Things I Learned From My Brother

My “Little Brother” is not so little anymore.  He’s in his thirties, and today he celebrates his birthday, adding a candle to his cake and another year of experience to his life.  We have always been very close.  We have truly “had each other’s back”, as the old cliche goes.  Since I haven’t posted anything in weeks – life has gotten very busy – I thought it fitting that I’d start blogging again on his birthday and allowing him to be my inspiration.  So here goes…Jason, this is what you have taught me over the years (there’s more, but these are my top lessons):

  1. Listen more, speak less:  this is a tough one for members of any self-respecting Colombian family.  Colombians love to talk – loudly.  Preferably, that talk shoud include some kind of funny anecdote, a great punch-line or a wise life-lesson.  Jason was always a little less loud than those around him.  He’s always been quiet – preferring to allow others to take center-stage.  This is by no means a lack of confidence…on the contrary, he doesn’t need to boast or shout to the world his accomplishments.  I teach for a living…I am used to talk, talk, talk all day long.  So when I am in a social situation, I take a page out of my brother’s book – talk less, listen more.  It is amazing what you can learn and how much more enriching the experience becomes.
  2. When all else fails, smile…charmingly: my brother has a knack for ingratiating himself with others and making people feel at ease.  His smile is sincere as is the twinkle in his eye.  He got that from our dad.  Simple and it works.
  3. Take care of yourself:  this one might sound a little obvious, or perhaps a little selfish, but it isn’t – in either case.  Jason always puts himself and his needs first – and, never in a way that makes one feel he is self-absorbed.  He knows his boundaries, what is good for him, what he needs to be the best version of himself and he is true to that – always.  Now that I am a mother I see just how critical that is.  In taking care of yourself first, you will always have the energy to take care of others without feeling empty.  This is one of my favourite lessons that I take from my brother.
  4. Play: take the time to play your favourite sport – in his case, soccer; take the time to play with your friends and loved ones.  That “To-Do” list can be put off and the world will not end (really?) – Yes, really.
  5. Shrug it off, but be persistent:  yes, get angry when things don’t go as planned, but don’t stay angry.  Shrug it off, look at what happened and go at it again from a different angle. Or, sometimes, don’t get angry and just shrug it off…what are you going to do, change the past?  Nope.  Keep going – it can only get better from here.  When he wants to do something, he will do it.  Regardless of how long it takes, he will get it done.
  6. Inspiring this blog post: thanks for existing and having a birthday today!  I’ve been feeling guilty about neglecting my blog and you helped me write one today – so thanks!

Sometimes we don’t have to look very far for inspiration, for feeling so moved we have to write.  I am grateful for all the life lessons and look forward to many, many more.  Happy Birthday Little Brother!

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury

I received this book just over a week ago as a Christmas present from one of my beloved students.  I was touched that a student had taken the time to think of a gift that I would appreciate and like.

I have always loved the works of Jane Austen – even though that might not be a fashionable statement amidst those who believe she is not really literature.  This book by Rebecca Dickson begs to differ.

Dickson divides her book very neatly into an introduction and detailed chapters that are ordered according to the publishing  dates of Austen’s works.  Each chapter focuses on the details and plots of each novel, offers interesting notes on the nineteenth century and provides insight into Austen’s personal life.  Dickson peppers her work with anecdotes about the many films that have been made based on Austen’s work and incorporates many works of art that truly capture the feeling of the nineteenth century.  Amidst all of this, there are copies of portraits made of Jane throughout her life, copies of handwritten letters, poems and even editing notes Austen made to her last novel, Persuasion.

Dickson makes many interesting parallels between Austen’s life, the people who surrounded her and the characters and stories of her novels.  Dickson’s claims are substantiated by solid research and her easy writing style makes you feel like you’re chatting to a friend who is well schooled in all-things-Austen and not a high-brow professor of literature.

It’s been a few years since I have read a Jane Austen novel.  Between teaching English, being parent to a toddler and tyring to write more – little time is spared for reading anything new, never mind sitting down to an old favourite.

Dickson’s book has changed my mind.  Recently, I posted about my new BlackBerry Playbook and the desire to start reading ebooks.  I was debating whether to read something new or begin my ereading experience with something old and comforting.  At the time I was leaning toward new, but Dickson’s book has changed my mind.  I crave to read one of Austen’s books in light of all my new knowledge from Dickson.  The question now is, which one will it be?

All in all, Rebecca Dickson doesn’t present any mind-blowing information about the author.  She creates a portrait of a woman who knew very well what she hoped to achieve through her writing and a writer who knew enough about the cultural constraints of her time to reach those goals with humour and disguise them with themes of love.

It’s fun to poke through the clear envelopes, held together by seals of Austen’s silhouette, and (try to) read Austen’s handwriting and look at portraits.  Dickson makes the foray into reading about Austen as much fun as it is to read an Austen novel.

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury is as pleasing to read as it is to look at.  As an English Teacher, Rebecca Dickson’s book will definitely be part of my arsenal to sell Jane Austen to a new generation of readers the next time I teach one of her works.  I believe any fan of Jane Austen will devour this book that will adorn a coffee table well and offer insightful research on a beloved writer.

Happiest Mommy/Teacher on the Block

A few weeks ago I was out for coffee with my friends – who all happen to be teachers.  The four of us sat in Starbucks having wonderful girl-talk that was only slightly peppered with comments about our job.  We try to avoid “shop talk” as much as possible when we are together because the point of spending time together is to celebrate our friendship and get away from our job.  And, if you’ve been around a group of teachers in a social setting, you know we are notorious for talking teaching for hours at a time.  But, my friends and I try to avoid that – we like to demonstrate to ourselves that there is more to our life than teaching, and there always is (but that’s sometimes hard to tell from September-June).  Alas, this particular weekday afternoon a discussion of our profession crept into our girl-talk.  It sounded something like this:

Friend: “So, I’m reading this book Happiest Toddler on the Block.” Her bold declaration while she sipped her tea immediately grabbed my attention since said friend does not have a toddler.

Me: “Really? You are?” In reality, I wasn’t all that surprised because this friend is extremely well read.

Friend: “Yeah, I found it on a friend’s coffee table and started flipping through it.  It’s an easy read – very straightforward. My friend said she swears by the book.  Seems to have all these great tips to deal with a toddler and she said they really work.” At this point my friend smirks, she has a secret that she is devilishly anxious to reveal.  She giggles because she is just so proud of herself.

Me: “What?” I prod her.

Friend: “I’ve been using the techniques in some of my classes and they really work!”

This statement wouldn’t be all that outrageous if we were elementary school teachers, but we all teach high school, as in grades nine through twelve.

Oh yes, the four of us laughed.  Loudly.

Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Toddler on the Block is helping a secondary school teacher manage the classroom!  Once we composed ourselves, she went on to give an example of how the techniques worked.

A student was hanging out the window and she said “Arms belong in the classroom” (Karp advises to keep directions short, to the point with toddlers); the student promptly brought all his limbs back inside and closed the window without any whining, denial that he was hanging out of the window or debate about the benefits of hanging out of a window as one would normally receive from a teen. This is a major coup for any teacher – to have instructions followed without so much as an eyebrow lift or kissed teeth means you are doing your job.

You might also be marvelling at the fact that a student was hanging out the window, but then you probably don’t spend much of your day with the 14-17 year-old set.  They are quite the crowd.  Gotta love ’em to spend every day of your life with ’em.

I naturally purchased the book that very afternoon and absolutely devoured Karp’s anecdotes, wisdom and advice.  I do not have a particularly difficult toddler.  In fact, I consider myself quite lucky because he is pretty fantastic, and it was nice to see that many of the techniques advised by Karp my husband and I already actively engage.  But, there were a few key pieces that I found were nothing short of brilliant.  And, regardless of how wonderful my child is, there are times when I marvel at the sheer will of someone so young!

I am in complete agreement with Karp’s ideas on feeding the meter, bed-time sweet talk and continued efforts throughout the day to reinforce positive behaviours. My absolute favourite is gossiping. It works like a charm.  My little boy loves to “catch me” gossiping about him to his toys about the wonderful things he does, or the things I’d love for him to do.  I naturally deny that any gossiping has taken place, as per Karp’s instructions, and, literally, within seconds, the desired behaviour is displayed.

I also try as much as possible to acknowledge his emotions – whatever they may be – when I see a battle of wills approaching.  “Yes, you are mad, mad, mad” or “you say no, mommy! no bath mommy! no bath!”  – his beautiful brown eyes light up when he feels understood.

Happy Toddler

Inspired by my friend and my toddler, I bring these techniques into the class room with me and am positively floored to see them work!  Acknowledging feelings, feeding the meter, keeping directions short, patience-stretching…I have yet to use the clap and growl though.  I am very interested in seeing a teenager’s reaction to an adult clapping and growling them out of negative behaviour!

All in all, Harvey Karp M.D. provides information succinctly, clearly and without being condescending.  His book is very organized and the chapters are self-contained – you can read them in any order you wish and still be able to undersand his logic.  I highly recommend this book to any parent with a toddler – you might feel a little awkward speaking Toddlerese at first, but once you find your groove, this and every other technique is awesome.  And, hey, if you happen to teach teenagers, well, this book will also help you deal with them – if anything, you’ll have a great teaching story to tell the next time you get together with your teacher friends.

A Review of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project was selected as summer reading for my book club.  As soon as I heard its title I knew I was meant to read it; it was as though the title seemed to encapsulate my mission for the past few months:  become happier.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I marched into the bookstore, found it, ran my hand over the bright blue cover and felt the chill of anticipated reading. Unfortunately, life took over and I wasn’t able to open my book for about a month.  But, it’s bright yellow letters kept calling out to me, reminding me of the promise of happiness to come.

Once I was finally able to sit down to enjoy Rubin’s journey I found myself struggling to get through the first chapter, “Getting Started”. My reasons were personal. Part of me was annoyed by Rubin because she does have a great life – a life that most people would envy.  I quickly realized that my life somewhat mirrors hers, and I was reading her book because I too was on the search for the daily, feel-good feeling.  Alright, I thought, just give her a chance. But, I didn’t want the background; I wanted the project. I was glad to see the chapter end quickly so I could get to the good stuff.

I appreciated that Rubin acknowledged her inner critic about the reasons behind her project. She knew that she wasn’t in a crisis; she just wanted to make her life better.  This made her journey credible for me, and to a certain degree, validated my own search for happiness. I wrestled my inner judge and told her to keep quiet because Rubin was on to something that just might help me.

The idea of tackling so many different parts of your life is daunting, but Rubin’s decision to focus on a different goal each month makes it less overwhelming for those of us who are not as well versed in happiness research.  Research on happiness is the backbone of this book.  Rubin smoothly supports all of her observations and reflections with quotes from scholars and saints, her favourite books and novelists, and current theories in popular culture.  Rubin made each chapter seem accessible, doable and this perhaps is the book’s greatest virtue. Rubin’s monthly objectives makes it easy for readers to find the area of their own life they wish to improve and focus on Rubin’s experiences, research and suggestions to help them on their own road to happiness.

Rubin’s voice was pragmatic throughout her work.  She seemed accessible and genuinely impassioned by her project.  I appreciated her honesty about her failures and the repetition of her truest motto to be herself.  The parts of the narrative that made me most uncomfortable was when Rubin became self-deprecating. I found it unnecessary.  She was too hard on herself.  However, I believe that this is also a symptom of modern womanhood – we expect too much of ourselves and do not treat ourselves well when we fail to meet those expectations.  Ultimately, this too is a lesson for increasing personal happiness.

Although I see the value in including responses from her readers on her blog, I didn’t find them necessary or altogether enlightening.  Perhaps it was a way of validating her experiment by showing that others experience similar feelings and situations.  It  sometimes felt that inserting these seemed like padding to the book.

I recommend this book to those who perhaps are not well read in the areas of self-improvement.  I think it’s a great work to help anyone who wants more happiness to get started.  For those who are more aware of happiness in their life and how it is affected by the decisions they make, this book might seem a bit basic.  Nevertheless, the extensive research Rubin highlights on happiness throughout her narrative does prompt moments of self-reflection and insight for readers.

Overall, Rubin presents a compelling case for one’s ability to obtain happiness.  She does it with honesty and humour.  Rubin’s extensive research and incorporation of this research throughout her work helps readers understand that finding happiness is a most noble and even necessary pursuit.