Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Welcome to my Meridian readers!

My latest column is up at Meridian Magazine!  This time I choose books on a topic many people don't like to talk about: poop.  Crap.  Feces.  $#!+.  One was actually a children's book looking at the history of how civilizations have dealt with human waste.  The other looks at the problems related to (lack of) sanitation around the world today.  Fascinating...

Go check it out here!

And if you found my blog because you've already read that column, welcome!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

At 702 pages of text (not counting the extensive notes, bibliography and index), it's a beast.  A behemoth, even.  The first time I checked it out of the library - for three weeks - I made it through about 300 pages.  Then I had to return it because my library doesn't allow you to renew books that have been requested, and this one had a huge list of folks wanting to read it.  So I put myself back on the waiting list and my turn finally came around again about two months later.  There aren't many books that I'd make that much of an effort to get back to, but this one is well worth it.

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon explores the parent-child relationship at its most fraught, where difficult situations emerge and change the job description that parents perhaps expected.  He looks at how families interact within themselves when children are born with a series of circumstances that somehow set them apart from their parents, and how parents deal with the reality of shifting expectations, grieving the loss of the child they thought they would have and accepting the child they do.  The specific groups Mr. Solomon studied include children who are born deaf, as dwarfs, with Down syndrome, autism, children who develop schizophrenia, or who have other physical disability.  He also includes child prodigies, children born from rape, children who commit crimes, and transgender children.  (I have at least a passing familiarity with some of the groups, including Deaf, autism, and disability.  Others I had honestly never thought much about before reading Far from the Tree.)  Each chapter is a masterful weaving together of scientific studies and personal portraits that provide insights into these families' lives, and shows that "the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances."

Though all of the categories of differences discussed in this book cover a range of individuals who each have their own trials and challenges in relation to their situation, Mr. Solomon points out that none of us are immune to suffering.  "The raw grit of anguish will never be in short supply.  There is enough of it in the happiest life to serve these instructive purposes and there always will be. We are more sympathetic to Holocaust survivors than to malcontent children of privilege, but we all have our darkness, and the trick is making something exalted of it."  With that in mind, he delves into the unique challenges of each horizontal identity group, looking for the parallels within each group, as well as the similarities with the others he interviewed.  He presents a broad spectrum within each group, too, including those with vastly different experiences, opinions, and outcomes.

A recurring theme is the ongoing struggle between defining many of these conditions as "identities" or "illnesses."  For example, many members of the Deaf community shun the label "disabled," claiming that Deafness is a culture, a point of pride and identity, and decrying the use of cochlear implants as a form of genocide.  However, access to many services depends upon maintaining the status of deafness as a disability. Harlan Lane sums it up well: "The dilemma is that deaf people want access and as citizens in a democracy have a right to access--access to public events, government services, and education--but when they subscribe to the disability definition in order to gain access, they undermine their struggle for other rights--such as an education for deaf children using their best language, an end to implant surgery on those children, and an end to efforts to discourage deaf births in the first place."  This was a constant balancing act for many parents, fighting for the care and intervention that would give their children the best possible chance to reach their potential, while not succumbing to self-hatred, negativity, or feelings of inferiority that may come from identifying with a marginalized label.

Another delicate balance many families face involves finding and focusing on the positive in each situation without over-sentimentalizing the experiences or minimizing the struggles.  In the section on raising children with disabilities, Mr. Solomon says, "It's hard to know to what extent positive experiences generate positive perceptions, and to what extent it is the other way around.  Aggrandizing the nobility of woe is a coping strategy, but some parents and some disability scholars exalt the catalog of wonders until having a disabled child seems not merely rich in meaning, but almost preferable to other experiences of parents.  The disabled child becomes a glowing family hearth around which all gather in shared song.  Such sentimentality can be destructive; it makes parents who are having a rough time feel worse, adding layers of guilt and defeat to their general experience of trouble."  (I have found this to be true even when parenting children without disabilities; it's hard to listen to those who wax on about how thoroughly they enjoy every moment of parenting, particularly when your day has involved screaming, defiant children, cleaning up bodily fluids, and other parenting highlights.)

"Parenting is no sport for perfectionists."  Even with the best of intentions, parents are going to mess up simply because they are human, imperfect and not omniscient.  Over and over in each section, Mr. Solomon documents different parents with different children who made different choices, all wanting the best for their children.  Of course, there will be unintentional negative consequences sometimes.  "Doing something with love does not necessarily make it good.  Even outside the world of disability, we all perpetrate and are subject to loving yet damaging acts within our families.  That damage is likely to be greater and more frequent with horizontal identities because the good intentions are less informed."

Unlike many of these conditions which come to light before or shortly after birth, schizophrenia usually doesn't manifest until the child is in his or her early twenties, though some warning signs may be seen, often recognized only in retrospect, during the teenage years.  In a book filled with difficult situations, Mr. Solomon declares, "Schizophrenia may be in a class by itself for unrewarding trauma."  Schizophrenia frequently represents a break with reality and "can take away the ability to connect to or love or trust another person, the full use of rational intelligence, the capacity to function in any professional context, the basic faculty of physical self-care, and large areas of self-awareness and analytic clarity."  It can be accompanied by visual hallucinations as well as the famous auditory hallucinations or "voices".  Many parents in this section described the unrelenting worry that their children would hurt themselves or others because of their psychosis, the fatigue from the non-stop supervision needed, and the constant fight to get adequate treatment for their child, particularly once their child is an adult and can legally refuse medical and psychological intervention.  What can be most disheartening is accepting the reality that the seeming normality of the child before the psychotic break and his or her promising future no longer exists.

The chapter on children conceived through rape was heart-wrenching.  I cannot imagine the incredible torment of conceiving a child as the direct result of such a violation.  "Rape," Mr. Solomon says, "is a permanent damage; it leaves not scars, but open wounds."  One woman in this situation described her child as "a living, breathing torture mechanism that replayed in my mind over and over the rape."  Unlike many of the other children and families in this book, children conceived in rape generally do not have a peer group or horizontal identity; there are few support groups or charities designed specifically with their needs in mind, or even the needs of the mothers who keep their children.  (Mr. Solomon quotes from a 1996 study of rape-related pregnancy: "half of the subjects terminated their pregnancies; of the rest, two-thirds kept the child, one-fourth miscarried, and the rest gave the children up for adoption.")  I was furious to read that in some instances, particularly when charges were never filed, rapists can sue for joint custody of their child, thus prolonging the terror and trauma of the rape for the victim through constant enforced contact with the rapist.  Sadly, but understandably, some women are unable to separate their love for their child from their hatred of the rapist, and this prevents the mother and child from bonding and having a fulfilling, affectionate relationship.  The tragedy of the initial rape is compounded again and again in the lives of the victim and the child.

This review is already getting too long, but there's so much I haven't even touched on!  Mr. Solomon spends a significant portion of the chapter on children who commit crimes discussing Dylan Klebold (one of the two shooters at Columbine High School) and his parents, Tom and Sue.  My heart absolutely ached for them.  The chapter on transgender children was eye-opening for me on a topic I knew very little about, and urged readers to "focus on the child rather than on the label."  Good advice for any of these situations, actually.

As a final note, what really shone through this book for me was this overall theme as stated by Mr. Solomon in his conclusion: "I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones.  My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon--that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world, that much as loving one's family can be a means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families."

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
by Andrew Solomon
ISBN: 9780743236713
Here's the book's website.
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Or check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 2


Reading over my post from yesterday I realized that it sounds much more negative than I intended it to be, which is extra ironic, of course, because it's supposed to be about my efforts to think more positively!  Honestly, a couple of pretty lousy days right at the outset have been followed by some pretty darn decent ones.  Thank you muchly to those who have offered support and encouraging words.  I can't tell you how much it means to me.


Let's talk about cabbage.  I have to admit that cabbage is one of my least favorite veggies, always has been.  My favorite form of cabbage has actually been sauerkraut - blame my German studies and time in Vienna - but even that I can only take in fairly small amounts.  Never could abide cole slaw.  I'm fairly ambivalent about those Asian-themed salads with raw cabbage, too.  And then I got a whole head of cabbage in my Bountiful Basket Saturday before last.  And then a friend convinced me to take the whole head of cabbage she had gotten from Bountiful Baskets, too.  ("Oh, come on," said she, "If nothing else, your chickens will appreciate it!")  So now I had two whole heads of my least favorite vegetable in my fridge.  I hate wasting food, so I sent out a plea on facebook: Friends, what do you do with so much cabbage?!?!  They stepped up to the plate and made several yummy-sounding suggestions.  I ended up trying this Apple Cole Slaw for my son's Blue & Gold Banquet earlier this week and dinner last night was these Cabbage Rolls.  And I surprised myself by actually liking both!  Cabbage is getting perilously close to losing its status as my least favorite veggie; rutabaga and lima beans are eyeing the number one spot jealously.  I have a quarter-head wedge of raw cabbage left that I didn't use in the cole slaw, and about half a head of steamed cabbage left from the cabbage rolls, enough to try a few more recipes...Any suggestions that will bump cabbage off its least-favorite perch permanently?


I read a lot.  And I am often asked just how I manage to read so much with everything I have going on.  I'll let you in on one of my secrets.  A couple of Christmases ago, my husband bought me a Kindle Fire.  I love it.  I truly, truly do.  It's incredibly handy, especially on trips, because it drastically reduces the weight and volume of my reading material.  I still mostly prefer to read "real" books - you know, the kind with paper pages that you actually turn - but the Kindle Fire has been incredibly useful and has really helped me get more reading done, especially since I relented and downloaded Angry Birds...

What you don't see in this picture is me with my feet up in the chair across the room, reading my latest acquisition from the library.  Mom of the Year, I know...

If any of you aren't reading Momastery, you should be.  Glennon and her family are going through a rough transition right now, but her brutiful (a word she coined) honesty and authenticity are refreshing.  She is able to put her beliefs on faith and family into words that are inclusive and encouraging and simply perfect.  A few of my favorite posts:

Don't Carpe Diem
"Parenting is hard. Just like lots of important jobs are hard. Why is it that the second a mother admits that it’s hard, people feel the need to suggest that maybe she’s not doing it right? Or that she certainly shouldn’t add more to her load. Maybe the fact that it’s so hard means she IS doing it right…in her own way…and she happens to be honest."
For Adam
"Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heart-ache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heart-ache. That heart ache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion – be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you."
I Think Jesus'd Be Gay or...No She DIDN'T
"And so I just wonder…what form would Jesus take if he came back to Earth again? If the form He chose last time is any indicator, He’d appear as someone whom religious leaders and we common people would least expect. Last time, they were sure He’d come as a powerful king and He arrived as an homeless infant. I wonder what He’d say, who He’d befriend, how He’d live, WHO He’d be this time around? Again, if past behavior is indicative of future behavior- His way of being and friends and every word He said would scandalize and challenge the religious folks of today, and He’d walk around breaking THE WORD OF GOD for Love. He would challenge and change all of our perceptions about who is in and who is out and He would ask us to fulfill the law, not by nitpicking isolated scriptures that have been translated by humans for centuries but by soaking in and understanding His entire message. The whole rainbow. LOVE."
A Mountain I'm Willing to Die on
"Children are not cruel. Children are mirrors. They want to be “grown-up.” So they act how grown-ups act when we think they’re not looking. They do not act how we tell them to act at school assemblies. They act how we really act. They believe what we believe. They say what we say. And we have taught them that gay people are not okay. That overweight people are not okay. That Muslim people are not okay. That they are not equal. That they are to be feared. And people hurt the things they fear. We know that. What they are doing in the schools, what we are doing in the media - it’s all the same. The only difference is that children bully in the hallways and the cafeterias while we bully from behind pulpits and legislative benches and one liners on sit-coms."
Begin Again
"Life is hard. Not because I am doing it wrong, just because it’s hard. But I know, deep down, that it’s all a gift. Every excruciating experience – each is an invitation to walk deeper into truth, into life. And that’s what’s happening to me today. I’m growing – I can feel it. And I am going to be okay – not because of any decisions I make or don’t make, but because of the grace of God. There is no door I can open that God won’t be standing behind, waiting to usher me through."

And on that note, have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Week One of Lent: Stand Up Straight

It's hard to change your thought patterns.  Particularly when the universe hears your expressed resolve, chuckles to itself, and decides to gain some amusement at your expense.  So the first day of Lent was an epically lousy day, and the next day, Thursday - Valentine's Day, in fact - was even worse. The details aren't particularly important, but it's noteworthy that a perfect storm of ickiness, hot button issues, and other people's problems collided in a fantastically spectacular mess on my doorstep during the 48-hour period immediately following my stated decision to deliberately court POSITIVE THOUGHTS.

That tinny, echoing sound you hear in the background is the universe laughing at me.

So, not sure just how positive I was in those first couple of days, but I think - I hope - that my thoughts were at least more positive in relation to what they would have been if I hadn't chosen to observe Lent in that fashion.  So, minor success?  Maybe?

The following days were better, though.  It has helped tremendously that there has actually been a moment or two during the past week when verifiable blue sky and sunshine could be seen here in gray ol' wintery Spokane.

And this sounds corny, but it helps to smile more, too.  That can, however, prompt some interesting reactions, like when you greet your sleepy, groggy, just-woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed child with a big grin and a cheery "Good morning! I'm so glad to see you!" and he looks at you like the STRANGER DANGER alarm is going off in his brain and says, "What's wrong with you?  You're, like, all smiley and stuff."  Guess my morning persona needs a bit of work...

Random positive quotes and affirmations have also helped.  This morning, for example, I read a quote from Maya Angelou.  She'd posted it on her facebook page a couple of weeks ago, but I just found it today.  Wonderful layers of both literal and figurative meaning here: "Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.  You are a child of God.  Stand up straight."  Yes, ma'am!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Holy Envy Strikes Again! Or, A Lenten Observation...

Lent isn't a standard observance in LDS practice, but, again with the "holy envy" (see this earlier post), I'm really drawn to the idea of spiritually preparing for Easter.  As with most holidays, Easter surprises me almost every year.  I think the floating date catches me off guard...sometimes it's in March, sometimes it's in April, how's a girl supposed to keep it straight?  (For future reference, please note that Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox.  Easy as pie!  M'kay?  So, now that we've got that all cleared up...)

For most Christians, there are two Major Holidays every year: Christmas and Easter.  I have no trouble remembering Christmas, or getting in the Christmas spirit.  There are Christmas decorations up and Christmas music playing and Christmas candy for sale everywhere starting shortly after Labor Day, it seems.  It's kind of hard to miss.  Besides that, many families have traditions that help "count down" to the big day.  Our family has an advent book of sorts.  A few years ago I revamped one my sister-in-law had given us several years before to include more scriptural references, lesser-known Christmas carols, and heart-warming stories of the season.  We'd miss a few days during the crazy busy holiday season, but most evenings we'd sit down at bedtime and have a few minutes to focus on the "reason for the season."  Of course they still love the presents part of Christmas - they're kids, after all - but for at least a tiny portion of the day they were getting the spiritual aspect of the holiday, too.

But there really was nothing of the sort for Easter, arguably the more important commemoration of the two.  (Side note: I remember one Easter Sunday when the only mention of the holiday during my regular church services was a perfunctory "Happy Easter!" by the person conducting the meeting and the special musical number by the choir.  Not every Easter is that bad, but in general, we Mormons have got to do better at recognizing and celebrating Easter.)

I was really feeling this lack a couple of years ago when I received a review copy of Eric Huntsman's God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior's Life. (You can read my review on goodreads or in my article on Meridian Magazine.)  I read it and loved it.  It even earned one of my coveted 5-star ratings on goodreads; I don't hand too many of those out.  So I assembled an "advent" book for the week before Easter that we've used the last two years.  Similar to the Christmas advent book, it includes scriptures that cover the events of that day of Holy Week, an Easter hymn, and a short Easter story.  I've really enjoyed using that as a family to get ready for Easter.  But for me, personally, a week just didn't seem long enough, especially compared to the veritable circus surrounding Christmas.  If only there were a period of time set aside, say a month or a little longer, to spiritually prepare for Easter, a time during which I could make some small sacrifice that would be a daily reminder of Christ's sacrifice and ultimate victory over death and hell...hmmmm...

Hey!  How 'bout Lent!

Last year, I decided to give up facebook for Lent and use the time I had been spending on facebook to read my scriptures more and connect more with people in real life.  I actually enjoyed my "facebook fast" eventually; the withdrawal headaches and uncontrolled twitching only lasted a few days.  Seriously, though, it was a useful exercise in re-balancing.  Facebook had slowly weaseled its way into taking an inordinate amount of time from my day and cutting it out cold turkey for six weeks made that all too obvious.

So this year I was pondering what I could do for Lent that would likewise serve to help me re-balance as it helped me prepare for Easter.  What in my life had gotten out of whack and was taking up a disproportionate amount of my time and energy, distracting me from the good things I could be doing?  I pondered a few different options before settling on the one I *really* didn't want to tackle.

The last several months, I've been allowing negative thoughts to spend far too much time in residence in my head; even during my Ramadan experiment, the part I struggled with most was limiting my negative thoughts (check out my post-Ramadan self-evaluation here).  A brief section in a book I reviewed here a little while ago, To Sell Is Human by Daniel H. Pink, mentioned that the ideal ratio of positive to negative thoughts or emotions was between 3:1 and 10:1.  More than that and you're living in a rose-colored, unrealistic haze, less than that and your resilience and well-being suffer.  And honestly, dear readers, there have been many days of late when I'd really be stretching to say I had three positive thoughts for every negative one.  So for Lent, I'm not so much giving up negative emotions as I'm trying to replace them, or at least vastly outnumber them.

As with my "Ramadan-lite" experience, I'm massaging the standard Lenten practices a bit to fit my needs and reflect my purposes, so I guess you could call this "Lent-lite."  Forget the standard Lent dietary restrictions; I'm not fasting, or abstaining from meat or dairy, or eating only fish on Fridays.  Just focusing on increasing my ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts.  Now, I'm a bit late posting this initial announcement since Lent started last Wednesday, but I plan to post weekly updates on how it's going.  So, stay tuned...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book review: Unearthly Series by Cynthia Hand

I read a lot of non-fiction, pretty dense stuff at times, and occasionally I just need a bit of fluff to give my brain a break. But it can be hard to find something light enough to blow through quickly that doesn't leave me wondering why I bothered. I've found some gems in young adult fiction that fit the bill and my latest discovery in that genre is the Unearthly series by Cynthia Hand.

The series is a trilogy: Unearthly, Hallowed, and the very recently released Boundless. In keeping with the recent paranormal craze (Side note: Can we really call it recent? I mean, I know Twilight is huge and all, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was big, what, fifteen years ago? And Bram Stoker introduced us to Dracula a century before that...but I digress...) a teenage girl named Clara discovers just a few pages into the first book that she's not entirely human. She's actually part angel, like the hang-out-with-the-Big-Guy, fly-with-impressive-feathery-wings, wear-white-robes-and-wield-a-flaming-sword kind of angel. (Nice change from vampire, werewolves, and zombies, isn't it?) She's not a full angel; her mother, she learns, is a half-angel, and her father left when she was really young, to show up only occasionally throughout her childhood.

Ms. Hand builds the mythology as the series progresses. In the first book, Unearthly, we learn very little about angels except that there are no female full angels (say what??), the "bad" angels are called Black Wings, and all angels and part-angels have grayscale variations of "whiteness" on their wings, emblematic of their purity. We do also learn that each angel, half-angel, or quarter-angel has a Purpose, and that it's not always crystal clear, often communicated in fuzzy, recurring "visions" that only provide a brief, sensory snapshot of vignette in the vague future. You'd think angels would have some kind of more direct access to the Almighty, but it doesn't seem to work that way in Ms. Hand's angelic world.

Of course, as is practically a requirement for YA fiction, there is a love triangle. Clara falls for a ruggedly handsome cowboy-type in her high school. Tucker is all sorts of an all-around Good Guy. But, naturally, he's not an angel. And there's this other guy, Christian (seriously - I kid you not), who it turns out is intricately involved in Clara's big-P Purpose. And he's also just a really Good Guy. Teen angst, complete with misunderstandings, hurt feelings, broken hearts, and many tears, ensues.

It's hard to talk too much about the plot without providing spoilers, but I'll say that I particularly loved the little digs at the Twilight series, and the nod to C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" toward the end of the second book, Hallowed. The books are, as a whole, quite non-religious - notable in a series about biblical beings who are God's servants. There's the obvious Good vs. Evil theme throughout, but God Himself is a very distant figure who is rarely mentioned and seems to have very little to no involvement in the events of the story.  Consistent with "angelic" characters, there is little swearing - and even then it's only the "biblical" words - and the raciest scene involves a sweet kiss between teenaged lovebirds.

The series has some emotional moments; I'll admit to shedding a tear a time or two. The final book, Boundless, even held a few twists I wasn't expecting and *slight spoiler alert* the Good Guys win in the end. For the most part it's fairly predictable, easy reading. A great series to pick up when you need a breather from the heavy stuff.

Unearthly (ISBN: 9780061996160)
Hallowed (ISBN: 9780061996184)
Boundless (ISBN: 9780061996207)
by Cynthia Hand
Buy them from Amazon as hardbacks, paperbacks, ebooks or audiobooks: Unearthly, Hallowed, Boundless
Look them up on goodreads: Unearthly, Hallowed, Boundless
Find them at an independent bookseller near you: Unearthly, HallowedBoundless
Or go check them out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of my new series: "The Friday Four."  Nothing fancy, just four, most likely unrelated, books or blogs or websites or vignettes or thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head recently.  I've seen other blogs that do seven or five, but that seems like a lot, so I'm going to manage my expectations and settle on four...  Nice round number and all.


So, as you know, Valentine's Day was yesterday.  I've never been really big on most holidays, and the overwhelming commercialization irritates me.  (In a lot of ways, I think Valentine's Day is worse than Christmas in that regard.)  Consequently, I tend to ignore holidays, or at least not think about them until they are unavoidable, so they frequently sneak up on me.  We didn't do heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast or, like a friend of mine, heart-shaped pizza for dinner.  But yesterday morning, my son requested spaghetti and meatballs.  And that got me thinking about that scene from Lady and the Tramp in the alley behind the Italian restaurant with the checkered tablecloth and the huge shared plate of pasta with the chef singing in the background.  And then that song was stuck in my head the rest of the day.  And I got thinking, it's pretty remarkable for an animated movie about dogs to be able to claim one of the most romantic songs (and scenes) ever in a film.  Do you have any favorites?


My youngest has a dairy and soy allergy, so his default beverage is almond milk.  The stuff is definitely more expensive than regular cow's milk, but you do what you have to do, right?  So this morning he used the last of his almond milk on his Cheerios, and I went to buy more while he was in preschool.

And the chocolate almond milk was on sale.

Nectar of the gods, dear readers, nectar of the gods.  My child has been known to go through an entire half gallon in a single day with very little assistance from me or his dad.  So I only bought one half gallon and hid it in the very back of the refrigerator when I got home.  Maybe I'll get more than a sip this time.


This is actually a picture of one of the first batch of ill-fated chickens, but Josh picked out his second one specifically because she looked a lot like this one.  And he named them both "Buffy."  Poor kid is going to need therapy, isn't he?
A couple of months ago, coyotes got all five of our chickens while they were out of the coop scratching.  Nothing much was left except for five very localized piles of feathers scattered across our property.  Our three boys were devastated, particularly Josh, the middle child who has a soft spot for critters of every kind.  We managed to find some more chickens in January; each boy got to pick out one.  One morning a couple of weeks ago, when the boys went out to feed and water the chickens before school, one of the birds - of course, the one that Josh had picked out - "was still sleeping," Josh reported.  His older brother Will, in his characteristically blunt manner, said, "Um, she's not sleeping.  She's dead."

Note to self: Put "tact" on the list of skills we need to work on.

Anyway, there was, once again, sadness for the poor chicken who was no longer with us.  Gene buried her while the boys were at school, and after school, a heart-broken Josh asked to be shown where she was buried.  So Gene, Josh, and Evan, our youngest, all went out to see.  Josh sniffled a bit over her grave and then said, "I'm happy that she's in heaven with Jesus and our other chickens now."

And four-year-old Evan pipes up, "All except the feathers, 'cuz they're still kind of all over the hill."

Note to self: Bump "tact" to the top of that list.


Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Jane Austen novel, or any of the multitudinous adaptations made over the past century, really needs to go watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  It's a fascinating exercise in not only successful adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, but also in multimedia story-telling.  The characters have youtube channels and twitter accounts and facebook pages and more!  This project seriously has tentacles reaching into almost every social media platform.  And the story itself is updated in a compelling way, too.  The videos are short, mostly between three and five minutes long, and they're on episode 88 of the main storyline now.  Of course, that doesn't include Lydia's vlog, Gigi's demos, and several other tangential videos.  And new spots are posted three or four times a week.  At this point, it will take you several hours to catch up, but it'll be worth it!  (I'm really hoping they release everything on a single DVD or Blu-ray set at some point so we can see how all the different aspects intersect...)

So, when you have nothing else to do (or at least the self-control to Stop. Watching. The. Videos.) click here and enjoy...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: Change Anything

How many times have you tried to change a habit and failed miserably?  (I know I'm not the only one whose New Years' Resolutions are forgotten long before Valentine's Day...)  And then you feel like a failure, you curse yourself for your lack of willpower or stamina, you beat yourself up for not being able to stick with that diet or pay off that debt or swallow those snarky words that hurt your partner or children.  Well, according to the team of authors who wrote Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, it's not about a lack of willpower, it's about changing the whole process of how you change.  And changing is a skill anyone can learn.

Patterson, et al., identify Six Sources of Influence that work together to motivate our behaviors and, therefore, need to be adjusted when we want to make a change.  They arrange their Six Sources in a matrix with three categories (Personal, Social, and Structural) with two facets each (Motivation and Ability).  Using all six of the sources, rather than just one or two, greatly improves your chance of success.  And the authors go in to great detail on specific tactics for each.  For example, under Source 1: Personal Motivation, they recommend five tactics to increase your personal desire to change and keep it strong:
* Visit your default future.  Figure out what your future will look like if you don't change.
* Tell the whole vivid story.  Describe that future as vividly as possible to make it seem more "real."
* Use value words.  Articulate the "why" for your change in positive terms.
* Make it a game.  Set a time frame and smaller goals to help you reach the big one.
* Create a personal motivation statement.  This will help you stay on track when you hit those crucial moments when you are more likely to fail.

And that's just one of the Six Sources.  Compare that to the tactics list for Structural Ability:
* Build fences.  Set manageable rules for yourself.
* Manage distance.  Removing the temptation or sometimes just moving it a few feet further away can make a big difference.
* Change cues. Use automatic reminders to help your stay on track.
* Engage your autopilot. Make your default bias work for you by setting up positive defaults, like standing appointments, automatic withdrawals, etc.
* Use tools. Technology is powerful and can help or hinder your progress depending on how you use it.

One thought I found particularly insightful was regarding willpower.  "Will is a skill, not a character trait.  Willpower can be learned and strengthened like anything else, is best learned through deliberate practice."  This makes sense. If we view willpower as a static character trait, we're more likely to think that because we've failed once, there's no use in trying again; we just can't do it, it's hopeless.  If instead, we, view will as a skill that can be improved, there's always hope for that improvement and the encouragement to keep trying.  Also, a good reminder for any goals we set, "Reward your actions, not your results.  Results are often out of your link your incentives to something you can control."  We can't set goals for what others are going to do because we have no control over that.  Our goals must be based on actions we can control or it will be too easy to lose heart.

The authors recommend looking at this process of change as a scientist would.  (This was actually my favorite idea in the entire book.)
Don't expect to be able to identify all of your crucial moments and vital behaviors at the beginning.  Your progress won't follow a straight line.  You'll hit binges and setbacks, but treat these challenges the way any scientist would.  Examine your failures with curiosity and concern, not self-condemnation.  You'll quickly discover that you learn more from your failures than from your successes...Learn, adjust; learn more, adjust again.  Make even your bad days become good data.
I love the idea of "examin[ing] your failures with curiosity and concern, not self-condemnation."  We all fall short of our ideal, despite all our efforts, and treating those moments as opportunities to improve our method of improving instead of opportunities to belittle ourselves is a much healthier approach.

At times it was difficult to differentiate between some of the categories the author present, in particular the two facets of Social Sources seemed to work in tandem, but I appreciated the well-rounded and forward-thinking approach they demonstrate to making and maintaining positive changes, and the concrete tactics they describe.  The book has a related website,, where you can register your own plan for personal change and access additional helpful tools and tips.

Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success
by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
ISBN: 9780446573917
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Or go check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: To Sell Is Human by Daniel H. Pink

For me, Daniel H. Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (my brief goodreads review here) was one of those mind-blowing, look-at-the-whole-world-differently kind of books that only comes along every so often.  In fact, I named it as one of my "Top Twelve of 2010" in my book review column at Meridian Magazine here.  The very day that column was published, I got a nice little note from the author himself.
Emily --
Thanks for including DRIVE on your list of favorite 2010 books.  Much appreciated.
Dan Pink
If you were listening very closely, you *might* have heard an embarrassing little fan-girl squeal when I opened that email. Maybe.

So I admit that I was predisposed to like what I read in his newest offering: To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others. And I did.  I really, really liked it.

I'm one of those who shies away from the very idea of "selling something" or anything like unto it.  As a newlywed finishing up my undergraduate degree in Provo, Utah, I took a job where my primary responsibility was cold calling people and trying to get them to answer various questions about different products and companies.  I got assigned to the Viagra survey.

Precisely two hours, dozens of phone calls and one partially completed survey later (the person put me on hold halfway through the survey and never came back), I was done.  Totally and completely done.

It's quite a triumph for Daniel Pink, then, to have so convincingly reframed the entire practice of "selling" as something that not only "everyone" does, but as something I personally do, too.  It's no longer an activity limited to greasy-haired, slick-talking used car salesmen.  It's now "the ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have" and, Mr. Pink claims, it "is crucial to our survival and our happiness...It is part of who we are."

Mr. Pink lauds the rise of small entrepreneurs, the elasticity demanded of employees by their employers, and the enormous growth of the "Ed-Med" sector (i.e., education and medical services) as major drivers behind the universality of selling.  He notes that the information asymmetry that used to govern the buying/selling process no longer exists, in large part due to the internet providing easy access to data.  With that, the advantages of the sellers have all but disappeared and the act of selling, or "moving", has become much more democratized.  

In this brave new world where selling is the norm for just about everyone, a different mindset is required.  Rather than the old maxim Always Be Closing, the qualities of Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity have charged to the forefront.  To sum up, in order to be successful, one must cultivate the empathy to be "in tune" with others and see from their perspective; the resilience to bounce back from rejection; and the ability to define the right problems and ask the right questions.

Likewise, Mr. Pink points out three skills have become increasingly important: pitching, improvising, and serving.  Pitching is "the ability to distill one's point to its persuasive essence."  Improvising, similar to and drawing inspiration from theatrical improvisation, shifts the focus to finding creative "win-win" situations rather than the old-school zero-sum way of thinking.  Finally, Mr. Pink provides "a broader, deeper, and more transcendent definition of service" as it relates to both sales and non-sales selling we all do: "improving others' lives and, in turn, improving the world."  

It all sounds so lofty, doesn't it?  But what's remarkable about To Sell Is Human is that Mr. Pink breaks each of these skills and qualities down into realistic, actionable steps the reader can take to improve his/her ability to "sell".  Or just to be more successful at whatever endeavor.  Mr. Pink grounds his suggestions in hard science.  For example, in the section on buoyancy, he quotes a fascinating social science study done in Brazil that calculated the optimum ratio of positive to negative emotions.  Apparently, the study showed that three positive emotions for every negative emotion was the lowest ratio that demonstrated an improved well-being.  Interestingly, experiencing more than about ten positive emotions to each negative emotion "does more harm than good" as "life become a festival of Panglossian cluelessness, where self-delusion suffocates self-improvement."  He also describes a series of several studies that show how to frame choices to provide greater clarity; the most effective techniques include using the contrast principle, deliberately restricting the number of options available, emphasizing the experiential and potential elements of a sale, and even pointing out the flaws of your offering.

Above all, this book is practical.  Mr. Pink provides concrete actions to take that will improve job performance, personal well-being, even the quality of our relationships, as we consciously work to refine our ability to move others.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others

by Daniel H. Pink
ISBN: 9781594487156
Buy it from Amazon (hardback, paperback, ebook, or audiobook) here.
Find it at an independent bookseller near you here.
Look it up on goodreads here.
Or go check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Project Conversion

I'm fairly possessive of my favorite books.  When I read a book that strikes a chord deep within me, it becomes "mine" in a far truer sense than can be conveyed by simply owning a collection of papers with words printed on them.  So when I say I feel more ownership of Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year than I usually do over my favorite books, it means something.  Project Conversion fundamentally changed the way I view and approach those of other faiths, and deepened my appreciation for my own.

As I mentioned in my last post, I found Andrew Bowen and his Project Conversion website in the middle of January 2011.  He was about halfway through his first month and Hinduism was the focus.  I had some vague impressions of Hinduism - I'd heard that they believed cows were sacred, and wasn't there a god with lots of arms? - but to my knowledge had never known a Hindu personally and certainly had never made a study of their religion.  I jumped back to the beginning of the month to catch up on the blog posts I'd missed - fortunately not too many at that point - and then read every single post as it came out for the entire year.  Hinduism switched to Baha'i, which faded into Zoroastrianism, and then to Judaism, and on and on.  Some of the religions and I had a passing acquaintance already, some were brand new introductions, but each month Andrew's sincerity and commitment drew me in completely.  I waited for July, the month Andrew would be delving into my religion, with great anticipation.

Now, I'm the first to admit that we Mormons can be an odd people.  We have an almost ambivalent personality regarding sharing our faith with others.  On the one hand, we are unapologetically a proselytizing religion.  Since the earliest days of the Church, missionaries have been called to travel all over the world preaching the gospel.  Today we send out young men, young women, and senior couples by the thousands to teach and serve, with the frank aim of conversion.  We can get awfully excited when people want to learn more about our faith.  On the other hand, we have a history of being persecuted (Missouri's extermination order was only rescinded in 1976, after all) and a cultural insularity that can make us defensive and hesitant to share our faith with others out of a desire to protect what is so precious to us.  It's a little scary knowing that your faith is going to be on display, with lots of people asking hard questions.  Watching Andrew's interactions with other faiths eased my anxieties quite a bit, and I grew to trust that he would treat my faith with the same integrity and kindness he displayed towards the other faiths, and that he had created an community of others who would be gentle as well.  I was not disappointed.

Having followed Andrew from the beginning, I wondered if his book would be a rehash of all of his posts.  Perhaps the book would be a great read for those who hadn't discovered the blog, but just a review for those of us with him from the start.  Instead, Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year provides deeper insights into his personal journey that enhance the blog and facebook community experience, but the book also stands alone as the story of one man's fundamental transformation.

The Andrew described at the beginning of the book is lost.  He's angry and bitter.  Although Andrew had been active in an evangelical Christian church in his youth, that zeal had cooled in adulthood to a vaguely antagonistic agnosticism. Then, fanned by the terrorist attacks on September 11 and deepened by a heartbreaking family tragedy, Andrew's "attitude toward religion dramatically shifted from casual indifference to abject hatred."  While his wife Heather found comfort and solace in her Christian faith, Andrew's anger and hatred grew.  Struggle and strife became constant companions in their marriage for the next two years until Andrew had an epiphany.  "I realized that my anger over the loss of our child had developed into an addiction.  Hate helped me feel, even though I burned myself and those around me.  Hate made me feel alive, although I siphoned the life out of my home.  Hate gave me purpose, a goal, an outlet, although the fuel would eventually burn out and leave those I loved reduced to ashes."  He determined that to save his family and himself, he needed a personal detox program: "I had to become those I hated most." And the idea for Project Conversion was born.

Each chapter tells the story of his month with a different religion, but rather than a textbook description of the faith's basic tenets and practices, Andrew focuses on the personal growth he experienced and the many challenges he faced as he dove into the figurative deep end of the pool.  One of the first lessons he learned, from Hinduism in January, was that "neither I, nor anyone else had the market cornered on spirituality."  He began to see similarities between religions and to appreciate the truths found in every path, holding on to aspects of each faith along the way: vegetarianism from the Hindus, Shabbat from the Jews, Family Home Evening from the LDS.   While I was deeply touched by his account of my faith, I found each religion fascinating and was frequently moved to "holy envy".

Andrew openly chronicles his struggles along the way, from the difficulty of switching gears at the turn of each month, to trying to balance this time-intensive personal intervention with his family's needs and his school assignments, to a particularly painful episode where Heather finally reached her breaking point in November.  He makes no attempt to present a "pretty face" to the reader; the ups and downs, the frustrations and occasional failures of the year are all there, written with raw and sometimes painful honesty.  And that's one of the major strengths of the book.  Andrew holds nothing back and shows by example that rooting out hatred in oneself is worth the price you pay; the Andrew at the end of the book is a new person.  Notwithstanding the name of the book, the ultimate lesson of Project Conversion isn't conversion to a specific faith so much as a personal conversion to humility and reconciliation.

With Andrew, I can say, "I have so much to learn...and unlearn."  While not all of us may be capable of the full-throttled immersion he described as "moral, spiritual and emotional chemotherapy", the openness, curiosity, and vulnerability he displays are worthy of emulation.

(Full disclosure: I believed in Andrew and the message of this project so strongly that I contributed to his Kickstarter project to support this book's publication and received a free copy of the ebook.)

Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year
by Andrew Bowen
ISBN: 9780615741598
Buy the paperback from Amazon here.
Buy the ebook for Kindle here. (FREE until midnight Pacific time on Wednesday, February 6!)
Check it out on goodreads here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Project Conversion

(Please read the entire last paragraph for new details...)

Early in 2011 I discovered a new website: Project Conversion.  In the midst of some personal trials and tragedy, Andrew Bowen had reached a turning point in his life: either continue on a downward spiral of anger and hate or choose to learn more about the different faith traditions he so despised.  As a result, he launched Project Conversion, in which he immersed himself in twelve different religions, each for a month, over the course of 2011.  This year-long journey was transformative, not only for Andrew, but for thousands of others who observed, participated, and learned along the way.  I was fortunate enough to be one of those thousands.

I admired Andrew's total commitment to each religion, and his openness in asking questions and accepting the faith on its own terms.  In July, Andrew delved into my faith: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was fascinating for me to see us and our practices through the eyes of a committed "outsider."  And I was humbled and excited when he invited me to write a guest post for the month.  The process of boiling my faith down to its barest, most essential elements was instructive for me.  What do I really believe and what do I value most about my faith?  I ended up with a brief essay I'm rather proud of.  You can read it here.

Following Andrew and Project Conversion during 2011 shifted so many paradigms for me.  There was a fairly active facebook community that participated right along with Andrew, and new voices joined in as the experts-of-the-month when their faith was being highlighted.  In some cases it was my first interaction with people of these particular faiths.  The community was, almost without exception, open and welcoming, asking sincere questions for increased understanding, and generously sharing their stories and beliefs.  It was a year-long experience in "holy envy".  I loved the focus on joy in Hinduism and the Divine Feminine in Wicca.  I learned about mindfulness from Buddhism and the value of less from Jainism.  The difficulty - and importance - of being different was one of my take-aways from the Sikhs and the months of Judaism and Zarathushti taught me the significance of heritage and history to a people.  Misconceptions were corrected, similarities were found, differences clarified and appreciated.  It was an invaluable learning experience for me.

And now Andrew has written a book!  It's release date is February 5, but it's available for pre-order on Amazon right now as either a paperback or Kindle ebook.  You can order it here: Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year.  Because I contributed to his Kickstarter request, I got an early release copy of the ebook (and I got mentioned on the acknowledgements page, too, so full disclosure and all...), and I've already finished reading it.  I'll have a review up in the next day or two, but I'll tell you right now that it's good.  Really good.  I got all weepy and stuff.  And filled with "holy envy" all over again, which is a good thing.  So go order yourself a copy, and ask your local libraries to order a few copies, too, for good measure.

**IMPORTANT UPDATE** Andrew just announced on the Project Conversion facebook page that starting at midnight Pacific time today - Monday, February 4 - and for the next 48 hours (until midnight Pacific time on Wednesday, February 6), the Kindle version of Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year is FREE.  All the more reason to jump on this ASAP.  Go here to order from Amazon.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ramadan Wrap-Up

Well, I did it! I made it to the end of my thirty-day Ramadan-like fast/experience.  It was certainly different from what I initially envisioned, but it's interesting how synchronicity works, isn't it?

Taking a page from Peggy Fletcher Stack's book, here are my self-evaluations based on the general tenets of Ramadan.

Fasting: 8/10.  I mentioned the huckleberry jam incident in an earlier post, but there were a couple of other minor breaches toward the end of the month.  There was even one day where I just gave up about lunch time when my breakfast proved completely inadequate to keep the headache and snippiness at bay.  All in all, though, I found the extended focus across several days to be more enlightening than my usual LDS 24-hour fast, and the physical discomfort was less of a distraction from the spiritual aspects of the fast as my body adjusted to the fast over the month.  That, however, was a mixed blessing because the less discomfort I felt, the less I was aware of it, and the harder it was to remember.

Prayer: 7/10. The Quran says "Let your relationship with God be characterized with patience" (74:7).  I think my struggles with prayer, especially formalized down-on-your-knees prayer, have a lot to do with my lack of patience.  When I'm just stream-of-conscience-ing at the Almighty, I do fine.  But when I try to make it more "standardized" I struggle.  The two books I reviewed in my latest column for Meridian (see my last post) were both about prayer and helped to focus my thoughts on the topic.  Anthony DeStefano's Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To gave me this gem: "God is a God of perfect timing." Which really helped as I was trying to wrap my head around some of the events of this month. And in Help Thanks Wow Anne Lamott said simply, "God can handle honesty."  He already knows my thoughts and feelings on every issue imaginable; there's absolutely nothing to lose sharing them with Him and a rich relationship to be gained.

Reading the Quran: 9/10.  I finished the entire Quran!  A day early, even!  But I think I could have read more thoughtfully, particularly some of the longer suras.  The suras at the end got much shorter and more psalm-like than the earlier ones, and therefore easier for me to read.  Sura 94 is called "The Relief" and is, in its entirety, this: "Did We not provide you with relief from what is bothering you? Did We not relieve you from the huge weight? That was just about to break your back? Did We not elevate your stature? Ease comes after difficulties. And yes, there is ease after difficulties. After you are relieved of the load, go back and turn to your Lord."  Such a beautiful, reassuring passage... I think if and when I read the Quran again, I'll choose a different translation.  I liked the colloquialisms of this one, but it had a few strange typos (in one sura both "worriers" and "warriers" were used when I'm pretty sure "warriors" was meant) and awkward constructions and I missed the grandiose language of the King James Version of the Bible.  That just sounds more "scriptural" to me.

Good deeds/alms: 7/10. I planned to do more, but my early ideas got derailed and distracted with the new calling.  While I think much of what I've done for that calling would count in this category, and while I certainly think my regular Meals on Wheels route and volunteering at the boys' school and such are worthy efforts, not to mention service to my family in the form of clean laundry and warm food, I think I could have reached out of my comfort zone of my own volition a bit more.  I did grab a few opportunities to serve as I saw them, and I'm glad for that.  These opportunities were often small: listening to a friend who needed to talk, making minor repairs to worn and well-loved blankies (that actually came up twice), picking up something at the store for someone else. I felt useful and that felt good.

Positive emotions: 5/10.  This area was tougher for me than the others.  January was a month of some big surprises, from the new calling (which is both exciting and a bit stressful) to the extensive (and expensive) oral surgery in the near future, and I don't like surprises.  As the hymn says, "I love to choose and see my path."  I'm a planner; I like to know what's coming and have it laid out step-by-step.  And January was a month-long exercise in dealing with the new, unexpected, and unknown.  One thing I can say is this month of trying to control my grouchy feelings made it very apparent just how frequently I have grouchy feelings.  At least now I know what I need to work on...

I'm grateful for this experiment with "holy envy," for my little successes along the way, and for the places I fell short as well.  It's been eye-opening to personally experience the good that can come from religious practices of other faiths.  Thanks for following along!