Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Weathering the Weather

Mother Nature is laughing maniacally at those of us on the northeast coast right now. We went from bitter cold temperatures for days on end, to an ice storm, to a twenty degree thaw, to a further jump of twenty degrees combined with rain. And the fluctuation is set to continue over the next few days, though it looks to settle down somewhat after the weekend.

I hate weeks like this, because I'm one of those people whose mood is at least marginally affected by extreme weather changes- temperatures, humidity, air pressure. I bet a lot of you out there are affected similarly to one degree or another (pun intended). When the weather shifts, I feel moody and sometimes even depressed for at least a day. Although I anticipate it (I'm an avid weather-watcher, especially in winter), it's shocking every time.

I've never understand why people get emotional responses to weather changes. I know I'm not the only one out there, because I've had this conversation several times: "Everyone seems so miserable today." "It must be the weather. Change in pressure." Or, "I just didn't even want to get out of bed this morning, and I don't know why." "Probably the humidity. A big storm is coming."

To be clear, I'm not talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a diagnosable ailment brought on by the weak sun of winter and can often be treated with vitamin D. Lack of sun causes a dip in certain brain chemicals. There's a clear relationship between nature and human in the case of S.A.D.

But I don't understand why a high-pressure system, an impending thunderstorm, or a sudden spike in temperature can cause similar depression. My only theory is that for prehistoric (wo)man, wild weather swings caused major life disruptions. They were unable, for the most part, to forecast the weather, so extreme changes were a surprise. It might have necessitated moving camp or staying inside and losing hunting time. Valuable areas of land might have been flooded, and nomadic shelters destroyed. These sudden disruptions were bound to create havoc in hunter-gatherer societies. Maybe, as with so many strange physiological phenomenons, humans haven't gotten over that feeling of being shaken up or tricked by Mother Nature. Maybe it's my prehistoric ancestors who are causing me to feel low on a day like today.

If you, like me, are just trying to chase the clouds away, keep your head above water, or wait for lightening to strike (all puns intended) here are some things that can help you weather the weather:

Greasy Chinese food
Chick flicks (or action flicks, if that's your thing)
Taking naps
Reading or re-reading a fun book (I'm in the middle of Confessions of a Shopaholic)
Calling a friend
Taking a hot bath
Dressing in clothes completely inappropriate for the weather, but indoors, i.e. crank the heat up and wear a bathing suit and flip flops (my best friend used to do this in the dead of winter, and I always thought it was pretty cool)

The nice thing about mini weather depressions is that it'll always pass, and things will eventually get sunny inside and out.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Shameless Blog Promotion

Hi everyone! In an effort to promote readership, Words from the Sowul is now on twitter @sowulwords. Follow me! If you'd like promotion as well, let me know and I'll follow you and re-tweet what I like.

I'm also making a Pinterest board with all of my posts. I need some help here, though- what category would classify the blog? None of the Pinterest categories seem to fit my theme. The closest ones are either Kids or Film, Music & Books. Neither really fit, but I don't want to label it as "other," since that seems like it would have less search potential.

It's probably pretty clear by now that I want to expand Words from the Sowul, so if you like it, please re-post, re-tweet or just email it forward to friends and family.

Thanks to all of my loyal followers! We just passed 5,000 page views!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Non-Writing Writer

Back in December, in my post Finished, I said that the hardest part of writing my novel, completing the first draft, was over.

Well, I was wrong.

Turns out the hardest part is re-reading that first draft, considering what needs to be edited and fixed, and realizing that one possible solution involves removing one or two of the four point-of-view characters from the story. Not eliminating them altogether, but re-assigning them as side characters.

I always knew that editing really means re-writing, and that most of my original draft would not survive. Good editors are ruthless. But I didn't realize how hard it would be for me to make such a major change involving characters that I have grown to love, for the sake of the story.

The other difficult part is, until I decide how to handle this major change, I can't really work on the novel at all, at least not physically. I'm thinking about it all the time in my head, but I've learned that it's foolish to move forward on a piece of writing- or anything that's being created, really- without a firm conviction, or at least a gut feeling, of where you want to go. I don't mean that I plan to put it away for months and months and figure out every detail of the editing in my head. That's a waste of time, and takes away one of the best tools to discovering the story, which is the act of writing itself. But for the next few days at least, I need to take a step back and let the ideas simmer and combine, so that when I do sit down in front of the page again, I'm committed to making the big changes that are needed.

But I'm the kind of person who lives on checklists and relishes physical evidence of accomplishments, so just "thinking," while necessary, feels lazy to me. To top it off, I don't have much going on this week. It's very, very cold here in New York, and I don't want to take the baby outside much, so I have extra time I could be writing. I'm trying to redirect that time into other writing pursuits, as well as activities in which I can let my mind wander to come up with solutions to the problems in the novel. (I generally come up with my best ideas in the shower or while exercising.)

You just can't rush the creative process. That's an absolute truth, even though it makes non-creative people roll their eyes.

Monday, January 21, 2013


I am making some changes to the format of this blog, as I'm sure you've already noticed! I'll be playing with the templates and backgrounds a little in the next few days until I find what I like. Feel free to leave me feedback in the comment section of this post. Thanks for your patience!

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I used to believe very strongly in signs. I believed that there was a universal force woven into my life, one that gave me subtle signals to guide my choices: which job to take, which boy to date, which hobby to cultivate. I believed that if I was in tune with myself and with the universe, I would recognize those signs and allow them to direct me. My belief in this was sort of the middle ground in the fate vs. free will debate. I had the free will to choose my own path, but fate had a guiding hand.

That belief system was firmly in place during my late teens and early twenties. It was strongest during my college years, which was when the questions of education, career and relationships were at their most critical point. I specifically remember telling my husband, the first night we stayed up all night talking, that two phrases I believed strongly in were "Everything happens for a reason" and "If it's meant to be, it will be."

Throughout my twenties, I gradually became less interested in reading the signs. I chose my career, I chose my husband, I chose the place I wanted to put down roots. My big life choices seemed behind me for awhile. My feet were set on their path, and there were few changes in direction.

But now that I'm in my thirties, the big choices are coming back again. I chose to get my body healthy and in shape, then to start trying for a baby. I made choices throughout my pregnancy about how to best take care of my body and the growing baby. I made choices about my labor and delivery (though those did not go as planned- but I also chose to be flexible, and that was the most important choice of all). Now I make choices every hour of every day about how I want to parent, and what my priorities are in raising Edwin. And recently I made another major choice, to stay on maternity leave for the rest of the school year and be a full time mother/writer. (Obviously all of these choices were made by my husband as well.)

Up until this point, I hadn't been looking for signs to validate my decisions or point me in the right direction. That's a thought process I grew out of long ago. But recently I've started to come back to that idea. Recently, I've been given some very strong signs, and it's making me believe again in the guiding hand of fate. I won't share them all, but the biggest one is this:

After we decided I was not going back to work this year, my husband and I were obviously worried about our finances. We have enough to get through, but we have to rely heavily on our savings. We're on a tight budget, and a lot depends on the reliability of not only my husband's paycheck, but the money I make teaching private flute lessons, a small business I've been running for ten years. I've always had as many students as I wanted, but most of my students stay for years and I don't frequently get or take requests from new students. My husband, also a musician, hasn't been teaching private lessons as long as I have, mainly due to his much more demanding after-school schedule (rehearsals, meetings, etc), a schedule he downsized this year so that he could spend more time at home.

But within the last two weeks, between the two of us, my husband and I have gotten SIX requests for private lessons from new students. Compare that to the fact that I usually get only one or two new requests a YEAR, and my husband doesn't have a long-established studio. We have done no advertising and had no conversations with fellow music teachers to send students our way. The increased demand for our private music teaching happened entirely without provocation or expectation.

Coincidence? I don't think so. I think the universe is sending us a sign that my staying home was the right thing to do. Some force out there is helping us financially to validate and reward our decision. This occurrence also strengthened my belief that if you put good work out into the world- smart, consistent, dedicated work- your work will eventually be rewarded. In our case, in one fell swoop.

Some people would say it's the hand of God. I feel more comfortable saying it's the universe, but essentially, it's the same thing. It just feels good to believe in it again.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Current Influences

I'm going to start a new blog series called- you guessed it- Current Influences. I believe that what I read, watch and listen to strongly influences my thinking, and my thinking strongly influences my writing. So to give you some insight into where my mind is during any given time period, I thought I'd post what I'm reading, watching and listening to. In that way, the posts that follow will seem to have an organic source.

So here are my Current Influences:

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

The Attachment Parenting Book by Dr. William Sears
Which is making me think about... how natural and instinctive attachment parenting is; that I was doing it all along without knowing it had a name

Don't Know Much About... The American Presidents by Kenneth C. Davis
Which is making me think about... how fascinating American history is; how we got to the place we're at now in our country's history; how money and the media have worked against the presidency from the very beginning; how proud I am that I can name all the presidents in order now :)

Grindhopping by Laura Vanderkam
Which is making me think about... how important taking little steps and taking advantage of any opportunity are when working toward a large career goal

Comfort & Joy by Kristin Hannah (fiction)
Which is making me think about... how much I hate when an author changes the rules in the middle of the book. Spoiler alert! In this one, you find out halfway through that most of the story up to that point took place in a coma patient's imagination. It's like the end of The Sixth Sense, which yes, was fascinating, but also felt like the writer had broken some sort of contract with me.

The First Husband by Laura Dave
Which is making me think about...
...ummm, nothing. This book wasn't very good.

What I'm watching...

The Cosby Show
Which is making me think about... the importance of family and especially laughing with family

House Hunters 
Which is making me think about... how cool it would be if my book sold really well and we could afford a big new house with a huge kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and a wrap-around porch with Amish-made rockers...
...but then I remember that I'm perfectly happy with my house, and shows like House Hunters are designed to bring out the greed in American culture. Which is already way greedier than it should be.

Downton Abbey
Which is making me think about... how awesome Maggie Smith is

What I'm listening to...

Dave Brubek
Which is making me think about... how much I hope Edwin is into jazz

How Stuff Works: the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast
Which is making me think about... a ton of things, because each podcast focuses on a completely different place and time in history, and I have over 400 of them to listen to since they began in 2008 and I'm only just starting them now. I love this podcast!

And all of these influences should lead me into my next group of blog posts. Have a great MLK weekend everyone!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Growing Pains

My son is going through a growth spurt this week. He hasn't had a major one since maybe 2 1/2 months, and he's over 4 months now, so I'd let myself forget how tough it is on all of us. For Edwin, it means having trouble staying asleep, because he's wakened by both growing pains and hunger pains; for me, the corresponding lack of sleep and the physical struggle of feeding him much more often, of my body needing to work that much harder to produce milk, and feeling like he's draining me of my life-force. It's tough on my husband too, as lack of sleep takes an emotional toll on me even greater than the physical toll, and I become very difficult to live with. I can't wait until Edwin's done "spurting" and we can settle down into semi-normalcy again.

Growing pains are an odd thing. I used to think they were a figure of speech, a way to classify the emotional struggles kids go through as they grow. But I know firsthand now that I was wrong: growing pains are actual pain. I can see it in the way my son flails his arms suddenly in his sleep, jolting hard and waking himself up crying. I can feel how tense his little body gets when he's trying to sleep, as if bracing himself for more pains. So growing pains are a physical thing. But are they emotional as well?

As adults, our bodies are done growing, our skeletons have reached their correct size, and we have all the brain cells and organs we need to finish our lives. The pain of growing, even the memory of the pain, has left us. But do we still experience emotional growing pains? Don't we all encounter situations that remind us that our lives are changing, and don't we all react weirdly to those situations sometimes? The biggest, or at least the most hyped example of this would be a mid-life crisis. You suddenly realize you're growing old, and the emotional pain makes you buy a sports car. (Which may also be a painful situation for your spouse.)

I haven't been through a mid-life crisis, but I know that emotional pain, brought on by life changes, has an effect on my life. On a small scale, when I'm particularly stressed at work, I tend to start misplacing things, something I don't ordinarily do. Once I was convinced that someone had stolen my purse at work, and I went all the way back home only to find it hanging neatly over my desk chair. On a larger scale, a few years ago, within the span of seven months, my grandmother and two of my husband's grandparents died,  my husband and I got married, and we bought a house. It was a time of extreme stress, even though some of it, like the marriage and parts of the house-buying, was positive. My growing pains during that time had a big effect on me. I had a really hard time maintaining any sort of normal schedule beyond going to work, and besides watching a lot of TV, I spent a lot of time baking, which has always soothed me. (It's something about how formulaic baking is. You put in the right ingredients in the right amounts, bake for the right amount of time, and bingo, the desired result occurs. Or maybe it has nothing to do with that at all, and I just like eating cookie dough.) It took me a really long time to emotionally move past the growing pains of consecutive deaths, buying and moving to a new home, and becoming a wife with a new last name.

So maybe I should be grateful that for now, at least, Edwin's pains are physical, not emotional. At least I know they can be fixed with a lot of cuddling and a good long nap.

It's a lot cheaper than a sports car.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a home. I started thinking about it the other day when my parents mentioned that sometime in the next several years, they might consider downsizing, selling the house I lived in from nine years old through college. Although I know this makes practical sense, in an emotional sense it's difficult to comprehend. It would be hard for me to give up that sense of security I always get when I walk into my parents' house. It would also make me sad to know that Edwin might not have many memories of the house that contained so many of my holidays, birthdays and special moments, including telling my parents I was engaged, getting ready for my wedding, and last year, telling them I was pregnant. So the potential loss of home has been on my mind lately.

Then I started reading a book in which the main character had no sense of home at all because her mother was constantly re-marrying and uprooting her. This upbringing led to most of the character's adult issues with relationships, career (she's a travel writer) and sense of community. (The book is called The First Husband by Laura Dave. I'm about halfway through and would rate it "ok.")

And finally, this morning my husband and I took our son to the diner in Millbrook, NY, the town we lived in for three years before buying our house closer to Poughkeepsie. It's a small town with little substance but a lot of charm, and we loved it there. As I stood in the middle of Main street, breathing in the cool, gray air, I realized how much I felt at home. And that was when I recognized what makes a home for me.

I've heard people say home is where your family is, and that has a lot of truth, but I think one can feel at home living alone as well.

I've heard people say home is where love is, but if you love yourself or if you love God, you could feel at home anywhere.

I've heard people say home is where your memories are, but that doesn't explain why people can walk into a house for the first time and feel at home instantly.

I've heard people say home has a permanence that other residences don't, but I think it's possible for people who move frequently to consistently find home again.

For me, home is where I feel safe and at peace- emphasis on the peace. Maybe because there was a lot of stress when I was growing up (due to the thyroid cancer), I crave that peaceful, secure feeling. I feel that in my house. I feel that in Millbrook. I feel that in my parents' house. I feel it in my in-laws' house too. I even feel it, to a lesser extent, in public places like my gym, where I worked for a few years in my twenties. I feel it when we go on vacation to Amish country, a favorite family spot for years.

It's wonderful to have so many places that feel like home. But it's nice to know that if any of those houses or towns disappear, I can find home again by seeking peace- whether it's within myself, or contained in a special place.

What makes a home for you?

The famous Millbrook Diner

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Adventures in Budgeting

Around Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided that instead of going back to work at the end of January as we'd originally planned, I am going to stay out on maternity leave for the rest of the school year. I'm very happy about this decision because I love motherhood much more than I'd expected, and having an additional five months with my son is a huge gift. The downside to this decision is since we had planned on my paychecks starting again in February, we're facing a big financial adjustment.

We've been very fortunate these past several years. Although like most couples our age, we have student loans and car loans, we have no credit card debt and, thanks to buying at the right time, our mortgage is less than a third of our usual monthly earnings. (The national average of the mortgage-to-paycheck ratio is around fifty percent.) Pre-Edwin, we were able to live comfortably and still save money for nice vacations and new furniture.

Now, however, our savings is growing smaller by the month and for the first time in our married life, we have put ourselves on a strict budget. I'm actually kind of excited by this. I've always liked math and numbers, and I've always thought we overspent a bit on things we didn't really need. I like being forced to re-evalute how we spend our money, not only for the coming few months, but beyond that, so that in the future we can save again for good daycare, summer camps, musical instruments and college. (And still a nice vacation or two, with or without Edwin!)

I like looking for deals and saving a buck as much as the next person, but to me, the rewarding part of budgeting lies in prioritizing. You know you can't afford breakfast at the diner and Chinese takeout in the same week, so you decide which you'd enjoy more and eat sandwiches or cereal for the other meal. In the process of making those decisions, you figure out what's important to you and what experiences you enjoy most. Is it the sound of the diner coffee maker and the waitress's smile behind the old-fashioned counter? Or the smell of egg rolls and barbecued spareribs as you settle on the couch to watch television? The process of decision-making gives you the chance to know yourself better.

Budgeting also helps you appreciate your expenditures more. Maybe you need to save for a few months to buy swimming lessons for the baby or a couple of nights in your favorite vacation spot, but when you get them, they feel even more worth it because you worked toward them.  

In the end, I don't mind the financial sacrifice one bit. We can always make more money, but I'll never get this time back with Edwin. That's the kind of math that makes sense.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Resolution Aid

Happy (belated) New Year! It's January 3rd. How many of you have given up on your resolutions already?

If you have, don't worry. You may need to accept that your resolution didn't fit your true wants, needs or lifestyle. In that case, you can either let it go and enjoy your life as it always was, or revise your resolution so it's a better fit.

Let's say that you chose the most common resolution, which is to exercise more. You decided to commit yourself to going to the gym every day, no excuses. So you got up on January first, fired up and ready to go. But it was a holiday, so the gym had short hours- you couldn't possibly fit in a good workout. Then on the second, you really meant to go, but it was a long day back at work and you really needed the evening to recover. And on the third (today)- well, it was just too cold. (Which is true, here in New York.) Three days in, and you've already failed. Or have you?

You haven't failed, exactly. What you did was set yourself up so there was no possibility for success. You gave yourself no wiggle room, no easing into it. It's a very rare person who can either quit something cold turkey or start something full force and not give up. Most of us are not wired that way. So let's look at that original resolution and see what you could have done- could still do- differently.

Resolution: I will go to the gym every day. 

First question: Does this resolution fit your true wants?

Answer: Probably not. If you were really excited about spending that much time at the gym, you would likely be spending at least some time there already. Additionally, though saying "every day" seems like it would commit you to a schedule, it's really too vague to be helpful. What time will you go? Will the same time work for you on Mondays? Thursdays? The weekend? It's too easy to miss a day when you're committed to every day. It's too easy to put it off til tomorrow. But then tomorrow you put it off again, and eventually, you're not going at all.

Amendment to the resolution: I will schedule gym time a certain number of days per week, treating the scheduled time like an appointment with myself.

Second question: Does this resolution fit your true needs?

Answer: Definitely not. No one, not even paid athletes, exercises every day. It's not good for you. If you don't give yourself at least one or two days of rest per week, your muscles will never be able to recover. Those recovery days are actually when your body creates more muscle and dissolves more fat. It would be completely counterproductive to work out every day.

Amendment to the resolution: I will schedule gym time 3-5 times per week with rest days every day or two, treating the scheduled time like an appointment with myself.

Third question: Does this resolution fit your lifestyle?
Answer: Only you can answer that one. Is the gym your only option? Do you like working out indoors or outdoors? A combination of the two? Do you like distractions, such as movies or music? Do you like working out with other people or alone? Thinking about those questions will help you figure out how you really want to accomplish the root of the goal, which is to get more exercise than you did last year. If you find something active that you love to do, that passion will keep you doing it far longer than simply listening to the nagging voice that says you have to exercise.

Amendment to the resolution: I will schedule exercise time 3-5 times per week with rest days every day or two, treating the scheduled time like an appointment with myself. I will try different forms of exercise until I figure out what I like best, and then I will be able to make a more passionate commitment to those activities.

Did this example help you make a more reasonable resolution? If it did, hooray! If it didn't, don't worry too much. New Year's Day isn't some magical time when all people make life changes for the better. Yes, it's nice to have a clean slate, and that sometimes helps people kick-start reasonable resolutions that they've already committed to with their heads and hearts. But unless you're already feeling the drive to change your life, making a list of resolutions on January first isn't going to accomplish anything long-term. On the flip side of that, remember that you can make a resolution any time you want. You just need to have a goal in mind and a kindling of passion, and make sure the resolution fits the requirements above. Remember to ask yourself if it fits your wants, needs and lifestyle. If it doesn't, it's the resolution that needs tweaking, not you!

Here are my resolutions for 2013:

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 Gotham Writer's Workshop; start process to publication. My dream is to be a published author in 2013!
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.
3. Maintain current schedule of exercising (4-5 times per week) and blogging (about 7 times per month).
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.
5. Learn how to make 10-12 cheap, easy, healthy dinners that we both enjoy.
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!)

I feel this list is accomplishable. There are long-term projects and short-term goals, and a few of them take only minutes per day or per week. I also have two more resolutions that I haven't yet made specific enough to fit my three qualifications above. They are:

1. Read more, watch TV less
2. Spend much less time on my iPhone

Basically, I want to divide myself from technology more in 2013. But that's going to be a tough habit to break, especially the iPhone. I'm considering setting up a challenge where I don't use my iPhone for anything but texts and calls for a whole week. I could blog about it every day and let you know how I'm doing. Is anyone interested in reading about that?

This is a long post, but I enjoyed writing it! I wish health, happiness and life's great blessings upon all of you in 2013.