Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sometimes the Obvious Answer is the Wrong Answer

Mara here:

First of all: an update from last week's blog—our WiFi is fixed and our cat's paw has healed. Hallelujah!! Small miracles.

What I didn't even bother to mention, which was happening simultaneously with all the other things last week, was that my daughter's tire pressure light came on. This is the second time this has happened in the last month.

My tire pressure light has also been regularly coming on. My daughter's car is new, so when her car's tires get low, it tells you exactly which tire and what the pressure level is. My car is not new, so all that happens is a red exclamation point lights up on the dashboard.

The first time it happened it scared me because being an older type person, the obvious reason that a red light comes on in the car is that something very bad is happening. And surely an exclamation point is important, right?


After a quick Google search, I learned that the light in my make of car can indicate a number of things, but it said that the most common is low tire pressure. Okay, I can handle that.

Kind of.

Putting air in car tires is one of the mundane things that is in theory easy to do, but is not as simple as it seems. It means wrangling an industrial air pressure hose from a self-retracting reel. And then you pay $1.50 in quarters for a short amount of time in which you are supposed to be able to squirt air into all the tires.

So, if you're not experienced at doing this, you don't realize that you need to unscrew all the caps off the tires and measure the tire pressure BEFORE you put the quarters in because otherwise you waste all the valuable time you could be using to put air into the tires and then your time is up and you have to scour your car for another six quarters.

You also have to be able to accurately measure the tire pressure. I'm sure for some people this isn't hard, but I generally get a different reading every time I do it. So it's not an exact science.

But it's fine. I figure putting some air into the tires is better than nothing. Again, it's the obvious thing to do. Right?

But when it happened twice in a month, I realized that both times the tire pressure light came on was when I drove to the airport. And not just any airport—only LAX (Los Angeles' major airport).


Surely my car doesn't know it's at LAX, right? Maybe it's that LAX is further from where I go on my normal driving routines? Or maybe it's because the weight of luggage and passengers suddenly departing from the car causes the air pressure trigger to go off?

I decided to see if the light would come on when we recently made a trip to San Diego. That's a long drive. We would have extra passengers and luggage in the car. I felt pretty sure I had solved the mystery.


The whole trip I waited for the tire pressure light to go on—but it never did.


Okay, maybe it was just a coincidence. This year, my daughter has been doing a lot of travelling. I went years without going to LAX, but this year I've had to go multiple times. So about a couple of weeks after the San Diego trip, I once again had to drop my daughter off at the airport.

Sure enough, as I was leaving the airport, the tire pressure light came on. Whaaaaaat?

I drove home, and the next time I got in my car the light had gone off.

When it came time to go and pick her up from the airport again, I put air in my tires before I went, thinking I would head off the problem ahead of time.

I pulled into LAX and the light popped on.

What is going on? I drive all over the city every week. How is it possible my car knows it's going to LAX. That can't be right, right?

This happens another three times.

Last weekend my husband and my daughter were both out of town, so I had extra cars available to drive. I took the opportunity to take my daughter's car into the repair shop to have her tires checked. They were fine. As I picked up her car, I thought, should I ask about my car? How do I explain that the problem is my car doesn't like LAX?

I decided I didn't care if I sounded crazy. I told the man who was printing out the paperwork to release my daughter's car that I wanted to have my tires checked as well. And I sheepishly said, "So, my tire pressure light comes on, but only when I go to LAX." Then I waited.

"Just the airport?" the repair man asked.

"Yes," I answer, waiting for him to start laughing.

"Do you have a Nissan?" he asked.

"Yes," I reply.

"Well, Nissans are known to have sensitive radio transmission sensors. When you get around a lot of other cars, it will pick up their signals and cause your sensors to go off."

Ohhhhhhhhhh. Relief.

Okay, so I wasn't totally crazy. It was related to going to the airport. It was not my car having an emotional reaction to the airport, which, of course, as a human with no mechanical knowledge is the only thing I could conceive of.

Problem solved.

And while having a car with an aversion to going to LAX would have been a fun anecdote to talk about at parties, it was a relief to know that my car wasn't having mechanical problems. And it was a good reminder that there are often logical explanations for things—even when we can't understand them.

Here's what I asked my mom about this:

Have you ever struggled to solve a problem because you couldn't get past the seemingly obvious answer?

So many times! Here's the latest one I can remember. A few years ago, your Dad came home and told me that seven (yes, seven) warning lights had lit up on the dashboard of our Honda van. I couldn't believe that he'd continued to drive the car. I would have pulled over immediately, afraid the thing would explode if I didn't turn the engine off immediately!

He did take it to our Honda mechanic. As he drove off, I thought, "This is going to be thousands of dollars worth of work." But when he came home, he said the guy told him that it was just a glitch on the computer board. They could fix it for a few thousand dollars, but he said there was no reason to spend the money. We could just live with the irritation.

So my obvious answer to what to do when all those lights came on ("Stop the car and exit it immediately!") was the wrong one. We don't have that car anymore but I always wondered whenever I drove it, "What if one of the things that the glowing warning light refers to is actually malfunctioning? How would I know?" The answer was (I guess) that I wouldn't know, but nobody—neither your Dad nor the mechanic—were concerned about it. We both drove that car for years with the dashboard lights "screaming" at us that everything appeared to be wrong with the car! 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Having to Bandage a Cat's Leg and Other Life Catastrophies

Mara here:

Life has been...well, life.

You don't realize how smoothly everything is going along until things stop going smoothly.

I should start by saying that nothing catastrophic has happened. I'm being melodramatic because that's how I am.

But in life's predictably unpredictable way, things got wonky last week.

On the same day, we noticed that our cat was limping and that our wi-fi had stopped working.

We inspected our cat's paw and saw it was scratched. But it didn't look that bad. And our cats often heal up if we just leave them alone. So we agreed to keep the cat inside and check back with him later.

The wi-fi needed immediate attention. If your house is anything like our house, everything is done online. All of my daughter's schoolwork, college applications, and entertainment rely on having internet access. Brad and I also use it for work and for streaming television.

So not having it makes everything come to a screeching halt.

The thing is, we live in an area with relatively unreliable internet wiring. For years we struggled with AT&T, so a few years ago, we moved to a third party because our internet access had become so unreliable. The new service, Sonic, has worked pretty well. However, they rent the "phone lines" from AT&T, so ultimately AT&T is still responsible for us having access to the internet.

So when the internet went down, we called AT&T. They came out and said it's not the external lines, it's Sonic's internal wiring. So a day and half later Sonic showed up and said, no everything we are responsible for is working; it's AT&T's fault.


Meanwhile our cat's paw had become swollen like a mitt; it clearly was not going to heal on its own. So I took him to the vet. The vet gave him a shot of antibiotics and sent me home with oral antibiotics and a topical cream to apply to the wound, along with instructions for "wrapping up his paw."

I thought, "Okay. I can do that."

An hour later, the cat had scratched the crap out of me, and he wiggled loose from all three of my wrapping attempts.

I finally managed to secure a pad over the paw by mummifying him in a towel while I wrapped up his whole arm with athletic tape.

Fast forward 12 hour laters. I couldn't get the tape off. I had used the small roll the vet had given me in the first failed attempts at a wrapping, so I ended up needing to use an old roll of tape that had clearly aged by becoming ultra sticky.

I had to cut away the tape. If you've ever tried to cut a baby's fingernails, it's similar to the experience of trying to cut a massive amount of tape off of a short-haired cat's leg without stabbing him or myself. 

The icing on the cake was squirting the syringe of liquid antibiotics into his mouth, only to have him turn his head and end up with half the dose on his ear.

All this was happening and we still didn't have internet service.

Three days later, AT&T came out—again—and said, "The lines are working; it's Sonic's fault."

And I took the cat back to the vet who told me I have to continue to give the cat the oral antibiotic, ointment, and wrapping treatment for another whole week.


So, here we are. We don't have Wi-Fi and the cat is limping pathetically on a mostly-healed paw, yowling at the door to be let out, and looking at me with extreme displeasure.

Did I mention that I just started a new job and we are trying to sell our house?

When it rains, it pours.

So, tomorrow, a full week after the Wi-Fi first broke, Sonic and AT&T are both coming out to the house for a "Vendor Meet" to duke it out over who's the faulty party.

In six days, I take the cat back to the vet for a hopefully clean bill of health.

Finger's crossed that next week, life will have settled back into its regular craziness!

I asked my mom a couple of questions about "life's catastrophes."

I remember when your dog, Scout, broke her front leg in two places and you had to deal with her injury for months. Is there a Buddhist mantra to help remind you that the things that feel overwhelming in the moment will pass?

There are lots of "mantras," Buddhist and otherwise for this, several of which I've made up for myself over the years (and then wrote about online and in my books)! 

Of course, there's the well-known "This too shall pass." I thought it was from the Bible, but I just googled it and it appears to come from an unknown medieval Persian Sufi poet. 

Then, here's a phrase I use that I wrote about in a piece for Psychology Today where I described a rough day I was having. Here is it: "The Secret for Surviving a Rough Day" Among my suggestions (with credit to a Beatles song) was this as a mantra to gently repeat to yourself: "It's just a day in the life. You'll make it."

And, in the new edition of my book, How to Be Sick, I added a section about one of my new sayings: "It's okay if..." [fill in the blank]. I find this incredibly useful. "It's okay if Scout's leg is broken [or your cat's paw is injured]. Animals get injured. I'll just take the best care of her that I can." I hesitate to suggest you try it on the internet, as in "It's okay if the internet isn't working..." because, in today's world, it is a challenge to make that okay!

From a Buddhist perspective, I always think of what I call in the new edition of How to Be Sick, "The Buddha's List." It's found in what's known as the first noble truth. He lists the unpleasant experiences that are an inescapable part of the human condition. I won't list all of them, but here's the one I encounter almost every day (if not every day): "Getting what you don't want." That's what happened to me when Scout broke her leg, and that's what's happened to you with your cat and with the internet.

I've learned that getting upset when I "get what I don't want" only makes life harder. Being able to say to myself "Yup, this is one of those unpleasant experiences that's on the Buddha's list," followed by something like "This too shall pass" or "It's just a day in the life" or "It's okay if..." helps me ride those bumps in the road with calmness and equanimity. It's a lifetime of work...but it's my path and I'm committed to it.

I know you and many other people who can't leave their homes much depend on internet service to maintain contact with the world. Have you ever had the Wi-Fi go out and how did you handle being cut off from the computer?

Now you've touched on one of those major "getting what I don't want" items! This is a challenge. The first time it happened after I'd become chronically ill, I made your Dad drag me to Starbucks so I could access the internet. Now when it happens, I invoke one of the "mantras" like I wrote about above, put my computer down, and do something else until the service comes back. That said, I've never had it go out for more than a day, so I'm not sure I'd be so "equanimous" if that happened!

Mara's cat, leg bandaged at last!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Home is Where the the Heart Is...

Mara here:

As readers of the blog know, I'm not a person who enjoys change very much.

It's not that I don't want things to change—I do. But it's hard for me. It causes me a lot of stress and anxiety and sometimes it's so overwhelming that it's difficult for me to really process. When confronted by radical change I tend to go into "survival mode" and I get through it on adrenaline and by doing things without thinking about them.

It's not a particularly nice way to get through things.

Which is why change for me tends to come in spurts. There will be lots of change and then several years where I am completely resistant to even being open to change.

I've been very resistant to change for the past three years.

Things were so crazy for us when Malia was acting. We were constantly traveling. When we finally were home after her television show and DVD series wrapped, I was numb. I tucked myself into my house and ducked my head.

For years my husband and daughter have wanted to move. But I have never been open to the idea. It seemed too stressful. The process of Brad and I buying our house, our first house, in 2003, was so overwhelming that I told myself I was never moving again. Years passed—always feeling as if there wasn't enough time and wasn't enough money to dive into doing anything more to the house than what was mandatory. The result was we bought a fixer upper that never got fixed up.

Fifteen years later, our little house is in need of major renovations.

And change is coming whether I want it to or not.

Malia is going to go off to college next year. Our whole world is changing. Where there were, what I like to call us, Three Tylers. There will only be two. And the house that was so great for Malia as a kid is quickly becoming a looming financial burden.

We have almost 7000 square feet of yard that we have never properly managed. Some of our plumbing is from the original house (built in the 1940's). And the electrical wiring will all need to get redone before any major improvements can be made.

In other words, our house will require hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovations in the not too distant future.

So we're thinking about moving.

Just the thought of moving causes my heart to race because this little house, that's worn down, has been my little piece of heaven for the last 15 years. And thinking about people coming in and looking at our house with a critical eye makes my heart hurt. My identity as an adult is so closely wrapped up in the idea of "my house" and "my address."

But just like having Malia move away and go off to college won't actually make our family a different family; moving doesn't mean I won't have a home.

This past weekend, Brad and I went and looked at some condos that are on the market. The first couple of them didn't feel right. I was worried that maybe I would never find anything that felt right. I kept thinking back to our house.

But then at the final stop that our realtor had planned, we toured a place that we loved. I could see myself living in it. Brad and I both felt the same way about it.

And a feeling of relief washed over me. It made me realize that I can live somewhere else and have it feel like home. As we looked over the different rooms, we talked about where we would move stuff and how we would fit our cars into the garages. We talked about old furniture we would get rid of and new furniture we would buy.

And for the first time in almost 15 years, I actually believed that the feeling of "home" wasn't directly tied to our house. Having my husband, my daughter (when she's visiting), and Pidu our dog, and our two crazy cats in a place we are comfortable in is what makes a house a home.

We might not be able to move to the place we saw, but at least we know now that there are other places besides our house that we could see ourselves living in. 

And even though it's still sad for me to think of someone coming into our house and painting over Malia's growth marks that we loving wrote on the doorjam of the hall, it doesn't change the fact that she grew up. And leaving behind the white tile floors in our entryway that I love seeing in the mornings doesn't mean that there won't be new things I'll look forward to seeing when I wake up.

And the memories won't get left behind.

I will always love our little house. I will always remember it because it was exactly what we needed when we were here. But changes come and it's time to be open to discovering a new home for our family. And our new home will not have less heart.

My mom and dad are also going to move out of their house in the not-to-distant future—a house they've been living in for over 35 years. So I asked my mom about her experience:

When you first thought about moving out of the house, what was your initial reaction to the idea?

My initial reaction, I must admit, was fear that I won't be able to pull off the move because of my limited energy due to the chronic illness I've been struggling with for over 17 years.

I was surprised that I didn't feel sad about moving out of the house where you and your brother were mostly raised. I thought about why this might be and I think it goes back to that chronic illness. I've spent 17 years adjusting to a vastly different life than I ever thought I'd be leading. I thought I'd still be working full-time. I thought I'd be out and about with your Dad. I thought I'd still be traveling to visit you (readers may not realize that I've never even seen your house even though we're only about six hours' drive away from each other).

I think being chronically ill has made me less attached to things in general because I've had to un-attach from most of my expectations about how my life would unfold. And so, for the most part, I don't mind moving from this house even though I love it and have so many wonderful memories of it. I was surprised to find that I'm not particularly sad about it.

You have already done a lot of packing and decluttering. What has it been like to go through over three decades of memories?

It's been a mixed experience. I loved filling the garbage can with things I no longer use. I loved filling boxes with things I no longer use but that someone else might want. It made me feel lighter than air. (Unfortunately, some of that clutter is already sneaking back, so we'll have to do another round soon.)

I loved the process but every once in a while, I'd come across a memory (such as a photo or something you or your brother made) that stopped me in my tracks, sometimes bringing tears to my eyes. I have a special box for those things and they'll be going with me.

Is it hard to imagine yourself having a different address?

Yes, that is definitely hard to imagine! In fact, it feels unreal to me to not have this be our address. After all, it's been our address since 1983!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

7 Tips for Making Peace with Chronic Pain and Illness

Hello everyone. Toni here. Mara is off this week and so I'm going to share a piece I posted at Psychology Today on Wednesday. It's an introduction to the new edition of my first book, but it's intended to stand alone as a "piece for peace" if I may reference the title above!

So, here it is:

I am excited to share that a revised and expanded edition of my most popular book, How to Be Sick, has just been released. Every chapter has been rewritten, expanded, or revised to bring the book up-to-date and to share new ideas and practices to help all of us live well, even if our health is less than ideal.

To celebrate the book’s release (it was a lot more work than I thought it would be!), I’ve made a list of seven suggestions for making peace with chronic pain and illness. All of them are explored further in the new edition.

1. Blaming yourself for what’s happened is misguided because pain and illness are part of life.

Once I understood that everyone faces health challenges at some point in life, I stopped blaming myself for becoming chronically ill (chronic illness includes chronic pain). Letting go of self-blame was accompanied by a feeling of tremendous relief, because I no longer thought that life was being unfair to me or that I’d been singled out in some way.

It’s hard enough to handle the day-to-day challenges of pain and/or illness. When we add self-blame to the equation, our mental suffering multiplies several times over. But this is one type of suffering we can do something about. We simply need to be honest with ourselves about the human condition: everyone is subject to injury and illness; it’s a condition of being alive. For me, being alive is a gift (even if a mysterious one!) and that means I want to find ways to live as rich and fulfilling a life as I can within my limitations. There’s no way around it: chronic illness has drastically limited what I can do but it’s not my fault.

2. Accepting that life is uncertain and unpredictable is the first step toward making peace with your circumstances.

If we had control over our lives, we’d make sure that all our experiences were pleasant ones. But the fact is, more often than not, we don’t get what we want (or we get what we don’t want). At first blush, this may sound like a dark view of the world. It isn’t to me, though, because I’d rather know what to expect than to live in ignorance and be continually disappointed when things don’t turn out as I wish they would.

Accepting that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and that one consequence of this is that we won’t always get our way, opens the door to a living with equanimity. By equanimity, I’m referring to a calm and balanced state of mind that is able to accept with grace whatever comes our way. This is a tall order but, in my experience, it’s also the path to peace. “Path” is the operative word here. I’m not always equanimous, but I’m committed to the path.

3. It’s natural to feel lonely when you suddenly become isolated.

Many of us have been forced to give up active work and social lives for relative isolation. Such a drastic change can be traumatic and bring on a loneliness we’ve never felt before. With time and an effective set of practices, we can turn that loneliness into a feeling of peaceful solitude much of the time. That said, there’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely at times. I still do, even though I’ve written extensively about it. When loneliness pays a visit, I treat it as an old (if uninvited) friend and do something soothing until it passes.

This next tip can help alleviate loneliness.

4. If at all possible, connect with others via the Internet.

Late into the last century, people who were chronically ill only had letter writing, the telephone, or in-person visits as a way to connect with others. I’m unable to do much of the last two and so, had I become chronically ill several decades ago, I’d be almost completely isolated. Today, people who are partially or wholly housebound can connect with others personally, using email, texting, FaceTime or Skype, online forums and groups, etc. 
In addition, the Internet allows us to keep up-to-date on medical news that relates to our specific health challenges.

6. Learning to pace yourself may be the best treatment you’ll find.

Pacing is so important that in the new edition of How to Be Sick I’ve added a section on it, including four suggestions for how to effectively integrate pacing in your everyday life. Perhaps I didn’t include it in the first edition because I still struggle to master this skill. And it is a skill. That said, it remains the best treatment I’ve found, and so I’ll be re-reading that section of the book myself every once in a while!

5. Learning to be happy for others makes your limitations bearable, and can even make you happy too.

If the idea of feeling happy for others who are out and about, having a good time, sounds foreign to you, it’s not a surprise: the English language doesn’t even have a word to describe this feeling. I hope you’ll try it, though, because it can help you feel better about your limitations.

Start by bringing to mind someone who’s happy about something that you don’t crave yourself, such as winning a sporting event or an academy award. As you think about that person’s joy, try to feel happy for him or her. Once you’re able to do that, move from there to feeling happy when a loved one is joyful over something.

The tougher challenge (which is why it takes practice) is to feel happy for someone who is doing something you wish you could do but can’t because of limitations imposed by your health. I give several examples of this in the new edition of the book. One is of my husband taking our granddaughter Malia to see my favorite musical. 

At first, all I felt was envy and resentment. But because I’m committed to this practice, eventually I was able to turn those painful emotions into joy for them. And when I did that, I actually felt happy myself, as if they were going to the musical for me.

I still occasionally get envious or resentful when I hear about people doing things I wish I could do, but at least I have a tool for turning those emotions around. It’s worth the effort because envy and resentment feel awful, physically and mentally. With practice, we can go a long way toward eliminating them from our emotional lives.

7. Make self-compassion your first priority.

I’ve saved my first priority for last. I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read the first edition of How to Be Sick. The most common remark is that, until they read the book, it hadn’t occurred to them that they could—and should—be kind to themselves. And that’s all that self-compassion means: being kind to yourself; being nice to yourself. It’s the best way to ease the mental suffering that comes with chronic illness.

Many people find it easy to be compassionate toward others, but when it comes to themselves, they are their own harshest critics. They don’t think they’re deserving of their own kindness. In my view, there’s never a valid reason to be unkind or harsh with yourself. Of course, you can learn from your mistakes. But learn…and then move on. Don’t get stuck in negative self-judgment over what you said or did. It’s hard enough to struggle with your health every day; don’t force yourself to struggle with self-criticism too.

Self-compassion is so important that I’ve expanded this chapter in the new edition, including adding a new practice on how to tame your inner critic—that unworthy opponent that so many of us have to contend with.


I hope these tips have been helpful. Never forget that despite your health challenges, you’re still a whole person, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

It's Here: A Revised and Updated Edition of "How to Be Sick"!

Mara here:

Most of our blog readers are familiar with my mom's book How to Be Sick about her experience of becoming chronically ill and then the mental and spiritual journey she went on to live with her illness.

It's hard to believe that it's been over eight years since she wrote it.

The fact that she wrote a book has never been surprising to me. She's always been a great writer. I lovingly tease her about the fact she talks slowly and a lot. It was difficult when she used to have to leave me three phone messages because my answering machine would always cut her off.

But her words become magic when she writes them down. It's part of what made her 1st in her class at law school. It's part of what made her a fantastic law professor. It's part of what made her a great Dean of Students at the law school. And it's what has made her book a long-standing best seller.

If you think she sounds like a person you would want to be friends with when you read her writing—it's because it's true.

And she's the most thorough researcher I have ever met. She honestly goes crazy when she researches things. This came in handy when she got sick because most general practitioners don't have time to research unknown illnesses. And it really paid off when she was able to basically diagnose her own breast cancer when the doctors failed to notice an unusual lump in her x-ray.

So when she decided to explore Buddhism, of course she dove in with the energy and enthusiasm she does everything she enjoys. It was a complete immersion.

Honestly, when my parents first became Buddhist, I thought it was a little strange. But the more I learned about it, it really made sense. I was surprised when my dad was attracted to Buddhism because it seemed to be the opposite of his nature, and it has really given him a new perspective on life. For my mom, it seemed very much in line with how she had always been. She's always had Buddha nature. She's always been very accepting and loving. She's always been someone who makes you feel better after you've spent time with her.

When she became ill, she was able to really utilize her spiritual practice to come to terms with the changes she faced. And in documenting her own journey she's been able to help others.

It was not a surprise that when she decided to write a book, she did it with her whole heart and it instantly resonated with people.

The same goes for the new edition. She put months of work into revising and updating her previously crafted words to reflect her new experiences and knowledge.

I had the privilege of reading an early copy and all these years later, How to Be Sick is still compelling and reassuring, but most of all it's helpful. She's still the teacher and the loving parent giving guidance. The new version simply has the benefit of eight more years of life experience and, of course feedback, from readers of the first edition.

I know everyone will enjoy the updated version of How to Be Sick.

Here's the (US) link to the updated version: Amazon.Com

Here's the Barnes & Noble (US) link to the updated version:
Barnes & Noble

I thought people would be interested in knowing more about the updated version of the book, so I asked my mom some questions about it.

1. When will the new edition be available?

The release date is this Tuesday, September 25. I noticed that on the book’s page at Amazon, U.K. and the Book Depository, the release date is listed as October 25. My experience with the other books I’ve had published is that sometimes they become available before the official release date. The nice thing about pre-ordering is that it locks in that price. Right now, Amazon in the U.S. has great pre-order price.

2. Just curious: why did you title the book How to Be Sick?

This is one of my favorite questions! Here’s how the title came about. After I’d been chronically ill for several years, I realized that I needed to learn how to be sick and so, from my bed, I slid my laptop over and opened a Word Document, titling it “How to Be Sick.” Over the next few months, every day or two, I opened the document and added my thoughts or wrote up a practice that I thought would help me adjust to my new life. I sent what I had to a few people I’d met online who were struggling with their health and they said, “There’s a book here.” And so, unlike with my two subsequent books where it took months to come up with a title, for me, this book could only have that title. Kudos to my publisher for agreeing to it!

So, in short, a bunch of notes, originally intended to help me and then intended to help a few friends, turned into a book with a worldwide following. I’m still amazed that this happened. Last month, a pharmacist in Iraq emailed me, asking how she could get a copy.

Every once in a while someone objects to the title, saying, “I don’t want to know how to be sick; I want to know how to be well.” But they’re far outnumbered by those who tell me that they bought the book because of its title!

3. Why did you write a new edition?

Early in 2017, my publisher asked if I’d prepare a second edition. At first I thought "no" because I know how hard it is to write a book—and, after all, I’m still sick. But when I read over the manuscript, I saw so much I wanted to add or improve or update—and even some things I wanted to delete—so I said "yes." 

I added a lot of new practices. In addition, I omitted almost all the Buddhist terms. They simply weren’t necessary because it turns out that only a small percentage of my readers identify as Buddhist. (I’d like to add that I don’t practice Buddhism as a religion. For me, it’s a practical path, which is why the book is intended for people of all—or no—religious persuasions.

Preparing this second edition turned out to be a lot more work than I thought it would be, but I enjoyed it because the basic organization was there so I didn't have to start from scratch. All I had to do was make the book better and I’m confident I’ve done that. 

4. You said you added a lot of new practices. Is there a theme running through them?

I counted the new practices the other day and there are over a dozen of them. I admit, it even surprised me! I would say that the new practices emphasize self-compassion, mindfulness, and equanimity. Those first two terms are thrown around so much these days that they can feel stale. My intent with the new practices is to make self-compassion, mindfulness, and equanimity come alive for people by suggesting very specific ways to integrate them into their lives.

5. In the new Preface, you say that the new edition will place more emphasis on chronic mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Is there a particular practice that would be helpful to people who suffer in this way?

There are several that would be helpful. One is called “Disidentify from Your Inner Critic.” We could all use help with that! Another one is called “Three-Breath Practice.” I have to give your Dad credit for that one because I adapted it from a mindfulness practice he teaches to inmates at Folsom Prison where he’s a volunteer chaplain. It’s a simple practice where you take a moment throughout the day to switch your attention from whatever you’re doing (or thinking) to the physical sensation of three in-breaths and three out-breaths. 

This simple practice grounds you in your body and brings your focus to the present moment—that is, to what’s going on around you right now. This helps relieve mental suffering because it takes you away from being lost in that constant chatter in your mind—chatter that often consists of stressful thoughts and the emotions that go with them. I use this practice myself, randomly throughout the day. It’s very helpful.

6. Do you have any other new books on horizon?

No. People tell me that I should write a book called “How to Grow Old.” (My publisher wanted to keep “How to” in the title, which is why all three of my books start with that phrase.) But that’s not a book I plan to write. A large part of the reason is that many people tell me that How to Be Sick was helpful even though they don’t have health problems because they simply treated illness as a metaphor for the difficulties everyone faces in life. And so, I think How to Be Sick pretty much contains what I’d want to put in a book called “How to Grow Old.” In fact, I’m sure of it because, as I age, I find myself picking up the book for help!

Also, I’m busy with other writing—my online Psychology Today blog and the blog that you and I post once a week.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

And the 2018 Emmy Goes To...

Mara here:

It's Emmy time again. Tomorrow (Monday September 17th—why Monday???) the Television Academy voters will decide the winners for the best television programming for the past year.

If you've been reading the blog, you know that the awards are not just about winning a statue. Winning an Emmy means money for the shows in terms of advertising dollars. (Or for shows on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon, it's about attracting more subscribers.) Yes, the status of winning doesn't hurt the actors or the productions, but it's all about bringing prestige to the show so it will get more viewers and make more money.

Here are the nominees for best shows in the drama and comedy categories:


Game of Thrones
Stranger Things
The Crown
The Handmaid's Tale
This is Us


Curb Your Enthusiasm
Silicon Valley

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unfortunately I don't watch much regular network television, so I'm only familiar with the shows that are on HBO, Netflix, or Amazon. But here's my opinion of the shows I have seen:

Game of Thrones: Great show. I've loved it from the beginning. But I can see how it's not for everyone because it contains a lot of violence. And you have like the fantasy genre. But it's one of the few shows that I think has gotten stronger over the years. Strong acting, strong production values, and always an adventure.

Stranger Things: Really fun show. Love the characters, but not a "best show" contender for me. I just think it's fun. And Brad loves the 80s so that's an added bonus.

The Crown: Stunning production and the acting is wonderful. I also love learning some of the lesser known bits of history that the show featured. 

The Handmaid's Tale: This is a really well done production. It's dark and it's violent, but not in the same way Game of Thrones is violent. This is more emotionally violent. The acting is really superb and the dystopian world they create is frightening.

Westworld: I like this show, but it's a little hard for me to watch because it's a show that is confusing on purpose. The acting is very good and the production is beautiful, but I don't love the show. I don't get lost in the plot because it's confusing and I know they're trying to trick me.

Barry: This is a quirky little show on HBO. It's being categorized as a comedy, which it is, but it's a definitely a dark comedy. The lead character is a hitman who decides that acting is his calling. We watched it because we're fans of Bill Hader and it's filmed around the L.A. Valley where we live, so we thought we'd give it a try. And we ended up really liking the show. The characters are surprising, but likeable, and if you have ever lived in L.A., you will get some of the inside jokes.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: This show is great. I started it thinking I wouldn't like it. It looked like fluff. It's so charming and funny and smart. Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein are fabulous. The whole cast is great, but the two leading women are really what make the show come together.

Toni here:

I'm afraid I can't contribute much to Mara's analysis, although I've now put some of the shows she discussed onto my list of things to watch. (Right now I'm semi-binge watching episode after episode of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix.)

I did watch Curb Your Enthusiasm (good, but not its best season in my opinion) and The Crown, which I loved. I'm particularly looking forward to the next season of The Crown because I love the actress who will now be playing Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). And, Helen Bonham Carter (another favorite of mine) will be playing Princess Margaret. 

I read an analysis of The Crown that described exactly how I watch it: watch; pause; google; watch; pause, google, etc. I had so much fun reading online about the various characters and how the show sometimes stretched or altered the facts. And I learned a lot about British history, which was nice because I love books by British authors (including Scottish and Irish authors).

Two more things. In my opinion, Better Things should have been nominated for Best Comedy. At least its star, Pamela Adlon, was nominated for Best Actress. It's my favorite TV show. Second, I hope Julia Louis-Dreyfus is back soon. Her comedic rendition of Selena in Veep is incredible.

Mara and I would love to know: What was your favorite show from last season?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sometimes We Need to Lose Sight of the Big Picture

Mara here:

Sometimes, when I'm feeling contemplative and have a moment of peace, I feel as if I've really accomplished some growth in my life. I feel like I've done some soul searching and really made progress toward understanding what the important things are to focus on and sorting out some of the clutter that doesn't need my attention.

I have a great marriage, my daughter seems reasonably well-adjusted for an almost adult teenager, and we live a comfortable life.

And then I hear a noise. It's a little clicking noise. Click. Click. Silence. Click.

And I slowly start lose my mind. I can ignore the first time I hear it. Even the second and third times don't cause me to stop what I'm doing. But after the fifth or sixth click, I can't stop thinking about it.

It's a fly.

The click is the sound of a fly bouncing off the long closet mirror doors we have in our bedroom.

It's a very distinct sound, like someone delicately throwing a small pebble at the window. And for some reason, this sound absolutely makes me crazy.

I know it's not very Buddha of me, but if the fly doesn't figure out within about a minute that it can't fly into the mirror, then I have to try and kill it. If reincarnation exists, I will be coming back as a fly.

The other day, as I was reading a book, a fly made the unfortunate mistake of getting trapped in our room. And sure enough, the clicks began pinging. This particular fly also made a very loud buzzing noise as it would swish by the bed on it's way to and from the mirror. Buzz, click, silence, buzz, click, silence, click, click, buzz, silence.

I felt my blood pressure rise, and my face flush. My mind raced into a blur of nothingness.

For an instant, I lost sight of the world around me. It felt a bit like the movie "The Matrix," where time actually slowed down and I had a split second of awareness outside of body.

Then as quickly as it happened, I snapped back into reality.

I felt a little shaky because I wasn't sure what had happened. The only thing I could feel was this overwhelming sense of not having any control.

In this whole big wide world, something as small as a fly could shift my entire being in just a few moments.

I'd love to be able to say that somehow that moment changed my entire outlook on life. I would love to have had a Byron Katie or Ekhart Tolle "Ah ha!" life-changing experience that suddenly made me a pillar of peace and well-being.

I didn't.

But it did remind me that I can't be so focused on the big things in life that I forget that small things also need to be attended to. It doesn't take much sometimes for small things to throw life out of balance. Sometimes I get so focused on the big picture, that I forget the big picture is just a million small pictures that make the whole image.

Here's what I asked my mom about this subject:

It would have been easy for you to have lived your life with your chronic illness, letting being sick dominate your existence. How were you able to get past the big picture of "being sick" to just being?

Great question. To be honest, some days being sick still dominates my existence. But I have some "go to" reflections and practices that help me get past the big picture to, as you call it, "just being."

First, a few years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today on the very subject of thinking small! Here it is if people would like to read it: "What to Do When Gratitude Is in Short Supply." I give lots of examples of how thinking small can be helpful.

Also, I rely on the books of Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. One thing she says is that the only thing we can truly rely on in this world is life being as it is. This has been helpful to me so many times. On days when I'm stuck in that the big picture of having been chronically ill for over 17 years, I remember her words and say to myself: "All I can rely on is life being as it is at this very moment. This moment, I feel sick; so be it. But there are other things going on in this moment too—my sweet doggie is by my side, my bonsai looking beautiful in the sunlight."

This allows me to let go of the "big picture" (years of life-dominating chronic illness) and let the small things of the moment that are a source of joy and happiness enter my heart.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

College: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Mara here:

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you already know that my daughter, Malia, is a senior in high school. Senior year. It's finally here.

For years, my daughter has talked about this moment. When she was younger, she was mostly enamored with the idea of being older. She was anxious to be "an adult." And as she got older, the excitement was less about being older and more about going to college.

My memories of being Malia's age are fuzzy. I was already taking classes at U.C. Davis and I was not involved with the process of trying to decide about colleges. And even if I had gone through a more traditional process, I'm not sure it would have helped me prepare for what Malia is now going through.

The vague memory I do have about deciding about college is that if you were a good student then you knew you would get into a good college.

This doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

Malia is currently ranked #5 in her class. She's 5th out of almost 600 seniors in her class. You would think this means that she would have her choice of schools to go to.

It doesn't.

The reality of college admissions these days is that the competition for the top universities is so fierce that there are no guarantees about anything. Twenty years ago, good grades and good test scores were all you needed. Now, having over a 4.0 grade point average (Malia's is somewhere around 4.5) and good test scores is the baseline for the top-ranked schools.

So what gets you into top university? There's no formula. Too many kids get good grades, and too many kids get good test scores. So, in the sea of academically accomplished kids, how do universities decide?

For some schools it's about extra-curricular activities. Are the kids involved with student government, a sport, a charity? For other schools, it's about the admissions essays.

Unfortunately, for the kids, it makes the whole process unbelievably stressful.

When I was growing up, most of the kids I knew went to a UC (University of California). Sure, there were some UCs (Berkeley or UCLA) that were more difficult to get into, but you could definitely get into one of the UCs if you had decent grades. And there were always the state schools. Schools like Chico State or Sacramento State were great options for kids who didn't have the grades for the UC system.  But even the state schools are now highly competitive.

And the state schools are no longer considered cheap. The average cost for UC in-state tuition is around $30,000, including housing. When I was attending UCD my quarterly tuition was $1200.

This means that more and more kids are going to out of state schools because it's not necessarily cheaper to stay in California. Out of state schools like Texas or Wisconsin are giving scholarships to lure California students to their schools.

My point is that the application process for kids these days is complicated. And it's unnerving for kids to know that no matter what they do, it may not be enough to ensure admittance to their first-choice schools.

For Malia, the stress around being accepted into college started Freshman year of high school. Yes, 9th grade is when the stress starts. Every grade counts in high school. It's also the year we started to get mail from universities marketing themselves.

And because the emphasis of every high school class choice, grade, and activity has been carefully chosen for the purpose of getting into college, now that she's faced with trying to decide which schools she wants to apply for, it feels almost paralyzing. So many years of work have led up to this moment.

For Malia, it feels like the college she picks will determine the course of the entirety of the rest of her life.

And I guess on some level that's true.

But the reality is that Malia is fortunate in that she'll have lots of options. She might not get into her first-choice schools, but she will be accepted into many great schools. And the thing about life is that for many of the moments that feel pivotal, there are no real wrong choices. They're simply different paths.

Malia and her dad are going off this weekend to visit Vanderbilt in Nashville. They're visiting because part of the craziness of college admissions is that many schools are now choosing a large portion of their Freshman class if they apply and commit early. That means she has a much better chance of being accepted to Vanderbilt if she applies early with the understanding that if they admit her she will go. It's binding. If she backs out of the early acceptance agreement, it means her high school will be blackballed from Vanderbilt admissions for a set number of years.

This is what it's come to. Her chances of being accepted almost doubles if she applies early. (This is same for most private schools now.) But that means she won't have the opportunity to even apply to other schools.

So we'll see. For me, I am not concerned about what school she will attend, because I feel certain that wherever she ends up, she will have a great time. It will, in the long run, feel like the right decision. This is because, while going to college seems like a big life decision, it's not a decision that determines the rest of your life. Because every day is the first day of the rest of your life. Every day you have the chance to make different choices.

But it's hard to know that when you're 17 years old. And I don't expect her to. And a year from now, hopefully she'll be excited with the decision that she made.

Did you remember feeling a lot of stress about what colleges you were going to apply to and attend?

It would have been stressful, but my mother had just remarried (after my father's death eight years before) and, unfortunately my new stepfather took over her finances and made it clear to me that they wouldn't pay for private college—that my only option was a UC school. 

In sum, my relationship with him was stressful (to say the least!), but the decisions around college were not.

When Jamal was applying to colleges, was it stressful for you as a parent?

I recall being concerned about how we'd pay for a private college, but it never came to that because he decided to go to a UC.

Thinking about it, our family has been enrolled at a lot of the University of California campuses: I went to Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Davis (the first two as an undergrad and the last one briefly as a graduate student and then for law school); Your dad went to Riverside and Davis (the first one as an undergrad, the last one as a graduate student); you went to Davis; Jamal went to San Diego; and Brad got his MBA at UCLA. That's five different UC campuses!

It's a good thing I transferred from Santa Barbara to Riverside after my Freshman year because it's at Riverside that I met your Dad. But that's a story for another day!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hamilton: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes of Genius

Mara here:

My path to discovering and appreciating the musical Hamilton was a start and stop windy road. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it was the 2016 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical. But long before the award ceremony that year, Hamilton had been making headlines for years.

Inspired by the book "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow, Hamilton the musical was the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was reading the book on vacation (yes, he's the type of guy who takes a giant book about the life story of Alexander Hamilton on vacation) and had the inspiration that the life of one of the least known founding fathers would make a great musical. Even more unlikely, it was going to be a rap musical.

Miranda had already had success with his first Broadway show In the Heights, which he wrote and starred in. The story of In The Heights was closer to his own about life as a Puerto Rican living in the Washington Heights area of New York. In the Heights won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was only 28 at the time.

Miranda's original idea for Hamilton was for it to be rap concept album known as the Hamilton Mixtape. Yes, you heard me correctly. He wanted to create a rap album based on the life of Alexander Hamilton.

If you're scoffing, you're not the only one. But Miranda was confident that the life he read about in Ron Chernow's book, which described the turbulent life of an immigrant fighter who came to United States, young, hungry, ambitious and full of words, could only be properly portrayed with rap—a music style where words are the key. Words are poetry and words are weapons.

Alexander Hamilton, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, was a man of words. The more you learn about Hamilton and the more you learn about Miranda, you can understand why Miranda saw the potential in Hamilton's story. He related to Hamilton's immigrant journey to America (Miranda's father immigrated from Puerto Rico) and to the way Hamilton expressed himself in his prolific writings.

So confident was Miranda in his idea that Hamilton's story could be told as a rap, that in 2009, when he was invited to The White House Poetry Evening to perform, and he debuted his concept. In front of President Obama and a room full of the country's foremost politicians and artists, he started rapping:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

And for three minutes he rapped, with just a piano behind him, the introduction to the life of Alexander Hamilton. (You can see a video of the performance here.)

Jaws dropped.

Fast forward 7 years and Hamilton wins 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical.

But the years between 2009, when Miranda first introduced the world to the idea of the Hamilton Mixtape, and 2016 when Hamilton the musical was a worldwide phenomenon were filled with twists and turns.

Once you know the story of Alexander Hamilton, you wonder how it hadn't become familiar earlier. He was an orphaned immigrant who married into one of societies best families. He was the right-hand man to George Washington, and became the nation's first Treasury Secretary. His story includes political scandals, an extra-marital scandal, the death of his eldest son to a duel, and ultimately his own death by gunshot in a duel with Aaron Burr. In the prologue of the musical, in a song titled "Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story" it is eerily stated: "Every other founding father's story get told. Every other founding father gets to grow old."

I grew up almost living at my local musical theater, performing and working behind the scenes on the production side. But as I got older, I haven't embraced that many of the newer shows. There have been a few over the years, like Rent and Wicked, that have won me over. But otherwise for the most part, they've passed by me unnoticed.

However, with Hamilton, I was unable to ignore it. I had of course been hearing the buzz about this strange rap musical that was getting everyone's attention. But it wasn't until an acquaintance of mine was hired to be in it, that I really took notice. I started seeing her regular posts on social media about the show. She joined the cast as it prepared to open at the Rogers theater on Broadway. (For those of you unfamiliar with how a show gets to Broadway, it's a long process that involves shows being workshopped and previewed in theaters before it moves to Broadway.)

So I saw her pictures and her posts as she prepared. And then the show opened and suddenly I was hearing about the show on the news, and other friends on Facebook were posting about it. I was intrigued by the idea. The show went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, and the fervor for the show kept growing. But I still didn't bother to listen to it. There was almost too much hype. I was kind of overwhelmed with the idea of how much everyone seemed to love this show.

And then one day I turned on the news and the cast of Hamilton was on. The cast was at the White House and I saw my friend sitting with her castmates performing for the President and the First Lady. I texted her and said, "Oh my gosh I'm watching you on MSNBC right now!"

And although I had heard about the revolutionary concept of the show: a) that its a rap musical about 1700's American and b) that all the lead characters are portrayed by minority actors, the full impact of what that meant hadn't hit me until I saw them lined up on the TV screen.

I watched them perform. It was a concert-style performance, so they weren't in costume, but one song in particular hit me, like an arrow to the heart. It was the song titled "One Last Time" sung by Chris Jackson, an African American actor playing founding father George Washington. The song depicts Washington's decision to step down as President. It was a revolutionary idea at the time, from a new nation born from a history of monarchs, that someone would willingly give up their hold on leadership.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton sings:
Why do you have to say goodbye?

Jackson, as Washington sings:
If I say goodbye,
the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone

I was hooked.

I was watching an African American leading man singing about being America's first President, and singing it to Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States. And it was in Obama's final year of his presidency. We were all preparing ourselves to say goodbye to him. I started crying. (You can see the performance here.)

I went to my phone and bought the Hamilton album and listened to it non-stop for a month.

I won't go into the all the reasons why I love the music, but it's masterful.

I won't even go into all the reasons the show is revolutionary, but it is.

And as I grew to love the show, I realized that what Lin-Manuel Miranda had done was the work of someone really special. He's unique. He's a genius.

And everything I've learned about him and the show since has confirmed my belief that he's someone whose genius will continue to amaze us for decades to come.

I recently discovered that I can borrow books through my local library that I can read on my Kindle or listen to on my phone. This was pretty exciting for me because I read very quickly, so spending money on books has to be carefully restrained. I stopped reading hardcopy books a few years ago, so my trips to the library stopped. But now that I have access to borrow digital books, I am excited to be able to read more books without the constraints of my budget. Ron Chernow's book about Hamilton landed on my list of "I'm interested, but not $15 bucks interested." But I could now borrow it.

So I typed "Hamilton" into the library search and a book about the making of the musical was the first item that popped up. I didn't even know it existed and I was immediately interested. I wanted to check out how the audiobooks worked with library so I borrowed the audiobook version and began listening to it as I jogged.

And the book gave me an amazing glimpse behind the work of the genius that is Hamilton.

When you watch a movie or a musical, you can see how special the work is. But listening to the detailed descriptions of how the musical was formed over the 7 years from the initial idea of a rap album to fully staged production is truly inspiring. And it's not only the genius work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the work of the team of people who created what became the worldwide phenomenon.

Reading, or listening, to the process of how people with gifts beyond my comprehension can create always amazes me. I love being able to get a glimpse of what's behind the curtain of masterpiece creations, because there's always so much more than what initially meets the eyes. Masterpieces have layers and layers of work that support them.

It's not hyperbole to say that Hamilton has revolutionized the musical industry and had a significant impact culturally. For the first time an almost completely ethnic cast, portraying Caucasian historic figures, has been embraced. Not only have they been accepted, they have been celebrated. 

It's a musical style that is complex, but is also alluring for young people. It's a musical that is inclusive. It's a mix of styles that include rap with traditional musical ballads. And it's historically accurate but also timely in its relevance to the social and political climate of today.

It's the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda that made it possible.

If you are a fan of Hamilton, I would highly recommend the book Hamilton: The Revolution written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. There is also a great video documentary on Amazon called Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway.

For a video from the 2016 Tony Awards, so you can see what the fully staged production looked like, you can watch the video here.

I asked my mom this question:

Was there a show or music, like Hamilton, that revolutionized the genre for your generation?

In the generation before mine, it was Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific because it contained an interracial romance. As a child, I loved that musical and had the great fortune to watch some of the filming of the movie on the island of Kauai...but that's another long story.

In my generation, to me, it was the work of Steven Sondheim that revolutionized the genre, from A Little Night Music to Sweeney Todd to Into the Woods. His ability to take complicated dialogue with a huge number of words in it and then fit it seamlessly into his melodies was astounding. (Mara note: Miranda credits Sondheim as a huge influence—particularly his work in Into the Woods where the witch essentially raps as a way to convey a lot of story through song.)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Imagining the Story of People's Lives

Mara here:

I'm not a person who generally goes out of my way to be neighborly. I try not to be unfriendly, but I am not the lady knocking on people's doors with plates of welcome brownies. In fact, just a couple of months ago I met one of my neighbors across the street for the first time in 14 years.

It's not that I'm rude. I've waved to him from across the way when we both happen to see each other in our respective driveways. But I am a private person. I don't want to be surrounded by people I feel obligated to talk to each time I leave my house.

But, despite my instinctive nature to keep to myself, I can't stop my imagination from creating lives for some of the people I see daily. It's like pareidolia, the syndrome where people see human faces in everyday objects. I create full lives out of the glimpses of some people I see on a regular basis.

It's not something that I do for every person I see. In fact, it's rare that it happens. I'm pretty good at just letting people walk by unnoticed.

The first time I realized it was happening was when my husband I lived in London. We lived near Notting Hill tube station. So every day I would get off the tube and turn left, walk by the fishmonger, and across the street there was a woman who would always be sitting in the Seattle Coffee Company window. She had a small laptop tethered to her cell phone, and she would be sitting typing.

First, she was a very pretty woman. She was petite, with brown hair. She was always dressed in what appeared to be business attire. And she was always sitting in the same spot. Second, having a laptop tethered to a cell phone was pretty technologically advanced. It was 1998. She was very high tech.

I was usually schlepping by in whatever errand running attire I had thrown on that day, with no cell phone (because we didn't have accounts in London) and no real regular routine.

So I noticed her. And every day I got more intrigued by her. What was she doing? Why was she there? What did she do professionally? Was she a writer? Was she a reporter? She looked wealthy, was she wealthy? Why was she in a coffee shop every day in the afternoon?

And in my mind I made up various stories about what she did, and what her life was like. I created an existence for her because I couldn't stop my brain from filling in the gaps of her life. I would create a boyfriend for her. Sometimes she would have a husband. I imagined she lived in a fancy flat, and worked at some executive type job. I imagined she would leave the coffee shop and meet friends at a trendy bar.

Seeing her everyday made her feel like a part of my life.

Twenty years later, the image of that woman in the window of that coffee shop is still one of my primary memories of my time in London.

Fast forward to now. And instead of a woman in the coffee shop, it's a woman who jogs around our neighborhood. We often jog at the same time, so we do the friendly neighbor thing and sort of wave at each other.

But this woman doesn't just jog. She runs. She runs at high speed—for hours. And she runs in circles through the neighborhood. When I was marathon training, I would run in big loops through the city, or go to the jog park and run laps around the mile track.

But my neighbor runs in loops through the neighborhood. So on my two mile jog, I sometimes see her three or four times running past me. And then I see her another couple of times because I walk my dog around the block when I get back from my jog. And then I'll see her again after I've showered and am in my car on the way to the grocery store.

So of course my first thought is, why? Why does she run so fast? Why does she run for so long?

She also rides her bike. Similar to her running, she rides at high speed. She always has on a backpack and, again, she loops through the neighborhoods.

In my mind, I've decided she's in the armed forces. I imagine that she exercises because it's part of her job. She needs to stay fit because she's in the military and it's what she does. When she's running, she really does seem very robotic about it, almost a terminator. There's nothing relaxing about it. She doesn't listen to music. She doesn't wear a hat or sunglasses. She's just out there running.

And I'm not sure why I think she's in the military. I've asked my husband (who also sees her regularly) if he thinks she's in the military and he said "no." So it's something I've made up. It's how my mind has filled in the gaps of why she does what she does.

And I know that I'm not alone in doing it. Books are written about it. Fortunately, unlike the protagonist in the popular book Girl on the Train, I have managed to not get dangerously obsessed with the people I get fixated on.

But I find it fascinating that there are certain people that, through the decades of my life, my brain has fixated on. I see dozens of people every day. And most pass by without making any real lasting impression. Even people I see regularly. I see them and think "neighbor" or "mom" or "guy." But there are those few who my brain latches onto. And once that happens, my mind seems to need to create a whole life out of the glimpse I get.

So I asked my mom if this has ever happened to her:

Have you ever created a story for someone and then met him or her and realized that your imagined story was completely different than the reality?

I've never made up whole stories of people's lives which, by the way, sounds like fun; maybe I should try it.

But...I have created stories of why people have behaved a certain way (often towards me!). The amazing thing is that I'm almost always wrong. When I attribute motives to why people have acted a certain way and then find out the real reason, I'm usually way off base. I'm finally learning that people can behave the way they do for a lot of reasons and that it's a waste of my precious time and also often a source of stress for me to make up reasons or worry about it.

For example, just the other day, a friend didn't get back to me about something she said she would. I thought she'd forgotten or didn't care enough only to find out that there was a completely valid reason for the delay in her getting back to me. Because, from experience, I knew that my assessment was likely to be wrong, every time a negative reaction about her would arise, I'd tell myself to "knock it off" and just be patient. I find that helpful. I've spent far too much time in life trying to figure out people's motives, only to be wrong most of the time.

The only thing I'd add to your piece is that I've noticed that no matter how boring a life seems from the outside, if you actually hear a person's live story, it's always interesting and full of twists and turns you'd never imagined. So your jogging neighbor may not be in the military, but I'll bet she's led a fascinating life!