June is National I-Can’t-Handle-It-All! Month

A favorite device of freelance writers and bloggers looking for something to write about is to check calendars for awareness causes of the month.

June 2013 calendarI’ve done that in the past, writing about National Parks Month (August), and I’m sure I’ll do it again as I stretch the bounds of relevancy to fill cyberspace with my blog posts.

But I won’t do it for the month of June. No way. June is asking too much of me.

I’ve decided I don’t even like June anymore. June is not only extremely demanding but kind of a hypocrite.

June is like that toxic friend I should’ve parted ways with long ago.

Just look at this list of awareness causes I’ve compiled (i.e. copied and pasted) for the month of June:

  • Adopt A Shelter Cat Month
  • ALS Awareness Month
  • Audio Book Month
  • Cancer From The Sun Month
  • Celibacy Awareness Month
  • Child Vision Awareness Month
  • Children’s Awareness Month
  • Effective Communications Month
  • Entrepreneurs Do It Yourself Marketing Month
  • Fireworks Safety Month
  • Great Outdoors Month
  • Home Safety Month
  • International Childhood Cancer Campaign Month
  • International Men’s Month
  • Lane Courtesy Month
  • National Accordion Awareness Month
  • National Aphasia Awareness Month
  • National Bathroom Reading Month
  • National Candy Month
  • National Caribbean-American Heritage Month
  • National Dairy Alternative Month
  • National Dairy Month
  • National Family Month
  • National Flag Month
  • National Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month
  • National LGBT Pride Month
  • National Hunger Awareness Month
  • National Iced Tea Month
  • National Myasthenia Gravis Awareness Month
  • National Papaya Month (also in September)
  • National Rivers Month
  • National Rose Month
  • National Safety Month
  • National Seafood Month
  • National Smile Month (From May 18 to June 17)
  • National Soul Food Month
  • National Steakhouse Month
  • National Student Safety Month
  • National Tire Safety Month
  • Perennial Gardening Month
  • Pharmacists Declare War on Alcoholism Month
  • Potty Training Awareness Month
  • Professional Wellness Month
  • Rebuild Your Life Month
  • Sports America Kids Month
  • Turkey Lover’s Month
  • Vision Research Month
  • World Infertility Month

[sources: http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/diversityeventcalendars/a/nat-month-june.htm; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_commemorative_months; http://www.epromos.com/education/calendars/]

Come on, June! Which it is? Do I enjoy my dairy this month, or my dairy alternative? If I participate in the great outdoors, aren’t I also risking cancer from the sun?

steak and seafood dinnerHow can you expect me to think about hunger when you also want me to be aware of steakhouses and candy, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and papaya, and seafood, and soul food, AND loving turkey?

Speaking of loving, how can I be aware of celibacy while also focusing my awareness on children and family? And world infertility? And on INTERNATIONAL MEN?


I love international men, June. Just ask my friends.

Here’s the thing. If you’re so hung up on “effective communications,” why do you insist on throwing this giant list of tasks and issues and food groups at me, at once?

That is not effective communications, June.

Even worse, you only give me 30 days to pay attention to all of it. You should also be National Overwhelming Month, because that’s what I’m feeling right now!

And what’s with the bathroom fetish? Shining a bright light on bathroom reading and potty training is gross.

Bacon the catOh and thanks for reminding me that I’m allergic to cats, which I love. I’d adopt a shelter cat if I could.

On top of all that, you expect me to smile? That takes some nerve, June. Especially when National Smile Month is from May 20 to June 20 – what is that? I call BS, June, because those dates don’t even constitute a calendar month!

God, you exhaust me. Every time we get together, I end up feeling this way. And all of the downer stuff you want me to dwell on, every year. It never changes.

Your obsession with safety, and diseases and debilitating conditions… Don’t get me wrong, June, I’m very sympathetic to these things. Bad stuff can happen to any of us at any time.

It’s just that one minute you’re up and the next minute you’re down. I never know what I’ll get from you, June. I’m tired of the drama.

So you know what? I think you and I need to go our separate ways. We just don’t work anymore.

My mother won’t like it, since her birthday is in the middle of you. I’ll still visit her and bring her a gift, I’ll just ignore you. Because, June, you don’t really deserve my kind regard and understanding anymore.

I’m moving on.

Jersey ShoreI’m going to skip you and go straight to July. Now that is one happy, grounded month that knows what it wants – long, hot days when people have cookouts, celebrate the 4th, and go to the beach.

It will be my favorite month from now on.

At least until the day I look up July’s list of awareness causes.


6 Things to Remember on Memorial Day

Memorial Day has got to be the most schizophrenic, mixed-message holiday in America.

319px-Summerfest_2008_fireworks_7096Most people will focus on the holiday parts of the holiday: enjoying a three-day weekend, fireworks, barbecue, the start of summer… fun!

Many will travel. This year, AAA predicts that 34.8 million people will travel farther than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend.

Many will shop. Countless retailers offer holiday sales, and like other major holidays (talking about you, Halloween and Christmas!), Memorial Day sales start ever earlier, this year as early as March.

There’s a lot to look forward to.

But it’s a holiday originally conceived to remember.

According to this 2009 CNN article: “Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.”

Here are six more things to remember about Memorial Day.

1) Memorial Day’s origins are rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.

Battle_of_GettysburgThe Civil War was our bloodiest war, with approximately 620,000 soldiers killed either in battle or of disease – equal to about one in four soldiers or 2% of the population.

Communities were forced to confront death like never before. As many as two dozen different cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day beginning in the mid-1860s.

But it was Waterloo, NY, that earned Congress’s official designation as Memorial Day’s birthplace. Waterloo began its annual day of remembrance on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of dead soldiers were decorated.

2) For years, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, in recognition of the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves.

Civil War gravesDecoration Day was declared on May 30, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors. The terms Decoration Day and Memorial Day were interchanged for years as a remembrance for Civil War dead.

After the United States was drawn into World War I, what became known more often as Memorial Day was broadened to include Americans killed in service to country in all of our nation’s wars.

Federal law finally declared “Memorial Day” the official name of the holiday in 1967.

3) Decorating military graves remains important today. 

Here in northern Virginia, on every Thursday before Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the Army place American flags at each of the over 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the weekend, members of the regiment even patrol around the clock to make sure every flag stays aloft.

Thousands gather at the cemetery on Monday to watch the President or Vice President make remarks and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

4) There is a moment of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day.

moment of silenceA law was passed in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day. The law asks Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”

5) We are still at war.

Americans are still sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere as we continue to fight the global war on terror. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will officially end, however, in late 2014. Also, President Obama gave a significant speech yesterday arguing for an end to perpetual war in the post-9/11 era. You can read the full text of the speech here, or a good nonpartisan analysis here.

6) Veterans and military families need help.

Those Americans who survive war too often struggle disproportionately when they come home. Nearly one in seven homeless adults were veterans as of December 2011. 12.5% of veterans aged 18-34 were living in poverty in 2010, and the unemployment rate of veterans aged 18-24 still stands at over 20%.

disabled veterans playing basketballOn this Memorial Day, consider donating to non-profits that support veterans and their families, or, you can send a simple note of remembrance or thanks. Here are just three of the many well-governed non-profits helping veterans:

Operation Homefront – Focused on military families, its website features a “Current Needs” tab that lists specific needs for specific veterans; all cases are verified to ensure legitimacy.

Joining Forces – An initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, its website offers a clearinghouse of resources for veterans and their families. Its “Get Involved” link can help you find ways to help locally.

The National Gold Star Family Registry – Through this website, you can honor a “fallen hero” without spending a dime. It contains a registry of names of all who died in service to the country since the beginning of WWII. Just register and search the directory.

Have fun on Memorial Day, but also remember what it’s for.

A Sting-Ray Bike Was a Ticket to Cool

This past week, my early-childhood glory days came flooding back to mind at the news that the inventor of the Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle, Al Fritz, had died.

1967_schwinn_16--Sting-Ray bannerThe precursor of the BMX bike, the Schwinn Sting-Ray was built from 1963 to 1981 and was America’s most popular bike. When Al Fritz rose to become Schwinn’s research and development director in the early 1960s, he looked for fresh ideas in bicycle design. He heard about a southern California fad of tricking out old 20-inch-frame bikes with high “ape hanger” handlebars and banana seats to look like customized Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Fritz was inspired. He pushed through a line of novel-looking bicycles that offered those same features and other accessories like whitewall tires, neon colors, and hot-rod looking stick shifts.

Sting-Rays became known as the “Corvette of bicycles” which, at the time, meant it was the ultimate ticket to Cool.

1967_schwinn_slik_chik_fairlady catalogMy parents gave me a Sting-Ray bike in the late 60s. It was the best thing I ever owned as a kid.

Here’s why:

  • It was new – Not to sound ungrateful to my loving and generous parents but, because I was the youngest of eight kids I grew up using mostly hand-me-downs. Lots of them – clothes, toys, Catholic school uniforms so worn the fabric was almost transparent. So when my parents bought me a new, “Sky Blue” Schwinn Sting-Ray bike, it was incredible because it was mine.
  • It was hip – Being new was reason enough for me to love my bike. But it was also hip (when hip was cool, when hip and cool meant good things). My Sting-Ray was actually the girls version called Fair Lady. It came with a white wicker basket trimmed in plastic flower appliqués, which sounds tacky but wasn’t then. Remember, wicker was also very hip in the 1960s, and plastics were the latest greatest thing, calling to mind the scene from the 1967 movie, The Graduate. My bike had all the hot new stuff.

  • It was popular – Every kid in America wanted a Sting-Ray bike, and many parents were happy to oblige – Schwinn sold almost two million Sting-Rays between 1963 and 1968. At one point, Sting-Ray bikes and knock-offs sold by competitors cornered 60% of the bicycle market. Those were the good old days when kids had more time and terrain to ride bikes.
  • Schwinn_Sting-Ray adIt was the ultimate training bike – I found my athleticism on my Sting-Ray. With its fat tires and low frame, I could pop wheelies and jump curbs. I could ride anywhere, on the street or in the nearby woods. I spent loads of time riding with my sisters and friends on the dirt trails that we cut in the woods; the trails featured steep slopes and natural ramps that allowed us to catch some air and clear streams. We were BMXers before BMX. It was freedom and adrenaline wrapped in kid fearlessness. Heaven.
  • It was righteous rebellion masquerading as mainstream – The Sting-Ray’s design allowed us to ride like rebels. Its revolutionary style, with the famous banana saddle and high handlebars, was taken from the early counter-culture. The Sting-Ray allowed us to look like rebels, too. We were easy riders like Easy Rider. Any dweeby kid in a small town could become a bad-ass with a Sting-Ray.

  • It symbolized a changing America – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the popularity of the Sting-Ray bike signaled the cultural upheaval that would convulse the country by the late 1960s. The hippie subculture, Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam War protests were driven by rising youth movements that would erupt at once, changing the nation forever. To quote graphic designer, Robert L. Peters: “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”

Who knew that a cool kids bike would point the way?



My Rant About Spring and Selfish Wildlife

320px-Hatchling_birds_in_nest_with_eggsI know what you’re thinking: One, how could I – how could anyone – complain about spring? It’s like saying you don’t like flowers, or sunshine, or life.

Two, how could I complain about wildlife? I live in the city, although there are plenty of wild animals around, if you look.

Most of the year they’re fine. But in spring, the wildlife around here just bugs me. It’s that time of year when animals are all reproductive and emo and in your face with their needs. They’re selfish.

These are my main complaints about wildlife in spring:

Bird Gangs

Many_black_birds_on_telephone_wireThe birds on my street tick me off every spring. 

I couldn’t tell you which kind, because most of the year they’re quiet and furtive and I don’t even see them. But in spring, neighborhood birds turn hyperactive and form gangs that wake me up every morning at 4am with their infernal screeching.

These birds don’t herald a spring morning by chirping sweetly.

They scream.

I like to open my bedroom window at night to enjoy the springtime air. But that also means I have to put up with these feathered-dinosaur brutes on my block. They make such a racket that I have to get up and close my window to go back to sleep. I even run a gray-noise machine in my room to counteract city noises. But I still hear the birds.

I think they know it and they don’t care.

Trashy Bird Squatters

My beef with birds doesn’t end with noise. Every spring, birds take over my small back yard and trash it. Black birds, cardinals, sparrows, and mourning doves – they spend most of their time waging turf battles for nesting spots in my dense evergreen tree.

cardinal fighting wrenI always secretly route for the cardinals – yes, because they’re pretty and because I’m shallow – and I’m glad they won their nesting spot again this year (cardinals bring it!). But in all of the tussling, my slate patio underneath the tree gets pelted with a compound of pine sap and bird poop that maybe NASA engineers could remove but I can’t.

The bird poop problem hasn’t stopped there. Lately, some bird has made a perch of the rear-view mirror of my car, which is parked in a space behind my yard in the alley.

“Perch” is a polite word for it. I’ve walked out to find my car’s mirror caked in bird trots. The offending bird somehow projectile-poops across the car door, too, blanketing it with white rivulets of filth. This is wrong.

I spotted the perpetrator one day, a dove I think. I scared it away but by then it had already imprinted on my car: car = crapper. I reminded myself that, as a superior species, I had the capacity to thwart the bird.

I started tying plastic grocery store bags around both rear-view mirrors, to create a slippery surface that the bird wouldn’t want to land on. Like so:

Prius with bags






It’s working. But the irony is not lost on me that I’m protecting my environmentally-friendly Toyota Prius hybrid with disposable plastic bags.

Obnoxious Duck Families

These scofflaws are the most irresponsible breeders on the planet. Come spring, mother hens lurch in front of heavy traffic to jaywalk all over the DC metro area, leading their jerky ducklings into mayhem without a care.

ducklings-following-mother-mLook, I’ll always stop for a duck family; if necessary, I’ll even get out of my car and be their crossing guard. What chaps me is that the ducks know this and never show us commuters any consideration.

God forbid these vagrants use pedestrian walkways and signals, or listen to traffic reports and adjust their route. No. They’ll waddle across the busiest traffic arteries with their fuzz-ball babies tottering behind, wreaking havoc.

Like one morning last spring, as I drove to the mega-congested Mark Center in Alexandria during rush hour. I watched a black SUV five cars in front of me skid to the right as the rest of us slammed on our brakes. Sure enough, in-between the cars halted at odd angles ahead, I glimpsed a brood crossing six lanes of Seminary Road.

Duck families are coercive and I resent it.

Baby Animals

They’re the worst! Fuzzy, tiny, squeaky, helpless. One will appear to you one spring day under a bush, alone, just off the sidewalk as you’re rushing to catch the Metro. It twitches and bleats.

You squee and bend down for a closer look. You steady yourself as all of your emotional armor built up over a lifetime crumbles. But you don’t know how to help the baby, so you walk away distraught.

Baby animals are sneaky and manipulative.

But if the squirrel in my backyard ever produced one of these:


Baby Squirrel








It would be game over.

I’d probably tear out half of my shrubs to build a hutch for the mother and baby squirrel. Every day I’d leave them water and a bowl of shelled organic nuts from Trader Joe’s. No acorns for my darling.

party toothpicksI’d use my hand spade to bury some of the fancy nuts myself, so the little one would learn her life skills. But I’d mark the buried spots with party toothpicks so my precious charge could find the nuts easily.

I’d spoil my baby squirrel rotten.

Then in the evening, I’d watch the squirrel hutch from the shadows of my upstairs window. Blowing my hay-fevered nose until it bled, I’d weep tears of joy mixed with shame and tinged with fears for my sanity.

And you wonder why I’m not all woo-woo about spring?


[When you’re not annoyed by selfish wildlife in spring, consider donating to a local wildlife charity that helps sick and injured animals recover and return to their habitat. Find a group near you at: http://www.wildliferehabber.org/]



What My Elderly Mother Is Teaching Me About Evolution

First of all, my 91-year-old mother would be very unhappy to know that I wrote a blog post about her (if she knew what a blog post was). She is a private, proud woman of an era when news of one’s personal business didn’t extend much beyond chatter at church and the general store.

301px-Origin_of_SpeciesSecond, my mother would be equally unhappy to know that I’m associating her with the theory of evolution. At one time maybe, in her youth, she may have accepted Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection without feeling that it threatened her Catholic faith and spiritual outlook on life. But not in her old age. Only God and His mysterious ways matter to her now, and that’s fine.

My mother is more than entitled, at this stage of her life, to do/think/say just about anything she wants. I say “just” because Mom can still be imperious and peppery and she still scares me. As a mother of eight, grandmother of eleven and great grandmother of six (soon, seven), she’s had to lay down the law many times, and rightfully so. But she’s slowing down more and deserves a free pass.

Since May is the 50th anniversary of Older Americans Month, and Mother’s Day is approaching, there’s something I need to tell my mother next time I see her – that she is still teaching me important lessons about life.

That would please and surprise my mom, and I’m a dope for not telling her by now. I just visited her this past weekend in Pennsylvania. She still lives in the house where I grew up, and has excellent 24/7 care from a core group of caregivers with whom she’s formed a trusted and loving bond.

Although Mom is very fortunate to have the resources and support structure to stay at home, her big old brick colonial-style house grows larger and more obstructive as her frail body shrinks and loses mobility. Just days before my visit, my older siblings, who still live in the area, had ramps installed in her house. The ramps were placed over three sets of small steps that my mother can no longer negotiate on her feet.

So the past week has been stressful for her. Mom is rapidly transitioning from a walker to a wheelchair, and is doing so with a level of dignity and grace that I don’t possess. Darwin might nod knowingly when I say I have some of my mother’s traits but I lack others of hers I wish I had, including her emotional strength.

Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics or DNA, but his genius was in understanding the function of inheritance and its role in natural selection as the modification of inherited traits over long periods of time. As Darwin put it, natural selection preserves or creates “favoured races in the struggle for life.”

OAM Logo -- thumbnailWhat my elderly mother is teaching me about evolution, in particular, is how it affects memory as we age: As Mom’s short-term memory falters, more of her long-term memory emerges. And its vast store of wisdom and family stories is something I’ve neglected for too long.

Mom frequently frets about the loss of her short-term memory – she’ll pause in the middle of a sentence and sigh as she searches her mind for a forgotten name or date. “Damn, what’s the word…” she’ll say. Then she’ll apologize and look distressed, which makes my heart ache.

I always try to assure her that it’s no big deal to forget names and other short-term stuff. She knows how lucky she is to have as sound a mind as she does, with no signs of senility or Alzheimer’s disease unlike several of her friends both alive and dead. Still, it’s hard for her, knowing how much we have to repeat things to her lately.

Evolutionary biologists see short-term memory and its limited capacity as a survival mechanism that allows us to pay attention to a relatively small number of immediate concerns (predators approaching, where to seek refuge) so that we can make rapid decisions effectively.

301px-Mothers'_Day_Cake_cropIt makes sense to me, therefore, that short-term memory generally fades in the elderly, especially in those who are less active or retired. They are no longer looked to as often to make quick and important decisions, and that’s as it should be, because – hopefully – their welfare is ensured by loved ones and/or the community. They’ve earned their rest and our enduring respect.

So as my mother’s short-term memory weakens, I find her plumbing her long-term memory more which, by contrast, is very good. The farther back she goes, it seems – 50 to 60 or more years ago – the more vivid the memories.

Ask my mom about her first date with my late father – in 1948 – and she can tell you what day of the week it was (a Monday), what my dad wore (a bulky green tweed suit that his mother had bought him in New York), what kind of car he drove (a red Ford convertible) and how long it took him to call my mom after the date (a week and a half, because Dad drove to Virginia to break up with another girl before continuing to date my mom). My parents were married less than a year later.

Ask my mother where she went to dinner with my siblings a day or two prior, and she may not remember.

Colorful_spring_gardenI enjoy Mom’s old stories even when they jar, when she drops the long-gone into conversations of the here and now. In a phone call a couple of weeks ago, I told her how my one sister gave me a good idea for a baby gift for my niece Beth’s new baby. And Mom said, “oh yes, that’s the same kind of gift I gave to Bill and Nelly when they had their baby.”

“Who?” I ask.

My mom’s older cousin, Bill, and his wife, Nelly, when they had had a baby over 60 years ago. I said I don’t remember them.

“Oh heavens, Dear, that’s right,” Mom said, “they both died long before you were born.”

(Mom still talks like the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood screen actresses she watches in movies on TCM, her favorite cable TV channel.)

Later on, Mom told me more about her cousin, Bill, what a hard life he’d lived and how his parents – my mom’s Aunt Ann – had lost everything during the Depression. They split up the children to go live with different relatives who could take them in (Bill and his sister went to live with my mom and her parents). I knew none of that. My mother has seen so much in her life, and I’m ashamed of how little of her past I know.

What Mom is teaching me about evolution is that long-term memory endures in our elders, and for a reason – to pass on wisdom and lessons learned, to tell of calamities survived and endured. And, to recall milestone moments of a life well-lived, of what that individual valued and cherished.

In other words, Mom’s long-term memory is a treasure trove that I need to honor  — and mine – more often. It’s about time.


7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read: A Survival Guide

Alexandria VA signThis past week, I learned that I live in America’s most well-read city, according to Amazon.com, and for the second year running.

This was surprising news to me although not completely. I do live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, after all, which is a snooty place. This is where power mongers and policy wonks rule, where people speak two and three languages – including “acronym” – and hold multiple degrees. And they make sure you know it.

So allow me to indulge that DC snootiness for a moment (“when in Rome…”) by remarking that the list of most well-read cities seems odd at first. DC is not ranked (ironically), nor are other cities you might expect like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Alexandria ranks first followed by Knoxville, TN (a college town, ok) then Miami, FL (huh?). Fourth is Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard and MIT, back to making sense), and fifth is Orlando, FL (Disney World??).

Amazon’s rankings were based on the per capita sale of books, magazines and newspapers (both in print and electronic format) for cities with a population of 100,000 or more, so smallish cities held an advantage.

Also, Amazon ranked by quantity and attempted no subjective judgment of quality, which is fair. The best-selling book in my city was Gone Girl, a genre-bending thriller that I enjoyed. But the second best-seller was the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I won’t read because it sounds like Twilight with whips (Amazon won’t judge, but I will). My point is, us Alexandrians shouldn’t be too smug about what took us to the top.

But we will, because we’re part of metropolitan DC – again, smug and snooty are what we do. But I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I’m not that well read, especially for a writer. Several friends of mine here and elsewhere – both writers and non-writers and at least one sibling – have read many more books than I.

books on shelf

So for my own sake as well as yours (unless you’re bookish, in which case you can stop reading this post), I’ve come up with 7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read. Bookworms are everywhere, in your life as well as in mine. And most of them, I should add, aren’t remotely arrogant about it and don’t mean to make us feel small, they just love their books and need to talk about them. The rest is our problem. To help, consider the following:

1) Accept that well-read people are likely superior to you in several ways.

Not helpful? Sorry. But numerous studies show that reading is overwhelmingly beneficial and comprehensively so. See here, here and here. A paragraph from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study sums it up best:

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.

Gulp. To quote that master of uplift, George Orwell: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” I want you to be happy, Dear Reader.

two people reading2) See what all the fuss is about by reading more.

See point #1. After all, this Survival Guide is a form of self-help, which implies self-improvement… so…

3) Read a “classic” book or two…

I haven’t done a lot of this myself, but certain books are called “classics” for a reason – they’re very good and worth your time. Among the classic book authors I’ve tried, Jane Austen is fantastic, hugely enjoyable and accessible. She’s a good one to start with. I didn’t expect to like Joseph Conrad’s work, but I do, a lot. He was a master stylist even though English was his second language. Same for Vladimir Nabokov, a genius linguist who wrote some of his best works in English rather than in his native Russian; if you’re put off by the lechery of Lolita, then read Pnin, a hilarious book about a bumbling Russian professor teaching at a midwest American college. Among the American greats I’ve read and enjoyed are John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, and my favorite, Wallace Stegner, a teacher of other great writers and an often-overlooked master of everything (plot, setting, character, point of view, etc.).

4) …But focus on reading what you enjoy.

One of my well-read hometown friends in Pennsylvania inhales books and reads purely for pleasure. When I’ve asked her what she likes to read, she always replies: “everything.” She is my model well-read person because books give her so much joy; her face lights up every time you ask her what she’s reading. She is one of the most unpretentious people I know, and also one of the wisest (again, see point #1).

5) Make your reading social by joining a book club.

I’m a veteran book clubber. I helped start one that met from 1993 to 1997 – when I last lived in the DC area – and we resumed meeting in 2010 after I moved back. While I lived in Tucson, AZ, I was in two book clubs simultaneously from about 2002 to 2009. I should point out that I’ve often failed to keep up with book club assignments, and you might, too. The best book clubs – the only ones that last, really – will forgive you and will be flexible about members’ busy schedules. Book club discussions can get impassioned and animated beyond belief — one time I did a head-stand in front of my book club to make a point, another time I climbed on someone’s shoulders (don’t ask, I don’t remember, and yes, alcohol was involved both times). The point is, a book club is a worthwhile commitment that can enrich your life. Through them, I’ve discovered some great books and writers, and – most importantly – I’ve formed some of my dearest friendships.


6) Support your local library.

Books – whether in print or electronic form – don’t have to cost you, Dear Reader, as long as you have access to a lending library. As a repository of knowledge, the library concept goes back to ancient times. According to The Washington Post, the city of Alexandria – the one in Egypt – housed the ancient world’s greatest archive of information. Today’s American library system is a jewel of democracy because it offers the gift of knowledge to all Americans for free. Even if you don’t use your local public library, consider donating books or money to it (most public library systems have a non-profit fundraising arm to help support it). Like everything else, library budgets across the country have been cut.

7) Take a break from books and do other things.

Finally, it’s ok to sometimes forget about books and just live. After all, this is part of the well-read person’s m.o.: They’ve learned so friggin’ much from all that reading – point #1 again, always point #1 – that they take time to go out and do some of it. You should, too.



Transforming Terror’s Negative Space

Z010456-R01-016-6AOn this crazy, chaotic Friday, I write this as we await a conclusion to the manhunt for the Boston Marathon attack’s “suspect number two,” whose older brother was killed in a shoot-out with police last night.

It’s the end of an awful week that began at one of America’s most iconic sporting events, a celebration shattered by the terror and devastation of two bombs that killed three people and wounded close to 200.

Apart from the pain we feel for the victims and their families, what remains for all Americans is the uncertainty and fear that comes with knowing that terrorism is still a part of our reality. With that reality comes the question of what we do with terror’s “negative space.”

What do I mean by that?

Negative Space exampleThe concept of negative space is well known in several disciplines but can be hard to grasp. It’s not actually negative in connotation; it’s often meant by what is not as opposed to what is. It’s easiest to see in photography, where sometimes it refers to a predominant background that forms part of the subject (as in the photo above). Sometimes, negative space becomes the subject when that space is seen in new light (as in the images to the left). In language, it can refer to what is read between the lines, or to the spare form of a poem.

When it comes to terrorism, I see negative space as whatever our psyche confronts in the aftermath of terror’s physical destruction. We don’t have complete control over it, of course, but over time we do have choices to make, and we can reshape and redefine that negative space.

It’s hard to consider something like negative space in relation to an event like the Boston Marathon, which is such a tremendous physical as well as spiritual accomplishment.

I emphasize the spiritual because, if you’ve ever completed a marathon – I ran the Tucson Marathon in December 2000 – you realize that what you achieved physically is maybe only half the matter. Amid the challenges of training – long, lonely runs, injuries, illness – you learn that you need to get your head right.

In other words, you need to tap into your spiritual side – your soul, your consciousness, your life force – to fortify yourself mentally so that you’ll stick to your training, you’ll learn to be patient, and hopefully you’ll find a way to develop zen-like consciousness that can sometimes turn physical pain and drudgery into bliss. I was lucky enough to experience a few moments of bliss during my own marathon experience, after having overcome two major set-backs — a pesky injury and a sudden illness — during my long journey of marathon training.

Any distance runner good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon understands the importance of spiritual development in running, and likely runs marathons for the spiritual as much as for the physical benefits.

Runners’ family and friends may not fully share in the zen-like vibe that comes with regular distance running, but what they see is inspiring, and they want to support it. So they gather to watch and wait and eventually greet their loved ones with jubilation at the finish line.

Imagine how shocking and spiritually crushing the terrorist attack was for all of the people at the  Boston Marathon there to just celebrate life.

Those injured or killed, and their families and friends, experienced a level of tragedy and loss that I do not understand and I am not attempting to express here.

But for the rest of us, the Boston Marathon attack was an assault on our spirit. We were its object as well, and we rightly see that terrorism continues to threaten our way of life.

It’s hard to fill terror’s negative space with nothing but the fear that terrorists strive to foster. In policy terms, it’s hard to resist the desire for ever tighter security measures that may ultimately infringe upon our rights and freedoms.

But so often we also find that, in the face of terror, our spirit finds strength.

In President Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday at the Interfaith Service in Boston, he quoted a scripture passage telling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The President expressed the nation’s collective grief for the victims and their families, but he also spoke of the storied Bostonian resolve as “the greatest rebuke” to those who perpetrated the attack.

In terror’s negative space, we can – and do – replace fear and uncertainty with compassion, love, and power.

And that is how our spirit endures, and finds a way to carry on.

Like 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner, Bill Iffrig, who was seen getting knocked down by the first bomb’s shock waves just yards from the finish line. Luckily, he suffered only a scraped knee. He was helped up, brushed off and he made his way to the finish line.

[If you’d like to donate to the families of those killed or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino set up a fund called The One Fund Boston, visit their website by clicking here. For more ways to donate, go here.]


The Value of Blogging: Ipso Facto or Lorem Ipsum?

I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

This is my first official blog post on my first official blog. But I have been writing – as a professional non-fiction writer and fiction hobbyist – for over 20 years.

What have I been waiting for?

Ideas? Inspiration?

No, those aren’t hard to find. I once wrote an essay titled “Scratching an Itch,” a short piece on a simple, meaningless act hardly worthy of an essay.

Or is it?

The sudden urge to scratch an itch on your arm, or on your head, or other places less polite, can lead to broader questions. Is it just a little itch, or a nervous tick? Where do you draw the line in terms of what to scratch and in front of whom?

Scratching an itch can be meaningful or not — a harmless gesture, a poker player’s tell, or an affront to society.

Blogging, it appears, can also be meaningful or not. Some will ask: does blogging have inherent value?

Like scratching an itch, it depends.

If you blog to hone your writing craft, or to share something of interest to readers, or to sell a product or service, then it’s fair to say blogging has value ipso facto. But what if you find yourself writing a puff-piece blog post just to check off your must-blog-something task for the day, and bore your readers in the process?

In that case, your blog might as well be lorem ipsum, that Latin-looking gibberish you see on examples of WordPress themes whose only function is to fill text space.

I will never blog just to fill space. I may do it a little, or a lot. I’ll probably cover a few of the topics that I’ve written about professionally such as politics, healthcare, fitness and wellness, and, naturally, writing. Check back more than once.

Another thing for you to know — I enjoy writing essays, which is primarily what bloggers do, right? An essay is often the best way to explore and clarify what it is you think and feel about an issue or event in your life.

As the writer E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Over the years, I’ve published a number of personal essays and persuasive essays otherwise known as op-eds (to read my latest op-ed published by The Christian Science Monitor, click here).

I’ve ghostwritten op-eds for business clients, and I also volunteer to help others get their views and opinions in print and online. I’m a volunteer Editor-Mentor for The Op-Ed Project, a great non-profit organization based in New York City whose mission is to promote and increase a diversity of voices in media.

Even though over half of the population are women, only about 20% of major newspaper opinion pieces are written by women. This lack of women voices creates a huge deficit in our national dialogue.

I’ve had the privilege to help several accomplished women in business, academia and advocacy craft and publish op-eds in newspapers and online media outlets throughout the country. I hope to add the links to some of my mentees’ work in the near future.

In addition, The Op-Ed Project’s website has a very helpful and public resource section on how to write an op-ed, in case you would like to share your own opinion on a topical issue in a newspaper or online news site some day.

If you are interested in learning more about the personal essay form as a beautiful exercise in critical thinking and self-discovery, let me recommend a very good book on personal essays:

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate (Doubleday, 1994).

The book is not really a how-to on essay writing, but it offers an informative introduction to the craft and is a large anthology of some of the best essays ever written, organized culturally, by theme and by form (book review, humor, list, mosaic, portrait, etc.).

If I were to recommend only one essay in this volume, it would be Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, about watching a moth die on a windowsill. It’s a tour de force on truths surrounding life and death that runs only around 1200 words in length. It is also easy to find online.

Admire it for the language and for Woolf’s ability to connect the trivial to the universal, but fair warning: it may give you a case of the sads.

Finally, one note of business about my blog. I don’t plan on posting any reader comments to my blog posts. Instead, feel free to email me about something I wrote at info@kateholder.com.

For example, do you have a personal essay (or opinion piece) to recommend, one that moved you or helped you or changed your thinking? I’d like to know.

If you do email me about a blog post, please reference that particular post in your comment. In return, I may occasionally post a reader’s email, and I will try my best to read all email comments. However – and this is important – I cannot guarantee that I will respond to any of them.

Remember, I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll alert readers of my latest blog posts and other news.