Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Our Gratitude List for May. What are you Grateful for?

Yikes, it's the end of May! Thinking about June always makes me hear the song "June is Bustin' Out All Over" from the musical Carousel in my head. But before we get to June, we wanted to take a minute to appreciate May!


Six Month Anniversary of this Blog—It's hard to believe that it's already been six months! I am very grateful for everyone who reads and asks questions! It started as a project for my mom and me to work on together, but it's been amazing that people have followed along on our journey!

Mulberries—Okay, to be completely honest this is a bit of a mixed bag. When we moved into our house 13 years ago, they told us they planted a walnut tree in the front yard. A few years ago, the tree started sprouting, but it definitely wasn't walnuts. They were these weird little black berries. But there weren't very many of them, and neither my husband nor I knew what they were so we just ignored them. 

Well, this year the tree sprouted like crazy. We think it's all the rain from last winter, but there is a berry apocalypse happening in our front yard. There's berry carnage all over our driveway and the sidewalk. I still didn't know what they were until someone posted a picture of a Mulberry leaf on Facebook requesting the leaves for their silkworms. What? Mulberries? 

Then I noticed that we have a neighbor who, apparently completely unconcerned with the fact it's on our front lawn, brings her kids over and they sit and pick the berries off the tree and eat them. It's a little weird but I don't mind, so I pretend I don't see them when I pull into the driveway. (Even though it's a very small house, so it's not as if there's any possible way I don't notice them sitting in my front yard.)

Anyway, one day I decided I wanted to try one of the mulberries, and they're delicious! They're like very sweet blackberries, but without the seeds. If they didn't leave a ridiculous mess (honestly, it looks like a crime scene in our front yard) I would be thrilled!

Veterans—This blog won't post until after Memorial Day, but I am writing this on Monday and we are celebrating Memorial Day. I am so thankful for people who are willing to join the armed forces to support and defend this country.   


First, I want to echo the first and third items on Mara's gratitude list. I'm thankful for all of you and for our veterans.

Now, three things I'm grateful for this month.

A Family Visit—For several reasons, even though they only live a little more than an hour away, Mara's brother and his family have been unable to visit for several months. This past weekend, they came and even stayed overnight. We had a wonderful time. I'm especially grateful to my granddaughter Cam for playing with Scout so much. Watching the two of them was such a delight for me. And it was great to chat with my son, Jamal, and my wonderful daughter-in-law, Bridgett.

My New Bonsai—I lost three of my bonsai trees when I tried the tricky business of "root pruning" them. Now I have three new ones and they are thriving. I keep them in the bedroom with me and, if plants can be happy, it feels as if they're very happy to be living here!

My Dermatologist—How many people see a specialist who takes an interest in health problems they have that aren't related to the specialist's area of expertise? I suspect, not many. But mine is and exception. Whenever I see her, she's always done some research on my ongoing illness of 16 years and has ideas for me to take to my primary care doctor. I'm grateful to have her as one of my doctors.

We hope you'll share with everyone what you've been grateful for this month.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

How Much News is Too Much News?

There’s so much news. There’s so much access to news. News about home, news about the world—there’s a constant barrage of news 24 hours a day. There’s television news, there’s radio, there’s podcasts, there’s social media, there’s webpages, there’s blogs…

It’s overwhelming.

After 9/11, my relationship to the news changed dramatically. Before the terror attack in New York, I used to turn on the Today Show in the morning and have the nightly news on at six. I would periodically scroll through headlines on news websites. 

But after 9/11, I became obsessed with waking up and knowing what was going on in the world. Checking news was the first thing I did when I woke up and it was usually the last thing I did before I went to bed. And it seemed to me as if there was not enough news to satisfy my need to know what was happening. I wanted answers, I wanted to feel that I understood what was going on everywhere.

So I watched news. I watched all the time.

I didn’t realize how much the events of 2001 had changed my relationship to news until a couple of years ago when noticed I was feeling emotionally drained by the news and by my feelings of constant worry about the state of the world. I hadn’t previously noticed that turning on the television to news was the first thing I did in the morning and it was the first thing I did when I returned home from being out. I didn’t notice that I had the news on all the time and that I had stopped watching non-news television.

After 9/11, watching the news was no longer about my wanting to stay informed, but was about the fact that I'd become afraid of not knowing what was happening. So I turned on news in the morning, worried that something terrible had happened while I'd been sleeping. I'd leave it on all day. And, I would constantly check news headlines on the computer and, in later years, on my phone.

And clearly I wasn’t alone because the news industry exploded. News has transformed from just relaying information to becoming its own form of entertainment. Simply reporting what happened wasn’t enough. Now stories have to be titillating and explosive. To complicate matters even further, the spread of technology has made it almost impossible to differentiate between established and sources from people who have decided to create their own news stories. All a person needs to create a ""news story" is a computer and $50 worth of video or photo editing software.

After the election last fall, I decided I had to stop. I had to consciously stop myself from looking at the news. I was drained. I didn’t watch any television news and stayed off social media sites for a month, trying to get myself out the state of panic I felt. I would turn on the Food Network or have movies on if I wanted background noise or distraction because turning on the news brought feelings of dread.

Once I had given myself a chance recover from the mental stress of the 2016 Presidential campaign, I took some time to think about how I wanted to receive my news. I didn’t want to go back to watching cable news anymore. I didn’t want the constant buzz of impending doom in the background. But I also didn’t want to feel as if I didn’t know what was going on. So I decided that I would focus on Twitter to get headlines and then I could look up stories that I felt were important on news websites. 

I feel like it’s been a pretty good compromise. Twitter, if you’re not familiar with it, is a social media platform where you only have 140 characters per post. So the posts are short and easy to scroll through. It’s become the go-to place for journalists to post as individuals, as well as media outlets and newspapers. So it’s an easy way to get an overview of what’s going on. And in my experience, most news stories hit Twitter before they show up anywhere else. 

A lot of people don’t like Twitter because it’s hard to get in-depth information, and it’s easy to get lost in misinformation if you’re not careful. And none of the sources are vetted in any way, so you have to trust who you're following to feel confident that it's a valid source of information. But again, if I see a headline that looks interesting, I can research it further. I don’t take a lot of posts on Twitter as “truth,” but as a starting place. 

And while it’s not perfect, it seems to be the right balance for me because I wanted to have real-time updates about news, but I didn’t want to feel glued to my TV all the time. And I didn't only want newspaper headlines because there are people whose opinions and analysis I value. But I don’t necessarily want to hear pundits debate every issue. It seems as if television news is often more about hearing people argue for the sake of arguing.

I also like that Twitter makes it easy to see posts from a lot of different sources all in one place. In addition, most of my social circle doesn’t use Twitter, so it’s not a place where I have to scroll through lots of posts from friends about what they ate or what their kids did when all I want is to get the news.

There is also the added bonus that people on Twitter generally don't take themselves too seriously. There are a lot of smart and funny people out there. There are also a lot of "Twitter Trolls" or people who are just on Twitter to be mean. In fact, the anonymity of Twitter seems to give people license to be awful. But if you are like me and are just on Twitter to view and not post, you can avoid most of that unpleasantness.

I do still turn on cable news in the evenings. I enjoy some of the prime-time news shows and I have gotten better at not getting too wrapped up in the stories.  But I’ve found that many stories show up on Twitter before they are reported on television because Twitter is direct information from individual sources. As an example, recently, reports of the bombing in Manchester, and the reporter who was attacked in Montana, were on Twitter well before they were reported on television.

And on the days when I’m feeling particularly stressed, or if there’s news that is disturbing that I don't want to be exposed to, I don’t need to be bombarded with it over and over because I simply don’t look at Twitter. And I don’t turn on the news. I've realized that the world is just fine if I don't know what's happening at every minute.

There are moments when the familiar feeling of news-panic returns. This week, the story of the Manchester bombing triggered emotional feelings in me because I have twice dropped my daughter off at stadiums to watch Ariana Grande concerts. So I found myself back in a place where I felt compelled to know as much as I could. I watched the news for every update and to find out what all the "experts" had to say. 

But after a couple of days, I forced myself to turn the TV off. I forced myself to acknowledge that watching the news would not make it easier to accept what had happened.

It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t have to take in all the information simply because it was available. 

This brings me to my mom. I imagine that as a person with chronic Illness, she has had to decide how to deal with the barrage of news in the 24-hour nature of today’s news cycle. I know she has limited energy and because of that it’s more important for her to be careful with how she spends it.

Here are some questions for her.

I know that growing up, you used to read the newspaper. I’ve never subscribed to an actual hard copy newspaper. Do you still read one?

Yeah, I grew up reading the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper for the town you're in now. Note long ago, we subscribed to four daily newspapers. Now we subscribe to two. Until about six months ago, I always read at least one newspaper a day. 

We get The New York Times delivered daily. Your dad reads it every morning, and he gives me stories he thinks I'll be interested in. They're usually on health or the arts. Yesterday, he gave me one on the French Open tennis tournament. We also get our local paper, The Davis Enterprise. I used to faithfully read every article. But now I don't always read it. There's a new, younger generation in town. Because your dad was an elected official for many years, we knew a lot of the people who were in the paper—he often was! Not any more. In addition, due to my illness, I'm not active in the community like I used to be. 

So, I don't regularly read a newspaper anymore. It feels odd to say that because I feel like I come from a newspaper family. My father-in-law worked for Bay Area newspapers his whole life. He was very well respected as a reporter and writer. So we love newspapers in print. And I still love seeing them in front of the house, even though I don't always read them.

Do you think part of that is because you read stuff online?


Do you still watch television news? How do you usually get your news?

I used to faithfully watch network news, either CBS or NBC. I stopped about six months ago and rarely watch it now. I don't watch cable news. I like to say our house is a cable-news-free-zone. That said, if there's a disaster like 9/11, I'm going to put it on.

The only television news I watch now are two weekly segments on the PBS News Hour. On Mondays, I watch Politics Monday with Amy Walter and Tamara Keith. On Friday, I watch Shields and Brooks. Mark Shields is the liberal and David Brooks is the conservative. I love all four of them—they're smart, insightful, and good-natured so I enjoy their company. The four of them analyze the top political stories of the moment and that's all I need from TV news. I don't want to watch videos of the news anymore. It's much less emotionally upsetting to read the words as opposed to watching news videos.

In addition, most of the TV show hosts sound like they're yelling. I'm sure they've been told to get their adrenaline levels up and talk fast and loud. But I don't like hearing it. And, with the tone in their voice, they tend to signal how I'm supposed to feel—"this is what you should be worried about" or "this is something you're supposed to be afraid of." I don't want to be told how to feel.

Here's how I get my news. I figured this out about six months ago. I reviewed all the news web sites and settled on Google News. On that site, you have a choice of settings. I use "Classic." With that, I see a headline (from a variety of news sources) and the first five lines of the story. That's usually all I need to know. But if it is something I want to be better informed about, like what happened in Manchester last week, then I click on the story and read the full article.

I do feel an obligation to know what's going on. Not everyone feels that way, but I do, so I keep informed by using Google News. Oh, and I do see headlines in my Facebook News Feed because family and friends often post them there. 

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the news? How do you handle it?

I feel overwhelmed by the news a lot. 

I do two things: I practice equanimity and also take an historical perspective. 

Here's what I mean by the latter. Since the beginning of humankind, people have been in conflict. There's also been kindness and compassion—people who wouldn't hurt a flea. But there have also been people who are violent, either physically or mentally. (I consider a racist comment to be form of mental violence, for example.) Humankind has always been this way. The poet Robert Frost called it "Man's inhumanity to man." I wish it weren't so, but it is. 

In my second book, I reference this in the subtitle which is about navigating life's joys and sorrows. It comes from an ancient Chinese saying about life's 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. We're going to experience both during our lifetimes. So when I get upset about what's going on in the world, I remind myself that conflict has always been part of the human condition.

So has what's now being called by the news media, "tribalism." The increase in tribalism is, in my view, alarming. By tribalism, I'm referring to people only wanting to hang out with people who share the same views. That tends to make it hard for people to change. So that kind of mentality—only wanting to associate with people who are like you—and sometimes getting belligerent about it—can lead to violence.

So I take the historical perspective and also remind myself of the many ways life is better for us today, from the advent of the automobile to the discovery of antibiotics.

On a practical day-to-day level, I just wrote an article on equanimity for Psychology Today in which I describe a practice I came up with where I intentionally start a sentence with "It's okay if..."

Now, this has to be used wisely. If something truly horrible happens to you, it's not okay. So you have to know when to use it and I talk about that in the article. But it's been extremely helpful with something like my illness, for example, where I can say, "It's okay if I feel terrible today. That's how chronic illness feels sometimes." People have told me that the article has been very helpful. [Mara here: We'll put in a link to it at the end.] So I use that practice when I feel overwhelmed by the news. Obviously, Manchester was an example where I didn't use it, because that was not okay. 

But here is an example from the news. First off, let me say that I have a large number of fans on social media from all political backgrounds, including Trump supporters I assume. So this is just my personal opinion. When Trump was running for President, I thought "This can't be happening. He's not qualified. I don't agree with what he's saying about just about everything." So I started to practice equanimity by saying to myself, "It's okay if Trump is running for President; it's okay if he wins." 

Around this time, I gave a book talk and shared these thoughts with the audience. Some people gasped at my "It's okay if..." sentence so I said, "You know, there are only three requirements in the Constitution for becoming President. You have to be 35; you have to have lived in the US for 14 years; and you have to have been a natural born citizen. So he meets our democratic government's requirements, which means he has the right to run for President and he has the right to win." 

Lots of people at the talk seemed to get my point. It doesn't mean it was my preference that he win or that I shouldn't be an activist against his winning...but it's okay if he wins. That's our democratic form of government and I like living in a democracy. I have faith in our system of checks and balances and Separation of Powers to keep one wing of our government from getting too powerful. 

So I use that practice when I feel overwhelmed. It works most of the time—not all, I admit! And I take an historical perspective. Violence and abuse are not new. It doesn't mean we shouldn't fight against them, but they're not new.

Here's the link to my mom's article on "It's okay if":

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Do You Like Opera? Enjoy Our Two Opposing Views!

Mara here: They say you either "get" opera or you don't. I don't.

I want to like it. And I do appreciate it. I appreciate the skill and I understand why people like it. But I just don't feel it.

I like listening to opera-ish singers who get popular like Andrea Bocelli. And my mother, who I'm sure will write about her deep love of opera below, has tried several times to share it with me. But I'd rather listen to Hamilton.

Opera is too much for me. Everything is slightly grander than I want it to be: the costumes, the drama, the emotion...they're all amped up to level 15 out of 10.

But I know many many people will disagree with me...especially my mom.

So, what about you? Are you an opera fan? 

Toni here: I didn't like opera either until I got sick and was stuck in bed all day. (Thankfully, I no longer have to spend every day in bed although I'm still virtually housebound due to this 16-year old illness.)

Here's how I came to love opera (and, as you'll see, like many opera fans, I'm very picky and opinionated!).

Stuck in bed, too sick to read, but with a TV in my bedroom, the first thing I did was subscribe to Netflix (back in 2001, the offerings were only DVDs). I watched a lot of movies. Then, one day, I decided to face my aversion to opera so I put an opera DVD at the top of my Netflix queue. I picked Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro because I do love Mozart and it was a comedy. To my surprise, I found it easy to listen to. And, it was very funny! I thought, "This is opera?" And I was off and running.

That said, I am very picky. For example, I know that almost all opera buffs love Puccini, but I don't...except for his arias. Between those arias is a lot of orchestral music and I find it boring. To me, it sounds like movie soundtrack music. But his arias are fabulous. I have a few CDs just of his arias.

I also don't like Wagner—too heavy-handed for me. In fact, the range of composers I like is small. My two favorites are Mozart and Verdi, and I also like the bel canto composers: Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini. Donizetti wrote some hilarious comedies. And Rossini wrote Cenerentola which is the pre-Disney telling of Cinderella's story with nasty stepsisters but a stepfather instead of a step mother.

I'll tell you why I love Mozart and Verdi so much and then provide a link to a piece I wrote for Psychology Today in which I wax poetic about my favorite of their operas,

Mozart: His operas always feel fresh, as if they were just written. They make me feel as young as he was when he wrote them. My two favorites are Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte. (To find out why, click on the article link at the end of this piece.)

Verdi: Verdi's operas do have some of the qualities that Mara mentioned—they can be overly dramatic and overly emotional. But somehow, he's able to create big sound and then, just like that, throw in an aria or a duet, or a trio, or a quartet (!) that is incredibly intimate in feel. When his sound is big, it often has a great beat; in fact, some of it sounds like rock and roll...and I do love that! 

One more thing. These days, many directors update the settings of operas and so The Marriage of Figaro could be set in 2017, with the characters dressed in today's clothes instead of in costumes.

And so, if you're interested, here's a bit more I wrote about opera: "Opera is Now for Everyone!" I hope you'll have a look.

And many thanks to Mara for thinking of this topic!

"The Marriage of Figaro" set in modern-day Beverly Hills

Sunday, May 21, 2017

600,000 Steps Closer to Knowing Myself

I'm an anxious person. And part of how I cope with my anxiety is that I create routines. Routines make things feel more predictable, and predictability makes life less stressful for me.

Until it doesn't.

It took me a long time to realize that an huge amount of my irritation and frustration was a result of my need for routines. At the time, I wasn't aware that this need of mine was spilling over into needing other people to have routines so that my routines were not interfered with.

With hindsight, it's clear to all of us why this was not a winning strategy. But at the time, I was a tired young mom who was struggling to make life feel manageable.

Here's an example, when Malia was a toddler, she went to a preschool that was at my husband's workplace. So in the mornings he would leave for the day and take Malia with him to drop her off. The schedule was that they would leave at 8:00 a.m. and I would start my routines for the day. 

But Malia being a toddler, and there being no strict drop-off time for preschool, meant that sometimes they wouldn't leave at 8:00 a.m. Sometimes they left at 8:15 a.m. Or they would leave at 8:23 a.m. And I found that it was making me angry—angry to the point that I started yelling at them that they needed to leave the house, and angrily accosting my husband if he hadn't left the house by 8:05 a.m. 

Needless to say, it caused some tension. 

And at some point, my husband made me realize that I wasn't being reasonable. At the time, I must have relented and backed off, but I think I still thought to myself that I was right and he was simply not understanding how important it was to have a schedule and keep to a routine. 

As the years passed, I've come to understand that it was not reasonable for me to expect the rest of my family to live by arbitrary rules that I'd made up in my own head. But for those of us who manage the stress of life by trying to create stability with routines and boundaries, it's very hard to shake the feeling that things will only be okay if we do them a certain way. It's like when we're children and told not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Most of us realize that our mothers' backs aren't actually in danger of cracking, but there's the very real feeling that maybe we shouldn't step on those cracks anyway.

But here's an interesting thing about my inflexibility with routines and my need to follow-through with lists and schedules: 95% of the time, it's worked out well for me and made me pretty successful. If I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If I set up a schedule, I stick to it. I'm reliable and I'm consistent. I graduated from college in 2 1/2 years. I successfully trained and ran marathons. I folded 96 origami Stars of David out of dollar bills in an afternoon for a Bar Mitzvah gift...because I put it on a to-do list. 

Okay, that said, now fast-forward to about six months ago and this little story.

I've written previously about how last year was very tough for me. In an act of desperation one day I got up and went for a walk. I walked and walked, thinking if I'm going to be miserable, I might as well be miserable outside. After an hour or so, I looked down and noticed that my Apple watch was telling me that I had walked over 10,000 steps. 

So the next day I got up, dropped Malia off at school and walked again. But this time I told myself I needed to walk at least 10,000 steps. Then a few days later, I told myself I needed to walk 15,000 steps. Soon it was up to 30,000 steps or more. There were days I walked for more than four hours. Everything I did was scheduled around making sure I could walk for at least 30,000 steps. If for some reason I couldn't get them all completed in one walk, I would go out that night and walk some more. I didn't even question it. I had set a goal. I had established a routine.

This went on for over a month. 

Then one day I realized I was crying as I put my shoes on. My feet were covered in painful blisters. My knees were aching, and I didn't feel well. I was fighting a cold and my daughter needed me to pick up a prescription for her which meant I had to leave to pick her up from school early and it was upsetting me that my scheduled walk time would have to be changed.

The realization that I was upset because I needed to do something for my daughter and it was interrupting my obsessive need to walk 30,000 steps made something snap in my brain. Somehow that one little thought broke through to my consciousness and I was able to look at myself from the outside of my own ego for that split second. I felt a bit stunned.

I asked myself what I was doing. I asked myself what was going to happen to the world if I didn't walk. What was going to happen to the world if I simply did not do what I had planned. And...why was I walking?

I didn't have an answer. 

So I stopped. I stopped because I wasn't enjoying it. I stopped because it was actually making it impossible for me to be present for my family. I stopped because it was physically hurting me. I stopped because it wasn't helping me. 

I calculated that I had walked over 600,000 steps during that month. And while I didn't physically travel anywhere, mentally I feel as if I took a journey. Like most journeys, when I returned, I was not the same person I'd been when I left.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What's Your Favorite Season?

Mara here: Having lived most of my life in California, growing up, I didn't have a lot of experience with the the seasons. Before living for a time on the east coast I didn't realize that people had completely separate wardrobes for different seasons. And it really seemed strange when, in the apartments where we lived, there were set dates when the whole building would either have access to heat or to air-conditioning, but not both.

After having lived in Virginia for a few years and then spending a few years living on and off in Utah, I now understand the significance of different seasons. After months of freezing temperatures, or the heat and humidity of summer, spring and fall are a mental and physical relief. There's a different feel in the air, and the trees and foliage all take on a different look. There's real change.

So what's your favorite season? 

Mine is fall. I prefer cooler weather to hotter weather. So the break in summer temperatures is exciting for me. I look forward to things getting cooler. I love wearing sweaters and fuzzy socks. I like that fall means that the holiday season is close, and it's the start of a new school year.

But mostly it's that I love the cooler weather. I love cloudy days. I love rain. I love being able to sleep under piles of blankets. I like my cold weather pajamas. I like the smell of fires in the fireplace. 

In California it doesn't actually start to cool off for our version of fall until November, but when it does I'm ready!


Hello everyone. Toni here. I was surprised that when I went to answer the question of what my favorite season is, one of them didn't pop right out at me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don't have a favorite season.

I think it's partly because I grew up in Los Angeles where the seasons aren't that different from each other. When I moved to Northern California, I experienced four distinct seasons for the first time. I think this is why I love them all.

I love spring because the world outside goes from mostly bare branches to flower blossoms and (my favorite thing) tender and soft leaves suddenly appearing on trees and shrubs (I particularly like to see them when they're back-lit). 

I love summer for its cool mornings, just before the temperature starts climbing, sometimes to above 100 degrees (F). And I love summer at dusk when the hottest part of the day is over and the sun isn't shining on me, but the air is still warm and cozy.

I love fall because of its colors. When I moved from to Northern California, I first became aware of how beautiful fall leaves are. And, even though I love summer, when fall rolls around, I enjoy the relief from the heat.

I love winter because I love rain (thank goodness we had a lot this past winter in California) and I love overcast days. This past winter, for the first time, I made an effort to go into my backyard for a short time every day, even though I had to bundle up to do so. I made a point of catching myself when I was about to complain that it was so cold and, instead, welcome it as a refreshing sensation on my body.

Mara and I would love to know what your favorite season is!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Truly Understanding What Appreciation Means

Mara here. It sounds like such a cliché to say that we should appreciate what we have. Duh, of course, we all know that. But it's hard to really understanding how to appreciate things. Some people seem to never be able to truly understand what appreciation means.

For me, many years of unhappiness could have been alleviated if I had understood the meaning of appreciation sooner. As a kid, and then as a young adult, I didn’t realize that knowing you should appreciate something and actually feeling appreciation for it were different. In addition, it took years for me to learn that appreciation, like most things in this world, is multi-dimensional.

For example, appreciation is not just saying thank you for a gift and then thinking about how you can use it in your life. To truly appreciate a gift from someone, you have to understand what it meant to the person who gave it to you. This includes understanding what it meant for the person to spend money on the gift or to make a decision about what gift to give. A lot of little decisions go into giving most gifts, and there's also effort expended to turn the idea of a gift into a reality.

Here's another example of how appreciation is multi-dimensional. Appreciating a flower isn’t just seeing a flower, thinking it's pretty, and picking it to sit in a vase on your table. Truly appreciating a flower has to take into account the miracle of all the things that had to happen to make the flower what it became. It needed sun and bees and water and soil. A lot of things had to happen for that flower to grow.

Or when you appreciate a glamorous photo in a magazine. If you look more deeply, you'll see that you're not considering what went on behind the scenes: the years of practice and training the photographer went through; the struggle of the models to have the right body; the work of the costumers who often put grip clips on the clothes in the back to make them look like they have the perfect fit; the makeup artists who spend hours making people look like they have no makeup on! If you simply look at a photo and see a pretty person, you're missing the hours and hours of effort that went into capturing that one moment in time—creating that one perfect photo. 

The same is true for everything we appreciate about our lives.

I’m not saying that everything in our lives needs to be minutely dissected or that we have to spend our whole existence being grateful for everything. Obviously that’s not how we live and it’s not realistic. 

But it has been very helpful to me to recognize that I could be endlessly grateful for thousands of things in the universe that make living the way I do possible. And that perhaps it would be useful to spend a little more time being more aware of some of those things. 

For example, my house. It's small. It’s not glamorous. But I have a huge amount of appreciation for it. I love my house. Do I wish it had more space? Yes. Do I wish it had more bathrooms? Yes. Have there been times when I was frustrated that we haven’t had the money to repaint it? Yes. Am I sometimes jealous when I visit my friends’ big and beautiful houses? Yes.

And there are times when I have desperately wanted to move. I wanted something better and different. But then I remember that my house is enough for me. I don’t need a bigger house. In fact, a bigger house would be a burden in many ways. And I'm grateful that our house is affordable for us. We don’t have to worry about the mortgage. 

I'm also extremely grateful that our house has never had problems with leaks during rain and that the power almost never goes out. And I am grateful for the trees that provide our house with shade. I'm grateful that it provides privacy and that it has a large yard and is in a great location. I'm even grateful that the timing of the people who lived in this house before us was such that we were able to buy the house when we wanted one. It's been a reliable, safe, and comforting place to raise our daughter.

Is the house perfect? No. Am I grateful for the house? Yes. I am.

And sometimes, though it may sound silly, I thank the house. I actively express appreciation for the house because it helps remind me that I do, in fact, appreciate so much about it.

With appreciation, the big challenge is to remember to look for it and feel it. It’s not that you should never get frustrated. It’s not that you should think that everything is perfect. It’s that when there are things in your life to be grateful for, you should try to remember to express that appreciation. And you should also try to remember that appreciation requires acknowledging everything that goes on the behind the scenes—from flowers to photos to people who give you something special.

And now, a couple of questions for my mom.

I’m sure as a person with chronic illness, it’s hard to think about your sickness with appreciation. How do you handle the struggle to not only always think of your illness in a negative way?

I want to start by saying that I thought your essay was profound in the way you suggested we look behind the surface of what we ordinarily think of as appreciation. 

I had an experience a few months ago that reminded me of your examples, especially the photography one. I was feeling particularly sick one day, but I had to do a load of laundry. I was sitting on the bed starting to fold the shirts and pants, grumbling because I wasn't feeling good.

I happened to notice that one of the tags said, "Made in Vietnam." I realized that, here I was grumbling about having to wash and fold this shirt, but someone had to dye the cloth and someone had to cut it and someone had to sew it together. Someone working for a pittance probably, but needing the money in order to feed his or her family. 

Then I looked at the pants and saw, "Made in Bangladesh." It brought to mind the tragic clothing factory fire a few years ago where hundreds were killed because the building wasn't safe. I hoped that the person who'd had made my pants hadn't been working there.

Just as you asked us to look behind what goes into making a beautiful photo, I realized that, to truly appreciate my clothes, I have to appreciate the people who make it possible for me own them and, just in general, to live the way I do—lavishly compared to them.

I also related to what you said about your house, and this does relate to your question about being chronically ill. When I got sick my universe shrunk. I'm pretty much home all the time. It's led me to notice things about the house that I never appreciated before I got sick. 

The house is old—and it's small. There are a lot things we do manually because it wasn't built with modern gadgets (we have no garbage disposal or dishwasher). Before I got sick, I wanted badly to move. This desire was fueled by our good friend Mickey when she moved from her old house (even older than ours) into a brand-new one. Everything in it was new, and she was the first person to live in it. When we'd visited her, I wanted a house like that. Everything clean. Everything new. A fresh start.

Well, since becoming sick, I don't want to live anywhere else. Being home all the time forced me to look deeper, just like you wrote about. Looking deeper I saw that because the house has been here for so long, the foliage and trees have matured and some are so big and beautiful. And I realized that the smallness is an advantage because I can shout to your dad from anywhere in the house and he understands what I'm saying. Also, because it's small, it's a short trip to the kitchen—that's a nice advantage! 

Our bedroom is very small because it used to be a porch, so when we converted it into a bedroom, we were stuck with its dimensions. But when we did that, we also added a lot of windows. Now that I spend so much my time in the bedroom, I appreciate how three walls face the outside and each one has windows on it. It's like living in a sunroom. 

You asked about the struggle to not always think of illness negatively. It is a struggle, despite all the good that's come from it: I've written books that have helped others; I have a good support system of family and friends; I've developed new interests, such as growing bonsai trees in the bedroom. And, although what I can and cannot do is dictated to a large extent by how I feel on any given day, within those limitations, I have a lot of freedom in my life. So there is a lot to appreciate.

Despite this I would still like to wake up tomorrow and not be sick. I think I'll always feel that way, even though taking away the sickness would take away a lot of wonderful things that came about only because I am sick.

So, how do I get to appreciation? I have a motto (that I didn't make up). It comes from the title of a book by Pema Chodron: Start Where You Are.

In my experience, if you can't "start where you are," you can't appreciate your life because you'll be stuck in a dream world. Your dad and I call it La La Land (and did so way before the movie came out)—meaning living in a dream world. But if you "start where you are," it becomes possible for your heart and mind to open to what there is to appreciate in the life you have.

Some days it's easier to "start where you are" than other days. But the days when I can do it, I remind myself that my starting point is a body that's sick and that it isn't going out today. Then I can start to appreciate what I have all around me.

What do you do when you cannot put yourself in the mindset to "start where you are"?

This is where so many Buddhist practices have been helpful to me, starting with mindfulness—and not just in meditation. Actually, I don't meditate as much as I used to. But I do practice mindfulness by working on being aware of what's going on around me and what's going on in my mind. 

So a on day when I'm thinking, "I hate being sick," although I may stew for a bit, mindfulness practice kicks in and I become aware of what's going on in my mind and how that kind of thinking only makes worse me feel worse by turning a difficult day into a disastrous one. Then I say to myself, "Okay, I can't deal with 'start where you are' right now, but that's okay; being sick is hard, and some days I just can't generate that feeling." In other words, I direct compassion to myself. Compassion instead of blame. Mindfulness and self-compassion—two practices that can feel like lifesavers for me at times.

Along with this, I remind myself that some days are going to be tough, and then I rely on the law of change and impermanence to just wait out the mood until it changes or until something external happens that alters how I'm feeling (such as a text from you!).

Toni's bonsai trees

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How We Named Our Kids

Mara here. When you have a child, picking out a name feels like a monumental decision. It feels like a huge responsibility to decide how the world will identify this new human being.

So, needless to say, most people don't immediately know what name they are going to pick. Most parents I know went through several different choices before making a final decision. In some cultures, they don't decide on names at birth. They wait and name their children later on, which kind of makes sense because it seems like names should match a person's personality.

Somehow, it usually works out because most people I know seem to fit their names. But it's always fun to think about names people didn't get stuck with.

Here's how my husband and I...and my mom and dad picked names.

Mara: (Daughter Malia)

We ended up naming her Malia Leigh. But when we first discovered we were having a girl, here are some other names we considered:

Kensington. We lived in the Kensington area of London for several months and I loved the name. I also liked that it would be a unique name. We would call her Keni for short and for several months we would talk to "Keni" in my belly. Of course, Malia doesn't remember this and thinks we were crazy for even considering it.

Bradlee. My husband's name is Bradford and I thought it would be fun to do something related to his name, but it didn't stick. We also thought about it as a middle name because my husband has his dad's first name as a middle name, so it would have been keeping in that tradition...but again, we didn't use it.

Here's how Malia got her name. During the time in the hospital while I was in labor—after many months of calling our child Keni—I decided that I wanted to name her Malia. Malia was the name of a girl I had met during a summer I spent at the ACT Summer Program in San Francisco. I remember, at the time, that I thought Malia was the most beautiful person I had ever met. She was also kind and talented, and the name always stuck with me. (This was before Malia Obama popularized it!) I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me to use this name when we first started thinking about names. I will blame crazy pregnancy hormones.

So somehow during the agonizing hours of labor, the name Malia was decided on for our daughter. And I'm not sure why we decided on Leigh for her middle name. It has no special meaning to me or my husband. I think under the pressure of having a nurse staring at me with legal papers in her hand waiting for some kind of answer, Leigh popped out of my mouth. It's not the most heartwarming of middle-name-deciding stories, but there it is.


Before I describe how my husband and I came up with names for our two children, I have to comment on Mara's story about how Malia got her name because I also got my name at the hospital where my mom went to give birth, but the opposite happened with me when it came time to decide a name. (I'm not sure Mara even knows this story.) 

My parents had decided that if I were a girl, they'd name me Deborah, and if I were a boy, they'd name me Tony. But because Tony (or Toni) was a name that could apply to either gender, my mom told me that while she was pregnant, they called me "Toni." When I was born, my mom and dad realized that I was a Toni because that's what they'd been calling me all those months. 

But there's more to this tale. While my dad was away from the hospital, the nurse came in with those legal papers that Mara referred to. My mom said that they'd chosen the name Toni for their little girl. The nurse said, "You can't name her Toni. That's a boy's name." My mom insisted and spelled it for her, but the nurse wouldn't write it down. At one point, she said to my mom, "I'm going to write down Antoinette." My mom yelled, "No, you're not!" But, not having the strength to argue anymore, she thought of the book, My Antonia, and told the nurse to write down Antonia. 

And so, although I only use it for official signatures, my name is actually Antonia Bernhard! (Actually, Antonia Eve Bernhard, Eve being the name of my father's mother...whom I never met.)

Okay. On to the topic.

My son, Jamal

When I was pregnant, we considered lots of names. Since we're both named Toni (he with a "y"), we couldn't resist considering giving the baby the same name (although we got tired of people asking us if that's what we were going to do). In the end, because we found ourselves laughing whenever we considered it, we realized it wasn't a good idea. 

We chose the name (should our baby be a boy) in a rather mundane way. We loved a TV show called The Outcasts about a Black and a White guy who teamed up after the Civil War to be bounty hunters. The plots centered around the culprits they were after and also the racism that the Black guy encountered at every turn, sometimes from his own partner. 

One night as the credits were rolling, Tony and I noticed that the Black actor's real life name was Jamal David (David was his last name). We said to each other, "Jamal...that's a beautiful name." And so, Jamal it was.

My daughter, Mara

Unlike with Jamal, we knew we were getting a little girl because Mara was adopted from Korea when she was about three. While we waited for her to arrive, we considered lots of names. One of us suggested "Tamara" at which point we both said, "That's nice, but how about just 'Mara.'" And so Mara it was! 

When I asked Tony the other day about how we came up with Mara's name (to be sure our recollections were the same), to my surprise, he not only remembered how Tamara became Mara, but he remembered the very place we were driving when we came up with the name. I have no memory of where we were! 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The 'Tweens: Learn Not to Always Feel Stuck Between the Past and the Future

In the last decade or so, the term "tweens" started surfacing.

It generally refers to kids who are too old to be kids but not old enough to be a teen, so they're in between—or tweens.

Now people are using the term to refer to lots of different age groups—from older toddlers who aren't quite young children, to older teens who aren't quite adults. 

And because almost everything that floats around in my brain eventually becomes about how it can apply to me, I realized that I think I'm a tween. (I suppose we're all tweens, at least in the sense that we're all somewhere between birth and death.)

I don't know if it's human nature to constantly be looking ahead. But I'm very rarely focused on where I am. I'm always looking to where I want to be, or where I think I'm going to be, or where I'm worried I'm headed.

When I was a teen, I wanted to be an adult. When I was an adult, I wanted to be a wife. When I was a wife, I wanted to be a mother. And now that I'm a mother, I am already looking ahead to what's next; I'm thinking about being a mother-in-law and a grandmother. And recently the thought came to me (while I was thinking about being old, but not really old) that in terms of a price of a movie ticket, I'm somewhere between being an adult and a senior citizen. I'm a tween.

Will this feeling of always being between life's milestone markers ever end? Will I always feel like I'm between what has just happened and what will happen next? Even on a smaller scale, I'm always thinking about what needs to be accomplished tomorrow and what I didn't get done yesterday.

Where's the now in all that? Where's the living in the present moment?

I am 42 years old with a healthy, independent daughter and a loving husband and it's taking pretty much every ounce of concentration I have to think about where I am, at this exact moment in my life. I am sitting in a comfortable chair at my desk in my living room. I do know that, but it's hard not to get lost in thinking about what happened before or what is going to happen next.

I guess it's called the circle of life. And any given point on a circle is between two other points. We are always between yesterday and tomorrow. Always between life and death...and possibly whatever comes after death. We are always in between. We only ever have now.

How do we learn to just accept that its okay not to be the same people we were yesterday or to be okay with the fact we might end up being where we don't want to be tomorrow, particularly if we're facing things in our lives that are unpleasant or unexpected?

How do we let go of the past but still enjoy our memories or not worry about the future? How do we plan for tomorrow so we are prepared without losing a sense of where we are today?

For me, it's required spending a lot of time acknowledging that I don't have control over things. I might be a bit of a control-freak, as many people with anxiety are. So my path to being able to enjoy memories of the past or to allow myself to be excited about the future has been through constant reminders that I have to let go of most of my instincts to try and control things. I can't make things change when they don't happen the way I wanted them to. And there's no amount of planning that will ensure that the future turns out the way I want it to. 

I've had to accept that I simply don't have control of, well, almost anything. And the only thing I can truly control is how I respond right now. I can only control my own actions in any given moment.

But I still struggle every day. I have to constantly remind myself that there will never come a time when tomorrow is completely predictable, so no matter how much of today I spend trying to prepare, I can't know what tomorrow holds.

My mom definitely didn't think she'd end up chronically ill. And she never imagined that her main identity outside her family would be as an author. 

As a person with a chronic illness, has it been a struggle to overcome ruminating about the past or worrying about getting more sick in the future? Have your Buddhist studies helped?

It's been a tremendous struggle. At first spent a lot of time thinking of things I should have done in the past while I was healthy, things that I can't do now—such as visiting your family in L.A., especially when Malia was little. I grew up in L.A. after all. I want to show her all my favorite places.

And when I wasn't thinking about that, I was worrying about the future. I won't go through the list of worries. I'm pretty sure that anyone who is chronically ill and is reading this will have a list that would be similar to mine. 

It helped to become aware that both living in the past and living in the future were neither skillful nor nourishing. I was pretty unhappy.

You asked if my Buddhist studies helped? Yes. In fact, they felt like a lifeline to get my me back on track, sick or not. I'll just mention one of the many ways it's helped. I pick this because you brought it up: the realization that we control very little of what happens to us and we control a lot less than most of us think we do. Imagine if we could control things:"Body, wake up healthy"; "Mind, stop thinking stressful thoughts"; "Be happy today and every day; that's an order." Wouldn't that be nice? 

We all know that life doesn't work that way. Things happen to us, based on our past conditioning and the circumstances we find ourselves in. I'm not saying we shouldn't try to control something if we think we can make things better for ourselves or others, but we shouldn't be surprised or dismayed when, in the end, we turned out to have very little control.

One more thing on this subject. In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha offered a list of experiences that all of us can expect in life. Among the items on the list are getting older and encountering health problems. It really helped for me to have the Buddha "tell it like it is" in this way. 

It made me feel normal—and whole as a person—even though I was chronically ill.

Do you think that becoming chronically ill at a relatively young age has made you appreciate the importance of living in the present moment?

It's helped tremendously (not that I wouldn't rather not have become sick). 

For example, take this house, its contents, and its yard. I never appreciated them until the four of us became constant companions. Having to be here all day led me to start paying attention to what was right around me. One thing was the backyard. I’d spent time there before I got sick, but I wasn't truly acquainted with what was growing there. Now I'm "friends" with every tree and bush (and I put "friends" in quotes to emphasize that this is not my hippie background talking).

And I have a few bonsai trees in my bedroom. I can tell you which branch on each one has new leaves coming out. 

So, yes, I'm much more aware of the present moment. But you asked about whether I'm more aware of its the importance of living in the present moment. The answer is "yes" because I've learned that living in the past and living in the future by thinking about them all the time leads to unhappiness. This is because it leads to suffering because, along with those thoughts, come those "wants/don't wants" that we can become obsessed with, but which can't be satisfied. (Of course, I'm not talking about reflecting on the past to learn from it or enjoying sweet memories; and I'm not talking about reasonable planning for the future.)

I do still have my bad days though. I had one on Monday. All I could think of were the things I couldn't do anymore. I was miserable. Once I became aware of what I was doing, the thoughts lost their tight grip on me...but they did persist. Yet I knew that everything is impermanent and that if I was just patient and nice to myself, the blue mood would blow away in a bit. It did, leaving me an opening to find things to appreciate about my life right now. 

(A note about the last paragraph: I realize that this reliance on impermanence to "blow moods away" doesn't necessarily work for people who are clinically depressed. It can be so much harder for them.)

So, yes, being chronically ill has definitely helped me appreciate the value of not focusing on the past and future but living in the present moment.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Memorable Supporting Actor Performances We Love

When we think of our favorite movies, we usually remember the main characters and the actors who play them. It makes sense because they are the ones that get the most screen time and the stories revolve around them. 

But every once in a while there is a performance by one of the supporting characters that is so special that he or she steals the show. Sometimes even a minor character can be memorable. Here are few performances from those who were not the main characters, but became favorites nevertheless!


Emily Watson in Miss Potter, playing Millie Warne. In fairness, this is probably considered a starring role, but she wasn't one of the headline characters. In a departure from the serious roles Emily often plays, in Miss Potter, she's a quirky sister/best friend. She is so completely charming and likable that sometimes I watch the movie when I see it on the cable channels just to see her performance. 

Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada, playing Emily. This is a supporting role, but for me she stole the movie, which is a considerable achievement since Meryl Streep is one of the main characters. And Emily is playing a character who isn't particularly likable. She's snobbish and rude. But she does a great job of making the character three-dimensional, so that by the end of the film, you like her as much as you don't like her. 

Burghart Klaussner in Bridge of Spies, playing Harald Ott. This is a very small role and I'm not even familiar with the actor. But his performance as a Russian bureaucrat is so nuanced that I remember it even though it's only a small part of the film. It's a scene where he's supposed to answer a phone but he picks up the wrong one. His reaction is so realistically awkward that I will never forget it. In a film filled with great performances from a lot of amazing actors, I was surprised to find myself drawn to a small role played by someone I had never seen before!


John C. Reilly in Chicago. He's the last actor I'd think of to cast in a singing role—let alone playing the sympathetic "cellophane man." He's usually cast as someone who's run afoul of the law in some way. I've always loved his acting. 

Helen Mirren in Gosford Park. In my view, any movie is elevated by having Helen Mirren in it. That said, here she plays the head housekeeper in Gosford Park—the "upstairs/downstairs" predecessor to Downton Abbey. Mirren's acting is sharp and precise, and I never fail to cry along with her in a climactic scene toward the end of the movie.

Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility. To me, Hugh Grant played Edward Ferrars (Elinor's love interest) as Jane Austen envisioned him. Quite a feat—partly because the starched-shirt Edward isn't anything like the Hugh Grant we've grown accustomed to in the movies. 

Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine—playing Cate Blanchett's sister. 
Sally Hawkins is one of my favorite actresses, from her excellent portrayal of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion, to being nominated for Best Actress as the star of Happy-Go-Lucky, to this movie where she plays an American working-class woman in San Francisco, trying to make a go of it.

I see that three of my four choices are British. I do love British actors and actresses (including Emily Watson, mentioned above by Mara). I must see Miss Potter!

Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars in "Sense and Sensibility"