remembering flo

The first time I met Allyn’s great aunt Flo — the sister of his paternal grandmother — I was a little nervous. At the time she was 93 years old and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew she lived alone in her house of nearly six decades; her husband had died and she had no children of her own. I knew she was a bit hard of hearing; Allyn told me I would need to speak loudly and clearly. I knew she had been an avid photographer — even taking a workshop with Ansel Adams! — and that she loved the Oakland A’s. Driving up to her house that day with Allyn and his mom and sister, I felt a bit like an intruder. I was just a woman Allyn had been dating for a few months. Would Flo wonder what I was doing there? Or would she confuse me with one of his previous girlfriends? I tried to mentally prepare a strategy for what to do if she called me by a different name or acted like we had met before. She was 93 years old, after all.

We pulled up into the driveway of her cute one-story house with the brown trim and neatly kept yard. I followed Allyn and his family around the side yard and through the garage, where they knocked on the door leading into the kitchen. “Coming!” a voice called, and then the door swung open and there was Flo with a wide, warm smile on her face.

Flo was beautiful. She had an inner beauty that shone out of her eyes and her smile. She wore her short hair perfectly curled. Her carefully applied makeup accentuated her quiet elegance. She looked and seemed decades younger than her years.

Flo hugged everyone and said, “I’m so happy to see you!” When Allyn introduced me as his girlfriend, Flo leaned over without hesitation and gave me a hug too. It would be my first of many, many sweet hugs from Flo.

That afternoon we went to lunch at an Indian restaurant down the street. Flo had never been there before — the Mexican place that she loved was closed that day so we went to the Indian restaurant next door instead — but she was game to try something new. She was up on politics, had a delightful sense of humor, and chatted with Allyn’s mom about the Oakland A’s (Flo watched every game on TV and even kept her own detailed statistics for each player). I was in complete awe of her. I remember thinking, “If I am lucky enough to live into my nineties, I want to be just like Flo.”

Not too long after that, Allyn and I moved into our first apartment together. We chose the location because it was midway between both of our workplaces, it was a safe neighborhood and the rent was more reasonable than other nearby cities. An added bonus was that we now lived just down the street from Flo.

We visited Flo as often as we could. Our routine was to take her grocery shopping and to the drugstore, and then to pick up her favorite smoothie drink, called a Blenzer, on the way home. Then we would drink the Blenzers and visit around her kitchen table. Flo loved the cappuccino Blenzer and would suck down the large size in no time at all. She would always tease me and Allyn for getting the smaller sizes. {I couldn’t handle anything bigger– those things were filling!} I remember her childlike pleasure in something as ordinary as enjoying a smoothie. She would announce, “I just love these!” and her eyes would sparkle. Her joy was pure and contagious.

Shopping with Flo was always an adventure. She would write out, in her neat block handwriting, two identical copies of her grocery list: one for her and one for Allyn and me. At the store, one of us would stay with her at the cart and the other would zoom around the aisles to pick up her items. Her list was short and simple; she would buy just what she needed, nothing more. She especially loved oranges and vanilla frozen yogurt. Allyn and I would sometimes pick up groceries for ourselves while we were there, and it always turned into a battle at the cashier because Flo wanted to pay for our groceries too, not just hers — even though we would typically have way more items than she did. I remember once, Allyn tried to sneakily pay for all of our groceries — Flo’s included — and that was the only time I ever really saw Flo get angry. I remember her digging through her wallet and thrusting way too many bills at him, a stern look on her face. Flo was fiesty and stubborn as well as sweet.

A couple days after each grocery trip, we would receive a letter in the mail from Flo thanking us. I always loved reading her notes in her tidy penmanship, showering us with praise and gratitude for tasks that many people would take for granted. Flo was amazed that Allyn could find her items in the grocery store so quickly. Occasionally he would go shopping with Flo on Sundays when I had to work, but Flo wouldn’t forget me in her notes. “Hope to see you soon for another Blenzer– yum!” she would write. “Give my love to your darling Dallas!” She made me feel seen and loved as myself, not just as Allyn’s wife.

Speaking of being Allyn’s wife, one of my favorite memories of Flo was on our wedding day. I’m sure it felt like a big outing for Flo — she was 96 by then — and it was probably a little overwhelming for her to be around so many people, most of them strangers. Actually, maybe not. Flo was one of those special souls who made strangers instantly feel like friends. I had expected her to head home early in the evening, but not only did she stay long into the reception… she was a hit on the dance floor! I love these photos of her dancing with my family friends Ken & Kathy, whom she had just met that day. It was so special to have Flo’s joyful presence there at our wedding.

We thought of Flo in particular during our honeymoon in Yosemite, because she studied photography with Ansel Adams. We bought her a postcard print of one of his iconic black-and-white Yosemite photos in a gift shop there, and when we returned home we asked her about Ansel Adams during our next visit. She disappeared into her home office and reemerged with the materials from the workshop she took with him, shortly before he died. She had applied to the small, intimate workshop held at Adams’ home and was one of only a handful of students accepted. I could see why she was chosen — Flo’s photography was masterful. Her stunning photograph of a lion hung in her living room, and I was amazed at the expression she captured in his eyes. My other favorites were her photographs of icebergs from a trip she took to the Arctic. She showed us a photograph she had surreptitiously snapped of Ansel Adams as he gave a talk on the last day of the workshop, and told us about how she went up to him afterwards and asked if she could give him a hug. After he hugged her, Ansel Adams sighed and said, “If only I were twenty years younger!” Flo giggled as she told that story, and I got a flash of her girlhood self in her smile.

Since Flo could not travel herself anymore, one of our favorite traditions when we took trips was to mail her a postcard. Without fail, when we next visited her, the postcard would be out on her kitchen table — next to the newspaper crossword that she completed in ink every morning — or taped up on her refrigerator. She loved to read aloud to us the message we had written her, delight on her face and in her voice. Flo always made me feel like the very best version of myself.

The last time I saw Flo was the day after Thanksgiving. Allyn and I swung by with Blenzers and turkey leftovers. I was 39 weeks pregnant and Flo kept marveling at my belly. Flo was 98 years old and had slowed down a great deal. She was much frailer and less steady on her feet; she gripped my hands tightly as we walked down the hall together. But her sweet smile was the same, her laugh was the same, and her unbridled joy to see us caused my own heart to leap as it always did. She had forgotten we were coming and kept saying, “I just can’t believe you’re here. I’m so happy to see you!” As usual, she paid us far too much for the groceries we brought her. I was able to slip the money back into her wallet without her noticing, and that was when it really struck me that we might not have too much time left on this Earth with our dear Flo.

Flo passed away on January 4. Both Allyn and I cried when we learned the news. Even though we were blessed with so much time with Flo, I feel greedy for even more. It is so hard to let her go. She never got to meet Maya in person, but I am so grateful to Allyn’s dad for bringing her a photo of Maya shortly after Christmas, so at least Flo got to see our little girl. I hope Maya grows up with her great-great aunt’s sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, delighting in its beauty and its gifts — especially the small everyday pleasures that many of us overlook. I hope Maya has Flo’s kindness and also her strength; her humor and her conviction; her playfulness and gratitude. And I hope Maya continually feels as loved as Flo always made me feel.

Thank you for the memories, dear Flo. Thank you for letting me be part of your life. I am just one of countless people whose lives you touched. I love you and will miss you very much.

what i’ve learned as a new mom

Hi everyone, and happy 2019! I am thrilled to introduce you to my daughter Maya Woodburn McAuley. She was born on December 4th at 10:57pm. She is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen and my husband and I are completely, totally, head-over-heels in-love with her.

Becoming a parent is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. With the sleep deprivation, exhaustion, demands of breastfeeding, and constant neediness a newborn baby brings, there have definitely been days when I have felt completely overwhelmed. But that is coupled with a profound love and gratitude for this itty-bitty baby we are blessed enough to get to care for. Rarely in my life have I been through a season that is both indescribably good and indescribably hard — but parenthood is both. It has broken me down into the core of my being and transformed me into a new level of my being.

My mom brain is tired and my thoughts are scattered, so I’m going to organize this as a list post. Here are, in no particular order, some things I’ve discovered as a new mom.

1. The human body is truly astounding. Pregnancy was miraculous enough — watching my body change and my belly grow, week by week, as I created a new human being inside me. Giving birth took my awe to a whole new level. I never want to forget how amazing my body is and what it can do.

In daily life, it is easy to get caught up in viewing our bodies through a lens of shallow perfectionism. Especially as women, we are surrounded by messages of what we “need” to tweak, change, shave, shine, primp, tighten {etc etc} about our bodies in order to make them beautiful, sexy, worthy. But pregnancy and giving birth has reminded me — has dug the knowledge deep within my bones — that my body is worthy and strong and good and enough exactly as it is. I do not need to change a thing. Whenever I feel otherwise, I need to lean into the truth of my body’s resilience and strength and be grateful for all that my body does for me each and every day. My body has climbed mountains. My body has explored cities. My body has birthed a tiny human being. My body lets me run and jump and stretch and hug and carry my daughter as we dance around and around the room. My body deserves to be cherished.

2. Sometimes confidence needs to be faked before it is felt. That first night in the hospital, as Maya cried and cried, my husband and I looked at each other with wide eyes. Our expressions said, “Now what do we do?” We had been up for more than 24 hours after a long labor. As excited as I was to be a mom, in truth Maya didn’t quite feel like *mine* right away. She felt like this random baby we were tasked with caring for — with no instruction manual. I kept catching my brain wondering where this baby’s parents were and when they would come teach us what to do.

I spent nine months being a pregnant woman. Then, within a day, I became a mom. But I didn’t feel like a mom yet. In truth, I was terrified.

Maya didn’t know any of that. All she knew was that she was hungry and I fed her. She was wet and Daddy changed her diaper. She was tired and we rocked her to sleep. To her, we were “real” parents from the very beginning. Of course we knew what we were doing.

As the days and weeks passed, I began to relax more into my new identity. Gradually, I’ve gotten to know Maya better — and she has gotten to know me. Looking back now, it is amazing how much more confident I feel as a mother. Yes, there will still be times when Maya is screaming her head off and I’m trying in vain to soothe her and I wish there was an instruction manual or “expert” I could pass her off to. But for the most part, the confident smile I used to summon all my energy to plaster onto my tired face is a genuine smile of confidence these days.

3. You can prepare and prepare and prepare… but there are some things in life you simply cannot fully prepare for. Allyn and I took all the prenatal classes. We read so many books. We watched videos. We downloaded podcasts. We practiced tasks on a baby doll: putting on a diaper, swaddling, burping, sponge-bathing. We listened to advice from other people.

The week before Maya was born, everything was all ready for her arrival. The baby furniture was set up. The baby clothes were washed and organized. Our hospital bags were packed. Our freezer was stocked with easy meals to reheat and our pantry was stocked with snacks.

We did everything we could think of to prepare. And yet… when the time came to bring her home from the hospital, I felt very unprepared. In truth, nothing could have prepared us for the realities of life with a newborn baby. No amount of other people’s stories about sleep-deprivation teach you what it feels like to go weeks upon weeks waking up every two hours to feed a baby.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for things as best you can. I’m so grateful we came home to an organized nursery and lots of food in the freezer. I’m so glad we took all those baby classes. But I’ve learned to give myself grace and to accept the messiness of life’s new challenges. I will make mistakes. I will not be perfect. And that is part of the beauty of the journey. Some things, you only learn by experiencing them yourself.

4. A community of support is invaluable. We are so, so lucky to have a ton of family and friends who surrounded us with love and care when Maya was born — and continue to do so, offering help and hugs and listening ears. My parents drove up from Southern California and stayed with us for a few days to help us get our bearings. My mom came up again when Allyn went back to work so I would feel less overwhelmed with the transition of caring for a baby by myself all day. My sister-in-law Allyson cleaned our entire house while we were in the hospital so we would come home to a clean house, and also organized a meal train for the first few weeks we were home. Family and friends came to meet Maya — and also to bring us food and do our dishes. I can’t count how many people have brought us groceries. My mother-in-law comes over frequently to hold Maya so I can take a shower or take a nap. People sent cards and gifts and flowers and prayers. I still receive text messages nearly every day from friends — checking up on me, asking how things are going, letting me know they care.

One of my favorite experiences of my entire life has been seeing the people I love shower love onto my daughter. It is so special to witness such a tangible outpouring of their love as they hold her, rock her, and cuddle her close.

5. You can hold gratitude and sadness in your heart at the same time. Before Maya was born, I read about the “baby blues” and postpartum depression, but I never expected to feel those things myself. After all, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to be a mother. Even as a little girl, I dreamed of one day having a child of my own. And after the heartbreaking experience of an ectopic pregnancy the year before, I understood deep in my heart what a gift it is to be granted a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

But sometimes, in the early weeks of life with our newborn daughter, I found myself bursting into tears and sobbing into my hands. I would feel a pit of despair well up within me for no discernible reason. I mourned my old life — the sense of control I used to feel over myself, my body, and my time. At the prospect of another sleepless night, I would find myself thinking, “I can’t do this. I don’t know if I can do this.”

Then I would feel wracked with guilt. Because of course I knew what a blessing it was to be able to do this. I told myself that I shouldn’t feel sad or tired or frustrated — I should only feel grateful. I should feel grateful all the time.

What I’ve learned through becoming a mother is that it is possible to want something very much, and to feel astoundingly grateful to have something, and also to feel sad and overwhelmed and annoyed and exhausted. Our feelings are not mutually exclusive. Feeling one thing does not preclude the other. Trying to push away my sadness — or compounding it with guilt — only made it worse. By acknowledging the breadth of my feelings and giving myself grace to feel them all, I was able to move through the sadness much easier. Talking to Allyn about how I was feeling, and having him listen to me patiently without judging me at all, was a huge step in my journey of embracing the whole package of motherhood — not just the Hollywood highlight reel, but the beautiful daily grind of it.

6. Self-care does not have to be complicated. Sometimes, self-care is as simple as brushing your teeth, washing your face, drinking a glass of water. When I get to take a shower, it is glorious. Instead of mindlessly going through the motions, I savor the sensations of the water beating down my back and the smooth soap on my skin. A good nap makes me feel newly alive again. Even going to the grocery store can be an act of vibrant self-care! I went out by myself for the first time last weekend {leaving Allyn at home with a sleeping Maya and a bottle of breastmilk just in case she woke up hungry} and slowly pushing my cart down the aisles felt like such a glorious luxury.

7. Stories save us. Whether it is listening to my mom’s stories about how overwhelmed she felt when my brother and I were first born {something that is impossible to imagine now — my confident, capable mother ever feeling overwhelmed} or texting with a fellow new mom friend about the trials of breastfeeding, or reading blog posts written by new moms about their joys and struggles with motherhood… stories have become my lifeline in an entirely new way during this season of my life. Stories make me feel understood and less alone. They give me hope and connection. They make me laugh. If ever I have doubts about the power stories hold — because it can be a less tangible power than other things, perhaps — the experiences in my life that bring me to my knees always remind me tenfold why I have devoted my life to storytelling.

In a nutshell, I believe that stories are love. Telling our stories is sharing our own unique and sacred love with the world.

8. The only constant in this life is change. As I write this, Maya is seven weeks and three days old. She has already gone through so many changes since we brought her home from the hospital. Her umbilical cord dried up and fell off. She gained back the weight she lost after birth and she continues to steadily gain weight each week. Already, she has grown out of her newborn clothes. Her cheeks have filled out and her little arms and legs are delightfully pudgy. Her eyes have grown more alert. She sleeps for longer stretches during the night (hallelujah!) and is awake for longer stretches during the day. She makes little noises as if she is trying to talk to us. She has started to smile real smiles of happiness, not just gas. Every day, it seems, she is doing something new.

I have always loved the song “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” by Darius Rucker, and becoming a mom has made me love this song in a whole new light. Now when I listen to this song, it makes me cry. I think of this song when Maya has a diaper blowout five minutes after I changed her last diaper. I think of this song when she wants to eat again for the umpteenth time and doesn’t care one iota about my sore nipples. I think of this song when she is being fussy and I feel like I’ve done nothing all day except dance with her around the kitchen, holding her in different positions, trying to get her settled and sleepy. In moments of frustration or weariness, I remind myself that it won’t be like this for long. This too shall pass. Things will change, as they always do.

One day — in what I am sure will feel like the blink of an eye — this itty bitty baby will be crawling, and then walking, and then going to school, and riding her bike, and going to sleepovers, and learning to drive, and heading off into her own life all grown up. And I will think back to when she was a fussy little seven-week-and-three-day-old baby, and I will wish more than anything to spend a day dancing with her around the kitchen as she cries and wails and finally snuggles to sleep against my chest.

what james taylor means to me

I.

I am eleven years old, dancing around the kitchen with my mom, listening to my parents’ old CDs. It is a Sunday afternoon and I am helping her make banana bread from scratch. My mom is a terrific baker, and I have inherited a love of baking from her. We have turned our giant three-CD stereo onto “shuffle” mode. There is one singer that I especially like. His voice is smooth and filled with emotion, and his lyrics sound like poetry, and the acoustic guitar makes me feel peaceful. “Who is that?” I ask my mom, as the man sings a lullaby about a sweet baby.

“That’s James Taylor,” she says.

“I like his music,” I declare. Up to this point, my musical tastes have existed on a decidedly separate plane from my parents’ music. My CD collection includes Mandy Moore, The Spice Girls, and N’SYNC. Now, I add James Taylor to the list.

The smell of banana bread baking in the oven mingles with the sound of James’ crooning. I come to associate his songs with the warm feelings of childhood and family and comfort. In a word: home.

II.

I am fifteen years old, on the bus to an away game with my basketball team. I always get supremely nervous before games, worried that I’m going to screw up, make a mistake, get yelled at by my coach. The entire day at school, I have been dreading this afternoon’s game. To calm myself down, I pull my portable CD player out of my backpack, slip on the headphones, and press PLAY.

James Taylor’s rich voice fills my ears, reminding me that I’ve got a friend, no matter what happens.

I don’t know anyone else at my school who likes James Taylor’s music. He feels like my own special secret. When I feel lost or self-conscious or alone, his music reminds me that this period of my life won’t last forever. Listening to his music reminds me of the wider, richer world out there beyond the confines of high school—and certainly beyond high school basketball games.

My favorite part of away basketball games is listening to his CD on the bus ride there and back home again.

{source}

III.

I am sixteen years old. James Taylor releases a new album at the same time I am going through a tough time with some friends at school. New music from him feels like a gift from the universe. Even better, many of his songs are about autumn—my favorite season. The magic of autumn is amplified by the beauty of his voice. I listen to “September Grass” and “October Road” on repeat. I imagine one day meeting a boy who loves and appreciates James Taylor as much as I do—who, in turn, recognizes my beauty and uniqueness the way none of the boys at school seem to.

Dad surprises me with tickets to see James Taylor in concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I am the youngest one there by at least a decade, maybe two. But I don’t care. I feel like James is singing directly to me. He plays for more than two hours and his voice sounds even better and richer than it does on the CDs I’ve memorized by heart.

It has been one of the hardest and saddest seasons of my life up to this point, but sitting at that concert next to my dad, feeling the breeze on my face and watching my favorite musician light up the night with his beautiful music, I feel hope burgeoning inside me. I am going to be okay. I am going to move on and find new friends. Life is going to expand and keep getting better. I feel sure of it.

IV.

I am a freshman in college, and life has expanded greatly. My world has gotten wider and fuller and more exciting. I have made many new friends and every day, I am soaking up new knowledge and new experiences.

Still, sometimes I feel lonely or stressed or homesick. So much newness can be overwhelming. Whenever that happens, I click over to my James Taylor iTunes playlist. His music makes me feel like I can close my eyes and be transported back to the kitchen with my mom, baking banana bread, dancing around with my silly dog Gar—like I can be my child-self again, even for just the span of a song.

 

V.

I am in graduate school now, living halfway across the country from everything I have known. Here in Indiana, the autumn is more beautiful than any I have experienced. The reds and oranges and yellows explode from the trees, and the sky is crisp and blue. My favorite season should feel more magical than ever.

But it doesn’t. I am lonelier than I have ever been. Most people in my program are married or coupled-up, and I am the youngest one. I feel so single and so naive. As hard as I try to make friends, the close bonds I forged easily in college seem elusive here. I try throwing a party, but it is only mildly successful. The weekends stretch out interminably; the highlight is going shopping at the grocery store.

I get a lot of writing and reading done. The leaves begin to fall from the trees. The weather turns grayer and colder.

I turn on the heater in my little apartment. I bake banana bread. I play James Taylor’s music and feel a teeny bit more at home, a teeny bit less alone. His songs are my touchstone.

VI.

I am twenty-six years old, living back in California. Northern California this time, the Bay Area. I am living with my grandparents and I make friends and I am not lonely. But I am still searching for a partner to share my life with. I listen to James Taylor’s songs—“Something in the Way She Moves” and “Your Smiling Face“—and I feel hopeful that I will find the person I am meant to be with. I think back to high school, when I felt like the only person my age who liked James Taylor. Now, I’ve met quite a few people from my generation who enjoy his music—Taylor Swift {who, I’ve learned, was named for James Taylor} even has a line about his records in one of her songs!

I join an online dating website. On a blustery February evening, I meet up with “Oaktown A’s Fan” at an ice cream shop. He is even more handsome in person than in his profile picture. He has kind eyes and listens to me intently, asks questions and makes me laugh. Quite suddenly, and easily, and wonderfully, we fall in love. Before long, I know that he is the one I want to spend my life with.

Allyn is a very agreeable and open person. When it comes to food or movies or music, he likes pretty much anything.

Almost anything.

“James Taylor?” he says. “I’m not a fan.”

I think at first that he’s joking—teasing me, pulling my leg. But he is completely serious. James Taylor’s music… annoys him.

“I don’t know, something about his voice gets on my nerves,” Allyn explains when I ask, in wide-mouthed astonishment, how he possibly can dislike my favorite musician of all time. “His music puts me to sleep.”

I guess nobody—not even my perfect guy—is perfect. 😉

When Allyn lets me listen to James Taylor on our road trips, I know he truly loves me.

 

VII.

Céline, one of my best friends, dies in a car accident. I never really understood “Fire and Rain” until now.

Even two and a half years later, I still can’t believe I’m not going to see her again.

VIII.

Dad flies into Oakland and we take BART together into San Francisco. James Taylor is playing a concert at AT&T Park and we bought tickets for our birthday presents to each other. I can’t think of a better way to ring in my third decade on this planet.

We spend the day wandering around the city: exploring the market at the Ferry Building, taking the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch, finding a hole-in-the-wall Irish pub for drinks. As the sun begins to set, we walk down to the concert. My whole being is filled with anticipation.

The stadium is packed, yet somehow his music makes it feel intimate. He tells stories between the songs and plays video footage of his adorable dog. He plays many of his old classics, and some of his new songs, including my favorite off his latest album: “Montana.” Tears come to my eyes when he plays “Fire and Rain.” He saves my favorite, “You’ve Got a Friend,” for the encore.

After the concert, walking back to our hotel, Dad and I are still reveling in the joy and grace of James Taylor’s music. I think about the last time I saw James Taylor play, when I was sixteen. How much has changed since then. And also how much has remained the same.

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor, “Secret O’Life

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” about the following questions:

  • Who is a musician that has impacted your life? How so?
  • Turn on one of your favorite albums. Write about various memories each song brings up.
  • What is the last concert you went to? Write about the experience.
  • What musicians or songs have been a comfort to you during hard times?

on saying yes

I’ve written on this blog before about the importance of saying no. Of creating boundaries in your life, and respecting them. Of refusing to run yourself ragged trying to be everything and do everything and please everyone around you. Of saying no to what is not important, so you can make room for what is important.

And this is all very true, and {as a natural people-pleaser} something I continue to work on in my life.

But I was thinking this morning about how saying no is just one side of the coin–how, if we want to create happy and fulfilling lives, it is important to be aware of saying yes, too. Saying yes intentionally. Saying yes thoughtfully. Saying yes joyfully and lovingly.

Saying yes to things that fill us up… and saying yes to things that fill others up, too.

I was thinking this morning about our upcoming wedding, and how loved it makes me feel that the people in our lives are celebrating joyfully with us. All the people who took the time to send us congratulations cards {displayed on our bookshelf; they make me smile every day!} How Dana and her mom made a special effort to take me out to lunch to celebrate. How much it means to me that Allyn’s mom and sister are throwing me a bridal shower up here in the Bay. I mean, everyone is busy enough with their own lives. Everyone surely had reason to say no, to refrain from adding one more task or commitment to their lives, to focus instead on the hundreds of other things going on around them. No one had to do any of this for me and Allyn.

But do you know what? It matters. It matters so much to me.

When I look back on this period of my life in ten years, I am sure there are many details I am not going to remember. But I am going to remember the cards people sent, the lunch with Dana and Lynn, the bridal shower that Barbara and Allyson are throwing for me. These memories are gifts that I am going to take with me the rest of my life.

The funny thing is, especially with sending cards or letters, that sometimes we don’t even remember sending them, weeks or months or years later. But you never know what will be priceless to the recipient. What words will come at just the right moment. My Gramps has kept a condolence letter from John Wooden in his briefcase for the 24 years since my grandmother passed away, and he still takes it out and reads it all the time. Those words on that folded piece of note paper have brought him comfort for decades. It is likely that Coach Wooden did not even remember sending that letter, but it has meant the world to my Gramps. I feel the same way about cards and Facebook messages I got from friends and acquaintances after Celine died. Lines from those messages have become touchstones for me, memorized and recited in my head when I am feeling lonely or sad or discouraged.

I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to saying yes, it is always worth it to take the ten minutes out of your busy day to send a card or email or Facebook message. Even if you haven’t talked to the person in years. Even if you’re not sure what to say. Make the effort. Say something. Reach out. Because it matters.

Being thoughtful matters. Taking time for other people matters.

It mattered that my parents came to every one of my track meets and basketball games and school plays when I was growing up. I can vividly remember the comfort and calm I would feel when I looked up in the bleachers and saw their smiles. It mattered. Every single one of those days mattered. It would have been easy for them to say no. It would have been easy for them to be too busy with work. They certainly both had many other things on their to-do lists. But they said yes. Again and again, they said yes. They came. And that feeling of comfort and calm and support has stayed with me, all these years later. It mattered then, and it continues to matter now.

My parents said yes to big things, too. Always without resentment, without martyrdom. They said yes and meant it. My mom was President of our Youth Track club for many years, organizing volunteers and running track meets for hundreds of kids {and this was back in the days of dirt tracks and manual timers clocked by humans, not computers} and all this on top of her full-time job. As a young girl, I got to see my mother as a leader in public. She was a woman in charge, running things, making decisions and finding solutions. She was an example for me that you can be kind, yet also strong at the same time. This mattered.

When I was in second grade, my dad came to every single performance of my school play, even though it meant missing covering the NBA finals for his job as a sports columnist. Many people would have made the opposite decision; but to my dad, he was saying yes to what was most important. His actions were his message, loud and clear: my family is more important to me than anything, even my work. It mattered to me then, and as the years pass it matters to me more and more, because I realize how easy it would have been for him to say no. How easy it would have been for him to be too busy to come to a single performance, much less every single performance. The same is true for when my dad surprised me and drove up to San Jose for my Steinbeck Fellows reading, just to turn around and drive right back home that same night {to take care of our family dog Murray.} There were dozens of reasons for my dad to say no to making that 10-hour trip. There were dozens of reasons why it was a hassle, why he didn’t have time, why he had too much else going on. But he said yes anyway. And it mattered. Boy, did it matter. That memory of him walking into the room is one I will treasure for my entire life.

From personal experience, many of my sweetest and most satisfying memories are those times when I said yes even though it would have been easy to say no. That time my friend Janet and I flew across the country for a weekend to surprise our friend Lauren for her birthday. When I took time off work to travel to my brother’s Girl Effect panel and spend time with him in the final days of his MBA program. Planning a bridal shower for my cousin Amanda from halfway across the country in the midst of writing my graduate thesis. Dog-sitting for my parents for two weeks so they could take the trip of a lifetime to Ireland to celebrate their anniversary. Throwing a surprise birthday party for my sweetheart in a San Francisco restaurant. Making a few hours’ detour on a road trip to see my friends Xun and Hai while they were in town. Making the effort to go the book signing, attend the baby shower, throw the party, drive the extra distance… it has mattered, every time. I have been grateful that I said yes, every time.

Which is all to say that we should strive for balance. Saying no is important, of course. I am still working on strengthening my “no” muscle. And it is always better to say “no” than to say “yes” with strings of resentment or bitterness attached.

But I think, just as it is important to say no with intention, it is also important to say yes with intention. Whether I am saying no or yes, I do not want to say either out of selfishness. I do not want to hoard all my time for myself, nor do I want to give all my time away to others. I want to say both no and yes out of my innermost generosity: a generosity towards myself, recognizing that I can only be my best self when I have time and space to breathe and recharge; and a generosity towards others, purposefully going out of my way and choosing to take on more responsibility and effort for those who matter to me. Because they are worth it. Because the memories are worth it. Because acting out of love is what makes life so worth living.

life is like a wine tasting

sunstone winery

Yesterday, we took a “family staycation day” and drove up to the San Ynez Valley to explore the beautiful vineyards. It was a gorgeous day and we ended up doing a wine tasting at Sunstone Winery, which was absolutely delightful. It was my first time doing a wine tasting at a winery, and got me thinking about the ways that life is like a wine tasting:

1. Each taste is unique and lovely in its own way, and should be enjoyed for what it is. For example, if you expect a pinot grigio to be a merlot, you are going to be disappointed. But if you pay attention to the distinct flavors of the pinot grigio, you are able to appreciate it for what it is. In the same way, each season of life has different flavors — pros and cons, perks and disappointments. Try to appreciate the season of life you are in for all the gifts it has to offer, instead of wishing for a different season. You will get there soon enough, and there will likely be things you miss about your life here and now!

me and mom winery

2. Each pour is meant to be savored, not rushed through. So often, it can feel like we are rushing through life: counting down hours in a workday, scrolling through email constantly on our smartphones, yearning for the weekend or for our next vacation. Even meals are often hurried affairs, something we rush through rather than enjoy, or mindlessly eat in front of the TV — have you ever finished eating something and realized you barely even tasted a single bite? In a wine tasting, each taste is sipped slowly and savored. Can you imagine what life would be like if we treated every meal with such respect? Not to mention, if we tried to savor each moment of our day as if it were a sip of expensive wine?

greg and pops winery

3. The joy of the experience doesn’t come from the wine itself — it comes from the people you share it with. If I had gone wine-tasting by myself yesterday, I would have had an okay time, but I would not have had anyone to share the experience with. Much of the fun of trying out the different wines was sipping them out on the verandah together, talking and laughing and telling stories and discussing our opinions on the different wines. That was where the joy truly came from. Our family visit to the vineyards wasn’t even really about the wine tasting at all — it was about spending time together, enjoying each other’s company, and sharing a fun experience with those we love.

me and gb winery

Now I’m off to soak up more family time before we take my little bro to the airport tomorrow for his new job in NYC! So proud of him! (And I’m going to miss him a TON.)

Hope you are soaking up every beautiful moment of this lovely day, wherever you are and whatever you are doing! ❤

7 things my dad has taught me

Today is my dad’s birthday!

me and daddy

I wish I was home with him to celebrate and give him a ginormous hug and bake him a peanut butter chocolate brownie cake, but that will just have to wait another 10 or so days until I’m home again. {We’re planning to celebrate both his birthday and my birthday a little belatedly this year when we’re all together again!}

bday brownies

In the meantime, in honor of this amazing guy’s birthday, I wanted to share with you 7 important lessons I have learned from my dad. I could have listed 707, but for the sake of brevity I kept it simple. 🙂

7 things my dad has taught me:

1. Find your passion, and follow it. My dad is the reason I became a writer. He is a journalist and author {he will always be my favorite writer!} and when I was growing up, he often wrote his columns from home so he could spend time with my brother and me. I have always loved to read, and soon I began making up my own stories. Dad let me sit on top of the phone book at the kitchen table and type up my stories on his special work computer. I was thrilled — and hooked on writing. I decided then and there that I wanted to grow up to be a writer just like my dad. I couldn’t {and still can’t!} imagine a better job than spending my days bringing characters to life on the page. Dad has been my cheerleader and supporter for as long as I can remember, and my love of writing is intrinsically connected to my relationship with him. Even when I was a kindergartener, he always took my writing seriously. He helped me find my voice. He taught me to talk through ideas, to stretch my limits, to search for the heart of the story, to edit and edit to make every word count, every word shine. He is still my #1 editor, first reader, go-to brainstormer, and biggest fan.

with dad steinbeck reading

At my Steinbeck Fellows reading last year.

Dad taught me that when you find something you love, that doesn’t feel like “work,” that you daydream about and would do for free because you can’t imagine NOT doing it — that is a true blessing, and not to be taken for granted. It can be difficult and scary to pursue your passion, but it is also a privilege. When I am feeling down or doubting myself, Dad is always there to lift me up and remind me that pursuing my passion for writing, through the good times and the bad, is how I honor my gifts and live a rich and meaningful life that makes me happy. Through his example, he has shown me what it means to follow your passion and devote your time to something that matters to you.

2. Little by little, big things happen. My dad has a passion for writing, and he also has a passion for running. He has run at least three miles every single day for the past 11 years, 10 months, and 24 days. Just thinking about that is overwhelming to me, but Dad insists that when you take it one day at a time, it’s easy. Every single day, you simply lace up your running shoes and get out there. {In fact, he swears getting ready to go run is often the hardest part — once he’s out there, he hits his stride and enjoys it, even on those days he didn’t especially feel like running.} Writing, or whatever your goals are, is the same way: just focus on one day at a time. Books are written one word at a time. Businesses are grown one transaction at a time. Relationships are built one phone call at a time. Little by little, big things happen.

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3. Sometimes it’s good to break the rules. I have always been a natural rule-follower. Maybe it’s because I tend to worry, or just have a cautious personality. I never really had a “rebellious” stage, even as a teenager. However, my dad has taught me that it is important to evaluate rules and that sometimes taking a risk is worth it! One of my favorite memories of this is when I was four years old and Dad took me kite-flying at a park for the very first time. I was so excited! My kite had a rainbow design and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The day was windy, perfect for kite-flying, but soon after we got my kite airborne, a strong gust of wind hit. The string snapped and my beautiful rainbow kite sailed off into a nearby barranca! Dad climbed over a tall fence — not fearing the NO TRESPASSING signs — and climbed a tree to rescue my kite. My hero!

me and daddy

4. Stay curious and always keep learning. Dad is one of the most curious people I know. He is always learning new things: reading books, listening to podcasts, watching PBS documentaries, traveling to new places. The older I get, the more I realize how hard it can be to keep an open mind and to constantly keep adjusting your opinions and views based on new information. Dad is a prime example of someone who is always listening and taking in knowledge, and I admire this about him so much. He is joyfully curious, and I think this is also something that keeps him young!

With Dad at a talk by Ken Burns, the legendary documentary filmmaker, at San Jose State University

With Dad at a talk by Ken Burns, the legendary documentary filmmaker, at San Jose State University

5. By giving to others, you give to yourself. Dad has shown me by example that pursuing your passion goes hand-in-hand with sharing your passion with others. One way to do so is to help give access to other people who may not be able to do what they love. For example, my dad — a longtime sports columnist — has held a Holiday Ball Drive for the past 20 years and has donated thousands of new sports balls to underprivileged kids. He inspired me to start a Holiday Book Drive to collect books to donate to libraries and youth organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club. He inspired my brother to found a nonprofit organization Give Running that has collected and donated more than 16,000 pairs of shoes to both domestic programs and third-world countries.

me and greg shoes

My dad also gives to others through small, everyday acts of kindness such as picking up litter when he runs at the park, paying the tab for servicemen and women at restaurants, and giving food to the homeless. He lives by The Golden Rule and has taught my brother and me to do the same. More important than giving is the intention and love behind the gesture; we have learned that by helping others, YOU are truly the one who gets the most out of the experience.

6. Take time to savor the ordinary details, and use “the good china” every day! Dad believes in making every day special, and using those special items — “the good china” — in your everyday life. After all, what are you saving it for? Why have it if not to enjoy and get use out of it? He has also taught me to take the time to recognize and appreciate the small details that make life rich and beautiful. Whether it’s a gorgeous sunset, a happy tail-wagging welcome home from a dog, a hot shower, a cold drink, a fresh-baked cookie, a new-to-you book or movie, a soft pillow, a hug from someone you love… close your eyes, savor and enjoy the details. Don’t just rush through your life. Don’t put off happiness until “someday.” Find something to be happy for and grateful for today!

me and dad

7. Love is the most important thing of all. Show AND tell people that you love them. Every morning, I wake up to a text from Dad wishing me a masterpiece day and saying that he loves me. Every night, he sends me a goodnight text saying he loves me and is proud of me. I never get tired of hearing those words. Growing up, he would write notes on napkins for our lunchboxes every single day. Not only did he tell my brother and me he was proud of us, he showed it by hanging up our awards, displaying our report cards and track ribbons, framing our school artwork. Every school performance, athletic event, book signing, academic competition — he has been there. He even drove 5+ hours each way to surprise me and attend my Steinbeck Fellows reading! When I was in college, Dad drove down to L.A. to have lunch with me every single week. He never complained about traffic; he always made it seem like a joy, rearranging his work schedule so we could have our “lunch dates.” He always has time for us and treats our family as his #1 priority. He is the most thoughtful person I know.

with my boys

Above all else, Dad has taught me that love is the most important thing in this life. It is important to both show those you love how much you love them, and to tell them in words, too. Yes, we *know* how much Dad loves us, but we still love hearing him say it.

And now I want to say it to him, though I hope he already knows: Daddy, I love you more than words can express! Thank you for being my sunshine and for brightening my life every day. It is such a blessing to be your daughter. Happy birthday!!

Happy birthday dad

dear celine, this is how you made me feel

celine

This is Celine. She was one of my best friends, and on Monday I found out that she died in a car accident. I can’t quite believe I’m writing about her in the past tense. I’m having an extremely difficult time believing that she is gone. It all seems surreal and incomprehensible and just plain wrong. Her brother Cameron was in the car with her, and he is in critical condition — please send your prayers and love to him and their entire family. ❤

Celine was one of the most vibrant, joyful, loving and beautiful people I’ve ever known, and I want to tell you about her.

me and celine

She was the first friend I made in college, on move-in day in the dorms. Her dorm room was kitty-corner from mine. My parents had left and I was sitting on my new dorm-room bed, feeling a little bit sad and scared and alone in my new life, when Celine came in with a box of popsicles and asked if I wanted one. We started talking, and I learned she grew up in L.A. and had a younger brother around the same age as mine. I felt comfortable with her right away — she had a genuine smile and a contagious laugh, and she was so expressive you wanted to keep swapping stories with her forever. That day, she looked so sophisticated in a newsboy cap and colorful sunglasses, and I remember thinking, “This girl is waaaay too cool to want to be friends with me. I’ll just ride this wave as long as it lasts!” Later, once I realized she actually *did* want to be my friend, for reals, I told her about my first impression. 🙂 We would joke about that throughout our friendship.

me and celine milkshakes

It is probably not an exaggeration to say I spent as much time in Celine’s dorm room that first year as I did in my own. We ended up living together throughout college, and all of us shared so much more than just an apartment. Those girls were my second family. We shared meals and clothes and shoes and makeup; we celebrated holidays together; we threw the most fun themed parties of my life; we whiled away hours and hours discussing everything from crushes to politics to High School Musical, sharing stories from our pasts and daydreams for our future; and oh, boy we laughed. We laughed so, so much. I feel incredibly grateful that I found such special people to share college with.

roomie party

all the ladies soph year

Celine was a true original; a bright light; fearless and colorful and brave. She was goofy and funny and FUN. Celine’s authenticity brought people together in the best way. She taught me to be proud of the silly parts of myself; that I can be a serious and determined person yet also retain a childlike enthusiasm about the world. She taught me that often it’s the little things — the jotted notes, the inside jokes, the impromptu dance parties — that are really the big things. And she taught me that life isn’t just about being productive and “accomplishing” things and checking items off my daily to-do list. Sometimes — actually, most of the time — the most important thing to do today is to enjoy it, to have fun, to make ridiculous and beautiful and spontaneous memories with the people you love.

goofy roomie photo

Celine loved fashion, and she was such a talented designer. Our senior year, she sewed a whole ensemble of clothing for a fashion show benefit to combat malaria. I like to remember her sewing away on our living room floor as we all watched DVDs of The Office and did homework. I’ve never thought of myself as very fashionable, but she helped me feel confident in myself. She was always delighted to help pick out an outfit for a date, or a special event, or simply an ordinary Monday. We had many fashion shows in our apartment. Celine could pull off any outfit with pizazz. I think of her wearing an American flag sweater and colorful socks, and looking perfectly chic and perfectly her.

She *made* that dress!!

She *made* that dress!!

Yet along with her wonderfully zany side, Celine also had a quieter side. She was a terrific listener. She never judged. She made you feel safe and supported. Freshman year of college, when I broke up with my first real boyfriend, I remember fleeing to her room, sobbing, and she hugged me as I cried. Another time, when I was feeling down on myself because “no boys were ever going to like me EVER” she played me this song, “Somebody’s Baby” by Phantom Planet, saying it made her think of me because I was “so awesome that guys probably just assume you’re already taken.” I still smile and think of her when I hear that song.

Celine saw the very best in me, even when I didn’t see it in myself.

me and celine

Junior year, Celine and Holly studied abroad in Paris at the same time I studied abroad in England, and they came to visit me one weekend.

in london

Then I visited them for a week during my spring break. That week in Paris remains one of the happiest, best weeks of my life.

me holly celine in paris

Celine loved France — she was proud of her French-Canadian heritage and spoke fluent French — and she especially loved Paris. In college, she talked frequently about her dreams of moving to Paris and going to fashion school. And after we graduated, that is exactly what she did. She studied at the Parsons Paris School of Art & Design and ended up working for the Paris College of Art, a job that took her all around the world. I can’t begin to express how proud I was of her. So many people talk about their dreams, but never do anything to make them real. Celine was actually living her dream. She made it happen.

me and celine in Paris

I was lucky to get to visit Celine in Paris once, a few years ago. It was exciting to get a taste of her life there. She was a terrific tour guide, excited to show the city she loved to the people she loved. One thing I always admired about Celine was that she was always herself, and our friendship remained a comforting touchstone even as so many other things about our lives changed. In a cafe in Paris, we giggled together the same way we had in our apartment living room in Los Angeles.

holly surprise party

Even though the miles and time zones between us made our communication less frequent, I always knew Celine loved me, and I hope she knew I loved her. She was there for me for the big things. Like when I broke up with my fiance, she Skyped with me for two hours, even though it was incredibly late Paris time and she had to work in the morning. She laughed and talked with me about random old memories until I felt better.

me and celine xmas

And those times that we *were* able to see each other, we picked up right where we left off. Celine came to visit me soon after I moved to the Bay Area, and we pretty much talk-talk-talked for three days straight. It felt like we were living together again. That visit was such a gift.

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The last time I saw her was in late May, right before my birthday. She was in San Francisco with a couple friends from France, and the two of us met up for brunch. I had a cold, and I remember wondering whether I should cancel; I didn’t want to spread my germs to Celine, or to anyone else my path would cross on my commute into the city. But we were able to see each other so rarely that I thought, “Screw the germs, I’m going!” And my God, I’m so grateful I did. We had a lovely visit, chatting in the sunshine over hot coffee and tea and scones, and before we hugged goodbye in the Bart station I remembered to snap a photo, this one:

me and celine bart station

We’d emailed some since then, and in the last email she sent me, Celine asked if I could resend her the link where I post my short stories online, because she wanted “some reading from my favorite writer!!” She was always so supportive of my writing, and in the wake of her passing I feel a renewed commitment to pursue my dreams with zeal and determination, in her honor.

Celine only graced this world for 26 years, yet she touched SO many people’s lives with the bright light of her spirit. Quite simply, she made others feel seen, and heard, and happy, and loved.

how you made them feel

Our friend Jess put it so well in these words to Celine: “It’s hard to explain how much fun we had and how much living the rest of us are going to have to do to make up for your absence.”

college football game

Holly did too: “Love knows no tense.”

me hol celine

Dear Celine, I miss you. I love you. I will forever be grateful for the spectacular gift of being your friend.

celine dogpile

grad caps and gowns

me and celine goofy

me and celine halloween

my piece is on thought catalog!

Hi everyone! Just poppin’ in this morning to share some exciting news with you: I wrote a piece that is up on Thought Catalog! My short essay is about my high school drama class, life’s transience, firsts and lasts. You can read it here.

If you enjoy it, I’d be super grateful if you share it on Facebook, pass it along to your friends, and/or comment at the bottom!

thought catalog essay

Have a masterpiece day!

be the sun, not the wind

In a recent issue of Glamour Magazine, there was an interview with Kiera Knightley, an actress I have always liked {but I like her even more now after reading this interview!} She seemed very down-to-earth, witty and intelligent. I especially loved this story she shares from her mother:

“Remember, you have to be the sun, not the wind.”

(The Glamour interviewer says, “Huh?”)

“You don’t know that story? Okay, the sun and the wind see a man walking down the street, and they have a competition to see which of them can get his coat off first. So the wind blows and blows, and the man just does his coat up tighter. Then the sun simply shines and shines and shines. My mother has sort of lived her life like that, really.”

I think this is so beautiful and true.

be sun not wind

Questions of the evening:

  • How can you be like the sun, rather than the wind?
  • Is there something in your life you are struggling with? What if you took this approach to it instead? What would that look like?

halloween fun + weekend highlights

Hi, friends! How was your weekend? Mine was a whirlwind filled with fun, faith, fulfilling work, and even some new friends!

For Halloween, Allyn and I dressed up as Sebastian the crab and Ariel the Little Mermaid. I had a great time putting together my costume and I was happy with how it turned out! And Allyn rocked his crab hat 🙂

little mermaid costume

allyn crab

me and allyn halloween

We went out to dinner at a delicious Thai restaurant in downtown Walnut Creek… I ordered the pineapple fried rice and was floored when the waiter delivered this giant mound of rice inside half of a carved-out pineapple!

pineapple fried rice

In addition to the wowing presentation, the food was delicious — they used chunks of fresh pineapple in their fried rice instead of canned or frozen, and it made a huge difference. Yum! Also, the portion was so large that Allyn and I could have easily split it, but we took the leftovers home for lunch the next day.

After dinner we went to see the murder-mystery play Deathtrap, which was definitely filled with suspense and many twists and turns! Especially for someone like me who has a hard time stomaching horror movies, a murder mystery play was the perfect way to celebrate Halloween night!

Saturday I slept in and did a bit of pleasure reading before heading out to teach four classes. It’s always a long day, but the kids were well-behaved and one student even brought me a drawing he made! How adorable is this? Totally made my day!

nice teacher drawing

On Sunday I tutored in the early morning, then went to the special Dia de los Muertos service at my church. It was an incredibly moving and joyous celebration, and I especially loved this quote the minister shared: “Our relationships are our most prized possessions.” That is SO true, and at times easy to forget. The service made me reflect: am I building my life around the things that matter the most to me? How can I nurture my relationships even more?

After church I went to a Starbucks and enjoyed my first gingerbread chai latte of the season! It felt luxurious to relax and read a good book in the sunshine for a couple hours. Then, Allyn got home from hiking in Muir Woods as preparation for his upcoming humanitarian trip to Kenya {they are going to hike Mt. Kenya when they first arrive!} so I headed over to his place to get ready for a dinner party we were attending/helping host at his mom’s beautiful home.

The dinner party was a fundraiser and celebration of the work being done by the nonprofit organization Asante Africa. During the intimate cocktail hour and dinner party, we got to chat with the CEO/Founder, many Board Members and volunteers, and the guest of honor, Gathii, who was visiting the United States for the first time ever! He lives in Kenya and runs the Asante Africa programs there, and his observations about American life, Halloween and the Giants’ win were cracking us up. All in all, I was really inspired by their work. They are champions of education, particularly girls education, through scholarship programs, business and entrepreneurship curriculum, and a “pay it forward” movement encouraging students to give back to their local communities.

Everyone was very friendly and passionate about the work they do, and I even made a new friend — a young woman named Stephanie who is a teacher in the area and went to college at UC Santa Barbara {where coincidentally my parents met back in the day!} The Year of Wooden October challenge may be over, but I am pleased to say that the friend-making continues! 🙂 Sometimes just being aware of potential friends and being friendly is all it takes to make a new connection.

Now I’m trying to get back into the work groove, while also being gentle with myself and listening to my body’s cravings for rest. Oh! And on my way home this morning, I finally got my flu shot! I was nervous, but it barely even hurt.

flu shot

Hope you had a terrific weekend and that you’re having a wonderful day — and getting adjusted to the time change!

Questions of the day:

  • What was a highlight of your weekend?
  • Did you do anything fun for Halloween?
  • Have you gotten a flu shot?