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Category — Life

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

I gotta little list

I love making lists. Even more, I love checking off items from the lists I make. Often I do something that is not on my list, and I add it to the list just for the joy of checking it off. Oh yes, I know some of you do this too. I have also been known to make lists of my lists. That may be taking it too far.

Here is a list of the reasons I love making lists.

1.  Making a list quiets the omg moments that keep me awake at 2 am.
2.  Making a list is a low-bar entry to actually doing whatever needs to be done. Sure, no sweat, I can make a list! It is way less scary (not to mention time-consuming) than starting the project itself.
3.  Lists break down huge tasks (writing a book, getting rid of a President) into manageable action items.
4.  Lists simplify life. Whaaat? All I have to do is these 5/ 10 things!
5.  Lists help me think things through. They demand logic.
6.  Lists clear my brain. I no longer have to try to remember all this. I wrote it all down!
7.  Lists are finite. It may not seem like it, but my tasks are not endless!
8.  Lists keep me from procrastinating. Uh, Friday…and two more things on the list? Better get to them.
9.  Crossing something off a list = instant gratification.
10. If you save your lists (um, yes, I do), they provide an historical record of your life. A power point diary.

I also love to READ lists: The 500 greatest albums of all time. The 100 books everyone should read. Twenty places to visit before you die. Top 10 most popular lists on listserv. When the “25 random things about me” crazy hit Facebook, I read everyone’s list. Most favorite part of the old Letterman Show…can you guess?

March 29, 2017   3 Comments

My Favorite Things

For this post, blame my friend Florian Niederndorfer, a reporter at DerStandard, who alerted me to a news story announcing the appointment of Patrick Park as our new ambassador to Austria. The selection (made by you-know-who) was based on … wait for it … Park’s love of the movie “The Sound of Music.” Which was filmed in and around Salzburg. Which is in Austria. So a big fan of the movie would be very very knowledgeable about Austria having watched the movie as many times as apparently Mr. Park has. (“I know every single word and song by heart,” he is quoted as saying.) Okay, then: Hired.

I too know the songs by heart. But not being an old, rich, white-man crony of the man in charge, I lack the essential credentials.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

No, not in angling for the position, but rather in revisiting the musical score to see what might be running through our new ambassador’s head. How about “My Favorite Things”? I’m thinking that maybe, amidst all of the current sturm und drang (see I even know a little German! Hire me!), we could take a moment to focus on what continues to give us joy – our favorite things.

When Mr. Ambassador Park sings the opening lines to the song, I wonder whether he thinks about who that biting dog and stinging bee might be?

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Herewith, the favorite things that are sustaining me and keeping me (almost) sane.

The news, almost every day, from Oregon, Washington and California of governors, legislators, judges, faith-based groups and corporations taking big, bold, principled stands against the thoughtless, hurtful, ignorant, dangerous, unAmerican edicts coming from the White House.

But also, coming from a far different place:
>The glorious, loving expansion of our family from five to six truly outstanding humans
>Wordstreak
>Van Morrison, then, now, forever
>The extraordinary men in my Lifers’ writing group
>That floating space between sleep and wakefulness
>Rain. Soft hiss, pounding needles, open windows
>My Seattle storytellers
>Kim
>Kettlecorn

And yes, Lizzie, of course: whiskers on kittens.

Looking forward to your lists. Post in comments!

February 22, 2017   5 Comments

Nevertheless, she disappeared.

I learned a big lesson recently: I am utterly and completely replaceable.

No, not at home! I am talking about in the workplace.

You would think this revelation would be depressing: I am not as important as I fooled myself into thinking I was! But it wasn’t depressing. It isn’t depressing. It is instead an ego-confronting moment that has the power to transform. It is liberating.

I recently exited a place where I had been working for a very long time. A very very long time. I was single and childless when I started working there. People typed memos and placed them in mail slots when I started working there. Over the course of multiple decades and more than a dozen book projects, I worked at this place, became part of its fabric, became a weaver of its fabric.

And then, suddenly, it became harder and harder to be a weaver. But that’s what I am. I need to weave. And so I needed to go.

I left, by design, without a public announcement, without the standard good-bye party. I wanted it that way for a number of reasons, including this one. I wanted to know: Would anyone realize I was gone? Would I leave behind a hole where I used to be? Was I, you know, irreplaceable?

The answers? No. No. Yes.

I am so very thankful to have learned this. The exit experience shows me how essential it is to do things, to create, innovate, weave, whatever, to contribute, for the good of the order, for the joy of it, for the fun of it – and not for the ego, for the (oh please) enduring legacy. I love that whatever tiny hole I might have left behind so quickly closed that no one was aware that it had existed at all. I love that I was the only one who honored my exit.

I wrote about just this kind of moment at the end of my last book, Raising the Barre, when, after my final performance dancing with the Eugene Ballet Company – an accomplishment I doubted even as I was doing it — I didn’t arrange to meet up with anyone to note the occasion. I hurried out of my costume, jumped in my car and started to drive home. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to sit in the moment for a while. So I stopped at a neighborhood watering hole. Here’s what I wrote. It’s the last scene in the book:

Me and my baggy sweats and my over-the-top eye make-up walk into the bar and sit between an old guy eating a burger and a young hipster nursing an IPA. And they don’t know who I am or where I’ve been or what I’ve done. And that’s just as it should be. Because the only person who knows what this means to me, the only person who can truly celebrate this moment with me, is me.

February 15, 2017   15 Comments

Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.

February 8, 2017   9 Comments

I HEART books

Scent triggers memory in a special, direct and immediate way. This was explained to me once – some kind of hardwiring from nasal receptors to frontal lobe – but not well enough so that I can explain it now. But we all know it’s true: a whiff of something, cut grass, gasoline, chocolate chip cookies, and we’re transported to another time and place, an entire scene evoked, a little drama played out on the stage of the mind.

I think books are hardwired like this for some of us. There’s a high-speed connection between book and experience, between what we’ve read and who we were when reading. We have only to glance at a book, the way others catch a scent in the air, and we experience that moment in time when the book intersected with our lives.

I see Richard Brautigan’s The Pill v The Springhill Mine Disaster on my bookshelf. I haven’t read it in thirty years, and I suspect that if I tried to read it now I’d find it lacking. But it’s not just a book. It’s a time in my life. I am standing on the shoulder of I-80 in Nebraska hitching my way across the country. I have only two books in my backpack, Brautigan and the I Ching.

James Clavell’s Shogun? That solitary winter vacation I spend in my first house, the one with no central heating, curled up in an armchair by the window existing on pots of Seattle spice tea and packages of Archway chocolate chip cookies.Annie Dillard’s The Living? An impossibly rainy summer vacation in Bandon, Oregon, during which my then four-year-old son gets clobbered in the head with a boat oar, and we have to rush him to the 15-bed local hospital to get his ear lobe reattached.  My books, spine out on the shelves in my library, are entries in a diary I didn’t know I was keeping.

In between the pages, too, are hints of life lived. I go to the shelf and pull out My Mother, Myself, the hardback edition published in 1977, which was a particularly nasty year in the already rocky relationship I had with my mother. Tucked in between pages 44 and 45 I find her photograph, one I must have taken from an old album. My mother looks sweetly at the camera. She has a mop of dark, curly hair and is holding a doll. She is perhaps ten. In Wild Alaska, a Time-Life book with page after page of stunning Arctic pictures, I find a menu for a little restaurant I used to frequent a block from the Fullerton El, just around the corner from my fourth-floor walk-up. I read that book on the fire escape and dreamed of the great north during my last and sweatiest summer in Chicago.

Now I see something peeking out of the pages of my beat-up paperback edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and, with great excitement, I pull the book from the shelf. What could it be? What could I have placed between the pages of this wonderful book, this book that made me think thoughts I had never thought before, this book that prompted me to sign up for my first yoga class, this book that I carried around like a talisman for years? I am ready to be wowed.

It‘s an appointment card. On Thursday, Sept. 24, 1997, I went to get my teeth cleaned.

January 18, 2017   6 Comments

When someone believes in you

Have you ever had a mentor? You know, that near-mythical creature: wise, experienced, generous, encouraging, inspiring. She takes you under her wing. Or his. She points you in the right direction. She, you know, makes a few calls.

I haven’t.

What I’ve had, at various points in my life, are people who believed in me. They didn’t mentor me. Rather, they expressed, in small — and unexpected — ways, that they thought I was capable of great things. What an extraordinary difference this can make. What an extraordinary difference this has made.

Of course you have to believe in yourself, but when you’re 8 going on 9, you may need help. That’s when Mrs. Fox, my teacher, gave me a list of books she thought I’d like to read. A special list. Just for me. Because she saw my early passion for reading. Because she believed I could become the voracious reader I would become.

Some years later, it was Mr. Hawkey, ramrod straight, starched collar (equally starched personality) Mr. Hawkey, Mr. Discipline, Mr. Hard-ass – my 11th grade English teacher – who said to me, as I exited his classroom on the last day, “Don’t waste your talent.” Wow. Mr. Hawkey thought I had talent.

Otis Pease, the best and most brilliant professor I’ve ever had or could hope to have, treated me with quiet respect. To be respected by a man like that was almost overwhelming. It made me want to be worthy. It inspired me.

A few years later, I had a brief encounter with Robin Morgan, a name that might not be familiar to you. Robin Morgan was a pillar of the second-wave feminist movement, the co-founder of Ms., an author, a poet, a national voice. A big deal. She was delivering a speech on campus, and I got to introduce her.

The speech was amazing. She was amazing. I had never been that close to someone who burned so brightly, who radiated such energy, whose energy filled a space so completely.

I knew a lot about her. I had spent hours researching her to write the introduction. She knew nothing about me. But after the speech, when I ran over, beating the crowd, to grasp her hand, she looked at me, really looked at me, studied me, and said: “Lauren, you’re up next.”

And that’s what I needed.

That’s what we all need: People who see our potential. People who believe in us.

January 11, 2017   4 Comments

Be it resolved

Are you one of the 60 percent of Americans who made New Year’s resolutions this year?

Are you one of the 92 percent who will ultimately fail to keep those resolutions?

That’s right, research suggests that only 8 percent of people successfully keep any of the resolutions they make. Thirteen percent, after “resolving,” don’t even make an attempt to carry through; 12 percent cave in one day; 27 percent keep the resolution for less than week; 26 percent have forgotten their promises to themselves in less than a month. And here’s something funny: 95 percent of those who make resolutions (remember 92 percent don’t keep them), plan on doing the same thing again next year.

What do people resolve? Pretty much what you think, according to a recent survey of 2000 respondents. Women make health-focused resolutions. Men pledge to find a new job and cut down on drinking. Saving money is one of the top 5 New Year’s resolutions — and also in the top 5 for most commonly failed. Sad to report that 5 ½ times as many people resolve to go on a diet as resolve to spend more time with their families. However, I did take heart that 13 percent resolved to read more books. So there’s that. Now if they’d only resolve to read more of MY books.

Why don’t most of us keep our resolutions? Wisdom gleaned from various self-help/ empowerment websites (which is to say, people telling us what we already know but delivered in bumperstickerese) suggests that it’s because our resolutions are too vague (“lose weight” “spend less money”), and as a function of their vagueness, do not call for an actual plan with measurable goals. You know, as they say in the corporate word: deliverables. Also, some resolutions appear to be the result of being pressured by a partner, boss, or someone else who thinks they know what’s good for you and not a change the person truly wants to make.

Making a change is hard, resolution time or not. Change requires a compelling, deeply felt reason to change.

The Why has to be big enough.

It has to be big enough, important enough, meaningful enough to motivate you when it gets dark at 4:30 and you’re cranky and you hate everyone at work and your agent just sent you a half dozen no-thanks letters from publishers who’ve looked at your latest proposal and in a few weeks a person who stands for everything you stand against will be your president. The why has to sustain you through the tough times and for the long haul.

Resolving to change requires a thoughtful plan. It requires energy, not just that spark of energy that ignites an idea but that banked energy that you can draw on, day after day, month after month.

Have you made promises to yourself for 2017? Is there a big Why behind them?

January 4, 2017   3 Comments