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?)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Life is about... change

From the time of the first humans, we've been conditioned to adapt to change. Sometimes the changes are swift: a lion jumps down from a tree right in front of you; you're driving and your car catches on fire. Sometimes the changes are slow: an ice age descends; long-held morals and traditions are broken. But whether the change is fast or slow, physical or emotional, we are all programmed to react and adapt.

However, some people are better suited to this than others. I assume those people (because they don't include me) probably descended from lion-tamers or race car drivers. In contrast, my ancestors were probably the ones getting eaten by the lions or panicking when the car lit on fire. Adapting to change has never been my strong suit. Since I've started teaching, the beginning and the end of summer vacation have both been traumatic for me. The sudden change of lifestyle and structure throws me for a loop, and I don't usually "sink in" to summer until a few weeks in. Nor do I start to enjoy school again until around October. I would not mind if we changed the school year to trimesters with three weeks off in between. Three weeks would feel like a vacation, not a complete change of pace, and we'd all return to each trimester rested but not wiped clean.

As far as quick changes go, I'm improving. Mothers are the fastest adapters and best jugglers in the world. Today I watched my friend help both her young daughters eat their meals in a diner while carrying on a conversation with me, getting climbed on by one daughter, stopping the other from falling off her chair and somehow making her own sandwich disappear without my even seeing her eat. Life moves quickly when you're a parent. Children can switch it on or off in an instant, so you'd better be prepared.

But even though I sometimes feel a bit deficient in this department, I know I have it in me to improve. "Survival of the fittest" says that my ancestors made it through somehow. And though my problems are much less adrenaline-pumping than "a lion is going to eat me," I can tap into that primal resource whenever I need.

Here's hoping the next big change in my life will be someone showing up at the door with a sweepstakes check.

Changing tides

Other posts in the series:
Life is about... expectations
Life is about... experiences

Monday, February 18, 2013

Life is about... experiences

Think about your favorite book or movie. What was your favorite part of it? Was it when the main character was sitting around, thinking about her problems? Or was it when she was out solving them? Chances are, you prefer the latter. I do, too. Why? Because doing something is always more interesting and memorable than not doing something.

This seems obvious, and yet so many of us spend much more of our time sitting on couches instead of getting out into the world and having experiences. Again, why? Because it's easier.

Here's a recent example. For Christmas, my husband got me tickets to an improv comedy show, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood from "Whose Line is it Anyway?", at the Tarrytown Music Hall. We'd gone the last time the act was in the area, and it was so much fun. I was really looking forward to it. But by the time the day arrived, there were a few things conspiring against us...

1. Babysitting. One casualty of extending my maternity leave for the rest of the year is that Edwin doesn't spend more than a few hours a week away from me. That means we haven't been overly motivated to get him to take a bottle after it proved to be a stressful activity for all of us a few months ago.  Additionally, he occasionally has a long, inconsolable crying jag with an alternate caregiver (my husband or our mothers) that only ends when I am able to take him back. Finally, Edwin has never been put to bed by anyone else but me. We were very concerned that my in-laws, who were set to babysit the night of the show, would be in for a very rough night. Staying home would have made their lives easier (though they would have protested) and more comfortable for us since we wouldn't have to worry about them or the baby.

2. Weather. It was the day after Blizzard Nemo hit our area, and we were worried about the roads, especially about parking, which is always difficult in Tarrytown. Staying home would have meant avoiding the hassle of driving, being out in the freezing cold, and struggling to find a snow-free parking space.

We were tempted to take the easy way out and not go. But in the end, my eagerness to see the show and desire not to waste the tickets won out. We chose the experience.

Did it all go well? Not really. We were late leaving my in-laws' house because Edwin did indeed have a meltdown and I had to get him to calm down before we left. So we just had a bite to eat at their house instead of out in Tarrytown as we'd planned. Then when we got there, true to our worries, there were no parking spots. It took us quite awhile to find anything, and then it was on the main road where we had to park next to a huge snowbank and were sure we were going to get sideswiped. It was freezing cold, and the show went extra long, so we didn't get back at our planned time. My in-laws did feed Edwin and get him to bed, and even had a few nice moments with him, but he also fussed and cried and overall, I'm sure it wasn't the easiest night for them. It was also an exhausting night- we didn't get home with Edwin until 12:30, and he woke up bright and early before 7:00 the next morning.

But we still absolutely made the right choice. The show was great, we laughed a lot, and I've been living on those memories ever since. If we hadn't gone, the night would have just faded into a disappointing oblivion. Instead, it was a night to remember.

So get off the couch and plan some experiences. Don't take the easy way out. Because when you're old and gray, you won't remember the night you got little sleep and the baby was crying. You'll be smiling fondly at the great laughs you had that one time at the comedy hall.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Life is about... expectations

The other night around midnight, Edwin awoke as usual with a brief fussy noise which quickly escalated to a cry. I reached into the co-sleeper and the moment he felt his hands on me, he switched from his "I'm awake, come get me" cry to his "I want to eat" cry (which goes something like, "La! La!' Ra!") And, as he now has learned to anticipate, I picked him up out of his bed, nestled him next to me, and he began to eat. Expectation met.

One of the greatest things about being a new parent is looking at the world through the eyes of a baby. This little experience made me think about my own expectations for life. What if it was that easy? What if I just thought, "I want this," and alerted others to my desire. Would it just happen?

Obviously, it takes more than that to get what you want out of life. But does it take that much more? You want a promotion, you ask for it. Maybe you don't get it right away, but if your boss knows of your ambition and tells you what you need to do to rise to the top, you're much more likely to get it than if you said nothing. Expectation met.

Or let's say you want to get in shape. Instead of keeping your desire to yourself, you tell everyone what you want. You talk to your friends, you post it on Facebook, you Tweet it out into the universe, you join a site like that helps you track your goal. Research has proven that you're much more likely to stay on the path to getting in shape if others hold you accountable. Expectation met.

It's not going to be as easy as Edwin has it right now. As adults, there's no one permanent, physical caregiver figure taking care of our every need. But you can trust that the world will be your caregiver if you tell it what you want and then work for the desired results. Communicate to your boss, your family, random strangers- whoever needs to know- what your expectations are. Get feedback from them. Use the feedback to help you get where you want to go. And bingo. Expectation met.

Of course, in order for these positive changes to happen, you need to create those expectations in the first place. You need to have high standards for yourself, and believe you can meet them. If you don't, you're likely to live an unexamined, unfulfilling, rut-driven life. If you do, you're likely to live a rich, full existence where the future is always bright.

And that, my friends, is why life is about expectations.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Life is about...

When I was in my senior year of high school, a good friend and I met for third period study hall every day to drink hot chocolate and talk about the meaning of life. (One might call this an odd form of senioritis.) Though I remember our conversations fondly, I don't recall much of their content, except that one day we felt like we came up with a real answer. We didn't write it down, so we both promptly forgot it, and laughed over our forgetfulness the next day.

What I haven't forgotten is the excitement of thinking deep thoughts about the universe and the thrill of playing the philosopher. With that in mind, I'm starting my very first blog series, entitled "Life is about...."

My first few posts in this series will be (in no particular order):

Life is about... experiences
Life is about... expectations
Life is about... learning
Life is about... knowing what you want

I'm looking for suggestions, and perhaps for a bit of a challenge. How would you complete that sentence? If you have any thoughts, please leave them for me in a comment, on Facebook, or via Twitter. Just start with "Life is about..." and then finish with a word or a few, and I'll consider it for a post in the series.

Stay tuned for the first post within the next day or so!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Laura Vanderkam Once Again

Despite the fact that I've moved away from strictly books in this blog, it wouldn't be Words from the Sowul without a little homage to Laura Vanderkam now and then.

I've had her latest mini e-book, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, in my Kindle queue for a few weeks. It's the second in a trilogy, following What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and preceding a yet-unreleased book. (I've also written posts about two of her other books, All The Money in the World and the oft-quoted, life-changing 168 Hours.)

As I discovered when I read it on Sunday (it's short- I read it in about half an hour, like the previous one) the new e-book is the perfect compliment to my latest thoughts on planning leisure time, which I wrote about in my most recent blog post Planning My Days. (Getting tired of all the links? Okay, I'll stop.)

In this book, Vanderkam talks about the importance of scheduling one's weekends with life-enhancing activities, just as one schedules workdays with career-building appointments. Don't be put off by the world "schedule," which often has negative connotations. Vanderkam recommends planning what she calls "anchor events," four to five activities to balance your weekend. For example, happy hour with coworkers on Friday afternoon; family breakfast on Saturday morning; long bike ride on Saturday afternoon; Skype with long-distance relatives mid-day Sunday; game night with friends on Sunday night. Doesn't that sound like a fun weekend? There is still plenty of "free" time in that schedule, but you're more likely to enjoy it because you've planned the rest.

Vanderkam claims that by planning our weekends, we are much more likely to participate in rich and rewarding activities that boost our spirits as we anticipate them throughout the previous week. Conversely, we are much less likely to loaf about, watching television and surfing the internet in the name of "relaxing," and ending a weekend without any happy memories to get us through the following week. She reminds us that while there are many hours in a weekend, there are only 52 weekends in a year, and less than 15 in a season. For example, there are only 3-4 weekends in the Christmas season, and 3-4 weekends with beautiful fall foliage in the Northeast. If you plan ahead for those weekends, you can create wonderful memories that last you the rest of the year. If you don't, well, you won't.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my previous post, except better-researched and better-written. I've said it dozens of times before: read her books. They really will change the way you think about your life and what you can do with time, the one resource we all have the same amount of.

And this coming weekend, due to Presidents* day, we all have an extra 24 hours to create anchor events for! Here are my plans for the weekend so far:

Friday afternoon: Happy hour with husband at new favorite restaurant (Mom babysitting)
Saturday morning: Breakfast at the Millbrook diner with husband and baby and possibly a walk around Millbrook, weather permitting
Saturday afternoon: Still unplanned, but husband says I can have some time to myself!
Sunday morning: Step class at the gym
Sunday mid-day/afternoon: Long visit with my best friend
Monday: Still unplanned, teaching private lessons in the late afternoon

I'm already looking forward to everything on the list, and the unscheduled times in between.

Thanks again, Ms. Vandkerkam!

(*I just looked it up to see whether it should be written Presidents' day, belonging to the two presidents it celebrates, or Presidents day, no apostrophe, like Veterans day- which really should be Veterans' day, because it belongs to the veterans. I did not find an answer. Does anyone know?)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Planning My Days

Blizzard Nemo kept me and my family stuck in our house for the past day or so, and I loved it. As teachers, my husband and I are good at the snow day thing. We plan ahead for a special breakfast (we actually keep "emergency bacon" in the fridge for this exact reason), we store new TV shows on our DVR, and yesterday we even hooked up our Playstation to play Guitar Hero (also known as the Sowul obsession of 2007). When our son is a little older, he'll become more a part of our special snow day traditions, and we'll be adding things like snowman building, snowball fighting, and snow angel making. I can't wait!

All of these little traditions made me think about how much better a day is when it includes at least a few plans, no matter how vague. A day with no plans at all feels depressingly empty. You keep procrastinating on things you could do because there's no deadline to have them done. At the end of the day, you've accomplished little, and you're feeling sluggish and unfulfilled.

Sure, every once in awhile, it's nice to be able to laze out and do nothing, but that's much more satisfying if you did actually have plans to do things and decided to cancel them (as in my Perfect Book Day). In general, it's better to have plans. I've surprised myself with my ability to stay at home with Edwin and not get overwhelmed by loneliness or boredom. I attribute that entirely to giving my days structure, working toward personal goals, and planning visits with family.

Here's my usual stay-at-home-mom routine, in case you're interested:

Get up whenever Edwin wakes up (usually around 7:15, after about eleven hours in bed- but don't be jealous, because he wakes up at least six times during those eleven hours, and needs help getting back to sleep every time)
Change into workout clothes and get Edwin dressed, then go downstairs and do a workout while Edwin plays with his play gym
Breakfast for both of us
Shower/dress time for me, while Edwin either sits in the bathroom with me or watches a Baby Einstein DVD (I don't believe in much TV for babies, but I have to think this is more educational than watching me get dressed).
Play with Edwin, read a few books
Start him on a long nap from mid-morning to mid-day. While he naps, I cradle him in his nap sack (a wonderful invention, makes it really easy to move him from one place to another without waking him: Zcush nap mat). I use this time to write or edit my novel, typing over Edwin's head.
Lunchtime for both of us

After lunch, the days vary. Sometimes I bundle him up and we go out to do errands, sometimes we stay home and get things done around the house, sometimes my parents come by for a visit or we take Edwin to visit my grandmother. But I always feel successful, because I've spent the morning well, getting in my exercising, writing and healthy eating while still meeting all of Edwin's needs.

Today's plans? I already did a workout, had a nice breakfast with my family, and wrote a blog post. Later I'll be getting Edwin ready to go over to his grandparents' house so that my husband and I can have a long-awaited night out. We're going to Tarrytown to see Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood's improv comedy show. I'm a huge Whose Line is it Anyway fan and I can't wait! We saw the show three years ago and it was hysterical. This time we're sitting closer to the middle so I might even get picked for an improv game! I'm so excited!

Enjoy your Saturday plans, everyone!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

CI 2/ Fifty Shades of DEFINITELY Not Happening

Awhile back, when this blog was still primarily about books and reading, I wrote a post called Fifty Shades of Not Happening. It was about the hype surrounding the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and how I'd decided not to hop on the bandwagon after reading a well-written, very critical review on

Well, someone leant me a copy recently, so I decided to give it a go. I managed a fitting fifty pages before I threw it down in disgust. I wholeheartedly agree with that Amazon review. It's so poorly written, especially the descriptions. Take the first scene, where Anastasia goes to Grey's office for the first time: How many ways are there to say that she's underdressed? She compares her clothes to the attire of every single person that she encounters there. I get it! She's not well-dressed! She doesn't fit in! Can we move on now? Also, how many times do we need to hear her say/think Holy Crap or some derivative? Every page is littered with Holy this and Holy that. And there's no room for adjectives like "nice" and "pretty" in a book with this subject matter. The writing was clunky, uncomfortable, and frustrating. The whole experience was like trying to view an erotic photograph through a thick layer of mud. Neither of which is my thing.

My point is this: no matter how titillating the subject (and I'm sure that's the sole reason these books are best sellers) it's the author's job to write well. Please, novelists, stop underestimating the American reader. We all, writers and readers alike, can be held to a higher standard.

Rant over. Here are some other, better materials I've been exposed to lately.

Current Influences, Part 2:
(Part 1 can be viewed here: Current Influences)

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

The No-Cry Nap Solution by Elizabeth Pantley
Which is making me think about... creating a variety of environments and situations under which Edwin is willing to take a nap

Single in Suburbia (fiction) by Wendy Wax
Which is making me think about... why so many of us crave to be wealthy, when nearly every story written about people in that class depicts extreme unhappiness

Magazines on the NextIssue app, which gives you current and back titles of 20+ magazines every month for $9.99. I signed up for it because it wasn't much more per month than I was paying for my current subscriptions, and I'm reading almost exclusively on my iPad or Kindle now. Some of the titles included are Real Simple, InStyle, Fitness, Better Homes & Gardens, the Oprah magazine, Cooking Light and Parenting. Definitely worth the price, and better for the environment too!

What I'm watching...

Movies from my childhood, like The Lion King and Pollyanna, which give me a sense of optimism and faith in humanity (or animality, as the case may be).

What I'm listening to...

Still How Stuff Works: the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. I LOVE it! Here's their website:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Universal Questions

My dad and I have a special game we play when we're on a road trip. I highly recommend it to liven up your next car ride, dinner party, or awkward family holiday. It's called "universal questions."

It works like this. One person comes up with a hypothetical question, preferably something juicy, and the other has to answer with the first thing that comes to mind.

Here are some examples:

What's the best $100 you ever spent?
If you could instantly be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
Who from your past would you like to resolve unfinished business with?
What's your favorite item of clothing?
Who from your past or present would you want to get revenge on, and how would you do it?
If you could live the life of a fictional character, whose life would you choose?

You can also use the cliches:

If you were stranded on a desert island, what five books/movies would you take with you? (I actually answered that one here: Desert Island Books)

What five people would you invite to a fantasy celebrity dinner party?

Or you could use the questionnaire that James Lipton uses on Inside the Actors Studio: 
  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

I love this game for two reasons. One, it creates some really interesting conversation, and usually exposes something unknown about the other person. And two, if you delve deep enough, it can ignite sparks of thought about how you're living your life. For example, answering a question about travel can get you thinking about how to be more adventurous. Answering a question about people from your past can help you resolve to make amends with someone or treat someone better in the future. And any question about your passions, hobbies or career can point you in a new direction.

It was during one of these games that the idea really solidified in my head that I want to be a writer. I don't remember the exact question that prompted it, but I think it had something to do with celebrities I'd most want to meet. When I realized that most of them were authors, it occurred to me that the people you idolize should give you a clue to who you want to be.

(In case you were wondering, besides J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie and Jane Austen, I also wanted to meet Jon Stewart and Jennifer Aniston.)

Try a few with a friend or even in your own head. It's fun and very enlightening!