Sunday, April 30, 2017

Learning to Say No

My mom and I talked last week about trying to be kind to ourselves. It's interesting that the concept of treating ourselves with kindness feels unfamiliar to most of us—that self-compassion is something we often have to teach ourselves when we get older. 

I know for certain that it's something I have spent a lot of time the last few years trying to bring to the forefront of my consciousness. I thought, "Well, even if I can't feel kindness for myself, perhaps I can make a habit of doing things that are aimed at being nicer to myself and eventually it might feel more natural."  

One of those things was learning to say no. 

And not just saying no but, first, not beating myself up about wanting to say no.

It didn't happen overnight. In fact, for most of my life, I identified myself as a "yes" person. I liked being thought of as a go-to person who was resourceful and helpful. And I wanted people to like me. 

But by the time I was in my twenties and thirties, I realized that I was saying yes to things that made me unhappy. And then the fact that I knew I wanted to say no, but felt as if I couldn't made me unhappy.

As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, things that seem benign and even enjoyable to other people can be very difficult for me. And for a long time, I chastised myself for my feelings. So when people would ask me to do things that felt uncomfortable, I forced myself to do them anyway.

And part of that was because I thought I should want to do them. I thought I wanted to be somebody that, as I've gotten to know myself better, is not the person I am. 

I am not someone who wants to be the center of attention. I am not someone who wants to be "popular" and included in everything. Years of having programmed myself to want to be those things had made it almost impossible for me to figure out what I really wanted.

For years, I continued to feel bad that I didn't enjoy things that everyone else does. I would spend hours feeling unhappy that things that seemed fun for other people were fraught with anxiety for me.  

Over time, and with a lot of support from my husband, I've come to realize that my feelings are valid. And, also, that it really doesn't matter if other people don't understand or judge me for my feelings. The people who are the most important to me understand. And even if they don't, they accept me for who I am.

So I started saying no. 

At first it was kind of scary. It honestly felt like I was doing something wrong. I didn't want people to be mad. I didn't want to hurt people's feelings. But I knew that my own feelings needed to be as important to me as other people's feelings, and that if I didn't start acknowledging those feelings, there would not be a path to happiness for me.

For example, most parties aren't fun for me. I find them stressful and exhausting. So there were many times when, to avoid them, I would simply say I couldn't go. But it always made me feel bad. I didn't like lying to people. It always made me feel like there was something wrong with me. 

So I made a decision to start saying no and being as honest as I could. Now I say, "Thank you so much for the invitation, but I'm really not a party person" or "No, I'm really just not feeling up to it right now."

I don't mean to oversimplify it. It's hard. And it's scary. And if you aren't a person who feels comfortable being honest with your friends or family, this likely won't work for you because "no" is often interpreted as rejection, and people don't react well to rejection. But I felt like I had to be honest with the people I cared about. And I thought ultimately it would be easier for the people around me to know how I honestly felt about things instead of always having to hear some kind of excuse from me.

And I know there are lots of times when an outright "no" is not the appropriate thing to do. We all have responsibilities or relationships that need to honored. But just knowing that saying no is a valid and available option is empowering. 

Some things I have learned about saying no:

—Don't say it unless you mean it.  My family knows I don't like parties. And I'm pretty open with people that I'm not a party person. One day my daughter noticed that a friend of mine was having a party and she assumed I knew about it. I said no, I hadn't been invited. She got very hurt on my behalf, saying she thought I should have been invited and asked me several times if I was upset. But I wasn't. The party was being hosted by a good friend and she knows I would probably have said no even if she had invited me. I reminded my daughter that since I say no to many invitations, I don't assume people will always continue to send them. And sometimes, even if people really like you, they aren't going to invite you to every party they throw. It's better to not get hung up on trying to guess what other people are thinking. The important fact was that I didn't want to go to the party, so I wasn't going to get upset that I didn't get invited.

—You don't have to explain yourself all the time. Sometimes when I say no, I feel an overwhelming urge to come up with "valid" reasons why I'm saying no. But that's habit. It's okay to say no simply because that's what feels right to you. You don't usually owe people an explanation. And sometimes you have reasons that wouldn't make sense to other people anyway. Try to remember that you don't have to validate your feelings to other people. 

—Don't say no in a vacuum. By that I mean don't be selfish about saying no. If you literally have zero responsibility to anyone else because you live on a mountaintop and don't depend on a single living soul for any reason, then go ahead and say no to everything. But most of us live in a community of some sort. And being part of a community means sometimes doing things we don't want to do. Being able to say no is important. But knowing when to say yes is also important. 

—Saying no takes practice. First, I had to realize that I had an option to say no. It sounds silly, but it didn't occur to me that it was okay to not want to do things other people wanted me to do. I had to break my instinct to say yes to everything. Then I had to learn how to identify whether or not I actually wanted to do things or didn't want to do them. That's surprisingly difficult. Most importantly, and this is ongoing, I have to constantly remind myself not to get trapped into the vicious cycle of worrying about what other people think about me. 


For people who are chronically ill—physically or mentally—learning to say no is important for their health. But it can be very hard, especially when they often rely on other people to do things for them. I asked my mom about her experiences learning to say no to people.


Do you remember when you realized you couldn't do things that people were asking you to do because of your health?

Actually, I remember it vividly because it was triggered by a particular event. It was returning to work part-time after being in bed for six months because of the virus I got in Paris almost 16 years ago. I  really had no business going back to work. I was too sick. But I couldn't believe that I wasn't recovering. I just couldn't believe it. So I went back to work part-time, teaching one class instead of a full load. But even that was way too much. 

I've talked about this before about how your dad would leave work, even though his work was in another town from where we live, pick me up at home and drive me to the law school and then go back to work. Then, when I was finished teaching, he'd leave work again, pick me up from school and drive me home, then go back to work himself. It was obvious I was too sick to be there.

Back to your question. As soon as I went back to work, my colleagues, out of kindness, wanted to include me in lots of social stuff. It was mostly going out to lunch, but I was too sick to do it. My energy was completely focused on just surviving getting through my teaching. 

I had to say no. 

Unfortunately, I turned that against myself. I blamed myself for having to say no. I worried they wouldn't understand because, to the casual observer, I didn't look sick. And I was afraid they didn't believe me. It was truly awful. So yeah, I clearly remember when I was forced by my health to say no. I felt terrible about it, but I've learned since then that saying no can feel liberating—which is what you discovered.

Do you have advice for people who find it difficult to say no?

I'd advise people to treat saying no as an act of self-compassion. As you said in your piece, it takes practice—not just saying no, but not feeling guilty about having said it. Once you get up the nerve to do it, it becomes easier each time. Because, again as you said, it's a habit. Our usual habit is to say yes to everything because we don't want to offend people and we don't want them to think badly of us. 

It took a while, but I finally realized that saying no was a way of taking care of myself. 

There's a Buddhist story I'd like to share:

One day the Buddha told a story about an acrobat and his assistant. The acrobat erected a bamboo pole and told his assistant to climb up it and stand on his shoulders. Then the acrobat said to his assistant: "Now you watch after me and I'll watch after you. This way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."

But the assistant replied: "That won't do teacher. You watch after yourself and I'll watch after myself and in that way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."

The Buddha said: "What the assistant said is right in this case because when one watches after oneself, one watches after others.”

This story seems relevant to this topic because saying no is a way of "watching after oneself"—but the wonderful thing is that it also means that you're watching after those whom you love because they're happier when you're happier. 

Let's be honest, there have surely been times when I've said no to you, and it probably hurt your feelings. 

Well, since I've been sick, it's been hard for us to see each other in person, so we're left with phone calls and email and texting. And you don't like to do those things very much. So sometimes I would ask you how things were going and you'd say something like "I don't want to talk right now." At first, I did feel hurt that you didn't want to share stuff about your life. But now, I realize that's just how you are. I know you would do anything for me if I asked. Knowing that helped me accept that it's okay that we're not in close touch. So I'm not hurt anymore when you say I don't want to talk about things. I don't take it personally. I've realized that it's part of who you are, and it doesn't mean you don't love me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Our Gratitude List for April. What Are You Grateful For?

Hard to believe April is already almost over! Here are are few things we are grateful for this month.


A quirky marriage habit

My husband and I have this funny habit of buying the same thing. I guess it's one of the reasons that we are married—we like the same things. And we both love buying technological gadgets. One of those items is wireless Bose headphones. However, for some reason when I got my new phone last year, my headphones would not easily connect to them anymore. It would take 20 minutes of connecting and disconnecting them before they'd permanently connect. So my wonderful husband let me try his identical Bose headphones and they connected with no problem! So voila! 

The weather

It's been a beautiful month. I am not particularly outdoorsy, but even I can appreciate what a gorgeous spring we are having. It's warm during the day and cool at night. It's about to get hot, so I am enjoying the moderate temperatures for now.


Dueling is a language app that my husband discovered. It's free and it's been really fun brushing up on French, which I studied for many years in school, but never felt I understood. When I was in school, language classes were something I felt I had to do. I didn't have a lot of incentive to actually learn the language because so much of the time was a mad rush of simply memorizing. But now I'm doing it because I want to, at my own pace, and I'm really enjoying it!


My small house

I used to complain that our house was too small, and I still can't believe we raised two kids in it, especially when they were teenagers. But now I appreciate its smallness. Every room is only a few seconds away, including that all important distance from the bedroom to the kitchen! The house can get cluttered easily, but when I do clean up a room, I've cleaned up a good percentage of the place!

People who write to me from all over the world

My website has an email address and a form that people can use to write to me. And they do. From all over the world. They've either read my books or an article I've posted online, and they want to give me feedback, thank me, or just make a connection. Right now, I have emails from Finland, Scotland, and New Zealand in my In-Box. I love saying hello from Northern California to people across the world.

Brown rice crackers

My husband buys these for me. They're my Fritos, my potato chips, my Cheez Its. They're my stand-in for all the greasy stuff I'd rather be eating, but have learned (for the most part) to refrain from. The rice crackers have hardly any taste but also hardly any calories and no processed ingredients. They're nice and crisp though. I've been known to eat them by the handful! 

Mara and I would love to know what you're grateful for this month.

Photo Mara took on one of her morning jogs in the beautiful April sunshine.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Others

Hi everyone. Mara here.

When we're young and not feeling well or when we've had a particularly big disappointment, our parents or a caregiver was there to give us a cuddle and help us feel better. When I was little, my mom would always make a special trip to the store and get me my favorite foods and go to the video store (back when there were video stores!) and rent me a couple of movies. I felt pampered and cozy and it made me feel better. 

But when we get older, we no longer have a parent at our sides to shower kindness upon us when we get sick or when we have setbacks. In fact, I've found that as an adult, when I get sick, I tend to just get frustrated with myself. I grumble to myself and feel upset that I am not super-human and able to ignore the needs of my earthly body. I often force myself to keep struggling along even when I know I need to slow down. And if I can't get everything done that I need to get done, I beat up on myself.

The old adage says, "Treat others as you would treat yourself." But as I get older, sometimes I have to remind myself to actually treat myself as I would treat others. If my daughter or my husband get sick, I want to do special things for them to help them feel better. If they've had a disappointment, I want to soothe them and remind them to keep the experience of one disappointment in perspective. 

And that's what I need to remember to remind myself to do when I am feeling badly. Instead of heaping more blame or pressure on myself, I need to take a step back and try to remember how I would treat others in my situation. I need to try and look at myself through my own mother's eyes and remember that she would want me to be nice to myself.

So what do I do to treat myself kindly? I let myself stay in my pajamas all day because if I'm in my pajamas, I don't feel pressured to get things done. I am less likely to decide I need to clean the bathroom or run errands.  Sometimes, I'll take an extra shower. Standing in a hot shower is relaxing and feels luxurious when I don't actually need to take a shower. Sometimes I'll buy a book I've really wanted for a while, or I'll ask my husband to stop for take-out on the way home.

Most importantly, I tell myself it's okay that I'm not feeling my best, and it's okay if I need to cancel plans or reschedule a meeting. And that my family will survive if I'm not able to meet their every need for the day. 

It doesn't always work. I usually still feel guilty for feeling poorly or for feeling as if I've disappointed others or been unsuccessful at something. But even just reminding myself to tell myself that it's okay, and that I might try to be kinder to myself helps—even if I don't manage to fully convince myself!

So what are the things you do for yourself if you aren't feeling well, or if you simply need to give yourself a boost?


Questions for Toni:

During your illness, you've had many health-related setbacks: unsuccessful treatments, your cancer diagnosis, etc. How did you manage to overcome the emotional setbacks that went with this?

Well I didn't do very well at first. When a treatment for my chronic illness didn't work, I would get so frustrated and disappointed that it did cause emotional turmoil. It took several years for me to realize that the emotional turmoil was only making my physical condition worse. I think this applies to anyone who's struggling with a health issue—getting frustrated and angry only makes us feel worse. 

Your dad often says something I really love. I actually put it in my second book: "When things are tough, at least we can try not to make things worse." That's one of his themes in life—to not make things worse. So the question is how can you do that?

The first way is not to blame yourself when life doesn't work out the way you'd hoped, whether it's the fact that you got sick, or that a treatment failed, or that a doctor was disappointing. Illness comes with being human It's not anyone's fault. It's one of the conditions of being alive. I like being alive, so I work hard on accepting that illness is one of the conditions of living. 

Thinking about overcoming emotional setbacks in terms of my having had breast cancer, something comes to mind but it may not resonate with everyone. If it doesn't, ignore it. I hung out a lot in breast cancer forums when I was diagnosed and during treatment. They were helpful in so many ways, but I also noticed that a lot of people cope with it by saying "F*#@ Cancer." They talk a lot about how much they hate it, as if it's the enemy. 

This is obviously helpful many people, but it wasn't for me because the cancer was part of my body and so it felt like focusing hatred on the cancer was actually hating my body. Instead, I allowed myself to feel sad, and wish it weren't so, and even be scared, but then instead of moving toward negative feelings—what worked for me was to move toward kindness and compassion for myself over what had happened to me.

I often say there's never a good reason not to treat yourself kindly. When I think about being kind to myself, I often think about my Nana, who lived with us when I was growing up. She was the person I went to when I needed comfort. I can still smell her perfume. I would go to her room after school if I was feeling down or under stress. She'd be crocheting and would put it down and let me just sit in her lap. I don't remember if we even talked, but it was so comforting. So I'll sometimes say to myself "What would Nana do?" 

Or I'll ask myself "What would I do if someone I loved were suffering?" And I always answer, "You would be nice and be comforting." So that's a good way to turn the tendency to be negative around. Think to yourself, "Is this how I would treat someone else?" Then treat yourself as you would treat others.

Do you have certain things you do to treat yourself kindly if you're having a particularly hard day?

Yeah, I do. The first thing I do is re-prioritize. I put aside anything that I don't feel like doing, unless it's a have-to. We all have have-to's. But think about something like laundry. We always say we simply have to do the laundry. But really? Is there ever a time when laundry can't wait one more day? Even if it means you have to wash a pair of underwear by hand. So, on a day I'm feeling awful, I re-prioritize and I don't do things I don't want to do unless it's something essential. Then I think about what might ease my physical or mental pain. I indulge myself and don't make demands on myself. 

I think a lot of people don't realize they can do this. I say that because, when I was younger, I didn't realize I didn't have to do every single thing that I thought I did. We're so programmed to be productive and take care of business immediately, but sometimes it's better to put things aside for another day. 

So that's what I do. I let go of all the things that aren't crucial, and pamper myself. And if people reading this are thinking to themselves that they don't deserve that kindness, I can't emphasize enough that everyone deserves kindness from themselves. Life can be hard. It's hard for everyone. The very least we can do is ease our own burden by being nice to ourselves. That's one thing we can control. We control so little of what happens to us, but we can control how we treat ourselves. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Things We Do That Annoy Our Family

Mara here: I'm sure many people are annoyed by some of the things I do. Still, all of us have a particular gift of being able to annoy the people we're closest too. And I am fully willing to admit that I am an annoying person to live with. But in fairness to me, all the things I do make sense to me inside my own brain. I just sometimes forget that they don't make sense to people who aren't inside my brain.

And, even when I do manage to correct an irritating behavior (like leaving half-finished Diet Coke cans everywhere), a new one pops up to fill the void.

So confession time...what do you do that your family finds irritating? 

Here are what I believe are my current top three irritating behaviors:

1. I throw things away. 

I like to keep things tidy. I'm not a person who has to have things impeccably clean, but when I go into cleaning mode, then things simply have to be cleaned. This means that if something gets left around for too long I might just throw it away. Or I'll have a cleaning mood and go through and purge boxes out of the garage that I feel have been sitting around for too long. 

Unfortunately, inevitably I throw something away that someone needed, like library books or the title to a car. Then they get really irritated with me. 

2. I'm obsessive about punctuality.

I don't like to be late. In fact, I worry about being late so much that I am always ready to leave at least 10 minutes early. This leaves me sitting around waiting for my family to be ready and asking them over and over if they will be ready on time. They find this annoying. And my daughter finds it really annoying that we always arrive everywhere early.  But we live in LA where it's impossible to know how long it will take to get anywhere. If you aren't early, you're probably late. Being late gives me I'm always early.

3. I think Mount Rushmore is in West Virginia.

I really want to see Mount Rushmore. But for some reason I think it's in West Virginia. My husband used to think it was funny, but now he just gets irritated that I ask him how far West Virginia is from places because he knows that the reason I'm asking is so I can figure out if we can make a side trip to Mount Rushmore, but since Mount Rushmore is actually in South Dakota, it doesn't matter how close anything is to West Virginia. 

And if you're thinking maybe my husband shouldn't be irritated, just image your wife of 20 years asking you about West Virginia every other month of your life when you know she means South Dakota and see if you would manage to not be irritated.

And now, Toni's turn:

1. I repeat myself. 

For some reason, I always assume that whomever I'm talking to in my family hasn't quite understood what I meant by what I just said. And so, although I know it drives them crazy, I often repeat a point I'm making again (and again and again). It's not that I've forgotten that I made the point...I just want to be sure they get it. 

2. I send texts that are way too long.

I use texting as if I'm on the phone or sending an note via email. Unfortunately for me, it appears that texts are supposed to be short. Unfortunately for my family, I ignore this unwritten rule. I think this happens partly because I text from my laptop instead of from a smart phone, so it's much easier to just keep typing, putting in as much detail as I want. But I forget that they're usually reading the text on their smart phones...and would prefer just a sentence or two. Oh, and I still don't use texting abbreviations like "u" for you.

3. I'm always asking someone to bring me something.

Mara says that when she was young, I constantly asked her to bring me my purse. I'm not surprised. Since it's only me and my husband in our house now, he's the one who's constantly being asked to bring me things. Poor guy.

P.S. I'm sure there are many more things I do that annoy my family. You'll have to ask them what they are though!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Happy Easter

It's Easter! For those of you who celebrate, we hope you have a wonderful day! For those of you who don't—eat some chocolate anyway!!

Growing up, my family didn't celebrate Easter. My mom's family was Jewish (although they did celebrate Christmas), and she and my dad weren't religious. They were definitely not into the commercial part of the Easter Bunny thing. I always felt left out of the excitement of looking forward to a basket of treats like many of my friends got. So every year when Easter rolled around, I'd go to my friends' houses to find hidden eggs and eat candy.

When my daughter was born, I wanted her to have all the Easter baskets I never got. So every year, I put together a basket of goodies for her. When she was really young, she believed in the Easter Bunny—although it made her very nervous. Always a cautious child, she would repeatedly confirm with us that the Easter Bunny was not going to "hop into her room." On Easter morning, she would gleefully run out of her room to find a basket full of candy and toys.

Now that she's older, I still put together a basket, but she knows it's just stuff I buy at the store. And, being a teenager, for the most part all she really wants now is money, so I put dollars in some of the little plastic eggs and fill the others with her favorite candy. It's not a day that's filled with religious meaning to us, but it does feel special because it's a day when we make sure to share a family meal (this year we're making ham), and we take time to get each other some treats.

That's what Easter is for our family.

For me personally, Easter is when I think about Spring having arrived. It means that the school year is almost over and it's a time to reflect on what I'm grateful for. And even though I'm not religious, I like to watch all the shows about Jesus on the History Channel. And if I'm being super honest, one of my favorite parts about Easter are the Peeps. Yes, I love those crazy little sugar-covered marshmallows. They used to only sell them around Easter, but now they have them in different shapes and colors for lots of holidays. But I still think the little yellow bunny-shaped Easter Peeps taste the best.

Oh, and I like to take pictures of my dog with bunny ears on.

How do you celebrate Easter?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Memorable Moments When Parenting Got the Better of Us

Anyone who is a parent can pretty easily think of many times when things have not gone smoothly. It doesn't matter how prepared we think we are—life happens. But most of us have one or two stories that stick out in our minds as particularly awful...

Mara's Bad Night:

Malia was around three, and she was sick with the flu. This was also around the time when a) she refused to throw up anywhere near the toilet, and b) she would projectile vomit on a regular basis. I think we all know where this is going.

So late one night I heard Malia crying. My husband Brad kindly got up and went to check on her, but Malia wanted her mommy. So I staggered out of bed and waded through the mess on her bedroom floor. 

Typical for a toddler, Malia had toys scattered around her room. In my bare feet, I tried to carefully tip toe my way through a pile of large plastic bugs that Malia had decided she wanted from a recent trip to the toy store. She was going through a bug phase and everything was covered in bug stickers from the bug book she had convinced her Papa (my dad) to buy her. But the hard plastic bugs were the worst—little bug shaped GI Joe-type figures that were hard plastic. If you stepped on them (which I did all the time), they hurt.

Having maneuvered my way through the bug pile, I made my way to her crib. I could see her lying pathetically on her little toddler bed. As soon as she saw me, she reached out her arms and whimpered "mommy," and then projectile vomited all over me. 

I don't remember exactly what I did except it involved taking a step backward from her. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my big toe. I'd stepped on one of the plastic bugs! Argh! I looked down at my foot and saw a very large white bug near my big toe. No, it was attached to my big toe and it was wiggling. "Ahhhh!!!!" I screamed and kicked the real live bug across the room. 

Malia was crying, because she always cried after she threw up, and I was screaming because some kind of crazy giant bug had just taken a bite out of my toe.

Brad came running in and I tried to explain to him, without further scaring Malia, that there was some kind of monster bug that had bitten my toe. And, oh yes, I was covered in vomit.

What happened after that is a blur. Somehow Malia was cleaned up and put back to bed, and I think I trapped the bug in a bowl and took it to the garage. I wanted to throw it in the bushes and never see it again, but I didn't know what it was, and I was worried I was going to be allergic to it, so I thought I should keep it in case I needed to take it with me to the doctor if my toe suddenly fell off or something. It looked like an alien, but it turned out to be a harmless potato bug and we all survived. 

That's definitely a night I will never forget! I also threw away all the plastic bugs the next day.

Toni's Bad Day:

This happened when Mara's brother, Jamal, was in the 5th grade at elementary school. I was attending law school across town from his school. Law school had been a stressful experience for the whole family. I'd been out of school for so many years that I had no confidence in my ability to do okay, so I was studying all the time and this took me away from the family. I felt guilty about it...and then this happened.

One day while I was in class, Jamal's school called. They'd tried our home phone but there was no answer (Jamal's dad was, in fact, out of town). The message was that he was in the nurse's office because he'd fallen on the playground and appeared to have broken the little finger on his left hand. 

Instead of going to a dean or someone else who had the authority to get me out of class, the receptionist put the phone message in a student folder for students whose last name started with a "B." (Yup, that's me.) Some time after class ended, I made my way to the student folders, which I dutifully checked a couple of times a day. In it, there was the phone message from Jamal's school. 

I drove there immediately only to discover that he'd been sitting in the nurse's office for THREE hours. The school couldn't take him to get medical care without parental authorization because they didn't consider this to be an emergency. Right away, I noticed that the broken finger was quite bent. Off we went to the doctor who told us that because so much time had elapsed since the break, the finger had already begun to set in place bent. He'd do his best to straighten it before setting it, but thought it might remain bent...which it did.

This was a day when, to quote the title of this piece, parenting got the better of me. I felt as if I'd let Jamal down, and that I shouldn't even be in law school with two small children at home.

And now for the good news! Two positives came out of this experience, the second one an unexpected treat. First, what happened led to a change in the law school's policy. If there's any question about a student needing to care for a family member, they look up the student's schedule and send a staff person to the classroom to get the student.

And second, when Jamal decided to play baseball in high school, he became a pitcher, that bent pinky finger gave him a wicked curve ball! He likely would have been the star pitcher in his senior year too, but he broke the pinky finger on his other hand in a basketball game just as the season was wrapping up and, as a result, was unable to play most of the baseball season.

I have other parental memorial moments (no surprise) but this is the one that comes to mind.

We'd love to hear of yours!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Toni Shares a Personal Story About the Kindness of a Stranger

Many strangers have been kind to me over the years, but when I think about kindness, one incident from decades ago always comes to mind. 

My husband (also named Tony) and I were living in Winnipeg, Canada where he was working as a teacher. Our son Jamal was a toddler. Tony and I are from California so we weren’t prepared for the harsh prairie winters of Winnipeg. (When people in the U.S. ask me where Winnipeg is, I tell them it’s north of North Dakota; they immediately understand this means that it gets very very cold!). 

The winter we spent in Winnipeg, it snowed from September through May. At one point, a blizzard made transportation of all kinds impossible for two days and people were stuck wherever they happened to be. Downtown department stores were packed with people who had to sleep there for two nights. 

And, because there's no mid-winter thaw (common in coastal cities where there's snow buts the climate is more moderate), the snow in Winnipeg piled higher and higher as winter progressed. I remember walking down snow-plowed sidewalks where the “walls” of snow on each side of me were taller than I was. And the color of those walls were a combination of white and yellow, having been decorated by dogs being walked by their owners. They'd stay that way until the spring melt.

Winnipeg is a beautiful city. It’s a cultural oasis—home to the Winnipeg Royal Ballet and several terrific museums. And it has two rivers running through it. There’s so much to love about this city but winter was more than I could handle, especially with a small child. Even though the people were very friendly, I felt isolated and depressed at times.

And so, after that one winter, Tony and I decided to return to California. In Winnipeg, we’d bought a Volvo on credit and had been making monthly payments on it. We bought it because the car we arrived in didn’t keep us remotely warm in winter. The Volvo was the fanciest car we’d ever had, but when we decided to move back to California, we had to sell it because we didn’t own it. In exchange, we bought an old Dodge Dart.

Come summer, we loaded the car with all our earthly goods. It was bulging at the seams. We said goodbye to Winnipeg and began the drive to San Francisco where we’d be staying with Tony’s parents until we decided our next move in life.

When arrived at the border crossing, about 60 miles south of Winnipeg, we got out our U.S. passports and everything seemed in order. But then one of the border guards asked where on the car he could find the emissions-control sticker. “What sticker?” we thought. He said that when people move to the U.S. and bring a car with them, the car has to meet U.S. emission standards. This had never occurred to us, so we had no sticker. He said to us: “You can enter the U.S., but your car can’t.”

So, there we were, sitting in a room at a fairly remote border crossing, all our goods in the car outside, our toddler squirming around impatiently, very little money in our pockets, and no dwelling to return to in Winnipeg. I had no idea what we were going to do. It felt as if my world was falling apart. Suddenly, I began to cry. I wasn't trying to garner sympathy from the guards. I knew they were just doing their jobs. But all I could do was cry at that moment.

Then the guard who'd told us we couldn't cross the border with the car said: “Let me go look at that car again.” Tony and I watched as he went outside and walked around the Dodge Dart three or four times, sometimes crouching down to look underneath. We had no idea why he was doing this. When he returned to the room, he told us that he must have missed the sticker on his first inspection and that we were free to bring the car into the U.S.

I could see by his expression that he knew he was lying about having seen a sticker. It may be the most compassionate lie he ever told. 

This was a kindness so special that the memory of it is still vivid in my mind, decades later. (Memory is a funny thing because, once we got to California, we either brought the car up to emission standards or we got rid of it. Honestly, I can't remember!)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Our Favorite TV Shows Over the Years

Toni here: 

Before most people had a television, my dad brought one home for the family one day, as a surprise. I remember that the screen was more olive green and white than it was black and white! 

The first show I remember watching was Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's The Show of Shows. The whole family watched it every week. We also watched The Jack Benny Program and The Milton Berle Show. These types of variety shows used to be all over TV (years later, my husband and I watched The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour). I think their demise was largely due to the writer’s strike in 2007-2008. When the networks suddenly found themselves without scripts, they turned to a new genre that was already big in Europe: the unscripted reality show. Who knew they’d come to dominate TV the way they have.

One more show stands out to me as a child. There was a McCarthy era television show called I Led Three Lives in which a U.S. agent infiltrated liberal organizations to look for people to accuse of being Communist sympathizers. My parents had friends who were victims of McCarthy’s witch hunts, and so they forbade me from watching I Led Three Lives. Of course, this meant that I hoped they’d go out the night it was on so that I could watch it! I saw a lot of episodes.

In my teens, my favorite show was Father Knows Best. My dad died when I was ten, and the father on that show (played by Robert Young) became a substitute dad for me. I adored him just as I'd adored my dad. I never missed an episode. 

In high school, I also watched American Bandstand with Dick Clark after school every day. Looking back, it was a sign of my loneliness. I often came home to an empty house (my mother had to work) and this show was my company.  I came to know all the kids from Philly who were regulars. I had my favorites and if they were there, I was excited to see them. I also had favorite couples and would feel sad if they broke up (which I’d figure out because they wouldn't be dancing with each other anymore). I also saw most of the big pop music stars perform on that show—Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, Connie Stevens...and many more.

Then there was a long period—college and beyond— when I didn’t watch TV.

When we had our two kids, we started looking for family fare on TV. The Bill Cosby Show rose to the top of our list. Of course, I condemn his treatment of women off-screen, but the original Cosby show was, in my view, one of the best sit-coms to ever be on television. By then, we had a VCR (yes, the now antiquated VCR), and we recorded most of the shows and watched them over and over.

When my kids got older, I don’t remember what I watched—if anything—for many years.

Then, when I became chronically ill in 2001, TV became my new best friend. The problem was, there was hardly anything worth seeing on it, so we subscribed to Netflix and I started watching movies, sometimes all day long. (Back then, they only came to you as DVDs in the mail.)

I wanted to watch tennis, which I’d learned to love on TV when I initially fell ill and was stuck in bed on a trip to Paris, but the big matches in most of the major tournaments, such as Wimbledon, took place in the middle of the night for me. Then my friend Nhi suggested I get a TiVo so I could record the tennis and watch it when I got up in the morning. My first reaction was that this technology was way beyond my ability to purchase and set up. Not deterred, Nhi got all the information for me, helped me order it and set it up. 

With the TiVo in place, a new era of TV watching became part of my life, and not just because of the tennis that was on. My husband and I decided to splurge (since I was home all day, mostly in bed) and buy premium cable, which included HBO. Back then, HBO had a terrific line-up of shows, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Sex and the City (the latter may seem trivial, but the writing was superb: each half hour was a little morality play, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker). I loved HBO: no ads, no censorship, great scripts, superb acting. Now, several other cable channels have become competitive in quality with HBO. 

I rarely look at network television. And, if I do want to see something, I record it to watch later so I can speed through the commercials. In addition, with TiVo (or a DVR which is what we have now), I can pause a program if I want to, and I can rewind it if I didn't understand something or if I just want to see a good scene again. I love my DVR!

My husband and I do have one guilty pleasure on network TV and that’s Survivor. We think our attraction to it comes from the days when he was an elected official and had to play a similar “game”: the social game and the political game.

The show I miss the most is David Letterman's Late Night. We recorded it every night and watched most of them the next evening. Dave was like a relative you love but who can also drive you crazy. He could go too far at times and even be obnoxious, but  so can that relative you love. He was smart and he was fast with his humor. And, I loved his honesty. He was like a member of the family to me, and none of the other late night show hosts come close to taking his place. I wish he were still on.

And that's my brief history of TV watching!

Mara here:

My list is not as in depth as my mother’s...and I’m sure I’m missing some because I don’t have a great memory. I used to watch a lot of television, but more and more I don’t watch dramatic programming very much. I usually have news or the Food Network on as background noise. But there are definitely a few shows that I feel a connection to. 

The ones listed below are the ones that I watched every week, or if they’re still on, I make sure to DVR them. I’ve only included ones that were on for multiple years. There are lots of newer shows I enjoy, but they haven’t been on long enough for me to feel like they've become part of my life history. I’ve divided my list into three categories: childhood, young adult, and adult. 


Inspector Gadget
The Jeffersons
The Facts of Life
Three’s Company
Little House on the Prairie
Family Ties
The Bill Cosby Show

(Honorable mentions are Dallas, LA Law, Hills Street Blues, The Wonder Years, and Moonlighting because those were shows my whole family watched together.)

Young Adult:

Ally McBeal
Law and Order
Mad About You


Ghost Hunters
Deadliest Catch
Game of Thrones
Downton Abbey

Note from Toni: After reading Mara's list, I have to add to mine of course. Yes, I forgot all of her honorable mentions, which we enjoyed watching together as a family. (We watched Dallas to make fun of it!) And how could I forget Downton Abbey, which I watched so faithfully that when I thought the fourth season wasn't up to par, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about it! If you want to read it, here it is: Has Downton Abbey Jumped the Shark?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What's on Your Bucket List?

Mara here. Do you have a bucket list? I like the idea of making a list of things you want to do before you die—kick the bucket. I don’t have a formal written one, but when I see something that peaks my interest, I often add it to the imaginary list in my head.

For some reason, creating an actual list feels like it would suddenly make it very serious and official, so I'd have to try and figure out what a true bucket list encompasses. Is it simply a list of things I would like to do? Or is it a list of what I really want in life? 

If I’m being honest, what I really want in life is for my daughter and husband to be happy. But I don’t think that’s that kind of thing one puts on a bucket list. The next thing that pops into my head is that I want to add a bathroom onto our bedroom, but is that a real bucket list kind of thing? Not sure. Maybe I’m overthinking this whole bucket list thing. 

This is why I've never created an official bucket list. I'd make it too complicated. I'd start to question it too much. 

In addition, my list would be constantly changing. What would have been on my bucket list five years ago is different from what would be on it today. Plus, I assume the idea of the bucket list is that it consists of things you might reasonably be able to complete at some point. But my list would never be completed because I'd be constantly adding and deleting things. Then I'd feel like a bucket list failure, which I am also pretty sure is not the goal of keeping a bucket list.

Also, what I would like to do in my head is very different from what I would enjoy practically. Seeing the pyramids in Egypt is definitely something I think I want to do. But traveling to Egypt might be dangerous, depending on what's happening in the world. And my creaky old body gets really uncomfortable on long plane flights now…so would I really enjoy a trip to Egypt? Maybe not. But part of me still thinks that I want to see the pyramids, so it probably does belong on my bucket list.

I’m also a little wary of bucket lists because sometimes when I've done things that were obvious, definite bucket list type things, they weren’t the experiences I thought they would be. A few years ago, my daughter was working in Japan, so we took the opportunity to visit Seoul, Korea. I knew that visiting the city of my birth (where I was adopted from) was on my in-my-head bucket list. I had dreamed of going since I could remember being told I was adopted from Korea. So we took a trip to Seoul. And, while visiting a new place is always interesting, Seoul was a bit of a disappointment. It didn’t feel special. I didn’t feel any sort of connection to it. However, I was enamored with Kyoto in Japan. So, what’s the point of a bucket list if the things on it aren’t nearly as interesting as the things that are not on it?

And really, what separates a bucket list item from non-bucket list items? Is it the expense? The time? The likelihood of accomplishment? Whether or not it’s been extensively planned and done on purpose? Sometimes I'm daydreaming about what I think is my bucket list and I'm just making a regular non-bucket list of things I need to do like go grocery shopping and change the batteries in my smoke detector.

And if I don’t accomplish any of my bucket list items, does that mean that I somehow didn’t live my life correctly? That seems like the wrong attitude toward the bucket list.

What does attract me about the idea of a bucket list is that I do enjoy identifying things that inspire me, things that motivate me. And there is a very special feeling when I accomplish or experience something that I have been working toward for a long. 

Oh, and I also have a reverse-bucket list for things I didn't realize would mean a lot to me at the time I did them, but when I look back, they had a very significant impact on my life.

One thing I do love is discovering what items are on other people’s bucket lists, because often I realize some of the things I've experienced that felt mundane or perhaps were not particularly memorable, are things another person wishes they could experience. This realization puts things in perspective because sometimes it takes viewing things through other people's eyes to realize how fortunate we are. 

Finally, thinking about how my own view of bucket lists has changed as I've gotten older, I wondered how my mom's illness has changed her long term goal-setting and her expectations for the future. And, does she even have a bucket list? 

So here are a few questions for my mom. (Below her answers are a few of my bucket list items. Read them now before they change!)

Did you ever have a bucket list?

Well, I used to do what you're doing—have one in my head that changed all the time. I never had a written list, but I had lots of ideas for one, mostly places I wanted to travel to. 

Has being chronically ill for so long affected how you think of bucket lists?

Absolutely. The year I got sick, 2001, turned out to be a real watershed moment in my life. So many things changed. One of them was that the idea of a bucket list became irrelevant. I guess you could say it was a casualty of the illness. 

As people who've read my books know, I got sick on a trip to Paris. I wanted to go to there as opposed to traveling all over Europe or even just around France. The plan was to stay in Paris for three weeks so my husband and I could immerse ourselves in Parisian life. So, that was one thing that was on my in-my-head bucket list.

And I had a lot of other places in mind to go and other things I wanted to do. Instead, what's happened in the almost 16 years that I've been chronically ill is that I've watched family and friends live out most of my bucket list. I always wanted to go to Japan, now you've gone there. Your brother's been to several countries in Europe. And my close friend Dawn, has travelled to many places since I've been sick. She's been to Japan, Australia, Brazil, Italy, New York City many times, and she's about to leave for Austria and Germany. 

All this went on while I was stuck at home. At first, when I would hear about other people travelling and going places, it was very hard—especially if they were going someplace I wanted to go. It was as if I were saying: "Wait you can't go there; that's on MY bucket list."

But now I rarely think about things I'd like to do in the future. My focus is on getting through each day as best I can—making the most of what I've got.

So when I think about the future, which is what a bucket list focuses on, I don't have a lot of wishes. Aside from the global ones we all share, such and end to poverty and famine, my wishes for the future are that you and your brother and your spouses and your children be happy, which you talked about in your essay. I don't think that kind of wish is what most people think of as bucket-list material—which, for the most part, consists of fun things that people want to do.

My other two wishes are health-related, so I don't think of them as bucket-list items either. First, when I think about the future, I find myself wishing that I don't wind up in a hospital surrounded by doctors and staff who don't understand my illness. Second, and this looms large for me, I wish that nothing happens to your dad that would require me to be at his bedside in a hospital all day long, because I couldn't do it.

So that pretty much covers my wishes for the future: happiness for my family and no medical crises. As I said, I don't think that's really a bucket list.

So how does that make you feel that you don't have fun aspirations for the future? Does it make you feel sad? Or is it liberating not to be constantly planning your future?

That's an interesting question. My initial reaction to what you said is to feel a bit sad. I think, "I want to go so many places and do so many things." But that thought passes quickly because I feel better when I'm not constantly longing to do things and just focus on trying to make each day as pleasant as I can.

So yes, it is liberating not to be longing to do things. Well, there is one thing  I long to do. I want to see your house. [Mara note: we bought it about three years after mom got sick and we live 400 miles away.]

Really? That's your one bucket list wish? I feel like you would be terribly disappointed. [My house is really not anything special and usually needs to be dusted.]

Well, I'd still like to see it, so I guess yeah, I do have a bucket list!


Mara's Bucket List:

—Have a pet squirrel (My husband tells me squirrels are the pets of serial killers...but I still want one.)

—See the Northern Lights [Toni here. I've seen them. They're spectacular, and I hope you get to see them.]

—Walk on the Great Wall of China

—See the pyramids in Egypt

—Successfully make my own pore strips (This might belong on the pipe dream list because I keep trying and failing.)

—Get a wedding ring tattoo (This could easily be accomplished except that I’m very afraid of the pain.)

—See the earth from space (But I have no desire to actually travel in space so I’m not sure how I would accomplish this.)

—Own a tiny house (I am obsessed with tiny houses, but I’m not sure I could actually live in one, so it may not be the best investment.)

—See Mount Rushmore (I have a bizarre fear of giant things—faces, heads, etc. so this one scares me, but I am determined to see it. I have actually had nightmares... but still really want to see it!)

—Write a book [Toni here: At least you've had a book dedicated to you!]

—Learn shorthand

—Find the perfect purse [Toni here: Good luck with that!]