Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of fear and Cool by Taylor Clark

“You’re not alone.”

How many of us have heard those words and felt an instant wave of relief?  To know that others have shared our fear, our embarrassment, our quandary, is to know that we are okay.

And, to know that we are okay is to know that we belong.  To know that we belong is, of course, fundamental to our human experience.

Message of Assurance

Taylor Clark's excellent book addressing fear, "Nerve"
Taylor Clark’s book, “Nerve”

Taylor Clark’s excellent book, Nerve:  Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, was one big, “you’re not alone” message of assurance for me.

Through an engaging presentation of real-life examples of famous individuals who have felt and faced their fear, and interviews with noted fear authorities, Clark introduces the reader to the technical aspects of fear, shows us where fear lives in the brain (Hello, Amygdala!), and provides Calls to Action for surviving the often debilitating effects of fear.

Fear is Our Ally

For anyone who has ever struggled with fear–whether fear of heights or fear of an audience–and this includes all of us (to be human is to fear), it will come as a welcome relief to know that fear can not only be our friend, it can be our savior, warning us of dangers and directing us to alternative courses of action.

Doing What We’re Afraid to Do

Perhaps one of the most exciting take-aways from Nerve for me was to learn that one of the surest ways to calm our fears is to expose ourselves as much as possible to the very thing we fear.

By doing so, we are in a sense de-conditioning that part of our brain responsible for the fear reaction, letting it know that although we appreciate its valiant vigilance, it is no longer needed in that particular situation.

Once we let our fear rear-guard know that we’ve got a situation handled, the rational, thinking part of our brain can resume its starring role.

And the thinking part is where so much of the stuff that makes life worth living resides.

 

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If Mom Were Alive Today?

Many of my friends and contemporaries today are caring for their parents, or worrying about having someone else care for their parents, or worrying about how they will pay for someone else to care for their parents.

As fate would have it, these are concerns I do not share.

My entire adult life has passed without my mother, who died when I was a teenager, and more than half of my adult life has passed since my father died.

Helen holding toddler Gretchen

In their absence, time has smoothed the rough edges of their faults and perhaps exaggerated the merits of their strengths.

I have spent more time missing them, and wishing they were part of my life, than I have in resentment toward my father for the very human mistakes he made.

Continue reading If Mom Were Alive Today?

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Daring Greatly: Great Reading

A few posts ago, I shared the books adorning my bedside table. Included in that enriching stack was Daring Greatly by celebrated author and University of Houston researcher, Brené Brown.

It’s an incredibly rich read, and here is the larger message I’ve so far gathered from Daring Greatly:

To live fully, we need to be willing to be vulnerable;
To be vulnerable, we need to be willing to put ourselves out there;
To put ourselves out there, we need to know that we are enough;
To know that we are enough, we need to be resilient against the siren call of shame (that tries to convince us that we are not enough);
To not buckle to the siren call of shame, we need to be willing to cultivate “shame resilience;”
To develop shame resilience in order to be vulnerable, we need to be willing to practice “daring greatly” daily/hourly; and,
To be willing to keep practicing, we need to realize that only by being vulnerable are we truly connected, and hence, truly alive.

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A Different Kind of Russian in a Different Kind of NYC

As an attorney practicing U.S. immigration law in 1990s New York City–in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union–I joined my colleagues in compiling compelling applications on behalf of former Soviet citizens seeking new, often humble lives in America.

That was back when the abandoned coliseum still occupied its western hold on Columbus Circle.

What a difference twenty years make.

Continue reading A Different Kind of Russian in a Different Kind of NYC

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Why Embellish When the Truth Itself Fascinates?

This has been a week of incredible revelations and seeming obfuscations over at NBC Nightly News, and of delighted daggers of wit over at Twitter.

On Wednesday, news emerged that the anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams,  had exaggerated, for years, the extent to which his life was put at risk during a helicopter flight in the Iraqi desert in 2003.

By Thursday, Mr. Williams had delivered an apology-of sorts, acknowledging the untruthfulness of his claims of a harrowing experience, yet wrapping his mea culpa in an ill-fitting suit of self-justifications.

Whereas he and his crew had indeed been aboard a Chinook helicopter on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, his copter did not sustain enemy fire, nor was it forced to land because of a hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, as Mr. Williams contended as recently as one week ago.

Here, then, was a man, fresh from signing a $10 million per year, 5-year contract to read and write the evening news,  who apparently had been for at least ten years experiencing a sense of “not enough.”

Here was a man who looked to have all anyone could ever want–and more, yet felt a less-than so huge that he had to fabricate a better-than, a braver-than, a more-extraordinary-than too big for any single human to contain.

If it weren’t so tragic, it would be comedic.  Given enough time, it may very well be.

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Bedside Table Reading

Someone famous certainly must have once said, “Tell me which books are on your bedside table at any given moment, and I’ll tell you what is important in your life at that moment in time. ”
BedsideTableBooks1.21.15(r1)

So, it is very fitting, that as we delve into 2015, the books on my bedside table reflect my fervent (urgent, even) desire to reflect on recent years past, with engines full-speed ahead toward the years yet to come.  

Reflection

Not only is it the start of a new calendar year, it is also the start of another chapter in my life as the mother of a wonderful teenager who is making choices that often do not involve me.  This is called maturity.   A good thing, indeed.

This development, though, combined with family-career choices I may or may not otherwise have made, has turbo-charged me into contemplating a re-direction in my life.

Hence,  on my bedside table presently reside books that reflect this time of, well, reflection.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

If Only:  How to Turn Regret into Opportunity by Neal Roese, Ph.D.

Nerve:  Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark

More to Follow

As the first month of 2015 hasn’t yet turned into the second, I have not yet finished either of the three books.  I pick up one, then the other, depending upon which inner voice is nibbling away at my self-confidence at the moment.

I promise, though, to report back here as I finish each.

In the meantime, I’ll be daring greatly, and striving to turn my regrets into opportunities, all with poise and nerve!

P.S.  I’d love to know which books are on your bedside table.  If you care to, leave a note in the Comments section below.  Happy Reading!

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Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

Lost for Words

A Sense of Place

No doubt about it, the setting for acclaimed British author Edward St. Aubyn’s delightful, witty work, Lost for Words, could be none other than England.  Quintessential England, at that, with men named Tobias and Malcolm, and ladies named Penny Feathers.

Throw in a uniquely British-sounding book contest–the Elysian Prize for Literature, sponsored by the patrician-sounding Elysian Group–and you might feel ready to jump right on a double-decker bus with a Union Jack pinned smartly to your lapel.

 A Sense of the Absurd, Charmingly Served

For those who enjoy a good dose of acerbic wit, this novel will supply a smorgasborg of it!  At every turn, the novel turns convention and snobbery on its pointed nose.

Why, take your pick! A short-listed cookbook of generations-old Indian recipes, The Palace Cookbook, heralded as a brilliant piece of fiction (though it is neither brilliant nor fiction), after a prestigious publishing house mistakenly submits the Indian cookbook instead of the much-anticipated novel of our tragic heroine?

An Indian manservant commissioned by his employer’s “Indian grandee” nephew (whose own novel was overlooked while his aunt’s Indian cookbook is celebrated) to murder one of the judges in revenge?  An elevator that malfunctions and traps the esteemed Malcolm Craig, Chair of the Elysian Prize committee,  mere moments and just steps from the podium where he is to deliver the Elysian prize?

Missing Pieces

Katherine Burns.   Emotionally vacant, sexually vociferous though never sated.   Why, Katherine, why?  I would have liked to have known more about the life events that contributed to her desperate hunt for men who seemingly could never fill that reservoir of sadness she forever sought to fill with them.

How fitting that her novel–the one that one of her lovers seemingly had a hand in (accidentally?) failing to deliver to the Elysian committee by the deadline– was titled, Consequences.

Overall

Overall, Lost for Words, is a winner.  If there were an Elysian prize for the work of fiction with the most echoes of that most prized master of wit, Oscar Wilde, then this surely would take top honors, if not top prize.

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The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

The Days of Abandonment

A Sense of Newness, Yet a Sense of Having Been There Before

There are some books that stay with us–like the aftertaste of a favorite Indian dish–long after the waiter has taken the last plate away.

Elena Ferrante’s masterpiece, The Days of Abandonment,  translated elegantly from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, continues to have just such a profound impact on my days, long after I finished savoring her magical words.

Indeed, there are some books that say things in such a way that it’s as if one is hearing for the very first time things one has heard many times before.  And when the things those books are saying are the very things that one has been trying to say as beautifully as the author has, one feels at  home, one feels an amazing sense of peace.  A sense of peace born of the thought, “I am not alone.”

 A Sense of Loss

The Days of Abandonment tells the story of Olga’s excruciating journey from betrayed wife to liberated sojourner, with microscopic scrutiny of one particularly painful, gut-wrenching day, and with an overflowing of empathy that makes understandable, if not rational, the absurd things an abandoned wife and mother might do.

Missing Pieces

If I were forced at pain of injury to conjure something I found missing in The Days of Abandonment, it would be only that I did not know enough of why Mario left Olga for Gina, other than the obvious:  youth and availability.  Of course, to venture deeper into Mario’s reasoning, in the hands of such an extraordinarily skilled author as Elena Ferrante, would be to unearth enough material for a book all its own.

Overall

Overall, this book beautifully tells the story of countless women in countless cultures.  It tells the story of my mother–or at least I believe it does.  (If she were here, and I thought she would be willing to answer, I might ask her if Olga’s story isn’t hers as well.)

And if Olga were here, I would thank her for having the courage to tell her story.  So powerful is this story, that it is hard to believe that Olga lives only between the book covers.  In reality, she lives everywhere there are women who’ve suffered the singular, yet universally-shared pain of betrayal.

Thank you, Elena Ferrante, for telling our stories with such courage and grace.

 

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Every day, a day of Thanks-giving!

It is a beautiful day in Houston, Texas.  This, the last Sunday of November 2014.  This, the grand finale to the Thanksgiving Day celebration that means so much to so many, and for so many different reasons.

Those reasons, for me, include gratitude for a life that has given me my beautiful son, yet taken from me at too young an age, my beautiful mother.   A life that has given me a brilliant father, yet taken from that very father the strength and resilience necessary to continue to overcome life’s myriad hurdles.  A life that has given me a sharp mind and amazing resourcefulness, yet taken from me the constancy early in my life that perhaps would have ensured more constancy later in my life.

As this Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, I am above all thankful for a life that through pain and love has given me the ability to find countless things to be thankful for, each and every day.

 

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