Sweaty Impulses & The One That Got Away

I’d never given much thought to the term ‘maxi pad’ *waves good-bye to a few male readers* until a trip to see my family in Minnesota. Between the altitude of the plane ride and the overabundance of estrogen in my largely female family, I should’ve known that a less-welcome guest, Aunt Flo, would join me. No big deal, right? One would think.

“Uh…Mom?” In the bathroom I’d found only shelves of towels, shampoo and bulk-size paper products—seriously, enough to mummify an army. “I thought you said you had girl stuff.”

[girl stuff: A Minnesota-polite term for maxi pads and tampons]

Wait. Those giant paper products were the girl stuff.

[maxi: A thing that is very large of its kind or a skirt reaching to the ankle]  —Dictionary.com

Not only were the pads—if you could call them that—large, but as sticky as dollar store band aids and as soft as styrofoam bricks. In fact “brick” is about the best description I can conjure. But like many Minnesotans, my family comes from sturdy Scandinavian stock. I could take it! And heck. A maxi-brick beats a toilet paper wad any day. *waves good-bye to a few more males* (Thanks for trying!) I could always buy more girl stuff during our errands-run later.

First, I decided to hit the local gym. Heating the body early in the day is often a must in MN. Others must agree, as the place was packed. I soon spotted another crowd attractor. Between the free weights and the ab-er-sizer machine stood a muscular trainer. Let’s call him Sven (Svelte + Norwegian). If I’d been in Hollywood, I would’ve assumed Sven was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trainer, an actor who plays an athlete on TV or the latest gym infomercial fit model. Add to his physique wavy blond hair, turquoise eyes and a friendly smile and you can imagine the result—chick magnet extraordinaire.

Uff-da, Sven! Where are your pants???

But I wasn’t there to Sven-ogle. I wanted to sweat. (No, not that kind of sweat, you naughty-naughties.) So I hopped on a treadmill and started running to the beat of my workout tune mix.

Several songs in, I felt something. A subtle draft. Just more chill, I figured, and kept running. As the draft intensified, I sensed what was happening. I looked down in horror. *insert JAWS theme* The maxi-brick moved, seemingly in slow motion, out of my shorts and toward the treadmill belt, bounced off, flew through the air and landed—inches from svelte Sven’s feet and amidst a crowd of exercisers.

[impulse: a sudden wish or urge the prompts and unpremeditated act or feeling; an abrupt inclination] — Dictionary.com

If this were a romance tale, Sven would have prompted my sudden urge and wishes and been the one that got away. But I don’t write romance, and this real-life story is far from heartfelt. (Think horror, thriller and Seventeen magazine’s “Say Anything…”)

Without a thought, I leapt from the treadmill, grabbed the styro-brick, carried it back to the machine with total nonchalance and pretended it was one of those towels used to wipe sweat from the equipment. Yes, I “cleaned” the treadmill with styro-max. My cool facade lasted until I reached the brisk outdoor air, which, for once, felt GREAT. I laughed so hard I spilled tears and told no one until several years later.

To this day, I don’t know if Sven or others recognized what actually happened or if the double takes I perceived inspired nothing but inner-giggles and embarrassing thoughts. (“OMG! I actually thought she…!!!”) If anyone called my bluff, I’m sure a rendition of the story circulates somewhere. If you’re out there, bluff-callers…do I want to know?

Your turn! Any embarrassing tales to tell? Have your “impulses” surprised you? Have you fallen prey to a maxi-brick pitfall?

LSR #4: Trusting Your Instincts

“The solution to violence in America is the acceptance of reality.”
― Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence


I first read The Gift of Fear after flowers arrived at my door from a man I could barely call an acquaintance. The enclosed card had a sentimental message and his phone number. Once I realized who the guy was, I felt an odd mix of emotions. Not only did I have a boyfriend at the time, the sender shouldn’t have known where I lived. I considered calling him to say, “Gosh, thanks, but…” (Ever heard the term Minnesota Nice? ;))

According to de Becker, a world-renowned expert on the prediction and management of violence, that’s the last thing I should have done, next to asking the guy out or proposing. The Gift of Fear taught me not only how to respond, but how lucky I’d been numerous times before—one time in particular.

A Close Call

I was living in midtown Manhattan and had just finished a long work day on the lower East side. I stepped onto the subway, eager to return to my apartment and swap my dress for sweats. My thoughts drifted miles away as the train prodded forward. Then I felt it: Eyes. Staring. Burning into my face like molten cigarettes.

It’s nothing, I told myself, then glanced up to see a man at the opposite end of the train car, his steely stare on me. He’s probably as spaced out as I am, I decided, though my insides quivered and chills coated my skin. One-thousand percent uncomfortable with our eye-lock, I looked away and shuffled my position to block his view. Soon, I was back in daydream oblivion.

After transferring trains twice, per my usual route, I exited and walked three blocks to my building. Once inside, I beelined for the elevator.

“Hey!” The security guard’s booming voice jolted me.

I spun around and nearly ran into the man from the subway. Had the guard not intervened, he would’ve entered the elevator with me. The sneak and I—alone in a locked, metal cube. Instead, he lost his wrestling match with the guard and landed back on the street.

This incident resurfaced again and again as I read The Gift of Fear. Had something worse resulted, I would have blamed the creepy dude—it’s never the victim’s fault, after all. But ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ matter little when our lives and safety are at stake.

“Intuition is always right in at least two important ways,” says de Becker. “It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart.”

My intuition kicked in that night. But rather than trust my fears, I talked myself out of them.

Instincts versus Intuition

Instincts are “natural or inherent aptitudes, impulses, or capacities,” according to Merriam-Webster. Unlike animals, who act upon their instincts with ease, we humans often reason ourselves out of responding. (I have no good reason to think he/she’s harmful. I’m just paranoid. I’ve watched too many Lifetime movies…) Intuition is the ability to understand something right away, without the need for conscious reasoning. (I just know it’s the right multiple choice answer; I can feel it.) 

And although instincts and intuition can seem like supernatural silliness, they’re extremely scientific.

As we accumulate knowledge, our brains create what social scientist Herbert Simon PhD called chunks. Gradually, our brains link these chunks together and begins recognizing patterns—an act called “chunking.” When we observe familiar details, our brains see a larger composition—flashes we know as instincts or intuition.

Psychologist, David Myers PhD, author of Intuition, puts it another way. He says, “Gut instincts are mental shortcuts used to make a snap judgment based on experience and environment.”

And while we don’t need to know all of the details, why those gut feelings kick in, observing, respecting and responding to them can help save our lives.

Note: Since this post is part of my Lifesaving Resolutions series, I’m focusing on personal safety. But keep in mind that our instincts play an important role in everything from our book writing and publishing success to making wise purchases and dating decisions.

Steps Toward Trusting Your Instincts to Save Your Life

Purchase and read The Gift of Fear, if you haven’t. If you have, I suggest routine review—something I’m in the midst of doing.

Limit distractions when you’re alone in public, whether you’re walking to your car, jogging at the park or getting the mail. (Cell phones and iPods can make your inner voice inaudible. Or make it sound more like Beyoncé.)

If you sense that someone’s following you, de Becker suggests you turn and look them in the eyes. Then take mental notes on their appearance. Note their apparel, body size, ethnicity and age. Yelling the details of an impending attacker’s appearance can help by revealing your preparedness, etching the details into your mind and notifying others.

If someone creeps you out, chuck niceness out the window. In The Gift of Fear, de Becker makes a great point on this: A rational person will understand and not press if you turn them down for, say, a date. An irrational person, on the other hand, wants the attention—even negative. From “Wow, I really like you but I’m super busy right now,” the irrational person perceives that you’re into them, fixates only on the word “like.” And calling them up, even to say, “Leave me alone,” can be perceived as welcomed attention.

Never let a captor take you to a second location, even if he/she threatens you. Your chance of severe assault and injuries are far greater in a second location, such as the person’s home or car. And your chance of rescue drops significantly. To view police sergeant Sanford Strong’s insight on the tactic, check out Life-Saving Advice from the Oprah Winfrey Show. (Fab stuff!)

Use intuition as one, but not your only, tool. Instincts and intuition won’t pull out your mace and spray an offender, but they may prompt you to pull it out of your pocket. Keeping yourself out of high-risk places and situations, such as grocery store parking lots and public restrooms in the wee hours of the morning, lowers your risk of needing to rely on your instincts in the first place. In other words, listen to your “gut,” then guide with logic.

Super Safety-Savvy Resources

How do you think I responded to Flower Man? The first person to guess right will get a brand spankin’ new copy of The Gift of Fear. :) Has following your instincts kept you out of harm’s way? Have you learned these lessons the hard way? Any thoughts on The Gift of Fear? I love hearing from you!
asdflkjaslkdf

LSR #8: Active Gratitude

One lesson my near six months of blogging has taught me is this:  When my palms sweat and my heartbeat quickens, I’ve probably come upon a post-worthy topic—something that will resonate with, inspire or entertain people in some way. Sharing my personal story last week was no exception. Your warm, heartbreaking and even humorous responses inspired so many chills, I wondered if I’d end up with permanent chicken skin. And you know what? I would’ve worn it with pride.

Thank you with all of my heart!

It seems only reasonable that I jump to #8 in my Lifesaving Resolutions series to what I call active, or proactive, gratitude—a technique that’s helped lift my spirits in countless frustrating situations, from bumpy patches on the road to recovery to harsh literary feedback. I hope you find it as kick-butt-awesome as I do. ;)

grat·i·tude /noun: a feeling of appreciation or thanks —Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Active gratitude involves acting upon these feelings. You know that saying, “Action speaks louder than words?” Well it’s particularly powerful in gratitude matters.

While a grateful person sees a glass as half full and an ungrateful person deems it half empty, an actively grateful person savors the beverage, thanks the preparer and goes on to share the drink with others. 

Active gratitude is also reactive.

On happy days, our blessings seem like lit up billboards in our brains: I love my life! What gorgeous weather! Yeahoo—I’m out of debt! PMS = over! Active gratitude often follows automatically. We smile, observe positivity in others and do good deeds with natural ease. Why? Because happy, grateful people tend to take better care of themselves and others.

In fact, research conducted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, a grateful mindset is associated with improved physical health, reduced anxiety and depression, sounder sleep and kinder behavior toward others. (Talk about awesome frosting.)

But we can’t very well activate gratitude if we don’t have any, right? Enter my favorite use of the technique:

On difficult days, we can easily turn inward, fixate on our gloom and throw a nonstop pity-party that does little but make us, and those around us, feel worse. By making the decision to cultivate gratitude and act upon it, the yuck-snowball can boomerang in the opposite direction, turning the nasty grayish ice clumps into sunny warmth. (Ahh…)

Simple Ways to Activate Gratitude:

Commit to a grateful mindset. For practical, entertaining insight on doing so, check out Kristen Lamb’s fantastic post: An Attitude of Gratitude.

Keep a gratitude journal. Simply jotting down your “I’m thankful for” list tends to cultivate grateful living. To take it many steps further, choose an item from your list to act upon each day, week or whenever the blahs set in.

Grateful for the fantastic book you’ve just read? Post a 5-star review on Amazon.com or blog about its awesomeness. Better yet, do both.

Grateful for your health? Schedule that annual physical you’ve been dismissing. Stock up on fruits and veggies. Go for a walk.

Grateful for your significant other? Sneak a love note into his or her work gear. Plan a spontaneous date. Complete a household chore they loathe doing.

Grateful for supportive blogging friends? Post thoughtful comments on their posts. Share links to their blogs via your own blog, email, Facebook and Twitter.

Stressed over finances? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Donate “junk” from your closet to your local thrift store. Give food or spare change to a homeless person.

Crushed over a rejection letter? Write thank you letters to your loved ones or to your inner child/creativity/writing self. Read to a child or grandparent.

Feeling PMS-ey? Take a loved one who “gets it” out for coffee or, who am I kidding, ICE CREAM. ;) Cry your eyes out while you’re at it. It’s healthy.

Hungry for more?? Check out these fabulous posts by some of my favorite bloggers:

Julie Hedlund’s tribute to her daughter: Gratitude Sunday 68
Tameri Etherton’s creative pursuit of honing a grateful attitude: New Year’s Resolutions
Piper Bayard’s commemoration of heros from 9/11: We Drank Champagne and Remembered

***My own gratitude inspired the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest, which is coming up February 9th and 10th. If you’d like to participate as a blogger or prize donor, click here.

What are you particularly grateful for this week? How do you plan to express it? Any fab suggestions to add? I love hearing from you.

Does Dirt Have Calories? — My Story

I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris—woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should’ve been a pinnacle in the modeling career I’d held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder. Where logic would’ve told me to get some rest, nourish my body and tend to the day’s work responsibilities, E.D. commanded I wake up and run! Breakfast, castings, agency meetings and photo shoots would have to wait; my sole priority was the upkeep of my disease.

My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots, sugarless ice tea and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn far more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness—i.e., happiness, success and perfection. I had to run.

I slipped my feet into my worn out, blood-stained sneakers, stepped out of my tiny Parisian flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel haze of the sunrise—a living, breathing Monet. It’s beauty could’ve taken a blind man’s breath away, I wrote in my journal. I didn’t deserve it. 

The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting. Forty-five plus six plus ten… Plus five plus ten plus three… I estimated the ‘damage’ from the day prior then plotted an itinerary of exercise and occasional food bits to compensate. So accustomed to ignoring the dizziness and fatigue accompanying me, anything else would’ve felt foreign. But this time was different.

I observed that the dip in the ground ahead looked like an adult-size cradle. Perhaps I knew what was coming.

I ran with increasing dizziness and pain, as though a metal clamp squeezed my brain. Run! Don’t stop! You can’t. Tears stung at my eyes as I tried to outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. And for a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.

I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than wonder how long I’d been there or if I’d been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories? 

I don’t recall who found me or how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: “You have anorexia. Do you understand what that means? You could’ve died. You could die.”

Her words blurred together like fog on a windshield as my thoughts went wild. She’s crazy! I can’t have anorexia. Please don’t make me eat… I felt neither thin nor “skilled” enough to have a disorder characterized by starvation. Sure, I had problems—the “cancer in my soul” I’d journaled about. I felt physically and emotionally rotted and weak, but couldn’t make sense of anything. I only knew I had to go home.

The week after I arrived in Minneapolis, I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. Once I accepted my diagnosis, anorexia seemed the one special thing about me. If I let it go, what was left? The word ‘recovery’ seemed synonymous with ‘fatness,’ ‘failure’ and ‘mediocrity.’

As my starving measures increased, my emotional and physical self tolerated them less and less. My therapist repeatedly threatened in-patient treatment. I lied, promising I would eat more and gain necessary weight.

Finally, one of my worst nightmares came true. In a moment of despair, I gave in to my longing for a single bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the dollop of creamy cold sweetness into my mouth, my entire body trembled. I felt intoxicated, a sense of danger, head-to-toe orgasm, temporary relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, then all that remained of the half gallon. The fatty cream sat like a putrid rock in my shrunken stomach. I’d never felt so ashamed.

The bingeing/starving roller coaster that followed was the most excruciating and important occurrences in my recovery. At its worst, I entered what my therapist called a “bulimic trance.” The bingeing took over and I had little awareness of all I’d consumed until I found myself sobbing amidst wrappers and crumbs.

As weight returned to my body, friends and family told me how healthy I looked.

“You’re filling out so nicely!” The well-intended comment haunted me for months. Desperate to stop bingeing, I decided to take my treatment more seriously.

“I will do anything to stop this,” I told my therapist.

“Good,” she said. “It starts with eating. After you binge, don’t skip your next meal.”

Anything but that. I resisted her instructions, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were just strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired and stop bingeing at once. It sounded Utopian. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.

One night, after a fast ended in a gargantuan binge, I hit bottom. I considered gulping the poison I’d used on occasion to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear life as I knew it. In a fury, I scavenged the house for the tiny bottle. When I couldn’t find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.

Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. Calmness brought clarity. Rather than plot restriction strategies for the coming days, I began plotting a future free of ED.

I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror and looked not at my hips, belly or thighs, but into my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.

“You can’t live like this anymore!” I told my reflection. “I won’t let you hate yourself so much. This is not who you are.” I didn’t know what I was fighting for, but my instincts said, don’t give up.

My anger at ED and proclamations in the mirror were the first signs of self-love I’d displayed in years, the light switch in the dark cave I lived in. If I managed to turn it on, I knew my life would change.

I threw my “skinny clothes” and scale in a dumpster and removed the size tags from clothes that fit. I told myself that for one year, I would not diet, starve or make any other attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning, with trembling hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I ate breakfast.

Though I wanted to forego my commitments frequently over the subsequent weeks, I held fast. The bingeing continued at first, as did my weight gain, until I nearly doubled my lowest weight. If I have to start over every day, I will, I wrote. And start over again and again I did. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.

Months later, I was no longer dieting, starving or bingeing and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends, writing songs and even, on occasion, laughing. But my recovery had reached a plateau. I felt awkward eating around others, anxious about eating too much or too little. The slightest pangs of hunger or fullness put me on edge. I saw plates of calories and felt guilty when I indulged. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn’t left. He’d only grown quieter.

One day over steaming cups of Indian tea, my mom handed me a CD with a song she and my dad wanted me to hear: Lee Ann Womack’s, “I Hope You Dance.”

“It’s time to find joy,” she said. (And here I’d thought I had everyone fooled…)

The song’s message about “dancing,” which I took to mean many joyful things, hit me with profound force.

That evening I sat at a park watching a group of friends picnicking, captivated by a woman around my age. After a bite of her hearty sandwich, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back and said, “This is so good!” I longed for an ounce of her joy.

I’d been eating because I was “supposed” to, promised others I would and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep end again. In order to fully recover, I had to manifest joy around eating.

I knew it was possible because I’d experienced it. My childhood love affair with food seemed insatiable. Family photographs portray a bubbly, smiling girl holding an ice cream cone, sitting before a luminous birthday cake or about to take a chomp out of a fresh red apple from our backyard tree. Before bed, I often asked my parents what the next day’s breakfast would entail, “so I could dream about it.”

Food for my family meant togetherness. Birthday celebrations, picnics by the lake, nightly home cooked meals—a special bond and a clay we used to build memories. Until fear and ED had creeped in. No more, I decided.

I began studying food with a velocity I’d only previously applied to treadmills. I wanted to discover its goodness and stop dreaming of ways to avoid it. What did particular foods do for me? If not for managing weight, why did people eat them? How could I eat healthfully, and not by diet book standards of what that was?

I began addressing a self-compiled “I’m afraid of” list. Eat in public. Eat at a restaurant, alone. Eat a meal prepared by others without demanding particulars. Eat the ice cream that triggered my first binge—one serving at a time.

I traded my diet books for medical and dietetic texts that defined food as fuel, a necessary means of nutrients, and obtained my certification in nutrition. I cooked, experimented with foods I’d never tried and volunteered at soup kitchens. I stopped aiming for dietary perfection. Multiple studies had convinced me that such increased my risk for bingeing, obesity, anxiety, depression and sleep problems—pretty much everything on my “No, thank you” list.

It took numerous attempts of arriving at an upscale restaurant alone before I dined there and several more before I enjoyed the food without heavy perspiration or heart palpitations. I wept over a homemade candlelit dinner for one, served on my grandmother’s china. I stocked my kitchen with food until it felt warm, loved and lived-in. Rather than cold and frightening, it felt like home. I took a Buddhist philosophy course and applied its principles to my meals. Eating slowly and without distraction soon went from mortifying to pacifying. On difficult days, I asked myself what I’d feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that.

*****

On a cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table with a bowl of spicy chili and fresh-baked corn bread. An unexpected breeze blew through my apartment window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannelloni beans, I laughed. Struck my own amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table. All anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy had dissipated, leaving me with a palpable sense of peace.

I returned to Paris that summer to celebrate my recovery. Near the grassy patch I’d fallen in I buried a capsule filled with cards from loved ones, photographs, under-sized clothes and copies of my songs and journal entries. ED’s funeral, I called it. A memorial service for my SELF. I ran along the Seine, this time grateful for the strong legs that carried me, the absence of pain and my second chance at a happy, healthy life.

*****

What does ‘beauty’ mean to you?
One of the BEST parts of my recovery was the growing ability to use my brain and energy for pursuits unrelated to diet or exercise—writing, reading, singing… Sam Levinson’s poem, Beauty of A Woman, inspired me on numerous difficult days. In honor of all the poem stands for, I invite you to join me in a beauty-FULL celebration on Friday, February 10th. To learn how you can participate as a blogger or prize sponsor, visit Beauty of a Woman BlogFest.

Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere

“And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…” — Stephen Colbert

The other day I came upon a fiction author’s blog—we’ll call her Snazzy. In Snazzy’s latest post, she recommends a particular breed of dietary supplements capable of “preventing colds, lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease and stimulating weight loss” in one fell swoop. She doesn’t work for the supplement or wellness industries (that I know of) and simply wished to share her good fortune with others. Commendable, right? To a point…

The supplements the well-intended Snazzy praised are responsible for a slew of serious side effects. And numerous large-scale studies showed not an ounce of effectiveness. I know because I’ve read the studies and interviewed the researchers.

As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time reading clinical studies and interviewing experts, from physicians and psychologists to sports physiologists and dietitians. These individuals invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into gaining knowledge, typically in hopes of bettering the world. My heart aches when I think of their vast knowledge and efforts going down the toilet because an unknowing (or careless) blogger with a larger social microphone decided to speak up inappropriately against it.

Now I realize that blogging varies from journalism and other literary forms in numerous ways. Many blogs feature one person’s “musings,”  entertaining quips or videos, philosophical insight or all-things-hilarious. The voice is usually more colloquial than newspapers and texts. But anything goes, right? Many of us use our blogs to inspire, help or guide others. All good stuff! But I feel it’s important to recognize that as bloggers we are self-published authors, even if we go the traditional publishing route elsewhere. The ability to cover any topic our hearts desire brings crazy amazing perks, along with risks and responsibility.

Was it illegal for Snazzy to detail benefits of the supplements she knows little about? Nope. But it was, in my humble opinion, irresponsible and potentially damaging to readers and the literary world as a whole. If we bombard the web with “truthiness,” without revealing it as such, we lower the bar for writers, readers and researchers alike.

While we can’t very well eliminate truthiness from the blogosphere, bookstores or other media singlehandedly or overnight, we can do our part by boosting the authenticity and accuracy of our own work.

Simple Ways to Boost Blog Accuracy (and the Blogosphere as a Whole):

  • Become a responsible reader. Want to write about stopping bullying? Don’t simply say, “More kids get bullied than ever before, especially boys.” Go to Google Scholar and read the latest studies. Interview a psychologist or sociologist. Or quote books published by field experts.
  • When you state statistics, facts or other findings, provide readers with the source. When possible, insert a hyperlink.
  • Address both sides. If you’re presenting a controversial issue or finding, seek out and share an opposing viewpoint. If you prefer to stick to a particular side, simply reference the opposers. (“While not everyone agrees, I believe ______…”)
  • When you state an opinion, present it as such. “In my opinion….” (Think like the judge on “The Good Wife.” ;)) Remember, stirring up some healthy debate is a great thing.
  • Incorporate supportive research, even while covering topics in your area of expertise. Psychologist Michael J. Breus does a great job of this here: Kava Continues to Be A Mystery.
  • Avoid using sources that lack legitimacy, like Wikipedia, outdated books and studies, tabloids and personal home pages.
  • Do rely on universities, newspapers, hospitals, qualified experts and current studies.
  • When addressing theories, don’t mislabel them as facts.
  • When possible, opt for large scale studies or research reviews, which compile findings from numerous studies. (If you simply polled your friends, make it known. “100 percent of those asked…” only means so much when you asked your mom, dad and hamster.)
  • Take articles, blog posts and books not supported by legitimate sources and research with a boatload of salt.
  • If this sounds all like too much work, stick to fiction, opinions, personal narrative and musings. And duh, call them that. ;)

Putting more time, effort and research into our posts makes for better reading, increases our odds of gaining readers’ trust, supports hardworking researchers and adds smartness to our hardworking brains. Sounds like an all around win-win to me.

So what do you say? Am I off my blogger-rocker?? If you hit up heavy topics or offer advice in your blog, do you seek out optimum sources? Or do you leave that up to the reader? Any suggestions to add? Wanna learn more? I love hearing from you!

LSR #3: Laying off the Smokes (And Other Toxic Crutches)

Contrary to popular belief, addictions do not fuel artistic capability. Smoking, drinking, overeating, dieting, gambling and excessive spending can serve as a form of writers block, keeping us from trusting or accessing our full potential. At their worst, these toxic crutches can nuke our creativity and wellbeing for good.

Stephen King lost all pleasure in writing when his battle with alcoholism peaked. Karen Carpenter died from her addictive behaviors. (Imagine what more the musical world might contain had she healed and survived…) And although it seems glamourous it films, TV and photography, smoking—one of the most common crutches—can monopolize our time, energy and financial resources. It’s also responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Most smokers, when told to quit, want to know not why, but how, says the American Cancer Association. Most understand the financial burden the habit creates ($3,600.00 per year for pack-a-day smokers in the U.S.) and the associated health risks. But largely because quitting ain’t easy physically or emotionally, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women smoke on.

Like other dependencies, quitting smoking requires knowing why you smoke, a genuine desire to quit and a stronghold decision for change. And wouldn’t you know, many of the techniques useful for overcoming tobacco abuse work well for other toxic crutches.

Since many of you don’t smoke (GOOD FOR YOU!), I’ve decided to broaden the scope of this Lifesaving Resolution. The following are excerpts from Stealth Health‘s “Ways to Stop Smoking Cigarettes & Quit Smoking For Good. As you go through the list, replace the :( icon with a damaging habit of your own.

Make an honest list of all the things you like about :(. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write them on one side; on the other side make a list of all the things you dislike, such as how it can interfere with your health, work, family, etc., suggests Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D., director of the Clinical Psychiatric Research Center at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Make another list of why quitting :( won’t be easy. Be thorough, even if the list gets long and discouraging. Here’s the important part: Next to each entry, list one or more options for overcoming that challenge. One item might be: “:( helps me deal with stress.” Your option might be: “Take five-minute walks instead.” The more you anticipate the challenges…and their solutions, the better your chance of success.

Prepare a list of things to do when a :( craving hits. Suggestions include: take a walk, drink a glass of water, kiss your partner, throw the ball for the dog, wash the car, clean out a cupboard, have sex, chew gum, wash your face, brush your teeth… Make copies of the list and keep one with you at all times. (**This won’t work for all toxic crutches. If you plan to give up cell phone use while driving, for example, sex won’t work—safely anyway. You could instead breath deeply, turn on the radio or clutch the steering wheel with both hands.)

See an acupuncturist. There’s some evidence that auricular acupuncture (i.e., needles in the ears) curbs cigarette cravings quite successfully, says Ather Ali, N.D., a naturopathic physician completing a National Institutes of Health-sponsored postdoctoral research fellowship at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut. (**Acupuncture may also help manage alcoholism, binge eating, depression, insomnia and stress.)

Think of difficult things you have done in the past. Ask people who know you well to remind you of challenges you have successfully overcome, says Dr. Lieberman. This will give you the necessary self-confidence to stick with your pledge not to :(.

To minimize cravings, change your routine. Sit in a different chair at breakfast or take a different route to work. If you usually :( after work, change that to a walk.

Tell your friends, coworkers, boss, partner, kids, etc., how you feel about situations instead of bottling up your emotions. If something makes you angry, express it instead of smothering it with :(. If you’re bored, admit to yourself that you’re bored and find something energetic to do instead.

If you relapse, just start again. You haven’t failed.

*****

NOW FOR A SPECIAL TREAT… I’ve asked the talented Jan Harrell, PhD to share her insight on toxic crutches. With 30 years as a clinical psychologist under her belt, she’s a resource worth listening to with an attentive, open heart.

Jan and her husband, Alan

AM: From a psychological standpoint, why do most people rely on “toxic crutches,” such as cigarettes, alcohol and over eating or spending?

JH: All of us, while in large, capable adult bodies with well-developed intellectual left brains are aware, even if it isn’t something we consciously think about, of how vulnerable we each are, how little we can ultimately control. With great courage and determination, we step out into the world and try our best to create the lives we hope for, to find safety and fulfilment, all the while aware of that vulnerability.

Sometimes it makes itself known to us as the feelings of anxiety or depression, sometimes it takes the disguise of self-judgment or anger, but it is always a reflection of our deep awareness about how little control we can count on having. Those “toxic” crutches, whether substance abuse (food, cigarettes, alcohol, food) or addictive behaviors (gambling, spending, TV, video games) are places of refuge, where we can both comfort our feelings of being powerless and overwhelmed, and forget them for a while.

AM: How can a person who wishes to overcome a dependency cultivate desire and motivation (rather quitting because they feel they “should”)?

JH: When we truly understand what emotions and struggles underlie our non-logical behavior, rather than being in judgment or it, rather than trying to force ourselves with will-power and logic, we will be able to kindly and sympathetically, support our sense of vulnerability.

If we can accept that our “maladaptive” behaviors were the best that we were able to come up with, but that there are more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existence with all the unavoidable vulnerability and lack of control, then we will be able to support ourselves in the same kind way we would guide a child who simply hasn’t learned, yet, how to navigate a difficult situation.

AM: What about for those who lack belief in themselves…feel incapable of giving up there crutch?

JH: Our desire to change and find emotional strength and freedom can be the lifeline we hold onto as we find the knowledge and tools we need to create the life we long for.

AM: How important is a support system? When is professional help necessary?

JH: Imagine Freud had been a teacher, not a doctor. People clearly liked to talk with him, so he probably would have offered classes on understanding human emotion. Instead of this being a question of “mental health” or “mental illness” we would all be thinking about emotional education, and what we feel and how we handle those feelings would simply be a course of study we all would take.

If we look at “professional help” as simply doing a one on one study of ourselves, life and how to handle it, there need be no shame or judgment. It would be no different than deciding to take a trip to France and wanting to learn the language so our trip would be a more rich experience. Just because we decide to travel to France doesn’t make us able to speak French! We aren’t “mentally ill” because we can’t naturally speak French! We all need to be fluent in the understanding and managing of our human emotion. If we aren’t, why wouldn’t we want to learn!

AM: (Isn’t she fabulous??? :)) Thanks again, Jan, for your time and wisdom.

****

What toxic crutches have you, or do you wish to, over come? Have they come between you and your passions? Are you able to view “maladaptive behaviors” as the best you can/could do?

Author Interview: Kyle Mills

ON WRITING, GEEKING OUT & HIS LATEST WORK

What do you get when you pair fascinating characters, a devastating disease, masterful writing and real life experience as an FBI kid? The Immortalistsone of the fastest-paced, intriguing thrillers I’ve read in some time.

Today I’m honored to bring you New York Times bestselling author of twelve books, Kyle Mills. (If you haven’t read The Immortalists or others of Mills’ work, you’ve got some serious reading to do… ;))

Description: Dr. Richard Draman is trying desperately to discover a cure for a disease that causes children to age at a wildly accelerated rate–a rare genetic condition that is killing his own daughter. When the husband of a colleague quietly gives him a copy of the classified work she was doing before her mysterious suicide, Draman finally sees a glimmer of hope. Its stunning conclusions have the potential to not only turn the field of biology on its head but reshape the world. Soon, though, he finds himself on the run, relentlessly pursued by a seemingly omnipotent group of men who will do whatever it takes to silence him. (Thomas & Mercer, Dec. 2011)

AM: You’re known to hit up hefty issues in your work, from the tobacco industry to terrorism. Why did you decide to focus on “anti-aging” in The Immortalists?

KM: The myth of the fountain of youth is one of the oldest and most widespread in history, with writing on the subject dating back before Christ. The one thing that all those stories and elaborate quests had in common, though, was that they were nonsense—just another example of our superstitious nature.

With all the recent advances in genetics, though, the myth is becoming reality.  There may be children alive today who will never get old, and that brings up a lot of interesting issues that are perfect fodder for a thriller novel. Change can very easily turn into chaos and chaos makes for great stories.

On the other hand, it could just be because I’m getting old…

AM: Beats the alternative, right? ;) Speaking of aging, progeria, the genetic disease featured in The Immortalists, is a real disease. What was your research process like?

KM: It was pretty extensive with this book—a lot of genetics and evolutionary biology texts. Thank God I’m actually interested in that stuff or it would have been brutal.

I wanted to really understand the current state of the science and where it’s heading because it’s a story that hinges on believability.  Having said that, I didn’t want to go overboard.  I made a pact with myself that I’d put all the science-geek stuff I wanted in the first draft and then take exactly half of it out in the second.

AM: The ending surprised me, in good ways. Do you plot your stories and endings out from the get-go? 

KM: Absolutely. I’m a fanatic for outlining. In fact, the outline for the book I’m working on now is already 35,000 words long.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises in the actual writing process, but I like to keep them to a minimum.

My goal is to make sure everything is tied up at the end—but sometimes in a more messy way than people expect. Life rarely provides neat, painless endings.

AM: Your father’s career as an FBI agent has been credited for making your stories and characters so “real”—along with talent, of course. What other factors influence your writing?

KM: It sounds a bit clichéd, but the world around me. I do an enormous amount of reading on history, science, and politics to come up with concepts that inspire me.  And often the idea doesn’t come from just one of those categories, but a combination of all of them. My favorite themes are simple (if brutal) solutions to seemingly intractable problems and the power of the individual to change the world.

AM: One of the greatest attributes of thrillers, that last bit. What if your dad was, say, a plumber or gym teacher… How different might your stories be?

KM: Probably very. When I wrote my first novel, I chose the thriller genre not only because I was a fan but because of my family history with law enforcement. They say write what you know and I took that to heart. If I’d come from a plumbing family, I may well have written about that.

AM: Was your upbringing as exciting as movies and our imaginations make it out to be? (If not, please less us down gently…) 

KM: It might be close. I was having dinner with my father in London when his deputy came in and told him that a plane had gone down and they needed to get to a little town called Lockerbie right away. I’ve had drinks with a guy who, by law, can’t be photographed. I’ve heard first person accounts of gunfights that actually involved monkeys.

AM: I hope the monkeys weren’t hurt! Wait—don’t tell me… What do you enjoy most about writing?

KM: It gives me an excuse to completely geek out on subjects that interest me.  I’m not sure that expertise in areas like the tobacco industry, oil extraction, and the genetics of aging are very useful in the real world, but I love that stuff.

AM: And the downsides?

KM: It’s an industry in constant turmoil and that turmoil is getting more violent every day. I’ve written a lot of books and there’s never been a single one that I didn’t think would be my last. It’s a little nerve wracking if writing is how you pay the mortgage.

AM: Yes, I’d prefer such danger stay on the page… What are you most proud of career-wise?

KM: That’s a tough question. I think maybe the effort I put into each book. I tend to sweat over every line, every fact, and every character. Hopefully, it shows.

AM: It absolutely does. The Immortalists is your twelfth novel, correct? What’s next in the pipeline?

KM: Somewhere around there—enough that you wouldn’t want to lift them all at once.  Next up is a new Ludlum book. It’s an opportunity to explore the progressing science of man/machine integration, something that’s accelerating quickly and will have a lot of impact in the next quarter century.

AM: Any advice for up-and-coming novelists?

KM: I don’t know, it’s hard to even keep up with what’s going on in the industry from one day to the next. My best piece of advice is to not get into the business with the idea that you’re going to make a million dollars or even a living. Write because you love it.

AM: (Note to self: Stock up on Top Ramen. Er, rice, bananas and beans…) Great advice. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. On behalf of my friends and readers, I wish you all possible success.

Support fantastic authors! To learn more, visit www.kylemills.com. To purchase The Immortalists, visit Amazon.com or your local book store.

*****

If you’ve read The Immortalists, what did you think? Any thoughts to share with Kyle? What do you love most about writing?

Butter Heads and Blog Awards

Did My Mother Put You Up to This?

Shortly before I swapped my acting career for writing, a casting director said something I’ll never forget: “You look so familiar… Ever had your head carved out of butter?”

I knew immediately that he was A) from Minnesota, where head-butter sculpting is celebrated, B) had a bizarre dairy-chiseling fetish or C) knew my mother. (Mom’s been known to set people up for such…adventures.) Before I could speculate further, he  revealed himself as a MN State Fair groupie. So I busted out my best Fargo-like accent and ended up landing the job. (Nothin’ wrong with some extra edge, yah know.)

While I’ve never donned the Princess Kay of the Milky Way crown—an honor given by the MN Dairy Princess Program each year (And yes, winners’ heads are actually carved out of butter and put on display…), I’ve recently gained a bunch of nifty blog awards. And like the C.D.’s question, the warm fuzzy flurry raised surprise and suspicion: Hmm…Did my mother put you up to this?? 

Regardless, tremendous THANKS to Marc Schuster, Kourtney HeintzMarcy KennedyJessica O’Neal and NM for the Versatile Blogger honors, Debra Kristi for the Inspiring Blogger Award and Sharon K Owen for the Leibster. Y’all deserve these accolades and more. Wish I could carve you out of butter! (I mean that in the BEST way possible.)

*DRUM ROLL* I present these awards to…

1. Marla Martenson: Metaphysical Matchmaker
2. Pat O’Dea Rosen: Reading, Writing and Rambling: Comments and observations on books, movies, writing, travel and other things that strike our fancy
3.  Violets and Cardamom
4.  Ellis Shuman Writes: A Virtual Home for my Writing
5.  You’ve Been Hooked: Observations from the Trenches
6.  Ray, of The Journal Pulp
7.  Lance, of My Blog Can Beat Up Your Blog
8.  Tameri Etherton: A Cup of Tea and Sourcery
9.  Little Miss Vix: The Journey of An Aspiring YA Author
10. Jennifer L. Oliver: World Beneath An Evening Star 

1. Reflection of a Buddhist Monk
2. Natalie Hartford: Life Out Loud: Be yourself…Everyone else is taken.
3. Joe Bunting of The Write Practice: Practical Inspiration
4. Write On, Jana! Random insights on health, happiness, housekeeping and the pursuit of margin…
5.  Holly Kammier: Could Have Been Hollywood

1. Moe and Moe’s LA Adventures
2. Unpublished Patti
3. Minerva, of Finding the Right Words
4. Sanjiv Bhattacharya: Something Good is Going to Happen
5. Cadbury Fife: Cadbury’s Detective Agency and other works of unimaginable genius 

WINNERS! Please pass your award on to 15 others and share 7 “random facts” about yourself and the award logo on your blog. For more details, visit: Versatile Blogger Award or Leibster Blog Awards. Have fun!

7 Random Facts About Yours Truly:
1. I’m an ambi-vert—equal parts intro./extro.
2. I’m the average of my parents’ heights: 6′ 4″ and 5’3″.
3. I’m a sagi-corn or capri-carious—depending on which horoscope’s better.
4. I like kids, especially my coolio niece pack, but don’t intend to have any.
5. I do, however, parent an American bull dog named Zoe—a.k.a., my heart.
6. I dream of performing in a bestselling writers band like Rock Bottom Remainders. (If Mr. King happens upon this, I’m available!)
7. My first novel, IN HER SHADOW, is a psychological thriller that began as a memoir.

Gotta ask. Have you ever had your head carved out of butter? Other foods? What odd questions have strangers asked you?

LSR #2: Dodging Diets

An estimated 75 million Americans diet each year, contributing to an over $70 billion industry.  - U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market

Dieting first gained mass appeal in 1829 when Reverend Sylvester Graham launched the Graham diet. By limiting caffeine and meat and snacking on graham crackers, the plan promised to stave off added pounds and masturbation. (Yes, you read that right.) Since then, the weight loss industry has grown into a $70 billion-per-year industry, with an estimated 75 million Americans dieting at any given time. And the methods are no less whacky.

Regardless of the plan, more than 95 percent of dieters gain lost weight back (and usually more) within five years. Many of us have heard a rendition of this statistic. So why are more people dieting than ever before?? So glad you asked!!! ;)

Some of the reasons:

1) We’re bombarded with images of “perfect” bodies—physiques unattainable to most of us, including the models and celebrities depicted.
2) The diet industry invests millions of dollars into research on consumer palatability. (What will make us buy, and keep buying, particular plans and products?)
3) We live in an instant gratification society. We want results and want them NOW.
4) Food is more available and flavorful than ever before. Most low-nutrient foods are cheap. And many of us are sedentary. Overeating and inactivity lead to weight gain, which leads to dieting, which leads to MORE weight gain…
6) Diets seem exciting, and a balanced diet paired with exercise, bo-ring.
7) Dieting can seem like a solution not only to our weight problems, but ALL of our problems. (“I’d be happy/beautiful/successful if I just lose __ pounds…”)
8) Many diets are disguised as “lifestyle plans.” So even when we know the risks and failure rate of DIETS, we can be led astray.

Dieting contributes depression, stress, binge eating, a slowed metabolism, weight gain, obesity, nutrient deficiencies, bone loss, memory loss, insomnia, low self esteem, heart problems and more. Why is dieting so harmful? Yet another GREAT question. ;)

Some of the reasons:

1) Dieting forces the body into starvation mode—a state in which calories—units of energy reaped from food—are stored.
2) Our bodies are designed to run and thrive on sufficient amounts of calories and nutrients. This is why eating too few carbohydrates, our body and brain’s main energy source, causes fatigue, depression, constipation and food cravings. Extremely low-fat diets interfere with brain function, appetite control, nutrient absorption and even hair health. (Dietary supplements, while useful in some cases, are not suitable replacements.)
3) Food and eating are more than nutrition. What would holidays, weddings and other celebrations be without food? Humans are hardwired to enjoy food. Mess around with that and the results aren’t pretty. Depression, for example, befalls most people who lose normal eating capabilities. (Dieting = not eating normally.) Diets are also tough to maintain in social, family and work settings.
4) We aren’t clones. Our taste preferences, personalities, genes, activity level and overall health play important roles in our food choices and eating habits. Most diet plans run on the one-size-fits-all philosophy, which is best limited to stretchy gloves.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this depressing…

Onto the GOOD stuff!

EAT WELL, STAY WELL STRATEGIES:
(Notice I didn’t say, ‘Weight Loss Strategies.’ Unless you have a genetic condition, such as Prader Willi Syndrome, eating well—mostly healthy foods, not too much and not too little—promotes a healthy body weight and countless other benefits.)

If ‘calorie’ seems like a cuss word and dieting’s become your norm, it’s time to shift gears… Try one or numerous of the following – whichever resonates with you.

1. EAT MORE healthy food. Focusing on what you “shouldn’t” eat is a mainstay of many diets. It’s also one reason they fail. Instead, stock up on healthy foods you enjoy. Seek tasty ways to prepare fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains. Check out health food restaurants and grocery stores. Dine with health-minded friends. And begin substituting low-nutrient foods with nutritious. Swap white bread out for 100 percent whole grain bread, for example, and fatty red meat for leaner cuts, legumes or fish.

2. Color your plates. At each meal, load half of your plate or bowl up with colorful produce. Or incorporate fruits and vegetables into conventional dishes, like pastas, soups, pizzas and baked goods. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables promote positive weight control, digestive health and cardiovascular health and a reduced risk for heart attack, stroke, certain forms of cancer and chronic disease. For overall health, the American Dietetic Association suggests aiming for at least 2 cups of fruit an 2.5 cups of veggies per day.

3. Aim for 80/20. Perfect eating doesn’t exist. Eating primarily (80 – 90%) nutritious fare and cutting yourself some slack (10 – 20%) guards against feelings of deprivation and the risk of going off the dietary deep end once your “perfect” eating falls to the wayside. Registered dietitian Robyn Goldberg recommends eating “play foods” daily—foods consumed for pleasure purposes only.

4. Take baby steps. Small, gradual changes are generally the most effective when it comes to reaching and maintaining wellness. Take an inventory of your eating habits. What areas could use improvements? If you currently eat fast food three times per week, cut back to once per week. If you eat less than one serving of whole grains per day—Americans’ overall average—bump it up to two per day. If you avoid your favorite snacks or desserts like the plague only to overeat them later, start eating a single portion daily.

5. Dig deeper. Food and weight concerns often symptomize deeper issues. If you feel desperate to change your weight or appearance, ask yourself why. (Are you happy with your work life? Social life? Relationships?) Addressing the answers may be all you need to jumpstart healthy changes. To read one couple’s weight control success story, check out my article at Bartlett’s Health: The Fulfillment Diet: Pursuing Passion FIRST.

6. Eat mindfully. Remember those mindful driving tips from last week? Similar principles can enhance your dietary lifestyle. Mindful eating is associated with improved appetite and weight control and a low risk for depression, digestive problems and obesity. To invite mindfulness to your meals, dine in a pleasurable atmosphere, free of distraction (no phone, computer or TV). Eat slowly, observing the colors, texture, flavors and aromas of your food and how you feel physically and emotionally. For more pointers, visit The Center for Mindful Eating.

***Don’t be afraid to seek support from a qualified professional, particularly if you have a long history of dieting, weight problems or disordered eating.***

Whew! That was a mouthful. ;) And a lot to fit into one post. I want to support you all in any way I can, so please speak up! Post your questions, concerns and related topic requests in the comments. If you’re already wellness/nutrition-savvy, what strategies have I missed? Which would you like to learn more about?

Author Interview: Marc Schuster

I’d just finished reading Marc Schuster’s fantastic blog series, A Novel Approach, when I jumped over to Amazon to check out his work. Man, this guy’s smart, I thought. I hope he writes thrillers!

Nope. But my preference turned out not to matter. Marc’s breakout novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, takes off with thriller velocity and supports my belief that all great books maintain page-turner momentum, keeping the reader enthused. His prose are so fantastic they’d intimidate, if not for the pull-you-in nature of the story and characters. I wasn’t sweating through pages at the gym, but in the mind and life of Audrey Corcoran, a middle aged divorcee who’s swept up into a world of addiction.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Marc Schuster’s colorful debut novel paints a riveting portrait of a divorced mother whose quest to be everything to everyone exposes the dark secrets of America’s suburbs.

Audrey Corcoran never dreamed she’d try cocaine, but a year after a bitter divorce, she meets a man named Owen Little who convinces her that a little buzz might be exactly what she needs to lift her spirits. And why not? He’s already turned her on to jazz, and no one in his circle of friends ever thinks twice about getting high. Soon, however, her escalating drug use puts a strain on Audrey’s relationship with her daughters, and she begins to sell cocaine from her home in order to subsidize her habit. By turns horrifying and hilarious, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl offers a scathing indictment of American consumer culture and the wildly conflicting demands it makes upon women.

On the surface, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl is about overcoming addiction. At the same time, however, the novel examines society’s conflicting expectations of women. Consumer culture constantly tells women to be fun, smart, wild and sexy, but at the same time, this same culture also demands that women be dependable, reliable, sensible and safe. In short, women are expected to do it all. Against this backdrop, protagonist Audrey Corcoran discovers cocaine and thinks she’s found the product that will allow her to be everything to everyone. Her struggle with addiction, then, is also a struggle with her sense of identity, and her essential dilemma is whether or not to buy into the myth of the perfect woman or to accept herself as flawed and imperfect, yet no less worthy of love. (PS Books, May 2009)

Interested??? I thought so. Today I’m THRILLED to bring you one of my new favorite authors, Marc Schuster:

AM: I laughed so hard reading the first chapter, I nearly fell off the elliptical. What role does humor play in your writing—this novel in particular?

MS: Thanks! I’m glad my sense of humor struck a cord with you. It plays a huge part in all of my writing. One reason is that I come from a family of very funny people. Our go-to method of communication is joking with each other. Or teasing, depending on how you look at it. This makes communication with the outside world difficult at times. Even when I’m discussing serious topics, my instinct is always to go for the punch line or the easy laugh. It’s something I learned to do when I was very young. I was a very bookish child, which made me an easy target for bullies. The only defense I had was my sense of humor. If I could make people laugh, it meant that they weren’t punching me. Now whenever I’m nervous or in a tense situation, my gut tells me to make a joke out of it. With practice, though, I’ve managed to rein in my jocular tendencies, especially when I write.

With Wonder Mom, the humor is there to leaven the heaviness of the subject matter, but it’s also there because life in the twenty-first century can be so surreal that it’s hard not to see a funny side to it. The novel is about a woman dealing with addiction, which isn’t a funny subject at all. But the world she lives in is so full of contradictions, and places so many ridiculous expectations upon her, that the humor came fairly easily. I guess I’m trying to say that I didn’t have to inject humor into the story. Telling it straight—in essence, holding a mirror up to our world—provided all the humor I needed.

AM: Wonder Mom also inspires I’m-so-touched chills, heartache and serious thought. What inspired you to take on such heavy issues? 

MS: The idea for the novel came to me years before I started writing it. I was working on a paper for a course I was taking in graduate school. The paper was called “Laughing Gas Theatre: TS Eliot and the Numbing of the Masses.” Though it was about drug use and other modes of self-medication that were becoming popular in the first half of the twentieth-century, some of my research turned up first-hand accounts of contemporary drug use. One book I read included a case study of a divorced mother who tried cocaine because her boyfriend said she might like it. When she was interviewed for the study, the woman had only tried it once, but she said that she would definitely try it again because she liked the outgoing and confident person she became when she was high.

I could be wrong, but I think the book was called The Steel Drug. The last time I looked at it was probably in 1997, but the idea of this mother experimenting with cocaine must have stuck with me. A couple of years later, I was in a writing group, and every month we’d come up with writing assignments for each other. One month, the assignment was to write about someone with an obsession, and I immediately thought of the woman in the case study. Where was she now? What had become of her? This line of questioning led to a short story that eventually evolved into the novel.

AM: If you can do it without getting arrested ;), please tell us about your research. 

MS: I really only buried my nose in books—nothing stronger, I swear! For the most part, my research consisted of reading case studies, though for some of the more technical details of drug dealing, I turned to the US Government for help. The National Institute on Drug Abuse website offers plenty of information on things like the going rate for a gram of cocaine and the kinds of ingredients that drug dealers use to cut their product. Once or twice, I drew on experiences that friends of mine offered when they found out what my book was about, particularly the more visceral experiences like Audrey’s description of the acrid drip in the back of her throat. But overall, my research hinged almost entirely on print sources like the aforementioned Steel Drug and another excellent book on the subject titled Cocaine Changes.

AM: You wrote Wonder Mom/Party Girl from a woman’s perspective—and quite well. Did you find “writing female” different than writing from a male standpoint? Was it more challenging?

MS: Once I started writing from Audrey’s perspective, it wasn’t difficult at all. Obvious differences aside, she’s not too far removed from me. I’m highly sensitive to criticism, as is Audrey, and I’m the kind of person who strives to keep other people happy, just like Audrey does. The big difference between us isn’t so much that I’m a man and she’s a woman but that she turns to drugs to deal with stress, whereas I just curl into a ball and hide under the table. Which isn’t to say the fact that Audrey is a woman doesn’t matter. It just matters in a different way—in terms of the social queues she’s always receiving from the world she lives in.

Part of my research into Audrey’s character was reading through magazines that are traditionally geared toward mothers. The ads in these magazines tend to create a mythical perfect woman that mothers everywhere are supposed to strive for—at least as far as the ads are concerned. One thing in the back of my mind as I was writing from Audrey’s perspective was that in addition to all of the other pressures in her life, she also had the added pressure of knowing that she didn’t measure up to the myth of the “perfect mom.” On one level, a purely intellectual level, she could tell herself that it was, indeed, just a myth, but on a more emotional level, she still wishes she could be the perfect mother she sees depicted everywhere she looks.

AM: You wrote much of the book in present tense, which I love, by the way. Why?

MS: There’s an illustration of sorts that appears somewhere in the middle of the book. It’s a black square that takes up most of the page. On the page before the black square, the narrative is in the past tense, and on the page after the square, the narrative moves into the present tense and three months have passed. What I want to convey here is that a distinct shift has occurred in Audrey’s life and that decisions from the past are finally catching up with her. I also like the immediacy of the present tense.

AM: Without preaching, you managed to convey valuable life lessons. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book changes or even saves some lives. Have you considered this? Was it a goal?

MS: The big thing I was really trying to do with the novel was to humanize addiction. It’s a misunderstood concept in our culture, and one that’s highly maligned. We tend to see people who fall into addiction as weak or, worse, morally corrupt. But there are so many complicated factors that lead to addiction, and, in some ways, the impulse to self-medicate is a highly sensible one. As thinking creatures, we recognize that we’re in pain, that pain is bad, and that getting out of pain would be a good thing. It’s a perfectly rational train of thought. That’s what happens to Audrey, and to some extent it’s what happens to many people who struggle with addiction.

One interesting thing that’s happened since the book was published is that some readers have told me that I was, in fact, telling their story. One woman approached me after a reading and said, “This is my story.” She went on to explain that she had gone through a rough divorce and that some friends had turned her on to drugs. She eventually stopped using, but she was glad to see someone talking about her experiences in a sympathetic way.

AM: Your next novel, which I can’t WAIT to read, The Grievers, comes out in May, 2012. What’s it about? 

MS: I’m calling it a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age. It’s about a group of friends who attended a fairly prestigious prep school in their teens and are, in their late twenties, finally coming to terms with the fact that the world won’t be handed to them on a silver platter. At the same time, they’re dealing with the tragic death of a classmate and their alma mater’s efforts at using the tragedy to turn a fast buck. As heavy as the material may sound, there’s also some levity in there. I was lucky to get some advance praise from a few of my favorite writers, including Beth Kephart who wrote, “Raging cluelessness has never been this funny or, in the end, this compassionate.” That about sums it up.

AM: What books do you most enjoy reading? Can you read and enjoy your own?

MS: I love everything from the paranoid futures of Philip K. Dick to the magical realms of Neil Gaiman and the twisted present-day reality of Chuck Palahniuk. I’m also a big fan of Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut. Lately, though, I’ve been reading short story collections. Two of my recent favorites are Steve Almond’s God Bless America and Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

On occasion, I might look at a passage or two from one of my own books, particularly when I’m gearing up for a reading, but for the most part, my books just sit on the shelf like neglected houseplants.

AM: Ha! I have a few of those. (Neglected house plants, that is.) What do you hope readers will gain from your writing?

MS: To me, a good book is a friend of the mind. I want readers to feel at home in the worlds that I’ve created, to pick up one of my books and enter a mental space where they’re completely welcomed and never judged, a place where they can be human and see what it means for other people to be human, too—to revel in the glory of our shared imperfection.

AM: Any tips for up-and-coming novelists?

MS: Read a lot, and read a wide range of books. On occasion, I meet would-be authors who tell me they don’t read much because they don’t want other people’s writing to influence their work. This is a ridiculous position to take, and writers are the only people I know who tend to take it. Graphic artists, musicians, and standup comedians all steep themselves in the work of those who’ve gone before as well as the work of their contemporaries. Why? Because they recognize that they’re part of an ongoing, ever-evolving dialogue. And the better writers recognize that, too. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Also, keep at it. I wrote four novels, each incrementally better than the last, before I wrote The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. There were many points along the way where I thought I should just stop writing. Usually these points coincided with rejection letters. But I kept at it largely because I couldn’t keep away from writing. I’d have an idea, and I’d have to start playing with it, developing it. If you have stories to tell, then keep telling them and keep working on them. And do it because you love writing, not because you think there will be some kind of major payoff somewhere down the line. Writing itself is the payoff.

AM: Brilliant. Thanks again for doing this, Marc. Best of luck in all of your ventures!

For more information, visit MarcSchuster.com and his blog, Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings and Ephemera.

To purchase, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, visit Amazon.com.

*******

Have you read Wonder Mom and Party Girl? Any thoughts to share with Marc? I always love hearing from you.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,208 other followers