Sweet Talk

Woman's feet on a bathroom scale.A few weeks ago, nearly everyone in my office was cleansing. All around me, colleagues detoxing from sugar, caffeine, gluten, fat – you name it – belched $10 kale juice, while I drank Diet Coke and scarfed down all manner of “bad” carbs. At home, I consumed too much wine and snacks, slept badly and skipped the gym.

I’m not sure what got into me, but I had taken a pronounced detour from the detoxers, and my “thin” clothes that I’d worked so hard to fit into last year, had become a pretty tight squeeze.

Then I hit the trifecta. Or did I enter the Bermuda triangle? Not sure, I suppose time will tell.

First, I read The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, by Tory Johnson. The book received mixed reviews, but I’d heard it was a fast read so…

Tory’s story begins on the day she is “invited” to breakfast with a senior executive at ABC, where she is a weekly contributor at Good Morning America. Tory knows what’s coming: She’s about to be told to get thin – or else. Because she is the primary breadwinner for her family, she decides to finally get serious about food issues she’s struggled with since childhood. The Shift tracks her one-year weight loss journey.

I’d be fibbing if I said I enjoyed the book overall. For starters, it is a chronological account that resembles a monthly journal. That’s a writing style I don’t care for to begin with, plus let’s face it: Diets (the non-fad ones, anyway) are monotonous as they stretch over months and months. That’s why diets are so hard, they are relentless! Who wants to read about one, blow-by-blow?

Also, Tory can be a little cheesy, like when she waxes romantic about how losing weight improved her sex life with her husband. It’s enough to make a Harlequin romance writer roll her eyes. On this topic I say, less is more.

That said, the book is unique in that it makes no promises, and offers no gimmicks. In Chapter 11, Tory acknowledges “the delusion of a quick and easy fix… There is no instant gratification, just hard work and patience.” This is not the message most folks who buy diet books want to receive, so I applaud her for not pulling punches.

Even if the writing is not inspired, The Shift is unique in that its focus is mostly on what’s going on in Tory’s head, rather than the physiology of weight loss, or tricks and shortcuts to losing 50 pounds in an absurdly brief period of time. If you have ever struggled with your weight, you might recognize some of her patterns – which she sheds, one by one.

Food for me, now, is fuel. It does not have to be amazing, entertaining or exciting. Each meal does not have to be like a trip to the county fair or a fantasy segment of Top Chef. I’ve had enough “Wow!” meals to last a lifetime. I want a different set of “wows” now.

How many times have we heard a friend (or ourselves) promise they’ll start a diet tomorrow, because tonight’s meal (with extra bread, butter, wine and dessert) is “special”? Tory Johnson may not be in line for a Pulitzer, but she’s a pretty good truth teller.

80% of products in US grocery stores are spiked with added sugar. 1/3 of Americans will have diabetes by 2050.
Photo: UCSF

If The Shift provided food for thought, it was just an appetizer. I followed it up with the movie Fed Up, a stinging indictment of the food industry lobby, and government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, for their contribution to America’s obesity epidemic. As with The Shift, the information provided in Fed Up is not all new. Most of us know by now that sugar – in all its sneaky forms – is unhealthy. It’s been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. But there were still a few gob-smack moments for me.

I felt sick as loving, well-meaning parents featured in the film fed their families “low fat” processed foods, loaded with sodium and sugar to make them taste good. It was heartbreaking to watch their obese children sob in confusion, because they were getting heavier despite making what they thought were good food choices. The kids believed the advertisements for reduced fat products, and blamed themselves for their lack of weight loss success.

I was also struck by a rather obvious question posed by producers: Have you ever wondered why food labels list the recommended daily allowance of all kinds of ingredients, except sugar? (Um, no. Sadly, I never even wondered.) The fact is, most processed, packaged foods contain more than the recommended daily amount — six teaspoons for me. Telling consumers this might interfere with consumption, so the food industry lobby has opposed such transparency.

So today I embarked on the 10-day Fed Up sugar-free challenge, applying greater scrutiny to food labeling than I ever have before – and it’s already super freaking hard! Day one’s excruciating a-ha moment: Even plain Greek yogurt has sugar. In some cases, a lot of it. My favorite brand is Athena, which has eight grams of sugar. That’s one third my target maximum for a NORMAL day.

I’m a diehard (or hardboiled?) egg lover, but I am not sure I can eat eggs for breakfast for the next 10 days. Face Greek yogurt has just four grams of sugar per serving (one sixth of my recommended daily amount) and there’s some in my fridge…

Oh yeah, this thing will be hard.

Part three of my trifecta: for the past two days San Francisco bus and subway drivers have held a “sick out”, leaving passengers waiting up to one hour for a ride to work. I sometimes walk home in the summer, but have always steadfastly refused to consider walking TO work. (I’ll get too sweaty! My hair will go nuts in the fog! I have too much to carry! I’m wearing the wrong shoes!)

View of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Buildin, from Broadway at Jones Street.
View of downtown San Francisco from Broadway at Jones Street.

This week, I’ve had no choice but to walk, and of course it’s been fine. I show up at work with more energy, and according to my Jawbone Up the round trip pushes me past my daily goal of 10,000 steps, even if I’m a total slug for the remaining 22 hours of the day. Commuting on foot also offers stunning reminders of my good fortune, to live in such a beautiful city.

I can’t promise I’ll walk to and from work every day, once MUNI drivers go back to work. But my new goal is to walk at least one direction.

Sometimes we are inspired to change. At other times, change is thrust upon us. Right now, I’ve got a little bit of both going on – and I’m trying to grab on with both hands.

Seriously, though. Can anyone recommend a sugar-free Greek yogurt? Does such a thing even exist? (FYI, I draw the line at buying my own cow. Or goat.)

Old Habits Die Hard (With a Vengeance)

The Power of Habit book jacketEvery January 1st, most of us set out to make behavioral changes — often with humbling results. For many, an annual list of resolutions can look more like a pie-in-the-sky bucket list, with no identified means of successfully reaching our goals. I’ve written about this before.

Of course, it’s one thing to map out very thoughtful, specific lifestyle changes we need to make… and altogether another to make them. Why is breaking bad habits, and picking up good ones, so difficult?

The answer may lie in the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It turns out even the most introspective, well-intentioned and strong-willed among us are going about this self-improvement business all wrong.

Extensive research into the physiology behind human behavior has proved that habit forming is one of the most primal brain functions of men – and mice. Once patterns associated with habits develop in our basal ganglia, they are there to stay.

For example, a mouse can be trained to run a maze each day with greater and greater speed and efficiency, to reach a piece of cheese. If researchers move the cheese, the mouse will learn the new path to it – in other words, form new habits. (It may also ask its mouse buddies, “Who moved my cheese?”.) But if the cheese is later returned to its original location, the mouse will quickly resume its old route through the maze, without having to “relearn” it. The habits associated with the original route were only displaced – not replaced — by later ones.

So if we can’t erase bad habits – if they are always lurking somewhere deep in our brains – what’s a body to do?

Duhigg defines habits as being composed of four elements that are closely interwoven:

  • Cues
  • Routine behavior
  • Rewards
  • Cravings

Cues are signs we may not even be aware of that provoke specific, habitual behavior. An example from the book: Duhigg developed a habit of stopping by his workplace cafeteria for a cookie break each day at about 3 p.m. Time of day was the cue.

The habit loop, from The Power of HabitHere’s where it gets tricky: The routine wasn’t just eating and the reward wasn’t simply the cookie. WHEN and WHERE did he eat it, and what else was he doing while he ate it? If he always had his snack while chatting with his friends, maybe the reward was camaraderie and not the cookie itself?

All Duhigg knew was, whenever he tried to skip his cafeteria run he suffered cravings, ostensibly for a sweet treat, that hindered his ability to kick the cookie habit.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Duhigg contends that the key to changing a negative behavior is recognizing what triggers it and the need it is really meeting, and finding a more constructive routine that will meet that need and extinguish the craving.

Naturally, I wasn’t able to finish the book before I began analyzing my own habits, and I had a few epiphanies. For example, throughout my adult life I’ve always been very motivated and disciplined about exercise. I had an ingrained morning workout habit, the cornerstone of which was running. Then, two years ago, I injured my knee. X-rays showed I had worn out the cartilage, and unless I wanted to hasten a knee replacement I needed to find a new form of exercise.

I loved running for several reasons. For starters, I could do it anywhere – outdoors, or on a treadmill. I would just slip on my headphones, and get lost in the rhythm of my feet and the music. By the time I’d finished, I had sustained a heart rate of 160 beats per minute for some time, and the endorphins had kicked in.

Since my diagnosis, I have struggled mightily to maintain a gym regimen. My workout mojo has made a run for it, so to speak. I wondered how a 30-year exercise habit could desert me, just like that?

Feet running on a treadmillNow I get it; working out wasn’t my habit. RUNNING was my habit, and the zoning out and endorphins were my rewards. Unfortunately, there’s not a spin class in existence that can deliver anything similar – especially a good zone out, what with the teacher barking out instructions to pedal faster, visualize a big hill up ahead and so on. So my mission is to get on track with a new low impact, high-intensity workout regimen, that also helps clear my head.

Another important ingredient to adjusting old habits, and building new ones, is simple on its surface: support from others. Whether you are in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, access to cheerleaders who reinforce the belief that “you can do it” can determine success or failure. This brought about another light bulb moment for me. While some of my friends freely share their personal goals such as weight loss, even going so far as to discuss their starting weight and pounds to lose with others, I’ve always kept the details of my resolutions private. Perhaps I’d be more successful with the really sticky ones – the ones that stump me year after year – if I enlisted support from my friends or other connections. No man (or woman) is an island, am I right?

The Power of Habit goes beyond personal tendencies, to address workplace habits that collectively make up corporate cultures – for better or worse. Every firm has them. For example, I once worked on a team where “busy” was the default answer to the question, “How are you?” Why couldn’t anyone ever respond with, “I’m great, how are you?” It drove me nuts! The cue was the question, obviously, but what was the reward? Sympathy? Perceived credibility and value? A lighter workload in the future? Stay tuned, I’m still working through that one.

Duhigg can at times extend the definition of habit so far, he loses me. I am still skeptical about his theories on the role habit can play in civil unrest and political movements. Still, there’s enough food for thought in The Power of Habit to keep me in a state of self-analysis for weeks or months to come.

Could greater awareness of my habits, become a habit in itself?

Review: “The Good House”… Is Very Good

Book jacket for "The Good House" by Ann Leary.Sixty-year-old Hildy Good descends from an accused witch, who was executed during the infamous Salem witch trials. It is a story she tells to clients, when she’s looking for a good local hook. Hildy is the most successful real estate agent – or to hear her tell it, the most successful businesswoman – in her hometown of Wendover, Massachusetts. She is also an alcoholic.

It is customary to preface “alcoholic” with the word “recovering”, but readers of The Good House by Ann Leary will have to dig pretty deep to find any hint of recovery going on with Hildy.

The book begins with Hildy grudgingly attending a cocktail party, and sipping club soda. Since she returned from rehab at Hazelton two years ago, she no longer drinks… in public. It turns out she has stashed cases of wine in her cellar, and the trunk of the MG her ex-husband abandoned in her garage when he left her. Nearly every night, she holds a “party of one”.

The book offers plenty of plot twists-and-turns to engage readers: conflicts between locals and out-of-towners, simmering professional rivalries, family friction and tragedy, extramarital affairs and some late-middle-age nookie. Most of it is funny stuff. (Ann Leary is married to comedian Denis Leary, and is damn witty in her own right.) No character is more engaging than Hildy Good.

Readers spend a lot of time inside Hildy’s head, as she equivocates and justifies her drinking habits in ways that are both eye-roll inducing, and heart breaking. She lays out a set of rules that – as long as she abides by them – prove to her that she’s not an alcoholic. She then proceeds to violate them all, in short order.

“Most nights, I just have a few glasses,” Hildy explains. She then recounts that, after the cocktail party, “by the time I had poured the last of the bottle into my glass, I was fully transformed. I was myself.”  All this, without a hint of irony, or self-awareness.

Hildy is prone to blackouts, something doctors warn her is common in the later stages of alcoholism, but she remains in denial. “Is a blackout really a blackout, if nobody is there to see it? Not even yourself? I say no. It’s like a tree falling in the woods. Who cares?”

She claims she no longer drinks as frequently as she did before Hazelton: “Not every night anymore. Not every night, no.” Yet aside from a brief attempt to go cold turkey after an especially humiliating blackout, when her secret is nearly discovered by one her daughters (whose intervention led to her trip to rehab), each day she is chomping at the bit at 5 p.m. (A Hildy rule: No drinking before 5 o’clock. Starting earlier makes one an alcoholic.)

Hildy vows not to drive or use the telephone after drinking alone. “What a relief to not have to wake up to all that bullshit to undo.”  But it happens throughout the book, when she blacks out. If she recognizes her descent deeper and deeper into addiction, she doesn’t even admit it to herself.

If you’ve ever known an alcoholic, or someone who abuses alcohol, you’ll recognize some of Hildy’s behavior. In the rare cases when she extends her party-of-one to include a friend, she refills her own wineglass surreptitiously, assuming her friend won’t notice. I’ve seen people do this. Initially I assumed they were being clueless or rude, but later realized their goal was to hide how much they drank. (They were not successful.)

Hildy is also proud of her ability to disguise her delicate, morning-after condition by avoiding eye contact and using breath mints – but those who encounter her day-to-day aren’t fooled. And when her friends mention late-night visits and phone calls she can’t remember, she thinks she fakes it well enough to avoid suspicion. (She doesn’t.)

Of course, as Hildy’s secretive drinking becomes less of a secret, there’s bound to be a crisis – a “jackpot” event that she can neither avoid, nor lie her way out of. You pray that THIS is her rock bottom, and that she’ll finally see and accept the truth that she is an alcoholic, in need of professional help.

It’s interesting to note that Ann Leary is herself a recovering alcoholic, so she knows whereof she writes. The rationalizations and distorted truths that bounce around inside Hildy’s head ring authentic. Reviewers raved about the book when it was published back in March, and I hear it is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep (who else!) and Robert De Niro.

My suggestion: Pour yourself a glass of wine (not two), sometime after 5 p.m., and get to know Hildy and the eccentric residents of Wendover. The Good House is a wicked good story. (Sorry!)

Buy the Book

A manual typewriter in the window display of Coastal Books in Half Moon Bay, CaliforniaI recently wrote about an alumnae event for my University where I was goosed by Father Time, when a much-younger attendee GASPED when I disclosed my graduation year. No two ways about it: I felt old.

Today, while strolling around Half Moon Bay with some friends, I was again reminded of my advancing years. We stopped at an excellent independent bookstore, Coastal Books on Main Street.  My friends’ daughter Sydney, who is in the third grade, pointed at the manual typewriter in the window display and asked, “Mom, what is that thing?”

It’s true, she had never seen a typewriter – the thing I used to type college applications and construct countless resume cover letters when I first launched myself into the working world. (I take some comfort in knowing that at least my typewriter was electric.) Everyone within earshot over the age of 35 cracked up.

Inside the store, there was more nostalgia, including something called a Personal Library Kit – another relic Haley (aged 6) and Sydney (aged 8) had never seen before. Each kit includes adhesive pockets for the front of books, checkout cards, a date stamp and ink pad, and one of those tiny pencils you can only find at the golf course, or in a little basket beside a public library card catalog.

A Personal Library KitThe kit is advertised as a means of keeping track of books loaned to friends, but I think it’s actually intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings of those of us of a certain age. In fact, the product description reads, “The Personal Library Kit revives the old-fashioned library techniques for book retention.”

Old-fashioned? I beg your pardon? How could it be old-fashioned, since those items existed when I was at school, which was only… well, never mind how long ago that was. But they were part of an experience that is imprinted on my brain, thanks to years of repetition: choosing my books for the week, handing them to the librarian and hearing the thumps as she pressed the date stamp first onto the ink pad, then onto the checkout card in a crisp, efficient motion.

I can also vividly recall the sound of the plastic sleeve crinkling as the librarian opened and closed each book’s front cover. I even remember the excitement of getting my first library card.  It was made of paper — not plastic — and had my signature on it, not a bar code.

As is my custom when I visit an independent bookstore I like, today I bought a paperback from Coastal Books (The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe), even though I own a Kindle. I do this in the hope that someday, when Haley and Sydney are grown, their children won’t ask them, “Mom, what’s a bookstore?”

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud technology and progress. I shed no tears for the obsolete telephone cord, whiteout correction fluid, or Betamax tapes.  I vastly prefer my laptop to my old Smith Corona, and I love the convenience and immediacy of ordering eBooks — but nothing beats meandering through the stacks in a library or bookstore, thumbing through the “staff picks” (which is how I chose today’s book), and walking away with something that invariably feels like a little gift for me, from myself.

So, what’s your typewriter, or bookstore?  Are there any vestiges of bygone days you have a soft spot for?

Choosing Sides

Book jacket for Hellhound On His Trail, by Hampton SidesI usually experience a mild euphoria when I reach the last chapter of a really good book. There’s a sense of accomplishment — especially if it’s long or has been a bit of a slog — as well as excitement, because finishing a book means it’s time to start a new one.

I have a general methodology for choosing what’s next on my reading list. I have a fondness for nonfiction, but rarely read two nonfictions in a row. I prefer to switch things up a bit. And while I have a Kindle, which I love, I also have a bookcase that is sagging under the weight of dozens of books I have not yet read. So I try to read at least one old-school book that used to be a tree, for every two eBooks.

Alas, I never seem to make much of a dent in that bookshelf because whenever I pass an independent bookstore, I feel compelled to buy at least a paperback.

It’s like being on a book diet; even if I manage to drop a few books, over time I end up adding back the same number… and then some. And they all go straight to my bookshelf. (Ha! See what I did there?)

Every Christmas, I drag my mom to the Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, with its creaky oak floors and corner dedicated to the picturesque, 170-year-old village of Chagrin. It’s the same bookstore I shopped in as a kid, and I am a slave to its “staff picks”.

I’m not ready for a world where this and other venerable little shops like Book Passage (Corte Madera), Books Inc. and Browser Books (San Francisco), and Copperfield’s (Sonoma and Napa Counties) don’t exist. So, I try to do my part.

Book jacket for Americana, by Hampton SidesThis brings me to today, when I finished reading Americana: Dispatches From The New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. As usual, I felt accomplishment because… well, 30 essays is a lot of essays! Plus, it’s a great collection. “Waiting for Liddy” and “In Darkest Bohemia” are bitingly funny, while “Points of Impact”, featuring the harrowing accounts of 9/11 survivors, sent shivers down my spine.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to this book, because it’s the last one by Hampton Sides on my reading list.

Is Hampton Sides a great name for a writer or what? He grew up in Memphis and now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico – but with that name, I always picture him sitting at an old typewriter in a mountain cabin in New Hampshire, or upstate New York.

New Mexico is proud of its adopted son. When I visited Taos a few years ago, I stopped at yet another lovely independent bookstore – Moby Dickens – and asked the kind women who work there for a recommendation. They made a strong pitch for Blood and Thunder, Sides’ acclaimed biography of controversial frontiersman Kit Carson, who lived in Taos (his home is now a museum) and is buried there.

Portrait of Author Hampton SidesOne of the shopkeepers reminded the other that Hampton Sides had visited the store once as part of a book tour. Perhaps reluctant to cheapen his literary reputation, she sheepishly added, “and he is… quite handsome”. Truth. Book jackets do not lie.

My favorite book from Hampton Sides is Hellhound On His Trail, a gripping account of James Earl Ray’s stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination and the manhunt for Ray that followed. I was consumed by that book, and could not put it down. It is remarkably suspenseful, considering the reader obviously knows how the story ends. In fact, Sides has been forced to defend the book as nonfiction, because some readers assume he embellished the facts to juice up the story. In fact, Hellhound On His Trail is a factual account based on painstaking research. The rest… well, that’s just great writing.

So now comes the fun part; it’s time to choose my next book. Unless Hampton Sides publishes something tomorrow, it’ll be either The Reliable Wife or one of the three Ann Leary books on my Kindle that are just aching to finally be read.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

People Who Eat Darkness

 People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry Each holiday season I wait impatiently for the release of the Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, just as I used to look forward to the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Catalog as a child.  Back then I would make a first pass, methodically scouring each page and folding down the corners of those featuring a toy my heart desired.  Then — knowing it didn’t pay to be greedy when it came to Santa Claus — I’d take several more passes, making heartbreaking trade-offs and turning some corners back up, until I had a wish list I figured the fat man wouldn’t reject.

This serious, methodical, war-of-attrition approach to choosing among large lists of things, when most of those things look pretty great, has carried into my adulthood.  It’s definitely my strategy for stocking up on books each year, with the help of the discriminating folks at the New York Times.

The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 list included a book I’d never heard of; it captured my attention immediately and I downloaded it on the spot.  People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of the disappearance of a 21-year-old British woman working in Tokyo in the summer of 2000, the seven month search to find her, and the eight year legal battle to bring her killer to justice.

I was drawn to the book first and foremost because I taught English in Japan in the early 1990’s to escape a recession that was decimating public relations (my chosen profession at that time) in New York, and to save money for business school tuition.  I was posted to a small rural town more than one hour by bus and train from Kyoto, where I was the only Westerner for miles and therefore the object of some fascination. 

Lucie lived in bustling Tokyo among many foreigners, and worked in a Roppongi district hostess bar.  Her brief experience in Japan was very different from mine, but I suspect there were still similarities. 

As he describes the last day of her life, the author explains what it’s like to be a foreigner, walking down any street in Japan.  I experienced this, and I’ll bet Lucie did too.

“The crows flap and complain as Lucy steps outside.  As she does, she experiences the small daily shock of reentry that every foreigner in Tokyo knows.  A sudden, pulse-quickening awareness of the obvious: Here I am, in Japan.  Every morning it takes her by surprise – the sudden consciousness of profound difference… Even after years and decades have passed, you never get over the excitement, the unique daily thrill, of living as a foreigner in Japan.”

A similar observation:

“In twenty-first century Tokyo, people rarely stared openly at foreigners, but always one was conscious of being an object of an unaccustomed attention from the rest of the human population – not outright gawping, neither unambiguous affection nor disapproval, but simply the discreet registering of difference.  In Japan, you become a citizen of a new nation – that of gaijin, the foreigner.”

People Who Eat Darkness is not just a mystery or a thriller.  It’s also a commentary on the stark differences between Japanese and Western cultures that can take gaijin who travel to Japan completely by surprise.   This was another reason I bought – and was riveted by – the book.  For example, it dives deep into the discrimination against Korean nationals –like Lucie’s killer Joji Obara – in Japan.  They may have been born and educated in Japan and speak only Japanese, been raised on Japanese food, and even amassed enormous wealth, but they are treated as a lower caste of society. 

It is also an examination of the slow-moving Japanese criminal justice system.  In Japan crime rates are low, and the vast majority of suspects confess before their cases ever go to trial, thanks in part to some rather heavy-handed police tactics.  Judges and the public are accustomed to these confessions – and the motives expressed while making them  — to the point of being flummoxed by the case of Obara, who refused to own up to his crimes despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence.  The outcome of the trial was – and still is – shocking.

Finally, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of a family – most specifically a divorced couple, Lucie’s parents Tim and Jane – so toxic and bitter it will both infuriate you, and break your heart.  The Blackmans had divorced acrimoniously nearly a decade before Lucie’s murder, and continue to undermine and lash out of each other to this day.  There was no attempt at unity in the face of so much loss and pain. 

After a few chapters reading about the Blackmans, I suspect you’ll feel the urge to give your own parents a big family hug.

I thought I vaguely remembered the case of Lucie Blackman, but as I read People Who Eat Darkness I realized that my recollection was more than a little fuzzy. (According to Lloyd Parry I am not alone in confusing Blackman’s case with the grisly murder of another British woman working in Japan, Lindsay Hawker, a few years later.)  

Maybe my misapprehensions were due to time passing, or the US media not being thorough in reporting the story.  Or perhaps, so soon after a year in Japan that had left me slightly jaded about the culture and customs, I unconsciously built a memory that was biased and lacking in nuance.

Regardless, I feel fortunate that the book jumped out at me from the New York Times Books section last December, and that it passed my exacting screening process.  If you’ve ever lived in Japan, or have a keen interest in its culture, People Who Eat Darkness will resonate with you.

Lean Times

Lean In Book JacketIt’s been lean times this week.  Or perhaps I should say Lean In times, because in the past seven days or so I not only read Sheryl Sandberg’s book by that name, but also saw the author speak at City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.  Look out Richard Engel, I was embedded in the mommy wars (not to mention the gender wars) and now I’m reporting back.  Hot off the presses: It’s hell out there.

There has been plenty of fuss and hype around Lean In – neither of which are entirely deserved.  I don’t think it’s in line for a Pulitzer, but I enjoyed the book and zipped through it fairly quickly.  It provided food for thought regarding possible patterns (good and bad) in my thinking and professional choices.

The book is also great fodder for conversation, as it seems that nearly everyone has read it, or is about to read it, or has heard about it.  So to a point, I understand what all the fuss is about.

But… What IS all the fuss about?  Lean In has provoked strong reactions, particularly among women.  Some might even call it polarizing.

Criticism tends to fall into three buckets:

  • Sheryl Sandberg writes only for women who aspire to sit in the C-suite of a large corporation.
  • She thinks the only way for a mother to lean in is to work full-time outside the home.
  • She lives in a bubble, with vast resources to hire nannies, housekeepers etc. How dare she lecture the rest of us on ambition for leadership? If I had her wealth, I could have it all too!

Interestingly, Ms. Sandberg seems to have anticipated most of this blowback because she seeks to defuse it in the Introduction, and throughout the book.  She acknowledges that it isn’t intended to address every problem any working woman might encounter, regardless of her occupation or title.  And she’s just short of apologetic about her wealth and privilege.  She knows we all can’t have nannies, housekeepers and the flexibility that comes with being the COO of one of the fastest growing companies in America.

Sheryl SandbergShould all that make her experience and insights less valuable?  I don’t think so.  The main gist of the book is how to battle gender bias – not how to overcome poverty or bust out of the working class.  (That said, I agree that it might have been more impactful if she’d included anecdotes from junior corporate workers, or women in slightly less glamorous roles than in the Treasury Department, or at Facebook or Google.)

As a single professional woman without children, specific parts of Lean In resonated with me, such as how/if to negotiate pay.  Ms. Sandberg tells a great story of being offered the COO position at Facebook – a role that she really wanted, so she was tempted to accept the first offer.  What if she asked for more money, and Mark Zuckerberg hired someone else instead?

The men in her life were horrified, and eventually helped convince her to negotiate (successfully).  I may never be offered a COO role, but like most of my female friends I have felt this near-paralyzing fear of negotiating better terms.

The inverse relationship between likeability and perceived success/acumen also hit home.  If a man is successful at work, colleagues usually see him as likeable.  They want to be on his team.  If a woman is successful, she may get credit for her skills – but she’s also often seen as less likeable and even aggressive.

My friends and I agree; the likeability gender bias is rampant among women, as well as men.  I work in fairly well-balanced organization, gender-wise, but our senior leaders are not judged equally — by pretty much any of us.  If a man at that level is reserved or cool, that’s OK.  He is still really smart.  No one says “He’s smart, but…”.

However with female senior leaders the “but” is usually followed by, “she’s cold” or “she’s aggressive” or “she lacks empathy”.  We all (male and female colleagues) seem satisfied if the men are myopic, and heads-down humorless. If they actually have a sense of humor and are engaging too, we tend to gush.  But female leaders are supposed to be smart AND warm AND nurturing just to earn a place at the table.

Lean In includes a chapter about mentoring that I think every woman should read BEFORE she decides to mentor-up.  Both Ms. Sandberg and Condoleezza Rice (who interviewed her last night at City Arts & Lectures) say that they are regularly approached by complete strangers, who ask them to be their mentors.

It might seem impressive to claim someone so famous as a mentor, but wouldn’t it be better to have the support of someone who really cares about you and is invested in your future to help guide you?  You know, someone who actually knows your first name?

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the last few chapters of the book, which were prosaic and filled with more platitudes than substance. (“Men need to lean in at home, and women need to lean in at work.”)  All that stuff is fine, but if it were that easy women would just buy their husbands the book and be done with it!

As it is, there’s still a long way to go before women claim their share of leadership positions in business and government – and here is where I get excited about the book, and the movement.  Sheryl Sandberg has money, fame and altruism working for her, as well as the Facebook platform to promote her global community, www.leanin.org.

Instead of the end of a book, it feels like just the beginning of an important and (hopefully) fruitful conversation.

11/22/63: It’s About Time

11-22-63 coverI put off tackling Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for almost a year, because – let’s face it — it’s a tome.  What’s more, I bought it in hardback while browsing through Books Inc., presumably in some kind of vulnerable, hypnotic state.  That’s right, I bought an 842-page hardback.  Thankfully, I wo-manned up recently and read it, because it’s a fascinating, absorbing book.

(An ancillary benefit: Since it weighs as much as a small dumbbell, I was able to tone my biceps just by lugging it around.)

I’m not a Stephen King enthusiast, despite my conviction that The Shining is one of the best, scariest novels of its genre.  But 11/22/63 is not a horror story; it’s a suspenseful tale of time travel, with some history and romance thrown in.  Never a sci-fi fan, I was nonetheless drawn in as Jake (the hero of our story) travels back in time, to the era of southern segregation, black and white console televisions, and the Cold War.

There are no flying cars or alien overlords in this story.

Jake makes several trips to the Land of Ago, as he calls 1958 – 1963, hoping to prevent specific acts of violence that devastated individuals, families and in one case an entire nation.  But he discovers that the past is obdurate (a $10 word that I’ve discovered means stubborn), and changing fate does not come easy, or cheap.

It’s a novel packed with thrills and plot twists.  It’s also thought-provoking, as Jake unwittingly tests the theory of the “butterfly effect” – the concept that seemingly insignificant, well-meaning actions can have profound, unintended ripple effects.

Midway through 11/22/63, I was reminded of a popular 1990’s television series, Early Edition.  In it, Kyle Chandler’s character gets “tomorrow’s news today”, in the form of an advance copy of the following day’s Chicago Sun-Times.  Rather than use the magical newspaper for personal gain – betting on sports or buying lotto tickets – he rushes around Chicago each day, thwarting the occasional crime and preventing accidents.

If he reads that careless piano movers will drop a Steinway on an unsuspecting pedestrian out walking on tomorrow’s lunch hour, Kyle will be there just in time to push the guy out of the way.  It’s pretty harmless stuff, because Kyle is essentially traveling forward in time… and by only one day.  There is no way to see downstream, to the long-term impacts of his heroics.  He can’t see the butterfly effect, if there is one.

But imagine that you could travel back 60 years or so in time, and hang out in that Time of Ago.  You would make friends, forge relationships, buy and sell things, and touch lives in ways large and small.  Now suppose you decided to change the fate of someone you care about.  Maybe save the life of your grandfather who was killed in Korea.  His children wouldn’t lose their father, and your grandmother would never become a widow.

But could you be certain that if he were spared, he and his family would live a long and healthy life?   What if he returned from the war a changed man, and his marriage to your grandmother ultimately failed?

What about the man your grandma would have married, after your grandfather’s death in the war?  How would his life be changed?  What kind of hole would be left in the world, because the children he would have had with your grandmother were never born?

You couldn’t be sure, because of the butterfly effect.

11/22/63.  It’s not a sitcom.  It’s a really long book, and it will leave you thinking about fate, and destiny, and butterflies long after you reach page 842.

Did anyone else love this book, as much as I did?

Paterno: A Review Of The Book… and The Man

Joe Paterno Statue RemovalI am not a college football fan.  I never have been, although heaven knows I’ve tried for the sake of others who live-and-die by it every fall Saturday.  The only thing I really like about college football is the marching bands.  The NFL needs more marching bands.

Prior to 2011, if you had told me that Joe Paterno was the head coach at Notre Dame I would have nodded sheepishly.  I had no idea, despite having relatives who went to Penn State and still live in State College, Pennsylvania.  Likewise, if the Jerry Sandusky/PSU scandal hadn’t happened, there isn’t a snowball’s chance I’d have ever read the new biography Paterno, by Joe Posnanski.  (As noted in previous blogs, I am a big fan of Posnanski’s blogging, though.)

Of course, the scandal did happen, and so I read the book.  I’d like to say it was illuminating, and that it made sense of the madness.  I’d like to tell you that it clearly established Joe Paterno’s innocence, or culpability.  Unfortunately, it did none of that.

Posnanski had already decided to write his biography of ‘Joe Pa’ long before the allegations of former defensive coordinator Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children surfaced.  By that point, he’d already spent nearly a year in State College, with unprecedented access to Paterno, his family and colleagues, and more than five decades of hand scribbled notes about football, and life.  I think it’s safe to say, if Sandusky’s criminal acts had not been discovered, the book would have been a glowing, reverential account of Paterno’s life.

But in early 2011, the scandal broke.  In November of that year, Sandusky was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys.  Paterno was vilified, fired, and diagnosed with terminal cancer all in short order.  On January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno died.  To no one’s surprise, these events sped up the launch of Posnanski’s book by nearly one year.

And so the first thing I noticed about Paterno was, it felt rushed.  Most biographers linger over the details of their subjects’ early years.  They interview friends and teachers to help readers understand what makes their subjects tick.  Posnanski covers little of Paterno’s upbringing in Brooklyn, aside from the fact that his parents were driven and demanding and expected great things from their son.  They wanted him to be a lawyer.  His father (who as sparingly described, seemed to be a kind, principled man) thought Joe could be president.

His military service is presented primarily through overly cheerful letters home that revealed next-to-nothing, and his college years at Brown University are covered in just a handful of pages.   At the point Paterno joins the coaching staff at PSU, he’s still pretty much an enigma.

The rest of the book lays out his football successes and failures chronologically, with occasional references to the future when (dah-DUM) everything would go terribly wrong.  Those interjections felt like teases. Sort of, “If you are reading this book to find out what Joe Pa knew about Sandusky’s shenanigans, stay tuned.”

Paterno didn’t meet my expectations, but I’m glad I read it.  For someone who knew nothing of Joe Paterno before he – and PSU – became infamous, it provides clues to how such heinous acts could have been committed, right under the nose of the architect of the “Grand Experiment”.  And the weird thing is, it’s not really complicated.

Joe Paterno was a smart guy, who liked to think of himself as intellectual because he read the classics sometimes.  But he wasn’t an intellectual.  He was utterly two-dimensional.  He cared about football.  (So did school administrators, and the Board of Directors by the way.)  He wasn’t focused on wealth or pedigree, but you can bet he cared deeply about winning, success and achievement.  His life was football, and everything – EVERYTHING – else took a backseat including his family, his friends (of which he had precious few), his health… and in the end, I believe, the welfare of vulnerable children.

Do I think Joe Paterno was aware that Jerry Sandusky had victimized children on the PSU campus?  Absolutely.  He later admitted that when then-graduate assistant Mike McCreary reported seeing Sandusky and a boy in the locker room showers, he knew “something sexual” was probably going on.  But as Posnanski hammers home throughout the book, Paterno did not believe in distractions of any kind.  Football was The Thing.  He did what was required of him; he reported the incident… and then he returned his focus to coaching, and preserving his job in the face of growing demands that he retire.

Posnanski makes much of Joe Paterno’s dedication to the intellectual growth of young men in his care.  Many players are quoted, looking back wistfully at all that Joe Pa taught them.  He fought like hell to instill important life lessons, and give players the tools for an adult life of prosperity, fulfillment and public service.

This was all great, commendable stuff.  But Joe Pa loved a winner, especially a diamond in the rough.  He reveled in telling stories about the raw talents he helped hone and buff, who succeeded on the field… and later in business, or law.  (Was it coincidental that Paterno’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer or politician, and that he seemed to hand-pick players to push very aggressively toward law school, followed by political office?)

Posnanski suggests that Paterno snubbed Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile charity because he and Sandusky had a strained relationship.  In fact, they openly disliked one another.  Apparently, the at-risk kids Sandusky brought on the PSU campus drove Paterno nuts.   I think Joe Pa had no time for these kids because they were damaged, well beyond anything he’d encounter when recruiting high school football prodigies.  These kids probably showed little athletic prowess, and had no interest in discussing the classics.

After reading Paterno, I can’t help but suspect that if Sandusky’s shower victim had been a poor-but-motivated Pop Warner standout – a modern-day Horatio Alger character in cleats – Joe Paterno would not only have reported the suspected crime, he would have followed up, and pressed, bullied and badgered… like only Joe Pa could.

Breaking the Silence

I recently began reading the book Quiet, The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  At last, a book devoted to My People!  With any luck, I can connect with other introverts just by reading it — without ever leaving peace and quiet of my apartment!

It’s true.  I am an introvert – based on Carl Jung’s classic definition of the word.  We introverts can be quite misunderstood, and people who know me often express surprise when I say I am one because I’m not shy, I don’t have a fear of public speaking, and I function reasonably well at social events with people I don’t know.  Yet while I am not the Unabomber, I have indeed tested positive for introversion.

When I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test a few years ago, I was surprised to fall into the introvert category because I am, you might say, slightly outspoken.  When I read the definition, however, it was like so many puzzle pieces falling into place.

Most telling for me was the Jungian/Myers-Briggs belief that when extroverts want to recharge their depleted batteries they go to a bar or throw a party.  They are energized by people and activities, whereas introverts like me prefer to recharge in quiet and solitude.

As Susan Cain describes it, “Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while they wish they were home in their pajamas.  They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family… and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.  Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”  In other words, Susan Cain just gets me.

A related theory about introverts is that they prefer to socialize one-on-one, or in very small groups.  This also resonates with me.  I have often wondered how I came to establish so many friendships throughout my life… yet my friends generally do not know each other well.   In fact, a number of my longtime friends have never even met.   (I sometimes worry that each friend secretly believes the others are imaginary.)  The last time I had a default “crowd” that I socialized with… I was in college.

Full disclosure:  I have not yet finished the book, and have found myself skimming its more fanciful sections.  (For example, at one point the author suggests that Americans might be more introverted than Europeans through genetics, as immigrants are likely to have been more extroverted and action-oriented than those who stayed put.  Seriously?)  I have, however, enjoyed Susan Cain’s analysis of introversion overall.

That said, my real focus here is on her study of corporate America, and the dominance of extroverts in today’s workplace.  The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end as Cain describes companies where the most assertive and domineering in the room do most of the talking (and very little listening), and are therefore very good at getting their way… even if it’s not the RIGHT way.

All this by Chapter Three — which might as well be titled “Monday”. Welcome to my world.

More on this in my next blog…