Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: "Four Word Self Help" by Patti Digh

Four Word Self Help - Blog Tour 2010

The people I consider my heroes are those who effect change. Sometimes this change comes on a grand scale, such as Lance Armstrong's crusade for cancer prevention, while in other instances, it is helping people, one at a time, change their lives for the better, bit by bit.

One of my heroes that falls into the latter category is Patti Digh, the extraordinary creator of the award-winning blog, 37days. While she has so many tremendously admirable qualities, what impresses me the most is her ability to help people change their lives by leading them to the changes that will work for them, not by pushing them along kicking and screaming toward changes that don't fit.

Digh's latest book, Four Word Self Help, has a simple yet powerful premise: Is life really all that complicated? Do we need seminars, self-help books, more therapy? What if we could solve all our problems with just four simple words?

Addressing 12 areas with which many of us struggle—Community, Love, Stress, Travel, Soul, Wellness, Success, Green, Activism, Children, Generosity and Endings—Digh provides meaningful and inspirational suggestions, each in only four words, accompanied by some of the most beautiful illustrations I've ever seen. (All of the artwork was contributed by readers of her 37days blog.)

This book doesn't provide 12 easy steps to help you de-stress, de-clutter your life, lose weight or handle your daily aggravations. What it does is provide a road map for you to help yourself. You don't have to memorize mantras or formulas; all you need to do is pick one or two suggestions that work for you, try to implement them, and repeat. For me, suggestions like "Let someone help you" or "Know what matters now" resonate more than directions or commands.

Many of us (myself included) need help with one issue or another in our lives. But not all of us need to look outside for help; we can find that help inside us. Four Word Self Help helps you find that help. Read it, live it and share it with someone you love or even someone you're just getting to know. And if you want further help with living a meaningful life, check out Digh's previous book, Life Is a Verb.

And then you'll see why Patti Digh is one of my heroes. Maybe she'll become one of yours.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Delusion Will Get Us Nowhere...

Can we just pull the Band-Aid off the country now instead of waiting until the midterm elections, and having to hear, day after day, how angry everyone is with President Obama and the Congress? Polls talk about how 2 in 10 Americans feel the country is going in the wrong direction, and that Democrats aren't energized to go to the polls in November. Well, since every news item says how badly the Democrats are going to lose, that doesn't exactly motivate, now does it?

Truth be told, I'm angry, too. I'm angry at a president who promised to do things differently but seems to have fallen in the same traps his predecessors have. I'm angry that once again, it's easier to focus on preventing equality and hypocritically hypothesizing about the evils of homosexuality and same-sex marriage and gays in the military than doing what's right. I'm angry that people like Sarah Palin can get away with claiming that the recently-enacted health care reform empowers death panels, when every reasonably intelligent person knows that's false, but no one will call her out on her misinformation. And most of all, I'm angry that an administration that actually has accomplished more than any other in history is one of the most reviled.

But with all of that anger, I am not delusional. I have not forgotten that although President Obama pledged to change the direction in which our country is going and hasn't made as much progress as people thought, he did not put us in this horrible rut. Two years is not enough time to undo the damage of the previous eight. I know enough that putting the Republicans in charge again and allowing them to undo all of the good that has been done, and revert back to where we were in 2008, simply enhances the disaster. After all, this is a party that has fought everything the President and his administration have done and tried to do since January 2009.

The other delusion that I find immensely disturbing is the notion that by voting out all of the incumbents in favor of political neophytes, everything will change for the better. The truth is, the system is broken. Until the political system gets fixed to truly be representative of the people, until someone cannot come in and buy an election by using their own money to outspend their rivals, it doesn't matter who's in office; the same things will happen.

I'll admit, I'm at the most cynical that I have been in some time about our country's future. I keep hoping that suddenly voters will realize that new doesn't mean better, that the Democrats won't roll over after having only a few years of opportunity. But then I'd be delusional, wouldn't I?

Book Review: "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

Nine years after his last novel, The Corrections, wowed the literary scene, Jonathan Franzen is back. His new novel, Freedom, was eagerly anticipated for months before its release, and quickly made numerous "best" lists. And while there's absolutely no disputing his ability to examine the modern American family, for me, this book fell short of topping his previous achievement.

Patty and Walter Berglund are a happily and proudly liberal married couple in Minnesota. Patty, a former college basketball star, has spent most of her marriage taking care of the couple's two children, while upright Walter, a proud feminist and champion of equal rights, works at 3M. But while the Berglunds seem like the perfect family to the outside world, their son's decision to move in with their conservative next-door-neighbors and abandon his family triggers a chain reaction of crises and recriminations that shakes the entire family to its core. The book follows the stories of Patty, Walter, their son, Joey, and Walter's college roommate, erstwhile rock singer Richard Katz, whose presence in the Berglunds' lives is both welcomed and resented. And where each individual winds up is very different from where they started out.

I wanted to love this book. While Franzen has a unique ability to make you care about unsympathetic characters, I found there were too many in this book to get emotionally invested in. You get to understand what makes each character tick (in tremendous detail), but even knowing what they've been through didn't make me warm to them completely. And in many situations, Franzen went way overboard in his exploration of certain narrative threads (Joey's strange relationship with his girlfriend, Walter's obsession with preservation of an endangered bird and with population control) to the point where I nearly lost interest. There was never a doubt in my mind that Franzen is a great writer; however, in this book, his strength as a storyteller didn't quite register for me as it has in the past. Some have loved this book and some have hated it; I fall somewhere in between.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Will Never Forget...

Today is a day I wish I could forget, but it is one we need to remember.

Like so many pivotal moments in history—the Challenger disaster; the assassination of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King; the assassination attempt on President Reagan—people can easily recall where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001 when they first heard about or saw first-hand what was happening.

I was at work just like any other day, when my then-housemate called to tell me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I thought that seemed strange; how could a plane not avoid one of those buildings? Shortly thereafter, our office building in Alexandria, VA (not too far from the Pentagon) rattled; again, it seemed a bit strange, but nothing else happened so we thought a large truck might have driven by. My mother called a few seconds later asking if I was ok, because she said that a bomb had gone off at the Pentagon and it was on fire. I remember being very nonchalant about it, telling her that I didn't think a bomb had gone off and that everything was just being blown out of proportion. But then I pulled up the internet and saw just how wrong I was: by that point, planes had hit both towers and the Pentagon. And the day moved in a direction I couldn't ever imagine it heading into.

I closed the office and sent my colleagues home for the day (many were in Baltimore at a conference). At that point friends started realizing we couldn't reach Brady or Angela, two of our friends who worked at the Pentagon. The first tower fell as I was driving home; the second tower fell shortly after I arrived home. I panicked as I couldn't reach either my brother or my sister, both of whom worked in NYC, and was happy once I heard from my parents that they were both fine.

But no one could find out anything about Brady and Angela. Watching the footage of the Pentagon on television, we saw the plane crashed near where we thought they worked. (Both had to be fairly secretive about what they did, so most of our information was vague.) Once we knew the fire had been put out, several of us got as close to the Pentagon as we could, standing on a hill on the opposite side of the highway with so many others—onlookers, as well as concerned friends and family of those who worked in the building. After about a 90-minute vigil, we learned that both Brady and Angela were presumed to have been killed in the attack, although that wasn't confirmed until later that day.

In the days following 9/11, I remember vacillating between shock, numbness and anger. Here in the Washington area, the typical dog-eat-dog mentality that pervades everyday life seemed to be put on hold, at least for a few weeks. Having grown up in the New Jersey area, I was surprised that only one person I graduated from high school with, Steve Russin, was killed in the World Trade Center attack, although the spouses of several other people I knew growing up also were killed. And while people seemed to come together for a while, there were already glimmers of "patriotism" being used as an excuse for everything—a popular radio host, Jack Diamond (whom I've not listened to since then), explained away a random attack on a Muslim man who was dragged out of his car for no apparent reason by saying "well, that kind of anger can be expected."

I cannot believe it has been nine years since that day. It seems like yesterday and like a lifetime ago. My heart and my prayers, as always, go out to those who lost family, friends or colleagues. I still miss Brady and Angela, two people with whom I didn't have the luxury of long friendships, but did share some fantastically fun moments.

The best thing we can do is never forget.

Book Review: "More of This World or Maybe Another" by Barb Johnson

"Love is not trouble. It is all we have to light our days, to bring music to the time we've been given."

So says Delia Delahoussaye, one of the main characters in Barb Johnson's somewhat bleak but beautifully written story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another. Spanning more than 20 years, following the lives of four friends and relatives in New Orleans, the interconnected stories in this collection are about the sometimes redemptive and sometimes destructive power of love, of the chances we take that sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. In "Keeping Her Difficult Balance," Delia struggles between living the life she is supposed to and the one she wants. "Killer Heart" follows Delia's brother, Dooley, as his life changes with just one split-second decision. In "What Was Left," Delia's friend, Pudge, who survived a traumatic childhood, is trying to find his way to rebuilding his life, and in "St. Luis of Palmyra," Pudge's son, Luis, invents his own saint as a way of escaping the life around him.

Johnson is a magnificent writer. She truly loves these characters, which makes you feel the same way about them. While I didn't love every story in the collection, and at least one was gratuitously cruel (I just skimmed that story), I'm still thinking about this book and wondering what will happen to the characters next. I believe Johnson hit her mark with her first book; I eagerly await what will come next for her.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Make New Friends but Keep the Old...

I spent the Labor Day weekend in New York, taking in a full day of tennis at the US Open and a performance of the amazing "American Idiot," getting my requisite New York pizza and bagel, even taking the subway for the first time in my life, despite being raised in New Jersey and visiting the city countless times. We also had the chance to spend time with my family, marveling at how much more my nephews have matured in the three weeks since I last saw them.

While all of that was tremendously enjoyable, I can honestly say that the highlight of my weekend was the opportunity to meet up with a number of old friends, some from high school and some from my years at summer camp. I saw friends I hadn't seen since 1986, 1989, 1992 and 1998 (plus a friend I had the chance to see last fall) and, from the moment I saw each of them, it was like picking up where we left off. It didn't matter that other than through Facebook we hadn't caught up in years, there was no awkwardness, no painful silences, no fishing for topics of conversation. If anything, we could have talked for hours (and in some cases we did), but our lives (and in some cases, our schedules) eventually had to intrude.

Certainly I hope to see these friends again much sooner than last time, although I know I'll be able to keep tabs on their lives through Facebook. (It's always shocking to me how much I resisted joining for so long, when it's now an integral part of my daily life.) I'm also hopeful to set up more of these "mini-reunions" with other friends soon—it's so much easier to spend time one-on-one with friends when it's on both of your terms rather than when you're at an event, where you're obligated to visit with many different people.

Looking back on those few days proved one thing to me: friends and acquaintances come in and out of your life, some because of circumstance and some simply by chance. But true friendship lasts forever. Even if some friends aren't a part of your daily life, they will always be your friends. (At least in most cases.)

That's really comforting to know.

Book Review: "The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise" by Julia Stuart

This book is a charming and sweet story of a Beefeater and his wife, struggling with the challenges of life, love, grief and work, set against the backdrop of the Tower of London and the building of an unusual zoo there. It isn't quite as magical as I hoped it would be, but I still found myself thinking about the characters after the book ended.

Balthazar Jones is not a very successful Beefeater; he is consistently criticized by his boss for his lack of vigilance to pickpockets at the Tower of London. He is somehow selected by the Queen of England's staff to be in charge of a new zoo at the Tower, populated by the unusual animals the Queen has received from various heads of state. While the zoo brings both comfort and anxiety to Balthazar, it highlights the challenges he and his wife, Hebe, have experienced since the sudden death of their son, and the animals also serve as a catalyst in the lives of many other Tower residents.

The book is full of situations that arise because people aren't communicating clearly with one another. Hebe thinks Balthazar no longer grieves for their son since he doesn't talk about it; the Tower chaplain is in love with the owner of a bar but is afraid to express his love for her; Balthazar is struck by the guilt he feels about his son's death; and the Tower's Ravenmaster resents the lack of respect his birds get, especially with the arrival of the zoo. Needless to say, dealing with people who can't or won't communicate with one another is a little frustrating, so at times I wished the characters would just tell each other what they were feeling. But the book's ending was satisfying and heartwarming, so a little frustration was worth it. While this story didn't wow me, it was a simple, straightforward, enjoyable little book.