Monday, February 27, 2012


Every once in a while, a book comes along that changes the way we look at things: our relationships, the roles we play, the ways in which we interact with one another, even how we view ourselves.

For most of my life, I have equated happiness with gregariousness, eloquence with intelligence, and having lots of friends with having good people skills. Only recently did I realize that subtle shifts have occurred in my understanding of happiness, temperament, intellect, and socializing. I have realized that, while I dearly love spending time with my friends, I also need pockets of solitude in which to "recharge": nights where I shut off the phone and curl up on the couch with a Diet Coke and a lovely book. Also, I love to be around people but often prefer to socialize in small groups rather than in crowded bars or at large parties. Sometimes, when I am happy, I am filled with energy and feel talkative and charming. However, sometimes I'm at my happiest when I experience something in a quiet way.

Cain's definition of introversion immediately interested me. Whereas I have thought of introversion as a synonym for shyness; Cain argues that it is not. Rather, she defines it as "temperamental inner-­directedness" and describes introverts as those who are "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned."

Cain contends that no one is purely an introvert or an extrovert. An interesting way to understand where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum is by taking the informal quiz that Cain supplies in her book. Answer each question as "true" or "false", choosing the answer that applies to you more often than not:

1. ___ I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities
2. ___ I often prefer to express myself in writing.
3. ___ I enjoy solitude.
4. ___ I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status.
5. ___ I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter
to me.
6. ___ People tell me that I'm a good listener.
7. ___ I'm not a big risk-taker.
8. ___ I enjoy work that allows me to "dive in" with few interruptions.
9. ___ I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close
friends or family members.
10.___ People describe me as "soft-spoken" or "mellow".
11.___ I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.
12.___ I dislike conflict.
13.___ I do my best work on my own.
14.___ I tend to think before I speak.
15.___ I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.
16.___ I often let calls go through to voice mail.

Regardless of where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, it's interesting to think about different facets of temperament and what is beneficial about each of them. We tend to value certain qualities over others, but it is time to challenge some of the foregone conclusions about leadership, group work, and socializing?

Whether or not you agree with Susan Cain's assertions about the importance of introversion, I believe this is a discussion worth having. I put forth Susan Cain's Manifesto, as found on her website and invite your thoughts and opinions.


1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding My Voice

There are people in our lives who loom so large that we lose sight of the fact that they are still mere mortals. They may be trainwreck celebrities or historical figures or parents. We admire them, loathe them, or simply find ourselves with our jaws open as they shave their own heads in front of the paparazzi.

Diane Rehm is one such person for me. Diane hosts a two-hour live call-in show on National Public Radio each weekday. Her shows are consistently topical and in-depth, with guests who are leaders in their field. The Diane Rehm Show has won a multitude of prestigious awards, including a 2010 George Foster Peabody Award. Over the ten years that I have been listening to the show, I am constantly impressed by the quality of guests, topic selection, and questions. I have discovered several of my favorite books as a result of listening to Diane's show.

I started listening to the Diane Rehm Show when I was an undergraduate student and I immediately responded to her direct interview style, the respect with which she treats her guests and callers, and the way she handles people who become too loquacious. As someone who is constantly striving to learn new things and explore that which is unfamiliar, Diane is a bit of a personal hero to me.

So imagine my intense enthusiasm when I stumbled across her book on iTunes. I immediately uploaded it and started reading (this was obviously before the advent of my 100 Days of Not Purchasing Books- of which I am on Day 11).

One of the things that draws me to biographies and memoirs is the revelation of raw humanity. Everyone wants to feel connected and I love nothing more than realizing, startled, that I can empathize with how Mary Todd Lincoln felt in that situation or that David Sedaris and I have both pretended to do a crossword puzzle while secretly seething at a stranger in a public area.

What I learned of Diane Rehm was nothing short of amazing to me. First of all, Diane started her career in radio in her thirties as a volunteer. I loved to learn this because I also discovered a volunteer position that altered the trajectory of my life. 2 years after college graduation I was frustrated and unchallenged, working at a bookstore and feeling discouraged about my professional opportunities. My mom strongly encouraged me to volunteer in order to explore potential areas of interest. A few months later, I started working with a book club for St. Louis ARC, an organization for people with developmental disabilities. I fell in love with the world that opened up to me. Now I am finishing my master's in Educational Psychology and hoping to write and work with young children with developmental disabilities. I feel a particular kinship for anyone who wanders for a little while and then discovers her life purpose.

Another element of Diane's story that makes me feel an affinity toward her is the honesty with which she addresses her struggles with anxiety. It never would have occurred to me that someone who is so poised, respected and impactful would have undergone the intense and sometimes devastating journey of managing anxiety and depression. Her ability to pursue that which she ultimately loves to do despite emotional and physiological roadblocks has a profound effect on me.

Diane Rehm is someone I have looked up to for so long that I took it for granted that she has always been confident and assertive and professionally successful. I was grateful to learn about her humanity as well.

Monday, February 13, 2012

All There Is: A StoryCorps Book of Love

One of my favorite things is to talk to people who look relatively ordinary and discover that they have a fascinating personal narrative: they have performed in the circus or survived cancer or lived in one of those Eastern European blocs with amorphous names and allegiances. Old people are especially good for this. Upon first glance, they pretty much just look old. However, once you start asking the right questions, you usually get some truly awesome stories.

My sister and I used to visit the nursing home in which my great-grandma lived when we were younger. I would play on the piano the few songs that I had mastered and the religiously inclined would shout "hallelujah!", despite the fact that the only songs I knew were standards filled with dubious double entendres like "In the Mood". A few of the residents thought we were their grandchildren. One woman mistook my sister and I with our summer haircuts as her grandsons, Patrick and Danny.

But once I got over the cringe-worthy humiliation of being an adolescent girl confused as a boy at an age where gender roles are particularly defined, once I stopped noticing the suspect smells and the occasional unfortunate open pajama backflap on an ambulatory patient, I started to listen to stories.

The one I remember vividly was told to me by a woman named Marie. Marie had been a young bride and, without options or education, spent the majority of her life trapped in an unhappy marriage. At some point she embarked on an affair with her mailman, believing herself to be madly in love with him. By the time I met Marie she was widowed and beset by Alzheimer's, a wizened woman in her nineties. She spent every afternoon at the window, waiting for the mailman who had promised to come back for her and take her away.

Now, before you get all teary-eyed and start evoking the trite emotional manipulation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, let me mention that this scenario was actually really depressing. This woman could have been so much happier had she felt that she had more options when she was younger. And there wasn't anyone reading to her the epic story of their romance: the mailman never showed.

The point is this: I would never have known this woman's tragic, fascinating story simply by looking at her. I never would have known it at all had I not been hiding from people mistaking me for their estranged grandsons.

And that's the raw beauty of StoryCorps. StoryCorps is an organization that helps people share and record the stories of their lives. According to the website, "We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters" ( The stories recorded on this website are in turns funny, sweet, heartbreaking, empowering, and hopeful. "All There Is" is a compilation of StoryCorps recordings illustrating the nature of love. A single story will undoubtedly evoke an entire spectrum of emotion.

I am constantly enthralled by that which makes us human. I want to understand how we form connections, how we intertwine our lives and how we impact one another. I want to know everyone's story. I want to be a better listener. I want to learn how to ask meaningful questions.

So read the book. And start talking to old people. They know more than you might think.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Elizabeth's Women

One of my favorite aspects of reading a multitude of biographies about the same person is the familiarity with which I begin to greet each of the main players. Another element I love is how every author portrays the people and the situation somewhat differently. Discerning authors may treat the biography as a narrated lit review: providing judicious and balanced perspectives. Other authors seem to fill in the blanks with their own opinions. While the former is doubtlessly more esteemed, both types play an important role in the realm of historical biographies.

I absolutely love delving into a new biography about someone with whom I have a familiar literary acquaintance. I have developed particular fascinations with anything involving Mary Todd Lincoln, FDR, the Tudors, Zelda Fitzgerald, and the witty elite at the Algonquin Round Table. Historical biographies are astoundingly varied in how they handle their subjects. Some things remain true regardless of the author: Zelda meets her untimely demise during a fire at a mental institution and Anne Boleyn is decapitated no matter who tells the story. Other things, however, are treated differently depending on who is speaking.

"Hello, Robert Dudley," I think warmly as I read, "Who are you this time? A manipulative social climber or Queen Elizabeth's star-crossed lover?"

My cousin, knowing my fascination with Queen Elizabeth I, bequeathed Elizabeth's Women to me as a birthday present. I had just completed a 14 hour car ride from Missouri to San Antonio and there lay Elizabeth's women- draped seductively across the bed. I was thrilled.

The biography tells the story of Queen Elizabeth within the context of the women with whom she surrounded herself. It is a captivating lens through which to tell the story. Author Tracy Borman finds the exquisite balance of reliable historian and compelling narrative.

When I was sixteen, I read the autobiography "Forever Leisl" by Charmain Carr, which tells of the author's experience playing the oldest daughter in "The Sound of Music". I read it during a family road trip to Michigan. The car ride consisted of about sixteen hours of me sitting quietly in the back seat, occasionally stumbling across a particularly juicy behind-the-scenes fact and saying, "D'you remember- in "The Sound of Music", when...". That phrase is now family code for "You're obsessing".

I knew that I loved "Elizabeth's Women" when I found myself performing mental gymnastics in order to "casually" insert a fascinating fact I had read into social small talk.

D'you remember, in the Elizabethan era...?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bibliomania: One Month In

It has been exactly a month since I stood in the middle of my living room, surrounded by unread books and filled with the resolve that something needed to change.

I didn't have an exact picture of what I was trying to achieve when I embarked on this literary adventure a month ago. I considered creating a concrete goal: to read a finite amount of books or exhaust a particular subject matter. Instead, I am guided by nothing more than whimsy and vague gut feelings.

However, to my surprise, certain rules have started to take form:

3) I must finish any book I begin. My regular failure to do so until now has always gnawed at me. Time to do something about it.

2) I refuse to create a goal number of books to read per month. I am certain that will keep me away from books in which I have genuine interest but may be too long to complete within a particular time frame. Despite the fact that I do not have a purpose, I am convinced this defeats it. However, I will keep an eye on the number of books I read each month and try to create flexible challenges for myself.

Now here's the big one. The Mother of all Rules. The Big Kahuna (or, as my little sister used to say, "The Big a-HOO-ga!"). This rule is so terrifying and potentially insurmountable that I hesitate to write it down. Deep breath. Courage of my convictions and all that. And here goes:

1) I will not buy any books for one hundred days.

There it is. It looks even scarier in print than I had anticipated. I'm reasonably sure that I have not gone longer than one month without buying a book since finishing my first chapter book (Ramona the Brave, c. 1989). But something has got to change.

For some reason, I believed that forcing myself to read every book I own would somehow stop me from buying books- or at least slow down the process. Instead, I spend my free time scouring reviews and salivating. I have tried going to bookstores or websites purely for information gathering, without purchasing anything. "Make it fun! Start a to-read list!" My pretend-jolly inner voice pathetically tries to convince me. "You'll forget about it in an hour anyway." The voice wheedles.

But that's the weird part: I don't forget about it in an hour. The unpurchased book takes hold of my consciousness, making me feel irritable and a little hungover. It possesses my thought process as I drive, sit in class, eat, and otherwise go about my day. It mocks me as I attempt to socialize naturally. This has got to stop.

So, in the time-honored tradition of nonviolent change, I am staging a protest against my pathologically compulsive book purchasing. It will be a quiet protest, mostly consisting of sitting around and reading without spending money. Diet Coke will be involved.

When I told my boyfriend that I was planning to do this, he said I looked like I was going to cry.

"What's the big deal?" He asked. "100 days isn't that long."

"It's over three months." I reminded him. He looked startled.

"That's a really long time." He said. "What are you thinking?"

I'm thinking that I'm not entirely sure I can do this. I'm thinking that it's probably unnatural how worried I am that every single one of my favorite authors (even the dead ones) will magically release a book next Tuesday. But most of all, I'm thinking that I need to stop deluding myself that spending this much money is not a problem.

So, hesitantly and with a deep breath, I begin the next stage of my yearlong literary adventure. Wish me luck.

P.S. I am currently accepting book donations.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Night Circus

I was obsessed with playing imagination games as a child. My parents joke of the oft-repeated household phrase "Ok, let's pretend Mom and Dad are dead". My sister and I love our parents effusively. But when you think about it, many of the great children's tales begin with dead or otherwise unavailable parents: The Boxcar Children, The Little Princess, about half of The Babysitter's Club, nearly every Disney movie, A Wrinkle In Time, almost anything written by Roald Dahl... And on and on. In my opinion, the callous disregard afforded to parents by children's authors allows the child protagonists to grow in fundamental and heroics ways, unhampered by such mundane duties as homework and bedtime.

Much of my childhood was happily spent dressed in bedsheets- whether I was a beautiful, extravagantly adorned princess or Amy March, on my way to help Marmie feed the Hummels (a particular benefit of imagination games being the ability to rewrite tragic plot points). To this day, the most acrimonious fight my best friend and I have encountered centered on an imagination game. We were in fourth grade, and after having seen "The Miracle Worker" I was experiencing an obsessive period now referred to as my "Helen Keller stage". I had strong-armed Anna into playing "Blind Girls" (which, as disrespectful as that sounds, was a young child's homage to the amazing feats of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan). Being the sort of child who didn't want to spend an entire afternoon walking around the basement with her eyes closed, Anna decided to "magically" get her sight back. I bitterly rebelled. You can't just "magically" get your sight back. That's not how it works. We didn't speak for days.

Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" evokes the intense fantastical feelings I experienced while playing imagination games as a child- and not just because nearly everyone's mom and dad are dead or otherwise unavailable. The protagonists are creative and intelligent. The circus is an atmosphere in which any child or childlike kindred spirit would be enthralled. As with my favorite inspired reveries, potentially doomed love is an important plot point. Don't be mistaken: elements of the tale are deliciously dark and insidious. The story has breathtaking depth as well as whimsy.

My last thought is this: after reading "The Night Circus", do not refrain from constructing elaborate circus tents using pillows and blankets in your living room. We all need a little magic now and then.