My Trailblazer Nominee

Today I am pleased as punch to be a guest over at Patti’s Pilot Fish blog.  Patti created the Trailblazers Award to “highlight people who can offer guidance and solutions to complex problems.” I love that idea!

Patti has been posting nominations for the award and today she has graciously allowed me to add one of my favorite people to the list. I’ll give you a hint…my nominee is a woman who has expanded our knowledge of our closest living relatives and changed the way we see them and ourselves.

To find out who I nominated (and view a charming video), head over to Patti’s Pilot Fish blog.

This is the fourth in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society.   To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the previous nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, click on the embedded links.

Do you have a nominee for the Trailblazer Award? Leave a comment on my post at Patti’s blog. See you there!

Sixth Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions.

Salt to the SeaFor those who want to feel the full weight of the human spirit: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  I devoured this novel in two days. As with Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys brings to light a little known event of WWII. This story covers the evacuation of refugees and soldiers as the Russians close in on Germany’s eastern front. Salt to the Sea alternates in very short chapters between four teens: a Polish refugee, a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier who deserted the German army, and a German sailor devoted to the Reich to the bitter end. Each one carries a secret of something that cannot be undone. They crowd onto the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship scheduled to take them to safety–or so they think. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you’ll love Salt to the Sea.This review is a bit sneaky because the book has not published yet. I was lucky enough to have an advance reader copy, so put this on your list for February 2016!

Big MagicFor those who have lost their their creative spark: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people have this book on their “Best of…” lists this year. Elizabeth Gilbert asks you to trust and respect your creative self, to tend it as you would a garden. I loved her definition of creativity: living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. This isn’t a how to book. You won’t find exercises to reconnect with your creativity as in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but you will find a manifesto on how to be brave in the face of your fear (by accepting it rather than trying to rid yourself of it). The title isn’t a metaphor, Gilbert believes that creative energy is indeed magic. Big Magic is a good reminder to explore innovation and live the magic.

Storied Life of AJ FikryFor those who want to read a book about…books:The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.  I’m a sucker for novels about bookstores and bookstore owners, and A.J. Fikry is my favorite to date. A sign hanging above A.J.’s bookstore reads “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” I wanted to pack my bags and move to Alice Island. While I loved the bookstore and island setting, the characters are the most memorable part of the story. Even the minor characters, are endearing and charming, and they feel like people you might know. A marvelous read!

Better than beforeFor those who want to be…Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. Good habits are the key to making positive changes in your life, says Rubin. But starting and keeping those habits can feel like a Sisyphean task. This book has a lot of solid, helpful suggestions for staying with your habits. The most important thing, she says, is to work within your personality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. To that end, I loved her “four tendencies” framework. How you approach expectations sets the stage for how you will incorporate a new habit. We fall into one of the following categories: upholder, obliger, questioner, and rebel. It took me less than two minutes to figure out that I’m an upholder. (Didn’t even need to take the quiz!)

Station ElevenFor those who want to be afraid–very afraid: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It was difficult reading this novel on the subway during my commutes. Emily St. John Mandel so realistically captured the spread of the Georgian flu and the resulting devastation, I found myself worried about being in such close proximity to other people.

The story weaves expertly back and forth in time from before the flu that wiped out 99 percent of human life to Year Twenty, after the world has changed so dramatically that the remaining people are thrown back to the Middle Ages — no electricity, no cars, no Internet, no industry of any kind. Cities have been reduced to settlements and bands of travelers. Aside from the intrigue of the familiar but “otherworldliness” of Station Eleven, I love that this story remains focused on the characters and their perseverance through it all.

Art of StillnessFor those who need to unplug: The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. When I saw Pico Iyer at the Brooklyn Book Festival, he was asked if there was a common theme running through his work. He answered immediately that he tries to “reconcile hopefulness with realism.” That theme threads its way through this slim volume as well. Maybe it’s a bit counterintuitive for a travel writer like Pico Iyer to recommend staying put, but he believes we should give ourselves permission to be still, even for a few minutes. He explores the lives of people who have incorporated stillness and offers their examples to guide readers to put down the phone and turn off the TV. It’s a break we crave.

lafayetteFor those who are light-hearted history buffs:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell is to American history what Bill Bryson is to thru-hiking. Wry, funny, and irreverent, her spot-on observations make what seems like a dry subject supremely interesting. “Here she dives into the tale of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who, as a glory-hungry teen, crossed an ocean to join a revolution in a land he’d never before visited.” Even Sarah Vowell’s digressions, which can be long, are fun.

The VacationersFor those who want to escape into a (different) family drama: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. The Posts and their friends are off for two weeks in Mallorca. (I mean, yes please!) It should be the vacation of a lifetime — Franny and Jim are celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Sylvia is off to Brown in the fall — except things are not going well for anyone. But when seven people stay in a cottage for fourteen days secrets and old hurts are going to bubble to the surface. Last year I recommended Emma Straub’s debut Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and this one doesn’t disappoint either. One caveat: The opening pages are a bit slow, and I found myself wanting the Posts to get on the plane and to Mallorca. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded!

Girl on the TrainFor those who want a thriller with a female protagonist: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Let’s just get it out there. This book has been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to that other psychological thriller Gone Girl. In The Girl on the Train, we are treated to a little more introspection and character growth than I think is typical of suspense novels, which made the story even richer for me. I imagine, though, for suspense genre junkies, this might have been annoying — we are in the main character’s head a lot while she’s processing what has happened and what her next move will be. For me, it all worked. And, yes, this one is being made into a movie with Emily Blunt and Mr. Jennifer Aniston.

Beautiful ruinsFor those who love film or Italy or Richard Burton… Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. This book is so…delicious! The story spans decades and winds through a marvelous cast of characters. We move from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the Ligurian coast to Hollywood to the Donner Party (really!) and get fantastic descriptions like the one of past-his-prime film producer Michael Deane, who has had so much plastic surgery he looks like a “lacquered elf.” It’s inventive and interesting, and if you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you’ll be treated to a wonderful narrator who expertly tackles the voices for all of these characters and their accents.

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2015? Share in comments. 

The One With the Dancers in Three Acts

Act I

During my morning commute, a company herd gaggle troupe of dancers boarded my subway car. They were young and lithe, wearing leotards, tights, and Jennifer Beale-esque tops that hung off one shoulder. The girls had their hair wound into buns. The boys were broad with postures that would make a finishing school teacher proud. Each of them carried a duffle bag from the Joffrey Ballet School. Inside the bags were probably pointe shoes and rock rosin and bandages. They were headed uptown for a practice session.

With them was a young woman, slightly older, who was their chaperone. She reminded them that their cell phones didn’t work on the subway and to get off the train at Seventy-Sixth Street.

Woman: Which stop do you get off at?

Dancers, in unison: Seventy-Sixth Street.

A burly man sitting next to me: Young people, this train doesn’t stop at Seventy-Sixth Street. It’s Seventy-Second Street.

Woman: Oh, thank you! Did you hear that? It’s Seventy-Second Street.

Dancers, in unison: Seventy-Second Street.

Burly man: Don’t want no one getting lost.

He eyed them all for a moment, making an astute assessment.

Burly man: Young people, are you going to Lincoln Center?

Woman: Yes. How did you know?

Burly man: You want to be getting off at Sixty-Sixth Street, young people. That’s Lincoln Center.

Woman: Sixty-Sixth? I’m so glad we ran into you!

Burly man: Yeah.

By the time I got off the train, the dancers were buzzing about the day ahead of them—a day of creating art, filling the space with graceful sequences, expressing themselves through movement—while I would be staring at a computer screen until the repeated clicking of the mouse caused my wrist to ache.

Act II

When I was a girl, I wanted to dance with Gene Kelly. It didn’t matter that he was well past his dancing years, or that I was only three-feet tall, or that I didn’t know a tap shoe from a pointe shoe. I decided I needed to be prepared for our eventual opus.

I convinced my mother to register me for tap dancing class, though I suspect she was well aware I would not be the next Ginger Rogers. “Are you sure you want to dance? Maybe you’d enjoy karate?” I didn’t know much about karate, but I knew Gene Kelly would not be at the local dojo.

Off to dance class I went once a week. I liked the sound the taps made as I walked across the stage. The music was fun. My teacher was kind with the patience of a saint. I had three pairs of leg warmers. We held a recital in which my group performed under bright spotlights in largely unflattering costumes, but included a snazzy boater hat like the one Gene wore in An American in Paris (below).

I was, and I won’t sugarcoat this, a terrible, and I mean terrible, dancer. (If I’m being honest, things haven’t improved since.) In my mind, I was Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron. In reality, I looked not unlike a chicken being chased around a coop.

I stuck with dance for another year, tripping my more graceful classmates, uninhibited by my Elaine Benes moves, until I moved to other interests. I never did dance with Gene Kelly. Maybe he was at the dojo after all.

Gene Kelly_Leslie Caron

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron


Nothing made ballroom dancer and instructor Adrianne Haslet-Davis feel as alive as dancing. “When I’m dancing, I don’t feel the need to be doing anything else. My joy is complete.” When she lost her left leg below her knee in the April 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, she vowed that she would dance again. About six months later, she did just that. With the help of MIT prostheticist Hugh Herr, she regained her dancing feet. Here, she performs in front of a live audience at TedX Boston.

Do you like to dance?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Creepy Clowns

Some neighborhoods decorate for Christmas with twinkly lights and charming wreaths. Not mine.

But Halloween? Hold onto your goblins. The spookier, the better. It’s like the Monsters, Inc. motto: We scare because we care.

Let’s take a walk around my neighborhood into the ghoulish and the macabre.




Disturbing clowns seem to be all the rage this year. This gives me the creeps.


More clowns. The clown heads light up and spin around. *shudder*


Skeleton 1: So, Marty, how’s it hanging? You look like you’re wasting away to nothing.

Skeleton 2: My FitBit is on its last legs. I’m dying to get a new one. It’s hard to get in so many steps per day.

Skeleton 1: I hear you. You know Larry? Trying to cheat the system as usual. He’s got a new way to increase his steps…






Another clown!


After all the gruesome, let’s end on a sweet note.


Happy Halloween! 

The One With the Chat

“It’s the chat! It’s the chat! We got the chat!”

The excitement was building in Bob’s voice with every word so that I found myself getting excited even though I couldn’t see a thing. We were a group of ten or so standing in a thicket in Central Park, binoculars trained on the trees. We had been stalking a bird the size of a grapefruit like it was Mick Jagger on tour. The bird, oblivious to us, had been flitting among the branches for twenty or thirty minutes, searching for food.

Finally it flew from tree to tree and that’s when everyone in our group got a good look. That is, everyone except me.

“Oh, isn’t he beautiful!”

“What a gorgeous yellow!”

Photo by Jim Conrad. Licensed under Public Domain via Wiki Commons

Yellow-breasted chat. Photo by Jim Conrad. Licensed under Public Domain via Wiki Commons

“Where? Where?” I moved my binoculars around aimlessly, but I couldn’t zero in on it.

A woman took pity on me. “It’s riiiiight over….. oh, wait, it’s gone.”

Last year at this time if you had told me I would get up before dawn on a Saturday, charge through herds of joggers in Central Park, and squint into a pair of cloudy binoculars just to see the tail feathers of a bird as it flies away, I would have said you were crazy. Actually, if you had told me there were birds besides pigeons in New York City, I would have said you were crazy.

What started me on this birdbrain idea? A kestrel landed on my neighbor’s ledge. I’d seen them on nature shows—North America’s smallest falcon—and I wondered what other kinds of feathered neighbors lurked in the urban jungle.

Turns out, plenty. More than 300 species of birds either live in New York City or pit stop here during migration. I thought fall migration was what elderly people did on their way to Florida, but I soon learned these times of the year are to birders what a television camera is to a Kardashian. During spring migration, the birds head north to breed. This is when they put on quite a show with special plumage and beautiful songs to attract mates. Things are quieter during fall migration, but there was still plenty to see, or so I was told.

The currently elusive yellow-breasted chat would be headed to Central America in a few weeks as the days got shorter and the berries became scarcer. This small bird that could fit in the palm of my hand flies about 4,000 miles (twice a year!), This fact makes me want to lie down for a nap.

But here I was with Birding Bob and the group of intrepid birders skulking through the park. They were an impressive bunch, often identifying a bird as it dashed through the leaves fifty feet away. Even more impressive, they knew the difference between the male and female of the species and non-breeding season plumage. After a couple hours, they had seen several red-eyed vireos, an American redstart, a tufted titmouse, and an ovenbird. (Who names these birds?) I had seen none of these.

A female American redstart.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons by The Lilac Breasted Roller

A female American redstart — not red. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Male American redstart. Quite a difference, no?  Photo by Dennis Jarvis  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Male American redstart. Quite a difference, no?
Photo by Dennis Jarvis Licensed under CC.

I asked Birding Bob for some advice. “If you’re ever in trouble in Central Park, don’t yell ‘Help.’ You should yell, ‘Prothonotary warbler!’ Birders will come running from everywhere. That’s a rare sight!”  Not exactly the kind of advice I had in mind, but I stored it for future reference nonetheless.

Several hours later, just as I decided to pack it in, I saw a flash of red on a tree trunk. I grabbed my binoculars and shouted to the group. “It’s a woodpecker!”

“Does it have barred wings?” Birding Bob asked.


“It’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”

“No, it has a red head.”

“I know. It’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”

Inappropriately named or not, I’d spotted it, so I wrote it down in my notebook just as I’d seen the others do. The first entry of what I hope is many more to come.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Image via Wikicommons.

The inappropriately named red-bellied woodpecker. Image via Wikicommons.

Have you seen any interesting birds in your area? Have a great weekend, everyone!