My Summer Reading List

People are always asking for book recommendations on Facebook, especially in the summer with the prospect of beach reading ahead. I do it, too–usually with a disclaimer like “Yes, I’ve already read Gone Girl.”

This summer, I got the best list of book recommendations ever. I noted that I love a good novel but I also adore non-fiction, and people really outdid themselves with suggestions.

Here’s a partial list of some of the excellent books that I read this summer–and that I’ll recommend to you, particularly if you have a little unfulfilled med student in you, like I do:

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson [Yes, I got on a big Erik Larson kick. I’m also reading Isaac’s Storm right now.]

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I read a few novels, too, but other than Anne Tyler’s excellent A Spool of Blue Thread, I’m struggling to pull the names out of my head at the moment. I feel like I should have kept a log, like the kids who participate in the public library’s summer reading program. Maybe I would have won a free ice cream sundae or something.

At any rate, even though summer is winding down, if you’re looking for a book to immerse yourself in, check these out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy 2015!

Happy New Year! It’s 2015, and I am making a concentrated effort to write 2015 on all my checks, files and other documents. As you probably know, that’s much harder to achieve than you think it’s going to be.

Speaking of 2015, if you have a minute, please check out my latest article on 7 Family Fitness Ideas for 2015.

That was a fun piece to write, by the way. It did make me wonder, however, if I’m really gutsy enough to ever take my kids stand-up paddleboarding. Well, given that one of my goals* for this year is to make sure that Andrew learns how to swim and William improves enough at swimming to lower my blood pressure, it will likely not happen for this family in 2015. Maybe in ’16.

*My main goal is to be more grateful. Which is very important to me but perhaps slightly less exciting than Andrew’s goal for 2015, which is to learn to climb a tree.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Joy of Small Stuff

Yesterday, my older son William taught his little brother Andrew how to play the classic game Uno.

Rain was starting to drizzle outside, and the kitchen was cozy. The boys plunked down at the kitchen table, while I made turkey sandwiches for lunch. William began to explain how to use a wild card, what the reverse card meant, and so on. Andrew listened gamely and studied the cards in front of him, although he insisted on leaving them all face-up in front of him, negating any suspense the game might have developed. They chattered cheerfully back and forth to each other as they flipped cards down.

There was no fighting or arguing. There was no tussling. There was no yelling, screaming, scratching, screeching, hollering, slapping, tripping, stomping, or smacking. It was one of those perfect soap-bubble kinds of brotherly love moments that I wanted to preserve forever. This quick photo that I snapped with my phone is about as close as I could get.

William and Andrew play Uno

Today in church, the Prayer of Thanksgiving included this series of lines:

“It is easy to be grateful for large things that shape our affairs and sway our lives, the looming miracles of grace that stop us cold in our tracks and shout the mercy of God. Let us know be thankful, too, for small graces that catch us unaware; that occur when we are too busy–or so we fancy–to pause and take notice; or are so subtle, and we so unfeeling, that we disregard them altogether; or so uncommon that we overlook them and miss the patch of heaven they possess.”

Small graces, like that game of Uno. Later that afternoon, there was, yes, some tussling and wrestling and screaming and screeching. There always has been, there always is, there always shall be. But those fleeting moments of harmony are just so delicious in their small perfection. While I sliced apples to put on the plates with the turkey sandwiches, my two children were happily enjoying each other’s company–and it was completely their own idea. I hadn’t asked them to play together. They just did. And I was lucky enough to be right there, seeing and listening. And being thankful. It didn’t matter that they fought later. There, at the kitchen table, there it was.

The Prayer of Thanksgiving noted that small blessings could be as simple as two friends meeting in the supermarket aisle or the smile from a child we don’t know. And then there was this line near the end:

“…[Because you came and lived among us, we know the magic of surprise blessings and the joy of small stuff.”

The Big Stuff matters, of course. It matters a lot. But ah, the small stuff. The Uno game. The perfect flavor of ice cream on a hot July night. Clean warm socks in January. The way that Andrew carefully kisses my nose when I ask him to give me hugs and kisses. The feeling of being completely immersed in a really good book. The soccer coach who gives a high-five to the kid on the other team when he scores a goal. The woman who hugged me when she ran into me at church and says, “I’m so glad to see you!” The heirloom tomatoes that my mom brought to my house a few nights ago.

The small stuff. It’s the stuff that you might miss if you blink. Or even if you do notice it, you might not remember it. It might seem insignificant when compared with larger events or situations. How can you stack up an Uno game against the loss of a job, or a loved one’s serious illness, or the pressures of work? Or even the big good stuff, like the marriage of two people who are so clearly thrilled to be legally hitched, or the birth of a long-awaited child, or a new job with a good paycheck and benefits?

I want to take more joy in the small stuff. I want to notice it and revel in it. I want it to become bigger than just “small stuff.” I want my memories to be chock-full of that small stuff, in fact. The Uno game. The moments that are so dear in their small perfection–or even their small joyful imperfection. I am grateful to have the opportunity to cherish the small stuff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Writer Looks at 40

(With apologies to Jimmy Buffett.)

So I’m going to be 40. Not some day. In two days. On Friday. 40. The big 4-0.

I remember when my dad turned 40. I remember all the silly cards and black balloons emblazoned with “over the hill.” One of his friends gave him a cane. I was 12 at the time, and 40 seemed…maybe not old, exactly, but really far away. Like a country that I knew was on the map but never really expected to visit.

And now 40 is 48 hours away. Not an exotic country on the opposite side of the globe. It’s the Starbucks a block away.

I don’t feel quite as bad about my life–the life I’ve already lived or the life that I will live, going forward–as Jimmy Buffett did in his song. I don’t really think I’ve made any giant mistakes; in fact, I feel pretty good about a lot of the big decisions I’ve made. I went to a great college. I chose the right career path (and I had opportunities to follow other paths there, but managed not to get derailed. See: Jennifer’s law school acceptance, spring 1998). I followed the boyfriend to California after grad school. I stuck with writing. I married the boyfriend. I had two kids. We moved to Nashville.

Not to imply that I haven’t made any crummy decisions along the way. Bwahahahaha, no. But we won’t get into those now here, in public, on the Interwebs. Most of them aren’t really noteworthy anyway. Especially not anymore. Not even worth a tweet or a post on Facebook, and thank God that those social media outlets didn’t exist back then.

Yes, overall, things have turned out okay. Better than okay, really. And the things that really weren’t okay are still there, on the pages of the history of my life, and I haven’t forgotten them. They affected the person I became. I just try not to let them define my current life. So why do I still feel a little melancholy? Good question.

I moaned to my husband the other night that now that I’m going to be 40, I’m never going to be the lead singer of a rock band. I’m never going to medical school (he snorted at this). I’m never going to be in the Olympics.

But so what, right?

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed author Alice Randall for a magazine article. She had just written the (very fun) novel “Ada’s Rules” about a woman who decided to embark on major changes to her lifestyle to become healthier and happier. The book was terrific. Alice Randall was even better. After we’d talked for about an hour, and I’d started to put away my notebook and voice recorder, she asked me if I was ever going to write a book.

[Side note: people who write for a living get asked this question all. the. time. Some respond with despair because they really want to write a book but just can’t seem to make it happen. Others use this as an excuse to talk and talk and talk about the novel that they’ve been writing for an eon. Before you ask a writer this question, decide how much time you have to listen to his or her answer and proceed accordingly.]

I hesitated and decided to be honest. Usually, I tell people that my job as a journalist is to tell other people’s stories, not my own. But sitting there in her living room, I said, “Well. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe….” Because maybe I do. And maybe my glib answer isn’t really completely true anymore. I admitted to her that I didn’t know exactly which story to follow yet, but that I thought that somewhere inside of me, there was a story or maybe many stories that I wanted to tell. Someday. I just wasn’t sure how yet.

And she said something that is so profound that I still think about it all the time. She nodded reassuringly and said, “God isn’t finished with you yet.”

That has become sort of an unofficial mantra for my life.

God hasn’t finished with me yet.

I may be (gulp) turning 40. But it is far from over. I am far from over.

It’s reassuring to think that maybe, just maybe, a lot of the living I’ve already done is a prelude to the rest of my life. A warm-up. Important, but not all there is. There’s much more to come. Yeah, I’m not as young as I used to be, and my kids are starting to give me gray hair, but it’s okay.

God hasn’t finished with me yet.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Y’all, I made a hat!

Y'all, I made a hat!

The first hat I’ve ever made. Okay, the first hat I’ve ever made that didn’t involve paper plates and tissue paper. Now that I’ve knitted one hat, I’m pretty sure I can do it again. Thank goodness for simple patterns.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Knit twice

About ten years ago, I tried to learn to knit.

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Palm Springs, and one of my editors suggested that a fun feature for the education beat would be a story about the newfound popularity of knitting among kids and young adults. That sounded kind of fun, so I reached out to a couple of local schools that started knitting clubs and dropped by a local yarn store to inquire about interviewing one of their knitting instructors. 

The knitting store woman was pleased that I wanted to write an article about knitting, and she was happy to talk to me about it. “But only under one condition,” she said. “You have to let me teach you how to do it yourself. You can’t write about it unless you can do it.”

Well, I’d written about lots of things without actually being able to do them–cancer surgery, anyone?–that’s a journalist’s job. But I knew what she meant. So I agreed. How hard could it be, I reasoned.

A couple of weeks later, as I struggled with a pair of unyielding knitting needles and a series of too-tight stitches, my husband remarked that he’d never heard anyone swear so much. You know, my husband, the doctor. In the Navy. 

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, as I tried awkwardly to stick one needle through a stitch. Backwards? No, wait, it was supposed to go the other way. Why won’t these stitches move? How am I supposed to get them off one needle and onto the other one? Who came up with this and thought it was a good idea?

I wrestled with that pair of size 8 needles and blue yarn for a few more days, then bailed. I still wrote the story, and it even turned out pretty well. Even if I never knitted more than about eight rows of tentative, uneven stitches.

Fast forward to…March of this year. William and I were wandering around Michael’s, looking for Rainbow Loom refills. William spotted a loom that supposedly made it easy to “knit” scarves. “Hey, we could do that!” he suggested brightly. He’s so optimistic, my elder child.

Hmmm. We were coming up on Spring Break…a very long two-week Spring Break, and it was going to be cold and wet. Maybe it’d be nice to have a project we could work on. I bought the loom (Knit Quick, in case you’re curious) and two skeins of charcoal gray yarn, and we headed home.

At home, I dumped everything onto the kitchen table and ostentatiously unfolded the set of directions. “William, we always read the directions when we are trying something new,” I pontificated. I’m trying to set a good example, see. And to make my point, I even read the entire set of directions before picking up the loom. This is progress for me, I might add. After a few failed starts, I started to get the hang of wrapping the yarn around the posts of the loom, then using a crochet hook to lift one set of loops over the pegs to create a row of “stitches.”

I had to stop at one point and start over, but I quickly got back into it. Wrap, wrap, wrap, loop, loop, loop. A few nights later, I had an actual scarf. That I made! With my own hands! William began agitating for me to make him one, so we dashed back to Michael’s, where he picked out some yarn. I worked on that one for a few days, and William even got into the act and did a few rows. And a couple of days later, we had yet another handmade scarf.

So this all led me to consider trying the real deal once again. One of my favorite Bible verses is from Isaiah 43:19: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” And why not try a new (or mostly new) thing? Maybe it will be easier this time. If I’m trying to live by that advice in my ecclesiastical life, I probably should at least give it a shot in my regular life, too.

Here’s the funny thing. It was.

It helped that I was able to find some good beginning-knitting videos on the Internet. I watched, watched and watched again, as I held a freshly purchased pair of size 8 bamboo needles (I’d long since lost that original pair) and some coral yarn. In this way, I figured out how to cast on. I casted on a dozen stitches, took them off, casted on 15, took them off, and kept doing it ’til I felt like I’d gotten the hang of it. Then I worked on the knit stitch. Same routine, more or less. Watch, attempt, watch, reattempt. But it worked. I even figured out how to bind off, using this method. God bless the Interwebs.

I’m now working on mastering the purl stitch. I also am nearly finished knitting a dark pink scarf. I started knitting it on a larger set of needles that I bought after I developed some confidence. It’s not fancy. But I’m making it, and I’m proud of that. I can hold it, touch it, loop it around my neck. As a writer, I work with words. And these days, I write so much for online publications that I rarely even have a printed version of my work to hold in my hands. Somehow, is so satisfying to make something tangible and tactile, to have something that I made that I can hold and touch.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

March forward…just write

My seven-year-old son recently announced that he wanted to write a story. 

My little writer! My proud writer-mother’s heart soared…for a few moments. I sat him down at the computer, made sure he named and saved the new Word file that he opened, and then stepped back to bask in the moment. 

Then the professional kicked in. 

“Just start writing,” I coached. “It doesn’t have to be good. You just want to get your thoughts down on the page. We can come back and fix things later.”

He nodded confidently and began tapping away at the keyboard. Peck, peck, peck. 

I reluctantly backed away and walked slowly out of the room. In fact, I went back to my own computer and resolutely pecked away myself at an article I was writing. 

“Mom? Mooo-ooom!” his voice echoed from the second floor. “How do you spell delicious? Mom! Mom, I need you right NOW!”

I pushed my chair away from my desk and climbed the stairs. When I got to him, I spelled the word for him and then counseled him to not worry too much about correct spelling at this point.

“Just do your best. Try to spell it the way you think it should be spelled, but don’t get too hung up on it if you don’t think it looks right,” I said. “Just keep writing.”

And with those exchanges, I have passed along some of the greatest writing advice I ever received. In fact, I remember my delight when a well-known journalist told me and the rest of a group of people attending a Poynter Institute seminar that we should just start writing already. Just get started. Don’t get paralyzed by the empty page. Just start writing. You can start writing in the middle, then come back and write the beginning later. Just start. 

I think Tom Hallman’s exact words were “Lower your standards. At first.” 

It sounds a little shocking at first. I know it sounded that way to me. But think about it. You get started. You don’t worry if your sentences are the best you’ve ever composed. You’re just getting started. You’re not letting the old writer’s block get the best of you. 

Now, those of us who’ve been newspaper reporters pretty much already know this. You don’t have the luxury of time when you’re on a daily deadline. And that’s even more true today for people writing for online publications, given the 24-hour news cycle. You’re not just filing copy for tomorrow morning’s paper. You’re writing copy to be posted in ten minutes. Or you’re tweeting or posting on Facebook or other social media platforms.

You have. to. start. writing. now. 

But even if you’re writing for a corporate client or a website, or even if you’re just writing for yourself, it’s good advice. Just start writing. You can come (and should) back and tweak it later. You can edit, copy-edit, move sentences around, delete redundancies, add information, correct spelling, and scrap entire paragraphs. You can even start over, if you like.

So I’ve become sort of a broken record on this topic (how’s that for a cliche that will show my age?). Just start writing. Lower your standards–at first–and just start writing. 

As for my son, he’s still at the age where he actually listens to me. So that night, he wrote and wrote and wrote, and then he called for me again. We fixed the spelling errors, and I inserted a few punctuation marks. He ended up with about four long paragraphs. It was a pretty good start to a story, too. But he wouldn’t have even that if he hadn’t just started writing. 

So, that’s my pep talk…are you going to start writing now?  

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment