Lessons from public speaking...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

To  be completely honest, I've never been a huge fan of public speaking.  I get nervous.  I tend to have dreams where I worry I forgot what I was going to say — or that I came on the wrong day — or that the audience didn't understand me.  But somehow through my work I tend to find myself presenting a lot — I'm always anxious going into it, but even though it's not my strongest skill, everything seems to turn out okay in the end.  And over the course of these presentations I've learned that:

  • Practice makes perfect: Trite but true.  Figure out a scripting mechanism that works for you and learn your content — practice often, and practice in front of a mirror.  If nothing else, have an introduction and transition to each point you would like to make.  When it comes to speaking, practice pays off.
  • But give yourself a cut off time: There comes a time where more practice and more review and more notes don't help.  Give yourself some space to reset your mind and compose yourself.  Use that time to build your confidence so that you can go into your speech with a clear mind.
  • Speak much more slowly than you think: Trust me, it will sound much faster to everyone else, and it will help you avoid stumbling.
  • Milk coats the throat: A friend who is also an opera singer told me that once, so I always go into a long presentation with a cup of warm milk.  Most people think it's a coffee but really, the milk helps to coat the throat to keep the words coming smoothly.
  • The best presentations feel like conversations: But that doesn't mean they are unscripted.  Good conversations take preparation, and when you ask a question to a public group, make sure you know what the answer you want to hear is in advance.  Think of how you will transition from that answer to your following points.
  • Start strong...remain strong...finish strong: And if you don't start strong, you can still be strong, and finish strong.  And if you don't start strong, or remain strong, you can still finish strong.  Don't let parts of the presentation that didn't go well get you discouraged.  You can always get yourself back up - and people remember the last impressions of a presentation the most.  Make sure your impression counts.

All my love,


[Photo of the lovely Erin Loechner at Alt Summit by Justin Hackworth]

Talk to Me

I know that plenty of people talk to their mothers, at best, once a week, or even---and I start to stutter here---every few weeks. Now, I’m not passing any judgments, but this just did not fly with my mom. I remember her informing me years ago, as I was going through, shall we say, an “independent phase,” that she had talked to her mom every single day as an adult.  I thought of this often, on those week nights after a late dinner with my husband, when all I wanted to do was zone out to an awful episode of Gossip Girl. There were nights when Chuck Bass won out, but most nights I picked up the phone for a quick call. I woke her often, as she snoozed on the couch, my dad watching one of his endless sporting events or crime scene shows beside her. Sometimes our calls were brief---literally a hi and a bye---but on other nights, we talked and laughed until my husband's eye-rolling became impossible to ignore. I told her what I had made for dinner that night, we talked about my upcoming trips home to Rochester repeatedly, she asked about my husband and friends. There was not much we didn’t cover during those calls. The last time I talked to my mom was on February 13, 2012. It was late, and I remember the fleeting thought: I’ll just call her tomorrow. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to myself. I told her about the lamb chops I was making for Valentine’s Day dinner the following night, and I asked if she and my dad had any special plans. I distinctly remember her laugh in response.

I sat in the hospital just days after that phone call, while my mom lay in a coma next to me, incredulous that I couldn’t talk to her about it all. And last week, as we marked the 1 year anniversary of my mom’s death, I kept returning to the impossibility of not talking to her in a year. I think sometimes of those nights I didn’t call her, of the times I was too busy, or too tired, or just didn’t prioritize it, and wish for a do-over. I know exactly what I would say.

I would tell her, first and foremost, about the babies. I would update her on my nephew, about how he makes us laugh, about how naughty he can be, about how---even though he still sucks his thumb and takes his blanket everywhere---he’s no longer a baby. I would tell her that he points to the picture of her in his room, knowing that it’s Mimi. I would tell her about my niece, who is the spitting image of my mom at that age; about how beautiful she is, but how touch and go those first few months were for my sister and brother-in-law, what with a colicky newborn and an active 2 year-old. I would laugh, telling my mom that despite our best efforts to help my sister and her brood, we don’t come close to filling her shoes. I would tell her that “Mimi’s pool” is still Rachaels favorite, and about all the new babies who have joined our family---extended or otherwise---in the last year.

I would fill 3 days of conversation, telling her about the meaningless details of my life that no one but she ever really cared about.  About the new car my husband and I bought this past summer---and how I sat at the dealership with tears in my eyes as we traded in our old model, realizing once again that I couldn’t share my news with her; about the bed frame I’ve had my eye on at Pottery Barn and the new rug that looked great online, but sheds incessantly; about the movies I’ve seen and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; about new recipes I’ve tried and plants I’ve killed.

I would complain about every little annoyance from the past year. I would wait for her to tell me to shut up, and then complain some more.

I would tell her about the recent stresses of my job---a new manager and lots of travel---but how I really, really like what I do. I would also tell her of my husband’s new job, how his hard work has finally started to pay off. I know how proud she would be of us both.

I would tell her that I’m experimenting with acupuncture and a gluten-free diet, all the while expecting an immediate, gut-busting laugh and an exclamation of, “Are you nuts?!”

I would tell her that she was right about most things, but especially about how much we would miss her when she was gone.

And, finally, I would reassure her, that despite the heartache and the tears, that we were all ok. I would tell her that this is going to be the year of more laughs than tears, of my sister’s wedding, and maybe, even, more babies.

I don't quite know what I believe when it comes to life and death, but I suppose she might already know all of this. We're taking her with us on our new adventures, after all. But, my god, how I miss our talks.



We watched a couple of documentaries last weekend that are still tugging away at me as the week floats by. The first was Happy, and the second was Bill Cunningham New York. In the first, intimate portraits of happy people in surprising situations—from a rickshaw driver in India to an American woman who has recovered from a severe accident—were interspersed with researchers discussing what they had found to be the building blocks of happiness: novelty, close relationships, and acts of kindness.

In the second, shots of the revered street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham biking all over Manhattan with his camera contrasted with glimpses of his tiny apartment, where he sleeps on a board among file cabinets. For him, sleeping and eating seem to be afterthoughts. And the idea of a work/life balance? Well, he’d probably just laugh and say that work is life.

In a surprising moment, he responds to the invisible interviewer that, yes, of course, he goes to church on Sunday. It seemed that while everything else came second to his work behind the camera, church was a given. The otherwise opinionated and articulate subject paused for a long stretch and struggled to explain why.

More than anything else, these two films challenged my assumptions about non-negotiables. Each of us is constantly making tiny choices, arranging and rearranging priorities, which eventually add up to the more public aspects of our lives. Sometimes it’s impossible to really explain the whys and hows of our own lives and the lives of others. We can only grasp at threads among the complex bundle of will, experience, nature, and circumstances. I suppose all of this is obvious, but perhaps I needed a reminder.


My mom didn’t call me on my birthday each year at the exact time of day I was born, and tell me the story of my birth. She didn’t sing the Happy Birthday song to me over the phone, and she certainly did not send me to elementary school with little love notes tucked into my lunch bag on my birthday. She used to say that my father was a baby about his birthday, by which she meant that he liked for all of us to make a bit of a fuss over him each year. For her own birthdays, she told us not to bother, to save our money, that she didn’t need anything, and that she would cook her own dinner. We never listened, of course. For her 70th, she was particularly adamant, but we planned a fancy private dinner anyway.  We ended up celebrating in the hospital, as she lay next to us in a coma. We joked --- because what else was there to do at such a time --- that she would go to any length not to celebrate her birthday. But, then, she baked the most amazing birthday cakes when we were little. There was Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, a guitar, baby blocks –-- all homemade and elaborately decorated by hand. Most recently, she broke out her cake decorating tools for my nephew's first birthday, creating the perfect Elmo cake for him. Generous gifts turned into generous checks as we grew up and preferred to pick out our own things. I celebrated my 21st birthday in London, during my semester abroad. On my mom’s urging, I took my five roommates out to dinner, courtesy of my parents. I remember shrimp and sake, wine and great friends. The only low point of the evening was the bill, reflecting an exchange rate grossly in favor of the pound, and the fact that Benihana in London was a bit fancier than its American counterpart.

I celebrated my 34th birthday a few weeks ago, the first without my mom.  It was a quiet day spent working from home, with frequent interruptions from friends and family via phone, text, and of course, social media. In the quiet spaces between each birthday message, I thought of my mom. Part of me waited for her phone call all day, because how could it be possible that my mom, the person who gave me life, who more than anyone else should celebrate my birthday, would never do so again? A silly thought, perhaps, after ten months of grieving and learning to live without her, but the knowledge that she couldn’t find a way to wish me a happy birthday made her death so much more real.

I have a Polaroid picture, taken shortly after my birth, of me and my parents. They look so young –-- only a few years older than I am now –--- and as I look at it, I realize I have so many more questions for my mom. At three and four years younger than my sisters, and arriving as my parents neared 37, my sisters have teased me forever that I was a mistake. My mom always reversed the negative, telling me that I was a pleasant surprise. Always petite, she gained 50 pounds while pregnant with me, and used to say that she never lost it. In short, she joked that I ruined her. But I also know that I was an easy baby, happy and content to sit in my high chair, while the older kids ran in circles around me. I know that as the baby of the family, and perhaps because of my striking resemblance to my mom –-- both physical and in temperament --– I got away with more than my sisters sometimes did. But there is so much more I want to ask, especially now as my husband and I navigate the start of our own family. I want to know about her own losses, and whether she worried about having kids later in life. I want to know if she compared herself to her peers, most of whom started their own families years before my parents did, as I find myself doing at times. I want to know what my birth was like, and how she felt having a new baby while trying to celebrate Christmas for my older sisters. And, of course, I want to know how she managed to raise three kids under the age of four, without losing her mind.

I sat with my mother-in-law this past week, fascinated as she told stories about the adoption process they undertook, in bringing my sister-in-law home from Korea, close to 30 years ago. The birth story she told is so different than many, as Kendra didn’t arrive until close to her first birthday, but the gist of the story was the same. Regardless of age, of skin color, of biology, Susan knew immediately that Kendra was hers. And that was it.

We’re connected to our mothers –-- whether by nature or by nurture –-- in the most intimate of ways. As babies, we're soothed by their touch, their smell, their voice. As adults, that connection runs even deeper, and I daresay, the loss even more overwhelming. It's a daily work, this loss, continuing to humble me with each passing month. As I enter a new year, in more ways than one, I thank you again for traveling this road with me. Here's to light and love in 2013.

There's No Perfection in Parenting

Parents are so weird about the funniest things. When we were at Legoland over the weekend I was watching this toddler girl and her mother wait for the rest of the family to get off of a ride. The little girl wanted to touch the leaves that had fallen into the dirt of a nearby bush. The mom kept swatting her hand away and telling her that they were dirty! “Here” she said, “Play with this nice green one instead.” And she pulled a new leaf off the bush for the girl to touch instead. How funny! I thought to myself, I would have done the opposite and chastised Charley for pulling leaves unnecessarily off tress. I’m learning every parent has a weird quirk that they impart onto their child. Some are obvious---restricted diets, no character toys. Others are less noticeable---don’t play with the dirty leaves. There are so many awkward scenarios in parenting that no one prepares you for. This is the first Christmas that Charley has really been super interested in toys and asking for specific things. Last year he was happy with whatever we picked out, but this year he’s extremely vocal and knows what he likes. The other week, Charley found one of his Christmas toys early. It was a specific discontinued toy I had found on Ebay and painstakingly bid on and hid from him. He spotted it in the loft and started yelling for the toy, “My Lofty! My Lofty!” Matt and I just stared at each other dumbstruck. He was so happy and confused at the same time. Why were we mad? Why didn’t we give him the toy? Christmas and waiting for presents is a tricky thing to explain to a two-year-old.

He only saw the one toy, so we let him have it, but then Matt and I got into a huge fight about it. I didn’t want him to have it, well . . . I did, just not like that. But did it really matter? To him it was just a toy, he didn’t know that he was supposed to get all of them at the same time on Christmas day. He still doesn’t know about Santa and the whole concept of the holiday. And I realized, that’s the story of my whole adult life. I’m happy where I am, but I didn’t expect to get here like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I didn’t expect to get pregnant at 22, or not have my dream wedding. I thought for sure I would have a baby girl (I didn’t). I just imagined myself being richer, wiser, maybe more organized as a parent. Instead, I’m still just me, but somehow managing to fulfill the dreams and expectations of this little person as well.

Parenting is all about lowered expectations. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a realistic way. Becoming a parent has forced me to loosen the grip on my perfectionistic ways. It also made me realize how hard my parents worked to make our holidays perfect. I don’t ever remember finding our toys early, or being disappointed in the presents we received. They really made the holiday special. Now I know how much work went into that. Hats off parents, you did a good job.

I'll take today.


I have many guilty pleasures, including the queso from Torchy's Tacos in Austin, The Real Houswives of New York, and, most importantly for us here today, the British miniseries Lost in Austen. It's a sort of wish fulfillment version of Pride and Prejudice, in which a plucky, modern-day heroine named Amanda Price finds a portal to Austen's England via her bathroom wall. The show plays into what is, admittedly, a pretty widespread fantasy of women (and likely some men) the world over: slap on an Empire-style dress and a bonnet, and you, too, will no doubt be irresistible to Mr. Darcy. As a bonus, you'll get to live inside the world of your favorite novel, surrounded by the insufferable Mrs. Bennet, the kind, understanding Jane, and the tragically hands-off Mr. Bennet (revealed here to be graced with the Christian name Claude).

But it's Amanda's present-day roommate who, in the final moments of the series, reminds us of a cold, hard truth: while those women in flowing gowns and men in knee-high boots might seem impossibly elegant to us when viewed from a comfortable 200 years' distance, the reality differs somewhat. When Amanda asks her to come along with her to 19th century Longbourne, Pirhana (her roommate) says, "Amanda, I'm black. And what's more, I can't live without electricity, chocolate, or bog paper."

When (major spoiler alert) the miniseries ends with Amanda swapping places with Elizabeth Bennet (in time, space, and Fitzwilliam Darcy's affections) the implication is that while Lizzie was clearly too modern for her own time, Amanda belongs to it.

It's an adorable and satisfying conceit for a TV show meant to be consumed along with obscene amounts of chocolate, no doubt. On reflection, though, is anyone served by this kind of sentimentality about the past? Especially a pastiche of time gone by? After all, it's the Republican spin machine's treacly version of a 1950s paradise (one which, let's be clear, never existed, except on TV) that's used as a reason to roll back the rights women and people of color have spent the last 60 years fighting for.

By dressing up the past in our own expectations for it, we do those whose dedication and hard work has brought us this far a disservice. Nostalgia for one's childhood is understandable, but nostalgia for a time in which slavery was commonplace worldwide (though it has yet to be eradicated, even today), women were treated---by the law as well as by men---as property, and there was little to no access to things like Charmin and Vosges?

No thanks. I'm too busy making sure it doesn't reassert itself in the here and now---a place which, incidentally, is looking pretty good these days, what with Obama's reelection, New Hampshire sending an all-women delegation to Congress (plus a female governor), more women than ever in the House and Senate, and the first openly lesbian and bisexual members of Congress headed to D.C. Yup, I'll stick with the era I was lucky enough to be born into, thanks. Pass the chocolate.

XIII. Provence

postcards from france

I am walking along the Mediterranean coast with the groupe des randonneurs that I joined as my required extracurricular activity from ACCP. What I had expected to be rigorous hiking turns out to be a group of mostly retired people who amble through woods every Tuesday afternoon. I convinced Leah and Bridget to join as well, and we’re laughing at how ridiculously slowly we are moving. We hadn’t fully comprehended the meaning of the verb randonner when we signed up for this. We thought it was hiking. This is ambling, maybe. Strolling.

We are the only ones wearing shorts and are obviously American, and so the other walkers are delighted to meet us. At the break halfway through the walk, we are plied with treats and spécialités personelles of every sort from our fellow randonneurs — homemade cake, figs stuffed with almonds, provençal cookies. I finally have to say no to coffee. Leah, Bridget and I tried so hard to be friendly and gracious that after the break we feel a bit nauseated.

Wild rosemary grows everywhere in this dry climate. As I walk along the cliffside road back toward the bus, the clouds rolling in over the sea, I pick some and crush it between my fingers to release the sharp, woodsy fragrance.

“Try eating it,” says one of the smiling women walking near me. “It’s good for the digestion.”

Let's get this show on the road

As I write this post, I am surrounded by wedding paraphernalia. Place cards piled on my desk. Road signs that shout “Wedding this way!” propped against the wall. A conspicuous ivory dress calling to me from the back of my closet. And then there are the peripheral objects, filling up our routine spaces with signs of impending festivities. The cards (incoming and outgoing) perched on the shelf, supplies to feed more than just the two of us piling up on the counter. Even our little dog, Maisie, has resigned herself to a pre-wedding snooze, belly-up in the corner, exhausted from all the preparations.

For the past seven months, we’ve mostly kept the wedding debris at bay. Even if it was increasingly on our minds, we generally kept the wedding off of the kitchen table, returned relevant reading materials to their places on the shelves, and tried to make lists, not piles.


With two days left to go, however, all bets are off. I suddenly feel as if my space reflects my internal state—messy, chaotic, ridiculous, and wonderful. Our little apartment is starting to feel something like backstage at a theater. Everything points to something important that’s about to happen, something much bigger than this little space or even the two of us, scrambling to get this show on the road.

If there ever were a time to call liminal, it’s this. I can only think to compare it to finals period, when time seems to come unhinged. You fall asleep late and wake up early in an attempt to add more hours to the day, to slow down time. Your stomach feels weird, and you’ve been eating a very balanced diet of cupcakes and Doritos. You will accomplish a seemingly impossible number of tasks. Something will certainly be left undone. You are so very close to an end and a new beginning.

Over the next few days, I'm sure I will wish I could fast forward through stressful moments and slow down beautiful ones. I am looking forward to many hugs and smiles. I am so, so thankful to be marrying my sweetheart. As the whirlwind weekend begins, I am grateful that we're taking the time to acknowledge our commitment among a handful of family and friends, and I am especially excited to return to our regularly scheduled programming, to our life together.

The in-between-days

city flower

I don't always handle transitions gracefully. I'd almost always rather feel squarely in one place than anywhere between two.  The starker the line I can draw between an end and a new beginning, the better. As a kid this meant donning woolly knee socks for the first day of school. It didn't matter if school began in late August and the temperature on the thermometer still hovered somewhere in the mid-eighties. In my mind the start of school meant that summer was officially over and the sooner I forgot about long lazy days of popsicles and sprinklers, the happer I'd be. It wasn't until after I graduated from college that I began my real love affair with September. All my life I'd been so busy rushing myself into fall that I had never allowed myself to appreciate the in-between-days---days when the temperatures dip low enough that I can finally crank on the oven, but the trees are still heavy with summer fruit. I celebrate September by making sweet tarts with peaches and plums and savory ones with tomatoes the size of my head. In these days I can take a long walk after my work day and still be accompanied by the sun. The early morning will sometimes call for a thin sweater, but by mid-day I'll need an iced tea to cool myself down. Turns out that these are the kinds of transitions I can enjoy. It's not that I'm reluctant to leave summer behind, it's just that I'm happy to take these days leading up to fall slowly. There will be plenty of time for woolly socks come November.

A Back-to-School Tribute

learning by going

Before each school year begins, I try to center myself. I organize supplies, I write lesson plans, I memorize my schedule. These sort of tasks, however, aren’t enough and I always find myself reflecting on teaching itself, in the broadest possible sense. I came to teaching late. My first foray into a classroom in a role other than student was when I began my graduate program the summer I turned twenty-five. I felt old, and compared to many of my fellow students, I was old. One of the first things we were asked as we began our studies was to think about the teachers who had impacted us and why that was.

It’s a simple question, nearing cliché. For me, it was easy to answer. My high school Latin teacher, Miss Ede Ashworth, made me crave her praise. I was not the sort of student who yearned for a close relationship with a teacher, or to be pushed to my limits, or to be made to cry by a profound lesson a la Dead Poets Society. I was jaded in high school, arrogant about my self-perceived intelligence, and wary of adults, particularly teachers. Miss Ashworth’s skill and style penetrated my overconfidence and my (probably highly-irritating) cynicism. Her brilliance came from being able to do this without my ever feeling as though she was trying to do exactly that.

I should point out here that Miss Ashworth is a highly-lauded teacher, winning awards that have acknowledged and rewarded her preternatural skill in the classroom.  She managed to bring out the best in so many students, and she did it without seeming to modify her approach or system for any individual learners in the room.  This is nearly unheard of in conversations about good teaching where the norm is to consider the diversity of learners in a classroom and differentiate instruction as needed to reach as many students of possible. This was not necessary for Miss Ashworth---like an elite athlete, she was unfazed by changes in routine, student behavior, or fire drills, and managed to execute well every single class period.

She was teaching Latin, a language so regimented that it can turn off even the most academically-minded student. She required us to make flashcards for every single vocabulary word we learned – a requirement I hated because I didn’t feel as though I needed them.  However, other students made great use of flashcards, and I learned later that while I may not have needed to use the flashcards myself, she had cagily instilled in me the discipline of careful review and preparation. This discipline was key to my perseverance while studying Latin in college.

She told us little about herself, leaving an aura of mystery around her that my classmates and I attempted to shatter through the sort of speculation (“do you think Miss Ashworth ever watches television?) usually reserved for elementary school students. She was always impeccably prepared for class, never seemed to be absent, and could be found before and after school for extra help or to answer questions.

When I did my student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me that he believed there were two core qualities that every teacher must have: she should love the subject matter and appreciate the joys and challenges of working with young people. Miss Ashworth’s love for Latin was palpable---she drove us all over the state to participate in the Junior Classical League, and she ran a yearly Foreign Language Week at school that was driven primarily by her sheer enthusiasm. She had us do art projects about the Romans, she had us travel all over the tri-state area to museums to see relevant exhibits, and she made sure that her students took opportunities to share their knowledge of the language with others. And, even more importantly, while she had very high standards for both academic work on behavior, I remember not one moment when she seemed disdainful when we were rowdy, unfocused, or both.

When I was a senior, I was the only student that year to enroll in Advanced Placement Latin. Before the year began, I wondered what it would be like to be in a one-on-one setting. Would it be odd? I was nervous, because part of what Miss Ashworth did so well was treat all of us remarkably warmly, without ever creating too much familiarity. It ended up (unsurprisingly) being the best learning experience of my high school years. Her gentle guidance as I tried to decide which college attend (never saying what I should or should not do) helped steady me. The intensity of the AP curriculum and how desperately I wanted to please her led me to work incredibly hard and reap the rewards.

Thus, as I begin each new school year, I think back to what it was like to be in Miss Ashworth’s classes. I am not yet a fraction of the teacher that she is, and likely never will be, but her example often inspires me to think more critically about how I am approaching both my students and the subject matter. I ask myself what she might do in a particular situation, and I realize now how much work, dedication, and attention to detail went into all of those seemingly effortless lessons. Each time I sneak in explaining a Latin root into one of my classes, I feel the same old excitement that I used to feel in the windowless classroom that she made crackle with language. Although I had no idea at the time that I would ever be a high school teacher, I am forever grateful that I was able to spend forty-eight minutes every day for four years watching her work.


YWRB: Rebel Sisters

rebel sisters

By Amy Turn Sharp Sometimes you just need a partner.

Just one person who believes that you are not crazy to want to be a ________.

A person who holds the magic. And shares it.

In the 90’s I found my writing partner. Amanda.

She was effortlessly cool and beautiful and always up for an adventure. I liked to hear her stories of her daddy’s gun shop and the deep Southern Ohio life she had led. I loved her instantly. I wanted us to write together every day. When we wrote in bars and cafes it was like we were on fire. We were real writers. We were making progress and we shook our heads at each other to soothe the beasts of doubt and confusion and shame of writing down our lives. We were there together and if one of us started to feel shaky and confused about the tricky life of the artist we were beginning, the other would rally. We would hold each other up.

We were just finding our voices as writers and poets, just learning to write the words that lived in our brains and it was golden to have each other. I just claimed her. I knew she was going to be one of the important people in my life. And she was. And she is. And I know that my writing has improved because of this woman. She and I have shared cigs and beers and boys and ferry rides and journals and tears. We pass words back and forth like currency. We whisper to each other that we will be just fine if we keep going. Just keep going. I close my eyes and hear her stories. She quotes my poems. We believe that we are on the right path. We believe in each other. We rebel against the hard reality of being a writer and trying to keep going. We rebel against the rejection. The scary part of writing.

At any stage in your life, it is important to find your people. To find your beacon. Find your partners. Find your path.

Who has been on your path? Do you have a rebel sister who tells you to keep going? Who never turns off the light?

Vote for Us, Please!

more help please

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Less is More

modern anatomy

Lately, I've been on a purging spree. It’s not uncommon for my refrain to be “Get rid of it!” when asked about just any item in the house. I might have a problem. I have recently been looking at all manner of things I use on a daily basis and really quizzing myself, “Do I NEED that?” The extra stuff is really getting to me. It seemed that as soon as we moved into a big house (2500+sq.ft.) eighteen months ago, we have acquired all manner of extra junk. It just shows up---donations, presents, hobbies we hoped we would have---all over, gathering dust in corners, and overtaking the garage. Maybe we just have trouble saying no? Do you have this problem? If someone gives us a gift, we are thrilled and grateful they thought of us. And we (sort of) like DIY projects, so we end up with extra furniture that needs to be refinished and two clawfoot tubs. Perhaps we like to revel in the possibility of it all. We don't buy the golf clubs and tennis rackets because we WANT them to sit in our garage. We think that they will make us happy. We buy our kid even more toys because of course, more is more, and that will make him happy.

But is it? Instead I feel stressed by all the projects yet to be finished, the renovations that aren’t complete, and all the hobbies I never pursued. Instead of feeling like I am living up to my potential, I feel the opposite, like I am failing at doing it all.

Jordan, from Oh Happy Day, had a great quote the other day about purging:

"I’m by no means a minimalist but I’ve realized lately that everything

we own just takes up space and that it takes time to manage it all.

The less stuff you have, the more time you have. "

That's the element that is missing in all the forgotten hobbies in our 'Closet of Broken Dreams' (Literally, our master closet is where we hide all the things we used to enjoy, including but not limited to musical instruments, cameras, darkroom equipment, snowboards, and broken bicycles.) We never made the time for all those interests; merely just buying the item doesn't give you the time.

I was trying to describe to my husband the other day the happiness derived from small pleasures when I lived in my little (less than 500 sq.ft) apartment in Wicker Park. I can remember buying flowers one afternoon at the farmer's market. They were yellow daisies, and I put them in the middle of my tiny two-person kitchen table. And every day when I walked by them, I smiled. Once I bought a poster from a sale at the Art Institute downtown, and that poster, in my hallway, gave me more pleasure than most of the things currently in my house. Those two items, the flowers and the poster, I interacted with more on a daily basis since they made a big impact in my small space. Now, even when I go through the effort of framing a photograph, say of Charley and I, it gets lost in all the space we have. Sometimes I even forget I have it. We have rooms that are sitting empty, and bathrooms we don't even use, and after eighteen months, I am starting to feel that more isn't more, and you can really buy a house that's too big.

It seems I have become an over-buyer of sorts. I don’t buy thirty boxes of tissue, and actually Costco makes me nervous, but I tend to purchase things I think I will need for the future. Those items could be a bathtub for future renovations that haven’t happen or a fancy stroller for when we move to a city. Except we never moved to a city, and we still haven’t renovated that bathroom. Even today, I found myself thinking about buying another bike for when I’ll be cruising the streets of D.C. or Brooklyn, and I had to step back and think, but when will that even be? You could say I have trouble living in the moment. I constantly have that feeling of ‘my life will start when’ ______. When I move, get a job, have another kid (or not). I struggle to recognize and appreciate the moment as it is.

In an effort to slow down and appreciate life, I have to realize I can’t do all those different hobbies. So what am I really passionate about? I’ve been reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin and she has a great simple quote (adapted here to reflect the writer, er, me). “Be Shannon." A huge part of that is realizing my interests are not everyone else’s. I’ve never been much into sports; I would love to play tennis again one day, but the last time was over seven years ago. I truly love photography, but I no longer have the time available to do photography how I wanted to, processing the film, carefully weighing each decision and step. Instead I keep that hobby in a small way. I try to capture the little everyday moments with my son that might otherwise get lost in the cracks. I loathe staged family portraits and would much prefer to remember that on a random Wednesday afternoon he played trains at seven A.M. in his pajamas and the pajamas were red and had fire trucks on them; they were his favorite.

There's a part in the book where she talks about the too much stuff phenomenon. A little boy plays with his blue car everyday, takes it everywhere, and loves it to pieces. His grandmother comes to visit and sees how much joy is derived from this one car, so she goes out and buys him ten more little blue cars. He immediately stops playing with any of them. When she asks him why he replies, "It's because I can't love all the cars."

Buster, Bubba, and Bartolo: Just the Name for the Game

playing the field

Dear Buster Posey, You’ve a baseball sort of name, Buster Posey---four syllables so packed with whimsy that one would expect you’d played alongside Casey at Bat or other fictional folk. It’s a great sport for that.

I’ve been in a mood for the ridiculous lately so you’ll just have to indulge me, friend. You’ve been playing well, I shouldn’t make fun of you. Catcher is one of the most difficult and physically demanding roles on a baseball team and yet you’ve been healthy, strong, and productive so far this season. But all your hard work can’t keep me from busting into giggles at your name, Buster Posey.

Maybe I’ve had too many long days, too many sleepless nights, with a few martinis thrown in here and there for good measure. I’m giddy, a roller-coaster of emotion from delight to dismay and back again, Buster Posey.

I don’t know why I find your name so wonderful. It’s far from the most ridiculous or unique in a league that’s featured Coco Crisp, Milton Bradley, Bartolo Colon, and Greg Legg. Last year the KC Royals signed a strapping young high school phenom from Nebraska with the perfect corn-fed Midwestern name---Bubba Starling.

People who love baseball tend to fall face first into the vat of nostalgia that is (insert James Earl Jones voice with extra reverb here) Baseball. Sometimes it seems some men have been born and named specifically to play this game. They genetically belong on that dusty, sepia-toned ball field out somewhere amidst the corn of Middle America.

In our post-millennial haze of longing, guys like Razor Shines, Boof Bonser, and Goose Gossage are playing an imaginary nine innings alongside Chipper Jones, Darryl Strawberry and Yogi Berra. Cornelius McGilliuddy is managing the team, while Dusty Rhodes, Dazzy Vance, Pumpsy Green, and Sixto Lezcano look on from the dugout. Oh Buster Posey. You can be there too, if you like.

There are also a fair amount of downright childish jokes to be made about baseball names. Old school pitchers from the early 1900’s sported more phallic monikers than a middle school locker room and last year the Mariners and Tigers traded Doug Fister for Charlie Furbush. Really. I mean, come on.

You are amongst good company on my fantasy team, The Wayward Soldiers. There are enough extraneous consonants, schwas, and alliteration to keep the most ardent linguist giggling over their alphabet soup. Papelbon and Betancourt hold down our bullpen, while Wandy Rodriguez and Ryan Vogelsong get the starts at the mound. When Jon Jay gets back from the DL he’ll be able to help out Asdrubal Cabrera and Frenchy Francoeur on offense.

Maybe you thought I’d write my love letter to you about the good you’ve done for the team, that I’d have some wise insights to share or reflections to reflect. I’m sorry, Buster Posey. I’m too busy giggling over the name of my favorite pitcher from years past: Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, aka Cal McLish.

Some things really are just that awesome.

I Never Wanted To Be A Mother

never wanted to be a mother

By Chris Babinec Oh, Hell no! Not me. I didn’t think it was a bad choice, of course. As a feminist, I believed a woman should be able to do and be whatever she wanted to be. So, if a woman wanted to become a mother, good for her. Not good for me.

I just never got excited about babies. I never wanted to hold them, rock them, and take care of them. I never smelled that “baby smell” others would swoon over. I didn’t dream of staying home, cooking nutritious meals, wiping butts, listening to crying and whining. I didn’t need someone to look up to me, tell me they love me or call me Mommy. And, I never wanted all the trappings I thought being a mother would bring: a long-term partner, a permanent abode, and an interruption in my timeline of conquering the world.

Nope, for me, there would be adventure! Travel! Exotic foods, exotic lands, exotic jobs! And, of course, I would be a champion for women and children across the world. I would become a feminist icon. I would start my own non-profit. I would devote my life to helping others in need. I would try to live like my hero: Wonder Woman. Maybe I would run for office someday.

Above all, I would do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted and nobody would get to tell me any different, especially not a man and certainly not children. I would be my own woman. Independent, free, yet devoted to our common humanity. I would, with effort, figure out how to balance my interests in, and devote my time to: women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, environmental concerns, animal rights, children’s rights, alleviation of poverty, cessation of war, and the list goes on and on. I would do everything, be everything I wanted to be. Maybe I would learn some humility along the way, but if not, so what, men get to think big, dream big, act big---why shouldn’t I?

To a large degree, I have already accomplished many of my goals. I have traveled and I have adventured. I have eaten exotic foods and been to new and interesting places. I’ve met incredibly interesting people and had many partners. I’ve tested my limits. I’ve tossed off the shackles of fear more times than I can remember. And, to a large degree, I have devoted my life and career to helping others.

Of course, the strangest thing happened. When I was about 30, I realized nearly all my life, I had been working with children.  Even as a youth, I was a peer leader, a voracious volunteer for many causes that helped other youth.  As I grew older, I found my niche working with teens, and not the Up With People, kind. The gang banging kind. The rough and tumble kids, the homeless youth, the sexually exploited minors/child prostitutes, the disenfranchised, angry, conduct-disordered kid who would just as soon spit on you and rob you, as give you the time of day. I love these kids. Since I was about 21, helping these kids has been my passion and my work.

These kids, as it turned out, were as outraged as I was at the state of the world. They were justifiably angry at the lives they had been handed. While they couldn’t acknowledge it or express it in appropriate ways, the anger seemed to drive their behavior. And, I get anger. I mean I really get it. It’s another reason I never thought I’d be a mother. I thought the outrage I possessed, the unbridled passion, the “you can kiss my ass” attitude might not be good for children.

These kids I worked with often didn’t have mothers. Or, sometimes their mothers were doing the best they could, but due to oppression, patriarchy, institutionalized discrimination, or due to substance abuse, mental health disorders and other complicating factors of our lives and culture, the mothers just couldn’t give these kids what they needed or wanted. Without knowing what was happening, without planning it, wanting it, thinking about it, or feeling any particular way about it, I began mothering.

It started in little ways. I would go to work, ask the kids about home, school and homework. I’d try to get the homeless kids and their families’ food, school, shelter. I would help the kids develop internal and external resources. I’d ask about friends, life goals, and try and inspire and motivate the kids to achieve their dreams, no matter what the obstacles seemed to be.

Then my mothering instinct became stronger. I started to realize how few children have the supports they need to achieve even basic goals. I noticed the threats to these children’s lives---not the boogeyman kinds of threats---the kids already knew how to defend against those. I mean, the threat of indifference, the threat of being objectified and commodified. The threat of being powerless, invisible, of having no voice and no means to advocate for themselves.

Then I really became a mother. A full-on, I will kick you ass if you hurt my babies kind of mother. I became a clinical therapist and trauma specialist so I could help those children who have suffered the worst humanity has to offer. I remain strong to bear witness to the pain and suffering these children can barely express. I talk about my work so others know how dreadfully children are treated in this world; not all children of course, but so, so many.

When people ask me, “How can you do that work?  It sounds so depressing!” Like a mother, I ask them, how could I not? If not me, who? That outrage inside me, that anger I thought might not be great for kids, is the fire that fuels my service, my advocacy and my ability to stand up for those in need. It’s exactly what kids need.

Now, at 39, I have a 3-year-old girl of my own and a baby boy on the way. My daughter’s smile, laugh, story-telling, empathy and grace give me an overwhelming, intoxicating sense of joy, peace and balance I never knew I missed. I have known the pleasure of pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding. I have learned some balance in parenting different ages and stages of development. I still do not need my children to look up to me, tell me they love me or call me mommy, but it’s delightful when it happens.

And, of course, the only way I am able to sustain my strength to do the work that I do is because I have a devoted, feminist husband who equally shares the load, a long-term partner I can’t imagine ever living without. A man who inspires me. A man who teaches our daughter every day that men are not always oppressors, that sometimes a man is just the person you need to do the critical work of your calling. And, that fathers are equally important as mothers.

So, while I may not be conquering the world in quite the fashion I imagined I would, and there are still so many places I want to go, things I want to see, fears I want to face, I wouldn’t trade my life or my experiences for anything. I love my life and I cherish motherhood. I never wanted to be a “mother”, but it’s because I alone limited the meaning of that word.

The Fallacy of Gender Neutrality, or How I Womaned Up at My Local Bookstore

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I'm standing stock-still in the children's picture book section of the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble, facing a decision rife with anxiety and laden with import. Will it be Madeline, or will it be Make Way For Ducklings? Let's back up.

My family has been procreating at an alarming rate recently, and I was there to choose two books (my traditional Yay, You're Pregnant! gift) for my cousin and his wife. Unlike the majority of my friends who've gone through this particular rite of passage of late, they aren't going to find out the sex of the baby ahead of time, and so I went to the store intending to purchase a couple of classic picture books.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, one of the best books of all time, was sitting on a display table up front. One book down, one to go.

In The Night Kitchen is a favorite of mine, both since I loved it so much as a child, and since I plan to teach as many children as possible to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch in as horridly messy a fashion as possible. But they didn't have it in stock, and I was due at dinner---in Brooklyn---in two hours. I desperately scanned the shelves for Babar, but they only had a couple of the later books from the series, and I couldn't give this kid a sequel without the original. And then there's the Velveteen Rabbit, but the edition on offer was cheesy and unworthy of the tragedy held within. Plus, do I really want to be the one who makes the baby cry real tears for the first time? No. No, I do not.

They did have Make Way For Ducklings, which I understand is a seriously famous children's book, but I have no emotional connection to it whatsoever. And unfamiliarity doesn't seem right for the very first gift I'll ever bestow upon this new human being. But it was pretty, it was hardcover, and it wasn't spotted with drool or spitup, which, frankly, made it a rare find.

And then, I spotted it: yellow spine, Belemans' distinctive brush stroke font, and twelve little girls in two straight lines. Madeline.

But wait, I thought: what if this baby turns out to be a boy? And then I died a little inside. Because, honestly, it pisses me the hell off that the notion of gender neutral books even occurred to me. What makes a book gendered? When it features a female protagonist?

Well, yeah. In our culture, it does. I grew up reading books about boys and girls, romances and sci fi, Gone With The Wind and Star Trek novels (oh yes), but the vast majority of the books my brother read (with The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle being a rare exception) were about boys and "boy" things.

And this is a pattern that continues into adulthood. Women gladly read books with male protagonists, but the reverse---especially if the book is written by a female novelist---is rare. Just last week, I was at my high school reunion. Dan Brown---who graduated 25 years before I did---gave a little talk, and one of the questions he got from the audience was whether he had any advice for a woman looking to write a mainstream (read: not romance) novel about a female protagonist. His response? That the success of his Robert Langdon novels with women prove that people will buy books featuring heroes of the opposite gender.

My high school prides itself on teaching critical thinking skills, but methinks they let Dan down that day. After all, male is the neutral gender in our culture. Large numbers of women buying books about men is nothing to write home about---the reverse, though---that would be remarkable.

All of this flashes through my mind in an instant, in the way that only righteous indignation can, and I spin on my heel, jog up to the cash register and pay---proudly---for Madeline and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs before I lose my nerve. And I'm kind of hoping it's a boy, if only for the opportunity to buy him the Little House series when he's ready for chapter books.

Fall/Winter 2012: Northern Vietnam & Mekong River in Laos

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Editor's note: Morgan Carper is a New York based fashion designer whose globe-trotting ways inspire her collections. She'll be writing here about her travels and inspiration.  For my fall/winter 2012 collection I traveled from the mountains in Northern Vietnam to the Mekong River in Laos to learn about traditional weaving and dyeing techniques practiced by the Hmong people. The Hmong people are an ancient tribal group that originated from China, and their villages are traditionally found high in the mountains. The name means “A Free People.” My motivation was a desire to have a better understanding of ancient textiles techniques and their process. After spending days alongside local weavers and artisans, I became captivated by their mastery. These learned practices found their way into the collection through my custom prints inspired by the region’s traditional tapestries, indigo resist batik printing, and woven ikats. The fabrics have such an integral role in the development of each collection that they end up telling the story. My goal is to invoke the key elements of a place, transporting the wearer to that location, but giving them their own experience.


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See more of Morgan's work here.

Mom Space

learning by going

I am a mom. But I occupy a funny space in the world of moms. My wife, Lauren, gave birth to our son in June 2011, mere hours after same-sex marriage was approved by our state legislature here in New York, legitimizing our Canadian marriage just in time for the two of us to become three. For all of her pregnancy, I was there. For doctor’s appointments, doula hiring, birthing classes, and of course the birth itself, I never left her side. For some of these things, my compatriots were dads. At the special buffet room in the hospital for new parents, I joined dads filling up plates to bring to the new mothers. At the birthing classes, I tried swaddling the baby doll at the same time as all the dads. In many of these situations, it didn’t feel odd at all. I was the parent-not-giving-birth, along with many others. So what if I was the only woman in that little group?

When we came home from the hospital, though, it felt different. The world of parenting media is clearly demarcated. There are “mommy blogs” and “dad blogs.” Parenting magazines may aim to reach all parents, but their content is clearly aimed toward mothers, ignoring the prospect that a father might want to spend time reading about being a parent. At the beginning of our son’s life, most of the decisions we were making on a regular basis circled around breastfeeding, and I often felt helpless as my wife and son struggled to find their groove, but also strangely empathetic in a distinctly feminine way.

There was some commiserating I could do with other dads, but the general tone of their observations had a certain masculinity with which I couldn’t keep up.  I didn’t have to go back to work immediately like many dads I know. After Lauren’s parental leave was over, I took mine (grateful to my employer for being flexible about when I took my leave, and for treating me like the equal parent I am). I spent close to three months as the primary caregiver during the day, often tooling around the mall or local parks wearing Hank in a carrier, proud as a peacock, but also feeling like I was masquerading as a mom. Being a mom felt simultaneously deeply natural and deeply odd. What was I to do with all I had heard from moms talking about the transcendence of giving birth? What was I to do with all of talk about the bonding that breastfeeding brings? Dads presumably can’t fully understand these things either, but I have never felt like dad, not for one second.

At times it felt like a performance of sorts, as though I were performing motherhood rather than inhabiting it. I do not feel this way at all about parenthood, I have felt like a parent from the second I knew the baby was coming. I prepared for it intellectually and emotionally, and I have embraced the responsibility, joy, and challenges as fully as anyone. Yet, as Mother’s Day approached, I felt a strange sensation. Lauren and I approach parenting as an equal enterprise, from being up together in the middle of the night, to coming up with elaborate schedules to share housework as best we can. Nonetheless, her role as the mom who was pregnant, gave birth, and nurses our son is so preternaturally maternal, on a day like Mother’s Day, it’s hard to know how best to carve out space for who I am as a parent.

After spending a lovely Mother’s Day having brunch, going to a park, and playing in the sunshine, I realized: she is Mommy, and I am Mama. As our son nears his first birthday, I am doing my best to reject the constraints of nomenclature and simply be Mama, and all that means. Mama is usually the first one to hear when Hank wakes up, and Mama feeds Hank dinner, and Mama and Hank watch baseball together. It is in these moments that terminology is wholly irrelevant, and family just is.