Last Thursday, my husband and I decided to reclaim the whole day as ours. No work, no chores, no to-dos, just a day to be.
Mother Nature accommodated us brilliantly with a clear, sunny, 72 degree day. What a phenomenal backdrop for indulging a long, meandering walk on a nearly-empty Stinson Beach. After hours of dreamily wading in the waves, watching the pelicans gliding overhead and the seals playing in the harbor, we contemplated how to get home without breaking the spell in a phalanx of traffic. We opted to drive the coastline north and catch the sunset.
On a whim, we pulled into the Hog Island Oyster Farm. It was about 4:30 and the bartender let us know they were closing shortly but offered us drinks and let us know it was shuck-your-own-oysters Thursday. My husband gamely went off to get shucking equipment and pick a few shellfish from one of the watery outdoor vats. This was especially impressive since a) he’d never shucked an oyster and b) he didn’t even like to eat them, but did it for me. To compensate, I ordered some cheese and crackers from the rustic outdoor bar to provide him with something to eat until we found a restaurant somewhere else on the way home.
Little did I know that what would arrive in a basket at our weathered picnic table overlooking the Hog Island Oyster Farm, would rock my world. Our cheese and crackers were both from a local business in Pt.Reyes Station, just a few miles down the road. The sea salt crackers were crispy and quirky: long and thin, they looked like the cracker dough was cut with pinking shears. Delicious, but they didn’t appropriately prepare me for the white butcher paper-wrapped small wheel of heaven: Triple Creme cheese. I’d somehow lived all this time without ever having encountered a Triple Creme cheese. This healthy handful of white-rind wrapped lusciousness looks for a moment like a brie, but is in a class by itself. One cut, reveals an interior that looks like some dreamy marriage of frosting and cheese — in the best possible way. And the makers of this Mt. Tam Triple Creme, are seared in my mind and on my tastebuds forever: Cowgirl Creamery.
I fell in love with the Cowgirl on that picnic bench. Forever and ever.
If you’ve likewise lived under a rock, the great news is that Cowgirl Creamery distributes its phenomenal food nationwide. The Cowgirls that founded this artisinal organic cheese business an hour north of San Francisco have culinary pedigrees at world class Chez Panisse and Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Evidently, customers and investors alike were as entranced with their product as I was: in March, they were acquired by Swiss Dairy giant, Emmi. Please Emmi, don’t screw it up.
The Triple Creme was mind-blowing with oysters and dry Rose wine as the sun set on our blissed out day. And it was equally inviting on a slice of hot-from-the-oven banana bread this morning. And guess it also worked it’s magic right off the spreading knife all by it’s resplendant self. If that doesn’t work for you, here are some recipes from the cowgirls themselves>
Note: this is the first in a series of happiness chronicles — discussions that focus on why and how interesting people pursue things that make them happy.
Two things that go bump in the night: something in your attic and someone on stage doing improv comedy.
For many people, the idea of crawling around in their dark, crowded, and potentially vermin-visited attic is equally appealing to the idea of stepping onto an empty stage with no props, no script, no clue — and only their quick wit to armor them from a cynical audience.
Lauren Bossers (nicknamed, appropriately, LaBoss) is an exception. She bravely visits attics and stages, and far off places in her very agile and very funny mind.
“My mother best describes me as my own best opposite,” says Bossers, a 40-year-old mom with a high-powered marketing role at Oracle. “I’m equally serious as I am silly. I’m a Type B in Type A clothing: relatively driven, but not consumed by it.”
Professionally, the petite, blonde and doe-eyed marketer is a master of the arcane technical details of supply chain software, and wields a grammatical sword with the passion of a warrior.
Personally, in 2012, Lauren was regrouping after a separation and looking for a new way to meet people and learn more about herself.
On August 20th that year, she read the obituary for famed comedienne, Phyllis Diller, who died at the age of 95, leaving the world with a lifetime’s worth of wit and humor about families, relationships and womanhood.
If you’ve never heard or read her work, here are a few Diller quotes that moms from any generation can relate to:
“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”
“Housework won’t kill you, but then again, why take the chance?”
“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”
Here’s what jumped off the page of that obituary to Lauren: Phyllis didn’t start doing comedy until the age of 37. Lauren was 36 at the time.
“I’d been a shy child: an introvert, by Myers-Briggs standards. In my 20’s I worked hard to overcome that. Now I test off the charts on the extrovert side; and when I meet new people, they tend to think I’m a little insane. But people have always told me I was funny and quick, so I thought it was a good time to try improv.
“ I wasn’t that familiar with improv before doing it. Stand-up comedy is really different from improv: using a script versus flying by the seat of your pants. I had comedic heroes like Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. But since then, I’ve listened to a ton of interviews with comedians and learned that most do either stand up or improv. It is a rare person that does both.”
Steel City’s website tagline is: Listen, Commit, Play. This was an appealing draw for the newly-single mom.
She wasn’t nervous about the first class since it was an introductory level and she came armed with a well-honed quick wit. But Lauren quickly learned that great improv requires equal parts verbal and physical comedy: the actors are not supported by script nor props. They need to create both an engaging story and a visual environment using only their minds and their bodies to set the stage for their audience.
One improv game created to help develop that skill set is called “In the Attic.” The first person in the group imagines something in an attic that they need to go and play with, like a doll, a wedding dress, a bottle, a gun. Each person, in turn, plays with something new plus everything the prior people have played with, doing something different with each item. For example: play a game of Russian Roulette, take shots out of the bottle you found, put on a wedding dress, then grab the gun…
This exercise helps the actors develop on two fronts.
First, the “yes, and…” priority of improv: when you are on stage with someone else, all you have are that person’s eyes and ideas. You always need to connect with them by really listening to build on the story ideas put forward before you. If you cut off the idea, you kill the sketch. And, ideally, if you are the first person in the sketch, you start on a positive note, which provides a lot more room to grow the content, versus a negative angle.
Second, if the actors —like great mimes— can’t clearly physically “show” the difference between each item they are working with, they can quickly lose the audience.
Putting the show into the right context for the audience’s mindset is a third leg to the comedic stool that Lauren experienced firsthand. The date of Lauren’s first show was the night of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. She doesn’t remember that content for the show at all. “It was incredibly difficult to be funny or carefree that night. It was really tough.”
But overall, Lauren found improv incredibly energizing.
“You get an idea of why performers do it. It is an adrenaline shot. After working all day, you need to get your energy up to take a two hour class. But once you tap that creative energy, it’s almost harder to wind back down. It is exhilarating.”
Today, Lauren’s busy work and mom schedule doesn’t make it easy for her to do as much on stage with her improv skills, but those classes have carried over to her professional and personal life regardless.
On the personal side, she’s met a community of people from millennials to grandmas that she still sees, including one of her best friends that she met at improv class.
Professionally and personally, she’s taken the “yes, and” idea to heart in her relationships and collaborative teamwork.
“The power of validating and perpetuating an idea helps you connect better to other people. It makes you more engaged to try to understand what the other people are and to build on that idea.”
Those lucky enough to be on Lauren’s Facebook page, see the fruits of that collaboration every day, from the string of hilarious give-and-take discussion threads with her equally funny friends, to the brief and brilliant outtakes she shares from her life with her middle school son.
Here’s one recent example:
Adam and I were doing our usual bedtime routine of the NYT mini-crossword puzzle.
Me: Much debated Donald Trump word…
Adam: Bad hombres! Nasty woman! Chinese steel! Chiiiiiiiiina! DISASTER!
Me: Um, it’s “bigly.”
Adam: Good one.
Phyllis Diller has gotta be loving this.
Are you willing to share some insight about what makes you happy? Let me know, I’d love the opportunity to chat about it and share here…
This week, my company zagged. Unfortunately for me, I was still zigging away, deep in many interesting projects and didn’t see the course correction coming.
On the flip side, the timing was rather lovely. I’d just arrived for a week with my husband at the lake house. Working remotely with a magnificent view across the water and of the surrounding fall foliage is a treat. But it doesn’t compare to the freedom to follow a whim to hop on a bike, go for a run, take the convertible for a spin through the back roads, shop for pumpkins and snuggle up during a rainstorm with a book.
I have a lucky life, and it’s always pretty easy for me to find a silver lining during the occasional freak storm. But on Monday, when this little twister landed on my lakeside retreat, I was struck with a new revelation. Rather than just indulge in my well established list of go-to experiences, perhaps I could use this time for a little zag of my own. Find some new tricks, push some new experiences, explore my “someday” list.
And so, I’ve started. I plan to use my blog to keep myself accountable to coloring outside my own lines. Here are a few categories I’ve started with in the 55 hours since I learned that I’ve been freed of my corporate obligations:
Adventure with food. When it comes to eating, I am fearless. I haven’t met much I haven’t tried, or haven’t liked. My decade of vegetarianism might have contributed to the giddy, reckless abandon with which I now approach food — especially pork products.
Besides eating, I am very accountable in the kitchen for food prep and dish clearing. But I’ve long abdicated the actual preparation of food to my patient and creative husband. In fact, when our son was about four, he told some of our friends that in addition to his daddy (who had just produced a lovely mushroom risotto for dinner), his mommy was a great cook too: “she makes cereal!”
So this week, I am taking baby steps toward self sufficiency in the kitchen. Monday, was Red Curry Shrimp (okay, it was with the help of a fabulous boxed kit from Marion’s Kitchen—but I selected and managed not to mangle the seafood and veggies). Last night: jalapeno vegetable casserole (my own making, and therefore meekly reviewed by my spouse). Tonight, I’m counting on divine inspiration for the small pumpkin awaiting its fate on my counter.
Make something tangible (and useful). Confession: my family does a collective groan every vacation when after a few days of idleness, I make my way to a craft store in search of yarn and knitting needles. It is not ever a well-planned initiative (I’ve always surmised that this is a good thing on vacation, because I plan —in detail —everything in my work life). This usually means I find a few skeins of yarn in a color or texture that makes me happy and then I just while away my vacation downtime making nothing in particular. Or at least nothing that anyone in my family would ever want to wear.
So this week, I started with a plan to learn to do more than a scarf or to sew together squares of knitting into something that causes my family to gasp “not it!” when I appear with my finished crafty confection. Through the glory of Ravelry, Google and YouTube, I’ve learned to do a “tops down” raglan sleeved sweater designed by the talented Carol Feller. Since dinner last night, I learned to read the hieroglyphics of a knitting pattern from RS and WS to kfb, and ssk to k2together and CO. So far, my efforts look to have the potential to actually clothe a human form.
Learn, More Broadly. Ironically, for nearly 2 1/2 years I have marketed learning technology. I’ve written countless articles and blogs and tweets and produced educational videos about the power and potential of new tools to engage business people in more meaningful learning and development. So, along the way I’ve learned a lot about learning. But my own learning has been incredibly focused on technology and marketing.
So this week, I enrolled in a UC San Diego neuroscience course on Learning How to Learn. The professor, Terrence Sejnowski — just a few clicks of a mouse away —is one of the top ten experts in computational neurobiology on the planet. And I get to learn from him and his colleague on how to train my brain to accept — and perhaps enjoy —topics that have otherwise unnerved me, using a few exercises.
The first tip: the Pomodoro technique. My brilliant professors counseled me and my virtual class that includes a high school student, a Filipino teacher, a Russian marketer and a number of call center reps — that less is more when it comes to learning new, complex topics. They say that research shows if you want to absorb something into long term memory and build a foundation around it, limit the amount of time you focus on the new information. Ideally, no longer than 25 minutes at a time.
The decidedly low-tech way to support this process: set up your focused learning time (reading, reviewing, looking at anecdotes and visual examples) with a kitchen timer; the most common one happens to be shaped like a tomato. Pomodoro in Italian.
So far, I’ve got an A in my first Coursera online Learning to Learn quizes. And I’ve got an appetite from the Italian food mnemonics.
Must be time cook: little pumpkin, I am coming for you!
Today, I was reminded of the delightful reward of being present. And of being kind.
It is mid September. For as long as I’ve been a software marketer, every turn of the calendar to September is like the turn of a southern debutante at the coming out ball: backed with hours of meticulously detailed preparation, carefully considered choreography and a mind-numbing amount of work. Each and every September I am hip- deep in my version of announcing a debutante. Mine is one in a sea of lovely new enterprise software coding “offspring” that is swanned around the veritable cotillion of technology industry tradeshows, each vying for the perfect blend of attention and social advance.
Caught up in this swirl of work, today I boarded a plane for a quick two-city business trip, to lay the foundation for my upcoming marketing events. While I pride myself on my ability to constantly juggle and accomplish the ever-changing pile of work to-do’s, inevitably in September I drop a whole lot of other connections. I almost missed two today on the plane: Jimmy and Janet.
I was looking forward to this flight. Since I was flying Virgin America, I’d made a deal with myself: after two weeks of very late nights of work, if I could manage to finish editing a partner prospectus, I would treat myself to to movie on the flight. Unlike me, I packed headphones and even did advance check-in to get my seat situated.
So, when I got to my row and saw an older woman sitting in my assigned seat, leaving a middle seat between her and her husband, I was a little bummed. But I gamely wedged in between the two of them and their many overstuffed bags of travel items, and set right to finishing an email before the flight. But my seat mates had other plans. “Thank you so much, sweet, for taking the seat,” said the man. “My wife likes to lean against the window.”
Sure, no problem. And I went back to my detailed instruction to a colleague via email.
“My name is Jimmy and this is my wife, Janet,” he beamed, flashing a broad smile through a very thick accent. “What is your name, sweet?”
The feminist in me prickled a bit at this diminutive, but I explained my name and stuck my nose back into my work.
They became quiet, so I worked away, excited when I still had time for movie. After putting in my earbuds and paying for a movie, Jimmy leaned over and asked how I got the movie to work. I explained the on-demand channel and that it required a credit card. He thanked me. Five minutes later, Janet asked where I got my earbuds. I pulled them off again and showed her how she could order some for $3. “Can I give you cash, sweet, for some?” No sorry, but the airline said they only took credit cards.
To my left and to my right, each member of the 50+ year couple, chose to nap quietly instead of fight the array of digital prompts and requirement on their seat back entertainment systems.
When they rallied for a bathroom break, I did too. And on my way back I asked the flight attendant if I might buy headsets for my two elderly neighbors. She gave me two sets with a smile: “it’s on us.”
I returned with my two cheaply-manufactured offerings and my seat mates responded as if I’d delivered them a lobster dinner. “What, for me? And even some for him? Oh, you are so darling.”
I set each one up with a show. News for him: “Any stations where I can learn something new and good about Hillary,” he said with a wink. “Oh, I think a movie, for me,” she said.
Reabsorbed into a romantic drama, I lost track of them both until I noticed lots of rattling packages and whispered comments between the husband and wife, with lots of hand signals. Seemingly, many of the hand signals were pointed at me.
“We thank you. And now, we eat.” Then from the bottom of their many bags, emerged a bounty : first sandwiches, then packages, and more rustling and rattling…and a bag of pistachios. And eventually, spread across their little drop-down tables, emerged a lovely Greek picnic.
“Please, eat with us. Especially this, this is for you, you must try. It is homemade, and you will love it. I made. You try.” And Janet handed me a small hand-held spinach pie, with an entreating smile.
It was at once soft and light, but dense and savory. It was a treat made with care and it tasted of kindness.
And as we broke bread together, a mile in the sky, we broke the barrier of strangers and the chokehold of work and reveled in simply being present.
It’s December 27th. The work year has been wrapped. The gifts were selected and exchanged. The well wishes shared. The food prepared and leftovers assembled and stored, beguilingly, in the fridge. One zap in the microwave to an instant replay of our favorite holiday tastes, conjuring the best of our family memories and traditions.
But the biggest indulgence of all is nothingness. Nothing on the calendar. And a wide open week ahead, to fill– or not–as we like.
Into this wide open possibility, I started my day with a random act that was at once thrilling and terrifying. I deleted my email. Every last one of the work and personal inbox items that veritably ruled my life all year long.
My newly downloaded IOS gave me the giddy-making one button power to finally round up and annihilate the 7000+ ghosts of deadlines passed and the weedy camouflage of junk mail. I feel liberated and ready to reset that which I’ve allowed to shackle me.
As I get older, I’m realizing I no longer want to be as cavalier about what I do with my days, my life. So today, well into the middle of my life, I contemplate the possibility of beginnings.
I like this passage on Beginnings from David Whyte’s book Consolations: The solace, nourishment and meaning of everyday words.
Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin, but the ability to make a good beginning is also an art form. Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.
Beginning is difficult, and our procrastination is a fine ever-present measure of our reluctance in taking that first close-in, courageous step to reclaiming our happiness. Perhaps, because taking a new step always leads to a kind of radical internal simplification, where, suddenly, very large parts of us, parts of us we have kept gainfully employed for years, parts of us still rehearsing the old complicated story, are suddenly out of a job. There occurs in effect, a form of internal corporate downsizing, where the parts of us too afraid to participate or having nothing now to offer, are let go, with all of the accompanying death-like trauma, and where the very last fight occurs, a rear guard disbelief that this new, less complicated self, and this very simple step, is all that is needed for the new possibilities ahead.
It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.
Email deleting may not be courageous, but it’s a start.
I realized my excess in accommodating for our annual family lake house vacation when I had to barter with my minimalist kids for some space in their duffle bags. All of my clothing choices were practical, casual and very lightweight to account for the typically oppressive midwest humidity. But the clear breadth of exercise clothes vs. any other category was telling. While I’d like to say it is due to my maniacal dedication to exercise, it was more about stuffing my bag with hope and a passive-aggressive suggestion that I could really use to be about 10 pounds worth of maniacal about exercise.
On this first day of vacation, everyone is settled into our wonderful summer sanctuary, and our clothes are all put away. But in a morning conversation over coffee with our son, I realized that I have even more baggage. Turns out that I packed a big pile of expectations, along with a healthy dose of attitudes and even bias that I’m not even conscious of on a normal work day. I think I depend on my well-worn attitudes and biases to be the filters or guide rails that help me focus, to weed out information, ideas, circumstances and experiences that might sidetrack me from the work, family and friend priorities I’ve developed to enjoy a really wonderful, interesting life.
But with my first day of downtime, it appears that –like my suitcase– I could use to cast off some of my pre-set thinking. Instead of waking up to my typical list of “to do’s” and a pile of personal goals I push off until vacation to stare down, I want to lighten up. Whether it be about the experiences that I will seek out or the way I receive new information, new music, new news, new food, new friends. I want to pull off the filters and fold up the agendas and give my thinking a little reinvigorating skinny dip.
My boss, the mother of two small kids, often says it is helpful to think with a child’s mind. She doesn’t mean to this in a demeaning way, she means to cut the clutter and block out the noise, rules and regimen that ostensibly protect our busy lives from chaos but also dull our receptivity. Instead, she advocates opening up and tuning into the potential of each experience.
I did get out and jog around the lake this morning. But along the way, I picked up on my son’s sense wonder at the real down-home friendliness of midwesterners. And sure enough, with the swelling weekend crowd around our lovely lakeside idyll, came more cars on the small, twisting roads, more walkers, runners, bikers. And I took stock today. Each and every one of them waved and said good morning as they passed. Every one. The buzz I got from my morning run was amplified by the buzz from a slipstream of friendliness.
We feel so fortunate to live in Northern California where diversity, acceptance, intellectual curiosity and tolerance are the norm. For example, I was awed a year ago at the response in my daughter’s high school, after a young man in another city chose to wear a skirt on a public bus, and was beaten. The next day, the majority of kids in her school — boys and girls alike– came to school wearing skirts in a sign of solidarity: be okay with who you are. I didn’t imagine that this type of social statement would be likely in the midwest, where I lived for four years after college and have visited every summer since with my husband, a Hoosier.
But not everyone in our lovely hometown waves and wishes one another a wonderful day either.
Kindness, openness and goodness come in many forms. And they are geographically neutral.
My daughter, who is logging hours toward earning her driver’s license this summer, got her “Hoosier on” by tuning into a country music station in her late Grandpa’s truck before navigating short trips into town for groceries. The stories that emerged from the dashboard crossed from funny honky tonk pick ups (“Rain is a good thing, because rain makes corn and corn makes whisky and whisky makes my baby a little bit frisky”) to soulful ballads. But they were stories that hooked us like the perch on fishing lines off the pier. Later, as we dipped our feet in the rainstorm-swelled lake, she turned up her iPhone and we happily sang along to a now familiar Keith Urban song…”and I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere and John 3:16.” Simple songs, simple shared pleasures. Nice change from the dashboard duel at home between “old people music” and her occasional interest in a genre that truly makes me feel ancient: “screamo.”
As the Indiana weather turns on a dime from sunny, hot and humid to boiling black skies dumping more rain in a hour than we’ve had in California in a month, I feel both sated and energized by the change in the weather. And the change in the pace. And the tiniest little changes in my own receptivity to “just be.”
Okay, I am a little sheepishly happy that I finished 4 loads of laundry and organized our family’s belongs between the clouds, my run, a few games of dominoes on the deck and my nearly-finished blog post… But you can’t undress bad habits all at once, right?
We gather around 11 carefully considered selections each year.
Sometimes the group weighs in on the choice, as it is a heavy burden to pick correctly. Luckily, like master safe-crackers, we’ve developed a group muscle-memory to cleverly sense and sort through the limitless combinations possible.
“Is it really long? Like more than 300 pages?”
“Is that non fiction?”
“Has Bev already read it?”
“Did Donna choose it? Don’t forget about Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady
and that awful Magus book!”
Every book club has its own charter and its own character. It just so happens that our book club, created 20 years ago, on the charmingly sweet notion of a mother-daughter gathering of hearts and minds, has many characters. And while there is only one matriarchal pair left today, the group –like family– is both disparate in perspectives, experiences and passions and inextricably connected.
I haven’t been in book club all 20 years. In fact, like the names of authors and titles of books I read just weeks or months ago, I honestly can’t remember how many years it’s been since Jan invited me to join. I know it is more than 10 and less than 15. But in that time, I’ve come to realize that I get so much more than a few hours of pleasant socializing and a few minutes of book review each month, I get to learn. In fact perhaps all I really need to know I learned at book club.
Since my memory can’t be trusted to recall it all, and life is too short to think up –or read through– 20 memories, here are the top five lessons I’ve learned in book club:
Eat Bon Bons
The book we read the first time I hosted book club was Housewives Eating Bon Bons. At the time, the title sounded frivolous and book club, too, felt light and breezy. There were no rules on when or how we discussed the book. Even the rules of hosting were simple: the host takes care of drinks and everyone else brings something to eat. No one is assigned salad, entrée, dessert. Just bring what you feel like. And it somehow always works out.
I was maybe six months into book club and starting to sense a pattern to our agenda-less agenda:
Exchange hugs, check out how amazingly cute and well put together all these women are
Check in on each other’s families, kids and grandkids
Nibble and chat about the latest travels. Typically, Jan and 6-20 of her closest friends had just come back from a fabulous cruise.
Chat about upcoming travels. Yup, that would be Jan and aforementioned group of friends, including many in the group: Sue, Vera, Bev, Barbara
Bev looks at her watch, says she and Sue need to leave in 10 minutes for the long commute back to Marin, and we (sometimes grudgingly) turn our animated conversation to the book.
This book was perhaps the first I’d read that alternated narrators for each chapter, allowing the reader to get to know the characters more intimately. And, it explored the complexities and secrets of women’s lives beneath the light and breezy masks we sometimes wear for society.
That night we talked about friendship. About looking out for others, listening beyond the spoken words and outward appearances. We connected with, grieved for, and cheered on the conquests of the characters.
We bit into the metaphorical bon bons, and discovered the centers had more substance, and sustenance, when we explored and took the time to “taste” their relevance to our lives.
Be Present to Your Past
We are a very privileged group. While we’ve each had our struggles, heartbreaks and hardships, by and large, we’ve been graced with prosperity in love, friendship, health and life. And so many in book club are likewise privileged to have our lives’ tapestry of memories embroidered with threads from each other. Lives shared and cherished –from growing up in San Francisco in the 1950’s or raising families in Walnut Creek in the 1970’s or the 1990’s.
Much of the tremendous privilege we enjoy comes with our collective good fortune to have been born as US citizens. Yet, so much that has happened in this country over those decades has dulled or diluted in our memories. So, it is with book club that we connect or reconnect with a deeper context on our pasts.
Books like The Boys in the Boat and The Orphan Train reminded us of the tenuous connection of families –even some of our own families– under financial constraints of the 1920’s. Or the travail of US citizens imprisoned on US soil during the war—their only crime, their heritage– which we learned about in The Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Underside of Joy. The Help and the Secret Life of Bees schooled us in the excruciating dual existence of people living on both sides of the racial divide in the 60’s – a time when some of us were otherwise caught up in raising families in the suburbs or learning to ride bikes on wide sunny cul-de-sacs. The Tortilla Curtain likewise helped us understand the wide gulf of luck and liberty that separates our existence from that of illegal immigrants striving to survive on the other side of our gated communities. And we got a front row seat on the leaders and leadership of our country that had the greatest privilege and most onerous responsibility of all in the book about the US Presidents and their wives.
Revisiting our country’s history, transgressions, horrors and advancements helps put our own histories in deeper context.
Travel the World in Someone Else’s Shoes (or Glasses)
What history class did not imprint in our minds, many book club novels have. Our choices blend the irresistible closeness of an insider’s view within historical context.
We got a look at European life from: the middle ages to the present; from the lowest castes to royalty; from artisans to courtesans; from clergy to despots; and from soldiers to students and Germans to Jews. Our guides include authors of Pillars of the Earth, TheOutlanders, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, All the Light We Cannot See, The Plum Tree and The Book Thief.
And we took big leaps from the familiar with exploration of truly foreign experience and perspective from South Africa, India, China, the Middle East and North Korea through on-page witness to atrocities borne with unimaginable hope. Nothing to Envy, The Kite Runner, Little Bee, the Joy Luck Club and Cutting for Stone.
And we even did a shorthand imbibing tour of the ages with Connie’s suggestion: The History of the World in 6 Glasses. Glad that we drink wine and beer freely today – not just to survive dysentery.
Somehow, the global tragedies and triumphs in the daily news seem closer, more accessible and personal with all of this context.
When I joined book club, there was often talk about the latest “letter” coming from the Sue Grafton mystery series. While we took on a decent range of genres in novels, we tended to stick with the familiar themes on relationships, women, and mystery.
Over the years, we not only began to explore geographies and history, we took an topics that touched a nerve, explored differences, and hit on hard experiences very close to home. These books helped us look a little more carefully—and talk a little more openly—about topics that are very visceral, helping us face being uncomfortable together.
We got both intense and warm-hearted tours inside the minds of those who think differently: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, House Rules, the Rosie Project and Turn of Mind. Thanks to Karen for helping us learn about the tragic disease, Alzheimer’s, with frightening statistics and very personal reference.
Great teacher that she is, Karen also gave us a very vivid pneumonic for the physically and mentally constrained existence of a kidnapped woman raising a child of rape in an 11 by 11 foot space: The Room. We had our entire discussion inside a taped off 11X11 space in her livingroom.
We alternately held our breath and cheered for the child and his family members bravely facing a world behind the eyes of a terribly disfigured face in Wonder.
We explored the line between driving achievement and driving success in parenting when we reviewed The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
We got our sexy on with the poorly written, but nonetheless guilty pleasure of 50 Shades of Gray. If only our own very sexy, daring and never shy Vera who we lost to lung cancer a few years earlier, would have been here for that review. The conversation would have clearly been a lot less reserved!
And we surprised ourselves when we looked at the personal impacts of being introverted in an extroverted world with our review of the book Quiet. Who would have thought that our fearless leader, Jan, had an ounce of introversion in her sassy, generous, perfectly polished and stylish self?
Be Generous, and the Next Generation will Aspire to Your Legacy
Best of all of my learning from this collection of awesomely inspiring, tremendously caring, wickedly smart, brilliantly witty, effortlessly athletic, intellectually curious, gut-bustingly funny, barrier-breakingly brave, and unfailingly supportive women is one thing: be generous. The generosity of open doors, open minds, open hearts and open arms modeled by the women of the Mother-Daughter book club has set a model that all of those lucky enough to join have learned from each and every month!
Jan, Donna, Beverly, Sue, Barbara, Joan, Karen, Connie, Vera, Barb, and Mardie, I am forever in your debt and honored by your friendship.