Friday, October 31, 2014

"50 Ways to Pray" by Teresa Blythe

I've been using 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times by Teresa A. Blythe to help structure my devotional time in the morning. After reading Seeing is Believing, by Greg Boyd, I was intrigued by the concept of imaginative prayer and other prayer traditions outside my range of familiarity. The book is arranged into chapters focusing on various types of prayer, including biblical reflections, contemplative practices, lectio divinas, life reflections, discernment processes, body prayers, prayers of the imagination, reflections on media and praying for others.

Each exercise begins with a short paragraph of background into the practice's origins. Blythe gives the intention for the exercise, a step-by-step description of the exercise and a tip for overcoming common difficulties or distractions.

I've only made it through the first two chapters so far.  I don't normally post about books I haven't finished yet, but since I don't use the book every day, I'm working through it at a prayerful snail's pace. So far, this book has led me to hold an imaginary conversation with the midwives in Exodus 1, create my own psalm, craft my own personal prayer of the heart, and to get comfortable with silence.

I'm still looking forward the exercises on imaginative prayer, reflecting on life, prayer walking and art as prayer. Several of the exercises in this book are meant to be done with a partner or in community, so I've had to skip over them, in hopes that I'll find someone to join me in these prayer experiments. Additionally, I read carefully, but skipped over a few of the prayer exercises, such as praying with beads or icons. I felt Blythe made a good case for why using tools while praying did not necessarily confer idol status onto them, but the thought of "not making a graven image" was too distracting for me to complete these exercises fruitfully.

Overall, I'm really grateful to have this book. It packs in so many ideas and suggestions for expanding and deepening my understanding and experience of prayer.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading into my life: Productive Praise

I learned something the other day, after reflecting on a visit to my neighbor's house, mingled with some of the wise words from books I've read in the last year or two.

My middle son, Mercy Child, needs praise and affection to flourish, and I don't naturally give it to him in an unmeasured, non-manipulative way. I'll just be honest here; often my praise has strings attached. I limit my kind speech to sing-songy praise when he does what I want him to do and expressly for the purpose of getting him to do it again. Like taking his foot off of his baby brother's face. And getting his fingers out of his nose/mouth/rear end. I can really feign enthusiastic praise when he obeys these directives. "Good Joooob, Babe! You did a great job of putting your toilet paper in the potty!" But I don't often praise him for his innate talents, his subtle progress, his growth and uniqueness. 

Last week, I took Mr. Mercy and Squeaky Pea over to my neighbor's home to see her family's many pets. He was polite, interested and a little timid, but he suppressed his trepidation so he could meet all the animals-- even a sheepdog twice his size. 

My boy was absorbed in the backyard animal kingdom, but I found myself fixated on his behavior, falling into my habit of critiquing and apologizing for his behavior-- even neutral actions like taking off his shoes just after my neighbor said we didn't have to. As if somehow speaking negatively about my son made us more agreeable guests.

Each time I uttered a negative or apologetic word on my little son's behalf, my neighbor countered it in her easy German accent:

"Oh, it's alright, you can take them off. That's the polite thing to do."

"Let him run around. That's what kids need to do."

"His vocabulary is very advanced for a 3-year-old."

I caught on to the pattern and tried to zip it. With each positive rebuttal, I choked back the words I wished to say in response, words to minimize or temper her praise. "Why do I do this?" I wondered.

When we got home, I commented to my son, "That was fun, wasn't it? Ms. Kat really liked you!"

Without skipping a best, Mercy Child did a gleeful headstand on the sofa and fired back, "Yes. I'm smart!"

My heart melted and sank. 

"Yes, you are very smart, sweetheart."

I was thankful for him to have this happy moment of contentment with himself. I was truly glad he felt admired and validated by my neighbor. But I was ashamed that my own words don't often build him up that way.

What he does get is my in attention, my over-reactive anger and nit picky criticism in constant supply. For legitimate reasons, mind you: such as peeing, sprinkler style, all over the bathroom floor. For the third time this week. Or pinching Squeaky Pea's thumb in the bedroom door, seconds after I've told him to be careful. Or insisting that I let him sit on my lap when I'm in the middle of a challenging tutoring session online. 

But these moments add up, blending together as the soundtrack to his life until the messages that he's not good enough takes root. On the flip side, my words (and others') can help him grow into the best version of himself.

Prayer: Lord! Have mercy on my Mercy Boy. Have mercy on me. I don't know the first things about raising this wonderful, messy, affectionate, smart, fun-loving, contrary, irksome, adorable boy. I pray You'd tailor my speech towards and about him. Help me to see him differently-- not as a mom in the battle trenches, but as a thoughtful observer. Help me to savor and tease out his strengths with my notice and kind words. And flood me with patience in all those other moments. The showdowns. The messes. The selective hearing. The button-pressing. Help me be firm, but not harsh.

These reflections were fueled by a couple of books:

Raising Preschoolers: Parenting for Today by Dr. Sylvia Rimm
Published in 1997 by Three Rivers Press
Psychologist and children's advocate Sylvia Rimm says that speaking positively about our kids to other adults, what she calls referential speaking, is the most powerful kind of attention we can give them because "small children believe that whatever adults say to each other is true; therefore, when adult conversation refers to them, they believe it" (75). What I speak now, helps form my son's identity for the long haul, for better or worse.

Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids! by Scott Turanksy and Joanne Miller
Published in 2000 by Waterbrook Press 
The misleading title belies the positive focus on fostering honor in your home. One of the "honor-based parenting skills" that has stuck with me since reading this book with a group of moms last summer was to be firm without being harsh, the latter behavior being one I often slide into when I blow a fuse in order to show I mean business. Turansky instructs parents to correct their children with emotions in check, using eye contact, gentle words and even a hand on their shoulder to get attention. Putting this directive into perspective, Turansky says, "children are not possessions to order around with harshness; they are treasures to treat with honor" (104).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Changing my name

So, all three people that read this blog, you might have noticed that it's no longer called "What the Parrinos are Reading." I decided to ditch my original moniker for a few reasons:

1. It was a lame name for a blog.
Actually, I chose it as placeholder until I could think of something better. And that took me a while.

2. This blog is largely what one Parrino (Emily) is reading, rather than everyone in our household. The Reflective Reader takes the pressure to  read and post off my very busy husband, emergent-reader sons and illiterate baby :)

3. The Reflective Reader matches my mission.
I try to really explore the corners of my life and experience as I read. My goal is to share my reflections as well as how I'm applying what I've read.

4. I think it has a nice ring to it.
Since my other blogs are "The Moody Foodie" and "The Daily Munchie," it seems natural to go with another three-word title.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reflections on Brene Brown's "The Gifts of Imperfection"

This little book caught my attention with its lengthy title, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life. I'd heard that Brene Brown conducts thousands of interviews to find common themes and patterns among those that lead what she calls "wholehearted" - fulfilling, happy, intentional, present lives- and those who don't.

This book presents sage advice teased out of all these interviews, tightly packed into 10 "guideposts" on the path to wholehearted living, including self-helpy suggestions like cultivating self-compassion and creativity, Christian virtues like gratitude and joy and somewhat surprising suggestions like taking time to laugh, sing and dance each day. Though it's not a parenting book, Brown uses examples from her own life and her sometimes fragile balancing act as a working mother. I found myself contemplating my parenting more than any other aspect of my life as I read, largely because I see my own worst behavior in my children on those particularly imperfect parenting days. An idea shared by many authors of parenting advice books, Brown believes "where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books."

Some additional quotes from Gifts of Imperfection I've been chewing on:
Avoid wasting time on guilty pleasures... or addictions:
"In another very unexpected discovery, my research also taught me that there’s no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light."
The trap of comparison: 
"At first it seems like conforming and competing are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. When we compare, we want to see who or what is best out of a specific collection of 'alike things.'"
"The comparison mandate becomes this crushing paradox of “fit in and stand out!” It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better."
The importance of creativity:
"There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t."
"The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity."
Getting off the hamster wheel:
"If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth."
In conclusion...
I liked the suggestions in this book. It's easily digestible, and most of the guideposts resonated with me. However, I found myself wondering "how to I actually do this? And how do I even remember to do all these things? And if I did do all these things, wouldn't I be perfect?" throughout much of it. While Brown's personal experiences were helpful and humorous, I craved some of the contents of those thousands of interviews with these mystical "wholehearted" people. I wanted to hear more of those success stories, to peer into their lives and see the guideposts in action. Obviously, this would be a different book altogether, and my craving probably couldn't be satisfied, as the contents of Brown's interviews are probably confidential. I don't doubt that she did find these patterns of behaviors and thoughts through out her careful research and analysis, but seeing some of the raw data would have been helpful to me. Perhaps I need to start collecting some stories myself.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"It's OK to be different" books for kids

It's been a little while since I've reviewed any children's books. I like to offer up a few recommendations in batches with a common theme. In this case, all four of these books use animals to teach children it's OK to be different, to go against the grain and express your truest self. And sometimes, the courage of one original helps free others from unnecessary conformity. As an added bonus, all of these books are lovely to look at, provide a good dose of humor and were enjoyable for my boys and for me even after several reads.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger lives in a Victorian-styled town of hushed, buttoned-up, social norm-abiding animals. One day, Mr. Tiger does the unthinkable and sheds his dapper suit to roam free in the wild. Onlookers gape, friends tsk and mothers cover their youngster's eyes with their paws. But the once restrained feline can't resist this taste of freedom and adventure. Will Mr. Tiger be forever banished from civilization for following his inner urging? Will any of the other townsfolk ever experience the bliss of the jungle? I won't give away the conclusion, of course.

As a side note, I really like the clean, bright, geometric style of Brown's illustrations. If you enjoy Mr. Tiger, check out My Teacher is a Monster (No, I'm Not), which promotes acceptance, and The Curious Garden, which celebrates life in the midst of urban adversity.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

The flip-side of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, the protagonist in this zany Willems tale secretly enjoys putting on clothes. As much as other naked mole rats deride Wilbur for his risque fashion statements (such as wearing a suit), he can't resist the feeling of fabric on his furless skin. Plus, he argues, when he gets dressed up he can be fancy, or cool.. or even an astronaut!  The story comes to a head when the mole rats appeal to their venerable leader, who questions poor Wilbur at a public hearing. Wilbur's simple response has a dramatic effect! This book helps open up discussions about doing things because we've always done them that way. It also allows you to discuss with children when it might be OK to buck the social norm.

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Gaston is the oddball in his refined French poodle family: Mrs. Poodle, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo and Ooh La La. Even though Gaston has trouble matching his sisters' abilities to Yip (not Yap) and to sip (Never slurp), he still enjoys the security of a loving home. One day, Gaston's identity is shaken as the Poodle family run into a Bulldog family, also with four puppies: Ricky, Rocky, Bruno and.... Antoinette, who happens to be a poodle. The moment is decidedly awkward, and without any discussion, Antoinette and Gaston trade places and families as they leave the park. Though Gaston and Antoinette look like they belong in their new arrangements, they struggle to truly fit in and miss their real families.

This story is a great opener for talking about how we can't judge others by appearances. All the characters in this canine tale come to the right conclusions at the end, making it a good book for talking about adoption.

Froodle by Antoinette Portis

Everyone knows that little brown birds are supposed to say "peep," but Little Brown Bird "didn't want to sing the same old song." When she busts out a boisterous "Froodle sproodle!" Crow tries to intimidate her back into the appropriate behavior for little brown birds. Little Brown Bird doesn't relent. In fact, she comes up with even more outlandish bird song until the entire neighborhood takes notice.

I think this is the only book of the four that I definitely enjoyed more than my boys. I've had this aspiration to become a bird watcher when I'm old and retired, and I pride myself on having a pretty good ear for bird calls, so the subject of Froodle piqued my interest immediately. But educationally, this book opens up a discussion about experimentation, facing peer pressure and perhaps even observing animal behavior in nature.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of "The 25,000 Mile Love Story" by Serge Roetheli

A friend and I recently formed a very small [read: 2-member] book club. Our first discussion was The 25,000 Mile Love Story, in which Swiss long-distance runner Serge Roetheli tells his story of growing up in the Swiss Alps, training to as an Olympic Boxer, becoming a mountain guide, and eventually running more than 25,000 miles on 6 different continents with his then-wife Nicole by his side on a motorcycle.

My fellow bookworm, Megan, who has run several marathons, chose this book because the author says he did this crazy feat in order to raise money for impoverished children. We both wanted to be inspired by someone who struck out on an amazing adventure, but the combination of philanthropy and endurance made this book seem even more promising.

While Love Story did deliver on the endurance end-- it contains vignettes of the husband and wife suffering through harsh weather conditions, culture shock, dangerous territory, accidents, snake bites and cerebral malaria-- Roetheli's philanthropic claims seemed disingenuous. At the end of the book, both Megan and I felt that Roetheli was using charitable causes as an excuse for his own personal adventure.  He complains that the Swiss charity that originally sponsored his World Tour "Run for Kids," pulled out inexplicably, leaving them without the money to continue. To me, this seemed a little backwards. Was he supposed to be running to raise awareness (and ideally, funds) for impoverished children? Shouldn't he be giving money to the charity rather than depending on the charity to fund his round-the-world adventure?

Actually, there was very little in the book referring to whatever charitable works the author and his wife had contributed to on their journey. They did take a brief hiatus in the World Tour to help an eye doctor administer vision-saving surgeries in Costa Rica. The doctor, Dr. Zamber, more than repaid them for their good deed, by footing their travel bill after the initial Swiss charity pulled out.

The tour title "Run for Kids" is equally problematic, even if the tour is geared toward raising awareness more than raising money or actually serving people in need. Roetheli's scant mention of kids were those he and Nicole met in a Middle Eastern juvenile prison, where the only connection he made was with a boy who was serving a life sentence for murdering his own father. There was no information on how to help these troubled teens. There was no mention throughout the book of specific charities or organizations that help at-risk teens or destitute children. Raising awareness involves telling stories of these children and shining light on the ways readers can help them.

The book also emphasized how much Serge and Nicole sacrificed to pursue their dream, including years away from Serge's two children from his first marriage. A scene from the book captures Serge's supposed sacrifice. Camping near the base of Mt. Sinai, Serge smoked his pipe and mused, "My daughter, Clara, turned sixteen that day. I sent up a wish for her and was reminded, once again, that there is a price we pay for our dreams. I missed my children dearly"(143). Yet, out of the book's 200 pages, this brief paragraph was the only time the author even mentions his children. I wasn't convinced that he was really the one paying the price.

Megan's insight was that Serge could have written this book more honestly, by being upfront about his intention to find a way to run the world and be known as an amazing endurance athlete. There is no doubt that Roetheli deserves praise and awe for his strength and survival skills. And his then-wife also deserves praise for sticking with him through the tour! But the author's decision to fund his travels by repackaging his run as a philanthropic endeavor cheapened the entire story.

In the end, Roetheli came off as self-centered, self-important and self-absorbed. Both Megan and I wanted to like this book, but in the end it seemed like the author's ulterior motive of making a name for himself got in the way of making this either an epic or a love story.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of "Cooked" by Michael Pollan

A busy new routine with driving two boys to and from two different schools, the start of my tutoring schedule and a couple of new hobbies have kept me away from the blog. I've still been reading, but at a more leisurely pace. So, yesterday I mentioned to a friend that I had this little blog and blogger's guilt immediately set in... so I bring you a very belated review of Michael Pollan's "Cooked."


Michael Pollan's name is well-known as a NYT food columnist (maybe even a food philosopher?), so I was a little surprised when I came upon his confession that he didn't really cook in the introduction of his newest tome, Cooked. But we journalists like to think we can teach people about things that we ourselves are just in the process of learning, so I figured I'd forge ahead with the nearly 500-page book about Pollan's adventures and experiments in barbecue, bread baking, cheese-making and fermenting. His core argument is that readers should, like he has learned, prepare their own food at home because of the way cooking connects us to our families, promotes healthful eating, supports local food producers and, well, because we're genetically wired to cook. Cooking is what makes us human, Pollan argues, using quotes from anthropologists who hypothesize that early humans distinguished themselves from the apes when they began to use fire to cook. But let's get on to the meat of the book. And the bread, cheese and pickles.

The book is organized by sections according to the four elements-- fire, water, earth and air. I didn't feel this gimmick really added to the book, so I'll avoid wasting your time going into more detail. Instead, I will organize my review by what I liked and what I didn't:

I liked:
I was surprised by how extraordinarily interesting pickles are. Real pickles, like kimchi and sauerkraut, that have marinated in their own fermenting juices, Pollan proposes, are a source of health today's Western-diet eating omnivore no longer enjoys. He quotes fermentation guru Sandor Katz to posit that humans are not the rugged individualists we assume we are. Instead, we live because of --and in symbiosis with--a vibrant microcosm of bacteria that colonize our guts, help us digest, send messages to our brains and defend us from bad intruders. His portrait of the invisible bacterial world is really brilliant. And it made me up my intake of yogurt. 

I was also entranced with Pollan's foray into ancient cheese making traditions with a forthright nun. Here, he explores the safety of unpasteurized cheeses and why humans like cheese, despite its sometimes heady (and sometimes footy) odors. The humor, history and science of this section make it an enlightening read.

There are plenty of DIY recipes at the end of the book. I liked that they were there, especially the instructions for colonizing your own bread yeast from scratch. But I must admit I did not test any of them out.

Take it or leave it:
Pollan spends a good chunk of the book microbrewing Pollan's Pale Ale with his teenage  son. I have zero interest in beer or brewing moldy batches of it in my basement. But I know it's kind of culinary craze right now, so there are probably plenty of readers who would enjoy this section of the book.

What I didn't like:
Pollan's opening chapter explores Southern pit barbecue. Here I found the author's privilege as a white, upper-middle class male came out in annoying ways. It seemed he spent a lot of time hinting that blacks were superior pit men, but didn't interview an actual black pit master until the end of the section. When he did, he made the man seem like a self-inflated, self-absorbed barbecue mascot who might have at one time been a great pit man but now cuts corners and entrusts the real work to underlings. Then Pollan exposes the dark truth: the black man uses industrial-ag pigs to produce his pulled pork sandwiches!!! So they aren't even authentic.  Maybe Pollan was just telling it like it was. But something about the subtly elitist tone of the whole bbq chapter just didn't sit well with me. A journalist of Pollan's caliber could have find a super-authentic, true to tradition, farm-raised, unpretentious pulled pork sandwich, and he could have unearthed a similarly impressive black pit master. Perhaps he needed to look into that wooden shack that all the locals (white and black) know, but hasn't made the guidebooks or yelp. 

In Sum:
Despite my quibbles, I think most foodies will like this book. But if food snobs or food agendas make you lose your appetite, just read the parts about cheese and pickles.