy (this was well before the gender sonogram) and that I would name him after my grandfather. To this day, I'm not sure if she meant it as a prophesy or an order, but either way, it turned out as she said.

I instantly liked the idea of Edwin because I've always believed that there's a certain element of predestination in names, and I would love for my son to inherit some of the qualities I admire in my grandfather: humor, generosity, an easy-going nature, a love of learning, and a lot of brains, to name a few. Another more superficial reason for Edwin is the symmetry with our last name, Sowul. Both have five letters with a "W" in the middle. I thought that was pretty cool. After he was born, I added another reason: Edwin looks just like my husband and nothing like me, so I like that his first name, at least, is connected to my side of the family.

As for his middle name, Michael, that was a no-brainer. Michael is both my father-in-law's name and my Grandpa Markowitz's name. The "M" initial can also stand for both my parents' names. So Edwin Michael Sowul could not be more rooted in his family.

Our only hesitation with Edwin was that people might call him Eddie or Ed, which neither of us really like as nicknames. But so far, neither of those names seem to suit him at all, so there's no temptation for anyone to call him that. And why bother nicknaming Edwin anyway? It's short, and takes less time to say than "Eddie." If he wants a nickname, maybe "Win" would work. (Who wouldn't want their kid to be called Win?) I also wondered if Edwin would be too "old" a name for a baby, and it did feel that way at first, but now it seems to fit him perfectly.

So my husband and I had many reasons for choosing this particular name for our son. But there was even more behind the decision than I knew: societal influences that reveal our (not Edwin's) race, education, intelligence level, and even politics. 

Intrigued? Listen to the podcast, and stay tuned for part 2 of "Choosing a Baby Name"!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If You Love It, Time Will Come

People sometimes ask me how I find time to keep a journal, write a novel and keep a blog. Part of that is simple: I AM on maternity leave, so I have more flexible hours than someone who works full time. But I found time to do all of those things while I was working, too; the only difference is that my novel-writing progressed more slowly. One of the reasons I wanted to extend my maternity leave (besides, of course, being with my beautiful boy) was so I could keep doing those things. I am afraid of what will happen when I have to return to teaching and still be a hands-on mother. I am afraid that my writing time will vanish. So I keep reminding myself of this little mantra:

"If you love it, time will come."

It's not a perfect quote (making it like the Field of Dreams quote caused it to lose a little of its meaning), but it works for a quick reminder. It means that if you really love to do something, you will find the time. The passion that you feel will make it unacceptable for you not to do the thing you love, and you will figure out how to make it work. 

Yes, we all have responsibilities that sometimes require us to do things we don't enjoy for long stretches of time. Most of us have jobs that we aren't truly passionate about, but they pay the bills and support our families, so we do them. The happiest people are those who can make money doing what they love. But for those of us who aren't in that situation, or at least aren't there yet, remember that it's good to nurture your passions even if you don't know how much time you can devote to them. Everyone can find time to do something every day that they're passionate about. Even if what you love is travel, you can read a travel blog or look at cruise prices online. You can daydream. You can let your heart burn with desire for exotic places.

So even when I do go back to teaching, and my days are crammed full of score study, instrument repair and re-scheduling for state tests, and my after-schools are full of Edwin time, I'll still find my few minutes to write. Just as I make time for the people I love every day, I make time for the activities I love too.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I Love/Hate my iPhone

I've had my iPhone for over 2 years now and I can't imagine my life without it.
That's the same thing I say about my son.
I find that disturbing.

Why I love my iPhone:

- Text conversations are easy to read. I really like to text!
- I always have directions with me.
- My husband and I can share a virtual grocery list. (We used Grocery IQ for a long time, but it got too slow and frustrating, so we switched to AnyList.)
- If someone has a question about something, I can look up the answer instantly.
- I can take a ton of pictures of my son and save them on my phone to show people how cute he is.
- Three words: Words with Friends.
- The Twitter app, which I find easier to use than the actual website.
- I can listen to music and podcasts anywhere without headphones.

Why I hate my iPhone:

- The compulsive need to check my email when I see the little number increase, even though it's so rarely something I want to read.
- I only use about 10% of the apps on a daily basis.
- It's supposed to be a time-saver, but with all the extra things I can do with it, I end up wasting much, much more time than I save.
- It costs more to keep the data plan.
I'm addicted to it.

It's really only the last one that bothers me. I feel addicted to my iPhone. If it's on the table in front of me, and my hand is empty, I reach for it. I bring it with me all over the house: the bathroom (why not listen to podcasts while I shower?), the baby's room (what if my husband calls while I'm changing him?) the kitchen (what if I want to check email while I make dinner?). When I do put it down for a few minutes, I find myself compulsively checking if anyone texted or emailed me in that short space of time. These are not things I want to be feeling and doing. I want to be more present in the moment with my son, not dividing my attention between him and Facebook.

For awhile, I actually considered getting rid of it and going back to a regular phone. But I think the world is going the way of the smartphone, and I'm afraid of missing out on things if I dropped out. For example, I'd be less likely to use Twitter and thus less likely to promote my blog on it. I could miss out on growth opportunities that way. If I want to make money writing, I can't afford to ignore a potential audience source.

Also? My husband would kill me.

So instead, I'm going to make three resolutions:

1. I'm going to turn my iPhone off at least once per day. Currently, sometimes weeks go by without my turning it off.
2. I'm going to stop bringing it into the bedroom at night, unless my husband isn't home when I go to sleep. (We don't have a house phone, so that's just a safety issue.)
3. I'm going to try to keep it on the kitchen island as much as possible. That's a central location where I'd hear it ring, but it's out of reach when I'm in the living room.

Is anyone else feeling addicted to your smartphone? If so, join me in trying to break the hold. Let's turn them from a way of life into simply a useful tool.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why I Can't Sleep

I generally write posts with the audience in mind. I try to think of what people would enjoy reading about, and how I can make people think about something in a new way. But today I'm going to indulge myself and use writing to help figure out a major problem in my life right now:

Why can't I sleep???

Edwin has been waking up a lot more than usual for the past week or so. But I think I could handle that if I could get my own sleeping problems in order. Since the trouble started, I've been trying to go to bed around 9:30: a time early enough to theoretically get extra sleep, but late enough that I should be tired. I read for a few minutes and then shut everything off and put my head on the pillow. Then I toss and turn for an hour at least, sometimes much longer. Often I don't sleep until Edwin wakes up. Then I comfort or feed him or whatever I need to do, and after that I can usually drift off.

This same thing happened to me about two months ago, and it was fixed when I made a switch in my thyroid medication. But I haven't gotten any other symptoms and I think my dosage is correct for now. I'm going to ask for a blood test just to make sure, but I don't think that's the problem.

There have been a few extra stressful events in my and my family/friends' lives lately, and my mind has been more cluttered with anxious thoughts. So that could be part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is that work on my novel has stopped because I'm waiting to get notes back from my Gotham book editor. In the meantime, I've been working on the business side of writing: setting up a website, setting up a profile on Elance, and writing queries for magazine articles. These are all important, but not very creative. Without my characters, I feel a little lost. I believe that when you don't have enough positive thoughts, your mind fills the space with negative ones. Negative thoughts can keep me up at night. I need to find something positive to focus on again. Maybe it's time to write some short stories.

I think the root of the problem is Edwin's unpredictability. I have no idea if he's going to wake up again in two minutes or two hours, so I lie awake waiting for it. It's the "waiting for the alarm clock to go off" theory, except that I have no idea when it's going to ring.

Hopefully Edwin will settle down again, as he always does, and I'll get a few nights with fewer wakings, which should lead to more confidence on my end that he'll keep sleeping. There's not much I can do besides that, as I'm not capable of letting him cry. I just don't have the strength and there's no way I can sleep through it.

So, to sum up, I have to:

1. Get a blood test
2. Think more positively about the stresses in my life
3. Start writing short stories
4. Eat less sugar and drink less caffeine (it can't hurt)
5. Give Edwin a little whisky before bed (just kidding). (Though maybe if I had the whisky...)

Thanks for letting me write it out and wish me luck on solving the problem!

PS- The post on I Love/Hate my iPhone is still coming soon!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Being Mindful

I've been very stressed and tired over the past several days. There's not much I can do about the stress (it's mostly external) or the tiredness (it's mostly Edwin-related), but I thought there might be something I could do to keep myself calmer and more centered. I decided to embark on an experiment in living more mindfully. I thought that if I could focus on doing on thing at a time, I might not feel so overwhelmed.

I started experimenting last night. After a full day spent with family and food, I sat down to watch Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. This movie is an Easter tradition with me; I record it from TCM and watch it on Easter evening every year. It's safe to say I've seen the movie quite a number of times.

Generally, when I've watched something a lot, I reach for some additional form of entertainment after about five minutes or so, downgrading the movie or TV show to background noise. I start playing games on my iPhone, checking Facebook, or reading a magazine. I end up not giving my full attention to either the movie or the secondary distraction. How relaxing can that be?

So last night, even though I've seen Easter Parade about twenty times, I decided to resist all other distractions and be fully present while I watch it. And that's what I did. (Okay, I drank a cup of tea while I watched. But that doesn't really count.)

It was a little weird, sitting still on the couch, my hands wrapped around my hot mug of tea instead of flying over a keyboard or turning the pages of a magazine. But I enjoyed the experience. I noticed details of the movie I hadn't paid attention to before: Fred Astaire's clothes; Ann Miller's overdone makeup; Peter Lawford's raccoon coat and endearingly off-key singing. I was impressed by the job someone did in digitizing the movie- the color and clarity were excellent. And I felt myself relax, much more than usual. It was a good wind-down to the day, and even though it was only half an hour before Edwin woke up and I had to go comfort him, I felt more rested than I would have expected.

This week, I'm going to try harder to focus on doing one thing at a time, at least while Edwin's asleep. (While he's awake, I can never fully concentrate on what I'm doing, because I have to be aware of what he's doing too.) I'm hoping this experiment will help me keep my head clearer and my attention sharper, and maybe even feel more rested overall.

Stay tuned for part two of this topic, to be posted on Wednesday or Thursday this week, entitled I Love/Hate my iPhone.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Women's Ego

UPDATE 4/8/13- I just read this blog post from Jen Lancaster, one of my favorite memoirists. It's a good counterpoint to the seriousness of the issues of women's ego and compensation in the workplace. I promise, you will laugh: Jen Lancaster on Channing Tatum


I recently signed up for Elance, a website that finds jobs for freelancers. I want to try to make some money writing while I start the process of selling my novel. During the signup process, I had to make a list of my skills and qualifications. I haven't had to make a resume in years, and I don't work in the type of field where I have to market myself, so I'm unfamiliar with the sensation of "talking myself up." It makes me uncomfortable. Yet I consider myself a person with a decently healthy ego who generally feels pretty good about herself. So why am I having such trouble verbalizing that feeling?

Answer: Because I'm an American WOMAN.

Even in 2013, American women aren't supposed to have egos. They're not supposed to brag about themselves. Hell, even if they brag about their spouses or kids, other women secretly think nasty thoughts about them.

If you tell a woman you think she looks great, most of the time, her response will be, "I still have ten more pounds to lose," or "Oh, thanks, but I'm having a bad hair day." Not, "Thanks, I feel great!"

If you tell a woman you like her scarf/sweater/shoes, most of the time, her response will be, "I got it on sale," or "Oh, I've had this for ages." Not, "Thanks, I like it too!"

And these are woman-to-woman interactions! No men involved!

It's no wonder women are under-earning men in the workplace. It's not because of job performance or family values. It's because it's much harder for a woman to walk into her boss's office and say, "I did great work on this project, so I deserve a raise." It's still not part of our collective American female consciousness.

So today I'm encouraging my female readers to do the following:

1. If you're given a compliment, just accept it. Say thank you. And then repeat the compliment to yourself and believe it!

2. Think about your accomplishments often. Write them down and put them in a place you can see them. Be proud of yourself!

3. Try reading about and channeling powerful women. I haven't yet read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, but I'm going to.

For my part, I'm going to attack that Elance profile with gusto, knowing that giving into my ego and pride in this case will get me more attention. And hopefully, more jobs!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

3 Tips for Starting a Journal

Often in conversation with people, I mention that I keep a journal. Invariably, the response is, "I should do that."

I've been keeping a journal since I was about fourteen (with a brief hiatus in my early twenties) and I can't tell you all the great things it's done for me. It's helped me clarify my thoughts. It's helped me understand myself better. It keeps a record of what I've done and felt over time. It's what started me on the road to writing.

I strongly recommend journal-writing to everyone, but especially people who struggle with knowing their own mind; people who aren't always connected to their feelings; and anyone who wants to write.

Here are some tips for starting and keeping a journal:

1. Find your medium.
I write and think much faster through a keyboard than a pen, so I keep my journal as a file on my laptop. I know now that's what works best for me. But before that, I used nice pens and those expensive spiral-bound notebooks with vivid pictures and inspirational quotes. And before that, I used big pads of drawing paper, and I wrote in colorful markers. (This was inspired by the book Inspiration Sandwich by Sark.) Figure out how you think and write best. You should be able to get thoughts to page in the most direct way possible.

2. Maintain consistency. 
I suggest writing for a few minutes every day. Sometimes those few minutes will be all you need, and sometimes they'll grow. Put it on your to-do list, but don't beat yourself up if you don't get to it. Guilt is the first step to not doing it at all.

3. Start with the easy stuff. 
I always start by writing about what I've done over the past day. It's a quick way to get going, and often spirals into deeper thoughts and feelings based on the events I'm writing about. As an additional perk, you'll have a record of major (and minor) events in your life if you ever need to settle a dispute with your spouse over when something happened.

Please comment below if you have any further questions about journal-writing, or my personal journal habits. I would love to help/encourage others with this valuable routine!

PS- I've had to re-enable the code type-in on comment posting because I was getting spammed. It takes less than a second to type in the code. Remember that it is case sensitive.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

5 Things To Do When Making a Big Decision

When it comes to making a big decision, I take my time. I always want to go where my gut points me, but since my gut doesn't always communicate clearly (no Mexican food jokes, please) I can't decide right away. I have to take days, even weeks to think it out, talk it out, and sometimes put it aside. And then the moment will arrive: my gut instinct will kick in, and the decision will just come to me. This happened to me when I decided to break up with my college boyfriend (the one before my husband, if you happen to know we met in college). It was in the back of my mind for weeks, and then one day I was closing my flute locker (yes, I had a flute locker) and I just knew I was going to break up with him. And I did. And because I was so certain, I didn't even feel bad about it. (He was definitely not the right guy for me, though I'm sure he is/will be for someone else.) It's been 13 years and I still remember that exact moment of truth.

Here are some tips for things to do when making a big decision:

1. Talk about it a lot, with many different people. 
Talk about it with people affected by the decision and people who aren't. Have long discussions about it, even if much of what you discuss has been said before. Sometimes it takes several times hearing the same thing for it to truly sink in. And it's often at the end of a roundabout conversation that the gut feeling kicks in.

2. Write it down.
Depending on the type of decision to be made, some or all of these may work: journaling; making a list of pros and cons; mind-mapping (or "bubbling"); free association; stream-of-consciousness.

3. Do something physical.
It doesn't have to be exercise, though that works for me. It just has to be something repetitive and mind-clearing. You need to be able to get into a "zone" where your mind separates from your body. Then your thoughts will start to re-arrange themselves, and you'll find clarity.
Do something artistic.
Play an instrument; draw; do needlepoint. These serve the same purpose as doing something physical: getting you in a zone.

4. Take care of yourself.
Eat healthily. Take your vitamins. Get lots of rest. If you get sick, you're going to be focused on how you can't breathe out of your nose, not the decision to be made.

5. Occasionally, forget about it. 
Take a day off from thinking about it! This is probably the hardest thing to do, but it's worth it. Just like the "shower principle," it's when you stop thinking about something that clarity comes.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Babies Boost Creativity!

Yesterday I was paging through (a useful and fun website that generates web pages you might like based on your interests) and found a BBC article on Five Ways to be More Creative. The first recommendation in the article is to change your routines. They suggested changing the way you do little things, such as make a sandwich or drive to work. But it made a connection for me to something much bigger.

Ever since Edwin was born (well, ever since I started getting past the complete exhaustion and felt human again) I've found myself with an abundance of creative energy. I get new ideas all the time. I feel inspired and excited about writing. I have "lightbulb" moments constantly, about everything from a character in my novel to Edwin's eating habits. I've been attributing this mostly to two things:

1. I'm not working full-time and dealing with the intense stresses and anxieties of school, which leaves me more mental space. (Though being a stay-at-home mom has its own stresses and anxieties, and I recently added up the hours I spend on writing projects and teaching private lessons, and I'm working at least 20 hours a week, the equivalent to a part-time job. And I hate that I just felt the need to justify myself here. That's another post for another day.)

2. Mothering, especially first-time mothering, requires living very intuitively. You can get advice from books and family members, but most of what you do is based on what you feel is right. Living in a state of intuition generates creativity.

The BBC article gave me another explanation, though. Changing your routine can lead to increased creativity. What's the biggest routine-changer of all? Having a baby, of course! Suddenly, your time for work, house-care and personal tasks is cut drastically, and because of the unpredictable nature of babies, you don't even know when that time is going to open up. So your routine is shaken up daily, even hourly. You live minute-to-minute, feeding to feeding, nap to nap, diaper change to diaper change. What could be more of a routine-changer than that?

It's not something I ever expected from motherhood, but I owe Edwin a huge debt of gratitude. Thank you, sweetheart, for not only being such an adorable and amazing little boy, but for re-wiring my synapses for the better. Thank you for boosting my brain while you grow your own every day. Parenting really is the best job on earth!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Laughable Schedule

As I mentioned in my last post, Time is Not Created Equal, I did a time log for a few days recently to see if I was spending enough time on my priorities. It was very enlightening. I was pleased to see that I'd spent plenty of time with family, taking care of the house, and playing with Edwin. I'd also used Edwin's nap times wisely, editing my novel or writing blog posts, except for one day when I did online shopping instead (a total waste of time, since I have little money to spare). I did find that I was watching too much TV, not planning enough evening activities, and not spending nursing time wisely.

After logging for a few days, I thought I saw some patterns in Edwin's schedule that might help me to set a slightly stricter schedule for both of us. I've been practicing "baby-led" scheduling, meaning I watch for Edwin's cues and daily patterns, and try to enforce them so they become more routine. I'd particularly like to get his naps on a schedule, and possibly consolidate the usual two longer and one shorter nap into just two long naps. So I created a rough timetable, one for the days I teach lessons in the afternoons (Mondays and Thursdays) and one for my non-lesson days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, though I often plan longer outings with my parents on Fridays).

I have to laugh, now, thinking of that schedule. It worked for one day. Then Edwin got thrown off course- I've forgotten why, but he probably woke up unusually early or late the next day- and his first nap was at the completely wrong time. Which meant lunch was at the wrong time, and his next nap, and his playtime, etc. And thus all of the things I had scheduled for myself while he was napping and playing were also at the wrong times. It became pretty clear to me that Edwin isn't ready for a strict schedule, so I went back to what I had been doing before, which is more of an ordered routine than a by-the-clock schedule.

There were a few tweaks I was able to manage, however, and I think they've made my days more full and productive, and helped me re-focus on my priorities. These tips might help others who'd like to re-evaluate their schedules, with or without babies in tow:

1. Set nighttime hours. 
Experts say that it's best to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, including weekends.  One thing I have managed to keep fairly timely is Edwin's bedtime, so I just needed to enforce my own. I try to be in bed by 10:00 and read with my Kindle for a short time before going to sleep. I've also started getting up at 7:00. Even if Edwin wakes up earlier, as he often does, he's tolerant of letting me rest a little longer while he babbles in the co-sleeper. The rest is usually needed, as Edwin still wakes up  and nurses several times a night.

Amazingly, daylight savings had no effect on Edwin's bedtime at all! He got tired around 7:00 and went to bed just after 7:30 as usual.

2. Be prepared.
I saw in my log that I spent a lot of nursing time playing on my iPhone. Sometimes I like just sitting and watching Edwin, but other times he's less active and I like to keep myself occupied. I waste a lot of time on my iPhone, especially on Facebook. I'd rather spend that time reading, but the Kindle was often still in the bedroom when I sat down to nurse in the living room. So now I just make sure the Kindle is out on the coffee table in the morning.

I also wanted to spend more time reading to Edwin, because we don't always get much book time before bed if he's tired. So I'm keeping a stack of books out on the coffee table as well, to grab and read one or two at a time when he's in the mood.

3. Re-prioritize technology. 
I'm trying to promote my writing and create a bigger platform, so upping my Twitter presence is important. I resolved that if I am using my iPhone, I will go to Twitter before Facebook. This was made much easier when my Facebook app stopped sorting stories properly.

4. Add music.
I wanted Edwin to listen to music more, not because I believe it makes him smarter, but because my husband and I are both musicians and I want him to have exposure. I wasn't sure where to put this in the day until the nursery-rhyme music component of his favorite play mat broke. Now when he plays, I put the TV on one of the music channels, and that satisfies all of us.

5. Create learning opportunities.
I've been very interested in Baby Signs, a program that teaches babies sign language so that they can communicate before they can talk. Though Edwin's still a bit too young to pick up on it, I want to start using it so I'm in the habit when he's of the right age. I was trying to figure out when I had his attention best to teach him a few signs, and I realized it's when I change his diaper. He loves having his diaper changed (the sweet little weirdo!) and watches me intently the entire time he's on the changing table. So I'm going to keep him there a few minutes longer each time to teach him signs.

6. Plan downtimes. 
I've started watching Sesame Street with Edwin for a little while in the afternoons. We snuggle on the couch and watch for awhile, and usually fall asleep. It's peaceful, and has become my favorite time of day.

I never realized how incredibly smart Sesame Street is. It has plenty of inside jokes for parents while being fun and educational for kids. Hooray for PBS!

7. Plan evenings. 
Now that Edwin's going to bed earlier, I have a big time block in the evening that's free. I've been using this for a variety of things: spending time with my husband on the nights he's home; baking granola bars without interruption; writing blog posts; calling my friends; and sometimes just relaxing with Netflix and a glass of wine. I'm more aware of this free time now, and so have been using it more wisely.

I strongly recommend doing a time log for a few days to see where you're really spending those hours and minutes. It gives you a chance to re-think your priorities and see if your daily life is going in the direction you want.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Time is Not Created Equal

As you all know, I'm very interested in the subject of time and how best to utilize it for a fulfilling life. From experts like Laura Vanderkam and Tim Ferriss, I have learned how to balance work and family priorities, how to find small pockets of time and make them productive, and how to interact with the world more efficiently. I've learned to see time as a limited quantity with which we can do limitless things.

Something I don't feel gets discussed enough is the concept of time quality. All time is not created equal. On the most basic level, for most people, a free hour at 3AM doesn't equal a free hour at 3PM. At different times of day, we may be tired, cranky, or in need of emotional support, and our ability to be productive, whether at work or home, declines.

Here's an example of reduced quality of time due to the need to multitask. I did a time log last week to see if I was spending enough time on my priorities. One thing I noticed right away was that I do have significant pockets of time while Edwin is awake but doesn't need me, mostly when he's playing in his playpen (which he loves doing multiple times per day). I thought to myself, "Great! I've found more time to spend on my writing projects." But in practice, I found that those hours aren't as productive as the time I spend writing while Edwin is asleep. This is because I find writing so absorbing that I have a hard time splitting my focus while he's awake, even just to keep an ear out or occasionally look up from the screen. I have a hard time getting lost in the words when I know those babbles could turn to fussing any moment. On the other hand, when he's asleep, I'm not worrying about him, and I work better. Yes, I know he'll wake up eventually, but that's such an obvious cue that it pulls me out of my writing trance instantly.

Time quality can also be reduced by emotional state. For example, if you just learned that your beloved grandparent needs major surgery, or that your friend's house was robbed last night, your emotional state may not be conducive to productivity. When I'm anxious or disturbed about something, the way I manage my time changes completely. First I work frantically, hoping to lose myself in my efforts, and then I crash and need to do something to distract myself, such call a friend or watch mindless television. If a major emotional crisis disrupts your life, such as a death or a divorce, it can take weeks, months or even years to get back the same quality of time you once had. (This is why we have therapists, The Office, and cookie dough.)

Understanding time quality can also help us to find the best time to do things. If you recognize that your working time quality is decreased after 6PM due to mental exhaustion, perhaps that's a good time to schedule a mindless but still productive evening walk. Conversely, if you're intensely energetic between the morning hours of 9-11, that's the best time to schedule your highest-priority work, whether it's a writing project, an interview, or time with family.

Do you manage your time based on its quality? How do you think you could use the concept of time quality to help you meet your life goals and priorities? If you are experiencing an emotionally difficult time, what can you plan that will help you get through it?

There may be hope for multitasking. I wrote this post in between three separate attempts to get my son to take a nap. In between, I sat him on my lap as I typed, set up a DVD for him to watch, and returned the pacifier to his mouth multiple times. As for the hour I wasted attempting to get him to sleep? I guess we'll just file that as quality time with baby.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

CI 3

Current Influences, third edition!

What I'm reading/recently read....

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. I think the guy is a little nuts, but obviously smart, and I like his style. The concept is to outsource and compress your work until your company (or the equivalent, if you're not the boss) virtually runs itself, and then you can use nearly all your time to pursue your dreams. It's a great idea, and it obviously works for some people, but I'd personally rather do work that I love than try to avoid working.

What I'm taking away from the book is the inspiration to pursue dreams; the exercises on how to be fearless in the workplace; and the tip about "batching" time-consuming tasks, like checking emails.

Create Your Writer Platform by Chuck Sambuchino. I haven't gotten very far in this book yet, but it's making me want to increase my blog traffic and Twitter followers. I am getting there, little by little, but I still have a long way to go before I'm playing with the big gals. I'm relieved to learn that while nonfiction authors are almost required to have a platform before being published, it's not a prerequisite for fiction authors, though it certainly helps.

The Pollyanna Plan by Talli Roland. I bought this for a light, cheerful read, and it delivered. It was also set in London, which I love. A quick, cute read, though not quite as optimistic as the title would lead you to believe.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. I haven't finished this yet, and don't know if I can. It has the classic Picoult trademarks of multiple perspectives and moral gray areas, but this time it's more historically based. One of the characters is a ninety-year-old former SS officer, and another is an Auschwitz survivor. Reading about the Holocaust causes me physical pain. (See former posts Sing You Home, my last Picoult read, and The Difficult Read, my last attempt at Holocaust literature.)

Bossypants by Tina Fey (re-read- it was actually my very first book review back in September 2011). It's been kind of a sad/tired week, and nothing beats it back better than some great comedy writing.

What I'm watching...

Freakonomics: The Movie. I LOVE Freakonomics, the book/website by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner: Freakonomics website. The movie is a very small taste of the book, but well done. There are segments on how to motivate kids to do better in school (it involves cash prizes and limo rides) and why/how Sumo wrestlers cheat.

Sesame Street (season 37). I'm just starting to introduce Edwin to Elmo, Cookie Monster and all the rest, so naturally I'm enjoying it more than he is. I love that even though the cast of characters and the social messages have changed quite a bit, it's still the same show, packed with learning and fun.

I Love Lucy. For the same reasons as Bossypants.

What I'm checking out online...

PinterestStumbleUponChloe Travels (my sister-in-law's new food/travel blog)

Tomorrow I'll be finishing the third- and most altered- draft of my book. Time to call in the editors!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Feel-Good Diet

Over in England, the book topping the Amazon bestseller list is called The Fast Diet. The crux of the diet is that you can eat what you like for five days, as long as you "fast" for two days. On the "fast" days, you consume two 250-300 calorie meals, and that's it. It's gluttony meets detox, week after week.

While I won't argue that some people may get results from a diet like this, I already know it's not for me. For one thing, I would totally abuse the "eat what you like" credo, which would likely negate the "fast" days. I also know I'd be miserable during the fast days. Hunger makes me cranky and whiny. I might even pass out (friends and family know I occasionally do this anyway, just for dramatic effect- say, at a favorite vacation restaurant, or while 13 weeks pregnant).

But the main reason I would never do a diet like this one? It would make me unhappy. And why do people diet in the first place? Apart from health reasons, it's usually because they think being thinner will make them happier. And maybe it will. But is it worth being miserable on the road to thin?

Personally, I'd like to shed those last 10-12 pounds to be back at my pre-pregnancy weight. I'd like to lose another two pant sizes. And I'd like to do both of those things before summer. But I'm not willing to take drastic measures. I'm not willing to sacrifice my happiness for my waistline. (Or my hip line, or my butt line.)

Instead, I'm going on a diet I just made up. It's called the Feel-Good Diet. Here's what it involves:

1. Exercise, at least half an hour, five days a week. Exercise gives me tons of energy and endorphins, and helps with the baby-carrying muscles.

2. Eat meals/snacks that make me feel good, not just in the moment, but in the hours afterward. For me, this means cutting out sugary desserts and fat-laden meals, and eating more veggies, fruits and lean protein. It also means eating smaller meals more frequently, something I like to do anyway.

3. Drink a little wine and/or have a little dark chocolate every night.

4. Get as much sleep as possible, considering my six month old boy still wakes up 3-4 times a night at best.

5. If I screw up the diet, I won't stress about it.

I know this is going to work for me, because the only way I lose weight is by not obsessing over it. I've done food journals and counting Points. I've weighed myself every day, and weighed myself once a month. I've gone to personal trainers and nutritionists. And none of those things have worked as well as just relaxing about it and eating well in moderation. (Except the personal trainer. I credit her ass-kicking and circuit-designing for at least a five-pound loss in 2011.)

So that's my Feel-Good Diet. (Patent pending.) Anyone want to go on it with me?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Resolution Check-In

It's finally March! That means spring is around the corner. Hooray!

It also means we've been through two months of 2013 so far. How is everyone doing on their New Year's resolutions? Were you able to make ones that fit your wants, needs and lifestyle? Were you successful at keeping them?

Here are my original resolution tips: Resolution Aid 

For accountability's sake, I'll let you in on how I'm doing with mine. For each one, I'll give myself a letter grade and an assessment based on two months of working on the resolution.

1. Go through several drafts of my novel by editing/writing while my son is nursing or sleeping; show it to peer editors; sign up for mentorship program at GWW; start process to publication.

How I'm doing: B+
Why: Editing is going very well, and I'm starting to get that feeling of anticipation that means I'm getting close. I'm starting to show it to people, and I'm planning to call GWW this week. I'm only giving myself a B+ because I think I could have edited more in January.

2. Experiment with magazine writing by composing 5 query letters per month of varying topics and sending each to 4-5 periodicals with varying circulations.

How I'm doing: D
Why: I haven't done any of this! Though it's still possible that I might do it before year's end, I keep stalling on it, and I've started to think that magazine writing might not be my thing. And I replaced this project with another writing experiment: writing a children's book series with my friend Cristen. That is going much better and I feel happier working on it than I did composing magazine queries.

3. Maintain current schedule of exercising (4-5 times per week) and blogging (about 7 times per month).

How I'm doing: A+
Why: I've exceeded both of those goals with nearly 200 minutes of exercise per week and blogging 9 times in February and 10 in January. Yay!

4. Help my husband and me eat healthier by cutting up salad vegetables every Sunday for easy salad making, mixing and packaging trail mix, and baking healthy breakfast bars.

How I'm doing: A
Why: Every Sunday I wash and chop a bunch of salad veggies and we make fresh salads several times per week. I find that keeping the lettuce in the salad spinner makes it stay fresh and crisp longer. I also mix the trail mix and package it for my husband to take with him to work every day, and we bake the breakfast bars together every couple of weeks. Here's the recipe we use (found on Pinterest): Homemade Alaskan Energy Bars

5. Learn how to make 10-12 cheap, easy healthy dinners that we both enjoy.

How I'm doing: A
Why: Pinterest is fantastic for recipes. Every one I've tried so far has been a winner. I now have 7-8 dinner recipes that fit the bill. Not bad for only 2 months, especially since my husband is still cooking at least as much as I am. (He's the far superior cook, and I'm the better baker. But since I'm home more, I have to take more responsibility for cooking.)

6. Take better care of my teeth by flossing and using fluoride rinse every night. (This will be the hardest to accomplish, as I hate anything to do with teeth!)

How I'm doing: A+!
Why: Every single night, no matter how tired I am! I even do a series of stretches during the 60 seconds of fluoride rinse. I'm giving myself the "+" because I hated this so much at first, and now it's no big deal. It's also really important, since my union benefits have lapsed for the duration of my leave and I can't afford to see the dentist. (Which I am not complaining about. I am not kidding you when I say I'd rather give birth again than go to the dentist.)

I'm pretty pleased with how I'm doing so far. How about you?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Life is about... love

"Love is like riding or speaking French. If you don't learn it young, it's hard to get the trick of it later."
-Downton Abbey

As a teacher, this really rings true to me. I teach nine- and ten-year-olds, so I spend a lot of time with children at a very formative age. You can always tell the kids who are well-loved from those who suffer from the lack of it. It's something about the eyes. The well-loved children's eyes are bright, confident, eager and innocent. The less-loved children's eyes are veiled, secretive and jaded, as if they've already had enough difficult experiences to last a lifetime.

I always wonder about those kids. I wonder if it's ever too late to be loved and to love in return. Like most things, relationships are harder to learn as you get older. If every child had one loving figure early on in his or her life, the world would be a better place. Fortunately, I think that's true for most children. I just wish it were true for all.

There is nothing more important in life than love. It makes all things full. It fills your home with joy and your work with passion. The more you use it, the more you nurture it, the more it grows. Love is a living, breathing thing that gets stronger the more you feed it.

Like all good things, love also has a dark side. It causes fear: fear that something terrible will happen to your loved ones. The more you love, the more you fear. I saw this firsthand as a teenager with cancer. The next-to-worst thing that could happen to parents happened to mine. Happily, the very worst thing never came about, but I believe having that fear realized changed them for life. This is one of the reasons I balked at having children for awhile. I was afraid that the same thing that happened to my parents would happen to me. I'm still afraid. I check Edwin's breathing every night. I sleep close by. I don't want to go back to work and leave my still-helpless baby without his mother's care.

But despite that fear, I will never regret having had my child. I've seen how much love can grow over a short period of time when a baby is brought into the world. There's the love between mother and child, but there's also the love between father and child, grandparents and child, and all the other family members. When you see your spouse in love with your child, that grows the love between the two of you as well. When you see your parents and parents-in-law in love with your child, that strengthens the love of the whole family. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a utopia of love.

Ultimately, of all the things I've philosophized about in this series, expectationsexperiences, change, love is the thing I most believe life is about. Above all else, love is what gets me up in the morning when Edwin wakes up an hour early, crying. Love is what gets me in front of my laptop, writing, while he takes a nap. Love is what I look forward to all day until my husband comes home.

Truly, in the wise words of the Beatles, "Love is all there is."

(You thought I was going to use "All you need is love" didn't you?)