Muslim in America: Ramadan

This is part two of my conversation with Siddique, a Muslim American man living in Long Island. The idea to talk with Siddique came about when he posted on Facebook (we’re old college radio buddies) about the beginning of Ramadan last month. I gave it some thought and realized I knew two things about Ramadan: it’s considered a holy time for Muslims and it involves fasting. That was about it. And I figured I couldn’t be alone in my lack of knowledge.

It’s kind of crazy to me that our Muslim friends and neighbors are going through a month of fasting and prayers and celebration while the rest of us go on with life as usual. I mean, the world basically stops for Christmas, but Ramadan barely gets a mention on the local news. So, thanks again Siddique for taking the time to chat with me.

Caitlin: So, what is Ramadan?

Siddique: Ramadan is a month on the Islamic calendar in which Muslims have their fasting and really take an opportunity to be closer to God, to focus in on all the tenets surrounding Ramadan and what it preaches.

It’s a period of spiritual purification, that’s the simplest way to put it. But, it’s also a period of time which ties into fasting for us to recognise that there are those around the world who have it way worse than we do.

People might be wondering why the emphasis on this month. This month is when we believe the Quran was sent down, that our prophet received the message that eventually became the Quran. Those are the last 10 nights of this month which are considered the most powerful nights of the month. It is during those 10 nights that we believe the angel Gabriel revealed the verses of the Quran to our prophet. We believe there’s one night in particular in the last 10 nights, it’s called Laylatul-Qadr – the night of destiny, that’s the night we believe those verses were sent down, and on this night we believe prayers, or anything you do is multiplied beyond what they would ordinarily be.

If you’re wondering why this random month, the holiday that ran into the month, our calendar is based on the lunar calendar, so it does shift throughout the course of the year. Right now we’re doing an 18 hour fast but there was a period of time in which there were barely 11-12 hour fasts.

Caitlin: So tell me more about the fasting.

Siddique: Fasting is actually one of the five pillars of Islam, by pillar I mean one of the five tenets of Islam: fasting, prayer, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca. With that, there is a huge component of charity. Charity goes hand in hand with understanding that around the world there are people who are suffering, going through hunger, going through poverty, and that it’s a time for us to better understand what they’re going through. That’s the most simplistic way I can put it.

Fasting is the abstinence of food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the fast period. But beyond that there are other things we’re asked to abstain from: gossiping, committing the kind of sins we may ordinarily be accustomed to, from backbiting, saying curse words.

So it’s not just ‘let me starve myself for 17 to 18 hours’ and call it a day, it’s a spiritual purification – there are physical aspects and science has proven that increment fasting is of benefit to your body and health. The spiritual aspect is abstaining from those things that you would ordinarily commit during the year to your betterment. But, then also to supplement what it is that you wish to discourage – Muslims will engage in extra prayers, they’ll read the Quran, our holy book.

Caitlin: A typical day – sunrise to sunset, you are fasting but you’re going about your day, you’re going to work, you’re going to school or whatever it is you do, so then at sunset, is there something you do every day?

Siddique: So before sunrise we do a small feast. Some people will keep it simple, they’ll just keep it to breakfast foods, others will lean on certain cultural dishes or traditions passed down from generation to generation. Some will say these are high carb meals, some will say these are high protein meals; every culture has their different blessings. The meal is called ‘istar’, which is literally the breaking of the fast.

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Every culture has their own conventions as far as different meals, different delicacies that they’ll have, but the one commonality amongst Muslims, regardless of culture, is it’s advised to break the fast with a date. They are very common amongst middle-Eastern cultures and it is highly advised by Prophet Muhammad to break fast with a date. If you don’t have a date, if you’re at work, the second way that it’s advised to break your fast is just with water. Those are the two recommended ways. It is generally advised that you have a light meal, you don’t stuff your stomach, and it’s the first time you’ve eaten in 17-18 hours, so you don’t want to overload your system.

The cultural dishes tend to be fried and high calorie dishes. So as much as we talk about the health benefits, many have actually gained weight during this month. If you’re fasting for 18 hours, your body is ready to cling on to any substance that you put into your stomach, so when you’re putting in fried, sugary food that’s what your stomach’s clinging onto. Many end up gaining 5-6 pound in the month.

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Caitlin: Do you tend to spend more time with your family during this month?

Siddique: Absolutely. That’s a great question. One of the core elements of Ramadan is the time you spend with your family. Granted on weekdays it’s tough, people have school, people have work, it’s considered a blessing, but on weekends that’s where you will have big family get-togethers. It’s essentially a big dinner party. Because when you have big family get-togethers during the month, food is invariably going to be involved. Whenever you’re talking about a lot of immigrants and groups that come to this country, there are two big elements: family and food.

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Caitlin: You mentioned earlier that you’re waiting until fairly late to be able to start eating and then you need to be up fairly early to get that meal in before the day begins?

Siddique: I don’t blame anyone for thinking that’s a really long time, it is, but here I am talking to you from my air-conditioned office. I’m not working construction and I’m not outdoors in the Middle East. I’m in a lap of luxury right now so really the fast in and of itself is not difficult.

It’s more difficult in the beginning because for me and other people, I’m used to having 2-3 cups of coffee a day, that’s an adjustment that takes a couple of days that that overdose of coffee is not coming in the morning, and it’s not coming in the afternoon either.

I get more thirsty than hungry during the course of the day.

Just to give you an example, during the course of annoucing a game on TV or in public, I normally have a full bottle of water by my side to keep sipping on. I don’t have that luxury during Ramadan, so if it starts at 7 o’clock, I’m not breaking my fast until three quarters of the way through the game. So that’s one thing I tend to fail at a little bit more as far as fasting and how it may impact my day.

But other that personally, the day is long, but I’m in no duress or discomfort during the day. But for others, working in a factory or doing manual labour, something where you require water, I imagine it to be more difficult.

Caitlin: At what age do people start fasting for Ramadan?

Siddique: That’s a great question. Personally, I started aged 12, but it really varies. I’ve seen kids who started aged 9 and kids who don’t start until high school or towards the end of high school. If I had to give a solid age-range I would say most kids start between the ages of 10 and 12.

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Caitlin: Is it a family decision, not like a hard-fast guideline?

Siddique: Yes, usually the family dictate that kind of thing. They can ask the kid if they’re ready or they feel up to it, but generally they will have their own timeline; there is no hard-fast timeline, not to my knowledge at least.

Caitlin: Is there ever an exception for people who are ill or pregnant or that sort of thing?

Siddique: Absolutely. There are exceptions, if you’re not physically capable, if a woman is pregnant, if somebody is beyond a certain age, if you’re travelling, there is a soft area. When I say travelling, this rule was made generally when people travelled on camel or walking for miles and miles on end, so it is a bit different now like if I’m travelling to New Jersey, that’s not exactly a reason not to fast. We believe that God is not going to ask something of you that you’re not physically capable of.

Caitlin: For you what’s the best part of Ramadan and is it something you look forward to?

Siddique: Other than the family dinners and get-togethers and stuff like that, I enjoy the nightly prayers. It’s something many Muslims feel is a way for them to continue to spiritually enhance the experience to bring them closer to God. In Islam there are 5 daily prayers – there’s one very early morning, 2 during the course of the day and 2 at night – 1 at sundown and one later during the night.

As far as what I enjoy most about the optional nightly prayers, I do enjoy the fact that there is a spiritual aspect. I feel I’m making the most of the Ramadan experience and there is a belief that these are activities that bring you closer to God and help you further spiritually purify yourself.

Another aspect of this month is that it is one where your prayers are enhanced. Things you want and pray for are enhanced because you are closer to god during this month. The common ones are to pray for forgiveness, the health and well-being of others, world peace, things that you want – difficulties in your family, in your own life that you’re trying to overcome. I enjoy that and the aspect of feeling closer to God.

But then there’s another aspect that I enjoy, every night of the month my friends are there, people I’ve known for years are there. It’s cool that we’ve done our prayers and are all hanging out, there’s a big courtyard in our mosque and they’ll have people serving food and tea, and the idea that on a nightly basis you’ve undergone spiritual purification, and now you’re getting to hang about, have a few laughs with your friends, the people you know, your community, that’s what I look forward to most during the month.

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Caitlin: Thank you so much for chatting with me about Ramadan, and yesterday’s more general post about being Muslim in America. I really appreciate it.

Siddique: I encourage non-Muslims to ask these kind of questions, to get to know their neighbours better, because there are Muslim populations in all major cities. These are opportunities for us to break down walls, to better know another segment of the American populace, and conversely an opportunity for Muslims to get to better know their neighbours, and people who might not have an understanding of who their neighbours are.

I feel this is the kind of month that allows people to get to know each other, for some of the misunderstanding to be worked out, for there to be more dialogue, more conversation. The mere fact someone like you is asking me these questions, that media outlets around the country are asking mosques about Ramadan opens up an opportunity for dialogue, for better understanding, I feel this is the kind of thing this country needs and gives people a better understanding of what it means to be Muslim, and gives Muslims the opportunity to find out what some people’s concerns are.

People have questions and if they’re not asking the right people those questions, those questions lead to many misunderstandings and that’s not how to go about it. The way to go about it is to have a dialogue, so that you have better mutual understanding, and that’s how you forward society.

I know it’s a very small initiative, but I think it’s one of those things during this month – what is Ramadan, why do people do it and what can come of it, that that’s one small goal we can accomplish and we’ll all be better for it.

 

Images c/o Siddique Farooqi

Muslim in America

I met Siddique about ten years ago, when we worked at our University’s radio station. I had the pleasure of co-hosting the station’s morning show from time to time with Siddique which meant discussing current political, social, and pop culture news. It was the height of the war in Iraq and I always appreciated Siddique’s insight as a Muslim American.

So, when I saw he posted on Facebook a few years ago that it was the start of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, I thought it would be a great time to chat with Siddique about some of his experiences as a practicing Muslim.

Caitlin: So this might sound crazy to you, and maybe particularly because you’re from the New York area, but you’re the first person I ever knew personally, who was Muslim.

Siddique: Wow. Really?

Caitlin:Yes, do you not hear that much in New York?

Siddique: It may be because you’re not from New York, right?

Caitlin: Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Siddique: I’m surprised because Philadelphia has the highest concentration of African-American Muslims in the US.

Caitlin: I’m sure there were kids in my high school that were Muslim, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. My high school was relatively small and not very diverse.

Siddique: It was the same in my high school. It was a pretty small school district, our entire high school was like 530 kids the year I graduated. If I had to count how many Muslims were in our entire school at the time, I would say, like, five to ten.

Caitlin: Would you tend to be friends with those kids because you had that in common?

Siddique: Not really. Well, one was my brother. Everybody had their own clique, I just hung out with my friends and guys I played sports with. We didn’t really have that idea of “Hey, we’re Muslims, let’s hang out together!”

I grew up going to our local mosque, and some of the closest friends I have today, I met there. Once you get to college, that’s where you have student groups from every ethnicity, so I guess that was the first time I ever really made friends with people just because we were Muslim.

Caitlin: Was it something that you sought out?

Siddique: Yes and no. It’s not because I didn’t have friends or needed friends of my particular religion, it was more so because it was my first time away from home and I felt that it was important to have a group of Muslim friends – as a means to keep me rooted. I made most of my friends through playing basketball at the gym at nights and intramural soccer on the weekends.

It was through going to Friday prayers that I was introduced to other Muslim kids, one thing lead to another, and I became part of the school’s Muslim Student Association.

Caitlin: Do you consider yourself fairly religious? Because for me, I did grow up going to church every Sunday and I was fairly religious for a bit as a kid, but now I’m really not. I celebrate Christmas and Easter with my family, but I don’t go to church. Do you consider yourself religious or is it more of a family and community thing, or both?

Siddique: I do consider myself religious, but that is a very subjective definition. I feel that there is more that I could do as far as day to day, week to week practice, but as far as an identification perspective, what I believe in, being close to God, wanting to be close to God, and wanting to do things that we believe God has taught us, in terms of being a good human being and practicing the religion, I find myself in a position where I’m trying to get better, but I’m very far from where I want to be.

Caitlin: I’m curious how you feel about being judged by your religion. If a white person or a Christian person commits a crime, does something bad, I don’t feel like that reflects on me as a person. But as a Muslim, do you feel a need to represent your faith to the world?

Siddique: If something happens in this country, around the world, an act of evil, an act of terror, perpetrated by a Muslim or terrorists charading to be Muslim, yes, we do feel the need to remind people that Islam is a peaceful religion and that the vast majority of Muslims are peace loving.

There’s an unfortunate perception among some that, one, Islam is an inherently evil religion, and, two, that Muslims have been programmed or taught to come into this country and to spread their way, and, three, that we have a master plan to impose our religious laws on this country. Sometimes, as silly as some of the misperceptions of our religion may seem to us Muslims, we have to stand out front and say no, this is not what we believe in, and that terrorists and acts of terror do not represent us.

My feeling is that there is still a huge segment of this country, of the world, whose only exposure to Muslims is what they’ll see on the news or movie depictions. The only thing we can do is to interact with them, to engage them, to educate them as far as who we are, and the fact that we’re here to be Americans just like everybody else, and that there shouldn’t be an “us versus them” delineation. Sometimes that takes some work and in today’s day and age, it’s taking a bit more work. It’s what you have to do.

Caitlin: It does seem unfair, and seems exhausting to have to be constantly defending your faith in that sort of way, but I understand why you do it and have a lot of respect for that. Opening minds is so important, it’s just a shame that it takes so much work.

I hope we’re progressing, sometimes it seems like we’re taking steps backwards. I’m curious, what do you hope for, for your children, your nieces and nephews, for that next generation of children who I assume will be raised in the faith? How do you hope it will get easier? What are your hopes for them?

Siddique: I don’t know whether it’s going to be easier or whether it’s going to be more difficult, I’m not sure to be very honest. What I will say is that I hope, when I have kids, that when they’re going to school, partaking in extracurricular activities, playing their youth sports; all I want is that kids of other ethnicities, other nationalities, different religious beliefs, that they’re going to see my kids as a fellow student, a teammate, a friend. I don’t want them to see them as, “that’s my Muslim friend, or that’s my 2nd generation Pakistani-American friend.” Any immigrant class who has ever came to this country, that’s what they strive for.

This nation has a unique ability to unite members of different groups, different ethnic groups, religious groups, beliefs, lifestyles, in a way that you see beyond their colour, you see beyond their religions, you see beyond the name – you see them as co-workers, fellow students, and fellow colleagues first. There are only a few countries in the world that have that kind of platform, and no country does it better than the United States.

So, that’s what I would want for my kids, and that’s the upbringing I had. I enjoyed the same educational opportunities, played the same sports, and engaged in the same after school activities as every other kid, regardless of ethnicity or religious background.

Today, in addition to having my own marketing company, I’m a sports television commentator and the public address announcer for Hofstra University, a major university on Long Island. Neither my ethnicity nor religion has ever been an issue. Needless to say, I’m beyond thankful to have grown up in a country that recognizes someone’s earned merit over their ethnic or religious background.

So really that’s what I want for my kids, that they have the same opportunities that I’ve had.

 

Check in again soon to read my conversation with Siddique about Ramadan.

A mindful life

This morning I worked from home as repair people worked on my dishwasher. That meant locking my dog in another room so she would leave them alone and, of course, she barked the entire time. Between her barking and lots of questions from the repair people that I couldn’t answer (Do you know why the solenoid valve stopped working? Um…no.), I felt like I was losing my mind and was preparing to be in a bad mood about it all. And then I remembered my recent conversation with Shannon, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that these problems are really not a big deal.

Shannon has spent the last few years focusing mindfulness and it’s made a big impact on her life. You can check out a definition of mindfulness here, but I’ll let Shannon explain what it means to her and her life.

Caitlin: How did you become interested in mindfulness?

Shannon: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved thinking and talking about answers to life’s big questions; I think I was just born a philosophic and introspective person. When I graduated from college I started doing yoga, and I LOVED the last five to ten minutes where you just lay on the ground in silence, sometimes being guided through a meditation, sometimes listening to the beat of drums or donging of bells, and sometimes in pure silence. I loved letting my mind wander without judgment, and lived for those moments where you ‘woke up’ feeling like you actually may have achieved 30 seconds of ‘mindlessness’. I always felt calm and restored after yoga, so I decided to take a meditation class, read a lot about how to meditate, and continued practicing yoga as much as I could.

It wasn’t until I moved-in with my now husband six years ago that I realized I had a lot more work to do on myself –work that just striving for this calm, ‘mindless’ state wasn’t going to get me to. I went to a psychiatrist to work through some temper and control issues, and for the first time, learned how to recognize that I was getting stressed out and feeling out of control BEFORE I erupted at my partner or co-worker, etc.

My therapist essentially taught me my first lesson in mindfulness, and gave me a tip that I still think about almost every day: on the days where you can’t imagine doing yoga or sitting quietly, those are the days where you probably need it the most.

So, at the end of a crazy, stressful day, where all I wanted to do was go to bed and get the day over with, I would force myself to do some yoga and sit. And lo & behold, just that little amount of time spent grounding myself at the time I needed it most, acknowledging and recognizing what my body was telling me – that I needed to slow down and ‘chill’ for a bit – enabled me to ease up on my need to control others (which we tend to do when we ourselves are feeling out of control.. go figure!).

It was another year or two until I was online reading one of my friend’s facebook posts where I learned about an organization called Mindful Schools, and decided to enroll in their Mindfulness Fundamentals class, since I had just had a baby and was feeling like I could use a little ‘me-work.’ That class was the first time I heard the term “mindfulness” and when I started my “formal” mindfulness practice.

Caitlin: What exactly does mindfulness mean?

Shannon: There are a ton of definitions of mindfulness, so I’ll tell you what it means to me. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. That means paying attention to, or being mindful of, our emotions (even bad ones), our thoughts (even crazy ones), and our bodily sensations (even uncomfortable ones) “in the moment,” without judgment. You’re aware of your thoughts, but somehow you don’t feel lost in them or trapped by them, and that can be really freeing.

Caitlin: What does your practice look like?

Shannon: My practice changes over time as things in my life experience change. For example, I’m 23 weeks pregnant now, and practicing yoga, balancing, and sitting weren’t really viable options for me from about week 6 to 15 thanks to a combination of exhaustion and nausea; I also have a two and a half year old, so finding ways to incorporate a daily practice and still tend to him and my husband, dog, house, and work has brought along some challenges, too.

So currently, my practice looks like this – every night before I get into bed, I do some yoga stretching and sit for as long as I can, anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

I also have mindfulness reminders throughout the day, where a trigger alerts me that I need to take a breath and check-in with myself. One of my triggers is when I’m staring at my split-ends when I’m stuck in traffic! (laughs) Another is when I’m tempted to text while driving or when I’m at work and in meetings and feel myself getting distracted. Really, once you get started with a mindfulness practice, it’s not just about “sitting” for 10 minutes a day, it’s about being mindful throughout your day.

Caitlin: Is it for everyone?

Shannon: This is a tough one. While I do think that everyone has the ability to learn about and practice mindfulness, since at some point throughout everyone’s day, you are mindful and aware of what’s going on to a certain extent already, I think you will get the most out of it if you’re not looking at it as a bandaid, or just something else that you need to get on your checklist to do. It’s really a totally different way of thinking and interacting with the world, and for some people, that might just be ‘too deep’ or ‘too hoaky’ or just too foreign a concept to open yourself to. That’s one of the reasons I want to teach mindfulness to kids, because I think kids are so much more open to trying new things than adults.

Caitlin: How has your life changed since you starting studying/practicing mindfulness?

Shannon: Well, to start, I have far fewer screaming matches with my husband. I also find that I am able to notice a lot faster when I’m feeling agitated, stressed, or frustrated because I’m spending so much time watching my physical sensations (like my teeth clenching or pulse racing) and am getting good at doing something to regulate those sensations, like taking a breath, or leaving the room, or just letting the other person know “I’m feeling stressed”.

I’ve also always been really into following my intuition or that 6th sense, and I think when you’re grounded in the present moment, you’re much more in-tune to the universe.

And I think it has also made me more empathetic. When I’m not completely engrossed in my own little world of work stresses, to-do lists, social media – I find that I remember to think about other people a lot more. My friendships have gotten stronger, and I’ll find myself doing random acts of kindness more randomly, too.

Caitlin: How has it changed the way you parent?

Shannon: I started my formal mindfulness practice at about the same time I became a parent. I actually think becoming a parent helped me with my mindfulness practice, in that I found myself so fully present in moments with my new baby, just so amazed at all of the little things he was doing every day, that it was pretty easy to be present. At the same time, mindfulness would remind me to put down my phone or turn off the TV or stop thinking about everything I had to do that day, so that I could be fully present with my son and husband. When you live in the present, and surrender to the present moment, you’re also just less anxious or worried about the future.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is trying to instill some of these practices in their own life?

Shannon: Don’t be hard on yourself. Just start practicing whenever you can. It can be really hard to find 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to just sit and be with yourself. You’re essentially giving your brain a workout, and days when you’re most stressed and crazy are the days when it’s the hardest to be with your thoughts. But just remember, getting to your chair for even a quick 5 minutes is sometimes all it takes (just the act of recognizing that you’re having a crazy day is being mindful – so kudos! You just worked out!).

Also, find some triggers throughout the day when you remind yourself to be mindful. It could be when you’re brushing your teeth or doing the dishes/ making dinner. It could be when you’re staring at your split-ends, too. (laughs)  But, having little reminders throughout the day really help you incorporate mindfulness throughout your life experience, and I think that’s really where you’ll find it has the biggest impact.

Caitlin: What are you goals regarding mindfulness?

Shannon: My main goal, and the reason I was so attracted to the practice in the first place, is to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I hated how I would feel after I lost my temper or became crazy stressed at work for no good reason. Knowing that I have the power within myself to change my interactions with the world around me is pretty powerful stuff.

I also will continue taking the curriculum offered by Mindful Schools, with the hope of eventually teaching mindfulness to kids as a full-time gig. One of my biggest worries in life is that I will have spent all this time walking the earth and not left an imprint; I think teaching kids a practice so potentially life-altering as mindfulness can be one of the biggest impacts I can make on the world.

And in the meantime, before I change the world, my goal is to simply continue to strengthen my own practice and keep living in, embracing, and enjoying the present.

ChitChat: Your best Halloween ever

When I was a kid, my mom always handmade Halloween costumes for me and my brothers. Whether it was a lady bug, Peter Pan, or an angel, she worked her ass off those days leading up to Halloween to make awesome costumes for us. Now that I’m an adult, I realize what a huge undertaking that was. That’s pretty awesome.

These days I don’t dress up much for Halloween. It’s not that I don’t like the holiday (I do!), it’s more that I’m too cheap to spend money on that sort of thing. But, when I need to, I can rise to the occasion. And convince my husband to do the same (party on, Wayne).

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So for this month’s ChitChat Panel, we’re talking Halloween costumes and favorite trick or treating memories. 🙂

 

Aubrey

Aubrey: As a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I suppose I liked it so much because it was a day in which outrageous and infelicitous behavior was generally encouraged – well, except at school. From Catholic grade school to high school, I was reprimanded and punished for costumes year after year. As Elvira in the third grade, I had to cover up my cleavage. When I was a baby in the 5th grade, the principal made me put pants over my diaper. When I dressed as my 10th grade Lit teacher (he had long gray hair and wore silver bracelets up to his elbow), the dean made me take everything off and gave me Saturday detention. As Pee-Wee Herman in the 11th grade, they tore up my “Keep Pulling for Me!” sign. I just couldn’t win.

Although I have a lot of great memories associated with various costumes, my favorite has to be the one I wore last year, because I got to introduce my daughter to Halloween. My wife dressed as Olive Oil, my daughter as Sweet Pea, and I was Popeye (see bottom of post). Now that I’m a little older, I’ve stopped trying to challenge institutions so much. I suppose I’ll have to leave that to my daughter someday.

graham

Graham: I have a few personal favorites but for this particular question I wanted to choose a costume from my childhood, when the eerie mystique of Halloween was still very much intact, and so I decided to defer to my mom, Melissa, my official (and officially retired) Halloween seamstress-extraordinaire. Her favorite costume of mine, which to this day she reiterates every year in a suggestive tone, was Alfalfa from the Little Rascals (pictured at the bottom of post).

I don’t think I enjoyed the Alfalfa costume much at the time, but over the years I’ve come to love it for for being simple, comfortable, and yet distinctive, which is why I think my mother liked it to begin with. In fact, I appreciate it enough that I’ve recycled it since then. And even though Halloween these days has less eerie mystique than let’s-get-drunk-and-rub-up-against-each-other-ness, I still think this costume is just too good to overlook.

Chelley panel

Chelley: My favorite Halloween costume was from high school. It is my favorite because it paved the way to who I would be as an adult.

As it were, a few friends called and wanted to go trick-or-treating. There was a Madonna, a police officer, a punk, a “sassy” cheerleader… but what would I be? I knew my friends wanted rides, so I put on jeans, my lacrosse jacket and donned my least fashionable sneakers and picked them up.

I was a soccer mom for Halloween.

As a mom now, I laugh about my off-the-cuff idea. Here I was, slightly distracted by everything else I needed to do for the week, shuttling around a bunch of kids who were hopped up on sugar. A glimpse.

I don’t love the costume for it’s creativity, but I love it for the symbolic aspect. I am, 13 years later, shuttling kids, worried about everything I have to get done… and loving every moment.

liz

Elizabeth: Growing up with Canadian Halloweens, I have a lot of memories of wading through snow as I trick or treated, so that was a large consideration when it came to costume ideas. It had to be something that a snowsuit could fit under – Princess Jasmine was not gonna happen. My mom made matching clown costumes for me and my sister that I loved! Being the same thing as my big sister was THE coolest thing I could be for Halloween.

The neighborhood fathers would take us out while the moms handed out candy. Growing up I had best friends who lived just up the street from us and so every Halloween the three of us and our dads would go out and fill our pillowcases full of candy. When we were really young my best friends’ father died. So the next Halloween my dad took the three of us around the neighborhood, holding three pillowcases ready to switch with us when ours got full. It’s such a small memory, but I always think of it as such a great example of my dad’s character. It wasn’t even a question that he would take my friends out that year, it was his instinct to be there for someone who needed him.

Mike (not pictured): Halloween is arguably my favorite holiday, and I’ve had a few nice costumes over the years. I think my favorite so far is the costume i will be wearing this year. I’ll be Gene from Bob’s Burgers. I have a burger, his trademark yellow tee and jean shorts, and a pair of red Chuck Taylors. I am so like the character so this is gonna be a fun one!

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Nancy: My favorite costume was a glow in the dark skeleton costume. I think I liked it because it because all you could see were the bones as we walked down the road. That costume stayed in my parents attic and was actually worn by one of my own kids. I am not sure, but I think the year that I wore it was the rainy Halloween. I had a big shopping bag and must have been dragging it on the ground, because when it was full and we were almost home, it broke and all the candy spilled.

My favorite memory of my kids is when my two boys, about 2 and 3 years old dressed liked clowns. They were so cute, but I didn’t connect that one of my sons was afraid of clowns and thus afraid of his brother.

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What etiquette really means

What comes to mind when you think of the word etiquette? Using the correct fork when you eat a five course meal? Etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, Jacqueline Whitmore says it’s so much more than that. Really, it’s about making other people feel good. I chatted with Jacqueline about what drew her to the field what etiquette really means to her.

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Caitlin: So, Jacqueline, tell me how you became interested in etiquette?

Jacqueline: Well, I’m the founder and director of the Protocol School of Palm Beach and I’ve had my own company since 1998.

Prior to starting my own company, I worked at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach as their Assistant Director of Public Relations. As part of my job responsibilities, I put together etiquette camps for kids every summer. So, my job was to hire the instructor and to organize the camps. In my search for an instructor, I found someone I liked and admired and she came down every summer (to teach the kids’ camp).

She also expanded it and introduced an etiquette camp for adults. I took the class and I liked it so much that I took another class and then she encouraged me to go to Washington, D.C. and get a certification, which I did. So, I ended up teaching the staff (at the Breakers Hotel) in my spare time.

That gave me good experience because in 1998 I didn’t know I was going to get laid off, but I did. And that was the time that I started the Protocol School of Palm Beach.

Caitlin: Wow, so I imagine getting laid off was devastating, but that really opened up an opportunity for you.

Jacquline: Yes, it forced me to take a leap and start my own business.

Caitlin: That’s great. You know, I think sometimes when people think of etiquette, it maybe seems stuffy and maybe shallow. People think it’s just about saying please and thank you. What does etiquette really mean to you?

Jacqueline: Etiquette, to me, means having respect for other people. But, also, it means having respect for yourself. And, it also means being mindful of how your behavior affects other people.

So, for example, if you’re on a bus on your cell phone and you’re bothering the person next to you, you’re not practicing good etiquette. So, it’s just being mindful of your surroundings and having respect for other people. In other words, it’s doing unto others as you would have done to you.

Caitlin: I like that. You know, I was thinking when I first emailed you, I was really cognizant of being polite and using the right etiquette. I wonder if people feel that way around you often. Do you hear that a lot? That people are watching their manners around you?

Jacqueline: Oh, all the time. I hear that all the time. I do often hear from people, “Oh I better sit up straight,” or “I better not say certain things,” or “I better not use the wrong fork.” And, that’s not really what etiquette is about at all. If anything, it’s about being your best self. It’s not being somebody who is artificial and putting on airs or acting like you’re better than anybody. It’s just being your very best self on your best day.

Think about your best day. What would you wear? What would you say? Who would you surround yourself with? That’s the way I try to live my life, at my very best. It’s not always easy. It takes a lot of practice.

If I said you need to be better than everybody else, that would repel people. That would turn people off. In fact, you know, everyone says, “Oh, I’m a perfectionist.” Well, perfectionism repels people. It’s the flaws we all have that make us relatable and memorable and likeable. I call it the BLT Factor: believable, likeable, and trustworthy. So, if I told you I never make mistakes, you would probably hate me and you wouldn’t believe me . (laughs)

Caitlin: Would you be willing to share one of your more memorable etiquette mistakes?

Jacqueline: Oh, sure, I make them all the time! I am my own best client.

I was in China last year at a dinner party. I don’t speak any Chinese and the waiter came up and handed me a menu and asked me what wine I wanted. The menu was huge and couldn’t read it. I just said, “I’d like a glass of white wine.” And he said, “Well, what kind?” And I didn’t know. So I said, “Well, how about a glass of Australian wine?” And my host leaned over and said, “Well, how about a glass of Chinese wine?” (laughs)

So, I felt embarrassed by that!

Caitlin: Are there any etiquette tips that you feel are especially important?

Jacqueline: I am a big advocate of handwritten notes and I try to write one every day, whether it’s a thank you note, a birthday card, or a congratulatory card, just to keep in touch with people. It’s a lost art.

Caitlin: That’s great and it really is so nice getting something personal in the mail. You know, I really like your approach to etiquette, that it’s really just about making the people around you feel good and feel comfortable. And I think, as a result, it makes you feel better about yourself, too.

Jacqueline: Oh yeah, it’s good karma. What you put out in the universe, you get back.

If you get in the habit of doing little niceties every single day, it becomes automatic. And it doesn’t feel artificial because it becomes part of you. And it makes you feel really good.

I believe if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you. I used to be a flight attendant and we used to encounter so many nasty passengers. And it was the ones who were really nice who always got the upgrades.

You can read more from Jacqueline on her blog. In the meantime, tell me, do you have a time when you felt embarrassed by using bad etiquette? Is there an etiquette rule you think is especially important? Let’s talk!

Image courtesy Jacqueline

He Said/She Said: Keeping the thrill alive

Have you ever gone skydiving? I admit that I’m intrigued by the idea, but I haven’t done it, so far. Today we have a new He Said/She Said feature with Ryan and Emily, a married couple that skydives together almost every weekend. Talk about a cool way to keep the fun in your marriage!

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Caitlin: So, Ryan, tell me about the first time you went sky diving. What drew you to it? What was the experience like?

Ryan: The first time I went skydiving was a tandem skydive for my 18th birthday. At a young age I was always interested in more extreme sports like skating, wake boarding and, snowboarding and this seemed like something crazy, but really fun to do. When I showed up for my tandem I was with my parents and I was nervous, anxious, and a little bit terrified.

Going up in the plane I was a nervous wreck, but I knew I didn’t want to back out of it. Once we jumped out the first thing that went through my mind, was “what am I doing!?” But after that split second, I absolutely loved the experience.

You never feel that sense of falling like you do on a roller coaster and it just feels really, really windy and it’s like you’re floating. It’s a sensation you just can’t get on the ground. It really feels like you’re flying.

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Joining Overeaters Anonymous

I always offer my interview subjects the option to be anonymous. No one has ever taken me up on the offer until now, to talk about joining to Overeaters Anonymous.

Jessica* wasn’t ready to share her identity with the world, but she did recently take the first brave step of going to an OA meeting. She’s been going for about a month and a half now, 3-4 times a week. Jessica tells us what got her to that point and what she’s learned so far. Thank you, Jessica, for your willingness to share with the rest of us. Wishing you luck and strength in your journey!

Caitlin: So, how did you make the decision to join Overeaters Anonymous.

Jessica: It’s a long time coming. I’ve been trying to diet for the last 5-7 years. It would work for like 30 days, and then I’d be like, “Oh great, I lost ten pounds. Now I’m going to eat everything in sight.” Or like, if I’m studying, I eat. Eating is such a social thing and I’m such a social person, so it’s like, you have it in happy times, and when you’re with people you love. And then when I was sad, or by myself, I would think food would remind of happy times and fill what I need. It would fill a void.

I saw my family this summer and I would talk with them about where I was in my life. I wasn’t very happy. I was looking for something to make me happy. Whether it was a different job, or to change my relationship, or whatever it was, I was looking for something to make me happy and it wasn’t.

I think I was more miserable than I thought I was. Your immediate family has a way to cut you down a little more, but like, in a good way. They call you out on your shit.

Caitlin: Like hearing the lies you’re telling yourself?

Jessica: Exactly. And, some vocal people in my family have no problem doing that. There are a lot of people in my family who are in some kind of addiction program and they’re like, “Well, you know, I know some people who are in OA, and they’re normal people.” They thought I should give it a try and even if I didn’t like it, I would know what I was saying no to.

So, I went to a couple meetings and it was an eye-opener. I identified with what people were saying. And I was surprised that there are people from all walks of life there. There are executives, stay-at-home moms, people who are super fit, to people who are really obese. There’s definitely a huge range, which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

Caitlin: What was it like walking into your first meeting?

Jessica: Scary! I went to one in my neighborhood and it was nothing like what I thought it would be. It was all like Stepford Wives and put together soccer moms. That shocked me. But, what’s nice about it is that helping newcomers is part of everyone’s recovery. So they are quick to welcome you and you start recognizing people. So, they know you and ask how your week was, and that kind of thing. You can be as involved as you want.

Everyone has the same issue. You’re walking into a room where everyone has the same biggest insecurity as you. So, it really levels the playing field, you know? It’s comforting.

Caitlin: So, what does abstinence mean in OA?

Jessica: So, I’m definitely still new and learning, but abstinence is different for everyone. You basically want to be abstinent from falling off a meal plan, or whatever your rules are. So, some people will only eat three meals a day and not snack. There are a lot of anorexics and bulimics in the program, so they’ll need to stay away from bingeing and purging. It evolves and changes.

It makes it a lot harder, I think, because food is everywhere and you can’t not eat. For alcoholics, you can stop drinking.

For me, if I eat one chip, I’ll eat the whole bag. I don’t understand how anyone eats one chip and then forgets about it. That’s just not possible for me. So, that’s on my list. Trigger foods.

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Caitlin: So have you defined your rules?

Jessica: So, I don’t have hard fast rules yet. This past week was not a good week for me. I’ve been super stressed with school and stuff and I’ve thrown whatever rules I’ve had out the window.

But, that’s what’s nice with OA. So, before, if I was on Weight Watchers or something and I ate something bad, I would have said, “Oh, I fucked it up, oh well.” And I’d never go back because I’d be embarrassed. But, with OA, you create relationships with people and they completely understand. There are people who have been abstinent for 20 years, but it’s still a fight.

Caitlin: So you know how people often substitute one addiction for another? I wonder if people with a food addiction just substitute one food for another. Like, you said you cannot eat chips. Do you just replace something else with chips? I think that would be so hard to navigate.

Jessica: It’s interesting. A lot of people who are in the program are in many different programs. So they’ll be in AA, and others, and I think for a little while I was very, very judgemental. I just didn’t understand addicts. I was like, “Well, just don’t drink. Or just don’t do drugs if it’s messing your life up so much.” I was never introspective enough to realize that I have that same addictive personality, it just manifests itself differently in me.

Even in the last month and a half that I’ve been in OA, my anxiety is ten times worse than usual. Just because I have to feel my feelings instead of eat. I can’t go buy a bag of chips when I feel upset. I have to deal with my feelings. And I never realized it, but my feelings are really strong. I had to stop self-medicating with food.

Caitlin: In what ways do you feel like overeating was messing up your life?

Jessica: Being overweight is really hard. It’s the fastest thing for people to judge you on. For me, it’s my biggest insecurity. I won’t apply to jobs because I think they only want skinny, pretty girls. Or anytime I don’t get a job, I wonder if it’s because I’m overweight. And the career I want, is fairly image based. It’s a sad fact, but there’s so much judgement against overweight people. You’re seen as sort of slobbish, and not put together. Whether that’s true or not, you have to play the game to get ahead. And, personally, I haven’t had any health issues, but I can see my weight going up over the years and if I don’t stop it now, in ten years I might be 100 pounds more overweight. I’d rather nip it in the bud now.

Caitlin: I’m wondering how this has impacted your relationship. I think admitting that you have a problem with overeating takes a lot of guts.

Jessica: (My partner) is amazing. He knows what my goals are and tries to keep me on track. When I told him I was joining OA, he didn’t really get it, but he’s super supportive.

Overeating has definitely impacted relationships in the past. Whether it was my own insecurities or there was actual judgement, it definitely eroded the relationship.

Caitlin: I’d love to follow up with you in the coming months, but I’m curious, what’s your goal?

Jessica: Just to go to meetings right now. I’ve heard people are very hard on themselves in the beginning. And I wanted to be perfect at it when I started. But, then it wouldn’t work and I’d fall apart and go on a binge. So, my goal is to just keep going and build relationships and hopefully find a sponsor.

*name changed to protect identity

Images: Ann, Rooky Yootz

 

 

ChitChat: What’s the last great book you read?

All right, all right. Last month, I introduced a new feature called ChitChat. Here’s how it works: Each month I’ll ask a panel of people a question. And they answer it. It’s pretty simple. 🙂

Anyway, this month’s question is: What was the last great book you read?

I am known to devour books in two or three sittings so I am always on the lookout for a great book. The panel did not disappoint.

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Moira: The last book that I read and really enjoyed was The Likeness by Tana French. It’s the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, each book featuring a different detective from the squad. The Likeness is the story of Detective Cassie Maddox, who is a main character in the first book in the series, In the Woods. Maddox is no longer on the murder squad, but goes undercover after a body is found and the victim looks exactly like Maddox. Not only does she look like Maddox, the victim is also using an alias that had been created for Maddox when she was an undercover cop. Maddox assumes the identity of the victim, and lives her life to find her killer.

While I did like the first book in the series, In the Woods, I was riveted by The Likeness. I was unable to put it down and stayed up late to finish it. French is a great character writer, her characters are strange and different, like no one you have ever met, yet you are easily able to imagine them being real.  Her mysteries make you think and wonder and up until the end you still aren’t sure what exactly happened.  French writes with depth and has mastered the psychological mystery. While it is not necessary to read the first in the series before reading this book, I would recommend it as it gives insight into Maddox’s character and situation. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

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Hartley: ​I recently devoured The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt​ while on a sailing trip around the Greek islands. The protagonist Theo Decker’s adventures kept me glued to my book even as we saw the most beautiful sights — I was so antisocial while I was reading it! (Apologies to my husband.) I would highly recommend the Pulitzer-prize winning book to anyone who doesn’t get intimidated by 700+ pages and enjoys the occasional esoteric discussion of antique wooden furniture, Ukrainian slang, and New York City’s WASP-y upper class. (God, I’m making this book sound miserable already. Just promise me you’ll read it before you see the movie*.)

*Runner up goes to: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper, and is currently in theaters.

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Aubrey: I’m in school pursuing a joint degree in clinical psychology and law, so I currently don’t get to do much reading for pleasure. However, I did read The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court over the summer, and it was one hell of an entertaining read. In his book, Jeffrey Toobin covers the Supreme Court from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s. He is able to pierce through the veil under which the Court so often shrouds itself to reveal a world of oddball personalities and high stakes political wrangling. Through interviews from a variety of sources,Toobin fashions a life story for this set of real characters that helps explain each member’s worldview and decision making process. He crafts a tale in which the Court’s more moderate voices eventually drown out those drawn to political extremism and legal formalism. It provides some hope that the Washington of today will eventually give way to a political temperament attracted to workable solutions.

I understand that Supreme Court jurisprudence isn’t everyone’s bag, but if you have an interest in learning more about major legal decisions that have had a direct impact on the Country, then I suggest this entertaining and often funny (yes, funny) journalistic accomplishment. Trust me, reading about constitutional law can often make you wish you were carrying a loaded gun. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court feels like a pleasure read that you can take to bed or absorb while sipping your favorite spirit.

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Mary: I recently finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and it blew me away. It’s the story of twins, born co-joined and out of wedlock in Addis Ababa, sons of an Indian Catholic nun who is a nurse and an English surgeon, both essentially missionaries in Africa.  The story grabbed me immediately, told in the voice of one of the twins, and kept me hanging until the last word, and then I was sorry it was over. The characters were amazingly well-developed, the descriptions of Ethiopia and its politics and lifestyle from WWII on to present day were mesmerizing.  It was one of the best written novels I’ve read in a long time and it has stayed with me ever since.  I also took it out of the library in audio book form to “re-read” and the narration was one of the best I’ve heard. Highly, highly recommended if you are looking to learn about medicine and surgery, African politics and lifestyles, a great story of love, and sorrow, and triumph. Read it, read it, read it!

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Chelley: The last great book I read gave me even more insight to different types of dwarfism and the controversial medical practice of limb lengthening. The book Dwarf by Tiffanie DiDonato is a memoir of pain and suffering, life and overcoming obstacles. While the story pained me at times, I am honored to know the author and to know that she, most importantly, is happy with her decision to alter her body. I suggest this read to parents… it’s a great story about making decisions with our children, and how we are strong enough to support them, even in the hardest of times. (Check out a great blog post about Dwarf on Chelley’s blog, AisforAdelaide.com)

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Elizabeth: The last book that I have read that really wow’d me was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There were so many twists and turns that I wound up staying up for two days just to finish it! It’s about a man and his wife disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. It is hard to explain more without giving it away. It is about to be released as a movie with Ben Affleck! I really recommend it if you like suspense and thrillers!


I hope these recommendations gave you some new books to add to your list! I can personally vouch for Gone Girl, Cutting for Stone, and The Goldfinch. All wonderful books in their own way. Now tell me, what is the last great book YOU read? You can’t take ideas from this list without sharing with the rest of us! 🙂

 

Transitioning to happiness

That is a “before and progress” picture of Kieran, who is currently in the process of transitioning from female to male. Kieran told me he is “an open book” and that I could ask him whatever questions I wanted. Thank you to Kieran for answering my questions so honestly and for sharing so much information!

Caitlin: When do you first remember struggling with your gender? Can you share a bit of your back story?

Kieran: When I was in first grade, I have a distinct memory of saying things like “If I were a boy, I would like…” I absolutely was a “tomboy” and played primarily with boys toys. Around that time, my very young uncle used to tell me stories that started with “When I was a little girl…” He told me that little girls turned into boys around 11 years old and vice versa. I was beyond excited and looked forward to this like you could not imagine. At some point, I obviously realized that was not going to happened and was pretty sad.

I continued to feel like I was basically just an awkward tomboy for a number of years. Around 13 or 14, I realized that I was exclusively attracted to women. I still tried to have boyfriends, because I was not really able to come to terms with that. I still had this thing in the back of my head that I didn’t really understand. Through my teens, I would date guys that I wanted to be like, not that I actually wanted to be with, but I hadn’t yet been exposed to the transgendered community and so I sort of just chalked that up to being a lesbian. I dated a few women in my teens as well. I had a fair number of other issues when I was a teen, so it was hard to understand everything I was dealing with.

At around 18 or 19, I was exposed to what it meant to be trans. I was in college and was meeting more people and also took a LGBT history class. A giant lightbulb went off in my head and everything suddenly made sense. I talked to all of my friends at the time and began to live life as a male for a short period of time. I had been out as a lesbian and only dating women for a while. I finally felt good in my own skin when presenting as male and was happy.

I told people back home and it did not go nearly as well. I freaked out and thought that perhaps all of this was related to some other issues I was having. I reverted WAY back in the closet and started dating a guy pretty seriously when I was 19. That obviously was a disaster and didn’t last.

At 20, I started dating a woman. A year or so into dating her, I let her know about being trans. I attended trans support groups and was pretty ready to make a transition. The problem at the time was that many people that were transitioning when I was 20 were in the 35-45 year old range. People waited longer. And, it was expensive and not as available as it is now. So, I had made a decision that I would wait a few years.

Before I got to the point that I was going to transition, I got a job at Friendship Hospital for Animals. I decided that when I left Friendship, I would transition after I left that job but before starting whatever job I took next. At the time, there were not protections for being trans in the workplace and it was rare that people would transition while staying in a job.

So, I waited. And waited. And waited. And nearly 15 years went by and I was still at Friendship.

I started dating my wife, Caitie, in 2006, and she was aware before we started dating. I continued to hide it from some people at work (some knew) until February of this year. At that point, I felt like I just needed to transition whether that meant staying or leaving the job I love. I made sure all of the managers that reported directly to me knew and then I told my boss. It went well. (More on that below)

Caitlin: I understand that you are married with children. Can you talk a little bit about how your family affected your decision and this process?

Kieran: I am. (My wife Caitie and I) have 3 kids– a 4.5 old son and 2.5 year twins (a boy and a girl). The kids have called me “Baba.” Caitie picked it, it worked for me. We figured, since I had not transitioned, if they called me “Dad” out in public, it might confuse people and be difficult for my kids to understand if people made comments. And, there was no chance we were going to have them call me Mom or anything like that. So, Baba it is.

My family is the main reason that I finally pulled the trigger. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for about 20 years, much of it related to severe body dysmorphia (I refused to look in mirrors, for a while drank kind of heavily to self medicate, etc), and just a complete uneasiness with who I “was” to the outside world. However, I just resigned myself to being miserable. But, as our oldest started school, it became clear that something needed to be done. He has always referred to me as a boy. He never even asked, he just knew that there were 3 boys in our family and 2 girls.Well, kids and teachers at school didn’t necessarily see the same thing and that was confusing. I felt like I needed to fix that.

I also felt like if I wanted nothing more in life than for my kids to be happy, then I had a responsibility to be an example and be who I was supposed to be. So, I mustered up the courage and took the plunge.  

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Caitlin: Tell me a little bit about what the process is like. Where are you in the process? How are you feeling?

Kieran: Sure. The process is slightly different for everyone who goes through it. Continue reading

Geeking out over LARPing

Do you know what it means to LARP? Or what a LARPer is? I’ve known a few LARPers in my lifetime and I’ve always been fascinated with the passion these people have for Live Action Role Playing (LARP). So, I wanted to talk to someone about what LARPing is and why it’s so special to so many people. And, I’m lucky to have had that conversation with Tara (in the badass picture above), Senior Editor at The Geek Initiativea site that celebrates women’s contributions to geek culture.

Caitlin: Okay, so when I think of LARP, I think of that movie Role Models and also, LIGHTNING BOLT! LIGHTNING BOLT! So, you tell me, what is LARPing really?

Tara: LARPing stands for live action role playing. You basically embody a character. It’s a bit like playing Dungeons & Dragons or acting. Role Models isn’t entirely unlike LARP, but LARP is really diverse. There are medieval fantasy LARPs, post-apoc LARPs, steampunk LARPs, and parlor LARPs (which involve little or no combat).

Many LARPs do include thrown packet spells (i.e. ‘lightning bolt!’), but in practice it is usually a lot less cheesy than that. Some of the special effects can be movie quality.

That said, most LARPers realize what we are doing and that it doesn’t look entirely serious to the outside world. I think it’s healthy as a LARPer not to take yourself too seriously all the time, though there are many real benefits to LARPing and immersion.

Caitlin: Okay, so I don’t know what a lot of those words mean, haha. So, why don’t you tell me what a typical LARP consists of for you.

Tara: Sure! LARPs are diverse, as I said, but I’ll tell you about the one I’m most familiar with – Seventh Kingdom IGE in New Jersey. It’s a medieval fantasy LARP.

Participants assume one of two roles: that of a PC (player character, or the ‘adventure heroes’ of the game) or NPC (non-player character, or the quest-givers/people who deliver plot and make the world interactive).

I play as a PC. You can do various things – solve problems and puzzles, increase your standing in your character’s kingdom, delve into politics, do sneaky stuff, and participate in combat.

While you are in character, you basically act as that character. If you achieve immersion, it means you feel that very deeply (of course you need to temper that with real-world issues like safety and relationships). It’s a very entertaining experience.

Caitlin: So, I think for people who don’t LARP, this is kind of hard to really understand. Do you find that’s the case?

Tara: Yes. When I talk to people unfamiliar with it, I usually try to stick to the basics. You get into costume, you pick a character type you’d like to play, and then you act like the character! It is actually that easy to get started.

By character type I mean ‘class’ or ‘profession,’ as in what the character does. Rogue, witch, diplomat, bard, etc. Every game has different options and rules, but that’s the basic thing.

Caitlin: It sounds a lot like method acting, actually.

Tara: I am not an experienced method actor, but I have witnessed others go through the process and I believe it’s really similar. You run into the same benefits and risks. For me, it is about establishing boundaries and then participating in the game with people I trust.

My first total immersion experience happened last year. I was having a really stressful time in real life, and I got a role play note that my character heard a demon’s voice in her mind. It made her feel very differently towards her protector (who normally allows her to feel safe) and then it made her feel ‘better’ than the other mortals. She revealed her ambition, which is to become queen of her kingdom. The resulting role play was just amazing.

Caitlin: What drew you to LARPing?

Tara: My husband (then boyfriend) thought I’d be interested in it and he was a long time LARPer. I was already into theater, role playing (online) and role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, going to the renaissance faire, and I’ve been writing stories since I was 8. LARPing uses all of those talents and interests at once. So it’s like I never have to give up a hobby due to lack of time or money.

I stayed because I had a great time and found that it was a really easy way to make friends with similar interests as an adult, which isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are not single.

Caitlin: And it kind of becomes a way of life, right?

Tara: Kind of. I mean, it isn’t all-consuming, but it is kind of a lifestyle in a way, for those of us who are open about their nerdiness. I’m pretty open as a geek, which I think is easier for me than others because I am female and in a creative industry. People expect me to be quirky.

Caitlin: Are there some people who tend to keep LARPing private from their work/families/whatever?

Tara: Yes. One of my friends says, “don’t cross the streams.” He doesn’t really date LARPers and he keeps his work, love, and LARP life all separate. With social media and being tagged in Facebook photos, that can be kind of challenging.

Caitlin: Why do you think that is?

Tara: For some people, it’s a professional thing. They don’t want to be Googled and have their boss find them painted up like a demon or something. For other people, it supports their career – like actors, for example.

I think there is also a major social stigma against LARPers still. We’re low on the ‘geek hierarchy,’ although that is changing a bit. People are very afraid of what others think of them in general.

I also think it’s generally much more acceptable for women to be more outwardly expressive and creative in their hobbies than men, and that’s unfortunate. LARP really provides a forum to tackle gender roles on a different level (in the game), but out of game, a lot of guys really feel like they might be judged negatively for it.

It really depends upon a person’s career goals and field, usually. Professional athletes may even face fines if they are photographed doing unusual stuff like LARPing, believe it or not.

Caitlin: What have you learned about yourself through LARPing?

Tara: The fact that I HAVE learned about myself is probably the most valuable thing I’ve gotten out of LARPing besides an amazing and supportive network of friends – who are really family.

I’ve learned that I’m more than one thing. Like my character, I’m not just a bard, nurturer, fighter – but all of those things. And like her, sometimes I’m protecting others or standing up for them, and other times I’m asking for that from someone else.

I’ve also learned that most of the people I interact with in game, in character, are also very valuable and caring friends to me in real life, and sometimes those relationships really echo. You do not spend years playing someone’s sister or protector without a bit of ‘bleed,’ which is the term used to describe real-life and acting-life stuff blending, especially emotionally. I had no idea how positive bleed could be.

Caitlin: Would you encourage others to give LARPing a try? Who does it typically appeal to?

Tara: I’ve seen shy people find out who they are – or how they can be expressive – because of LARPing. Everyone should give it a try.

I’d especially recommend it to anyone who wants to make more friends, anyone with a theater background…or anyone who has talents they do not get to use in real life. I very rarely get to sing in real life but I LARP as a bard, and it feels good to kind of keep in practice.

Also, it’s amazing stress relief. You can hit people with foam weapons, and there are some really talented fighters out there (I am lucky enough to know a few of the best of them).

Caitlin: Anything else you want to share?

Tara: LARP is a great place to learn more about what you can do. I wouldn’t really think of myself as a ‘fighter’ or ‘defender,’ but I have learned through LARPing that those are actually really natural roles for me. I’ve become a better public speaker because of it as well.

If you have a skill you want to work on, LARP is a great place for it. You can also find in and out of game encouragement, too.

So what do you think? Do you want to give LARPing a try? Any questions for Tara? I’ll be sure to follow up with her! Let’s talk!

Image: A Clockwork Moon Images