A Q &A with Blues Clues & Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’s Angela Santomero

ACS in Thinking Chair

Readers of my work and followers of my Facebook Author page know that Fred Rogers is one of my greatest heroes. I loved watching Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, and Mr Rogers himself profoundly shaped me as a person, parent, teacher, and artist. Watching the show helped my autistic son Benj learn how to be more expressive, empathetic, and creative and my fiery, impulsive second son, James, how to be both more patient (he so loves Mr Rogers’ song “It’s Very Very Very Hard To Wait”) and more compassionate towards his big brother.

I must confess that I was a bit apprehensive when I first heard about a new animated TV show featuring Daniel Tiger from Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. But as soon as I read that Angela Santomero of Blues Clues was working together with The Fred Rogers Company on Daniel, I was confident that it would retain the whimsical charm and sensitive respect for children that characterized Mr Roger’s Neighborhood while carrying Mr Rogers’ sensibility and vision forward for a new generation of viewers. I watched the first episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my now 13 and 10 year old boys and my 10 year old stepdaughter, and we were all enchanted, delighted, and touched. It’s an adorable, sweet, smart show that uses the latest research on how children learn and grow in the least heavy-handed way. If I had very young children, I’d have them watching Daniel Tiger every single day. As it is, my teen and tween kids insist on DVRing it and we sometimes have Daniel Tiger marathons on weekends!

A few months ago, I reached out to Angela Santomero on Facebook to tell her how much we loved the show, and she wrote back in such a lovely, warm way. After reading my book, The Anti-Romantic Child, she asked for a phone conversation with me, and that hour passed in a flash as the two of us discovered numerous points of connection and found ourselves in a mutual admiration society. I am delighted to share with you a Q &A I did with Angela via email; in the upcoming weeks, look for me to reciprocate by answering questions on her blog, Angela’s Clues!

Angela Santomero has been changing the way children watch television for over fifteen years. She is a Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Out of the Blue Enterprises LLC, overseeing the creative development and research of all of the company’s projects, with a mission and vision to bring educational entertainment to a whole new level.

Angela is the lead creator, executive producer, and head writer for Nick Jr.’s landmark preschool show Blue’s Clues. Currently, Angela is the Creator, Executive Producer and Head Writer of the Emmy-nominated and #1 ranked show, Super Why, which helps build preschool literacy skills through fractured fairytales and interactive games.

Angela’s vast accomplishments include leading the production and development of numerous Emmy nominated episodes for Blue’s Clues, Super Why! & Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; a full-length feature called Blue’s Big Musical Movie; educational Blue’s Clues CD-ROMs and twenty+ books for Simon & Schuster. She is a Peabody Award Winner for Outstanding Children’s Programming and a Gold and Silver Parents Choice Awards recipient. She received a B.A. from The Catholic University of America and a Master’s degree in Child Developmental Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College where she was the recipient of the 1999 Early Career Award.

Angela presently hosts PBS’ The Parent Show at PBSparents.org. Her personal blog, AngelasClues.com, approaches parenting from her vantage point as a childrens’ media creator.

Angela grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in New York with her husband Greg, her two adorable daughters, and their energetic dog Oreo. Angela derives inspiration, laughter, and sometimes even notes on her scripts from her girls. Angela’s family is her priority. Some of their favorite activities include: roasting vegetables, singing, reading, skiing, and asking questions about the way the world works.

1) Tell us about your experience of Mister Rogers and his show as a young child- what did he mean to you?

I was that 4 year old who couldn’t sit any closer to the television set when my friend Mister Rogers was on. I talked to him and believed him when he told me that he liked me just the way I was….

2) How and why did you decide to do a new Mister Rogers-inspired show?

The Fred Rogers Company wanted to promote Fred’s legacy in a new show so they spoke to me since Fred and I got to know each other and he was a fan of my first show, Blue’s Clues. I was honored and deeply touched!

3) What were some of the challenges you encountered on the way to putting the show together and getting it on the air?

I think that they had to pry the first script from my hands! 🙂 The idea that I was writing a show for my mentor and friend was a bit overwhelming. The challenges were really about making sure we honored Fred Rogers, stayed true to what his adult fans would like, and also to write a story and characters that preschoolers, today, would fall in love with. Oh, and not tarnish a 40 year old brand. Phew, no tall order!

4) What are some of the most gratifying responses you’ve received to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood?

The way the show has been embraced by children has been wonderful! The adults fans of the original show appreciate the little “nods of love” in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that we have put in just for them. My favorite stories are the ones where parents are telling us that their kids are using our strategies every day! One little boy was singing “Grownups come back” while he was being dropped off at school, another little girl was telling her mom, “You know, when you feel so mad you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four!”

5) Why do you think Mister Rogers is so important to children and families?

The 40+ year old curriculum is a strong child centered pro social curriculum that children and families need today. We all need to be reminded that “Making something is one way to say I love you” or that “I like you just the way you are” or “When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.” I just love that we are giving parents research based, tried and true strategies that they can keep in their back pocket to use as needed.

6) Do you have any tips or advice for other busy working moms about achieving work/life integration?

Multi task! Have a husband who is actively involved! Sleep!
Really, I just try my best every single day and spend a lot of time hugging my kids and talking with them.

7) What one piece of advice would you give every new parent?

Take the time to stop, play, and try to remember that childhood is so fleeting. I sound so old saying that but I truly can’t believe my own girls are 12 and 9 already. Where did time to go?

8) What gifts do you like to give new parents?

I like to give my favorite books, depending on age of course. We love picture books Ish and The Dot by Peter Reynolds, Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willams. We love chapter books Mandy by Julie Andrews, Time Traveling Fashionista series by Bianca Turtsky. We write a little note in a the books so that kids will see them everytime they read and remember that we were thinking of them when we picked it out.

9) What are some of your family’s favorite movies, books, and television shows?

We love watching our own home movies! Ha ha, we really do! We also love reading a book together, listening to music and then watching the movie or going to see the Broadway show. We just went to Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and loved comparing it to the Disney version, and talking about the direction the director took. We like Good Luck, Charlie on Disney and re runs of The Brady Bunch!

10) Who inspires you (public figures, creative artists, people in your personal life)?

YOU! Truly, I’m inspired by your book and all of your writing. Fred Rogers inspired me to study child development and integrate education with me to elevate television to another level for kids. My daughters inspire me every day with how confident, insightful, empathetic and thoughtful they are. My husband inspires me with his patience and creativity. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, inspired me to write. Gerry Laybourne, first president of Nickelodeon, inspired me to embrace my research side in media. Oprah inspires me….

Angela Santomero

Putting on sneakers

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Advice for Parents, Advice for Writers: A Q & A with Randy Susan Meyers

About a week after my first book, THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, was published, I traveled to Long Island to give a reading at a Women’s Group’s Annual Luncheon. Looking around at the 300+ plus women milling about in the grand ballroom of a swanky hotel, my gaze finally alighted on the kind, understanding face of the other author invited to speak at the lunch. Randy Susan Meyers could not have been more warm, supportive, and gracious. She took this neophyte author under her wing and advised me on everything from social media to carrying bookmarks “advertising” my book to blocking out the din of a book’s reception in the world in order to focus on what really matters: sharing our stories and messages with others in order to help, console, or uplift them. Randy’s two novels, THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS and THE COMFORT OF LIES, are gritty, honest, suspenseful, and moving. And in the writing world, Randy is known not only for her propulsive plots and endearing characters but also for her generosity and support of other writers. I’m delighted to share with you an extensive Q &A I did with Randy- her long road to authorial success is an exemplary story of patience, determination, and good winning out in the end, and her thoughts on parenting, grand-parenting, and arranging one’s life are reassuring and inspiring. Please comment on our interview and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a free copy of Randy’s wonderful new novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES (I’ll pick the name of a commenter at random on Saturday, March 2nd).

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Here’s Randy’s bio in her own words:

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, where I quickly moved from playing with dolls to incessantly reading, spending most of my time at the Kensington Branch Library. Early on I developed a penchant for books rooted in social issues, my early favorites being “Karen” and “The Family Nobody Wanted.” Shortly I moved onto Jubilee and The Diary of Anne Frank.

My dreams of justice simmered at the fantastically broadminded Camp Mikan, where I went from camper to counselor, culminating in a high point when (with the help of my strongly Brooklyn-accented singing voice), I landed the role of Adelaide in the staff production of “Guys and Dolls.”

Soon I was ready to change the world, starting with my protests at Tilden High and City College of New York, until I left to pursue the dream in Berkeley, California, where I supported myself by selling candy, nuts, and ice cream in Bartons of San Francisco. Then, world-weary at too-tender an age, I returned to New York, married, and traded demonstrations for diapers.

While raising two daughters, I tended bar, co-authored a nonfiction book on parenting, ran a summer camp, and (in my all-time favorite job, other than writing) helped resurrect and run a community center.

Once my girls left for college, I threw myself deeper into social service and education by working with batterers and victims of domestic violence. I’m certain my novels are imbued with all the above, as well as my journey from obsessing over bad boys to loving a good man.

Many things can save your life–children who warm your heart, the love of a good man, a circle of wonderful friends, and a great sister. After a tumultuous start in life, I’m lucky enough to now have all these things. I live in Boston with my husband, and I’m now a grandmother!

The dark drama of my debut novel, THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS, is informed by my years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence.

My new novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES has just been published by Atria/Simon & Shuster. It’s a novel about an affair and the three very different women whose lives become intertwined in its aftermath: Tia, the woman who fell in love with a married man, got pregnant and gave the baby up for adoption; Juliet whose husband had the relationship with Tia; and Caroline, the woman who adopted the child that Tia couldn’t bear to raise alone. These are three women who should never have met–and when they do, their lives collide in ways that none of them could have predicted.

THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS was chosen as a Target Book Club Pick, Massachusetts “Must Read” Fiction, and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award,

1) Was writing a second novel more or less challenging than writing the first one? What was different about the experience?

I was lucky, because I began my second novel (in a very early draft form) before my first book sold. That was the fortunate part. Plus, with each subsequent book (because this really wasn’t my second book—my practice books were deep in the drawer) I learned from the mistakes I’d previously made. Structuring (making many iterations of outlines, in-depth organizational plans, etc.) my book and building foundations that would make huge differences when revising my novel were paramount. One thinks about so many ideas along the road to a final book, flashes come at one constantly. You think you’ll remember them when you finish your draft, but unless you write them down in a ‘findable’ fashion, you simply won’t.

So, the writing was easier. However, the time and emotions involved while revising my second book were more taxing by far than the first time around. I was now promoting The Murderer’s Daughters, so much of the energy formerly spent on writing and imagination was now spent writing essays and posts, obsessing over reviews, hourly Googling, Facebooking, Tweeting—the chattering of the online world does not mix with writing. If I hadn’t discovered a program called “Freedom” I’d have been lost.

2) You are a relatively “late bloomer” as a successful novelist. What can your career tell us about the path to becoming an artist?

It was a long path, and it’s a long answer, Priscilla. If anyone out there feels the misery of trying to get it done before you turn 100, I can provide company:

It began with my published-too-young book: In my twenties, I co-wrote a nonfiction book (under my former—married—name, Randy Meyers Wolfson) Couples With Children. Co-author Virginia DeLuca (Ginny) and I, in our work with pregnant and post-partum women, saw that suddenly-shaky marriages were of more concern than diapers. And we wanted to write. We bought How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum, wrote a proposal and a sample chapter, sent it off and shortly thereafter had a contract. I won’t go into the many mistakes we made after that (the only thing we did right was writing and selling the book) but this ‘easy’ sell offered (extraordinarily) undeserved confidence.

Soon after, I got divorced. Now I was a single mother and talking about marriage and children seemed, um… embarrassing to say the least. And fiction was really my love. The nonfiction Couples With Children was left to languish.

In between raising kids, badly-chosen men, working in human services by day, and bartending by night, I co-wrote Novels 1 & 2 with Ginny: Two mysteries. Got an agent. We thought we had a series. Didn’t get a publisher.

Moving on, still submerged in bad men and fantasy, still not applying myself to learning the deeper tenets of writing fiction, and skating on sheer want, I wrote Novel 3, which should have been titled: The Book That Helped Me Pretend I Wasn’t Screwing Up My Life, By Mythologizing It.

No agent. No sale. No memory if I wrote a query. Probably not, as a friend insisted on sending it to his wife’s cousin-the-writer, who called it… execrable? Deplorable? Tripe? He didn’t soften the slam by deeming it poetic or lyrical.

Because it wasn’t.

Got depressed.

Had a drink or ten.

Thank goodness I had yet another totally inappropriate guy to lean on!

Fast forward: Sent kids through college. Lost bad guy/s. Found a good one. Got serious about writing. Embarked on my homemade MFA and wrote my trilogy:

Novel 4: Dove in. Joined a writer’s group. Finished. Got an agent. As soon as she put it out for submission, I began writing:

Novel 5: Showed it to said agent. She liked it so much that she replaced the now limping and ten-times rejected # 4 (are you still with me) with newly minted # 5. And I began writing the next one.

Novel 6. Showed a bit to agent. She loved it. Said keep going! Meanwhile, she kept trotting out #5 to a few editors.

Then my agent turned more attention to representing a different genre and it seemed right for us to part ways. Leaving this agent was wrenching. The ‘bird in the hand’ theory pulled, but I felt a sweet spot with # novel 6, and felt that I needed the right person to represent it (aware many would find it dark.)

No hard feelings, a virtual handshake, and agent and I said goodbye.

Back out on the agent-hunting circuit, feeling like a confused divorcee. (Do I talk about the ex? Pretend it never happened?)

Six months later I signed with new (wonderful and current) agent. She read. She edited. I revised. She sold #6 (The Murderer’s Daughters) in 8 days.

How long did it take to sell my debut novel from when I began writing fiction?

20+ years
Six novels
Three agents

What I learned:

a) To take heart from positive words embedded in rejections and believe the good things they said about my writing. Believe when they said ‘the work just wasn’t for them.’ To take criticisms seriously and pay attention to ideas generously passed on. (Well, not the one that said, “she was so over domestic violence.)

b) To believe that writing, like any craft, requires honing, and not to beat myself up over unsold books. They weren’t wasted time—they were my education. I doubt Georgia O’Keefe sold her first paintings. Or Grandma Moses, who I feared I might pass in ‘firsts.’

c) To surround myself with supportive writer friends and take heart from their success (even when I felt green and evil.)

d) To learn when to fold them.

e) To know when to hold on.

3) Tell us about your parenting and grand-parenting experiences. How do they compare?

Here I can be succinct. Parenting is intense gut-wrenching love that careens from glitter and roses to pain greater than you ever thought possible. From scrapes to serious problems, one is only as happy as one’s unhappiest child much of the time. Grandparenting is a deep pure love, which rather than scorching everything in its path (as parenting can) fills one with light. Of course you worry—I took care of my granddaughter once a week, from early morning through suppertime, until last year—so you don’t get to miss out on the terror. But the fear is leavened with experience and the awareness that each moment passes. You don’t feel stuck, just grateful for the wonder of this child.

4) What wisdom can you share with other women struggling to balance career aspirations and the exigencies of motherhood?

This too shall pass. Honestly, that is the very best thing I can say. Something, someone, was always being shortchanged. I guess I slept, but I don’t really remember.

When my children were young (and I was usually working two jobs as well as being a mom—and trying to cram in writing) life was a constant round of undone and nothing-ever-enough. Whichever part of my life was for-the-moment well tended (children, work, romance, friends, helping out family) the other was less so. Certain parts of my life just slid away–making good regular meals, keeping up with the laundry, the house, decent haircuts, my eyebrows—you name it.

Our society is hard on parents. Having it all is a crock. Loving your children ferociously, while still going easy on yourself and getting sleep, is far more important than baking cookies, getting them to every museum, and building piñatas. Cuddle up and eat pizza with them. Watch television, rather than being so tense as you cook a homemade supper that you want to strangle them.

5) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, historical personages, and people from your personal life, even fictional characters!

Those who give of themselves, who broke barriers, people who fought what must have been fear and sometimes loathing and did the right thing, inspire me. Raoul Wallenberg. Gloria Steinem. Betty Friedan. Margaret Sanger. Oskar Schindler. Marie Curie. Rosa Parks. I could go on forever.

6) What are your favorite ways to unwind, relax, and replenish yourself?

Read. Read. Read. Preferably in a clean house (makes all the difference.) Bonus points for being by the water.

7) What are some of your favorite novels? Did any particular novels or novelists inspire you in your own fiction-writing?

I have been deeply inspired by Rosellen Brown’s novels. All of them.

8) What is the one piece of advice you would give every aspiring writer?

Read a vast array of writing books, because before you break the rules you really should know them. Plus, there is no reason to reinvent wheels that others have made smooth and wonderfully round.

Be patient. Make your work the best it can be (don’t rush to get approbation by looking for an agent or publisher too soon!)

9) What is the one piece of advice you would give every new parent? Every new grandparent?

For parents, the truest most useful advice is probably the oldest advice: sleep whenever you can. Ask for help. Go easy on yourself. Loving, feeding, (and cleaning) your baby is the only thing you must do. Grandparents? Enjoy, love, and keep your mouth shut unless your children seek your advice. Always tell your children what wonderful parents they are.

10) Do you have a go-to quotation that never fails to inspire, calm, or motivate you?

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”— Gustave Flaubert.

Meyers_The Comfort of Lies cover

“Parenting for Authentic Success”: A Q &A with Madeline Levine



One of my all-time favorite parenting experts is the magnificently wise and compassionate psychologist and author Madeline Levine, whose books have pride of place on my shelves and are my go-to resource as a Mom of three very different children.  I recently got the opportunity to speak with Madeline by phone about her new book, TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL.  I would advise every parent and educator, indeed anyone who cares about a child’s well-being, to buy Madeline’s book and soak up her insights, advice, and reassurance.  Talking with her was even better than reading her, as she is so warm, funny, and forthright, and such a spirited and responsive conversationalist.  I’m delighted to present a transcript of our conversation for your edification and pleasure!

Anyone who comments on this post will be entered to win a free copy of TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL- I will draw the name of a commenter at random on Tuesday Feb 12th and then he or she will be mailed a copy of this amazing book!
You emphasize the importance of both supporting our children in free play and unfettered exploration and as parents taking the time to explore and play ourselves.  This struck a deep chord in me, as I am a passionate believer in the value of unstructured time for children, in the importance of helping children learn to develop their own interests and passions rather than relying on parents to entertain them, choose their interests for them, or ferry them around to an endless array of activities, and of parents nurturing themselves as well as their children.  What are some ways that parents can help their children become less dependent on parents (or screens!) for amusement and more able to cultivate their own sense of direction and purpose?  How can parents and schools help foster what you call the “protective factors that have traditionally accompanied childhood- limited performance pressure, unstructured play, encouragement to explore, and time to reflect” that are increasingly in short supply in families, in schools, and in our culture more generally? How can we encourage not only children but also parents to play?

It’s funny; I just got off the phone with someone at the Chicago Tribune about a group of parents in Glen Cove who are little by little allowing their kids the kind of freedom that is in short supply in the suburbs.  In 4th grade, the kids are first allowed to walk down the block, then around the corner, then within a 4 block area.

In general, parents have overwhelming anxiety about this: how do you know when you should let your child take the next step?  Why is there so much anxiety about this, so much uncertainty?  Well for one, the relationship among mothers and a larger family unit has changed so much.  The people who used to tell you “why don’t you let your kids take the train?”, now they’re competing with you or absent.

My best answer is: take a look at the stage right before the task or activity you’re contemplating allowing them to perform or undertake.  Ask yourself: what was the previous stage they had to have mastered, in other words, can they ride a bike?, do they come home when they’re supposed to?  If they have, that’s the green light to go to the next step.

The most common line I hear in my office from kids is: “Could you please help my mother get a hobby besides me?  No one likes to have someone breathing down their neck all the time.  Having that kind of oversight is disturbing to kids in the first place.  And also it gets in the way of kids’ exploration and creativity and confidence. We think it’s helpful, but it actually isn’t.

Of course, it’s easier in retrospect.  I had 3 boys, 2 were very athletic, and for a while, on weekends, I was going to one part of California and my husband to another to attend the games.  I would never do that again.  Knowing what I know now, I would have taken half of those mornings to have breakfast with a friend, go out with my husband, read a book.  I know what went in my life during my boys’ childhoods- it was my friendships.  I went through those years basically without friends.  And things I thought were important for my kids turned out to be of no consequence to them- whether I went to every single game or not.

When your kids are really little, of course, it’s physically hard to spend much time away from them or go out and do adult things.  But it is important to make time for ourselves, to do things we like to do.   When my children were little, my intimacy  was with my kids- there were a whole bunch of adult things that went by the wayside.

It’s become absolutely normal to spend every minute thinking about your children.  And this gives children a very narrow view of adulthood.  We ask often: why aren’t kids growing up?  Well, one reason is that we have done absolutely nothing to make adulthood attractive. They see their parents work their butts off all week long and then get up at 7:30 am on the weekends to take them to sports practice.  This is an unappealing vision.  Kids will say to me: who wants to join that party?  As parents, we’ve gotten so good at putting our own needs on hold.  I think we need to convince people again that the best insurance for your child is having a happy mother, and it’s hard to be happy and not resentful when all your time is spent attending to your kids needs.

A little story about what you just brought up- about helping adults feel comfortable playing and how if you’re not busy there’s something wrong with you.  In a talk I gave recently, I told a story about times when my husband comes home at the end of a long day and I’ll have just sat down on the sofa to read a fun magazine, I see him coming, and I’ll drop the magazine and go look like I’m doing something productive or work-related.  To my husband!

Our culture emphasizes that the best way to look is busy and the best people are the busiest.  It’s become competitive- you work 10 hours a day?  I work 12 hour days, you’ve flown 10 places this year, I’ve flown 20 places.  We put such cultural value on busyness.  We think the busiest person wins.  That’s probably not true, of course, but even if it were, the cost is too great.

In a pithy and devastating indictment both of our current educational system’s emphasis on standardized tests and its competitive fervor and of parents’ obsession with their children’s academic success, their relentless pushing of their children towards ever more dazzling accomplishments, you write “that school is “the single greatest source of stress in kids’ lives.”  How can we make school a less stressful experience while still maintaining academic rigor?  How can we help both schools and parents focus more on character and less on performance, or, to put it another way, more on goodness and less on greatness?

I was recently on a panel with a guy who was the chief engineer at NASA, and he was asked: what does NASA look for in its engineers?  His answer?  A basic solid foundation in sciences and math, the ability to conceive new ideas, innovate, communicate, and work on a team, diligence, hands-on problem solving skills, confidence, and respect.  Fascinating isn’t it?  His answer wasn’t about what school or what tier of school you have to come from, what grades you have to get.  It’s a whole bunch of character skills!

I think we get into problems when we try to “raise performance” or “increase rigor” because that kind of emphasis is out of line with child development.  It’s a given that your kid needs to know content.  None of this is about turning them loose to wander naked through the fields.  The question is: what is the best way to help them learn content and the whole skill set going forward?  We don’t know what content is going to look like in 5, 10 years.   I’m fascinated by recent research using scanning- in motion we can follow children and track them as they actually learn-, and what they’re finding is that kids learn better when they’re moving around.  We’re going to learn a lot more about development from this.  Why does play-based preschool work better than academic preschool?  Well, one reason is that 4 year olds learn through their bodies.

And let’s take homework as another example.  Research shows that after 2 ½ hours of homework in high school, and after one hour of homework in junior high school, there is no benefit.  Caveat is if the child has a learning disorder.  The big paper on this, the meta analysis, was by Harris Cooper.  Research also shows that as far as academics and cognitive development go, there is no benefit to homework in elementary school.  10 minutes per grade is ok.  So much of what they’re finding is common sense.  Kids need to play and run around!

Take my youngest son.  He’s an ordinary student, dead-center of his class, total hands-on learner.  Fast forward through a series of things that had to do with getting him into environments that actually valued hands-on learning, and he’s unrecognizable to his mother.  This was a kid who struggled struggled struggled- multiple things at play- he’s a late bloomer-kids develop at different paces- he just grew up.  The problem with homogenous classrooms is that everyone’s judged by the same narrow criteria.

Sometimes I hear from parents of kids I’ve seen 10 and 15 years ago and it’s shocking to me.  A kid I had to put out in a wilderness program is now a doctor or a lawyer.  When all is said and done, if you come from a loving and accepting family who is responsive things will turn out the best that they can.

In your book, you emphasize repeatedly that we are all average at many things.  At one point, you make a brilliant distinction: “we need to distinguish between the inherent uniqueness of our children, and the unrealistic specialness we insist on when we argue with teachers or coaches or push our children past their limits.  The former moves our children forward, the latter only hinders their progress.”  What would you say to a parent who insists that without this intervention or pushing, his or her child would “fall behind,” “get lost,” or “not fulfill his or her potential”? 

Also, I wholeheartedly agree that learning how to accept our weaknesses or challenges as well as our strengths and talents is crucial to “developing a comfortable and robust sense of self.”  How can we help children to see, understand, and be comfortable with not only their own strengths but also their own weaknesses?   How does recognizing and being honest about one’s areas of challenge help children- and all of us!- to be more productive and truly successful people?

The issue with that just fascinates me.  How do people get to be successful?  Research shows us that the most successful people work really hard, that they have qualities of persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility.  They have to be bright, but they don’t have to be brilliant.  For example, I went to state university.  This idealization of the Ivy League is misplaced, and I think it’s a defense against the fact that here’s the reality: there’s a bell curve in terms of general intelligence, and most of our kids are going to be average, even if we’re smart ourselves.  We tend to marry people with very similar IQs- IQ is not additive – for example- 130 plus 135.  As a matter of fact it’s more likely that the kid will be a regression to the mean; it’s more likely that the child will be average.

When I give talks, I tell people what I’m good at-I am a good mom, writer, and psychologist- and then I list the things that I suck at and then list the things that I’m average at.

I think we are spending way too much time and energy correcting deficits and not enough helping strengths.  I recently met the amazing Andrew Solomon-what a rare combination of high IQ and compassion that guy has!– and I found fascinating his discussion of the deaf community- all the time spent on teaching the deaf to learn words and not going to their strengths- they weren’t able to develop.

I could not agree more that it’s “easy to romanticize childhood . . . but childhood is not easy.”  At one point in THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, I recall a moment where after a meeting with my four year old son’s teachers who lamented his inability to tie his shoes quickly and his unwillingness to participate in art projects, I think to myself:  “Kids are expected to be generalists, but grown-ups are allowed to specialize and not have to do every last kind of activity.  It is so hard to be a kid!”  How can recognizing the inherent difficulty of childhood help us to be better educators and parents?

As a student at top schools and then a professor at Yale and Vassar, I know all too well how the relentless pursuit of “the best” school leads to burn-out, a sense of emptiness, and a lack of true ownership of one’s experience.  At one point you write: “If you keep the effort bar high then good school choices make themselves reasonably clear.  For one student that might be Princeton, and for another it might be a community college.  Both of these options carry the possibility of success and neither guarantees it.”  Later, you put it more succinctly and dramatically: “College placement is about making a good match, not about winning a prize.”  For parents who see their children as exceptional and want them to win, surpass, excel, how can we help them shift their focus from winning, accomplishing, and dazzling to becoming their best, most fulfilled and content selves?

The heart of this is the absolute refusal to acknowledge one’s own ordinariness.  This has to do with the boomer generation—we were going to do great things, and being ordinary is absolutely anathema.  I came from this working class background where being ordinary was good- people helped each other out.  You want your kid to be good at a couple of things but no-one is good at everything.  The top top CEOs –research shows that out of 32 characteristics that are associated with strong leadership potential, you need 5 to be a big success.  Straight A students are a very thin narrow group of kids- it’s a tiny group of people!

Many parents would agree with your contention that schools often scant or neglect valuable components of education like music, art, dance, cooking; these parents will often sign their children up for after-school or weekend activities and classes in a well-intentioned effort to provide “enrichment.”  But how, why, and when does enrichment actually become depletion as children are pushed to and beyond their limits, exhausted and drained by what you call “over-programming” and “over-scheduling”?  How can parents decide what counts as worthy and what is just too much?  Moreover, how can we choose the “right” or “best” extras for our individual child?

If you look at a bunch of 4 year olds they’re dancing around, laughing, playing, pushing.  The energy is so good in a good K class and high school students are falling asleep!  You’ve got to ask: what happened to learning in between the exuberance of K and the exhaustion of 11th grade?  David Elkind has a helpful rule of thumb about activities for your child: you should pick one social, one physical, one artistic.

In terms of when is a kid overloaded: you look for psychosomatic symptoms in young kids and you let them lead.  Young kids need a pot, pan, spoon and a back yard to run around in.  They’re such natural scientists.  There’s just as much to be learned from that as more structured activities.  For every hour of structure, a child needs two hours of unstructured free time.  If you have a young kid in school till 3 and then sign him or her up for ANY activities after school, that is way too much structure.  People need time to craft a sense of self.  The most protective thing you can have in life is a robust internal sense of self.  One activity is more than enough.

There are only 24 hours in a day.  Cross out the amount of time kids should spend sleeping (9 hrs 15 minutes in high school, 11 hours in elementary school is ideal), and you’ve got very few hours left!  And we must remember that sleep is crucial.  We used to think fatigue was a symptom of depression and now we know it’s a major cause of depression.  I’ve just read some new research- it’s looking like chronic sleep deprivation is a primary trigger for depression.  If you don’t sleep enough, you can’t process or retain information.  The way to tell if your kids are getting enough sleep?  If they get up by themselves and they’re not tired.

Who inspires you?  These can be public figures, authors, historical figures, people from your personal life.

 The simple answer is: my family that came from Russia when they were 15 and worked laying bricks and cutting glass and didn’t know the language and lived lives of thoughtfulness and integrity.  In my heart of hearts, I liked that culture a lot better than the one I’m in now.  Now, that life was not easy.  It was really hard- my dad died young, we were on welfare.  But this culture is where I got to see that people do best when they lend a hand rather than compete with each other.  Kids do better as well.  My grandmother who had nothing used to keep the pushke- a jar that you put money in- she’d put a penny or a nickel in, and when she got enough money she’d send a washcloth to her sister in Michigan.  Her sister really needed a washcloth. This kind of thoughtfulness and generosity, emphasis on hard work and taking responsibility for one’s actions- that a great model for the way to live your life.


Levine credit Michael Schwartz


Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist with close to 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant and educator. Her New York Times bestseller, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems.  Her new book, Teach Your Children Well,to be released July 31, 2012, outlines how our current narrow definition of success unnecessarily stresses academically talented kids and marginalizes many more whose talents and interests are less amenable to measurement. The development of skills needed to be successful in the 21st century- creativity, collaboration, innovation – are not easily developed in our competitive, fast-paced, high pressure world. Teach Your Children Well gives practical, research- based solutions to help parents return their families to healthier and saner versions of themselves.

Dr. Levine is also a co-founder of Challenge Success, a project born at the Stanford School of Education. Challenge Success believes that our increasingly competitive world has led to tremendous anxiety about our childrens’ futures and has resulted in a high pressure, myopic focus on grades, test scores and performance. This kind of pressure and narrow focus isn’t helping our kids become the resilient, capable, meaningful contributors we need in the 21st century. So every day, Challenge Success provides families and schools with the practical research-based tools they need to raise healthy, motivated kids, capable of reaching their full potential. We know that success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of the grading period.

Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has had a large clinical practice with an emphasis on child and adolescent problems and parenting issues. Currently however, she spends most of her time crisscrossing the country speaking to parents, educators, students, and business leaders. Dr. Levine has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center/ San Francisco.  For many years, Dr. Levine has been a consultant to various schools, from preschool through High School, public as well as private, throughout the country. She has been featured on television programs from the Early Show to the Lehrer report, on NPR stations such as Diane Rheems in Washington and positively reviewed in publications from Scientific American to the Washington Post. She is sought out both nationally and internationally as an expert and keynote speaker.

Dr. Levine and her husband of 35 years, Lee Schwartz, M.D. are the incredibly proud (and slightly relieved) parents of three newly minted and thriving sons.



“The Study of Literature is The Study of Life”: A Q & A with Will Schwalbe



Will Schwalbe, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, and I have never met, but we recently became friendly via reading each other’s books and writing emails back and forth to each other.   Oh how I loved Will’s book and oh what a kindred spirit Will is!  Will graciously agreed to answer a series of questions I posed to him; here is our exchange:

1) I’m a quotation nut, and I’m wondering if your mother had one favorite line, passage, or quotation that she felt summarized her philosophy, could serve as her motto, or captured her essence. Do you?

Mom loved quotations and would sometimes scribble them on bits of paper or yellow-stickies (Post-It notes). And she was always pointing out to me passages in books that were particularly meaningful for her. One of these was in GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson: “This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”

2) There is some poetry in your book- most notably the gorgeous poem by one of my favorites, Mary Oliver- but I found myself wanting to know more about your and your mother’s feelings about poetry and poets. Who were some of her favorites and who are some of yours? What do you think poetry can offer its readers that fiction and non-fiction can’t?

Mom adored the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Lowell, and Wallace Stevens, among many other poets. I’ve always been crazy about Longfellow and W.H. Auden. And we both shared a love for Mary Oliver, Nikki Giovanni, and Elizabeth Alexander. I carry in my head dozens of poems I’ve memorized, and these are a huge comfort to me because they are always with me in a way that no work of prose can be. I find that poetry concentrates my mind and makes me focus. I also have “go-to” poems that take me to particular places – certain poems that calm me, distract me, amuse me, or stir me up. Knowing poetry by heart is like having a quiver of emotional arrows ready at a moment’s notice.

3) What books that have been published since your mother’s death do you most long to share and discuss with her?

There are so many! I know she would have loved THE HEADMASTER’S WAGER by Vincent Lam, a novel set in 1960s Saigon. I’m reading and in awe of THE FORGIVEN by Lawrence Osborne, a very dark novel set in Morocco. I’m fascinated and moved by FAR FROM THE TREE by Andrew Solomon and she would have been as well. And HELP, THANKS, WOW by Anne Lamott is a book she would have read the day it came out, just as I did.

4) I attended the school your mother and your sister did, and I must say your mother seems to have been a quintessential Brearley girl: deeply intellectual but not pretentious or insular in her interests, artistic but grounded, a do-gooder committed to social justice, interested in education in all its many senses, tireless and possessed of boundless energy, a master juggler, endlessly curious, and over-extended. I loved your story about the headmistress telling the girls they could have it all, your mother obediently and determinedly following her injunction by balancing very ambitious and pioneering full-time work with raising 3 children, and then many years later finding out that the headmistress thought that having it all was possible only if one had lots of help! How do you think your mother was able to achieve so much in the world while still being such a devoted and caring wife, mother, and friend? What, if any, were the costs of such busy-ness? Do you think that your mother’s commitment to “soldier[ing] on with her busy life” also drained her to some extent and/or made it hard to help, support, or communicate intimately with her? How did her diagnosis of terminal cancer provide her with a certain respite from the incessant doing that had characterized her life up until that point and what were the benefits of that respite?

It’s such a great series of questions. I write in the book about the obliviousness of childhood. To some degree, most children don’t give much thought to what is going on behind the scenes. They assume that there has always been a set and props and costumes; that the theater was always booked; that there have always been treats to be eaten at intermission; and that none of this has a cost. The entire production (to way overextend this metaphor) is simply there – just waiting for them to go on stage and improvise and be applauded. Then at a certain age, most kids start to realize that someone did produce and direct all of this, and sweat over it, and pay for it: a parent, or two. Over the course of my young adulthood and life, I’ve come to see more and more how much effort went into the production – and appreciate more and more how difficult it must have been for Mom to do everything she did for us, to stage all that, while working full-time, and reading, and doing all that she did.

I don’t think, however, Mom’s commitment to continue to soldier on with her busy life, even after her diagnosis, drained her – in some ways, it energized her because it was so much a part of who she was. Mom loved her friends, her organizations, her commitments, and her family; she had a work ethic that was an essential part of who she was. Even up until her last weeks she did her best to keep up with her email, to return calls, to write notes – not because she felt she had to, but just because that’s what she did.

There’s a great expression – if you want something done, ask a busy person. And it was actually on the days when Mom did slow down that it was hardest to talk to her, because on those days she really didn’t feel well enough to talk much or at all.

5) Your mother took comfort in the doctor’s description of her illness as “treatable but not curable,” and her authentically positive attitude- she was never in denial, never minimized- was truly inspirational to me. What do you think enabled her to approach her illness with such courage and such genuine, not blind, optimism?

I think part of it has to do, unfortunately, with the nature of pancreatic cancer. It’s the most lethal of all cancers. And if it’s diagnosed after it has spread, then the prognosis is, sadly, very grim and very clear. In a way, this particular cancer makes denial very difficult. But I think a huge part of it was Mom’s character. The thing she said over and over again – to herself, to us, and to all her friends – was how lucky she felt. Lucky to have been able to see her three children grow up, to have grandchildren she adored, to have been married for almost fifty years, to have been able to travel, to do work she loved, to have so many friends, to be old enough so that she was on Medicare, and to have such great medical care – among dozens of other things. She focused on her luck and not her lack of it.

Finally, her religion was a huge comfort to her. She wanted more time here and was deeply saddened that she wouldn’t get it. But she knew there was a life everlasting waiting for her.

6) Tell me one book you loved and she didn’t and one book she loved and you didn’t.

I loved Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR – a book that hinges on a twist that my mother said she would have found entirely predictable even if she hadn’t read the end of the book first, as she always did. She loved JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS by Thomas Mann, a book I couldn’t get through then and still haven’t.

7) What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer about how best to support their loved one? And what’s the one thing you would advise them *not* to do?

I would advise them to read THE ETIQUETTE OF ILLNESS by Susan Halpern. It’s an incredibly wise book. And the one thing I would advise them not to do is try to figure out everything by themselves. There are amazing people working in palliative care and hospice who have enormous wisdom to share. They helped all of us immeasurably.

8) In an age where humanities departments are shrinking and the worth of a degree in literature is being questioned, can you speak to the value of an English major in a person’s life?

I was actually a Classical Civilization major (Latin and Green language and history, with a little bit of archaeology). I would describe the value of any kind of humanities education simply as this: Books are how we know what we need to do in our lives and in the world, and how we tell others. The study of literature is the study of life. It trains you for everything, including being a human being.

9) How do you think parents, teachers, and our culture more generally can best motivate and inspire children to read widely, voraciously, and passionately?

I’m not a parent so I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here. But I think children need to see adults reading. If you tell kids to read but you are always glued to a screen, they probably won’t be convinced. I also think you should give children books that are maybe just a little bit too daring for them, books that are a bit transgressive. I love giving teens RULE OF THE BONE by Russell Banks, which has a ton of pot-smoking in it. I don’t think it turns kids into pot-heads – but I do think it shows them that books can take them places where much of the culture fears to tread. You’ll rarely if ever see pot-smoking on prime-time television, for example.

10) Other than your remarkable mother, who inspires you? These can be public figures, historical personages, people from your personal life, even fictional characters!

I’m deeply inspired by Barack Obama. I’m inspired by my friend Larry Kramer, author and activist. Oprah Winfrey inspires me. Christopher Isherwood, my favorite author, is a profound inspiration – for his radical honesty and for the simple elegance of his prose. Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash are part of the soundtrack of my life, and I turn to them for inspiration. Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. As for characters: Bilbo Baggins, for sure, and also David Copperfield.

11) You touchingly describe your mother’s planning the music and readings for her own memorial service (not to mention how the family’s responses to condolence notes should look and read!). Is there a passage or poem that you would like read at yours?

I’ve actually specified in my will that I want Hanson’s song “MMMBop” to be played at my funeral. It’s my favorite song and I listen to it almost every day. To me, it’s really about the impermanence of life – how everything can go in a minute. And it just makes me happy. As for a poem, it would be Auden’s “The More Loving One.”

Will Schwalbe_6145 revised

Will Schwalbe is the author of The New York Times Bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club. It was published in October 2012 by Knopf, and has been sold for translation into nine languages. It was a #1 Indie Next Pick, a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and is #4 on Amazon’s Top Ten Books of 2012.

In 2008, Will founded Cookstr.com, which aggregates recipes from many of the world’s major publishers. It powers recipe search for companies and organizations including the AARP, Bravo Television, Kaiser Permanente, and American Media. Will served as CEO from inception until March 2011. He is currently chairman of its board.

After graduating from Yale in 1984 with a B.A. degree summa cum laude in Classical Civilization, Will went to Hong Kong where he wrote for publications including The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. Subsequently, he held positions as Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief first of William Morrow and Company, where he worked from 1987 to 1997, and then of Hyperion Books, from 1997 to 2008. Authors he has published include David Halberstam, Nigella Lawson, Mitch Albom, Nikki Giovanni, Jamie Oliver, Rev. Peter J. Gomes, and Chris Anderson (THE LONG TAIL). He founded Hyperion East, the only imprint of a major trade publisher devoted to Asian literature in translation. Will is also the co-author, with David Shipley, of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better (Knopf 2007).

He lives in New York City with his partner, David Cheng.


The Best Book Gift I Ever Received for Christmas

Last December, I was honored to be asked to participate in Just The Right Book’s Best Book Gift Holiday Author series. Authors including James Patterson, Iris Krasnow, Michael Connelly, Gina Barreca, and I wrote short pieces in response to the question:

What is the best book gift you ever received for Christmas or Hanukah?

Here’s what I wrote!

Every Christmas, my sister and I give each other hard-to-find or especially cherished gems from our childhood. My favorite book gift was one Claire gave me about 10 years ago, a few years after I’d had my first child and begun working as an English professor. As I tore open the wrapping paper and saw the familiar green & golden cover of the original edition of Eleanor Estes’ The Witch Family, I was instantly transported back to the summer of 1979, when we first read this book over and over again & endlessly enacted pretend scenarios inspired by it. The story of two best friends, Amy and Clarissa, “ordinary real girls” who love to draw and tell stories about characters they invent, and whose belief in their imaginative creations blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, spoke powerfully to me and Claire, two “ordinary real girls” who believed our Paddington Bears were living, breathing members of our family and spent most of our waking hours either engrossed in novels or engaged in creative play. At some point when we became teenagers, my mother had given the book away, and I’d longed for it for years.

Claire’s gift of this beloved and influential book simultaneously attested to the persistence of our childhood bond and affirmed the sanctity of imagination and unfettered imaginative exploration. It reminded me, at a time when I was feeling downtrodden by the competitiveness and aridity of academia, why I’d chosen to study and teach literature: because I passionately loved words and stories, characters and imagination. It reassured me in the midst of all my new parent exhaustion and anxiety that though I was now an adult and a parent, I need not give up the freshness of perception and faith in magic that had characterized my childhood. The Witch Family has since been re-released in spanking new editions, but I will always treasure the worn, well-loved book whose flap copy celebrates “a story that is exciting, humorous, wholly original, and marvelously unpredictable, in which the worlds of reality and fantasy blend into an unforgettable whole.” Unforgettable indeed.


Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ JULIA BOOKSELLERS (one of the best indie bookstores in the world), is the owner/founder of Just The Right Book, an online book subscription service that offers the independent bookstore shopping experience online and virtually.

“Each Of Us Is On An Adventurous, Exhilarating Transformational Journey”: A Q & A with Ed Bacon

Ed Bacon is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California – a 4,000 member multi-ethnic urban Episcopal parish, with a reputation for energetic worship, a radically inclusive spirit, and a progressive peace and justice agenda. Ed’s energies focus on leadership in anxious times, peacemaking, interfaith relations, integrating family, faith and work systems; and articulating the Christian faith in non-bigoted ways. He is a passionate advocate for peace and justice in the community, the nation, and the world. He has received several honors for his peace and interfaith work.

Ed has been a guest on Oprah’s Soul Series on XM’s Oprah & Friends Radio, as well as The Oprah Winfrey Show, which led to a regular role as guest host on Oprah’s Soul Series and contributor on Oprah.com. His first book, 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind, was published in September. He and his wife, Hope Hendricks-Bacon, have two adult children and two grandchildren.

Reverend Bacon believes that every person can live a full and creative life if they can learn to move through troubling emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness to find the Beloved within themselves. In 8 Habits of Love, readers will learn how insecurity can keep us from connecting with others, our loving self, and finding our own peace, joy, and creative power. It shows, through relatable stories, how to create a full, meaningful life by developing simple habits—stillness, truth, forgiveness, compassion, play, candor, generosity, and community-and by asking such important questions as: How do I know I’m living the life I should be? How do I forgive those who have hurt me? How do I talk candidly with difficult people? How do I best help others when they need it? And: How do I let go of the past and move forward?

I was put in touch with Ed by my dear childhood friend Kate Anthony, a member of his congregation. I absolutely loved 8 Habits of Love and as you’ll see, my questions for Ed are long, probing, and passionate. This interview with Ed is one of the most illuminating, profound, and moving I’ve ever done. Read it and be enlightened, comforted, and uplifted!

1) Why do you call the components of your approach “habits” rather than, say, “orientations” or “practices” or “virtues”?

For me, “habit” is the term that includes the other words you have mentioned. A habit works in this way.

I know that we cannot just “will” ourselves into living a full and meaningful life. Most of us seek happiness and fulfillment, but seeking is only the first step on a life-long journey. Actualizing and cultivating our gifts, understanding how to make a constructive impact on others and our history, and fighting courageously for justice takes skill, perseverance, resilience, and a great deal of inner work and transformation. That constellation of commitments and practices, for me, is what the word “habit” embodies.

Making a habit of something means that we invite it into our lives regularly. We practice its exercises regularly. We strengthen its muscles until it becomes the new norm for us. At first, we may need to embrace it consciously, remind ourselves of its necessary role if we are going to have the freedom we want. Sometimes we even force ourselves into the practice when we don’t feel like it. But the goal is that, eventually, these practices become such an integrated part of us that we do them instinctively, unconsciously, habitually.

At that point we are not longer practicing, we are doing, living. The habit has become absorbed into the fiber of our being.

Also, the word itself, “habit,” reminds me of a nun’s or monk’s habit, something they “inhabit,” a visible symbol of their commitment to an ideal—the ideal of God, or, in the context of my book, the Beloved.

2) I could not agree with you more that “fear is our biggest obstacle” in our movement towards living more fulfilling, peaceful, and meaningful lives, and that learning how to “forswear the reactive and fear-based thinking that causes us to make destructive choices” is one of the most important things we can do to become better, happier, and more loving people, both individually and as communities. What are some long-range and short-range strategies and approaches that work to combat our tendency to view others and the world with fear, or react from a fearful place, or make decisions out of fear rather than out of love?

First, it is important to understand that fear is natural. It is an instinctive protective mechanism. However when we center ourselves, opening our hearts and minds to recognize how deeply our tendency toward fear and self-protection inhibits us, we become more willing to make ourselves vulnerable. Opening your heart and mind—both to yourself and to others and to the transformative work of the energy of Love—requires you to be brave, because you are in effect exposing yourself.

Not only fear but also love is a natural force and we are all capable of it. And so the very first step in the long range strategy, as you put it, is to make the conscious choice to embrace love rather than fear. So much of putting this into practice is simply about recognizing the choices we have and then deciding to make those choices that lead us toward love and away from fear.

Each chapter of my book, 8 Habits of Love, talks in detail about how to make these habits an integral part of our lives. In the very first chapter, for example, The Habit of Generosity, I talk about how we need both inflow and outflow in order to foster life and create energy. Just taking from the world and not giving is stultifying to our spirits. Giving to others, on the other hand, actually benefits us in the long run.

And so, how do we actually live a life infused with Generosity? How do we move from recognizing its fortifying power to actually behaving with Generosity in our everyday lives? I suggest a number of different concrete steps that you can take (which amount to short range strategies).

Some examples: Notice the positive energy surging inside you when you make a gratitude list. The items on that list are things the Universe generously offered you. Or, visualize the people in your life with whom you have a strained relationship and bless them—notice how the fear subsides. Try this: during a meeting—whether at work or with a friend—express your appreciation and your regrets. This helps you become aware of the sacred in your life.

And, of course, in terms of material Generosity, start small if you feel the fear of scarcity rearing its ugly head. Commit to sharing some percentage of your income (it can be minor) with others. Then increase when and if you can.

But above all, being grateful for the gifts you already have is the most important first step on the journey toward integrating the Habit of Generosity into your life.

3) One of the implicit themes of your book is the danger of expectations and pre-conceived ideas and the importance of maintaining an open mind and of staying process rather than product oriented. Again, I couldn’t agree with you more! Some examples: you talk about the need to give for the sake of giving itself rather than giving in order to appear generous, assuage guilt, achieve a specific and desired end, or manipulate others; you discuss parental projections onto children who are always different from what we expected and how parents need to recognize the truth of their children; and you claim that being “unattached to any results” paradoxically increases our chances of finding satisfaction in our personal relationships. What can we all do to cultivate these attitudes of openness and acceptance and relinquish our need to control others and the course of our lives?

I appreciate this important insight, Priscilla. You’re right. Each habit carries its own intrinsic reward of liberation, increased energy and joy, and capacity for transformed persons and relationships.

This issue of trying to control others’ behavior and outcomes is huge, and is almost always crippling for us. We seek to be in control of our lives and to control others because we crave order and are chaos averse. We want life to make sense, to be predictable, to be fair (according to our uniquely subjective perspective). It is so hard to accept that sometimes the equation is not balanced, that you don’t always get out what you put in. At least not immediately.

I believe we regain power over this impulse for control when we accept the edict that, “the Universe is kind.” I learned this from the wonderful writer and scholar Stephen Mitchell. It’s another way of speaking about the universe being a moral one, which is a thesis of the life of both Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu. Ultimately, all is grace.

Albert Einstein once said that the most fundamental question we can ask ourselves is whether or not the universe is friendly or hostile. He suggested that the way we answer this question determines our destiny. So I say, choose to believe in a love-based view of the universe and you will feel that desperate urge to control others diminish.

Also, I have a friend who, when things feel out of control, tells herself, “It is what it is.” At the same time, if she can say to herself with confidence, “I’m doing the best I can on my journey; everyone is on their journey,” this frees her from that grasping need to be in control.

4) I so loved your phrase “inoculate the day with Stillness.” Can you explain why and how you do this and how others can too?

For me, making Stillness a daily practice is an absolute necessity. People may think I’m crazy but most days I wake up when it’s still dark outside so I can sit on a special chair in my front room, wrapped in a prayer shawl, and meditate for an hour. But it’s not craziness, it’s my sanity. After coming to Stillness, my decisions are more measured, informed, and aligned with the Universe’s kindness. I have increased patience, and I’m able to be creative and flexible if the day calls for it. So this practice is nonnegotiable for me.

Of course, most people don’t believe they have an hour a day to sit in silence, and for many, this particular way of practicing Stillness wouldn’t work, anyway. Everyone must find their own way to “inoculate the day with Stillness.” It might be through listening to music or going to an art gallery. It might be playing with animals or children. It might be through vigorous exercise. The point is to find your own path into it and then make the commitment to getting to that place of peace and rejuvenation as often as you can.

Ultimately, it’s pretty simple. When you realize how blessed you feel after habitual Stillness, you will find a way to make it a priority.

5) What would you say to people who resist your assertion that there is a core of goodness in everyone and that everyone has the beloved in him or her? What about someone who has wronged and harmed us or the community in profound ways- betraying sacred trusts, being dishonest, committing acts of cruelty, malice, or violence? or the people you call the self-defined victims or “injustice-collectors”, who attempt to guilt others into acceding to their wishes and present themselves as perpetual victims? I’m thinking in particular of the vindictive ex-wife you describe in your book- who lies repeatedly, manipulates her child, and seeks to destroy the life of her ex-husband? how can we “forgive” and move beyond the havoc, stress, pain, and suffering people like this seek to bring into our lives? How can forgiveness even of people who’ve committed heinous crimes be achieved and what can its beneficent effects be?

Your questions return my thinking to the issue of the “intrinsic rewards” of the 8 Habits of Love. Priscilla, there simply is a different energy vibrating in those people who see goodness in every person as opposed to those to have consigned certain people to a sub-human status. There is good in everyone. And we have to start with ourselves. What habits will each of us practice to keep us aware of our own sense of goodness?

Forgiveness is one of the most potent habits for increased awareness of the goodness pulsating at our own center. When we are able to forgive those who have wronged us, we free ourselves from the shackles of bitterness and anger. This is the part of Forgiveness that most people don’t quite understand: it’s not for the benefit of the person who has hurt us, rather, it is for our benefit. Carrying hostility and malice within us ultimately only hurts us and over time hides our own powers of creative transformation from us.

I was so moved by the story of the elderly black South African woman whose husband and son were tortured and killed by a white policeman. During a Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearing, she was asked what kind of justice she sought. She answered, “Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.”

Reading this, I lost my breath. Seeing this “monster” as a human being who, though guided by fear and hatred, was infused with the potential for love, helped heal this mother’s pain.

This is, of course, not so easy for us to achieve. Sometimes we have to take baby steps and just acknowledge that we wish we could forgive, even if Forgiveness seems impossible.

It is important to come to Stillness, and then imagine the person who has wronged us being bathed in the light of the Beloved. And remember, I did say this would most likely be very challenging for many of us. But with practice, it will loosen the feelings of fear and resentment that are locked inside us until finally they evaporate.

Affirmations can help, too. And of course, we must remember that Forgiveness does not mean we are committing to a renewed relationship with this person—it simply means we have let go of those corrosive feelings of bitterness and free ourselves to live again with love as our guiding force.

6) What is some of the advice you give to couples who come to you for pre-marital counseling or during difficult periods in a long marriage? What do you think the most important components of a good marriage are? How can we strengthen our existing romantic relationships and inoculate them against boredom, dissatisfaction, infidelity?

When a couple comes to me for marriage preparation, I draw a map of their families of origin. Sometimes it takes 90 minutes to draw this “genogram,” with symbols of where anxiety versus the habits of love manifest themselves. This act of increased awareness of these different energies of love and fear is empowering for the couple.

Then, the work becomes even more exciting when I ask them to list those relational behaviors they want to import from their families of origin into their nuclear family and what behaviors they want to “backwash” into the older generation. When we get to that point we have a relationship contract!

There are other rules of thumb like “make sure you fight but don’t make war,” “be the other person’s ‘balcony person’ not ‘basement person,’” which is a rule of thumb about the necessity of encouragement. The foundation of all great relationships is becoming an encouragement of the other’s true or authentic self – no matter what.

“Be kind to each other,” is of course critical as well.

7) Like you, I went through a crisis of recognition that the career path I was on was not true to my deepest self and that I needed to break free from it and radically shake up my life. What counsel would you give others struggling with the realization that they are on the wrong path or in the wrong place for them (be it a toxic marriage, a job situation, or a religious institution)? How would you embolden and inspire them to do what was right even if it meant offending people important and close to them or jeopardizing their financial well-being, social standing, and personal relationships?

We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to the world to embrace that which is life-giving for our unique, differentiated selves. That invariably means that each of us is on an adventurous, exhilarating transformational journey. We must remain true to that journey of transformation no matter how much resistance we receive from without and within.

Change is frightening. It certainly was for me. So many of us would rather stay in situations that we know are not good for us because we are afraid of change. Stasis can be oddly comforting; it is an evil we know. But when we accept a situation in which we are stagnant and do nothing to change it, we are shortchanging ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. Ultimately, it’s untenable. Stress will manifest physically or psychologically. Our bodies will eventually rebel, telling us we must change. So we must be courageous and empower ourselves so that we can embrace our true potential.

I wonder if life is not about what kind of pain we are willing to embrace. There is a pain I call “sweet pain,” the pain that is stretching us, leading us to health – a phrase I borrow from my yoga teacher – “stretch to the point of sweet pain but no farther.” This is the pain that is referenced in the story in my book about “the cockpit shakes the most just before you break through the sound barrier.” There is a toxic pain on the other hand which comes from living a life that doesn’t have your name on it.

Ask yourself this question: is the risk of alienating someone or jeopardizing financial well-being, social standing and personal relationships really so much worse than living an inauthentic life? When we are not true to ourselves because of fear that we will be judged harshly or hurt others, we shrink into a more constricted and constrained version of ourselves. It’s hard to tolerate this for long.

Certainly—be as respectful as you can of the opinions of others, be as kind as you can to those who oppose you, and always stay connected to those who are resisting you as long as it doesn’t mean opening yourself to abuse. Above all, be yourself and stay the course of your deepest self, maintaining the flexibility to make mid-course corrections.

8) Can you explain the difference between childlikeness and childishness? What can we do to grow beyond childishness? How can we attain the state of childlikeness?

There is an important distinction between being childlike and childish. Barbra Streisand sings about “being more like children than children.” She is referring to childishness – the inability to play well with others. Being childlike is play-oriented—it means being open to laughter, imagination, wonder, and others on the playground of life. In contrast, childishness is defined by an inability to take responsibility and to see unselfishly beyond our needs alone. When we behave childishly we can only be aware of our own concerns and narrowed perspectives.

To be childlike means to engage in Play. To not take ourselves too seriously. To have some perspective on the world and our being in the world, understanding that we are not at the center of the universe. To be childlike means we are open, flexible, spontaneous, joyful, and we want to share that with others, too. When children move into an imaginative space in their minds and spirits, a world of possibility and promise opens up for everyone. There is an innately generous component to being childlike. Being childlike can be in solitude, to be sure. It often, however, is asking, “Can Eddie come out to play?” or “Can Priscilla come out to play?”

Many adults retreat into a state of childishness because it is challenging for them to see people, events and circumstances from any perspective other than their own hurts and willfulness (control). However, when we really “grow up” we learn that other people have feelings and needs that are often just as important as our own. And we accept responsibility for the things we do rather than blaming others.

It takes a level of introspection and maturity to grow beyond childishness, and we can do this by embracing the Habits of Generosity and Community.

9) I absolutely love what you write about the importance and nature of community. I love the way you characterize community not as defined by “uniformity of thought” or as a group in which everyone has to agree but rather as group that “gains its energy from being . . . inclusionary” and in which everyone is valued for his or her distinctive being. What practical steps can schools, religious
organizations, companies, and families! take to make their communities more inclusive and more nourishing?

Someone recently told me that the shortest distance between two strangers is a story! That is so much of the wisdom of the ages rolled up into one truth. Story telling and sharing are critical for being fully alive.

Another related dimension of community and the inclusionary dynamic comes from one of my parishioners who said during our fight for marriage equality in our state, “Where you stand on same-sex marriage depends on where you sit on Sunday morning.” By that he meant that if you structure your life so that you don’t know anyone who is different from you, then you won’t ever understand their need for the same basic rights that you have.

There is such a thing as “structural blindness” or “structural prejudice.” We human beings have a responsibility as world citizens to get to know people who live outside our comfort zone. The dramatically changed electorate that voted on November 6, 2012 told us that in stark and, for some, in challenging, even scary ways.

I have a dear Muslim teacher who challenges those who promote tolerance. He says that the Holy Qu’ran teaches that we were made different in terms of our genders, tribes, and nations so that “we might come to know one another.” Coming to know one another is more valuable than merely tolerating one another.

Finally, I want to make the “intrinsic rewards” point again. Dr. Martin Luther King said that I cannot be myself unless you are yourself. We are created in that degree of interdependence. My best interests are served when I promote your best interests. That is breathtakingly true, I have found.

It’s important for any institution, whether large or small, to be honest in assessing whether the community they inspire is truly open to the concerns, philosophies and dreams of others. Every community must engage the Habit of Truth and ask hard questions and give honest answers about how they function. They must ask: Do we invite people in or do we exclude people? Are we open to ideas and change or do we dig in our heels? Are we judgmental and superior, or respectful and tolerant?

10) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, people from your personal life, historical or literary characters, authors, musicians, and leaders, friends and family members, students and teachers.

Those who inspire me are folks on the journey of freedom and compassion in such a way that others are liberated and respected. So in addition to Jesus, Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu, I am inspired by Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Rabbi Ed Friedman, Fr. Gregory Boyle, Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama, and my mother, brother, wife, and children. There are of course many others.

11) Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

I keep close by my side the poetry of Rumi, Rilke, and Emily Dickinson, all the brilliant translations of the world’s wisdom literature by Stephen Mitchell (particularly, The Psalms, the words of Jesus, and The Tao), the theology of Richard Rohr (particularly Things Hidden), my mentor, Ed Friedman’s The Failure of Nerve, Kim Rosen’s Saved By A Poem, Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, and all of Thomas Merton’s works.


“An Orientation of The Spirit and The Heart”: A Q & A With Gail Straub

I met Gail Straub in November 2011 when she came to a reading I did in Woodstock, NY. Her radiant, kind, empathetic face in the audience steadied me as I read especially poignant passages from The Anti-Romantic Child, and a few weeks later, Gail invited me to be on a panel she was chairing at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival in April 2012. That panel on Writing and Resilience was one of the most inspiring and rewarding experiences of my life. I’m delighted to share Gail’s luminous voice, compassion, and wisdom with you today.

A pioneer in the field of empowerment, Gail Straub co-directs the Empowerment Institute, a school for transformative social change where her primary focus is women’s empowerment. For the last three decades she has offered her work to tens of thousands of people worldwide. She co-founded IMAGINE: A Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women to help women heal from violence, build strong lives, and contribute to their community. This initiative applies the Institute’s empowerment methodology to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal “to promote gender equality and empower women.” IMAGINE initiatives are under way in Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, India, Brazil and Jordan. Gail has consulted to many organizations furthering women’s empowerment including the Chinese Women’s Federation, Women for Women International, the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, and World Pulse.

Gail is the author of four books including, with her husband David Gershon, the best selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, the critically acclaimed The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting with Society, and the awarding-winning memoir Returning to My Mother’s House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine. She is also a contributor to the anthology Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership.

1) Tell us about what led you to write your memoir and what the writing process taught you about your mother, your own maternal impulses, instincts, and talents, and mothering more generally?

I wrote my memoir to grieve my mother and to get to know her thirty- six years after she had died. I was approaching the age my mother was when she died so mom was very present to me. In the most profound sense I learned that a person we love deeply never really dies. They are physically gone which is of course a great loss, but they are still available emotionally and spiritually through the imagination and the mystery of memory. And then I learned that in certain ways spiritual mothering was very similar to mothering a child physically.

2) I so identified with your desire “to fix my students and take away their pain.” The Anti-Romantic Child is studded with similar statements about my powerful impulse to make things right for my loved ones and protect them from disappointment, suffering, and pain. And by the same token, I couldn’t agree more with your statement: “I believe that people want the truth more than they want to avoid suffering.” How did you learn to “resist the impulse to fix”? How can we help people become less assiduous and desperate in their attempts to avoid suffering and more comfortable facing and finding the truth?

Oh my! This is a very BIG question, as in one of the main impulses for the spiritual journey. It took me a long time and working with many thousands of students to learn this. In the simplest sense I just witnessed this over and over, that real liberation comes in facing the truth not avoiding suffering. Currently I am working with many remarkable women in Afghanistan, Africa, and India going through extremely difficult things—genocide, mass rape, sex trafficking—and their courage to go towards their suffering to find freedom has shown me this concept at an even deeper level. Thomas Merton famously said: “The truth that many people never understand until it is too late, is that the more you avoid suffering, the more you suffer.” I think that we Americans are often a bit soft and spoiled so this idea can be difficult for us. It’s helps to become a global citizen and get out and see the difficulties that most the world has to face on a daily basis.

3) One of your major teaching methods is the practice of self-compassion. Can you tell us a little more about self-compassion and how you help your students develop it?

Yes, self-compassion means we make friends with what I call the beautiful mess of our human condition. We accept our imperfections and we don’t waste our precious energy on trying to be perfect. We become part of a sangha or a community, which is the best place to practice and learn self- compassion. And we work with the idea of “my heart is breaking, my heart is awakening” which goes back to your previous question. One of the best ways to find sustained self-compassion is to offer compassion to others, especially those who take you way out of your comfort zone and break your heart allowing it to awaken to deeper levels of compassion.

4) At one point in your memoir, you write of the sacred feminine: “through her refusal to take simplistic either/or positions, and with her firm insistence that we hold all the awful messiness of paradox, she gave me the central requirement for helping people grow up spiritually.” Oh how I love your embrace of complexity, mystery, and messiness here! Can you elaborate on how openness to and acceptance of complexity, ambiguity, and paradox can help people grow up spiritually?

Actually I would go so far as to say that the embrace of paradox and contradiction is a requirement for growing up spiritually. I think at some irrational child level we would all like a world with just light, happiness, and ease. But our world is full of dark and suffering too. Part of the journey of growing up spiritually is building the strength to reconcile opposites neither clinging to the good stuff nor pushing away the bad stuff. I think that true freedom lives in that space where there is the unification of opposites.

5) Your honesty about the challenges and rewards of building and sustaining a life-long love affair with your husband was comforting and helpful to me and your beautiful relationship with him is endlessly inspiring to me and my new husband. What advice would you give couples about how best to nurture love over a lifetime?

Another BIG question! First learn how to fight well. You are going to have disagreements, so learn how to have constructive disagreements and build the resilience that allows you to move on quickly after the argument is over.

Going back to the previous question, understand that a marriage brings out the best and the worst in each other, both light and dark. I think we are liberated once our dark side no longer embarrasses us.

Nourish strong friendships outside the marriage so that some of your needs–emotional, intellectual, and spiritual –are met by someone other than your beloved.

Both people need to find their mission, their passion, or their purpose in life. This is critical is the relationship is to flourish and grow over time. If one person is connected to their deepest raison d’etre and the other isn’t, there will be problems and imbalance on all levels.

6) How is your work as a spiritual mother related to your work as an expert in empowerment?

I think that any good teaching is a form of spiritual mothering or fathering. We are offering life skills, comfort, inspiration, and compassion. And at best we are teaching our students how to fish not giving them fish.

7) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, people from your personal life, historical or literary characters, authors, musicians, and leaders, friends and family members, students and teachers.

So many people inspire me. First and foremost both my parents, the brave women I work with in far corners of the globe, the activist and playwright Eve Ensler, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, the musician Bono, President Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

8) What do you to keep yourself centered and balanced on a daily basis? What nourishes you and makes you more resilient? for ie, meditation, exercise, special diet, prayer, reading, music, nature.

Yes, I have had a meditation practice for over 35 years, deep prayer life, dedicated yoga practice, and walking daily with my husband David. Also as activists we find that we need to have retreat several times a year where we get away, unplug, and empty. Burnout is no fun and we can’t really be creative or effective if we have burnout or compassion fatigue.

9) What would your ideal day look like?

Begin the day with meditation, yoga, and then walking along the Ashokan Reservoir where we live with David. Then engage deeply with a work or writing project that I am passionate about. End the day with a divine dinner with David and dear friends followed by a film, concert, or theater.

10) What is your favorite meal? some of your favorite restaurants (in the Woodstock area, in NYC, abroad)?

Oh I love to eat, French, Italian, and Thai especially! Favorite restaurant in Woodstock the sublime Cucina, in NYC I love Lincoln, and in Paris, Ze Kitchen Galerie in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

11) Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

I read voraciously so I will just say what’s top of mind now. I love anything that Barbara Kingsolver writes especially The Poisonwood Bible. I am eagerly awaiting her new novel Flight Behavior. Love all Jonathan Franzen’s work and just read his essays Farther Away. Just read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and it was extraordinary. As a kid of the sixties I devoured Kurt Andersen’s True Believers. Love all Zadie Smith’s work and reading NW now.

12) What are some quotations that especially speak to or inspire you?

These are two quotes I am working with in my teaching this week!

“Again and again in history some people wake up. They have no ground in the crowd and they move to broader, deeper laws. They carry strange customs with them and demand room for bold and audacious action. The future speaks ruthlessly through them. They change the world.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

“Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit and the heart.”
Vaclav Havel


“A Story About Loss, A Book About Resilience”: a Q &A with Lee Woodruff

Lee Woodruff, author of the new novel, Those We Love Most, is certainly one of the women I admire most. Lee is the coauthor with her husband, Bob Woodruff, of the number one New York Times bestseller In an Instant, and the author of the essay collection Perfectly Imperfect. She is a contributing editor to CBS This Morning and has written numerous articles on family and parenting for Parade, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, Country Living, and Family Fun. She and Bob founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation to assist wounded service members and their families. Woodruff has four children and lives in Westchester County, New York.

I gobbled up Those We Love Most in a day. It’s the best kind of page-turner: suspenseful, taut, and propulsive while simultaneously being profound, delicate, and lovely. I’m delighted to share a Q &A I recently did with Lee about her debut novel, the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, her belief in the value of literature to a life, her heroes, her ways of handling stress, and her go-to affirmation.

1) Was writing fiction more or less challenging than writing non-fiction? What was different about the experience?

Writing fiction is definitely more challenging as with non-fiction you have to stick to your life. With fiction you can make the characters do and say anything, so the challenge is to make the story hang together and to make the dialogue authentic. With fiction you could really go anywhere, the sky is the limit. I find that more daunting.

2) As a former English professor, I have to ask you about your experience as an English major in college! What were some of your favorite courses? Who were some of your favorite authors that you studied?

We English majors have to stick together, that’s for sure. I loved being an English major and I took a number of writing courses as well and loved that. Fred Busch and Peter Balakian were two of my published professors at Colgate University and they taught me well. Favorite authors that I studied include Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Herman Melville—I’m going for classics here. But fave writers? Wallace Stegner, Sue Miller, Ann Patchett, Jane Hamilton, Annie Lamott, Anna Quindlen, are you seeing a gender divide here between what we studied and what I love now?

3) In an age where humanities departments are shrinking and the worth of a degree in literature is being questioned, can you speak to the value of an English major in a person’s life?

Liberal arts in general is a wonderful education. How many of us at 21 know what we want to really do and are qualified to do it? But if we know how to write, how to communicate, how to start the conversation and advance it, how to ask the questions, this is the ongoing value of a liberal arts education without question. If the world were tech and science based we’d all become a bunch of robots clicking away on our devices. There is a whole world out there of art and literature and history and nature that is the antidote to our tech selves.

4) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, historical personages, people from your personal life, even fictional characters!

Hmmmm. This is a tough one. We have so few real heroes today and when we make them, we are so quick to rip them down. Who in their right minds would ever want to enter politics today for example.

I think right now I’m inspired by the every day heroes I meet in the veteran community, the men and women who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with internal and external damage. Against the odds these families move forward often without resources and yet when you meet with them they are resilient to a fault.

5) You are an extraordinarily busy woman with a very full life! What are your favorite ways to unwind, relax, and replenish yourself?

I read, I swim, I hike when I can. I do lots of snuggling with my 12 year old twins and my dog, Woody.

6) What are some of your favorite novels? Did any particular novels or novelists inspire you in your own fiction-writing?

I loved Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner– I think if I could only take one book on a desert island it would be the latter. Anna Quindlen and her amazing prose and insightful essays has long inspired me and I first became a fan back when she was writing for the New York Times.

7) What is one piece of advice you would give every new parent?

This too will end– so enjoy it more, stress less about the little things and never underestimate the power of sleep to give you perspective.

8) Do you have a go-to quotation that never fails to inspire, calm, or motivate you?

Right now I’m one Mommy doing the very best I can. And that’s all I can do.

Watch a video about Those We Love Most here:

Follow Lee online here:


What It Takes To Be A Winner: A Q &A with NFL Star and Bestselling Author Tim Green

“Many people look at sports figures as heroes. Anyone who has seen someone battle cancer and survive knows there is no comparison.”
Tim Green

I’m so excited to be featuring New York Times bestselling author and former NFL defensive end Tim Green on my blog today. I loved Tim Green as a player, and my older son, Benj, now 13, is a huge fan of his books for young readers. When I found out that a friend of mine was handling publicity for Tim’s new book, UNSTOPPABLE, I wrote to ask whether he’d be willing to do a Q &A with me. He said yes! and he gave me wonderfully thoughtful, insightful, and above all else helpful answers, filled with empathy and wisdom that I will use in parenting my children and in navigating challenging circumstances in my own life. Plus, he answered Benj and James’ questions about life in the NFL!

In UNSTOPPABLE (for ages 9 – 12), his most dramatic and hard-hitting story yet, Tim writes about what it takes to be a winner, even when it seems like fate has dealt an impossible hand. At its heart, UNSTOPPABLE comes from an incredibly personal place for Tim Green. Five years ago, Tim’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The entire experience – tests, surgeries, treatments, chemotherapy (Tim shaved his head to show support for his wife) – shook the Green family to their foundation. Although everything has gone well, the Green’s outlook on life will never be the same. In a letter to his readers, Tim writes: “While UNSTOPPABLE is certainly a sports story, it is a story of survival first and foremost, a story I have lived through with the person dearest to me in this life.”

Tim played Little League baseball for many years before specializing in football in order to become an NFL player. After graduating as co-valedictorian from Syracuse University, being a first-round NFL draft pick, and playing as a star linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, Tim also earned his law degree with honors and has worked as an NFL analyst for FOX Sports and an NFL commentator for National Public Radio. Tim also coaches youth football, and his first book for young readers, FOOTBALL GENIUS, inspired in part by his players and kids he’s met while reading in classrooms, became a New York Times best-seller. It garnered praise from such football greats as Bill Parcells, the NFL championship coach who said, “As close as you can come to NFL action without putting on the pads. Filled with excitement, suspense-and great football!” In addition to FOOTBALL GENIUS, FOOTBALL HERO, FOOTBALL CHAMP, and DEEP ZONE. Tim is the author of the New York Times best-seller BASEBALL GREAT, to which RIVALS and New York Times bestseller BEST OF THE BEST are companions. PINCH HIT, a baseball take on The Prince and the Pauper, is, like UNSTOPPABLE, a stand-alone novel.

Here is my Q &A with Tim!

1) How did you decide to become an author of books for kids?

When I was a kid, I had two passions, football and books. So, I dreamed one day of becoming an NFL player and a writer. After sixteen books for adults, I had the chance to write for young readers. My editor approached me with the idea of writing page-turning stories and setting them in the world of sports. I loved the idea and used two of my own kids as the characters in the Football Genius series. It’s been fun!

2) How did your former NFL teammates, coaches, and colleagues react to your football books? I know Bill Parcells gave the first one a great blurb, and that would have sent me soaring- I’m a huge NY Giants fan and the Parcells-Simms-Harry Carson era was my heavenly period.

I love Bill Parcells. He’s old school and I almost played for him. He told me he was going to pick me in the 1986 NFL draft in the first round. Only problem was that the Giants had the 19th pick and the Falcons picked 17th and took me! My teammates and other NFL connections all have embraced my stories, especially the ones for their kids. I think they respected my dream to become a writer and admire the success I’ve had.

3) How did you and your wife cope with her cancer diagnosis and how is her health today? What would you say to someone newly diagnosed with cancer? What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer about how best to support their loved one?

Thank God, my wife is fine. At the beginning, we didn’t know how it would turn out. It was devastating to us all when we got the diagnosis. She stayed strong and I and the kids did our best to support and encourage her. Ultimately, it was her own toughness, mentally and physically, that saw her through. The great news for cancer victims is that the treatments get better and better and so more and more people are able to survive. I’d say make sure you surround yourself with people who will stay upbeat and help you fight through it, and stay positive. Also, don’t despair if you feel depressed and anxious, of course you do. It’s okay. Get help from others. Seek out their support. For friends and family, be there for them, stay positive. Let them know you’re hurting, but don’t show any despair. They need your strength, even though it will be tough on you too.

4) As someone who combined academic excellence and excellent sports performance, you are an inspiration and a great role model. Who inspired you? Who were your role models?

My role models are everyday men and women who fight for our country to keep us safe and who dedicate themselves to educating our kids. That’s it. I love our soldiers and I love our teachers and coaches who teach the next generation. My role models were my teachers and coaches.

5) Asked by my boys, Benj (13) and James (10): What was the best part of being an NFL player?

The money… hahaha, not really. The best part was smashing a QB into the dirt, standing up with your arms raised, and having 70,000 people screaming your name. It’s the thrill of being there, in the NFL, playing on TV for people to see, and it lives up to the dream.

6) Again, Benj and James asked this one: What was the hardest thing about being an NFL player?

Dealing with the injuries, the exhaustion, and the stress is absolutely brutal.

7) What advice would you give to children who have aspirations of being professional athletes? What would you advise parents whose children wish to pursue sports as a career?

My advice -and this is what I tell my own kids- is to work hard in school. Your education will always pay you back. You don’t need luck to be a doctor,lawyer, accountant, teacher, or engineer. All you have to do is work hard in school and it can happen. To be a pro athlete, you need more than just talent and hard work. You need luck, so make sure you take care of your education. Parents, find good coaches and let them do their thing. The rest is up to your child. He or she has to be possessed with a sport to reach the pros or the olympics. You can’t instill that passion in them. They either have it or they don’t. Make sure you let them know that character and education are much more important, even if they have the talent to go to the big leagues.

8) Who are some of your favorite NFL players, past and present?

I liked Jack Lambert and John Riggens and Earl Campbell, Deion Sanders, Jackie Slater, Eddie George, Brett Favre and Steve Young. But honestly? Besides a few rotten apples, I find NFL players to be some of the best people in the world. They know what it’s like to get knocked down and get back up, and they know how important it is to be a team player.

9) Tell us about your five children: ages, personalities, strengths, challenges, interests, and hobbies.

Wow, all five? Thane is a silent leader, compassionate, strong, and insightful. He’s going to be a school psychologist and football coach. Tessa is creative and energetic and loves animals. She’s going to be a vet. Troy is a ferocious competitor. As nice as he is is also as vicious as he can be when he’s trying to win. He’ll be an NFL QB and a lawyer. Tate is a superstar in every way: smart, kind, and a division 1 athlete. She’ll do whatever she wants to. Ty is six and will probably be an NFL linebacker or the world heavyweight cage fighting champion.

10) What is the best piece of parenting advice you ever received?

Show your kids love all the time, and don’t sweat the small stuff. At the same time, make sure you establish boundaries for them early on. Later, they either make their own boundaries, or they break yours.

11) What are your favorite things to do with your family?

I love to hike, go on a boat ride, and just have dinner together. I love being with them when we have the chance to talk and laugh together.

12) What have been your biggest challenges and your biggest joys as a parent?

Biggest challenge is discipline. It’s hard to say no. Yes is so easy, but it’s better for them to cry now than you to cry later. The greatest joy is seeing my kids be kind to other people. When I see that, I know I’ve done my job.

Watch the book trailer for UNSTOPPABLE here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_0lON88WgU&feature=youtu.be

Find out more about Tim’s book tour here: http://www.classactsbooks.com/

“Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself”: A Q &A with Gretchen Rubin

I bought Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project in early 2010 after reading about it in a magazine, and within hours had covered it in my personal hieroglyphics of passionate response. Hearts, stars, underlinings, circlings, exclamation points, “I agree”s, “yes!”es, and smiley faces from my pen covered, decorated, and bedecked its pages, making it almost unreadable by anyone other than myself (these scribblings, however, just ensured that I’d buy more copies and give them as gifts to friends and family members rather than loan out my precious copy!). What a kindred spirit, I thought! And how is it possible that although we both did our undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale, we both had family members in the legal world, and we were both devoted aficionados of children’s literature, we’d never met or crossed paths in any way? When, almost a year later, my publisher told me that Gretchen had sent in a wonderful blurb for my first book, THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, it was one of those moments you’ll never forget as a publishing newbie. We’d received no blurbs yet, and the first one we got was from Gretchen Rubin?! I hadn’t even known we’d sent her a galley. I was a huge fan of this author, and she loved my book!

Gretchen and I have since become online friends, and she recently sent me a copy of her just-published book Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. I am delighted to report that I loved it even more than I loved The Happiness Project. I found it wiser, deeper, purer, more beautiful and true. I could not stop reading aloud from it to my husband and laughing hard, nodding vigorously, or putting my hand over my heart while I did so. It is so smart in the least pretentious and most accessible way and so endearing in its honesty and vulnerability and sweet Gretchen-ness. I felt an even more powerful sense of kinship with Gretchen- I too hate driving, need to “give myself limits to give myself freedom,” and love Little House in the Big Woods and the cozy, snug, sacred sense of home it embodies- and I also felt such gratitude to Gretchen for her reminders that we are all different and her refusal to give easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. Happier at Home is a true pleasure to read- reading it made me very happy indeed!- and a veritable storehouse of helpful tips, profound insights, adorable, charming, illustrative anecdotes, and compassionate solidarity with all of us who struggle to make ourselves happier- and that means all of us!

Gretchen generously agreed to answer an eclectic bunch of questions that I posed to her. Here’s our dialogue!

1) I absolutely love your formulation: “every day, I remind myself to accept myself, and expect more from myself.” This is a very difficult balance to strike, and one I think many people puzzle over how to achieve. How do you, Gretchen, simultaneously demonstrate self-compassion and encourage yourself to do better? What helps you to both know and accept yourself as you are (Be Gretchen!) and motivate you to do and be more (“Choose the Bigger Life”)?

As you say, this is a difficult balance. W. H. Auden articulates this tension beautifully: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.” It is really a matter of constant self-reflection and acknowledgment.

2) Your point that giving gifts to others is a great way to foster happiness in oneself really resonated with me. I’m a passionate gift-giver and buy gifts for my loved ones all year long, then store them in my filing cabinets until the occasion arises to give them! I’m always looking for new shopping venues to find unique, nourishing, and charming things. What are your favorite stores or websites to buy gifts?

Bookstores! Hardware stores and office supply stores. My favorite perfume stores (Frederic Malle, CB I Hate Perfume, Jo Malone.) In my family, we are often very specific about what we want as a gift, so it’s very satisfying to know that you’re giving something that someone REALLY does want.

3) Inspired by The Happiness Project and your work, I bought Bluebirds of Happiness from the wonderful Chinaberry catalogue for myself and my fiance for Christmas in 2011- they made exquisite, albeit fragile, stocking stuffers!- and then we gave our 3 children each a bluebird after our wedding in February 2012. These beautiful glass birds are such an easy and inexpensive way to bring joy to everyday life. What are some other objects or small items that you would recommend to parents or spouses looking for an inexpensive gift with maximum happiness boosting potential?

This is so specific to a person…I’m not sure there’s one suggestion that would be widely applicable.

4) Describe one possession of yours that gives you immense happiness every time you look at it.

My laptop. I take it with me everywhere I go, and everything that’s important to me is in there somehow.

5) If you could take only 5 books to a desert island, what would they be and why? Tough question, I know!

I simply can’t answer a question like this. I can’t choose! It makes my head explode. I have far too many favorites.

6) I wholeheartedly share your passion for children’s literature and your belief that reading it is one of the best spurs to happiness and one of the most effective antidotes to melancholy. What are your daughters’ favorite books? Are there any books that you loved as a child that they didn’t much care for? Any newer books they introduced you to?

Hmmmm….I guess I just don’t think in terms of “favorites.” Too hard! We have books that we love. My older daughter doesn’t love high fantasy, so
while I love something like the Narnia books, she doesn’t.

7) As the former associate editor of the Johnsonian Newsletter, I was thrilled to see that Samuel Johnson both gave you the title of your book and informed its pages in all sorts of profound and surprising ways. When and how did you discover Johnson and why is his writing so appealing, thought-provoking, and inspiring to you?

When I read Samuel Johnson, I feel as if I understand myself better. In a few sentences, he can illuminate very complex aspects of human nature. He’s like Orwell, in that you can’t predict what his arguments will be or how they will unfold. And, of course, he’s funny. He’s a great patron saint for people doing happiness projects, because he made and broke so many resolutions throughout his life. For instance, when he was 55 years old, he wrote:

“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest
time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I
have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time
of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my
resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

8) What piece of music or song invariably makes you feel happier?

I don’t have much of an ear for music, I have to confess, and when I do love a song, I have a bad habit of wearing it out–I listen to it too many times, and then don’t love it as much. But for a long time I’ve especially loved Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You.” I love it (and it always reminds me to appreciate my husband). When I was writing Happier at Home, I was obsessed with the song “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” though it doesn’t make me feel quite “happy.” In my mind, I have a category of things that I love that contain what I call “symbols beyond words,” and this song is in that category.

9) What are 3 quick happiness boosts that you’d recommend to:

new parents?

Get enough sleep. Under-react to a problem. Remember these Secrets of Adulthood: You know as much as most people; most decisions don’t require extensive research.

someone going through a difficult time professionally?

Get enough sleep. Stay connected to friends. Try to keep a sense of humor.

a new college student?

Get enough sleep. Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself. Be [insert your name here]

someone with a cold or other mild illness?

Get enough sleep. Manage pain and discomfort. First things first.

10) I moved recently (combining two apartments and two households), and wow has it been tough! Knowing that moving is typically associated with great unhappiness both reduced my anxiety and made me itchy for concrete strategies to ease the seemingly inevitable stress. Six months after moving, we are still in the process of making our new apartment homey, and after reading Happiness at Home, I realized that my husband has unwittingly been creating what you call “shrines” (so far, we have Music, Fun and Games,Children’s Literature, and Family)! What advice do you have for people who are in the process of transitioning from one home to another? What are some quick and easy ways to make a new space feel homey, and happy? What are some long-range strategies or approaches for designing a happy home?

Go through your stuff as you pack and get rid of everything you don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love. Don’t move it to the new place! Don’t keep things that are part of a fantasy of who you are (e.g., a bread-maker) but aren’t actually used, needed, or loved. Find ways to spotlight possessions that make you happy. Be very wary of letting things into your home–once there, they’re very hard to remove. Don’t “store” much–things that are “stored” are generally never used (except for seasonal items), so why are you keeping them? I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s book A PATTERN LANGUAGE for a new way to think about designing spaces. It blew my mind.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place. Starting in September (the new January), Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood. The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

Gretchen Rubin’s newest book, Happier at Home, is now in stores! You can follow Gretchen at http://happiness-project.com


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