“Wired For Love” by Stan Tatkin

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Subtitle: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain & Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict & Build a Secure Relationship

Recommended to me by: Nora Samaran

I bounced off this book the first time I tried to read it. The second time, I got past the over-simplified initial examples and cutely simplified brain science to get to some useful relationship suggestions. They boil down to: Make your relationship a priority. Pay attention to what your partner likes, and do that. Pay attention to what upsets your partner, and offer comfort. Negotiate in good faith rather than trying to control them. Be aware of attachment styles and threat responses.

I took serious exception to calling the ventral and dorsal vagal nerves the “smart vagus” and “dumb vagus.” That’s just plain inaccurate, and has all sorts of ableist implications that don’t belong in a relationship book (or anywhere).

As frequently happens, the disorganized attachment style is left out. He uses the metaphors of anchor (secure), wave (anxious), and island (avoidant).

There are some same-sex couples in the examples, and the genders are not painfully stereotyped in the heterosexual couples. The names even have a bit of cultural variability. Yay.

Recommended for the relationship advice, but not the brain science.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples” by Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald

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Subtitle: The Two of Us

Recommended by: David Mitchell

I love the diverse couples on the cover of this book. They create a sense of inclusion and emotional safety right away.

Sue Johnson introduces Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) in “Hold Me Tight.” EFT assumes that adult attachment is natural and normal, and that it makes sense that we feel terrible and protest loudly when our attachment bonds feel threatened.

This workbook kindly and carefully works through the steps of creating emotional safety in a relationship. Clear explanations alternate with questions that invite self-reflection and partner communication. Topics include: cycles of relationship distress, attachment bonds, past influences, emotions, how we feel now, more about difficult emotions, security, rebuilding our bond, repairing relationship injury, stories of change, maintaining intimacy and revitalizing your sex life.

For example, the chapter on emotions asks, “In my family or previous relationships… What messages did I get about experiencing and expressing emotions?” In my family, emotions were never a topic of discussion. I hadn’t consciously noticed that before.

Highly recommended! Useful as an adjunct to couples therapy, or on its own. Each question takes time to answer and process, so this is a workbook to go through slowly and gently.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“If the Buddha Dated” by Charlotte Kasl

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Subtitle: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path

I read and liked this a long time ago. I’ve been recommending it to folks lately, so I reread it to refresh my memory.

The part I remembered and liked was the encouragement to be yourself in dating. Show up as you are, and see if the other person likes the real you.

And what if no one is liking the real you, for a long time? Charlotte Kasl suggests looking at what internal barriers you might have in the way of relationships, and also strongly affirms that it happens when it happens. You might be doing everything right and still remain single, especially if you’re in a location or situation where you don’t meet a lot of eligible people.

The spirituality in the book is down to earth. Show up for your life as it is. Sit with yourself as you are. Bring in more compassion, more gentleness, more acceptance.

She talks a lot about accepting a new love as they are, signing up for everything they do in the present, with the awareness that it all might stay the same or change. Acceptance is important, and at the same time I find relief in LaShelle Chardé’s position that acceptance includes clear boundaries and communication of needs and feelings.

When you are truly in acceptance there is a sense of ease, clarity, openness, and often warmth. When you are thinking you “should accept your partner” (i.e., accepting your partner too much), there is a sense of effort, heaviness, contraction, and lots of deep breaths.

On the topic of discerning whether a new love is or will become abusive and controlling, Charlotte Kasl suggests keeping a list of your bottom lines on the fridge, and noticing when they get crossed. If the list starts looking like a completed shopping list, pay careful attention. Also notice when you’re reluctant to tell good friends about what’s happening in the relationship because, “They just wouldn’t understand.” I would have liked to see a stronger affirmation that you can’t always tell in advance, and abusive behavior is the responsibility of the abuser. Of course we’d like to avoid pain whenever we can.

Overall, a wise, hopeful little book, a quick read that covers a lot of complex topics, touches into some depths, and also skims over some complexity.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“When the Moon Was Ours” by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Recommended to me by: 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award winner

Sensual language about food, aromas, colors, and landscapes that reminds me of “Like Water for Chocolate.” Wise, foolish, loving, cruel, growing, changing young people, sometimes with too much teen angst for my taste. Matter-of-fact bodies and sexuality, both cis and trans, gay and straight, without porn or objectification. The balance between taking action and waiting for the time to be right. Relationships, community, secrets, and revelations. Making art, being kind.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Death Without Denial Grief Without Apology” by Barbara K. Roberts

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Subtitle: A Guide for Facing Death and Loss

This is a loving clear-eyed unflinchingly personal look at terminal illness, death, and grief by Oregon’s former governor Barbara Roberts. Her husband Frank Roberts died of cancer during her governorship. From the introduction:

I hope for a culture of loving openness in every medical office, hospital room, health care clinic, and emergency room where news of life’s limitations and death’s impending arrival are discussed openly and compassionately. People who are dying and their families and loved ones must be prepared to create such a culture for themselves.

Frank was a state senator during his last year, and there are some mentions of both of their political work in their choice to keep his terminal illness private for some time. I can only imagine the strength it took to continue to govern through illness and grief.

She tells the story of his diagnosis, their decision process together, their choice of hospice rather than further treatment, his quiet death, and her grief afterward. Emotions are included, but the story is calmly told. She shares the practical steps of planning for death. She talks openly about her own and others’ private rituals of grief, such as bringing flowers to a recently dead wife on an anniversary, or talking to the urn containing Frank’s ashes.

Highly recommended!

Wikipedia page about Oregon Democratic governor Barbara Roberts. Her term was from 1991-1995. She was the first woman Oregon governor. The second was just elected in 2016, our current governor Kate Brown.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Emotional Blackmail” by Susan Forward, Ph.D.

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Subtitle: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You

Recommended to me by: looking up FOG: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt

Susan Forward clearly analyzes emotional blackmail and blackmailers in relationships, as well as the characteristics of people who become targets of blackmail. At the end, she has suggestions for reclaiming integrity and communicating assertively with blackmailers to give them the opportunity to reform.

Emotional blackmail steps: Demand, Resistance, Pressure, Threats, Compliance, Repetition.

By contrast, setting limits involves defining a position, stating what one needs, saying what one will and won’t accept, and giving the other person a chance to say yes or no.

Blackmailers are divided into categories: Punishers (“Do it or else I’ll hurt you”), Self-Punishers (“… or else I’ll hurt myself”), Sufferers (“You know how much I’ve been through”), and Tantalizers (“I could help you”).

FOG (Fear, Obligation, and Guilt) keep blackmail targets from thinking clearly. The blackmailer skillfully pushes buttons to make the target react rather than stop and think.

Traits that make targets vulnerable to FOG and emotional blackmail: an excessive need for approval, an intense fear of anger, a need for peace at any price, a tendency to take too much responsibility for other people’s lives, a high level of self-doubt. These are survival skills that may be out of date, and cause problems when they run the show.

Suggestions: Make a contract with yourself to restore integrity and take action. Repeat your power statement, “I CAN STAND IT.” Reverse statements such as “I tell myself what I want is wrong” into “I ask for what I want, even when it upsets the blackmailer.”

Send up an SOS: Stop (“I need time to think about it”), Observe (one’s own reactions, thoughts, emotions, flashpoints), Strategize (analyze demands). Demands might be minor, partly okay, open to compromise, or non-negotiable. List what you need, and expand your options. Decide what the bottom line is to leave.

Interestingly, the book uses the phrase “powerful non-defensive communication” and its publication date (1997) predates Sharon Ellison’s book on that topic (2002). Don’t take up the bait of attacks, but clearly and consistently stay on-message. “This is who I am. This is what I want.”

To disconnect from fear, she suggests thought-stopping. To disconnect from obligation, add “WHERE IS IT WRITTEN” to one’s obligatory rules. To disconnect from guilt, write a fairy tale in third person about what’s going on.

Her suggestions are based on the idea that our emotions follow our thoughts. She explicitly excludes seriously abusive relationships, and people who have experienced serious trauma and abuse. She also elides any discussion of racism, sexism, classism, or other power dynamics at work that might put someone down and out for resisting a blackmailer.

While she discusses attempts at resistance that get squashed, she still seems to be saying that the blackmail targets just didn’t resist the right way. According to her, blackmail targets train their blackmailers by acquiescing. As someone who actively resists guilt and doesn’t acquiesce much, I’m here to say that path has negative consequences too.

She states that blackmailers themselves are frightened and unaware of their tactics’ effects on the target. In the cases where this is true, her suggestions will be useful. In the cases where blackmailers are simply indifferent, or coldly aware of the efficacy of their tactics, these suggestions inappropriately suggest that the target is at fault.

This is a great first book about manipulation and assertiveness. It is clearly written with lots of anecdotes threaded through the book. If it isn’t your first introduction to these ideas, it feels somewhat shallow, like it sidesteps the hard parts.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit

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Subtitle: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Recommended to me by: reading Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me”, and also Haymarket Books was giving away free copies of the ebook on the occasion of the November 2016 election results

I rarely read ebooks. I prefer to hold the book in my hands and have a physical context for what I’m reading and how much is left. Ebooks feel disorientingly abstract. I put this one on my phone and have been reading it in little bits when I wait for an appointment or ride a bus. The book is a series of short chapters and essays, linked together.

Oddly (for a professional publisher) Haymarket Books used an irritating variable font so that letter size and style varies within words, and they also tagged the book repeatedly with my name and email address. I guess they wanted to make really sure I didn’t share the book with anyone, but what they did is distract me while I was reading and repeatedly remind me not to buy any ebooks from Haymarket Books.

Format issues aside, “Hope in the Dark” is an affirming, well-researched, engagingly written anodyne for the current political situation. It was written on the occasion of Bush’s contested election in 2004, and the problems and dynamics then sound remarkably like the current disasters (except Bush wasn’t, as far as we know, in league with a foreign government).

Solnit talks about how powerful entities in the limelight look immovable, but ideas and movements at the edges, on the margins, in the shadows engender change. We forget our victories because they look like they’ve always been that way, and also because those in power want us to forget and despair. Victories build slowly, happen partially, arise suddenly from years of background work.

Activist movements that practice what they want to see in the world (consensus, equity, respect for all) are already winning even if the current battle is lost. Living the way we want to live *is* activism. Distributed movements that share strategies globally but meet and act locally are finding more and more success.

I found support here for living the way I want to live. I also found urging to reach out, connect with local groups, act! The last essay is about climate change and its urgency. Hope is the determination to keep working toward the world we want to live in, non-violently, non-idealogically, peacefully, cooperatively, joyously.

Highly recommended for anyone distressed by current politics.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Healing Trauma” by Peter A. Levine, PhD.

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Subtitle: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body

Recommended to me by: a client

This is a practical, applied introduction to Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work. After an introductory summary, he presents 12 exercises, starting with body awareness and grounding, continuing with awareness of felt senses in the body, and then moving into completion of fight, flight, and freeze responses. He includes orienting to a sense of normalcy and balance that may be new and unfamiliar. The approach is gentle, accepting, and warm.

A CD is included where he reads the exercises. It’s not really a guided meditation, because, for example, he says, “Tap your left hand … (notice, etc.), okay now move through the rest of the body.”

The exercises aren’t quite in the order I would present them, since starting with body awareness might be challenging for many people. I would start with grounding and resources first.

Recommended for people who want to tools to work with their own trauma, and/or who want to understand the nuts and bolts of Somatic Experiencing.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“EPUB Straight to the Point” by Elizabeth Castro

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Subtitle: Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders

Recommended to me by: Finding it at the library

Creating an epub ebook from an InDesign print book file involves a whole lot of hidden settings and mysterious outcomes. I read a lot of blog posts, and this book was also helpful in getting the details squared away. It has step by step instructions for creating an epub ebook from Word and InDesign, and then further step by step instructions for editing the epub directly to refine the results. Since I learned HTML before CSS was a thing, and epub uses CSS, this was helpful to get oriented. It’s from 2011, but still useful.

It has some iPad-specific details, like a list of the fonts it supports and previews of each.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Thirteen Clocks” by James Thurber

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Recommended to me by: My college roommate

In times of extreme stress, my college roommate gathered a group of us together and read aloud this delightful, illustrated, untraditional fairytale. She tracked down a used copy for me, and it is one of my treasured possessions.

As an antidote to extreme election anxiety, I read the story aloud recently over a couple of evenings. The lyrical language and satisfying conclusion are still soothing all these years later.

I would like a Golux to fix the election please.

Back in print! Available at Powell’s Books.