Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Back in Hong Kong...

...and struggling with jet lag!

I’m doing everything right, including not relying on caffeine to keep me awake in the afternoon, spending lots of time outdoors, and trying to get right back into the ideal routine of waking, sleeping, and eating. But I’ll tell you now, this is probably the worst jet lag I’ve had. In a week I travelled across four different time zones, and had no set routine, so my body is very confused. I woke up this morning at 4:00 a.m. with my stomach rumbling with hunger, and all I wanted to eat was a steak with cheesy garlic mashed potatoes. Which is odd, as my regular diet is primarily plant-based! I’m hoping tomorrow is better than today!

Yesterday I went to Hong Kong Disneyland to meet up with a friend who kindly ordered me coffee capsules in Germany and then hand carried them from London to Hong Kong. Our machine was purchased in Shanghai, but the capsules are no longer made anywhere except Germany, and they don’t ship to me! Thankfully I have a few friends who fly regularly from Europe to Asia, so we’ll see how long we can manage this system before we have to figure something else out...

But it was nice to head straight to Hong Kong Disneyland right after I returned as it gave me a chance to catch the newly spruced up Festival of the Lion King show. It’s an opening day attraction, running continuously since September 12, 2005. Now it looks sparkly and new and even has some new cast members. If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it, or if you haven’t caught it yet, now’s the time!

I’ll be sharing more about my trip to America soon! I discovered so much about a part of America I’ve never lived in before, and only travelled briefly to previously, the American South! It made me realize America is a vast and diverse place, something I knew in my head, of course, but have very little experience in seeing with my own eyes.

Do you have any tried and true jet lag remedies? I wonder if it’s something that gets worse as we age? Hmmm... new subject to research!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Where My Mind Wandered (this week)

Back with more links to the things that caught my attention this week! Put your feet up and join me for a little trip, near and far!

1. Forget flying or roadtripping to get across America. How about buying, and then restoring, an antique luxury railcar and then hooking it up to an Amtrack train to see the sights coast to coast via rail? Several people have done exactly that, with stunning results! I suddenly feel the desire to own a beaded gown and a very long string of pearls...

2. Does social media cause loneliness? Or are lonely people more likely to lean into social media for comfort? A new study goes against the stream, saying social media shouldn't be to blame for feeling isolated. What do you think? Social media is the #1 way I keep in touch with my family and friends around the world, so for me personally, it helps me feel more connected.

3. Maybe it won't leave you lonely, but social media can leave you in debt! Read the cautionary tale of one woman who sank $10K into trying to have a lifestyle worthy of gaining Instagram followers. (And if you want to follow me on Instagram find me at @roseknows, where I spend $0 but do post a lot.)

4. Since moving to Asia over seven years ago, we have hosted more strangers that people we know in our home. Friends of friends have contacted us asking if we had a couch or spare room for them to crash on. We've always said yes unless we were out of the country ourselves. One time we had fourteen people plus our family of four sleeping in our home for a long weekend. Another time we already had my husband's sister staying with us when a friend from Instagram contacted me at nearly midnight saying she and her sister and niece were at the Shanghai Pudong airport, and missed a connecting domestic flight. They needed a place to sleep and hang out for about seven hours. I gave them the code to my front door and left piles of blankets and pillows in the living room and we all went to bed. The next morning when I arose, they'd already come and gone, leaving a nice note thanking us for our hospitality. I often wonder why we are so open to sharing our home. I like to think part of it is because we've been given so much, how could we not turn around and give more in return? Fair warning, this article written by Francis Chan's wife is definitely faith-based, but it does give a peek into why people of faith should consider hospitality as a priority. It definitely gave me a lot to think about, especially as our current home is our smallest yet, and we've had more guests in ten months in Hong Kong than we had in five years in Shanghai.

5. Do you Skimm? While living in Mainland China, many of our new sources were censored (heck, even this blog was censored!). I signed up for this weekday email that gave me a little info about all the current headlines with links to more info. It's funny. It's informing. It's short. It's free. You should sign up too if you're interested in what's going on around the world.

That's it for this week! What crazy new thing did you discover recently? Come on, sharing is caring!

Monday, April 2, 2018

Surviving an International Flight (without kids)

This morning I’m boarding a fourteen hour flight to America.  It's a trip we made twice last year and will probably make at least one other time before we bid adieu to 2018. To me, flying is not something that gets easier with practice. I know life is supposed to be about the journey, not just the destination, but travelling by plane is convenient but challenging. And no, I'm not even talking about how to make a long journey with kids...

When you look up survival tips for long haul flights, it's inevitably advice for how to survive 10+ hours locked in a metal tube with a baby or toddler. My kids are now 17 and nearly 15, and have been flying internationally since they were ten weeks old. I can't really offer travel advice for how we survived it other than to say that like me, one day your kids will be teenagers who actually fly internationally on their own (it's weird the first time) and you'll have (conveniently perhaps) forgotten the anxiety and dread you once carried while boarding a plane with a baby tucked in your arms.

Instead I want to share with you six items I use (and how I use them) to survive the better part of a twenty-four hour period in the air as a young-at-heart-but-not-in-body woman who loves adventure but doesn't love all the rough parts of actually being in the air on a long haul international flight.

1. Cheap slippers/compression socks. A lifetime ago when our kids were babies and toddlers we were on an expat package which would fly us business class if the flight was over six hours. While that hasn't happened in a long time (and I argue it would be most helpful now, when my kids are over 6 feet tall), the thing I loved most about business class after the glorious extra space is that it provided us with a pair of comfy socks and slippers. I always take my shoes off during a flight, but for the inevitable swelling feet and the lack of space to bend over and take shoes off/put shoes on every time I get up for a stroll or to use the washroom, it feels like a stupid thing to do. After all, it is pretty gross to walk around a plane and it's bathrooms in just socks. Have you ever been in a plane bathroom ten hours into a sixteen hour flight? The floor is like a swamp of questionable fluids. I get anxiety just thinking about what I might be standing in. So while I would never stand in there in my socks, standing in there in my shoes feels just as bad (it's also why we don't wear shoes in the house. But that's a story for another day). Cue the business class slipper idea!

Toy Story Hotel slippers: cute but
not sturdy enough for more than
a few wears. Perfect for the plane!
Whenever I stay at a hotel that provides slippers (and this is a 100% given in Asia) I pop them right into my suitcase. It drives my hubby a bit crazy, but less crazy than the bathrooms in coach after a dozen hours. When I fly, I put one pair in my carry on, and one pair in the suitcase. As soon as we board, I take off my shoes and pull out the hotel slippers. Then, if I need to get up, I can just slide my feet into the slippers and keep a protective barrier between me and the creature from the black lagoon. As we begin the descent, I make one last run to the loo and then put my shoes back on. The slippers (and all the gross germies they came into contact with) stay behind, and the extra pair in my luggage gets used for the return flight.

On our last flight from America to Hong Kong we were hanging out in the Chicago airport for six hours. I strolled past one of the many shops and picked up a pair of compression socks on a whim, mostly to use up the few remaining US dollars in my wallet. The older I get, the more my feet and ankles swell while in the air. It generally takes a few painful days for the swelling to go down once I arrive at my destination. I do my best to frequently get up and move (aisle seat is my BFF) and do some in flight exercises to keep from getting too stiff, but the very real threat of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is something I worry about more and more as I age and find myself flying more frequently. I wasn't expecting much from the stockings, but I was impressed with the difference. The sixteen hours of flight time between Chicago and Hong Kong is brutal, but my feet and ankles didn't swell the way they did on the flight there without the stockings. I'll definitely be using them again. I don't have the packaging so can't tell you what brand I own, but here is a pack of three for under $15 USD which comes in two sizes for men or women.

2. Nasal Spray While living in Shanghai, I developed some serious sinus issues. Every time I got even mildly sick, I'd end up with a sinus infection that would. not. quit. In the end, it turns out I have a pretty severe deviated septum and surgery was recommended. Having already had surgery once (unrelated) in China and having watched my husband go through deviated septum repair in China (it was an absolute nightmare), I begged for another option. I promised to be the most compliant patient ever if there was anything I could do to not need surgery.

The ENT doctor recommended this particular nasal spray. It really was a pivot point in my health. I was accustomed to using a saline nasal spray when I fly since airplane environments are so dry and 100% of the time I fly I end up sick, but this one was a life changer. It also contains xylitol, which keeps bacteria from settling in my nasal passages. When I fly, everything in my head swells. My face hurts. My ears hurt. My nose gets completely blocked, leaving me unable to comfortably sleep with my mouth hanging wide open. But with this nasal spray, everything stays calm. I can breathe, drug free. I spray it once in each nostril, wait a moment, gently blow my nose, and then appreciate the gift of a deep breath! I can't say it's the only thing contributing, but since I started using it roughly every hour or two on flights, I've not been sick as a result of flying. Even when I was sitting next to a lady who coughed into her arm on my side the entire flight.

From the Xlear website: "Regular use of xylitol nasal spray can be very beneficial. When the bacteria and contaminants cling to the mucous membrane inside your nasal passages, you are at risk for infectious disease or illness. Since it works as a cleanser and humectant, coating your nasal passages regularly with xylitol reduces the ability for any invaders to get comfortable in your airways. Research has shown that those who regularly use saline nasal spray like Xlear are at a significantly lower risk for respiratory infections."

*Please note, I'm not a doctor and do recommend that you chat with your own ENT or physician about whether this product is good for you. 

3. Foot Hammock. I have two herniated discs in my lower back. The very worst thing I can do for this type of injury is spend hours sitting in a chair with my feet hanging straight down. Even sitting at my computer desk in the comfiest office chair I've ever owned with my feet planted on the floor in front of me isn't great, let alone in an environment where there just isn't space to occasionally lay down flat on the floor and stretch out/relax my spine. At home I have a little step stool/foot rest that is shoved under my desk, allowing me to keep my legs from dangling and my lower back from screaming at me.

A few years ago I wondered if I could find an even smaller one to bring on a plane with me. Instead, a Google search led me to something even better: an adjustable foot hammock that attaches to my tray table which lets me put my feet up or stretch out my legs without putting all the pressure on my back. I order this exact model from Amazon and used it on my next international flight. It was amazing. And unlike a footstool, it takes up no space when the person next to me wants to get up. It's super lightweight and easy to fit in my carry on. And if I want to try and stretch out/curl up sorta-kinda on my side, it provides great support to keep me from sliding out of the seat, and it's soft but not slick, so my feet/legs stay in place instead of sliding through. I will never fly long haul in coach without this! And at under $10 US dollars, it's far less expensive than upgrading to business class!

4. Sleeping Pillow. Oh the drama involved with a sleeping pillow! Of the four members of my family, we have four completely different (strongly held) opinions. My husband hates all of them, and it's painful to watch him try to sleep, head falling forward, and then jerking back up. My youngest likes the plane pillows, which he uses to prop himself up against the plane's wall in the window seat. My oldest (and tallest of all of us) likes to stack a couple plane pillows on the tray table, top them with a horse-shoe shaped pillow, and then bend over with his face in the pile for hours on end. Me? I most often have used the horse-shoe shaped pillow, but with the opening toward my back so I can just rest my chin on it, crossing my arms in front of me, and try to doze. I don't sleep under the best of circumstances (lifelong insomniac here, can't even sleep in my comfy bed half the time) and a plane is never the best of circumstances. Especially when you're a nervous flyer, like I am.

As I strolled through the Chicago airport on my last flight to America, I came across the Cloudz EZ-Inflate Sleeper in one of the shops. Knowing we had sixteen hours in the air made me go ahead and spend the twenty bucks to try it out. Even if it wasn't great for me, surely it would work for someone else in the family. Turns out, it was the best for me! I'm 5'6" tall, and found that it was high enough to rest my face on without making my back uncomfortable. For my oldest son, he felt it was too high for his comfort, even though it's the position he most prefers on a plane. For my youngest, he thought it was okay, but was too busy playing games on his Nintendo Switch to be interested in sleeping (until an hour before we landed and getting him to wake up to de-plane was a nightmare!). My husband was seated across the aisle from me, behind a very large passenger who kept his seat reclined the entire time, tossing and turning and getting up and down frequently. With the seat reclined, it left less space for him to use this, and because the guy in front of him was moving so much, it moved the Sleeper enough to keep my husband wide awake. He also felt it was too high for him to get comfortable.

When I took it back from him, I noticed that controlling the inflation level could make it taller or shorter, adding to my comfort. I loved being able to put my arms through the pillow, it made for a comfy, cozy experience and I did indeed fall asleep for several hours quite comfortably. It was also quite comfortable to use while I reclined my own seat, arms through hugging it, with my face against it. Kinda like sleeping with a large teddy bear. It blows up and deflates very quickly, and has a removable, washable cover for where your face goes. If you're looking for a pillow solution for flying internationally in coach, I certainly recommend trying this out. Especially if, like us, you frequently end up on red eye flights and expect to hit the ground running in your destination and really do need to catch some Zzz's while flying the friendly skies!

5. Antibacterial Wipes, Tissues, Plastic Baggies. I've been flying internationally for three decades, and until recently, I'd inevitably always get sick after a long flight. In the last couple of years I made a few simple changes which had big impact. First, I stocked up on antibacterial wipes. I'm partial to Wet Ones because they don't bug my skin and they have a nice texture to scrub with, as well as the best seal on the package (I've tried out lots of brands). I keep them right in my hand with my boarding pass and passport, and as soon as I stow my carry on, I go germ busting on everything within arm's length. I wipe down the seat if it's not cloth, and scrub the armrests, making sure to give the button you press to recline your seat extra attention. I wipe down the back of the seat in front of me, including the underside of the tray, the edge of the seat pocket, the screen, and any buttons. I pull down the tray table and scrub away. I reach up and wipe the air vent, the light button, and the call button. And then I look at the wipe I've been using, and try not to throw up over the fact that it's no longer white, but streaked with grey and brown. I pull out a second wipe (or third if I've used more than one) and clean my hands. Then I toss them both into a little baggy I stash in the seat back or into a flight attendant's care if they happen to be walking past.

You might think that these areas get cleaned between flights, but I know too many people in the airline industry who tell me otherwise, and there's been many a flight that we've watched pull in, see the passengers exit, and then begin boarding within 30 minutes. I often find wrappers and used tissue in the seat pocket. I know there's no way someone is cleaning up after the last person who sat in my seat. And airlines aren't actually "required" to deep clean all that often (no joke, many only deep clean annually!). Don't believe me? Check this out. Or this.

I keep my packet of antibacterial wipes nearby throughout the flight, and also a packet of tissues. If I get up to use to the washroom, I do so with tissue in hand to open the door and lock it behind me. I use another one to flush the toilet, and to unlock and open the door back up. I wash my hands very thoroughly and then use another wipe when I get back to my seat. I promise you I am no germaphobe. I have friends who are. I don't even come close. But we fly internationally between 4-6 times per year, and when you think about how every single flight was ending with me paying for a doctor's visit + medicines (sometimes in countries where I have no health insurance which is a pricey "souvenir") and downtime in bed or just being plain miserable instead of enjoying a vacation or getting back to real life, these small investments (along with using that nasal spray above) paid huge dividends. And the baggies? Perfect for accumulating rubbish and then passing over to a flight attendant. I, for one, have never left a used tissue in the seat pocket! You're welcome.

6. Pain Relief Patches. These make me feel like I'm entering little old lady territory, but they are such a lifesaver! I mentioned that I have a back injury, but I also find that as I age, I have little aches and pains which are exacerbated and amplified when I fly. My shoulders get tense, my neck aches, my lower back cramps up... you get it. None of this helps when you have to sit in a small chair for over ten hours. I could take a pain relief pill, but as a nervous flier, I really don't like to put anything in me that might upset my stomach. It's no fun.

These little patches from Salonpas work for eight hours to bring pain relief exactly where you need it. Right before we board the plane I make a quick trip to the washroom and stick a couple on my lower back where I pretty much always have pain. And then after the first meal I assess where in my body I'm carrying tension, and I'll go stick a couple more on those spots if necessary before the tension becomes pain. It's amazing how well it keeps my muscles from seizing up! The patches contain camphor, menthol, and methyl salicylate, and they provide a nice warm feeling where you put them.

And a bonus tip: If you're on vacation and you're doing a ton of walking and your feet start hurting, sticking one of these to the soles of your feet can make a big difference in keeping you from missing out on any fun!

I do absolutely recommend you try them out a couple of times before you jump on a plane to make sure you don't have a reaction! Hours from an airport in mid-flight is not a great place to have a sudden allergic reaction (I speak from experience when I accidentally ingested just a bite of a shrimp cracker and ended up itching for hours).

*Again, I'm not a doctor! Please read the packaging carefully to make sure this is safe for you to use, and if you have any questions or concerns, check with your medical professional!

Those are my top ways to survive a flight. I'm sure you've heard that you need to hydrate like crazy. Every time they offer water, I'll take it. I also regularly get up and walk back to the galley and ask for more. I drink enough that I have to get up to use the toilet often, which also helps to keep me moving, reducing swelling in my feet and legs and helping to relieve general stiffness!

What is your top tip for surviving a long flight? I want to know!

Please note: a few products I've linked to may be affiliate links, meaning I might earn a small commission at no cost to you if you choose to buy. All the opinions and recommendations are my own, no one is paying me to share them. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Where My Mind Wandered (this week)

A few years ago I took an assessment from Gallup called StrengthsFinder 2.0. The point was to reveal my top five strengths, or areas where I'm naturally talented. I took plenty of other assessments throughout high school and college, but they generally pointed out areas of deficiency where I needed improvement. StrengthsFinder turned that on its head, instead showing what you are best at and how to use those talents to be more productive and better at what you do!

My top strength was Input, which means I'm inquisitive (super curious), and tend to collect things. My house is jam packed with meaningful items from our travels, every single one with a story to tell. I can never have just one of something. If I read a book by an author I like, I am compelled to read every other book they've written, and I read A LOT.
Photo of a wall in my house:
If your home looks like this, Input might
be one of your top 5 strengths...
I also collect information, ravenously and unapologetically. My Shanghai friend Leslie used to tell her kids, "Don't bother with Google, just ask Auntie Heather." I constantly want to know what and why and where. I'm an introvert, but my insatiable curiosity about the world means I will absolutely march up to a random guy on the street in Wan Chai wearing a sweatshirt with latitude and longitude coordinates on it and ask him where the coordinates lead to (FYI a ski resort in Japan, the sweatshirt purchased as a gift from his girlfriend because she thought it was a meaningful holiday they shared there. The way he sorta shrugged led me to believe it may have been more meaningful to her than him).

Getting a smartphone was the absolute best thing for me because this insatiable inquisitive nature which has been with me my entire life could be satisfied right on the spot thanks to the phone in my pocket (and a good wifi connection). I have to limit how many TED talks I watch, and people have called me intense because I need to know so much. My parents owned a huge encyclopedia set when I was growing up, and I wasn't allowed to ask questions unless I could prove that what I wanted to know wasn't in the encyclopedia (smart, probably very weary, parents I had!).

The downside of Input as a strength is sometimes other people simply aren't as interested in the things I find fascinating (and if you know me in real life, it's not an act, I'm not just being polite: I find pretty much everything fascinating). I try very hard not to just spew "interesting" facts or overwhelm people with knowledge when they simply want a short, sweet answer about why the fire hydrants are painted purple in Fantasyland at Hong Kong Disneyland (to blend with the color scheme and not jolt you out of the realm of fantasy). But at the same time, I keep finding somewhat obscure information I want to share with the whole world!

I've decided to just do a weekly post where I gather the top five (or so) things which grab my fancy during the week. Dive down the rabbit hole of information at your own risk! And if you come across something interesting, do share!

1. Queen Mary's Dollhouse. I never wanted a dollhouse as a kid, and never had one. But I just came across the royal dollhouse gifted to Queen Mary that had actual books by real authors, running water, a working elevator, and even real wine in tiny bottles in the cellar. Maybe if this had been an option for me growing up, I might have wanted a dollhouse! See the dollhouse here and read about one of the actual books written for the dollhouse library here.

2. My fellow ginger-haired friend Steph was recently lamenting her childhood as a redhead in a house (and town!) filled with blondes and brunettes. It was the first (and sometimes only) thing people noticed about her, and it was rarely to compliment her. I told her that less than 2% of the entire world's population (under 150 million people) have red hair, so of course it's something people take note of. I also told her how in the Disney universe, redheads are very popular, they make up much more of than 2% of the animated Disney world. I have this article from 2012 saved on my computer because I find it so fascinating that Disney and Pixar have both frequently used red hair to visually tell us more about a character.

3. Here's a time when the use of social media resulted in finding out the name of the only woman, and only unidentified person, in a photo of 38 scientists.

4. And speaking of science, this article talks about why a degree or background in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is no longer the most important thing Google looks for when hiring someone. Empathy matters, y'all.

5. And finally, come awards season my social media is filled with people talking about who wore what. People might say, "I just love [insert celebrity's name here], she has so much style!" But did you ever wonder about how they get their style? I loved this round table of stylists talking about their role in getting clothes from designers to the red carpet (and how tricky it was to find heaps of black gowns for the Golden Globes at the last minute for Time's Up).

There's more where that came from, but I'll stop here for this week! Have a great one!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Raft or The Kayak

My sons currently attend a British-curriculum school in Hong Kong. Previously they attended a local Chinese school in Shanghai. There's a million ways I could compare and contrast their experiences, but the one which is pounding us in the face right now is the difference between the group and the individual.

In America there was a law called "No Child Left Behind" in place from 2002-2015. It was a way to hold the schools accountable for the achievement of their students, as well as an opportunity to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the program struggled and has been replaced with something else, the idea of not leaving any student behind is a noble one. In Shanghai, the boys' school really seemed to do this well.

While we lived in China they attended boarding school. They were with their classmates all day and night, with only a break on the weekends to come home and do laundry and eat a week's worth of pizza. Their classes weren't grouped together based on age so much as ability. For instance, my youngest was in the American equivalent of the seventh grade, but he was in a ninth grade math class because that was the level which fit him best (even though it jumped him from junior high into high school). And unlike our experience in America, the students were actually expected to confer with a classmate first before asking the teacher a question. If you didn't understand something, the entire class was expected to help you out and make sure you got it. Working together was the way you were successful, not isolated studying for individual glory.

The experience was similar to being on a big raft on a river. The water may be flowing quickly, but the large raft filled with people was a pretty safe place. You would all leave from the same spot on the shore and arrive at the destination together.

This style of schooling took a little while for my sons to get used to. Heck, it was hard for us parents because our own upbringing said the teacher was your first point of contact if you were struggling, not one of the last. And you never let your peers know if you were slipping, how would that look? But the benefit really was that no child got left behind. You could use your individual strengths to contribute to the success of the whole group, while one of your classmates used their strengths to help you out. The whole group got the ice cream party at the end of term, not just an individual who did particularly well. And because it was a boarding school (and in China with no uncensored internet, wifi, or distractions), you had plenty of both programmed and casual time to work as a team.

In Hong Kong, they go to a day school right down the hill from our home. I assure you the transition from boarding school to having our kids home each night was far more difficult than when they went away. After so much relative freedom from their parents, it was hard to reassert boundaries or even ask questions about homework without great suspicion on their end. And it was also hard simply remembering to ask if they had homework after so many years of not being involved in that part of their lives!

There was also a vocabulary difference. We'd ask if they had homework, and for months the answer was no. I found this to be shocking! After all, they are in the American equivalent of the ninth and eleventh grades... how could there be no homework in high school? Turns out the word for "work you do at home after the school day is complete" is revision. I'd been hearing the word at the school, but assumed it meant altering, or improving something which has already been done. As in to revise an essay in a second draft (thanks Merriam-Webster American Dictionary). But according to the British Cambridge Dictionary, it means 'study of work to prepare for an exam.' Isn't it funny how two native English speakers from different parts of the world can actually be speaking a completely different language? While there was no specific assigned task to complete each night to turn in the next day, the boys were meant to be studying at home every evening for each class they had (they knew this, they were somewhat taking advantage of their parents' ignorance on terminology).

The programs they are in here (IGCSE for our youngest and A Levels for our oldest) have huge exams at the end of two years which cover everything they previously learned. The coursework they are doing during this time doesn't count toward completion, it's passing the exams at the end which matters. Revision is how they are meant to keep the details fresh. Ten minutes every day per subject vs. three days of cramming before an exam, which covers everything you learned 18 months before. Of course, being new to this, it took us awhile to truly grasp the enormity of this system.

Here we are, six months into the school year and figuring out there is no raft for our kids to sit on as they speed down the river toward major exams at the end of next year. If anything, they've been standing in the middle of the river, getting pummeled by the water and trying not to drown. Right now we're doing our best to at least get them into a kayak and teach them how to paddle for themselves. What it means to actually study, not just doing repetitive classwork or a project. It's not an easy place to be when you're 14 and 17, and have no real recollection of doing school any other way. How do you teach someone to study when the majority of their school life is already behind them?

Hong Kong, especially the area where we currently live, is not an exceptionally transient place. Many of the boys' friends were actually born here, and have attended school together their whole lives. Our youngest was the sole new student in his year, and our oldest was among only a handful of new students for year twelve (the equivalent of 11th grade in America). Their peers and friends have come from several years of practice in what is brand new to my boys. And because neither of them have ever been in a system where everything is riding on a huge exam so far off in the distance, they don't know what to expect or how best to train for that scenario. And for our oldest, with just one more year of school, he doesn't even get a chance to try it out in an earlier grade before he gets to do it for the first and only (and most important) time. The boys aren't the only ones standing in the river unsure what to do, us parents are wet and shivering as lost as well.

The good news? The teachers here are incredible. If you take one step toward them, they are more than happy to cover the rest of the difference. But transitioning from a system where the teacher was not the first stop on a bumpy patch of road, to the people my sons need to be talking to and updating and asking questions of on a daily basis is just as rough as when we left this type of school!

I confess to feeling a bit of discouragement at the moment. Every day it becomes painfully obvious how we don't even know what we don't know, and we certainly can't pass on any knowledge in this area to our kids, who expect to follow our lead. Really all we can do is focus on what we do know to be true: We are a family not afraid of failure. We are a family who has been through a lot. We are a family who loves each other. We are a family who finds a way through when it feels like there isn't one. We are a family who will figure this current season out, because we've figured out past rough seasons. We are a family that will either learn to paddle our kayaks, or we will learn to swim!

Yeah, if this sounds like a pep talk to myself as we prepare to sit down with all our oldest son's teachers this afternoon to get the honest truth of how he's doing, it's because it 100% is. Everyone I've spoken to about my fears says it'll all work out just fine in the end. And sure, that's probably true, even if it's not at all a helpful statement to make while someone is currently hyperventilating. I still want to put this part of our experience down in words and share from an authentic place that isn't always sunshine-filled days and trips to Disneyland. 

I want to record this season in a thoughtful and meaningful way. It's not just the end of the story that matters, that place where the moral and wisdom magically drop from the sky and you move on to the next great adventure. It's really the muddled middle, where you truly don't know what might be coming around the corner, that serves to give the ending the sweetness, the satisfaction, the goosebumps, or the tears which make a story memorable. 

Here's to the middle, this not-quite-to-the-end season, and to our future, stronger, drier selves. 

*All photos courtesy of my husband, who took the boys on a rafting trip in Anhui, China during the summer of 2016. All three of them loved it. Good reminder that ultimately, being in the water at all is a super fun place to be. Especially with family and friends by your side.  

Monday, March 19, 2018

7 Best Books of 2017

In 2017 I did a personal reading challenge, reading 52 books in 52 weeks, and invited friends around the world to join me.  

I did pretty good documenting them on Instagram and Facebook for most of the year, and then got behind in posting. I think I read a total of 67 books, but I gave away a stack of books I'd finished before documenting them, so I'm not exactly sure. 

My friend Anthony also did the challenge, waiting until the last day of the year to post a complete list of the books he'd read, along with his top five. He asked me to share mine, and of course I could not keep the list to five. Because it was 2017, I decided to pick my top seven. They aren't really in any particular order, it was hard enough to narrow it down to this list! I picked six books that were new-to-me this year, and one book that I've read over and over and still love. 

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I joined a book club I saw on Facebook which met in my little beach community and this was the book they picked. I knew nothing about it or the author, and I only had a few days to read it. It was an absorbing read, set over thirty years in Russia about a Count placed under house arrest in a hotel. I spent a summer in the former USSR back in high school, so the subject matter was actually quite familiar to me. The writing is outstanding and the story of a man retaining his class and dignity during the most trying of times feels fresh in today's political climate. 

2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This was the second book I read in 2017 and it should have come with a warning that I would be crying inconsolably by the time I turned the last page (consider this your warning). My greatest passion in life is building community, and this story of a grumpy elderly widower in Sweden dealing with his crazy neighbors shines a light on the fact that we are worth being loved and giving love until the very last breath we take.

3. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I actually read three Margaret Atwood books this year, but I have to add this to my top seven because it's a book I wanted to actually live inside, to know the characters myself, and be a part of the action. It's a story of simmering plans for revenge while putting on a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in a prison. It makes Shakespeare relevant to modern times, something I'll always be a fan of. 

4. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves by James Han Mattson

This one wrecked me. Ricky Graves is a teenage boy with a secret who ends his life before the book starts. The people who knew him tell the story of how and why he got to that point. This book is really a must-read for anyone who works with or parents teenagers. It deals with social media and bullying, as well as the effects of shame and secrets.

5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

This is a collection of short stories, all of which come with commentary of his writing process and inspiration for each piece. The stories are great, but it's the commentary straight from Mr. King which really excited me. If you've ever read one of Stephen King's books and wondered what in the world goes on inside his head, this book will answer that, to some degree. 

The first book of his I read was The Stand in the 5th grade when I was home for a week with the Chicken Pox. I was immediately drawn into this epic story. It's amazing how his short stories feel just as epic. 

6. The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Walt Disney cites Robert Henri and this book as inspiration for his creative mind. It is a truly a master class in creativity and my brand new copy ended up filled with underlines and highlights and notes in the column because every page was so rich with advice and ideas on being an original. I'd definitely recommend it for anyone who works in a creative field, but even if you don't, you will still get so much out of it. This is a great book to read slowly, though like me you might want to just gobble it up.

7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of my favorite books of all time. I've read it at least five times and have lent out two hard copies of it which I never got back, so I purchased it again on my Kindle. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and a second book club that I joined (after the first one disbanded after my first meeting) decided to read this book. I was more than happy to read it once again. This book is deceptively simple, written in very easy to understand prose which makes you think it might be for a younger audience. But by the end of the book you'll be covered in goosebumps with the realization of what has been happening throughout the book. Even though I know what's coming, I'm still shocked every time. He's also the author of The Remains of the Day, which is actually one of my least favorite books (I could barely finish it and thought it was a terrible waste of my time). Funny that for other people, it's their absolute favorite! Amazing that one author can cause such a wide spectrum of passion! 

And there you have it! I'm not doing a reading challenge for 2018 because I'm spending the year writing! Though I'm still finding plenty of time to read thanks to all the time I spend on public transit in Hong Kong! Oh, and FYI: Purchasing any of the books through the links provided adds a tiny bit of money to my book buying fund, so please help my habit while I'm helping out yours! Heh heh heh...

What have you read recently that I absolutely need to download to my Kindle ASAP?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Talent vs Hard Work

I’m surrounded by talented people. I’m drawn to them, especially the ones talented in areas where I’m not. But not all of them are successful, at least not in the area where they have remarkable talent. Myself included. Especially myself. We all have areas where we shine. And like the poster in my high school guidance counselor’s office, success in life is not just about our gifts, but what we do with them.

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates 
the talented individual from the successful 
one is a lot of hard work. --Stephen King

This is the year I’m focusing on discipline, small habits being built day after day, which in turn lead to a lifestyle where success can blossom. I saw the quote above in a magazine article and googled it, which lead me to this article, a quick but good read.

It’s only March but I have genuinely grown so much already. It has not been easy. I didn’t expect it to be. There have been some challenges that I certainly didn't anticipate. But I'm embracing them and learning from them. Looking forward with great anticipation to the fruits of the lessons I’m learning now. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018


I wrote a play last year, and this Saturday it will get its world premiere in America, in my home state of California. It’s called Babel, and was loosely inspired by what I imagined was the aftermath of the Tower of Babel story.

It seems we’re in an age where we as a human race are more deeply divided than at any other time in my life. This divide feels so hopeless, and it’s caused me significant anxiety. It feels like each day brings a new polarizing event which shuts down any potential for communication. Instead people dig in even deeper to their convictions, often with a great deal of pride that their side is far superior.

Members of my own family stopped speaking to each other with love and kindness, and then stopped talking to each other at all, turning instead to the echo chamber of people who think exactly as they do for support and ammunition. I had what can only be described as a panic attack and spent four days crying in my pajamas in bed after watching people I love and admire hurl insults and hatred toward one another online. Friends of mine on both sides of any given issue “unfriended” me on Facebook for my unwillingness to draw a hard line on their side instead of continuing my lifelong passion of being a force for love above all else. Does it matter if we're right if we alienate people we love (and who love us), forgetting to show any kindness at all, speaking with vile hatred to strangers on the internet, telling them how wrong wrong WRONG they are?

I had a light-bulb moment many months ago while in the midst of despair over the current state of affairs. I was talking with a friend I’ve known for at least fifteen years. Her background is very different than mine. Her outlook on life, her politics, all very different from mine. But she’s also a mama who loves her kids. She was very vocal in her support for something I was quite opposed to (but far less vocal about). I couldn’t understand how she could think so differently from me, but our fifteen years of friendship comes with a deep respect and love for each other, and I wasn’t about to say 'so long' to our shared history. I had a conversation with her about what she was supporting, and asked her about it in the gentlest and most non-confrontational way I could. Her reasoning? She wants a better future for her family. For her kids. For her future grandchildren and generations to come. Which is a good thing, a noble thing. You can't fault that in any way.

But here’s the kicker: my reason for thinking the exact opposite of her was because I want exactly the same thing.

The fact that at the core our desires and dreams were identical, somewhat blew my mind. Our paths to get there were (and are) very different, and honestly I can't clearly see how we can both get there the way things are going. It gave me a lot to think about. It gave me a little spark of hope that maybe there is a bridge, even if it's not the sturdiest or prettiest, which could somehow bring people together if we could all step far enough back from the fight for just a minute.

My play doesn’t offer any concrete solutions. It's not a comedy, it likely won't make people feel fluffy and light by the ending. But I do hope the distance from the stage to the front row is just enough space for people to see the beautiful potential in coming together instead of continuing as we are.

It has a limited five show run over two weekends, and one night is sold out with a second almost full. If you're interested in tickets and are somewhere near the Central Valley of California, click here for more information.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


I spiked a raging fever last Saturday while Michael was on his flight home to Hong Kong. 

I spent the last five days wrapped up in bed or on the couch, in my Christmas PJ’s and warm fuzzy socks with Nurse Lucy Rocket on my lap, while my temperature has soared between 101-104F (38.3-40c). 

"Where do you think you're going? You are staying right here! Nurse's orders!"

I took ‘taking it easy’ very seriously in light of the flu which is knocking people out worldwide. No other symptoms have developed, no sore throat, no headache, stomachache, no respiratory issues. Just this crazy fever which has made me feel detached from my body and given me wild dreams. 

I’ve been taking vitamin D3, sleeping whenever I felt like I could (no matter the time of day), and slathering myself with anti-flu essential oils. This morning my fever finally (finally!) dropped below 100F (37.7c). 

I have two observations: one, YAY IMMUNE SYSTEM! You’re doing a great job, successfully fighting off whatever nasty buggy was trying to take me down! Normally you fight for a day or two and then give up and I end up in the worst kind of misery. But not this time, GO TEAM! And two, WOW, being able to take total and complete rest for five days is the ultimate luxury, only made possible because my sons are teenagers and can manage themselves without my help, because I have a husband who will work a full day with jet lag and then still hit the grocery to stock up on edible items for our family to sustain themselves nutritionally, and because I have a housemaid (#expatlife) who comes in a few times a week to stay on top of laundry and clean the kitchen and bathrooms (keeping everything as disinfected as possible). 

I know we’re told to “stay home and rest” when we have a contagious infection (i.e. the flu), but honestly that’s almost never really possible, is it? I mean is it? Are you currently sick and reading this from somewhere other than your bed? If you’re a mom of little ones, it’s impossible. If you have a demanding job, you might physically stay home but the phone doesn’t stop ringing (and the emails don't stop coming in). If you live here in Hong Kong you have to take public transit just to get to the doctor, thereby shedding germies to the unsuspecting public, not to mention just wearing yourself out by walking to the bus, the MTR train, up and down stairs, etc. I’m exceptionally grateful I’ve been able to cocoon/hibernate/quarantine myself until I feel totally better, perhaps for the first time ever. 

However... even though I don't have little ones any more and I am my own boss at the moment (and I'm neither Type A nor a true perfectionist), I confess to feeling great disappointment that I’ve not written at all these last five days. I haven't even stepped one foot into my home office (keeping the germs in just one or two places in my home instead of everywhere). I feel like I’ve blown my very Disciplined writing streak while we’re still in the first month of 2018! Ai ya! But, as always when I choose a word for the year, it teaches me something unexpected

So I’m reframing my thinking: it actually takes a lot of discipline to stay in bed when you’re sick while there’s a lot of things to do and people to see and homework to help with and hungry teenagers to feed and a husband who has been out of the country for a week that you've missed deeply. 

But I did it. I stayed in bed so hard!

So I'm not calling these five days a failure. Certainly my immune system is cheering me on because of all the help I’ve tossed it’s way! And my temp has fallen and things will likely be back to normal tomorrow, and I’ve had more sleep in five days than I’ve had the entire rest of the month so YAY ME. Nurse Lucy Rocket is going to be very disappointed there won't be a lap to sleep upon at all times. And hopefully no one else will be taking my place in the coming week... the fever stops with me! 

P.S. This post brought to you by my phone, while sitting on the couch, with the exact view as seen in the photo above. Tomorrow I may attempt the office... 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Discipline in 2018

In my last post, I shared about how I choose a word each year as a sort of theme, rather than picking a New Year's resolution. Today I'll share this year's word, plus some stories to go along with it. Ready?

In the last two years, we've been living in what you might call "Survival Mode." We opened Disney's twelfth theme park and moved from one Shanghai flat to another (in the same week as the Grand Opening! With house guests!). Michael's contract was up for renewal which meant we had the opportunity to make a change in location (country) if we wanted to, and we hit our fifth year in China so we had to leave the country for 32 days for tax purposes (#expatlife, yo). Michael had a very frightening health scare, a creative group I'd facilitated for 2.5 years was drawing to a natural close, and more friends than usual were unexpectedly repatriating or moving on. Then we moved to Hong Kong and lived in a hotel for a month while our dog went to live in a third country for 45 days to be able to enter Hong Kong from China. Our boys, who attended a local Chinese boarding school in Shanghai, had to adjust to a British day school. And we had to adjust to having them home every night. Through all this, we were much like the balls in a pinball machine... getting flung here and there, bouncing off obstacles, reacting to whatever came our way with lots of noise and flashing lights rather than deciding where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.

And let's be real: that isn't a bad thing, really. The ability to be flexible and roll with the punches and still get stuff accomplished each day, week, month, and year despite massive chaos is no small thing. But it does take a toll on a person's body and mind. One of the biggest unintended consequences of living life in "Survival Mode" is knowing life doesn't have predictable patterns and you absolutely have to take respite whenever you can get it. You learn guilt-free self care.

Have a brutally hard morning? Just take the rest of the afternoon off to relax and recover with a good book. Have the week from hell of appointments at immigration with no time for lunch a single day out of the seven? Indulge enthusiastically in a calorie-laden dinner of your favorite food, followed with late night snacks because wow was that hard and you deserve it. Can't sleep because your mind won't shut off after the late night call from your parents? Get up and watch Netflix until you're drowsy and then sleep all day the next day. And then do it again the next night because now your body thinks this is when you're supposed to be awake after just one bad night.

Sometimes that is what you absolutely have to do to get through. There is zero shame in that. But there may come a point where you haven't even had a hard morning at all, you're just taking the afternoon off to read because you want to. And the late night snacking is now just a habit and you're eating more because you feel bad because your pants don't fit. And there's really no point in even going to bed anymore because you know you won't sleep anyway so coffee and sleeping pills become your BFF's (not at the same time) just to get through the day. Where does it end? At some point you have to pluck the quarter from the hand of the pimply teenager wanting to play more pinball and say no more.

For quite some time I've been working on writing two different books. One is a fiction novel and the other is filled with real life stories from our experiences around the world. I haven't made much progress on either because better things (or more important/pressing/urgent/emergency things) keep popping up.

My best writing process is to fully immerse myself in the story and let it flow out of me in long stretches of uninterrupted time (I think this is every writer's preferred process). This is a great process if you do not have kids or a husband but do have a giant pile of money and someone else to do the cooking and cleaning for you. I, however, am a proud mom and wife, who has to feed my family at regular intervals (teenage boys and their ever-empty stomachs, amirite?). And living in Asia with tiny refrigerators and no pantry means near-daily grocery shopping. At some point, even though writing a book is a real, actual job which can bring in an actual paycheck, I stopped treating it as such and let everything else take priority above it. There's a season for everything, and I figured I just wasn't in the right season. My time would come and this just wasn't it.

And then a few months ago I was presented with an interesting opportunity. I was commissioned to write a play for a director who already had a cast and a string of dates booked in a theater in California and just needed a compelling script. The timeline was absolutely bonkers, it needed to be completely done with all edits and rewrites by January 1st, giving me just two months to give birth to a work I'm not even going to see in rehearsals or during its initial run. At first, I thought nope, this isn't for me. Let it go. But there was something that kept pulling me back... I started out in theater and have written ten plays or books for musicals which have actually been produced. I've sold a handful of scripts for sketches which have gone into anthologies or publications. My business cards say Storyteller instead of Writer because of my background in the theater... the ultimate vehicle for telling stories. But it is very difficult to make a living as a playwright, especially if you move around the world every couple of years. It is far easier to make money as a copywriter, which is telling stories of a different kind (buy this product! click this link!). So I decided long ago I wouldn't pursue writing plays full time, but just enjoy it whenever I got the chance to. And this was a big chance. So I said yes, even though it was more than a little inconvenient, and even though I wasn't set up or ready to devote the time and energy to it. What's a little more survival mode when you're already used to it?

And I wrote, even though my kids and the dog wouldn't leave me alone (funny how when you're not as accessible everyone wants your undivided attention).
(Actual photo of the boys + dog just "hanging out" in my office
after school while I'm trying to write. If I was trying to ask
them about their day, they'd be no where to be found.) 
And I kept writing, even though it meant turning down Christmas parties with new acquaintances here in Hong Kong with real potential to become actual friends (making new friends in a new country is not for the faint of heart).

(Actual photo of my screen taken the night I was writing
instead of making merry during my favorite time of year.)
And then I edited on the sixteen hour flight to America for our two week holiday instead of watching all the new movies which came out while we lived in Shanghai that I never got the chance to see. And I edited some more at my parents' house instead of snacking and lazily reading a book or going to see Star Wars a second time (with a stop at Target!) with my sons and husband.

And I got the script completed, edited, and submitted before the January 1st deadline, and there was never a feeling so great as knowing you did something big and saw it all the way through to the end and really like what you completed. Ask my husband if he's ever seen me happier than the night I finally said "It is finished and submitted! Now let's celebrate!" I was walking on air, and only partially because of the celebration...

As the remaining days of 2017 and our trip to America counted down, I kept thinking about that great feeling. It wasn't just about crossing the finish line, it was about making the choice to put my butt in a chair and my hands on a keyboard and spill words out onto the screen, even though there were so many other things I could have been doing, maybe even should have been doing (if you asked my hungry sons who wondered if their uniforms had been laundered). It was about choosing one thing over another instead of just going with the flow and hoping for the best.

Yes, I want to finish writing the books I've started. Or start a new one altogether. Yes, I want to tell more stories, here on my blog instead of just over at Instagram. Yes, I want to improve my writing and grow my audience. I want that awesome feeling of having completed a big project to the very best of my ability with a celebration afterward.

But here's what I want most of all: I want to already be ready the next time a big exciting project falls into my lap. I want to have deep habits of writing daily so ingrained that taking on something like a commission to write a play doesn't mean giving up time with the kids or having to turn down Christmas parties. I want to have that "best writing process" I mentioned up above whether I have a glorious, quiet, uninterrupted full eight hours to write, or whether stepping straight into that full immersion when it's literally just a single hour between loads of laundry while I have a headache and the housekeeper is vacuuming the floor under the desk I'm trying to write at. And let's get real, the second scenario is most often the one I'm dealing with, so how in the world can I make that work? With discipline.

It's not sexy or glamorous at all. It lacks awe and wonder and magic. But just wanting that "finished product feeling" isn't enough to get me to the finish line. I have to develop the habits which will get me there. 

When we got back to America on January 2nd, my jet lag was fierce. I usually only sleep when I'm jet lagged (or sick), so I crave the feeling (of jet lag, not sickness). I was falling asleep by 11:00 p.m and waking up naturally by 6:00-7:00 a.m. I decided to just go ahead and set my alarm for 7:00 a.m. (even on the weekend) to try and turn this jet lag into a pattern, and the pattern into a habit. And to use those extra hours in the morning for writing. I'm not a morning person, so it's not the most ideal situation. But using a couple of hours every morning to write is training me to be able to write under less than ideal situations. Putting my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard is definitely an activity, exercise, or regimen that will develop or improve a skill. It's training me to write when I don't have a major deadline flying at my face. Every day I get up to write, I get to have a mini rush of good feeling. Even when whatever I write is lame and awful and I hate it. It doesn't even matter, because a year from now I'll be able to know more about what I love and won't have to waste as much time writing the lame stuff to get to the good. 

When I decided Discipline was my word for 2018, I thought I'd make mini goals in many categories, like health, housekeeping, etc. Discipline across the board, yeah let's do it 2018! (I'm either 100% in or not in at all, a blessing and a curse.) But as I spent time this week thinking about that, I realized that as with the unintended consequences of words I've chosen in the past, choosing to be disciplined in the area most important to me will naturally carry over into the other areas of my life that could stand to have a little more order. I know it's a struggle to get up at 7:00 a.m. if I stay up until 3:00 a.m. reading. So I gotta turn off the light by 11:00 p.m. I know it's a struggle to get back into writing a story if I only devote time to writing it over the weekend or the occasional Wednesday. So I gotta keep it close enough it's like walking through a doorway into the story instead of swimming upstream in an icy river and then climbing a wall to get in.

It's not going to be easy. But easy gets me reading too many books on too many afternoons and pants that don't fit. And what I really want to do is to write the sexy and glamorous blog post filled with awe and wonder and magic telling you where you can go buy my book. And then go out to celebrate. But that's only going to happen if I discipline myself to put my butt in my chair and my hands on my keyboard every single day, spilling words out onto the screen like it's my job.

Because it is.

And I'm ready.

Discipline in 2018.

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