Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

From “Could Have” by Wislawa Szymborska (quoted on page 18-19)

This beautiful, brief memoir is about marriage: not the heady reckless days of being newlyweds, nor about looking back from a distance at the long years of children and grandchildren, but rather about the middle years of a marriage. The years of a marriage that are marked by mortgages, teenagers, and adult responsibilities; the years when routines speed up time and parents grow frail, the years when a couple must work to recall the wild love of their early days and work to keep their bond strong so they can reach those golden years. Hourglass — told in a Virginia Woolf-inspired style — a is spectacular exploration of the special, fragile time that marks middle marriage and how rewarding and challenging a time it can be for a couple.

Shapiro examines her own marriage with honesty and courage; displaying the things she gets right and the things that go wrong. A deep, almost desperate, vulnerability is required to make a marriage work. Two people bind themselves together when things are the very best, in the hope that things will always be rosy, always go as well. But then life happens — illnesses, lost jobs, deaths, births, near-misses, and lost chances — and you must hope that the strength of your love and your commitment to one another can weather these storms; that you can go on believing in the happy ending even when the future is a complete unknown.

Shapiro also examines the choices she and her husband did and did not make —  each corner not turned, every job not taken — and wonders, would other choices have led to a different me? a different him? a different us? Marriage, she believes, is living with each and every choice you’ve made and knowing that each step has brought you to where you are right now; marriage is having faith that this place is the right place to be.

Upon finishing the book I am struck by how wildly optimistic getting married really is. Two people make a commitment (that no matter how easily made, one that is very difficult to undo) and set out to build a life with no guarantees, with no safety nets. Your marriage requires that everyday — many times each day — you must look upon your relationship as meaningful and worthwhile, something as important and valuable today as it was on your wedding day.

Middle marriage are the years when you hold on to one another tightly, hoping wildly that the best years are still yet to come, and still believing there is no one else you would want beside you than your partner. What a wild leap of faith to take! What a wonderful treasure when you find yourself alongside someone worth taking that risk with.

— To my Husband, S. who I adore now as much as then

 

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The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (2010)

HNY

What better way to kick off the new year, than by reading a short little book meant to celebrate all those awesome little things that make you happier, assuming to take the time to notice them?

This little gem of a book was recommended by a good friend of mine, who knows I love collecting lists of things that can instantly make me happier. This book is filled with small, everyday things that — when recognized — can add an instant lift to your day.

All day my family and I have been leafing through it and reading our favorites to each other. The book has been a huge happiness booster and a source of some great conversations around the house about what we would add to our personal lists of “awesome.”

Among some of my favorite “awesomes” in the book are:

  • Strategies for Epic Trick-or-Treating (his rules are all spot on, our family agreed)!
  • Finding the perfect nacho on the nacho platter!
  • Sleeping on new bed-sheets!
  • The smell of onions and garlic sauteing in olive oil!
  • Getting shampooed at the hairdresser!
  • Taking your bra off after a long day!
  • Naps!
  • Snow on Christmas!

A super-cute book and a great reminder that there is a lot to be thankful for, even on bad days. Here’s to an awesome new year!

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy (2017)

the rules do not apply a levy

When Ariel Levy writes that she has always felt that the “rules do not apply” to her, she truly means that, throughout her life, she has had the passion and granted herself the permission to make her own path. Her non-traditional journey is at times thrilling and at other times heart-breaking; but it is relayed to readers with an unflinching honesty and a surprising lack of melodrama.

Levy decided from an early age that she would not lock herself into any of the traditional roles for women.  She would be sexual adventurous; she would have romantic relationships with both men and women; she would refuse marriage and children; and she would create her own career as a writer. As Levy lived through her twenties, she did reject all of the rules she felt were outdated and punitive to women and forged ahead with her own version of the ideal life.

Then, in her 30s, her life began to change and she had to decide whether to keep resisting “traditional” paths or accept them as she got older. She met and fell in love with an older woman, one who wanted stability and monogamy. She, herself, began to crave financial security and a place to call home. So she relinquished a bit of her wildness to get married and set up a home with her new wife.

However, this conventional path was rockier than she had anticipated and she found herself challenging the very rules she had set for herself when she got married. Soon she and her wife found themselves faced with infidelity, financial hardship, and the ravages of addiction. The two women shouldered on, trying their best to repair their marriage, and deciding that the best course of action to get their lives back on track would be to have a baby together.

However, the pregnancy that resulted drove an even deeper wedge between Levy and her wife. Soon their relationship, which was rocky at best, had to flex to accommodate the man who had fathered their son and all three of their extended families. As her pregnancy progressed, Levy ignored the warning signs that her wife has struggling and felt fiercely proud that she was building a life on her terms…a baby without a husband, a father for her son without the drama of a relationship, a baby with her wife that would bring stability to their home.

The fragile strings that were holding their lives together soon snap and Levy finds herself at rock bottom: suddenly everything she once had is gone and she must decide if she is strong enough to shoulder her grief and rebuild her life.

In The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy shows her successes and her failures, her loves and her heartaches all in equal measure. And she shows readers that all choices have costs, and that whether you follow the rules or you break the rules…there us always a price to be paid.

Younger by Sara Gottfried, M.D. (2017)

Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years

Younger S Gottfried

For the record, I rarely read self-help health books. While I am happy to consider all other aspects of self-improvement, I find books that tout one specific approach to “healthy” living to be gimmicky and overly specific. However, after hearing Dr. Gottfried’s interview on a podcast (http://happierinhollywood.com/episode19/ ) I was sufficiently intrigued by her promises for easing the downsides of aging and — lets be real — her ideas for how to look better with little effort.

The reality of the book is, of course, far less simple than its author (or book jacket) profess. Grounded in very specific information about genetics, medical jargon, and peppered with studies that support her claims, Gottfried lays out what she calls her “protocol” to slow aging and restore a more youthful appearance. At its core, the book encourages readers to adopt the mainstays of improved health: more sleep, less stress, healthy eating, more exercise, and basic self-care. Those recommendations are presented in a clear and straight-forward ways: with plenty of research for those (do you exist?) who still need to be convinced that these changes are vital to good health.

When the book begins to divert from that core message, things get complicated…and expensive. To support your good health efforts, Gottfried offers a long, long, long list of practices to adopt to “turn back the clock.” During your waking hours (which in this protocol is specified as approximately 6AM to 10PM), readers are asked to spend almost every single moment taking action to slow the aging process. Among these activities that the doctor recommendations: swallowing dozens upon dozens of supplements; drinking collagen smoothies; fasting; drinking low-mold coffee or “chain amino-acid” teas; meditating, eating two or more pounds of vegetables a day; eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar; and — all the while — increasing the amount time you exercise, meditate, and sleep.

In addition to those activities, which I agree all seem largely beneficial, there are even more things readers are encouraged to adopt — although when they are to find time for even more activities than the core “protocol” encourages, I’m not sure — a list that grows each and every chapter. A few samples of extra ideas to work into your “restore youth” regimen: sesame oil tooth-pulling, making bone broth, wearing “amber tinted glasses” after dark, sitting in from of a light therapy box, taking yoga several times a week, spending 20-40 minutes a day in a sauna, and many more.

Even more unsettling this (mind-boggling) long list, it the cost of this “protocol” is bordering on outrageous. Hundreds of dollars of supplements, powders, genetic testing, organic foods and cosmetics, special light-bulbs, light boxes, toxin-removal treatments, electric toothbrushes, bio-dynamic wine, home mold-removal/water filtration systems, and installing a sauna! And that is the short list! To incorporate even some of her suggestions would be a huge financial commitment and at times it seems that this book is for wealthy women, since there are very few inexpensive options (other than sleeping more and walking) offered in lieu of the more costly ones. I would love to see her write a companion book for Younger that is aimed at low or fixed-income women living in rentals that they cannot modify; women who cannot afford gym memberships or Whole Foods groceries, not to mention $200+ per month supplement fees or sauna installations.

Gottfried is no-doubt passionate about promoting good health, but her rules are many, complex, and costly (and, to be real, a bit ridiculous at times). I am sure that should you adopt her protocol, the reader would see improved health and younger looks but I fear for the woman who tried to undertake all of her suggestions…it would be a full-time job!

On a side note, I found myself intrigued by her brief mention of the company Hairprint: an all-natural, food-grade hair treatment system that uses break-through science to naturally reprogram gray hair to its original color. Check it out at: https://www.myhairprint.com/products/true-color-restorer-for-women

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (2017)

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too)

Four Tendencies G Rubin

As frequent readers of this blog are well-aware, I am an enormous fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work — not only her books, but her blog and podcast as well. In fact, you can follow the tag “Gretchen Rubin,” on this website for reviews of several of her books.

The Four Tendencies serves as a follow-up to Rubin’s 2015 Better Than Before, where she delves further into her signature personality framework to offer advice to readers on how to create accountability structures that best help you shape your habits to meet your goals…what ever those goals may be. (You can read a review of Better Than Before here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1Ds )

At the heart of the book is the Four Tendencies framework a tool that tries to identify “how a person’s responds to outer and inner expectations.” Based on those responses, Rubin groups us into one of four categories (from page 6):

  • Upholder — Responds readily to outer expectations and inner expectations
  • Questioners — questions all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations
  • Obligers — respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Rebels –resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

You can take the quiz here https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3706759/Gretchen-Rubin-s-Quiz-The-Four-Tendencies

Dividing the book into four distinct sections, Rubin tries to distill the best practices, unique tips, advice, and strategies that allow you to exploit your natural inclinations to make setting goals and keeping habits as easy as possible. Not easy, but easier. Rubin argues that fighting against our core personality traits make reaching goals an uphill battle, but making subtle adjustments that take our tendencies into account can smooth the way by working with our strengths rather than against them.

In addition to advice aimed directly at readers — great advice, I might add, which is concrete and immediately applicable — there is a wealth of information about how we can work with and best encourage those of other tendencies. There are scores of examples about how one might support a spouse, child, co-worker, client or patient of another tendency. After all, an argument that most motivates an Upholder will send a Rebel running in the other direction.

As an Upholder, it is easy for me to stick to routines; meet commitments to myself and others; and to say “no” to things I do not want to do or I think are unnecessary. These are all traits that are hugely beneficial to me…but can seem rigid to others. Furthermore, because it is easy to create and stick to habits, I am often unsympathetic to people who struggle to do things for themselves. Reading Rubin’s work has made a huge difference in the way that I view the decisions of others and infinitely more accepting of the fact that other people need more support to meet their goals than Upholders like me.

As the wife and mother of two Obligers (so far…my younger sons are still too little for me to guess their Tendency), I used to resist and (honestly) resent how much they needed me to prod them to act and monitor them as they tried to form new habits. After discovering Rubin’s framework, I realized that by taking a few extra moments to remind them of workouts or appointments can make it enormously easier for them to complete them…if they think I am watching and keeping track of them, they can see things through with less effort. (On a side note, a Questioner friend who I used to butt heads will all the time about her constant changing of plans — would this restaurant be better? should we do x instead of y? why not meet later? — and her endless questioning of my decisions. I now get along with her much better now that I know this is just a quirk of her personality; not a comment on how little she trusts my judgement.)

The Four Tendencies is self-help at its best: non-judgemental, direct, and easy to incorporate ideas for “knowing yourself better” so that you can live your best life. And so that you can encourage your friends and family life their best lives, as well.

 

 

 

Lonely by Emily White (2010)

I have always loved reading memoirs. I find that one person’s deep journey into her or his personal experiences uniquely informative, all the more so if those experiences are vastly different from my own. Memoirs offer us an opportunity to think — sometimes for the first time —  about how different lives have been lived. Lonely is a perfect example of reading a memoir that brings into focus something that I never thought too deeply about before: loneliness. Lonely is raw, vulnerable memoir that brings the author’s battle with chronic loneliness into the light for intense examination.

“Given the choice, [loneliness] is not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to choose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own.  The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the last I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.” 6

Like everyone, I have suffered from bouts of loneliness on and off through my life, but my experiences are what White terms “situational loneliness:” short-lived moments of loneliness that arise out of a huge life change, such as a move or a new career. White’s affliction of chronic, lifelong loneliness is vastly different; a state of living that is physically and emotionally dangerous and puts the sufferer at great risk for illness, depression, anxiety, and (paradoxically) even more intense bouts of social disconnectedness.  This work opened my eyes to a struggle that so many face, but that I was largely unaware was such a huge and lasting challenge.

White’s book is a honest description of her own battles with loneliness; first as a child of divorce, then as a college student battling depression, and finally as an adult lacking in deep and meaningful relationships. From the beginning, White disputes the common belief that loneliness is a “punishment” for social awkward or inept people, but rather a sense of social disconnection that causes the person to feel unhappy and isolated.  She paints a picture of herself — and a cast of fellow sufferers who populate the book through interviews conducted and reported on by White — as people with adequate social skills but who nonetheless find great difficulty in forging deep and lasting social bonds.

It is also further noted that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing.  Even though those who identify as lonely do admit to being comfortable with a certain amount of solitude, there is a line in which lonesomeness is no longer nourishing. White writes, “the relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude.” (13)

“What lonely people find is that they are drowning in absence. They have to struggle with the unnerving sense of being too much on their own, and having to rely on themselves in an effort to meet their own needs. And once the self has been searched and patted down for a sense of companionship — which is something it can’t provide — the the lonely person is left with is a worn out sense of insufficiency.” 28

White’s book  draws not only on her personal experiences, and that of her interviewees, but from a vast trove of data from research studies and social-psychology experiments which back up her claims of the risks lonely people face. These risks include impaired physical health, mental and emotional strain, anxiety, stress, and fear.  She notes that the human need to connect with other people — to share, touch, talk– is a deeply rooted, biological need that has serious consequences for those who are lacking. The longer the state persists, the greater the risks and the harder the sufferer must work to overcome their fears to reach out to others. “Loneliness can start to feel rooted in your life, as central and definitive as your work or your marriage.” 81

Although she does not spend too much time on making distinctions between the types of loneliness — lonely for a romantic partner; lonely in a new city; lonely for someone to have deep conversations with; lonely for a person’s ‘quiet presence’ — they are mentioned through out the book as separate but equally important connections to restore. White highlights all of the ways we need to find like-minded people to share our lives with in order to remain healthy and happy

“What I needed was someone at home with me, some whose breath I would hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room. I needed the strong, steady companion that a friend, lover, or family member could offer and without it my loneliness persisted.” 73

A truly thought-provoking discussion of a problem so deeply stigmatized it is almost overlooked, but one that is clearly an enormous challenge for millions of people suffering without being able to voice their need for fear of social condemnation.

The podcast that brought Emily White’s memoir to my attention, Episode #110 of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft,” can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-110-lonely/

A thought-provoking examination of the different strategies for battling loneliness, by author Gretchen Rubin, can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/11/feeling-lonely-consider-trying-these-7-strategies/  and here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/01/lonely-5-habits-to-combat-loneliness/

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

a place own cover pollan

“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)