Friday Five (or More)

Citizen Science. I love this! National Geographic has links to dozens of opportunities for you (and your kids) to participate in projects that help scientists answer real-world questions and gather data. Take a butterfly census. Snap photos. Collect weather data. Here are two of National Geographic’s popular citizen science projects: the Great Nature Project and FieldScope.


This week’s Modern Love column in the New York Times was touching: A 12-year-old girl’s life and love are shattered by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (including a short animation). “You are the bravest girl I know,” he whispered.

Have you ever found yourself in Funk Town (not Funky Town)? Leo from Zen Habits has some good tips to help.


Creative Nonfiction Magazine is seeking new essays about marriage (4,000 words maximum). Submit your work by August 31.


How is your summer reading going? I’m looking for a few good books.


A bit of self promotion: I’m teaching an online creative writing class called Back to Basics through The Loft Literary Center. This course will take you through each major element of creative writing to help you hone your skills. The course is eight weeks from Sept. 21 – Nov. 15. Registration is now open. (Enter early bird code EBFA15 by August 21, 2015 at checkout and receive $20 off the cost of the course.)

The Loft

Five-Star Soup Kitchen. Chef David Garcelon has prepared meals for heads of state, rock stars, and the Queen of England. He also cooks for New York’s homeless.


Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Simple Pleasures

After last week’s post, I realized the best way to end the cycle of complaining is to focus on small, everyday things that make me smile. Inspired by Caitlin Kelly’s list, here are a few things that I’m enjoying right now.


The smell of fresh toast. The nutty aroma always feels comforting.


Someone in the building across the courtyard plays the horn. He or she practices every evening at about 7 p.m. I don’t recognize the song (if it is indeed a song) because it’s so flat and disjointed. It could be simply a collection of notes. This horn player is no Kermit Ruffins. Despite the practice, there is never any improvement. Not even a little bit. Instead of being annoyed by this tuneless repetition, I admire the perseverance. It inspires me to be as dedicated to my pursuits.


Macarons from this place

Colorful macarons


Getting a seat on the subway during my commute


My favorite Saturday morning excursion is the farmers market. I live only a few blocks away, but the growers come from New Jersey, upstate New York, and the east end of Long Island. I can get the standard fruits and veggies of course, but I love to browse the stands of cut flowers and honey and mushrooms and breads. In autumn, there are bushels upon bushels of apples. Why go to the grocery store where they truck apples from Washington state (3,000 miles away) when I live in the Big Apple?


That reminds me: fresh blueberries


Being swept away by a wonderfully written novel is, for me, the simplest of simple pleasures. There’s nothing more enjoyable than landing on the perfect book at the perfect time. I just finished Everything I Never Told You, which was terrific. I’m still marveling at how Celeste Ng took a decidedly straight-forward plot and wove such an incredible tale. I’m  already looking forward to her next book. Here are the opening lines:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything by this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.



Walking Reggie early on a Sunday morning while most people are still asleep.

Sometimes Little Kitty joins us on our walk.

Sometimes Little Kitty joins us on our walk.


A perfectly made Pimm’s Cup. Even better if you can enjoy one at The Columns Hotel in New Orleans.


Following the Pluto flyby. How amazing!


One morning I spotted this little guy perched on my neighbor’s roof. It’s an American kestrel. I’d never seen one in person before. This bird has the unique ability to hover over its prey in mid-air, like a helicopter, without flapping its wings.

American Kestrel. Image via Wikipedia. I was too enamored to get a clear pic.

American Kestrel. Image via Wikipedia. I was too enamored to get a clear pic myself.


What are some of your simple pleasures? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Complainers

A few months ago, I went to lunch with a small group to celebrate a friend’s promotion. We talked about work, family, upcoming vacations, all the usual things. One friend began complaining about her husband’s refusal to clean up around the apartment. Like a virus it spread quickly and we each succumbed in turn. The next hour (I’m not exaggerating) was spent venting about a litany of issues.

Then, somehow, I heard myself. I was suddenly drained by the conversation I’d helped to create. I’d boarded the complain train with the people at my table and was whisked away without even realizing it.

I meekly attempted to change the subject. “So, I heard that Ben & Jerry’s is developing a new ice cream flavor.”

Complainer #1: “Oh, I hate ice cream.” (Side note: I didn’t know this was humanly possible.)

Complainer #2: “You know what I hate? Marshmallows. They’re squishy and spongy, and they squeak in my mouth.”

Complainer #3: “That reminds me. I’m going to ask Sam to bring marshmallows on our trip to the shore. We had such a hard time finding a rental house for the week. Some owners want you to bring your own towels and some don’t have wi-fi and…and…and…”

I was sucked right back into the fray. I’m not proud of that. I want to be able to remove myself from these situations, or barring that, stay in the right frame of mind. That afternoon I realized how negativity is self-reinforcing and becomes addictive.

stop complainingAuthor Tim Ferriss suggests doing a no-complaint experiment. Spend 21 days without complaining. Wearing a special bracelet helps in reprogramming your awareness because if a complaint slips out, you move the bracelet to the opposite wrist and the clock starts again. Could I do it?

I don’t think i’m an excessive complainer, though I suppose my friends and family would have the final say-so on that point. I know I feel better, lighter when I don’t complain. Tim had a few resets and made it through the full 21 days in about three months. One of important changes he noticed was a shift from unproductive commiserating to problem solving.

“I defined “complaining” for myself as follows: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.” 

I disagree with Tim a bit on this point. Allowing “helpful complaints” only works if you’re complaining about a problem that can be solved. But I find that when I fall prey to complaining, it’s most often about random things that are out of my control. In fact, that’s one reason why I complain: to regain some illusion of control. The subway car is too crowded. So-and-so left dishes in the sink. Again. The store didn’t have those shoes in my size. The weather. Roxanne Gay writes, “I really don’t intend to change most of the things I complain about. Griping is seductive on those days when happiness requires too much energy.”

Martha Beck has an alternative: stop complaining aloud and vent on paper. I think by the time I wrote a couple of sentences I’d see how silly most of my complaints are and move on. The ones that aren’t silly might get resolved with thoughtful, positive action and without turning social events into a huge drag.

This is not easy. Complaining seems to be hard-wired in us humans. (“Mom, I’m bored!” “She’s touching me!”) The more I think about it, the more I think the reason we complain is to be acknowledged. We’re looking for someone to back us up. Someone agree that my friend’s husband is wrong for not getting his dirty socks off the floor. Someone validate the horrible commute I had this morning. Please.

In our lives, the people around us lift us up, or they drag us down.  —Leo Babauta

Does complaining spur you to action? Have you tried a no-complaint experiment? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The One With Starting Over

Last fall my novel-in-progress came to a standstill. I eked out a few sentences here and there, but I’d stopped writing any major forward motion of the plot.

It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in the story idea or the characters. In fact, I busied myself researching the time period, which I found fascinating. (Clue #1)

I was well over 120 pages in, roughly 30,000 words, and I started rereading those pages, shifting paragraphs around and making important edits, like changing characters’ names. (Clue #2)

What had me stumped, I realized, was what the characters should do next. I am largely a “pantser,” but I know that an outline can be invaluable help. I spent a couple of weeks writing one. (Clue #3)

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Lo and behold, a lovely idea came to me like a bird on the wind. It was an unrelated character for a different story. It felt important to write this other story before the idea escaped. (Clue #4)

By this time months had passed, and I’d been dancing around what I knew I had to do. I opened a new document on my computer and started over.

My writing students gasped in horror when I shared this news. How could I throw it all away? Couldn’t I just rework the pages? Often reimagining a scene or a chapter is the right way to go, but sometimes it’s not. Can I be a bit vulgar for a moment? It’s just us here and I hope you won’t mind. Reworking crap is still crap.

Now, there is a big difference between thinking your work is crap and it being crap. Recognizing that gap is key. It is the difference between the cat that sleeps in your bed at night and a mountain lion; between a writer and a good writer. We all have doubts about our creative output. Is this writing good enough? (What “good enough” constitutes is the subject of another post. It’s a constant battle for me.) That’s true whether you’re painting or making origami or renovating your basement.  But this isn’t about losing your mental mojo.

Let’s say you wake up one morning and realize the story you’ve been writing really is crap, as I did. Do you pack it in? Grumble that you never wanted to be a writer anyway and reach for the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer? Mourn the lost 120 pages? No, you don’t. You open a new document and you start over. Because you are a wordsmith and words are in endless supply. You’ll never run out.

Now that I think about it, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not really starting over. I’ve gained insight. I’ve learned about my characters—their personalities, their lives, why they want the things they want. That means I’m not starting over. I’m beginning again.

Each day we wake up, we begin again. That, of course, is a good thing. Aside from the obvious up shot of being alive another day, we have a chance to be our best selves, to do our best work. Here’s what I way to say: don’t be afraid to get rid of those words, scenes, chapters that aren’t working (or anything else for that matter). It can be difficult, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Ernest Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Ernest Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Have you stared over on a project?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Friday Five (or More)

In the ten years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was published, many people have taken their own adventures. Now she wants to hear from you. Elizabeth Gilbert is organizing an anthology composed entirely of your essays. Use this link to submit your 1,500-word essay by July 31.


What if authors were only paid when readers turned a page?  “Amazon will soon start paying authors based on how many pages are read—not how many pages are downloaded, but how many pages are displayed on the screen long enough to be parsed.”


Have you read this lighthearted Daily Shouts” column from The New Yorker? Two weeks of status updates from your vague friend on Facebook.  We’ve all probably read a few like this.


Serena Williams won her 20th Grand Slam titleIncredible dedication!


Ever wonder how the stuff in your recycling bin actually gets recycled? Hank Green explains. (Book fans: Hank is John Green’s brother.)


Receiving compliments with grace. “Many of us find it difficult to accept compliments but easy to believe the slightest criticism. Today, right now, let’s make a choice to fully accept compliments as we would a gift.” The Daily Om. 


Speaking of grace. My blog friend Tori has grace in spades. This Father’s Day was her first without her dad, who was killed last summer. Her beautiful words moved me to tears. (xoxo, Tori!)

Have a great weekend, and a great 4th for those of you in the US!