Period Presents

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.” ― Rudyard Kipling

I try to stay away from those braggy “my husband is so awesome” types of posts, because I know they’re insufferably annoying. Typically, I only indulge when Tony is off in California for weeks on end without me, because I feel like if I have to suffer through living without him, the least the rest of you can do is indulge me in my mushy ramblings about how dreamy he is.

But we’re going to California at the end of this week, and I’ll be coming back a couple of weeks before he does, so I guess I’m already in gushy romantic mode again. And I have to tell you about this one snuggly thing he does. Hopefully, this will not be TMI. I promise it has nothing to do with sex, if that’s what you’re worried about, but this post does have to do somewhat with my period.

Now, I’m not one of those women who has periods so bad she has to take industrial-strength painkillers and curl up in the fetal position in bed for a week every month (my sincerest condolences if that is you). In fact, as long as we’re doing TMI, I have pretty light periods, that usually last 3-4 days from start to finish, with a day or so of moderate cramping and maybe a bit of a headache at the beginning. I don’t think I complain unduly about my period, but maybe I do.

In any case, several months ago, out of the blue, Tony came up with an idea to make my period a time of celebration. He proposed that each month during my period he would give me a full-body massage, make me liver (to keep my iron levels up), and give me a “period present.” Of course I agreed to the proposition. What was not to love about it? Who minds a little bit (or a lot) of extra pampering, especially at that time of the month? And plus, it fit in well with my determination for my daughter to grow up feeling positive about her body and her period.

I confess that I was secretly skeptical that his plan would last more than a month or two. After all, it’s a lot of work to do all that stuff, and it’s not even something I asked him to do. But he’s been doing it all every month, without fail, ever since that first month. He makes a mean liver and onions, even if the kids do complain about having to eat it. He’s an amazing masseuse. In fact, he got a massage table a few months ago, which makes it even more heavenly. And he somehow manages to come up with a new, thoughtful gift every month.

The gifts range from the romantic and traditional (jewelry) to the more pointed and personal (a twelve-pack of tweezers, since I have a habit I can’t seem to break of losing them/leaving them all over the house). But this month he went above and beyond thoughtful gift-giving, and presented me with this:


In case you’re perplexed, yes, that is a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Be still, my heart. I was one of those kids who habitually read things like dictionaries and encyclopedias in linear fashion just for fun. But my favorite recreational reference book as a kid was Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The quotes in this book introduced me to a number of authors, whose books I subsequently read, always with a little thrill of pleasure when I happened upon the original quote. But Bartlett’s Quotations also gave me intimate and tantalizing glimpses into history, since many of the quotations in the book were things people actually said at dinner parties or during Parliament debates or on the eve of battle. There’s often a sketch of the context in the footnotes, to set the scene for the reader. I used to go through the book, page by page, and write my favorite quotes on 3×5 cards, which I kept in a file box, organized by subject. Nerdy, I know. But so much fun.

If you’re my Facebook friend (aka denizen of my global village), you’ve probably noticed that I’ve recently taken my addiction to quotations public, and post a regular quote-of-the-day (and if you’re not my Facebook friend, I would love to be yours, if you’ll have me). I think of those quotes as a constantly evolving poetic expression of my philosophy of life, expressed in more beautiful words than I could come up with, by people far wiser than myself. As Oscar Wilde said, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” You might think it would be hard to come up with new quotes every day (although I’ll confess here that I typically use life skills I’ve learned at my marketing job to schedule a month’s worth of quotes all at once). It is hard. But so satisfying.

Lately I’ve been much enamored of the Quote section in Goodreads, which can be searched by topic, author, or keyword. The only problem with Goodreads is that anyone can add quotes. So I usually have to wade through dozens of quotes by people like Cassandra Clare and John Green before I even get to Montaigne or Whitman. To say nothing about the fact that not everyone is, shall we say, meticulous about avoiding misquotations. I’m pretty good at telling by feel if a quote is legit (and being especially wary of things supposedly said by Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain), but I also make liberal use of Google and wikiquotes’ misquotations page.


So I’m quite thrilled to have my very own copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to provide me with flawlessly attributed quotes from the time of the Ancient Greeks all the way up to . . . I’m not sure when. I think the introduction mentioned something about the moon landing, but I haven’t made it to the end of the book yet. It’s already filling up with tiny post-it notes marking my favorite passages.

So to end this post on an appropriately gushy note, thanks, Honey Bunny, for a gift that is thoughtful on so many levels. And thanks for being my lover, partner, and favorite person ever.

“There is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul.” ― Edith Wharton

photo credit

Flunking the Holidays

So, here’s how Thanksgiving actually went down: shortly after I published my somewhat pathetic blog post about our (virtually nonexistent) plans for Thanksgiving, we received an invitation to Thanksgiving at the home of our friends, the Larsons. They are also the first people who invited us over for dinner when we moved to Florida almost three years ago, and the family who invited me over when I went to Church alone while Tony and the children were in California last year (and the year before). So, good people. And good cooks too.

Thanksgiving dinner was delicious, and followed by an impressive selection of pies, AND a gorgeous Brazilian flan contributed by another guest. (We contributed the somewhat more prosaic Not Your Mother’s Green Beans.) It was my first time trying butterscotch pie, and it was delicious, as were the flan, the brigadieros (Brazilian chocolate fudge balls), the berry pie, and the cherry cheesecake, all of which I also sampled.

To round off a lovely afternoon, after we’d let the pie settle a bit we adjourned to the sitting room, where Andrew Larson and his über-talented family, along with the guest who had contributed the Brazilian flan (who, it turns out, not only makes amazing desserts, but is also an accomplished vocalist) entertained us with vocal performances. And later that week we did make our traditional pineapple bacon wraps, and ate them for dinner with broccoli and quinoa, where they actually tasted even better than they normally do paired with a bunch of other rich foods. All in all, it was a delightful, stress-free Thanksgiving.

Which brings me to Christmas. We have a tradition of visiting a Christmas tree farm and cutting our own tree. In past years, this has involved a relatively quiet trip to a nearby farm where we chose our tree in the peaceful silence of an early December afternoon and then brought it home with relatively little fanfare. However, last year the tree farm was incredibly crowded, and they’d added a ton of carnival-type activities like a maze and a huge jumping pillow and pony rides and the whole shebang, which of course, being the great parents that we are, we couldn’t pass up. AND there were huge lines of people for every activity from measuring and netting the tree to getting in the petting zoo. It was like Disney World, but without the rides. So, yeah. When Axa said out of the blue, “we don’t really need to get a Christmas tree this year, because we’re going out to California for Christmas,” I opened my mouth to protest, and then closed it again. This was an unexpected parenting windfall, and I should take advantage of it.

So, we’re not getting a tree this year. I feel a little guilty, and a little wistful, but mostly pretty relieved. And lest Andrew Larson or another charitable soul think that this is a veiled plea for someone to drop a Christmas tree on my front porch, it totally isn’t. Also, full disclosure: I kept last year’s tree up until, oh, I don’t know, sometime in September. It was kind of a complex, emotional thing. I just couldn’t bring myself to take it down until I was ready. So I think my longing for a Christmas tree has not quite reset itself yet. No doubt next year I’ll be dying to put it up the moment Thanksgiving is over.

We HAVE done one pretty awesome thing for Christmas already though: made handcrafted consumable artisan Christmas presents for everyone in our families. I can’t be more specific, since they are meant to be a surprise, but I am absolutely dying to post a photo right now of how absolutely charming and vintage and–I don’t knowjust completely Pinterest-worthy they are. It’s seriously one of the most domestic, and simultaneously the most chic things I’ve ever done (which, admittedly, may not be saying all that much, but I’m pretty pleased about it).

And since I can’t post a photo of either my domestic exploits or our nonexistent tree, here’s a photo of our very first Christmas tree.


Yes, that is my seven-months-pregnant belly literally overshadowing the tree. At the time, awash in nesting hormones, I thought this was the most artistic, profound photographic composition ever. So much so that I made an artsy faux-tile piece out of it, which still hangs on our family photo wall. Now I think it’s a little strange.

Anyway. I’ll leave you with the perfect vocal accompaniment to this blog post, appropriately illustrated by some random person’s schmaltzy Christmas photos (some of which actually include a dry Christmas tree being disposed of). Right at minute 3:21 is the melodramatic line Tony would start belting all last year whenever the subject of taking the tree down came up and I refused to entertain the idea. Merry Christmas, and you’re welcome.

Thanksgiving in Florida, 2014

We’re kind of foodies at our house, so Thanksgiving is generally a gala affair. (See Last Year’s Menu and the Even More Dramatic Year Before) However, I’ve noticed that since I started working full time, I have less and less of a desire to spend my entire day off cooking when it’s a holiday. Go figure. Tony has even less of a desire to cook a big Thanksgiving, possibly due to the fact that nearly all of the everyday cooking at our house currently falls to him.

So this year we’ve decided to pare down Thanksgiving a bit. No, make that a lot. In fact, I’m embarrassed to even say what we’re contemplating, nay have actually determined to do. Suffice it to say that our plans for Thanksgiving do not involve either brining the turkey, wrapping it in bacon, cooking it upside down, or even stuffing it. In fact, they don’t involve a turkey at all. Are you ready for it? We’re going to pick up a rotisserie chicken. It was Tony’s idea, since I wouldn’t have been able to bear coming up with such an travesty. However, once he brought it up and I weighed the merits of a rotisserie chicken against the hours of preparation and the reality of turkey leftovers in the freezer for the next several months, I could see he had a point.

But his next idea was the real bombshell: Stovetop stuffing. I was not amused. Stovetop stuffing is too far even for me. I think he was mainly attracted by the ease of preparation, but he claimed (out loud!) that he actually prefers it to homemade stuffing. I was offended. Was he referring to the Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing I made last year? Or the  Apple, Sausage & Parsnip Stuffing the year before? Only when I promised to make a completely normal and unadventurous stuffing this year (and reminded him that I’d already consented to rotisserie chicken) did he relent and agree to the compromise.

So I am passing over recipes like Spinach, Fennel, and Sausage Stuffing with Toasted Brioche, Rustic Bread Stuffing with Red Mustard Greens, Currants, and Pine Nuts, and Masa Cornbread Stuffing with Chiles with many a sigh and backward glance. Instead, I have chosen the irreproachable “Simple is Best” Dressing, featuring those old staples of Thanksgiving and Simon & Garfunkel, parsley, sage, rosemary and time. Per the reviews on Epicurious (which one should always, always read, for entertainment value as well as culinary wisdom), I’ll double the herbs and add more broth, especially since I’ll probably sub in sourdough bread if I can get away with it under the nose of Tony, the Thanksgiving Grinch.

High on Axa’s list of important foods for Thanksgiving dinner is pumpkin pie. In fact, she’s been asking if we could have pumpkin pie this year since early October. Pumpkin pie is not my favorite thing, but since it doesn’t have a top crust, it is a candidate for my secret weapon/pie crust dodge (aka the easiest French Tart Crust recipe I have ever encountered). She’s looking forward to making it from an actual pumpkin, so there’s no cutting corners there. I am thinking of using this recipe, which includes white pepper, since I love using pepper in desserts and getting away with it. We fell in love with white pepper when we discovered it in Italy, and started putting it in everything. Everything was better with white pepper, until Tony put it in the breakfast oatmeal one morning. It took me awhile to figure out what the weird taste was, but I could barely choke down my oatmeal. We’ll have whipped cream (NOT the kind from a can) with the pie.

Pineapple bacon wraps are a Bringhurst family tradition. We used to make them for Christmas Eve, but since we’re so often out of town at Christmastime, we make them for Thanksgiving now. They are as easy as they sound–just slices (or half-slices) of bacon wrapped around chunks of pineapple. I think we sometimes might have used canned pineapple growing up, but we always get a fresh pineapple now. Tony learned how to efficiently cut up a pineapple on his mission in the Philippines. Here’s Benjamin managing to burn the pineapple bacon wraps when we invited him to Thanksgiving at BYU eight or nine years ago. No, that’s not a bad quality photo. It’s the smoke in the air.


True to form, Tony suggested that we just buy rolls this year, and get berry jam instead of making cranberry sauce. So no recipes to post for that. And our final menu item is roasted veggies, which we usually cook without a recipe, and are somewhere along these lines. And that’s it; the entire contents of our Thanksgiving spread this year.

What are you planning for Thanksgiving? Is your turkey already marinating? Will you be making homemade rolls, mashed potatoes from scratch, and fourteen kinds of pies? Or will you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did? Remember,

Book Reviews: Proud Tower, Delivered, Infernal Devices, And Then There Were None

Besides my slow but productive progress through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I’ve made some time for a few other books lately. Among which:

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been thinking a lot about World War I during this centennial year, and I am fascinated by anything to do with the Long 19th Century, so when I was browsing for commute audiobooks on Overdrive and saw this, I knew I had to read it. It’s an engagingly written history of the Western world before WWI that tries to paint that world as it was and seemed at the time to those who lived in it, and not as it looked (or looks) through the rosy glasses of war-wearied remembrance.

The book consists of several loosely interconnected essays on different themes, and with shifting geographical foci. I had no idea, for example, how widespread and organized (after its fashion) the international movement toward anarchism was. I can’t decide whether I liked the chapter on British politics or the chapter on German culture more. They were both good, although the German chapter might win just for the brilliantly descriptive and insightful observation that “Strauss was a string plucked by the Zeitgeist.” And yes, I spent time listening to Strauss and other music of the time in between chapters.

The chapter on American imperialism as defined by the Spanish-American war and the conquest of the Philippines was also illuminating for me. Tony and I spent a summer in the Philippines and used to often wonder why after 300 years of Spanish rule and only a few decades of American rule the Filipinos still looked on America with suspicion while seeming to have much softer feelings toward their erstwhile Spanish rulers. I no longer wonder. There’s also a good chapter on the Dreyfuss affair and its long-reaching effects on French politics and culture.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how familiar so many of the issues and controversies sounded. Although there was a certain optimism that might be difficult to find again any time soon. I was almost amused to find that Alfred Nobel had originally only intended for the prize bearing his name to be given out for the next thirty years, since he expected that world peace would have been worked out by then.

Also, if the Doctor turned up in the Tardis and offered to take me anywhere in time and space, I might just choose pre-WWI Europe.

DeliveredDelivered by J L Van Leuven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to review this one around the holidays, because it deals with the birth of Jesus, and would be such a perfect gift for a midwife, mother-to-be, or anyone else who cares about birth and views it as an event with something of holiness about it.

Told from the point of view of the midwife who attended Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth, it recounts her story, her calling as a midwife, and the ways her life prepared her for that all-important first Christmas night. In some ways, it reminded me of the Red Tent, although Delivered is very devotional in tone and much less “earthy,” and would be appropriate for audiences that might not enjoy the Red Tent because of the sex and unorthodox views of Old Testament prophets.

I loved the descriptions of natural midwifery techniques using herbs and traditional birthing accessories like birthing stools or scarves. The scenes that involved births were very well articulated, and took me back in time to my own lovely homebirths.

Full disclosure: I copy edited this book. The author, Jessica Van Leuven, was a joy to work with, and works in labor and delivery as an RN. She knows her stuff when it comes to birth, and it shows.

Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices, #1)Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m kind of a sucker for anything having to do with 19th century Britain, and I’ve read all of Clare’s Mortal Instruments books, so I was going to get around to reading this prequel series eventually. My favorite thing about it was meeting everyone’s ancestors. Clare has a flair for colorful characters, and it was interesting to see what all those Shadowhunter families were up to a hundred years ago.

That said, the characters are a little weird, and the plot is not that–convincing? That’s probably a meaningless criticism for YA fantasy, so maybe “not compelling” is what I should say instead. Plus, one of the characters was a shape-shifter, and I was constantly imagining ways she could solve the various problems by just changing shape, which she did very rarely. What’s the use of having such a great talent if you’re not constantly using it? So there’s that.

Still, Cassandra Clare is always a fun read.

Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices, #2)Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boring love triangle alert. Alas, the female protagonist cannot choose between the nice guy and the bad boy. What else is new in YA fiction? Really, my favorite person in this series is Magnus Bane, and he appears disappointing infrequently.

But for some reason I find Cassandra Clare’s books so relaxing on my work commute that I can’t stop listing to them.

Clockwork Princess (The Infernal Devices, #3)Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The crisis at the beginning of this book was kind of disturbing and gross to me. Spoiler: man gets bizarre venereal disease that turns him into giant ravenous worm. Like, literally–a huge, voracious invertebrate creature. I mean, it was kind of an interesting twist on everyone promiscuous in the 19th century getting syphilis, but still.

Come to think of it, these books also feature a fantasy take on consumption, that old Victorian standby of doomed romances, and a magical kind of opium, as well as some 19th century technology gone bad. The whole thing is very steampunk, and not badly done. Also, Oscar Wilde makes a cameo appearance as a fastidiously dressed werewolf. So the premise is great fun, but the characters and plot, not so much.

And Then There Were NoneAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not a big mystery reader. Come to think of it, I believe I dislike mysteries because they generally make me feel stupid. I am never a step ahead. I’m always surprised at the end, and I always feel dumb for not figuring it out. Also, I find the idea of murder disturbing, and hate books that rehash gory details over and over from different angles. However, after recently seeing not one but two Doctor Who episodes based on Agatha Christie (The Unicorn and the Wasp and Mummy on the Orient Express), I decided it was high time to give her a chance.

And giving myself permission to just let the story progress without feeling pressure to solve the mystery before it unfolded itself in front of me was quite helpful. It allowed me to enjoy Christie’s superb character development and subtle exploration of moral issues. The way she gets inside her characters’ heads and explores their darker tendencies, their fears, their justifications, and their sometimes strange points of view is frankly brilliant. She has a peculiar knack for apt descriptions, both of physical details and personal character.

The premise of this particular book is interesting, as it explores different degrees of guilt and the nature of justice, as well as human nature when put in stressful and suspenseful situations. I enjoyed it enough that I think I’ll try reading some more Agatha Christie.

View all my reviews

Shopping for Luggage

Shopping for Luggage

One of the fun things about moving to Greece is that we are desperately in need of new luggage. Most of our current motley assortment of luggage has traveled many thousands of miles, been sat on, spilled on, overstuffed, and bumped down countless flights of stairs and cobblestone streets.


When we first moved to Italy in 2008, we had a total of fourteen bags of all sizes and descriptions. I vividly remember being at the airport, and dragging suitcase after suitcase over to be loaded on the conveyor belt. Miraculously, they didn’t charge us extra. Remember the good old days when it was actually kind of hard to pack enough stuff into even a large suitcase to go over the weight limit? Sure, it was hard on everybody’s backs, but you could take pretty much whatever you wanted on vacation.

My, how times have changed. Nowadays, with airline baggage regulations getting tighter all the time, every bag had better have the perfect dimensions down to the centimeter and the perfect weight, down to the gram.

Which led us on Saturday to drive down to the outlets on International Drive in Orlando armed with a tape measure and luggage dimensions for the two airlines we’ll be flying to Greece next March (Norwegian and Easyjet). I threw in the measurements for Ryanair as well, since I figured if our bags were kosher for Ryanair, they’d be kosher for any airline. Yes, the measurements for each airline are slightly different.

I reproduce the measurements here, on the off-chance that someone else might benefit from having them collected in one place. Measurements are in centimeters, since we are talking about flying European carriers.

EasyJet Cabin Luggage

Option 1: ONE piece of cabin baggage no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20cm including handles and wheels. Guaranteed to always travel with you in the cabin.

Option 2: ONE piece of cabin baggage within our maximum allowed size limitations, 56 x 45 x 25cm including handles and wheels. On some busy flights your bag may have to go into the hold, at no extra cost.

EasyJet Hold Luggage

Each individual item of hold luggage should not exceed total dimensions of 275cm (length + width + height), except for sporting and medical equipment.

Standard hold baggage allowance is 20kg per bag. Minimum of 1 hold bag per passenger is required to trigger the baggage allowance of 20kg.

Ryanair Cabin Luggage

One cabin bag weighing up to 10 kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, plus 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cms may be carried per passenger*.

Ryanair Hold Luggage

15kg or 20 kg (different prices)

For health and safety reasons Ryanair does not accept for carriage any individual item exceeding 32 kilos or with combined dimensions of more than 81cms (height), 119cms (width) and 119cms (depth).

Norwegian Cabin Luggage

One item of hand baggage (max 10kg – 55x40x23cm) in addition to one small personal item onboard the aircraft. Your personal item (e.g. small handbag or laptop case) must fit comfortably under the seat in front of you.

NOTE: When travelling to/from Dubai, your hand baggage must not exceed 8kg in total weight.

Norwegian Hold Luggage

We accept individual items up to: length 250cm, height 79cm, width 112cm. The total circumference (L+H+W) must not exceed 300 cm. 20 kg weight limit.

To Spin or Not to Spin

Conveniently located in one parking lot were Ross, TJ Maxx, DD’s, and two luggage shops with very insistent salespeople and a distinctly Central American vibe. We started out with Ross, and were immediately confronted with our first choice: spinner wheels or not. If you have bought luggage during the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that spinner wheels are all the rage.

I don’t know who came up with the term “spinner wheels” (it gives at least me a mental picture of someone spinning madly around the airport with a suitcase as counter-balance–probably due to the fact that I have children to whom that activity would occur). All wheels spin, of course, but these wheels spin horizontally as well as vertically. They distribute the weight of the bag evenly even when you’re moving with them, and you can easily move the bags along in any direction without tipping them. I can see how this would definitely be useful when turning corners or inching along in a passport line.

However, there are also some equally obvious disadvantages. First many of the wheels we looked at were pitifully small and flimsy-looking. The idea of them bumping along on cobblestone streets or unpaved roads (both, unfortunately, places I have taken rolling bags) did not inspire confidence. Sturdiness is a serious criterion for me when it comes to luggage, and we generally opt for large, solid-looking wheels.

Second, and possibly more important, spinner wheels have the distinct disadvantage of making your bag taller without increasing the space inside it. Here, for example, are two bags that both fit within all the above airlines’ measurements for carry-on bags.


You can see right off that the bag on the left would give you at least 25% more space.

A Note about Dimensions and Weight

Extra space is especially important for carry-on luggage, since most airlines (Ryanair excluded) won’t actually weigh your carry-on bag, even if they do have a posted weight limit. In fact, one of Easyjet’s major marketing ploys is that they have no weight limit for carry-on bags. This is both an obvious jab at Ryanair and a practical advantage for the majority of their customers, who travel without checked-in baggage. You’ll notice that Easyjet also gives another nod to baggage planning by having a smaller dimension that is guaranteed to always travel in the cabin, and a larger carry-on dimension that will be checked without charge if space doesn’t permit.

For checked-in luggage, unless your packed belongings are made entirely of styrofoam, you don’t need to worry about the dimensions at all, as the maximums are typically gigantic. Here, weight is the limiting factor. So large check-in bags are not really worth buying if you plan to travel by air. I’ve sadly had to retire a gorgeous, high-quality bag I snagged years ago for $10 at a thrift store because it’s so huge that #1 I could only pack it halfway full and meet the weight limit and #2 It weighs like fifteen pounds empty. Still, we refrained from buying the “World’s Lightest Luggage,” which weighed only five pounds and looked like it might fall apart after one trip.

There were some other, weirder luggage innovations, including this one, a handle thoughtfully adapted for people with three hands.


We spent most of our time with the tape measure out, measuring carry-ons. Eventually it turned into a sort of existentialist version of Goldilocks and the 500 bags: “This bag is too high at the head. And this bag is too high at the foot.” Most of the bags were either too tall (some by ten centimeters or more) or too fat, especially at the bottom, where the wheels tended to widen out the bag. All the airline websites specifically stipulate that wheels and handles are included in the maximum measurements. Strangely, we found only one bag that took advantage of the full 40 cm of width. Most bags were 36 cm at the most. We would discover why later.

Hard-Sided vs. Soft-Sided

I confess that I did zero research on this question, and went with my gut. We only even considered soft-sided luggage. I had several reasons, among which:

  • Soft-sided luggage is both expandable–which gives you a bigger space inside if you need it, and contractible–meaning it has some “give” to it and can be squished into small or slightly irregular-shaped spaces (such as the little box you have to stuff it in to prove that it is indeed regulation size for the airline).
  • Most of the hard-sided suitcases were rounded on the front, which would make it pretty difficult to stack anything on top of them on a luggage cart or in a car, or anywhere else. If you did stack something on top of them, the weight wouldn’t be evenly distributed, leading to a higher chance of breakage.
  • The hard-sided luggage we were looking at (and granted, we were not looking at high-end luggage) seemed pretty thin and flimsy. One of the big upsides of hard-sided luggage is that it tends to be very light, but there’s such a thing as too light. We tend to end up sitting on our bags at some time during most long journeys, and at any rate they’ll be stacked in precarious towers and thrown about by the airline. The ones we looked at seemed very accident-prone.
  • We are pretty good packers, and tend to use clothes and other soft items to cushion breakables. Also, we don’t typically transport expensive breakables, or messy stuff like wine and olive oil. When we do, we use multiple layers of ziploc bags to prevent spillage. So the extra protection afforded by hard-sided luggage wasn’t as important to us, and besides, if the bag breaks (see above), it won’t protect your stuff anyway.
  • We’re used to fabric luggage, and we like it.

If you have hard-sided luggage, I’d be interested to know how well it has performed, and whether you like it.

What We Picked in the End

We did end up choosing luggage, after at least two visits to every single store. Unfortunately, I was the only one in the family fantasizing about sophisticated-looking matching luggage. The children’s primary consideration was color (the brighter the better), and Tony was becoming obsessive about what was looking like the latest incarnation of his personal luggage. We eventually determined that we’d compromise by getting four identical check-in bags and letting each person pick his or her own carry-on luggage. Axa and Raj chose the same bag, but in hot pink and neon green respectively. Tony found a really posh bag that was by far the biggest carry-on that approximated the stipulated dimensions (mainly because it was a full 40 cm wide). Since I wanted matching bags more than I wanted any specific bag, I chose one identical to his.

For our large bags, we were especially wary of small, puny wheels, which unfortunately were abundant in both the two-wheeled and four-wheeled spinner varieties. We did, however, find some with large, wheels and sturdy construction. They weigh 3.5 kilos apiece, and they’re bright orange, which Tony loves because it makes them easy to spot on the luggage claim carousel. Here are the receptacles for what will soon be all our worldly possessions (yes, you can see that Axa and Raj matched their bags to their Halloween candy pumpkins).


It was only on the way home that we thought to look up the luggage dimensions for United, the airline we’re flying next month when we go visit our parents in California for Christmas. The verdict? 55 x 35 x 22 cm. So now we know why it’s so difficult to find bags that are 40 cm wide. And now we have carry-on bags that won’t work for U.S. travel. Oh well. Complete perfection is hard to attain.

Drawing on Glass

Drawing on Glass

I think it’s time for an update on my drawing career. When last we met, I was turning off my left brain (aka the Monkey Mind) by drawing things upside down to let my gloriously creative and visual right brain take over the drawing. Here’s upside down Spiderman (although upside down is probably right side up for Spiderman). Raj and Axa were very impressed with this drawing.


And then here’s this drawing of a sixteenth century horse and rider, also drawn upside down, although it got a little blurry in the photograph.

Horse and Rider

Next we were supposed to draw a remembered childhood landscape. As in, you know how kids always draw that cute drawing with the house and the sun? I was supposed to recreate that, as I used to draw it as a child. The thing is, I’ve seen so many of my children’s childhood landscapes in the meantime that I can’t remember what mine used to look like, except that they always featured rainbows in the clouds. After I put in the rainbow and the cloud, though, I realized I had no more room for the sun, so it ended up under the rainbow. Here’s my attempt, which I drew with a charcoal pencil because I’d never tried one before.

Recalled Childhood Landscape

And this is an example of one of Axa’s early landscapes. She was probably about four at the time. You can see why I would forget mine. Do you LOVE the hair on her and Raj? I remember that her houses were always levitating off the ground. Probably a psychological manifestation of how many times she had moved in her young life. Also, I think the house is meant to be me, and the tree is Tony. Do you notice how we’re all holding hands? And do you love the architecturally fantastic corner windows?

The next exercise in the book was called “Pure Contour Drawing.” That is, drawing without looking at the paper. The assignment was to draw the lines in your hand while staring continuously at your hand, and strictly avoiding even a glance at the paper. Fortunately, the author said not to worry if the drawing looked nothing like a hand. Mine certainly didn’t. It did, however, look very similar to the examples in the book, so I guess that’s something. Apparently this is a crucial exercise to help complete the transition to right-brained drawing. I hope it worked, because the drawing is none too impressive as a work of art.

Pure Contour Drawing


Next the author promised we would do our first “real” drawing. To accomplish it, we were supposed to draw on a piece of glass with a viewfinder (rectangular “frame” made out of cardboard) clipped to it. I stole a piece of glass out of one of the pictures on our wall, and taped a plastic overhead transparency onto it, because I was afraid the marker wouldn’t come off. Here’s a picture of the setup:



I clipped my viewfinder (cut from a wheat thins box) onto the glass, balanced the glass on my hand, looked at my hand through the viewfinder and drew, or really traced, the image of my hand onto the glass. The book said it was a good idea to hold something, and I thought a string of pearls might be good, although it ended up being kind of complicated to draw.

Glass Drawing

Using the two viewfinder lines (vertical and horizontal), as a guide,  I eyeballed transferring the outline onto my paper. Then I kept my hand in the same position and drew it again, this time on the paper.

Here’s the result:

Modified Contour Drawing 2

It wasn’t dramatically amazing, but I can definitely see an improvement in perspective and realism from my first drawing of a hand. For this next one, I was supposed to do a “toned” ground by lightly rubbing a graphite stick over the entire paper before starting the drawing. I don’t think my drawing set has a graphite stick, but it does have a charcoal stick, so I used that. And then I rubbed it all over with a paper towel, which did actually create a nice silvery background. I drew this hand using the same method as described above, making sure to cross my fingers that the drawing would come out well.

Modified Contour Drawing 1

I think I made the fingers unrealistically long and slender. While I am actually a pianist, I don’t have the sort of hands that people automatically assume are meant to play the piano; my fingers are rather diminutive, just like the rest of me. But I like the way the drawing turned out, even if it looks like somebody else’s hand.

In fact, I continue to be very impressed by my drawing bible, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I am almost halfway through it, and my drawing skills are measurably improving. I notice it not only when I’m drawing, but also in the way I look at things. I find myself looking for negative space, and noticing the way the highway and sky converge on themselves in perfect inverted triangles at the horizon on my commute to work. Part of me has forgotten that I am just learning how to draw so that I can learn to paint, and enjoying the drawing all for itself. It’s an absorbing way to relax and take a break from life, and I’m increasingly more satisfied with the results of my efforts. Maybe I have a real artist inside myself after all.

Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith


During the past week, the Bloggernacle (a loose term for the Mormon blogosphere, and by extension, the online Mormon community in general) has been all abuzz about several new articles on the Church’s official website dealing with the topic of polygamy. Most Mormons have had the unpleasant experience of hastily explaining to intrigued or confrontational outsiders that polygamy happened a long time ago, and we don’t do it anymore, possibly followed by the assurance that the purpose of polygamy back then was to care for destitute widows and orphans.

As with most aspects of Mormon history (well, really most aspects of history in general), the truth is something more complicated. Here’s the Cliff Notes version, in case you’re not familiar with the Mormon church, or grew up like me, in a family and church community where these sorts of things were hushed up:

Joseph Smith married over thirty women. Most of these marriages were contracted without the knowledge and/or consent of his first wife, Emma. Several of the marriages were to teenage girls; the youngest was fourteen. Some of the women were married to other men at the time. The women were typically promised salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him. The whole thing happened in secret, as Joseph was simultaneously denying the practice publicly , and even preaching sermons against it.

Releasing these essays is certainly a step in the right direction. Sticky historical points ought to be acknowledged and talked about. The justificatory tone of the essays, as well as their glossing over of the worst bits, is somewhat disappointing. While there is plenty of discussion of the alleged nobility of Joseph Smith’s motives, there is relatively little about the women involved, many of whom entered into polygamy with him at great personal and social cost to themselves. In fact, most of their names are not even mentioned, which seems to me to be the ultimate insult–they made an incredible sacrifice for polygamy, and we honor their sacrifice by forgetting their names. On the bright side, at least now we are acknowledging their existence, which is a positive step. Church manuals focused on the early Mormon prophets up till now have often erased their polygamous wives from their biographies, sometimes choosing to include only the first wife, and mentioning successive wives only if they were married after the first wife had died. Perhaps this can be the beginning of remembering these women as well.

Bizarrely, the’s general section on Joseph Smith actually also includes a few paragraphs on his family life, but there is mention of only one unnamed wife (presumably Emma), and no discussion of the heartbreak and humiliation she experienced as he secretly married dozens of other women, many of them her friends, employees, and tenants. The article simply states rosily,


One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life.

. . .

Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives.”

Hagiography at its finest. A more complete, balanced, and factual approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and its devastating effects on Emma and their marriage (as well as a great many other fascinating insights into his life and character) can be found in Richard Bushman’s excellent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. If you would like to know more about the extraordinary and courageous women who married Joseph Smith, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog recently did a beautiful, well-researched series called Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith. And while I can’t necessarily endorse the scholarship or impartiality of the new articles, they can be found at the following links: Main article on Polygamy; Kirtland Period; Utah Period; The End of Polygamy.

I honor my many pioneer ancestors who accepted and lived polygamy out of the goodness and faith of their hearts. I am deeply sympathetic to the women who lived in loneliness because of it. I’m happy for those relative few who because of polygamy were able to break out of traditional 19th century norms for women and become doctors and other professionals while their sister wives were home minding the children (and only hope that the sister wives were also happy with the arrangement). All their stories should be told, and I’m glad we’re no longer hiding them away as if they were a shameful secret.

I’m not in a position to judge or even know about what all of the early women of Mormonism felt about polygamy. It is clear from the historical record that many of them were devoted to the principle of it, and some even found happiness in its practice, although others reported lives of loneliness, neglect, and conflict. Where polygamy really gets sticky for me is in its modern application, and with that I have some experience and firsthand knowledge. Mormons are quick to say that we no longer practice polygamy. However, when Mormons are sealed (married) in the Temple, it is intended to be for this life and for eternity. We tend to take “happily ever after” quite literally, at least for men. If a man gets a divorce or is widowed and decides to remarry, he remains “sealed” to the first wife, as well as being sealed to the second. The expectation, both implied and frequently stated in Mormon conversations, is that he will have multiple wives in heaven. “Eternal polygamy” is also invoked as a “solution” for women who never marry in this life. In a church that presently adulates “traditional” monogamous marriage, every unmarried Mormon woman I know has been told not to worry, because she will be added to the wives of a righteous man after she dies. Not surprisingly, not one of them has ever said that this assurance assuages any of their worries; on the contrary, it’s an additional source of pain.

The idea of eternal polygamy is obviously painful for single Mormon women. However, I can report from personal experience that it’s extremely disturbing to a married Mormon women as well to picture my husband eventually taking other wives. It’s not exactly the “happily ever after” I had in mind when I fell in love and promised my husband I’d be faithful to him forever. I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, so I’ll just say that it’s extremely important that the Mormon church has decided, however stumblingly and however late, to start being more open about polygamy. It is a painful topic that has been talked and prayed and wept over in female spaces within the Mormon Church during all the time that I have been a member.

In fact, my impetus for writing this blog post was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today, entitled A Personal History of Polygamy. “Somehow polygamy comes up,” says the author. “(Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?)” It’s a great series of snapshots showing the uneasy place polygamy occupies in the collective psyche of Mormon women. Her experience mirrors my own. We cope as best we can, with uneasy laughter and secret dread. We don’t tend to talk about it in mixed company, because at best we’ll be met with incomprehension, and at worst we’ll be served up misogynist platitudes by male authority figures. And I become more and more convinced that this constant specter of polygamy, which permeates even our most intimate relationships and holiest ordinances, is a microcosm of what it means to be a woman in the Mormon Church.

Weirdly, as I write this, I find myself falling more and more into the first person present. I’ve removed myself for the moment, and maybe forever, from the Mormon Church, but this conversation is so familiar, and so central to spiritual questions with which I have wrestled all my life, that I can pick it up in a heartbeat. I eventually discarded my belief in the divine origin of polygamy, but it took me many years, and a lot of anguished questions.

Thankfully, my daughter won’t have to deal with this particular brand of institutionalized sexism, or the resultant cognitive dissonance; that’s one of the reasons I’ve left. Even if she decides to go back to the Mormon Church sometime–and I’ll support her in it if she does, as I will in any religious choice she makes–she won’t have grown up with her parents, seminary teachers, bishops, and everyone she knows and trusts unconditionally justifying the polygamy of the early Mormon prophets as divinely mandated, and telling her she will, or at least might, have to be a polygamous wife herself someday. For the sake of all the other little girls growing up Mormon (and grown-up women like me, who really could use some closure), I hope that these new essays are the beginning of an increasingly honest and open discussion about polygamy in the Mormon Church, both past and present.

photo credit

Finding Cheap Flights to Europe (aka Travel Agent Extraordinaire)

Cheap flights to Europe

I’m not a coupon clipper. I have no particular strategy for saving money, other than the strategy of walking into a store as seldom as possible. Which is actually not a bad strategy. When Tony and I got married a million years ago, we registered at Target. So we ended up with lots of exchanges and gift cards and stuff having to do with Target, and we went to Target at least two or three times a week. Every time we walked into that store, we spent a hundred dollars! At first it was gift cards, which are kind of like fun cash–it doesn’t really feel like you’re spending real money. After we started spending our own, we decided we just needed to stop going to Target. There’s nothing like not going to the store to make you not realize the bewildering amount of stuff you (don’t) need.

But I digress. I’m not a coupon clipper; however, I do excel at one money-saving skill: budget traveling. I can do international travel on a shoestring. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not always convenient (although since when is anything involving 14-hour plane flights either one of those things?), but it is cheap. And really, you haven’t lived until you’ve debated whether it’s worth it to stay in a mosquito-infested nipa hut with no A/C or add two random legs and a weird layover to your flight itinerary to save fifty bucks. Or maybe that’s just my personal brand of masochism.

At any rate, I love getting good deals on airfare. My challenge this time was one-way tickets to Athens, Greece from Orlando, Florida the week of March 16, 2015. My baseline is usually, since I’ve found it to be the cheapest aggregator, especially for international flights, so I checked there first. Sure enough, they had a flight operated by the Russian carrier Aeroflot. I monitored it for several weeks, and the price fluctuated from $617 per person to $657 per person. There were two stops (New York and Moscow), and counting all the layovers, the total trip time was 39 hours and 35 minutes. So, really long. But cheap, right? In fact, a whole $200 per person cheaper than Expedia’s cheapest pick, a United flight for $817 per person.

Yes. But I was sure I could find cheaper. Because while it might be more convenient to let the airlines combine flight itineraries, it’s not always less expensive. Since this flight is Trans-Atlantic, I think of it in two parts: getting to Europe (anywhere in Europe), and getting to Greece. Theoretically, all I had to do was find a cheap flight across the ocean, and then another cheap flight from somewhere in Europe to Athens. The only constraint was that my flight across the ocean had to end in the same city from which the flight to Greece originated.

I figured I should start with the harder task, which was finding a cheap flight to Europe. So I googled that exact term (“cheap flight to Europe”), and one of the first results to come up was Norwegian. And indeed, when I visited their website, I saw that Norwegian does have very cheap flights from a few North American airports (mostly in Florida, lucky for us) to quite a few different European destinations.

On the getting-to-Greece-from-Europe side, there were even more options. Budget airlines are a big thing in Europe, and when they say budget, they mean budget. Southwest is a luxury airline when you compare it to the likes of Ryanair, our personal nemesis (although also the reason that we have visited beautiful Trieste). Travel on European budget airlines is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been a good six years since our Ryanair debacle, and we are ready to try our luck again. So I popped over to the invaluable Low Cost Airline Guide’s page on Athens. It lists every budget airline that flies into Athens, and from which country. Turns out pretty much everyone in Europe vacations in Greece. Key word “vacation.” A lot of my leads turned into dead ends, because a good percentage of budget airlines that fly to Greece do so only during the high season, between April or May and September or October.

Find Cheap Flights to Europe

In general, there are a few things to watch for when booking with budget airlines:

  • First, everything is an extra. Including checking your bags, meals, seat assignments, and anything else you can think of (I think there was even an infamous incident when a particularly enterprising airline started charging for using the restroom during a flight). If your airline prepares an itinerary with multiple legs, there’s only one baggage charge. But if you use multiple budget carriers to plan your own itinerary, you need to factor in the cost of multiple baggage charges. These typically amount to around $30-$50 each.Traveling with only carry-ons is a great solution, except if you’re moving to Greece with only what’s in your suitcases.
  • Second, many budget carriers only fly certain routes on certain days of the week, so if you’re planning your own itinerary, you might fly in on a Monday, but not be able to fly out until Wednesday. That’s what happened with my hypothetical Paris itinerary. Once I added in the costs of baggage and a couple of nights in a Paris hotel, the total was going to be at least as much as the Aeroflot flight.
  • Third, budget flights, especially to “vacation” destinations in southern Europe, tend to be very seasonal. Even if you initially find a flight on an aggregator, be sure to go straight to the airline’s website. All the budget airlines provide flight calendars so you can determine which days the airline flies to which destinations, during which parts of the year, and exactly what the prices are, and how they change through the week and through the year. The fares are far less volatile than other airlines’; in fact, they tend to be more or less fixed by time of the year and day of the week. It’s the difference between clipping coupons to shop at a regular grocery store, and shopping at Trader Joe’s, which never issues coupons, but does have consistently reasonable prices.
  • Fourth, which airport are you using? Many cities have more than one airport (London, for instance, has six international airports). The budget carriers often use smaller airports located outside the city, or in an adjacent smaller city. Here in Florida, for instance, one can get cheaper flights to Amsterdam flying from the tiny Stanford airport on Icelandair than from the larger Orlando airport. On the other hand, maybe you can drive a couple of hours to a major airport and get a direct flight. The flight we ended up finding is on Norwegian, and departs from Miami, which is a four hour drive from our house, three hours longer than the hour to the Orlando airport. It’s totally worth it, though, because Norwegian’s flight out of Orlando has two stops (and costs over $100 more per person). Our flight doesn’t leave until almost midnight, so we’ll leave for the airport around four in the afternoon, have dinner on the way, and be ready to check in by 9 p.m. or so.
  • Fifth, hub cities are where it’s at. Every budget airline (well, every airline in general) has at least one hub, and flights to and from that city tend to be quite inexpensive. So it’s a case of beginning your trip planning in the middle, rather than the beginning or end. London turned out to be the perfect hub for us. It was one of Norwegian’s cheapest trips (second only to actually flying in to Norway, I think), and there were quite a few budget carriers flying from London to Athens, even in the early spring. Our Norwegian flight is non-stop from Miami to London’s Gatwick Airport. So when I was looking for budget flights from London to Athens, I had to make sure they originated in Gatwick, and not Luton or Stansted, the other budget-friendly London airports. While airport transfer bus routes do exist, they typically have to go all the way through London, and take at least three or four hours, depending on the airports involved. does now include the budget carriers, and several London-Athens flights popped up for under $100 each, mostly on Ryanair and Easyjet. Easyjet was the only one flying from Gatwick, and to my great delight, they had a flight that left 2 1/2 hours after ours arrived. Which leads me to:
  • Sixth, you’ll have to go through passport control and customs between flights if you book your own itinerary, have crossed an international border, and have checked bags. This is kind of a pain. At least we have both EU and American passports, so we can use whichever line is shorter. Which I think is not actually kosher, but might be useful if we’re running late. We’re planning to split up, and have Tony go with one kid to retrieve and re-check the luggage, while I stay with the the other kid and carry-ons “airside” (inside of security and customs–as opposed to “landside,” on the outside of security and customs). The official minimum connection time (MCT) for Gatwick (yes, every airport and airline has these) is two hours, so we should be OK with 2 1/2. Fortunately, Gatwick airport also has a special desk to facilitate these types of non-official connections, so hopefully all will be well.

Anyway. Now that you know the long of it, the short of it is, the four of us will be flying from Florida to Greece for a grand total of $1558. Yes, that comes out to $389 per person. I am pretty impressed with myself.

Here’s the breakdown:

Expedia: Orlando – Washington, D.C. – Zurich – Athens

Total Trip Time: 17.35 hours

Total Cost: $3268 ($817 per person)


Kayak: Miami – Moscow – Athens (or Orlando – New York – Moscow – Athens)

Total Trip Time: 36. 15 hours (or 39.35 hours)

Total Cost: $2444 ($612 per person)


Me: Miami – London – Athens

Total Trip Time: 15.25 hours

Total Cost: $1558 ($398 per person)

Looks like I win!

photo credits: Miami Airport, Gatwick Luggage Carts

The Lives We Never Live


I was watching the BBC miniseries Daniel Deronda the other day. Based on the George Eliot novel of the same name (which I’ll have to hunt down and read now), it follows the career of the titular character, who ends up having to choose between two love interests. It’s a beautifully done series, and it’s on Netflix, so if like me, you have a weakness for 19th century period dramas, it’s one of the better ones out there.

Hugh Bonneville is creepily magnificent as the aristocrat who enjoys his domination over others. Romola Garai is brilliant in the role of Gwendolyn Harleth, the young woman who must choose between love and her family’s financial security. She was arguably the most interesting character, and I rather think Eliot could have left out the part about Deronda’s other love interest, and named the book after Harleth. We all love the stories that follow Lizzie Bennet’s injunction, “Do anything rather than marry without affection.” However, the reality for most young women in financial straits in 19th century was that dreamy Mr. Darcy, the perfect gentleman AND in possession of £10,000 per year, did not often come along. Gwendolyn Harleth (whose name, by the way, I think is at least as mellifluous as Mabel Lane Fox) is a sympathetic and compelling character, and it’s hard to really fault her too much for her choices, even as one is horrified by both the choices and their consequences.

But what I wanted to talk about was Daniel Deronda. Hugh Dancy, of course, is handsome and brooding as the good-hearted but troubled Deronda. We meet him as he first catches a glimpse of the lovely Gwendolyn Harleth, losing at billiards, and secretly buys back a necklace she pawns. Later, he rescues the beautiful Jewish singer Mirah Lapidoth from drowning herself in a river, and the stage is set for a love triangle. Only this love triangle is about more than just love. It’s about Daniel Deronda’s quest to discover (and decide) who he really is. Eventually, the choice of whether to pursue Gwendolyn or Mirah becomes more about how Daniel sees himself, and what he wants to do with his life than his feelings for either woman.

In a weird way, Daniel’s dilemma over whom to marry (and by extension, who to be) reminded me of this series of photographs by Czech photographer Dita Pepe, in which she imagined what she would be like married to different men. It was striking to me how different she looked in the different photographs, and what different assumptions I made about her as a person.

Whom to choose as a life partner is certainly an important decision. But in these cases, it serves as a sort of metaphor for the roads we might have taken in our lives, and the people we might have been. I know that I have far more things I’d like to be than lives available to try them. I’d like to be an international human rights lawyer, an artist, a writer, a university professor in comparative literature, history, Middle Eastern Studies, European Studies, 19th century British literature, philosophy, and/or a dozen other subjects, a field biologist, an environmental activist, an editor at a publishing house or a magazine, and an investigative journalist. Those are all things I can picture myself being good at. But there are other things I’d like to try being, even though it’s not easy for me to picture myself being good at them–like a ballet dancer, or a theoretical physicist, or an astronaut.

This is probably also one of the motivating factors in my desire to travel and live in as many different places as possible. Because every new place is kind of a different life, and allows me to explore different facets of who I am.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Well, I’ve become a believer. This Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book is quite amazing. Yesterday I drew this:

My Picasso Upside Down

OK, I know that looks weird. It’s upside down. But that’s how I drew it, per the book’s instructions. It’s a copy of this sketch of the composer Stravinsky by Picasso.


Here’s mine again, right side up this time.

My Picasso

Obviously, I’m no Picasso. But it’s the closest thing to an actual person that I’ve ever drawn in my life. Aside from the fact that I gave him a pinhead, he actually looks pretty good. And I’m reasonably certain I could never have drawn him this well right side up.

Why? Well, the whole premise of the book is that our left brain, which excels at language, mathematics, and thinking logically, falls rather short when put to the task of creativity and estimating spacial relationships–in a word, drawing.

Unfortunately, that pesky left brain, which is so used to being in charge of making sense of the world, sees a person and immediately begins to categorize it (him, in this case) into parts: eyes, hands, jacket buttons, etc. Making it hard to draw what we actually see, for which we instead substitute eyes as we think they look, along with hands, jacket buttons, and everything else. We have preconceived ideas of how things should look, which get in the way of seeing them as they actually look. And if you can’t see it, you can’t draw it.

Hence the idea of drawing Stravinsky upside down. I started at the top of my drawing (so, the bottom of Stravinsky), and for the first half of the drawing it was very easy for me to not know what I was drawing, and simply gauge the correct relationship of all the lines to one another. The hands were hard, because it was almost impossible for me to not see them as hands, and I could feel myself drawing them wrong when I started thinking about what hands should look like rather than trying to draw Stravinsky’s hands exactly as they were.

I realize that I’ve encountered this left brain/right brain battle before. I’ve been playing the piano ever since I was a little girl. My parents gave me a fairly thorough grounding in musical theory, and I can sight-read almost anything. But I am absolute rubbish at playing by ear. The only song I can do reasonably well without music is Happy Birthday, and that’s only because there’s such demand for it, and I’ve practiced a lot. Even so, I always have a moment of panic right before I start playing it, because I’ve got no music in front of me.

Similarly, when I’m playing a piece I’ve played a hundred times and virtually know by heart, if I get caught up in the music and lose my place, as soon as I realize I’m not following along on the page, I get completely befuddled. It’s like a cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote can walk on air right up until he realizes he’s walking on air, and dramatically plunges to the ground. My left brain, you see, is utterly convinced that it’s impossible to play music without having it all written out on the page in front of you.

Growing up, I had a friend who had learned to play the piano via the Suzuki method. She could play beautifully by ear, and it was like a sort of miracle to me. She couldn’t sight-read to save her life, though. It was obvious that she’d learned to play in a much more right-brained fashion.

The only other instrument I play is the folk harp, and I decided a few years ago that it was going to be my “right brain” instrument. I put my harp books away and concentrated on learning to play by ear. Amazingly, even though I’m a self-taught, rather amateur harpist, I’m ten times better at playing by ear on the harp than I am on the piano.

If I learned to do it on the harp, I think I can learn to do it with a pencil and paper. Three cheers for the right brain!