United by Difference

Earlier this month I explored the complexities of parenting through Andrew Solomon’s passionate and affecting book, Far From The Tree. Today I’m looking at all the ways that we can foster identity from a peer group if we inherit or acquire a trait that is foreign to our parents.

stuttering community

Growing up in England I never lacked for love or understanding, but I imagined myself as a slim minority. I knew precious few stutterers. Those I did know I kept my distance from. It was only when I moved to America to start researching Out With It, that I saw I was in, what Solomons calls, “a vast company.” Not only with the millions of other stutterers across the world, but with the multitudes of people who had some so-called flaw or strangeness that they were coming to terms with. As Solomon so gracefully puts it, I realised that “difference unites us…(that) the exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

In Far From the Tree Solomon describes the sense of pride he witnesses amid the attendees of a dwarf conference and he reflects upon about the validation many deaf children feel when they stumble upon Deaf identity in their adolescence. He talks about the complex unfurling of his own identity as a gay man amid “Gay Pride’s Technicolour fiesta”. It is a familiar sense of discovery. I remember walking into my first stuttering conference, the warm cacophony of stutters and the fiercely pride-laden conversations.

Becoming a part of the stuttering community has not mitigated all the difficulties of my speech. Neither do I spend my life inside the cosy confines of that community. There may be people who see my stutter as ugliness, but the stuttering community safeguards against any tendency I have to internalise those perceptions. It teaches me to be kinder to myself and it nourishes my hard won contentment. As Solomon writes about the Deaf community, “General culture feels that deaf children are primarily children who lack something: they lack hearing. The Deaf culture feels they have something: they have membership in a beautiful culture.”

Solomon does not trivialise disability of difficulty, he does not politely shy away from all the humiliations and hurts. He gives us both the wrenching pain of a difficult life alongside the story of Temple Grandin and her ability to make “what the world calls illness (her autism) the cornerstone of her brilliance.”

There is a certain solace amongst the pages of his book, a sense that we constitute a boundless, coherent clan of misfits. We are all flawed and strange, we all have our darkness. As Grandin proves “the trick is making something exalted of it.”

It took years for me to give up my once-endless search for normality. To realise that all I was striving for was a banal mediocrity. It took finding a community to understand that I couldn’t be someone else, but I could be a better version of myself. 

Interested to learn more? See Part 1 of my exploration of Far From the Tree in Parenting a Stranger.

Re-imagining the Role of Godparent

A few days ago one of my favourite people asked me to be her son’s godmother.

Our friends are at the age where baby monitors often provide the background noise to dinner parties and apartments are rented with school districts in mind. And yet, somehow, the concept of godparenting had never crossed my mind. It was an enormous honor that I had never expected.

I said yes, quickly and fervently.

And then I spent hours learning about what I had just accepted, about the expectations and guidelines for godparents.

godparent decisionsI’m not an atheist but I’d be hard-pressed to call myself deeply religious. If I was supposed to serve as a spiritual guarantor for the little guy I wasn’t sure what kind of spirituality I was guaranteeing.

And yet the idea of being such a big part of my friend’s family, and playing a role in her son’s life, had enormous appeal. So I started to look for secular inspiration.

From folklore to pop culture, there were Cinderella-style fairy godmothers who saw inherent charms in their charges and gun wielding Godfathers who embodied protection.

From my own life, I was lucky enough to have two godparents and one godfather. My parents enlisted friends from different parts of their lives and divvied up the duties – one godmother taught me how to laugh through struggles, another taught me the importance of loyalty and my godfather taught me to live by my own rules. We have spent Christmases and birthdays and New Year’s Eves together. I’ve seen them dance and cry. I’ve always felt like they were part of my family.

Yet they aren’t parental. That’s not the role that anyone expects of them. Rather they offer a unique, familial friendship.

And that’s something I think I can offer to my friend’s son. I may not always be in the same country as him. I may not be able to give him large gifts of money. I may still be working out all the questions he wants answers to. But I know how to be a good friend. 

So the ground rules I’m setting for myself are to be the type of friend to him that I am to his mum. To make memories with him, to remember things that are important to him, to laugh with him and listen to him, to always watch out for him.

To quote Don Corleone, arguably the most infamous godparent, “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.”

To see more of my Psychology Today articles go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-it

Experimenting with Patience

Patience is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a tendency to rush myself, and others.

Learning patience

I suspect that living in New York feeds my impatience. Rushing is a way of life here. Our food arrives minutes after we’ve ordered it, the subway shoots us from one end of the island to the other, the streets are clogged with city dwellers sliding, eyes-rolling between groups of dawdling tourists on the sidewalks.

It is a city where time is people’s greatest resource. Services have evolved to outsource anything that might ‘waste’ your time. Task Rabbit will run your errands or clean your flat, a virtual assistant will call your electricity company so you don’t have to wait on hold, Fresh Direct will bring groceries to your 5 floor walk-up so you don’t have to spend precious minutes in the line at Trader Joes.

It is all terribly efficient. But it is good for us? Is it feeding our happiness?

I spent the past two weeks travelling in Costa Rica. It took close to 3 hours to rent a car, every meal we ordered took at lease 30 minutes to make it to our table, we had to wait for an hour in the bank to speak to someone after a machine swallowed our debit card, we got stuck behind suspiciously-leaning-cattle-bearing-trucks that barely broke 40 MPH on the highways while spewing thick black exhaust.

And yet the World Database of Happiness lists Costa Rica as the happiest of 148 nations

Quite possibly it has a lot to do with the natural beauty of the country, or the fact that they dissolved their standing army in favour of pumping money into education, but it might also have something to do with living in a country where things happen in Tico-time.

Tico time happiness

Moving more slowly, waiting more often, forces us to look around. It may infuriate us but it also has the potential to let us see things, hear things and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe all our rushing around is making us blind to the world outside of our blinkered efficiency.

So back in the city of hooking cars, heavy-footed cab drivers and appointment laden weeks, I’m seeing how it feels to talk a little slower, to walk at a different pace and spend a little more time watching the chaos around me.

Location, Location, Location: Why we moved to New York

Frank Bures recently wrote a fantastic article in Thirty Two magazine on the fall of the Creative Class. The article is a well-written exploration of the holes in Richard Florida’s argument that young, innovative people move to places that are open and hip and tolerant, and that they, in turn, generate economic innovation. It opens with Frank’s decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin, because it was liberal and open-minded, a college town with bike paths and coffee shops. It ends with Frank’s disillusion with both Madison and Florida, and his decision to move to Minneapolis. As he puts it, “This time, we moved as wiser, more reality-based people. We researched it carefully. We picked the place we wanted to live not because of any trendy trope, or because it was high on any particular list, but because of the cheap housing, jobs, family and friends, as well as the arts, the biking, the public transit and quality of life.”

The whole article made me think about why Jeremy and I chose to live in New York. Why we packed up our car and drove from Chicago to New York with no apartment and no jobs lined up.

I know the reasons that we gave ourselves:

  • It was nearer my family (and at least a couple hours closer to England)
  • It was a place where things ‘happened’, the heart of the publishing industry and a breeding-ground for startups.
  • It was somewhere that we wanted to experience, a city that we expected to be gritty and adventurous and ideal for our late 20s.

We ended up in our flat in Brooklyn because we fell in love with the mismatched original floorboards, the tree-lined streets, the sense of community and the plethora of amazing restaurants. I’m glad we did. Our place feels like home, it feels like somewhere we have put down roots.

Brooklyn New York

And yet I wonder how much longer we will stay.

We both miss the access to the outdoors, we miss peacefulness and we lament our once existent bank balance. We are perpetually exhausted by the city.

I wonder if we will move to the countryside some day, or a different city, or a different country even. I expect that we will and yet, when I think of leaving, I dwell on all that I would lose in leaving New York. More than anything it is the people, the friends we have made and the family we have here, that I would miss. I balk against giving them up.

Ultimately, I do not think that any place, any city, is perfect. Everywhere is flawed in some ways and beautiful in others. As Bures puts it, “It may be wiser to try to create the place you want to live, rather than to keep trying to find it.”

The best thing about England is the people

I just got back from two weeks in England and everyone in New York has been asking me what I got up to. Did I go see the amazing Hopper exhibition? No, but I heard it was fabulous. Did I eat at any of the restaurants I mentioned on my last post? No, but I did eat out a lot. Did I merrily peddle around the London canals on the Boris bikes? Sort of, for a brief time, before I realized that I was wearing a skirt and not entirely opaque tights. Did I catch the stage production of The King’s Speech? No, but from all accounts it was wonderful and I wish I did. Did I gorge on every food stall with free samples at Borough market? Yes, finally I did do one thing that I was planning on do.

Borough market England

Honestly, I didn’t do many of the things I had planned to do in London. I didn’t have time to play tourist in my own city because, well, I spent 2 weeks laughing.

That is not to say that I did nothing. I went to two fabulous hen parties and two amazing weddings, I went out to eat with old friends, went on long country walks and had a very decadent afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental. And yet, what I remember most was how much I laughed. I laughed so much that my cheeks hurt at the end of the day and my mascara ended up running in unattractive lines down my face. All that laughing had very little to do with where I was (London was rather rainy apart from two sunny days) but who I was with.


My friends have somewhat unfortunately ended up scattered across the globe. England has a smattering of amazing school friends in London, Sunderland, Bristol and Edinburgh but from that point onwards it all gets rather aggravatingly international. Oman, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Dubai, New York…you would think that we hated each other from the way we have all fled out across the globe. Luckily, we have email and Skype and all sorts of other fancy tech to keep us in touch. But there is nothing quite like being together. Nothing quite like watching someone bust out a hilarious dance move, or cry as they try to tell a joke, or laugh so hard they snort and then laugh some more. There are some things that you just can’t capture over the computer.

Luckily, I have enough happy memories to keep me going until the next time we get together and I’d rather have those memories than a checklist of sites seen any day.

What makes someone a great boss? Stories from ExchangeMyPhone

Jeremy and I have just hired our first full-time employee. It is a very exciting time for ExchangeMyPhone and a big moment for us to reflect on the types of bosses we want to be.

boss at ExchangeMyPhone

We have had two part-time employees at ExchangeMyPhone and lots of contractors for almost a year. They are all amazing, and we are pretty sure that they don’t hate us, but how can we be the best we can be?

Over my life I have had wonderful employers and not-so wonderful ones. I have worked in offices and newsrooms and restaurants, and the traits that have made someone inspire me to work for them (or not) have easily spanned all those industries.

Most of us have answered to a boss at someone point in our lives, so what one word would you use to describe your perfect employer?

I have been brainstorming and these are the best that I have come up with so far:

  1. Encouraging
  2. Clear
  3. Approachable
  4. Focused
  5. Organised
  6. Forward-thinking
  7. Receptive
  8. Motivating
  9. Capable
  10. Trustworthy

I’m still thinking and I would love your input.

In the meantime, I’m off to start cooking lunch because I definitely think that a good boss should make their team some yummy treats to keep them going in the middle of the day!

London Calling: travel plans for a British adventure

In the very near future I will be travelling back to this place:

Travel to England

It has been over 18 months since I was last on British soil and I’m very excited to catch up with some of my amazing friends. I’ll be staying in London for most of the trip and I’m starting to make a dream list of all the places I want to go while I’m there. So far these have made it to the top of my list…

  1. Spending a Sunday mincing around Columbia Road Market and hopefully making it over here for a cupcake or two.
  2. Feasting over a vegetarian lunch with my mum at Ottolenghi.
  3. Making it back to my old neighbourhood for a rarified pub dinner at the Albion.
  4. Stinking up my luggage with some of the exceptional cheese from La Fromagerie.
  5. Poking my head around the bookshelves here before settling down to some afternoon tea and cake.
  6. Taking a cultural break for all the gluttony at the Tate Modern and the National History Museum.
  7. Getting to Borough Market early enough on a Friday to miss the crowds and settle down for some people watching at Monmouth while cradling a mug of cup.
  8. Renting a couple bikes to check out the park life with Jeremy. Taking a ride along the edge of Regent’s Canal.
  9. Escaping the city for a couple days with some friends and messing around on the seaside.

British seaside

I’m loyal to my favourite places but this time I have told myself that I should break out of the mould and explore some new spots that are supposed to be amazing. I’m saving up my pennies for here…

St John London

St John’s

And here…

Dock Kitchen London

Dock Kitchen

And hopefully here…

Rochelle Canteen London

Rochelle Canteen

No doubt, there are lots of other gems that I should explore. To those of you who know the city better than I do, where else should I put on my list?

Best of January list

Last January, Jeremy and I had just moved to New York. We were wading our way through snowdrifts and watching Brooklynites cross-country skiing through Prospect Park. Snowmageddon was upon us and we were hibernating in our very small sublet contemplating why on earth we were putting ourselves through it.

This year, the weather is far less frightful and we are exploring the hidden nooks of the city that we have come to love. Looking at this list of highlights, it seems like January means red wine, lots of food, dreaming of escapes and some resolution-induced mayhem. At least it does for me. What does it mean for you?

Starting off the year on a high note with these guys.

Eating fondue and drinking spicy red wine by the fire here.

Celebrating with friends and some ‘energetic’ dance moves here.

Starting my days off virtuously with the muesli from these guys.

Slurping for a steaming bowl of amazing ramen here after long city walks.

Tearing into these delicious pizzas.

Exploring Koreatown and ending up at this hidden place for lunch.

Tucking into this chili at home while watching movies.

Throwing out the resolutions and making these outrageously good pancakes.

Thawing out in this futuristic coffee spot on Orchard.

Dreaming of escaping here.

What’s on your list?

Best of December List

I have been an utterly useless blogger recently. I don’t expect that it worried too many of you but I feel bad about being so rubbish. Suffice to say that by the end of January I will be much better (the manuscript will be in the hands of my editor and out of my late night fevers) and until then I will stick to my new years resolution to write on here at least once a week.

In the spirit of welcoming in the new year (and saying goodbye to the past year) I thought I would let you know some of my favourites pieces of December by creating a list of highlights (I’d love to hear your December high points so post away in the comments section to your hearts content!):

Sending my parents here for a January get away.

Eating far too much of this butter.

Treating ourselves to this restaurant for my mum’s birthday.

Being involved in this charity bash.

The effortless indulgence of this butterscotch sauce.

Popping down to my local for the odd post-shopping cocktail.

Reading her raw, poetic books (inspirational reading for every memoirist).

Seeing this guy in his last concert.

Indulging in over-priced pints here and feeling like I was back in a country pub.

Watching this film with 3D glasses on and not feeling at all embarrassed.

Feeling the rib-sticking goodness of this restaurant’s cavatelli.

Surviving a frigid bike ride to end up at this spot for unbeatable pancakes.

Embracing the joy of an utterly cheesy spa day here.

Speaking to a room full of shockingly engaged adolescents here.

Cheers to 2011 and I hope you all have a fabulous time ringing in 2012 around the world. What’s on your list?

New York City mantra

Jeremy has a cheery little ditty that started when we were facing the nightmare of apartment hunting in the city. He chants it when a taxi driver won’t take us to Brooklyn or when he spends too long at the Post Office. I hear him mumbling it as he manhandles our bikes into the basement, ‘This city will kill you’.

As I said, cheery.

He’s right, of course. All of the stories are true. New York is dirty and cramped and smelly and hectic and expensive. It is not somewhere you come for an easy, peaceful life. It can be a very difficult place to be, a challenging place to carve out a home.

Yet, in between trying to kill you, the city has moments when it is truly magical, when all the hardships seem trifling in comparison.

There’s a guy in Washington Square Park. He calls himself the Crazy Piano Guy. He drags his grand piano into the space between the park’s fountain and its grand archway. He plays amidst the tourists and the homeless and the buskers and the NYU students. If you stand long enough you’ll watch kids dance, lovers kiss, old men argue and young families take their holiday snaps. You can smell the street carts and hear cars honking in the distance. You can see the world unfold to the sound of his keys hitting the notes. It provokes a certain sense of wonderment, a feeling that you can come alive in this city.

New York piano man