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Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write

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Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?

These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!

What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.

A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.

As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”

IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.

It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.

When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.

So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.

To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.

These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂

If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:

When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex, HuffPost.

The Four Rs of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender Writers Digest.

Whose Life is it Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation The Guardian.

Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race? The Good Man Project.

 

 

 

 

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Women Who Cheat and Open Marriages

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Cat Woman: The Ultimate Schemer

A social researcher confirmed some beliefs I’ve held for a long time now. First, that women are almost always premeditated cheaters who justify their decisions by blaming their husbands. Second, that, unlike men, in their premeditated schemes, women demand to have their cake and eat it too—right from the start. What I mean, is that women who cheat expect their paramours to only cheat with them, i.e. be faithful to them, when ironically, they are married, or both are. Women’s innate desire for attachment and emotional connection, makes cheating almost always a dangerous situation that will inevitably destroy families.

Eric Anderson, Ph.D., is a sociologist, professor and author whose studies focus on attitudes regarding sex and sexual orientation, as well as attitudes towards the sexual orientation of athletes. I’ve followed his career over the past few years and interviewed him via email last year and this week. (Last year his book The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and The Reality of Cheating received a lot of buzz. In my interview with him entitled Is Cheating the ONLY Rational Choice for Married Men?, he outlined why open marriages are a good option for couples.)

Since Dr. Anderson only interviewed men last year in his study regarding monogamy, I asked whether or not he’d ever conduct studies about women. His research is just about concluded and he found, by following hundreds of women on the Ashley Madison website, that women plan, while men often fall into cheating. After reading thousands of conversations from women, he saw a pattern of most seeking someone to have an affair with—while blaming their husbands for their decisions to cheat.

“So I can’t say how many cheated. I can say that of the 100, 35-45 year old women on the site, they basically all blamed their husbands for a lack of passion, but none wanted to leave their husbands,” Anderson explained.

“Instead, they scapegoated their husbands ‘lack of passion’ as a euphemissm to correctly and politely say that they were desiring some sex, but that they wanted some emotion with it.”

Many of you may say that men do the same thing. And I’m not saying that they don’t. TRUST ME. But more often then not, Anderson says, men will just happen upon the opportunity. They don’t think for months ahead of time, about the justifications for wanting to cheat. In fact, most men, will just start to crave variety, even if happy in their marriages and even if religious or highly value keeping the family intact. (I surmise that all the justifications for the cheating and continued lying by men come afterwards if they continue to cheat with one person and it develops into an affair.)

As mentioned, women, more often then not, make the opportunity. So, by that I mean, many men that cheat do not have an unhappy marriage. In fact, they may be having sex with their wives, whom they love, three times a week. But the chance of having sex with a new, attractive person, is just hard to pass up if the opportunity presents itself. It’s rarely a love-at-first-sight kind of thing for men.

Another big difference, according to Anderson, is that men don’t desire a long-term, restrictive affair if they are going to cheat. In fact, an anonymous one-night stand would be their preference. The hard part about that, is that woman who cheat, often have claws. Many just refuse to let go after the first roll in the hay—or even before they have sex. Most women that Anderson studied on Ashley Madison, stated—before having an affair—that they didn’t want the other person they cheat with to have sex with anyone else.

“Interesting, however, unlike men who want sex without emotion and with many others, they (women) wanted ONE person to be a serial cheater with. They wanted monogamy with their non-monogamy! Fascinating,” Anderson said via email this week.

So it seems that men’s need for variety often makes them vulnerable to becoming ensnarled in the arms of a paramour, who just won’t let go—risking their marriages and the welfare of their children. If most men could see the end results before going into a situation like that, I think many would likely walk away. Since men are wired for sexual variety, according to Anderson, open relationships could save many a marriage. But, I imagine that it’s  a hard subject to bring up with wives, isn’t it? It’s far easier to have a one-night-stand. Sadly, women who cheat, want much more than that. And, there lies the rub.

Now that I’m clear about the reasons women cheat—and what they want from the person they cheat with—I’m not sure how an open relationship would work within a heterosexual marriage. Wouldn’t the other women in the dynamic become a potential problem for a couple if she became attached to your husband? Or, what if the wife began to prefer another man over her husband? It’s a risk isn’t it? And the idea of only having sex, occasionally with strangers is a bit scary too, especially for women. So that same dynamic within women who crave emotional attachment, just gets in the way. Perhaps successful open marriages are easier to achieve within same-sex male couples? What do you think? How many traditional married couples would welcome occasional, non-emotional sex, periodically, with strangers? Would it be exciting? Would it make both in the marriage less likely to cheat? Would it strengthen the marriage or erode it’s intimacy? Watch Anderson’s interview this week on HuffPostLive where he outlines his case for open marriages and get back me. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

HuffPost Helping us in our Nanny Search

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Yesterday I participated in a HuffPost Live panel entitled: “Good Help Is Hard To Find”. I had forgotten about my nightmare nanny scenario that I wrote about when the parenting editor of DivineCaroline.com.  A HuffPost producer read that article and reached out. Within a day, I was on a panel of experts discussing tips for parents on a nanny search. We weighed the pros and cons to such topics as whether new parents should use a nanny cam? Should all potential nannies undergo drug tests? Are there any questions that shouldn’t be asked during a nanny interview? Is it okay to ask about sexual preference or marriage status or whether the nanny has conflicts with her own children’s schedules, for instance. More importantly, we were asked to share our nanny nightmares. (You can see my video segment that HuffPost is running here.)

It was a very interesting and lively discussion and it brought back a lot of issues for me. (You can see the entire panel and chime in with your own written comments here.)

My nightmare scenario, in particular, is striking a chord with many viewers. In fact, AOL is now publicizing the event on their home page today (pic above). What that tells me is that I should dig further into the topic of what the telltale signs are for addiction. In my scenario, many years ago, I found out a potential nanny was an alcoholic. Luckily, I worked from home and was able to see her with my then three-year-old. Even though references checked out, I didn’t feel completely at ease. I didn’t trust my intuition as well as I do now, however. Still, she did all the right things with my son and said the right things to me. Her references LOVED her. I trusted that she wouldn’t steal from me and she was very sweet. I only needed her a few half days a week, so I could freelance. After a few months of working for me, I asked her to house sit and take care of our dog when we were away for a week.

Feeling the need to come home a few days early, I was able to pop in and discover the many, many vodka bottles. Afterwards, it all made sense. She was always chewing gum or eating mints. She always drank sprite or Fresca—an easy drink to mix vodka with. She never wanted to work early in the day. Since I needed part-time work, I was flexible. She had been let go from her job at a preschool, but she, and the preschool, both said it was because she was taking care of her aging mother full-time and it was getting in the way of her responsibilities. I’ve come to learn that some people want ‘to help’ an alcoholic. The belief that they’ll get better, and an underlying friendship, can lead some not to reveal there was ever a substance abuse problem.

Looking back, I see how trusting I was and how very lucky that I worked from home and popped back in on this woman. Clearly, if she started to drive my son to and from swim classes in heavy Atlanta traffic, that would have been incredibly dangerous.

So, as a few experts on the panel suggested yesterday, I should have conducted a background check, criminal check (that may have revealed a DUI), and a drug test.

Today, life is great. I have a wonderful part-time nanny who was actually my oldest son’s nanny when he was born in California, before we moved to Atlanta  and then London. We came back from London so I could give birth to my second, and I was ecstatic to not only find her again, but to find that her current family was moving and she was free to work for me! We are SO lucky. She’s everything any parent would want in a nanny. I found her through my doula/midwife at UCLA Santa Monica. In fact, my doula was her sister’s mother-in-law. The entire family is wonderful and her sister, also a nurse, and her mother have all babysat for us. We love them. They truly are family.

With that said, if you are looking for a full-time nanny for your infant and you’ll not be working from home, these tips should help:

– Find reputable references for your nanny search such as your doctor, your nurse, midwife, minister…as these people will likely steer you in the direction of finding someone you can trust. Even if you find yourself in a large city without many friends, these sort of people may offer better candidates.

– Do background and criminal checks. These may reveal DUIs.

– Conduct a drug test.

– Use a nanny cam, but tell the nanny you will be using one periodically.

– Offer to provide health insurance and insist that she have a physical.

The news today is filled with nanny horror stories. The sad story of the nanny who killed the Krim children in Manhattan, is terrifying. The woman’s attorney is claiming she is severely mentally ill. This may be true. So how did the signs of mental illness not show at all? Last month, the nanny’s defense attorney says she is unfit to come to trial and that she hears voices. I wonder how she kept this side of her from showing? It’s something that must haunt the parents and family of those children. Mental illness is a mystery. This story is beyond tragic. Luckily, it’s also extremely rare.

For more tips on your nanny search, here’s a great article:

Seven Fundamentals of Effective Nanny Hiring

If Mindfulness Transforms CEOs … Imagine How It Can Help You?

Photo by: Administrador Galeria Uninter

Photo by: Administrador Galeria Uninter

Mindfulness expert and former General Mills executive, Janice Marturano, helps CEOs and corporate executives across America manifest their dreams and better manage their stress, their personal lives and business communications through mindfulness meditation. So, it’s no wonder that I reached out to the founder and executive director of The Institute for Mindful Leadership for advice. We all know that single parents juggle more than most. Those of us who are working full-time, as well as juggling the lion share of parenting needs, can feel drained, frazzled and out -of-control. Ironically, Marturano, who spoke with me today via a phone interview, explained that finding “moments to pause,” which teaches us how to be present, is the to key to bettering all our relationships: whether those are with co-workers or our children. Her work with Fortune 500 executives is garnering much word-of-mouth recognition, and just last week, Arianna Huffington personally invited Janice to write for HuffPost. (Read her first HuffPost column here.)

I’m thrilled to include this Q&A with Janice, who not only changed my brother’s life, but is helping to demystify mindfulness meditation and bring it to the masses:

NV: Mindfulness meditation is certainly getting a lot of media coverage these days. You’ve been an expert in the field for over a decade. What do you think about all the articles that are out there now?

JM: Quite frankly, a lot of what’s out there is just garbage. So many people say that it’s [mindfulness meditation] about feeling your breath or doing deep breathing. And that’s just not it.

NV:  I hear that all the time too. So, if it’s not about breath, what is it?

JM: It’s just not that simple. The real power and richness [of mindfulness meditation] is that it’s a journey. … Take 10 minutes every day and just feel your breath. Don’t try to do deep breathing, just feel your breath. When the monkey mind chatter begins, and the mind takes a hike to your to-do list or an upcoming meeting, just gently re-direct it back to your breath without judgement.

NV: Well, I’ve been doing this for a few months now and I’m still trying to figure out exactly how this will help me.

JM: It’s in the re-direction of your wandering thoughts back to your breath that starts the capacity to get us present—with our kids and our work colleagues. You’re going to be able to find what I call “the purposeful pause.”

NV: Ok, so this teaches me to later stop letting my mind wander, or check texts, or think about the next article I need to write, while I’m chatting with my children?

JM: Exactly. You learn to be present, and they notice. Just like colleagues or employees notice when they are truly being heard.

NV: That’s powerful. I’m sure so many of your clients from Fortune 500 companies may feel like they just don’t have time to sit and meditate. I know some single moms who feel like that too! What do you say to that?

JM: Fifteen years ago I was one of the only women to become an officer in my company (General Mills, Inc.) ever. I wasn’t a single mom, but I was certainly a working mom and understood the stress of juggling and the demands of keeping all the balls in the air. Who has time to meditate? … When I went on my first retreat [with General Mills] Jon Kabat-Zinn was my first teacher! (Insert laugh here). Jon created mindfulness stress reduction techniques! Anyway, on our first day he says, “we’re going to be practicing for an hour.” I about died! Now, I wish it could be for longer. But for most of us, finding 10 minutes a day, or even 5 minutes twice a day, is a great start. And, for those really busy executives, I tell them to find time while they do other things. You can meditate when you brush your teeth or when you’re in the shower.

NV: Okay, you’re going to have to explain how I can meditate while I brush my teeth. I always imagined that I need to sit on a cushion with my legs crossed and my hands facing upwards.

JM: I teach all levels. If someone thinks they are too busy, I suggest they find ways to make something, like brushing their teeth, a meditative experience. So, you focus your full attention to feeling the brush, tasting the toothpaste, listening to the sounds around you and you keep re-directing your thoughts back to the present moment when they wander.

NV: So you can do this anytime. I try to find 5 minutes in the shower in the morning, when my kiddos can’t reach me.

JM: Sure, the shower is a great place. I started saving money on conditioner costs by meditating in the shower! [Before utilizing mindfulness techniques] I used to have my whole 10 a.m. meeting in the shower with me! And as I was lost in my thoughts, I would forget that I already conditioned my hair and would condition it twice! Now, I clearly don’t do that.

NV: I imagine that this little example sort of crystalizes how being mindfulness, or finding moments to pause can help us in all areas of our life.

JM: Yes, exactly.

NV: Thanks SO much for your time! I’d love for my readers to also check out your article A Mindful Calendar—as executives and stay-at-home moms a like—can benefit from this organizational article. Thanks again for your time and your valuable contribution to our world.

A related story of interest: The Power of NOT Holding It All (Together)

Single Moms, What Do You Want from Our Next President?

I was recently interviewed by Huff Post about the single mom perspective on the first presidential debate and specifically about Romney’s comment to discontinue funding for PBS: the home of Sesame Street. (You can read that article and my interview here: Mitt Romney’s Big Bird Problem: Kids Can’t Vote, but Moms Can.) I was driving down I-85 towards Chapel Hill, N.C.—on my way to see my mother whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease—when I got the call from Laura Bassett, a Huff Post political reporter. Even though I had decided to put work aside for the week I travelled home and focus on my mom—I had to take the interview. My mother, a former social worker and political activist, would have wanted me to. We have a clear opportunity to voice our needs right now. It’s very important, moms, even if you’re insanely busy or overwhelmed or just plain skeptical about the political process. Maybe you doubt whether either candidate can actually get past polarized gridlock and politicking to actually get things done on Capital Hill? If you believe that, you may also believe that it just doesn’t matter what either stand for. I’ve heard that argument. But I think that’s a cop out.

I understand doubts and skepticism. But voicing our needs right now can only be a good thing: as America is listening. Politicians are listening. Business leaders are listening.

For instance, I was thrilled when listening to the lighter speeches that both candidates gave during the Al Smith Foundation Dinner. (Here’s a great NYTimes article highlighting some of their best jabs.) It’s clear that Mitt Romney heard our thoughts and our disdain for the idea that he might want to cut funding for Sesame Street when he said: “The president’s remarks tonight,” he added, “are brought to you by the letter O and the number $16 trillion.”

Clearly, momsrising.org was successful in its campaign to galvanize women and moms across the country about this issue. I’m thrilled, because so many of us just won’t get off our nonpolitical couches. Just this week I reached out to single parent groups and to more than 100 women in my network who are single moms to give them an opportunity to chime in. What do you care about, I asked? In my poll to give them a voice, I asked if they cared more about pay equity; affordable healthcare; affordable tuition; affordable child care; the right to choose, etc. It’s not surprising that only a handful responded. Perhaps we are saturated with all the advertising and debates and this messy political process? Perhaps we are skeptical that anyone in the White House can make a difference in our families’ lives? I think the gist to such low enthusiasm—amongst moms anyway—is this feeling that your opinion doesn’t count or matter.

It does.

I hear many of you single moms when you vent to your online parenting groups about a variety of issues such as expensive medical bills for your children that your ex won’t contribute towards; or child care costs you can’t afford; or  tuition payments so crippling you are considering dropping out of college. I also hear from moms who don’t get any paid sick days and can’t take time off when their children are sick from school. Quality, affordable healthcare; equal pay on the job; affordable tuition—these are the important topics for single moms. (And, of course for most women and moms in America.)

Obama said it correctly during the debate this week, when referring to equal pay in the workplace: “These are not just women’s issues, these are family issues. These are economic issues.”

I know I’m not alone in these thoughts. Women across the country did respond. In North Carolina, a single mom was more concerned about quality schools; healthy lunches; keeping Planned Parenthood alive and avoiding war at all costs. In Arizona, a single mom cared most about security with our borders. In Northern California, another mom voiced concern about jobs; Planned Parenthood; and educational opportunities. Finally, another mom of three in Southern California said she cared deeply about affordable health care and student loans.

Again, what do you care about?

Please chime in and respond to my poll to keep the conversation going!

Mom in the Picture

My sister Sarah and her son Elijah

I took a hard week off to visit my family in North Carolina. My mother, who is most likely in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, probably didn’t even know who I was. But, it felt important to see her, to hold her hand, to smile at her. Plus, I was able to visit my sisters and brother and their children who I haven’t seen in over a year. While I was gone, I read Lisa Belkin’s HuffPost column: Moms Explain Why They’re Getting Back In the Picture.  Take a moment to read this column. I was touched by it. The column inspires moms to get back in the picture with their families and children. I know that my own mom never liked to “be in the picture” and my two sisters, who are wonderful moms, also shy from the camera.

It’s clear that their sons adore them and could care less if stress and health issues have added pounds or grey hair. Our children adore us just the way we are. Single moms out there—I know so many of you can relate to this. Perhaps the financial stress, emotional stress and the exhaustion of working long hours makes you feel less attractive than you’d like. But your children love you and want photos with you in the picture to remember wonderful moments. If they love you unconditionally—it’s time to start loving yourself the same way.

With that in mind, I’m posting two pictures in this post. The first is of my sister Sarah and her 6-year-old son Elijah. Sarah is a wonderful mother who struggles with auto-immune disorders and migraines, while working full-time as a social worker. She has fought hard to find the right therapies and programs for her son who is thriving, although living with Autism. This past weekend, I loved watching Elijah build ingenious towers and rockets with angry bird dolls peaking out of windows. Both his creativity and love seem boundless—and much of that is because of her dedication.

The second picture is of my other big sister Elizabeth and her son CJ.

Elizabeth has always shied away from the camera since I’ve known her—but especially during the past 18 years that she’s been fighting Lupus and arthritis. An amazingly giving teacher who focusses 100% of her energy on her family—I know her son CJ could care less that steroids and painful, aching hips (which she’s having replaced soon) make her feel tired and less attractive. Yet she still works every day at her school and takes most of the family pictures. There aren’t two less beautiful mothers, than my two sisters. (So, if you two get mad at me after this post…bear with me!) After spending four days visiting my sweet mother whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s, I wish I had more pictures of she and I together, but it’s too late.

I strongly urge you to read Lisa Belkin’s column—one of my favorite parenting bloggers and columnists—as you’ll be surrounded by voices of other mothers who are bravely stepping in front of the camera for their children and families. It’s such a wonderful idea and a step in the right direction of easing up on ourselves and our frailties.