“Quiet: The Book” and More Thoughts on Self-Help

“Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.” The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the comments for my post “The Quiet Ones,” Loribeth asked if I had read the book “Quiet.” As it so happened, shortly after I wrote that post (one of my all-time favorites), I had a long layover at an airport and found “Quiet” in a nearby book kiosk. It seemed a happy circumstance, and I began reading it.

There is much to enjoy about “Quiet,” but I particularly liked Cain’s description of self-help gurus, including Tony Robbins. What is most interesting about “Quiet” is that it dispels many a conventional wisdom, like the commonly-held belief that extroverts make the best leaders and most persuasively, that the American tradition of self-help is one that is at odds with much research, as well as our own personalities.

I believe that the most seductive and destructive fantasies in our culture involve the belief that if we just change something fundamental about ourselves, we will become better. If we can buy into the latest weird health trends, we will become thin, and our husbands will love us more. If we get Botox, we will remain young and relevant. Most especially, the idea that we can overhaul our personalities to become different, more successful people is disturbing. We’re told in the media that we should follow the advice of success stories like Suze Orman and Tony Robbins, who frankly have had their own bizarre and completely unique paths to success. Tony Robbins is most likely, according to Susan Cain, a “hyperthymic:” a kind of super extrovert characterized by one psychiatrist as possessing “exuberant, upbeat, overenthusiastic and overconfident lifelong traits.” His own personality is most likely unusual, and it’s really cool that he used his unique traits to become very successful. But I personally, could never be more “like him.” Why try to be something we’re not?

In other words, “Fitter, happier, more productive.” To quote my beloved Radiohead.

In “Gone Girl,” the psychotic but brilliant “Amazing Amy” famously describes the ultimate self-help female nightmare, “Cool Girl,” and hilariously pokes fun at how false it is.

“We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in the world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.” Susan Cain, “Quiet”

I honestly believe that all of us are granted in our own way the potential to be our best selves. But the most important way to become our best self is to be different. Truly, different. Whether it’s embracing being childless not by choice, or changing opinions by being an open adoption advocate or full-on “leaning in” or knowing we would be best at staying at home with our children. We ALL have the capacity to be our best selves.

But only by knowing ourselves will we ever fully be ourselves. Otherwise we might yet be tricked by false lights – illuminating as J.R.R. Tolkien says – nothing.

Have you ever tried to change something fundamental about your personality, and did it work? Or do you believe that being yourself is the best way to live your life?


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#BrassIsBack – Maybe?!?

There is finally, finally some proof our kitchen might actually be useable some day, as opposed to never.

Maybe it was an overreaction to all those annoying couples on House Hunters who sniff at anything not “stainless steel” or “granite.” But the biggest design risk we took was on brass. I’d seen it on Remodelista and Pinterest here and there. Our designer LOVED the idea.

Interestingly, almost no one stocks brass fixtures or hardware anymore. We wanted something in brushed brass, not the super shiny kind. Finding our preferred option was not easy, and our order took weeks. Luckily, Newport Brass exists.

The hardware finally came in, and the contractor installed the handles on our kitchen cabinets. No turning back now.




Sorry for the crappy photos. I find myself hovering between thrill and a “what did I just do” sensation. I remember one time we bought a painting we loved, and a friend who had majored in art history came over and crushed us with his two word analysis: “It’s vaginal.” The painting was of an abstract tulip, and as soon as he said it, his observation became horrifyingly obvious.

Still missing – appliances, countertops and a faucet. But a girl can dream…

Have you ever made an out there decision? Did you embrace it or was it a huge mistake?


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The Past Meets the Present


Above: Me and college friends.

I had one of those days when the past collides unexpectedly with the present. You never know when that will happen.

One of the weird things about being in this odd middle phase is you think you’re still young, yet there are ties to the past that creep up and make you feel your age. Today it was hearing a name from the long distant past and watching “Singles.”

If you don’t remember that movie, “Singles” was one of those films, like “Reality Bites,” that were supposed to define my generation. Seattle, grunge and all that. To be honest, I was too young when it came out to “get it” but I always loved the soundtrack and particularly “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.” By a band whose lead singer actually died years before the movie actually even came out – which is terribly tragic.

I do feel a kinship with the millennials, in that I think there are some parallels with Gen X. I mean, we didn’t clean up the environment like we wanted to, but I do think we were non-conformist in some ways. I like “Girls” and relate to the bohemians on that show, even if I’m too insecure about money to live that kind of life. I think you usually have to come from money to be able to reject it so adamantly, and I certainly did not.

Anyway, it seems like both a million years and thirty minutes ago that I listened to “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” in the sorority house (how conformist), laced up my faux Doc Martens (I was too poor for the real ones), meticulously coiffed my hair and applied my Mac beige lipstick while getting ready for a night out. Sidenote: why did we pay so much attention to our hair and makeup when we were basically dressed in denim tuxedos and rags? Although our skin tone was the bomb, when we didn’t break out.

I was so very broke in college and it was a real source of insecurity but that was probably the best place and time to be broke.

Anyway, now I am less broke, more old and married with kids. My husband’s college had a reunion recently and apparently a huge source of sadness among the men was that the beautiful girls they had gone to school with weren’t young any more. Like, these tough guys were sad to think about the passage of time and nothing symbolized that more that the hot girls with three or four kids and crow’s feet. I get it. I do.

Sometimes, there’s nothing I want to be more than the girl with the faux Docs. But I remember, she wasn’t as happy as I am now. She was so insecure.

Do you think about the passage of time? Or do you rarely look back, thankful it is behind you?


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Fads are Overrated

Somehow, I just found this post. It really struck a chord.

It also made me realize that all around us are calls to change our lives with fads. Sources ranging from Instagram to Pinterest to Facebook and even blogs all constantly flag NEW WAYS to change our lives! A lot of these seem to focus on health (maybe because I live where I live) – from eating mostly avocados to the Paleo diet to juice cleanses to eating all organic to an ever increasing focus on the “natural.” The emphasis is on “new ways,” implying that the way we exercise and eat now is wrong and we need to change. But I think you could apply this to a number of other lifestyle fads and self help guides. And boy is parenting susceptible to fads as well, as that article from NPR notes. Remember “Bringing Up Bebe,” “Tiger Mom,” and even “Lean In,” which also prescribed advice for parenting?

I think it’s in the American culture to strive for a different/better way of life – maybe ever since Thoreau trundled off into the woods (where he didn’t really live off the land and relied on baked goods from his family). When I lived in the UK, there weren’t a lot of lifestyle fads, other than going to the pub and walking a lot. It’s confusing to constantly receive the message that we aren’t good enough as ourselves, and that we need to change. I personally don’t think it’s good for us to receive these messages over and over. And I am totally unconvinced that lasting change is possible by following fads. After all, there will always be a new and shiner method to try, while we abandon ship on something else.

And maybe it’s because at heart I don’t think people are capable of major change. But I do think they are capable of becoming wiser – and sometimes wisdom is knowing oneself and what one is capable of.

To this end: recently, I’ve decided I love playing tennis, hiking and riding my bike. So I do those things regularly because I enjoy them, instead of soldiering along on some treadmill to burn a set amount of calories. Likewise, I like the taste of most fruits and vegetables so I eat them. But I don’t force myself to eat “superfoods” anymore simply because they’re good for me. I don’t care how many nutrients beets have – they taste like dirt to me.

On the other hand, I love the idea of always learning. So what else is out there? Maybe the answer is to try to quiet all the noise, something I’m focusing on everywhere. One of my favorite ever quotes is:

“Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.”
Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Back to that NPR post: possibly the biggest relief about being a working parent is that no one really ever asks me about being a parent and/or what my parenting philosophy is and/or makes a face when I say something like “formula.” Without other voices chiming in about this all the time, it leaves me, oddly, to parent with my whole heart.

Do you agree that fads get in the way of our best selves or do you vehemently disagree? 


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Glimmers of Progress

We are officially six months into our remodel, and progress – is not as fast as I would prefer. We still don’t have a working kitchen. I…don’t miss cooking, necessarily, but I miss having a place to go eat food. Right now I get takeout and furtively eat it in my room like some teenager hiding a binge eating session.

I heard an interview with Terri Gross of Fresh Air, and she said she eats out every night for dinner. I would not mind having that life.

Regardless, my days of eating takeout and the occasional meal out are numbered. I guess. It’s hard to imagine this remodel will ever be done, but some day it will be.

There are signs, finally, of actual design decisions we’ve made. And some of them are a bit…out there. Definitely not “pedestrian” as my husband likes to call my default design taste which runs more to Pottery Barn. However, I’m really liking the shape rooms are taking.

We love traveling, and that love has made its way into our decor. Paris is our favorite city, and the place where we got engaged. My husband found a beautiful hand-painted mural of Paris (from an artist on Etsy) and we’ve put it on our laundry room wall. The idea was to play on the term “French Laundry,” but I love it a lot. I know I’ll be much more likely to do a load of underwear and socks when I can see the Eiffel Tower from the laundry room.


Similarly, for the powder room we chose a fun take on a toile. It has a mid-century look to me, which is the age of the house, and reminds me of postcards you would collect from travels.


Our designer found these Hans Wegner inspired wishbone barstools. I love them, and again they fit into the mid-century feel.


Finally, the decision that was the most difficult one to make. We had seen this blue front door on Pinterest – it seemed so welcoming and fun. It indicated that the house you were entering didn’t take itself too seriously. We agonized over the color, with the designer, my mother-in-law and I all agreeing on one shade, which my husband didn’t love. It’s..bold, and he thought it was too Barbados-y and inappropriate in our neighborhood. I think he’s still getting used to it, but I adore it.


The kitchen is a hot mess right now, but I’ll post a photo now to remember the mid-phase as too often my focus is on “before” and “after” but life is never that simple.


I hope you all like it.

Do you think design choices are crucial to representing personality, or do you prefer to live in a blank slate? I lean towards the later, so this process has been interesting. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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