Eight tips to interview like a pro (and have more fun talking with people)

These ideas come from four years of interviewing a captivating group of guests on my Vital Presence podcast. If you’re not recording interviews, adapt these ideas to when you’re being interviewed (it never hurts to know what your interviewer is going through). Or, use them to have a more interesting chat over coffee.

1) Be (really) interested.

I genuinely want to learn about the guests I invite on the show. When I think of my favorite interviewers: Oprah, Krista Tippett, Mark Matousek, they always sound fascinated by their guests. One of Oprah’s great gifts is her ability to make her guests feel special and valuable, and not only because they’re talking with one of the most famous interviewers in the world.

In contrast, I remember being interviewed by a government panel where the interviewers did not make eye contact, the questions were all rote, and no one was allowed to respond to what I said. Talk about nightmarish. My brain froze over!

Being interested in others will also serve you in conversations in gatherings and dinner parties (although parties, alas, are not my forte).

2) Prepare for the interview.

My fabulous friend M. can ignite conversations with total strangers using her boundless interest in others and skills in journalism. She’s also a raving (delightful) extrovert. I like to do extensive preparation–reading an author’s book or researching her or his background. I’m a good improviser (see below) but not that good.

3) Remember the improvisational theatre principle, “Yes, and.”

Conversations are like good tennis volleys–you try not to drop the ball. I never want interviews to sound staged and I don’t give out questions in advance. Very occasionally I may ask guests for suggestions, but I make their questions mine before I use them, if I do.

On the other hand, if a guest rambles on too long, it’s hard to keep up the volley (remember this at parties!).

4) Another improv principle: make your guests feel great.

You aren’t obliged to do this as an interviewer, but hey, people are giving you their time, so why not acknowledge the cool thing they said? Fortunately, you don’t have to be moribund and “objective” like those government interviewers.

Follow your heart. When you’re moved, say so. Laughing, I’ve discovered, also helps!

5) Steer clear of spiel.

Super-interviewer https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/ (who, in my book, represents the gold standard for interviewers,) stays away from interviewing politicians because they almost always are wedded to their campaigns and talking points. One of my least favorite interviews was with a very articulate guest, who never gave me anything he hadn’t said dozens of times before.

I try to steer a conversation that drags or goes off point, without abruptly interrupting a guest, though I’ve been tempted. Instead, I rely on post-production editing to shorten a ramble. I don’t want guests to be marketing themselves mid-interview; I always leave time for them to promote themselves at the end.

6) Sounding natural is unnatural until it gets natural.

One of the high bars I strive for is to sound like myself: positive, interested and relaxed. The great podcast interviewer https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/said it took her five years before she felt “natural” on air. After four years, it’s finally becoming easier for me. Funny to have to work on becoming “natural,” but that’s how it’s been.

When you’re recording, you’re in a forced situation. Nothing is natural about wearing a headset, speaking into a mic, asking a set of tentative questions, keeping the conversation going without sounding dumb, and worrying about the barking dog outside. The more you interview, the more these worries go into the background.

When you’re not recording, you have an advantage. Remembering to relax, breathe, smile and pause will take you far.

7) Keep an easy tempo.

I once found myself in conversation with someone who spoke a mile a minute. My memories of living in Manhatten kicked in and it was off to the races. Listening to that interview, I became exhausted. These days, I may alter my tempo a little to match a guest, but I still need to use the tips above: relax, breathe, smile and pause.

8) Distractions matter, but not as much as you think, if you stay focused on the guest.

I used to be SO worried about distracting noises–my chair squeaking, the cat meowing, or my guest making some bizarre rattling noise (always a concern). I’ve discovered that I can either splice out most distractions and interruptions or figure that my audience won’t mind when my guest’s dog barks or their kids arrive home from school.

That doesn’t apply, however, to my dog Winston, who, without a moment’s notice becomes a barking, canine tornado. Mr. W. now sits out interviews in his crate.

If my guest was sitting in a sound-proof recording studio with top equipment, and I was, too, my standards might be different. But then, we’d call ourselves NPR (National Public Radio).

Whether it’s on-air, or over coffee, interviewing is fun. As with any skill, you get better with practice.

Just be curious, follow your nose, have fun, and (always) listen to your heart.

(If you have specific questions about translating these ideas into conversations, drop me a comment.)


Three crazy super-easy ways to add thanks to your life

Many of us in the United States are preparing for the November marathon known as Thanksgiving. While not as intensive as Christmas, it still involves (assuming you’ve invited people over): inviting guests, scanning recipes, cleaning the house, buying and preparing food, and of course, the big clean-up–among other tasks.

If you’re going out for dinner, the burden might be a little less. In any case, you still have to ready your stomach for the big day when you’ll eat more at one meal than would feed a small village in Somalia.

Normally, doing a marathon requires training in advance. Nobody I know goes out and says, “I haven’t been running at all recently, but maybe I’ll run 26 miles today.”

Don’t wait to train! With under a week to go, you can start your Thanksgiving training NOW. Because at the heart of the day (I hope!) is the act of giving thanks.

I love the T-day ritual of inviting guests at the dining table to share one thing they are grateful for. Usually, it’s big stuff: “I am grateful we’re all together,” or medically-related happy news – “I’m grateful that Emily’s knee has healed,” or “Mom has recovered from her stroke,” or the almost-too-personal, “I’m grateful that I met Ted last year.” (Spoken with suitably dewy eyes.)

Then, it’s your turn to share–which is why you should go into training today. You don’t want to panic, go brain-dead, and resort to saying the only thing you can think of: “The brussels sprouts?”

Or, perhaps worse, you let loose a flood of appreciations that you’ve been meaning to say but haven’t:

“I’d like to thank Rob, the produce guy at the Thriftway for teaching me how to recognize a ripe mango, and for Don (name changed to protect the innocent) for always having a pun-in-need, and for that woman on the bus who gave me the biggest smile when I sat down and seemed to know that I was having a terrible day, and for the fact that Winston’s limp did not require a trip to the vet and for…”

Unfortunately, at this point guests will be staring at their plates, discovering, with less than delight, how gravy congeals as it cools and how mashed potatoes harden. The smiles on their faces are melting faster than an ice-cream cone on a hot August day. The person waiting her turn next to you has gone to sleep.

The point is: you need practice at finding and expressing your thanks.

Gratitude is a muscle that needs development, like any other.

To get you on a roll, I’m offering three unusual but crazy-easy ways that you can use today to start developing that muscle.

Appreciate and thank a service worker.

Service workers are often found at the bottom rung of the pay ladder in our culture and deserve a lot more respect than they typically receive. The Somalian and Filipina aides at my mother’s assisted living center were my heroes, regularly touching me with their kindness. Paid barely minimum wage, they provided the care that allowed the facility to run. (I’m teary-eyed thinking about them).

Appreciating a service worker puts you in touch with the eco-system that was created to enable you to have or buy the things you need.

We may give thanks for the turkey on our plates, but do we really consider what farmers put into buying, raising, vaccinating, feeding and delivering livestock? (Not to mention the turkey’s contribution.) Or the chain of marketers, distributors, planners, grocery stockers, and cashiers whose work is essential for us to have our feasts or any other meals we might choose? They all deserve our thanks.

As you advance in thanks-training, more and more eco-systems will be revealed, and you will discover how thousands of people are working for you. Time to appreciate them.

But today, keep it simple. Just thank someone on the service frontline who may not receive adequate thanks for the hard work he or she does.

2) Thank your food and play with it.

Yes, your mother probably wouldn’t approve. But play isn’t just kids’ stuff. Play gets us out of our heads, into our senses and opens our imaginations. Play can increase our appreciation for what we might otherwise take for granted. Touch your food, move it around on your plate, roll it around in your mouth, and then taste it VERY slowly. Imagine alternative uses for your food, like becoming a projectile missile, although you don’t need to activate that one.

Explore the delight of slurping your noodles, best done in private unless you’re in Japan, where you’ll be welcomed like one of the gang. Enjoy the feeling of drops of broth running off your lips or a wayward noodle stuck to the edges of your chin. Your senses will be grateful for the extra attention.

Why play? It slooooows me down and invites me to notice what is before me with more appreciation. Instead of sit-cut-talk-eat or other forms of fueling while on auto-pilot, I activate my senses of touch, taste, smell, and sight when I play. A world awaits me as I roll my pea. My plate becomes a playground. What a pleasure that is!

Now you can give thanks, both for the magic of your food and because you may have rediscovered what it is to eat with child-like imagination.

3) Appreciate you being you.

If you’re like me, you may have a two-column chart in your mind: left column–failings; right column–what you appreciate about yourself. I bet the results are skewed. Today, dump the left column. Because you’re in gratitude-training, your job is to acknowledge and appreciate how much you have given, tried, failed but tried again, learned, offered the world, etc.

Although this practice might seem self-indulgent, I assure you that the larger the reservoir of self-gratitude we have, the more gratitude we can share with others.

This exercise can be surprisingly hard because we often fail to acknowledge what we do naturally well. My husband forgets that his kindness, generosity towards others, ability to really listen, and concern for the world are amazing gifts. He tends to write them off by saying “That’s just what I do,” as if only banner-worthy accomplishments matter.

Whereas accomplishments in the newspaper headlines quickly fade away, simple, often unseen, acts of kindness warm our hearts and make the world go round.

Please take a moment to note and appreciate any small, even seemingly mundane parts of the greatness that goes into “you-being-you.”

I could keep going with the list–and offer you lots more training opportunities. But I’ll hold for now (Check out the very fun e-book The Game of Thanks by Lynda Tourloukis–part of the inspiration for this blog.)

Just one more thanks. I’m so grateful for you. You read this blog. I can’t tell you enough how much that means to me.

Finding fiery hope

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

Rebecca Solnit

How do we join our hope and rage together? 

Isn’t it time to join Greta Thunberg and rage about the insufficient attention being paid to the planet’s impending environmental disasters?

At the same time, how do we heal our souls from infiltrations of despair invading our hearts?

How can we move with urgency, and, at times when needed, move slowly, consciously, and with great care?

These times call for urgency

Urgency, though, can carry a shadow. We may rush into the fray, without sensing what individual contributions we’re being called to make. We may be tempted to push hard, while leaving an unwanted wake behind us. We may move fast, with determination, yet end up disrespecting others, exerting our power, and writing off anyone who disagrees with us.

As we face the enormous crises at hand, we risk hardening the very hearts that we need to help us heal the planet.

Keeping our heart opens

I’m not an in-the-streets activist these days. I’m a writer, thinker, stay-at-home-with-nature kind of gal. I try to conserve, don’t live an extravagant lifestyle, vote, financially support causes as I can, and grow lots of kale.

It doesn’t feel like enough. (Then again, “not enough” is a phrase my inner critic frequently throws my way.)

My action these days involves reclaiming my appreciative relationship with the garden, and through that, with nature.

I spend time giving thanks to the trees and plants. I think they understand even though we don’t appear to speak the same language. Still, all too quickly in the face of an onslaught of weeds, my connection to the garden can become task-driven and mechanical, even aggressive. I understand why people still reach for chemicals to keep weed invaders at bay. When I’m under siege, I want to take back control!

Then the light comes on. I’m losing the love and with that the magic living in my relationship with our land. I need to slow down. Go off task. Rekindle the joy. Find the respect. Perhaps that will be my small step of environmental activism today.

My small deeds won’t save us from climate change, but they help keep my heart open.

That way, I can bear to read (some of) the news and listen for the whispers of what I will be called to do next.

Challenging despair with action

My friend Rondi has taken a different path. Her Whole Vashon Project  Is “Standing Up to Climate Change…” by making the environmental commitments and initiatives happening on our island visible to all. Her passion stems from a deep source within her and a sense of being called to do this work. The fire that she carries is catching. Thus far, after only a few months, 100 island organizations have stepped up and announced their “green goals” to the community.

Her work inspires me. For one, she offers islanders a concrete vehicle for action and the exchange of ideas. Just as important, she provides an alternative to the despair that threatens to disable many of us.

Bearing the chemo/healing the wound

I spent time this week with a friend who is facing a challenging situation in her battle with cancer. After the first rounds of chemo, she had an operation that successfully removed most of the remaining cancer. Unfortunately, post-surgery, the deep wounds became infected, causing her great pain. She requires additional chemo to kill any last cancer, yet that chemo diminishes her immune system, making it harder to heal her wounds.

She needs to destroy cancer while she tries to heal her body.

Photo credit: National Cancer Institute Author: Linda Bartlett (photographer)

We face a similar dilemma.

Our global systems have cancers that are destroying the environment.

We need to find an equivalent to chemo that can eliminate invasive elements, which have fostered waste, neglect, greed, overuse of resources, gross inequities, and deliberate or inadvertent harm to the environment.

Our rage, trying to burn away what is toxic, is like chemo. We use it to ignite action, burn through indifference, and make people pay attention to the plight of the world. We then operate to take apart and repair the structures in our broken systems and refocus our priorities.

At the same time, we must heal.

How do we bring rage and fire, hope and healing together?

We need to burn with rage and heal with hope.

David Spangler, one of the great sages of our times, speaks to this when he writes about “fiery hope” in his new book Holding Wholeness: (in a Challenging World).

“Hope isn’t a wish; it’s an inner capacity, first to be open to possibilities for action and vision that refuse to be circumscribed or defined by circumstances and which thus can be transformative in the moment, and second, to add our energy to bring those possibilities to life through action of some nature.

“Fiery hope” is an affirmation that we are a source of hope because we are—or can be—a source of change and new vision.”

“It is “fiery” because it taps into our passion, our commitment, our intentionality, our spirit.”

Spangler says this hope can open us to new possibilities while changing us from the inside out, positively affecting how we respond to events and each other.

With fiery hope, we save ourselves from the downside of urgency that results in our forgetting the power of connection with ourselves and with others.

“Hope can make us resilient as well as creative. It is “fiery” because in honoring ourselves and what we are capable of doing both on our own and in conjunction with others, we can burn away hopelessness and the sense of helplessness that comes with it.”

Let’s burn and heal

I pray that my friend’s chemo will burn the remaining cancer cells from her system while her wounds heal and her being recovers.

Let’s burn away our planetary diseases of indifference, greed, and environmental destruction.

Let’s seed the hope that allows us to get bigger, see more possibilities, and find the strength to heal ourselves and the planet.

Let’s join our rage about the planet with the fierce love that demands that we care.


What if, sometimes, there is no reason?

Does everything happen for a reason?

Even if you believe this to be so, would you say it to someone who’s grappling for her life?

I suggest not.

Like most of us, I’d like to believe that my life is under control, I want to believe that if I do my best, life will work out, my way.

It’s part of the great American myth.

A version of this “You can get it if you really want”  thinking has even been codified and embedded into Evangelical religion in the form of “The Prosperity Gospel.” While it’s hard for me to tolerate televangelists who make millions of dollars off people like your Aunt Kate in Wichita, who believes that her prayers and donations will fix her emphysema, install a new roof on the house, and put a turkey on the table at Thanksgiving, some of the ideas behind that gospel sound suspiciously like the American dream.

Here’s the core idea: One’s good fortune is a blessing from God (and a sign that you believe and are doing things right). Misfortune, though, is a sign of His disapproval.

If you’re not religious, that might sound far fetched, but maybe you’ll recognize the secular version which goes something like: if we 1) stand up for ourselves; 2) have character; 3) make goals; 4) commit; 5) just do it; etc., we can control what happens to us. If we work hard, affirm good thoughts, and eat extra kale (aka healthy living), we’ll be able to manifest what we want.

Whether spoken by preachers or motivational speakers, these pseudo-promises have a lot of appeal to people who want more control and certainty in their lives.

And given these crazy times, who doesn’t want a little more of that? 

Maybe it doesn’t all happen for a reason

I love the title of Kate Bowler’s funny, straight-talking, and highly-readable book: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Bowler comes across as religious, blasphemous, vulnerable and able to pack a punch.

She spent years researching the prosperity gospel as part of her divinity school doctoral research. She hung out with preachers, televangelists, and congregations to understand the heart of the philosophy and the role it has played in North American culture.

Bowler didn’t drink the Kool-aid, but parts of the philosophy did appeal to her, For example, earlier in her career, she had overcome a medical issue and went on to complete her doctorate and start a family. She even became a professor at Duke University. Wasn’t this proof that she was being blessed?

Unfortunately, her world changed with a phone call notifying her that she had an advanced case of colon cancer. At the hospital, she learned that her odds were not good.

Where then was that prosperity gospel? What happened to the idea that because she was a good person, lived a decent life, took care of her family, and went to church, she’d be spared such horrible, human stuff?

She kept moving forward, even as the control and certainty she had felt about her life dissolved. She’s alive today, but her remission isn’t a part of the book, and she’s not trying to convince us that she did the right thing. What she can offer these days is empathy, along with thoughts about what to say or not say to someone facing a difficult condition.

Here are a few from her reject list:

“Everything happens for a reason.” (Imagine hearing that when you’re in the midst of acute pain.)
“Well, at least…” (as in “You’re eighty” or “You’ve had a family”.)
“It’s going to be better, I promise…” (Isn’t it nice to play God for a few moments?)
“I’ve done some research and…” (Who doesn’t want to star as life-saving Dr. Marcus Welby, even though auditions closed a while ago/)

What she doesn’t offer friends is certainty. Promises. 

“We want to tell ourselves a story–any story–so that we can get back to certainty.”

Phrases she prefers:

“Can I bring you dinner next week?”
“Can I give you a hug?”

What has helped in her recovery is touch, Friends offering to do tasks. Empathy without platitudes.

Promising certainty, as tempting as it might feel, does not help.

For many of us, sick or healthy, religious or not, it may be time to wean ourselves from our addiction to certainty.

There are certainly days in which I’d like to feel like the world was under control, especially when I read the news and wonder “what the heck?”

I haven’t stopped hoping that we can bring about some overdue changes. I’ll try to do my part. Pray. Manage my mind as much as I can. Help when there’s something I can do. And yes, eat a lot of kale.

I’d still like to think that somewhere there are reasons for what is happening, just not simplistic ones that I can understand.

I’m with Einstein in believing that God does not play dice with the universe. 

But when it comes to being with a friend who is suffering, all bets are off. Forget reasons. What I’ll probably say is: 

I don’t get it and I don’t understand why this is happening, and I don’t like that you’re suffering. But I love you, and you can count on me to care, no matter what.”

Play your way into presence

Neutral mask crafted by Pepper Kaminoff

Neutral mask crafted by Pepper Kaminoff

How does one learn to be more present–in that state of being in the moment, open, receptive, and curious?

And how do I move beyond my overstretched I’ve-got-to-have-life-figured-out brain, and, occasionally, (good luck), stop trying to control the world?

I’d like to find more of the part of me that can be still, notice rather than plan, and walk with curiosity rather than ambition. The me that is child-like and entranced by her senses.

This is not a part of me I’m likely to find in my cell phone or on Facebook.

Last weekend, on a ferry ride into Seattle to attend an improvisational theatre workshop, I realized, oh dread of dreads, that I’d left my cell phone at home. How was I going to be able to entertain myself and stay in touch with the world on my ferry rides?  How would I even let my husband know that I had gone free-range without access to my cell phone?

photo by Joe Mabel

Hoping to borrow a phone from someone so that I could call my husband, I strolled slowly around the passenger deck. There I saw an amazing, if terrifying, sight. All but one of the passengers, on this scenic ride across Puget Sound, were looking down at their phones.

I would have been doing the same.

What’s happened to us? How do we expect to notice the world with our eyes focused on our screens?

Playing our way back to presence

The two-day workshop to which I was traveling soon offered me clues about finding more presence. Taught by master teacher, director, actor/clown Arne Zaslove** the workshop focused on playing, improvising and working with masks. Through simple games, such as throwing balls in a circle, Arne helped us recognize the quirky behaviors to which we default when we become stressed or frazzled. As he often likes to say, “Under pressure, you are your game.”

During most of the workshop, we improvised scenes using masks, both expressive masks that reflect a character, personality or emotion, and neutral masks that contain no expression, and no visible personality.

Before I studied with Arne, I thought masks, whether tribal or theatrical such as Japanese Noh masks, were largely historic relics. In the United States, we barely use masks, except at Halloween when they are used casually to imitate movie stars or pseudo-spook people.

Masks can be so much more. Even a cheap Halloween mask can be transformed into a persona by an actor who knows how to enter into the world of the mask.

Masks invite me to explore the world, free of the worry about what my face is saying to the world.

In donning an expressive mask, I step into the world of a character or emotion. Using masks, I explored being a haughty woman, a crinkled grandmother, a serving wench and a laughable, arrogant Captain (a classic Commedia Dell’Arte character).

Neutral masks challenged me to just be present without suggesting who I was supposed to be. In neutral mask, you play a scene devoid of personality and past. When I’m in neutral mask, I’m challenged to go beyond my mind, ideas and plans, and see the world with the curiosity of a small child or the instincts of an animal.

In neutral maskIn a neutral mask, I respond to the world that is in front of me, rather than filtering life through my past experiences, expectations, and concepts of how life is supposed to be.

Neutral mask invites me to be more present.

I’d done a little neutral mask work in a previous class of Arne’s, but on the first day of this workshop, I failed in my first attempt. “Too much expressiveness,” Arne offered, with his characteristically kind blend of encouragement and suggestion. I stood in front of the group, baffled, trying to understand how I could possibly express the mask without my usual expressiveness.

After class, my classmates whispered hints: “Drop into your gut.” “Let your breath travel throughout your whole body.” “Don’t think with your mind–think through your heart or gut.” “Explore the emotions you find in the scene and let them carry you.”

Arne asked us to consider the world of animals and how they move, ever alert, reactive, and tuned into their surroundings.

I immediately pictured our two new foster dogs. Those bro-pals go from sound asleep to revved up and ready to roll with only the slightest hint of footsteps. No longer can I fix my quiet cup of tea in the morning before these can-we-play-NOW guys demand attention. They live in the moment, always looking to play.

On day two of the workshop, I learned more about what neutral mask offers. I improvised a scene without planning or thinking about who I was supposed to be. I centered in my body and let myself be curious. I responded in the moment to the moment. I allowed myself to be moved by what occurred spontaneously in the scene.

By the end of that scene, I was shaking, as if I’d stepped through a portal to a different part of life, certainly a different part of myself.

Neutral mask is not a philosophy of how we’re “supposed to be” in the world. We also need planful minds that can understand rules and think ahead. I can’t drive a car like a child, free of past knowledge or awareness of consequences. Yet sometimes, I still need to play.

A neutral mask is a terrific tool for re-discovering the worlds of discovery, invention and play.

After just a few minutes of play, listening with my senses, and responding to what was in front of me, I felt my imagination waking up–an imagination that, for many of us, is endangered these days.

Alas, I can’t depend on a workshop to rekindle my imagination–although I would highly recommend studying anything with Arne! I need to find how to bring play into my day to day life.

Maybe I can begin by taking my eyes off the cell phone on my next ferry ride and watching the light shimmering on Puget Sound and the clouds dancing around Mt. Rainier. I can sniff the scent of saltwater mixed with bathroom cleaner from the nearby toilets and coffee in the galley. I can hear engines rattle and the squealing of children running down the aisles. Perhaps in twenty minutes of being present, I will find magic.

As to our new Springer Spaniel foster dogs, those high octane tanks of brotherly energy? Perhaps they’ve come into our lives for a reason. They’re true masters of play and willing to express, at any moment, what they have just discovered. Currently, they’d much prefer that I stop writing PLEASE because, why don’t I see, it’s time to PLAY!

They’re right. Maybe, if people would learn to play more, we’d all bark a lot less.

**Learn more about Arne Zaslove, his work, and his upcoming events. Check out his blog about physical theatre and masks.

Peeking into the lives of others


I’m fascinated by how others live, not just by the face they show the world.

Living in Paris, I’d spend hours people-watching at outdoor cafés. A  café creme was the excuse I needed to be able to sit and watch the world pass by. Living in Seattle, I enjoyed walking my dog at dusk through my neighborhood of small bungalows. When amber lights glowed and curtains were not yet drawn, I could enjoy a quick peek at the lives of my neighbors.

No wonder I’m drawn to reading memoirs.

The lives of three authors captivated me recently, because, unlike fiction, their stories were true.


Educated by Tara Westover, reads like a thriller; I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of a woman raised in a fanatical, survivalist family in Idaho, ruled by a father convinced that the feds would be coming for his family after the gun-toting, government-hating, Weaver family was shot at Ruby Ridge. (Not to malign Idaho, but weird things have happened out there.)

Fearing exposing his children to any government thinking, Tara’s father decided to keep his three youngest children out of school. He claimed to home-school them, although most of their time was spent working in a junkyard, where Tara was forced to do unbelievably dangerous work.

Spoiler alert: I tolerated reading about her father’s cruelty and her brother’s violent abuse after reading the back cover, which described how Tara eventually escaped her home and became educated. As a testimony to her brilliance, she taught herself what she needed to know to take college entrance exams. (Can you imagine learning trigonometry if you’d never been taught math?)  Her dedication paid off when Brigham Young University accepted her, and she earned a B.A. She subsequently won fellowships at Cambridge University in England and completed both her Masters and  Ph.D.

Not surprisingly, Tara still bears the wounds of a crazy childhood and the pain of loving a dad who mixed religious fervor with psychological pathology. Educated is a story of heartbreak, abuse, love, and the triumph of perseverance against all the odds.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Dani Shapiro grew up in an orthodox Jewish family, proud of her Jewish lineage and devoted to her faith, even as people occasionally questioned how a perky blond child could have been born to two Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews.

Then, in her early 50’s, Shapiro signed up on a whim to have her DNA tested by one of those inexpensive-DNA testing sites. The results were devastating: she learned that her deceased and dearly loved father was not her biological father. After sleuthing online–it didn’t take long– she identified her biological dad: a doctor of Scandinavian lineage, who lived on the other side of the country. Watching a video of him teaching, she was stunned to see that even their gestures were similar.

The foundation of her world seismically shifted.

Imagine what it was like for the biological dad to receive an email out of the blue, suggesting that he had a daughter from a sperm he sold fifty-plus years earlier. I’ll save the rest of the book for you, but Shapiro, a gifted writer,  keeps you spellbound with the questions she raises about what is family and the impact of family secrets. With compassion for her parents, she offers some context: her parents desperately wanted a child in an era in which a court had ruled in 1954 that donor insemination was considered to be adultery by the woman.

Shapiro’s story might seem bizarre and exceptional, but parts of it may be repeating now with the spread of low-cost genetic testing. At a party last week a friend told me that two children born of sperm he had sold years ago just contacted him.

Welcome to the new world.


The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog

As you may have read, dogs are on my mind these days, (a bonded pair of two Springer Spaniel brothers are about to join our household!), so I was gripped by this story of how healing a dog allowed, and required, Patricia McConnell to heal herself. Patricia McConnell is a renowned animal behaviorist whom I had the pleasure of hearing when she came to our island for regional sheepdog trials. She’s a wonderful writer as well as a speaker.

For those of us who know the power of our animals to change our lives, this memoir is a must-read.

So with that, I’ll skedaddle. I have two new furry friends to meet. Ruff!

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