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What I Know For Sure

November 7, 2018

I had a birthday this week. I turned 43. It seems like yesterday I was turning 39 and published the 39 Questions Answered About Me and My 39 Years post. Forty-three sounds old, even though I don’t feel old. In fact, I feel more alive today than I every have before. But birthdays and this time of year always get me a bit reflective.

At the end of every issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Winfrey writes a column called “What I Know For Sure.” It’s essentially her parting thoughts on the monthly theme or issue at hand. I don’t read many magazines anymore, so I’m not sure what wisdom Oprah has been espousing as of late.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I know for sure (and probably more relevant, the things I still have no clue about). So for my reflective birthday blog post, I’m sharing 13 “truths” I’ve come to learn about myself and how I view the world. What I’m completely unsure about is fodder for another blog post entirely.

1. It’s easy to say “follow your dreams.” It’s a much harder thing to actually do it.

2. Chapstick and hand lotion are essentials for your car in the Midwest winter.

3. The phrase “Do what you love and the money will follow” is bullshit. It takes a lot of hard work and courage to do what you love, and the money is never guaranteed.

4. Never consider indulging in books, music, television shows, art and movies a guilty pleasure. It’s essential for survival (at least it is for me).

5. No matter how hard you try, the Tupperware container collection will never match the lids you have. Just surrender the fantasy.

6. The world can be depressing. Find beauty in the simple and small things in life, and in people who make you smile, laugh and understand who you are.

7. Don’t use credit cards. And if you do, pay the balance off each month.

8. Watching the seasons physically change is a comforting reminder that change is inevitable and life is always moving on. No matter how dark and bare a tree looks in February, in May it will be full of green life again. The change coupled with consistency is comforting, and I’m grateful for the peace of mind my physical environment gives me.

9. Nobody’s looking out for you but you. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve.

10. In writing, sometimes less is more. Killing off excess words like “that,” “the” and “just” does wonders. Trust me, your writing will be stronger.

11. Everything happens for a reason, usually one that moves you forward to a place you weren’t ready to go. I always try to remember this when the unexpected and bad things happen.

12. It’s easy to let your life be ruled by fear (I did it for a long time). But what’s on the other side can be incredible.

13. I truly believe words have the ultimate power to heal, forgive and comfort (as well as hurt and harm). I try to use my word powers for good. Because that’s the only way I know how to make a difference and keep moving forward in life.

That’s what I know for sure on my 43rd year on earth. What do you know for sure?

Discovering New Music, Appreciating the Old, and a Laurel Canyon Playlist You Need in Your Life

October 23, 2018

A few months ago, a friend told me about an article that said people generally stop discovering new music at the age of 30. The study said that between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains go through so much change and we’re more receptive to the songs we hear; hence why we are more open to new music. Additionally, the article states that after 30, we gravitate to the same songs over and over again because of musical nostalgia. Since music has a powerful effect on the mind to evoke memories, conjuring up the past is our way of assuring the endorphins keep flowing, if you will.

This makes sense and I understand the premise. While I’ve never been a big Top 40/pop fan, I certainly have a fondness for the music that accompanied me in my formative years. Yet at the same time, I remember where I was in life at age 30 and what I was listening to, and it’s strange to think that my catalog of music choices would have essentially stopped 13 years ago.

For me, music is about self-discovery. Songs can express exactly how we feel in a way our own words cannot, giving voice to sadness, happiness, confusion, anxiety, anger, disappointment, and love.

And just like I cannot imagine not discovering new music since age 30, I can’t fathom not having new life experiences or meeting new people that helped me discover those songs. It’s all about changing the perspective and gaining so much in return.

The majority of what I listen to now are artists I’ve discovered in the last several years. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I don’t know what my life would be like (and what it would be missing) if I didn’t have this music to accompany me. This is not limited to contemporary artists either. I’ve discovered so many great singers and songs from the 1960s and 70s that I would not have known about.


One of my favorite music genres is the Laurel Canyon sound. When I was recently in San Diego, I gathered with my sister (Sari) and brother-in-law (Steve) – both HUGE music aficionados – for a night of Canyon music. We all picked 25 of our favorite Canyon or Canyon-inspired contemporary albums, and over the course of the evening, we shared those choices and music from the records. Music night for nerds, I know, but we had the best time! Because music brings people together and creates a bond in ways other things cannot.

What does Laurel Canyon music night have to do with this post and discovering new music, you ask? I realized when I compiled my list of 25 albums, that at least ten of them are ones I’ve discovered in the last several years (including older classics I hadn’t heard before). If I simply stopped listening to new music at age 30, Canyon night and my playlist would look considerably different.

Because I’m sure you’re now all dying to see the Canyon albums, here is Steve’s list in a fantastic blog post, and Sari’s list is equally epic. My top album choices and descriptions are below. And because we all need some good music in our lives, at the end of this post is a Spotify playlist that includes all 73 of our featured songs (73 because Sari and I chose two of the same songs).

So keep listening to new music, experience new things, learn more about yourself, and spend time with good people who help you discover these musical gems.

Leah’s Laurel Canyon Top 25 Collection (in no particular order)

Eagles ~ “One of These Nights” (1975)
It’s hard to pick an Eagles album because they all represent the Canyon so well. But “One of These Nights” is really when the Henley-Frey songwriting magic gels. I think this is one of their most collaborative albums, including songs written and sang by band-mates Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner (both hailing from Canyon bands the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco, respectively). For me, it doesn’t get better than the harmonies in “Lyin’ Eyes,” which I could (and have) listen to on repeat. But I’m also partial to “Hollywood Waltz,” “After the Thrill is Gone,” “One of These Nights,” and of course, “Take It to the Limit.”

Itasca ~ “Open to Chance” (2016)
Kayla Cohen (who plays under the name Itasca) is a singer, songwriter and guitarist who lives in Los Angeles. Her folk sound is reminiscent of the Laurel Canyon female vibe. I find myself getting lost in her earthy voice and guitar sound, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. “Open to Chance” is her first full album release. Her voice often accompanies me when the house is asleep and I’m working late in the evening.

Dawes ~ “North Hills” (2009)
I can’t think of a more contemporary band that captures the Laurel Canyon vibe more than Dawes. Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer/songwriter, credits musicians like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne as heavy influences to his songwriting and the sounds of their Los Angeles-based band. “North Hills” is not my favorite Dawes album. But it’s their first release and the one, I believe, most captures the Canyon vibe. It was really tough to choose the featured song; but I think “Love is All I Am” is the most Canyon-esque, with harmonies reminiscent of an America or Crosby, Stills and Nash tune.

James Taylor ~ “Sweet Baby James” (1970)
You really can’t discuss Canyon without James Taylor. I think “Sweet Baby James” is one of his best albums and very representative of Laurel Canyon. You can’t get much better than “Fire and Rain.” But “Country Road,” “Blossom,” and “Sweet Baby James” can’t be ignored either. Taylor is often cited as one of the first to be included in the 1970s singer-songwriter movement. I think this album is emblematic of that depiction of Taylor and Laurel Canyon. And he looks good on the album cover.

Warren Zevon ~ “Warren Zevon” (1976)
Warren Zevon is an interesting character who clearly influenced the Laurel Canyon sound, even though I doubt he wanted credit for that. A recent article about Zevon included a comment that a musician’s best song cannot be your favorite song. The best song belongs to everyone where the favorite belongs just to you, said the writer. Most agree “Desperados Under the Eaves” is Zevon’s best song. I’m breaking the rule and listing it as my featured song because it’s just so damn good.

Neil Young ~ “Harvest” (1972)
I firmly believe there are musicians, books and movies that don’t resonate with you until you need to hear them. Neil Young is an example of that musician for me. For most of my life, Young was not a singer I gravitated to; but over the years, his sound and words have grown on me and I’m partial to songs with a harmonica sound. While I’ve been listening to “Harvest Moon” (1992) lately, I believe it’s Young’s “Harvest” album that really establishes him musically and is emblematic of the Canyon sound.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ~ “Déjà Vu” (1970)
I would have preferred to include a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young greatest hits album on this Canyon list, but I know greatest hits compilations are kind of cheating. I went with “Déjà Vu” because I consider it one of the earliest forays into the Canyon sound; almost a pre-curser to the movement. It’s also a heck of a good album with songs like “Carry On,” “Teach Your Children,” “Our House,” and I’m a big fan of the dog on the album cover.

Carole King ~ “Tapestry” (1971)
Carole King’s “Tapestry” album is truly a masterpiece, and it’s almost too good to believe it’s one album. It’s incredible to think all these songs are on one album, and not a greatest hits collection. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like King does not get the credit she deserves for being such a strong female Canyon artist. Perhaps because she was more of a songwriter for other singers before a singer. You hear more about Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt as Canyon leading ladies. Both incredible in their own right; but King deserves her fair share of respect.

Jackson Browne ~ “Late for the Sky” (1974)
Jackson Browne is another epitome of the Laurel Canyon scene. His music and songwriting is certainly in the Canyon vein. But his presence in the Canyon is also a huge part of his identity. After all, he shared a duplex with Glenn Frey and Don Henley before the Eagles were the band they became. He wrote half of “Take It Easy” and persuaded David Geffen to sign the Eagles to Asylum Records. “Late for the Sky” includes the most of my favorite Browne songs. It was tough to chose one to feature. “Fountain of Sorrow” and “For a Dancer” are two of my favorites. But I have to give the listen to, what I think, is his most powerful songwriting with “Before the Deluge.”

Linda Ronstadt ~ “Heart Like a Wheel” (1974)
You can’t pick a bad Linda Ronstadt album or song because her voice is absolute perfection and pure magic. I went with “Heart Like a Wheel” because of my fondness for “You’re No Good,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “Dark End of the Street,” “When Will I Be Loved,” and “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

Fleetwood Mac ~ “Rumours” (1977)
Fleetwood Mac is one of those bands that is at its best when all five members are playing together and have a hand in each song. To me, “Rumours” is emblematic of that ensemble production. In fact, they should have titled the album “The Chain” since that song is so indicative of this band’s theme. I like many of the songs on their debut album and subsequent recordings. But “Rumours” seems to be their best work together, which is evident from the abundance of hits on this record.

Tom Petty ~ “Wildflowers” (1994)
One can debate whether Tom Petty is true Laurel Canyon or whether he belongs in a hybrid category of southern/California rock. Certainly his work with The Heartbreakers would fall into the later category. I find his solo work, the “Wildflowers” album in particular, the closest he comes to the Canyon vibe. He also spent quite a bit of time in that Southern California area, with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Canyon performers. So to me, Petty is an honorary Canyon member.

America ~ “Homecoming” (1972)
America represents that quintessential Canyon style and sound. Ironically the band was formed in England while the band members were living in London while their fathers were U.S. Air Force personnel. I love so many of their songs that are on other albums (“Sister Golden Hair,” “Horse With No Name,” and “Lonely People”). But “Ventura Highway” is classic Southern California. It was on every mix tape that went with me as I drove Highway 101 to Santa Barbara.

Israel Nash ~ “Lifted” (2018)
Israel Nash is a singer/songwriter who lives in Texas, originally hailing form the Ozarks of Missouri. But you may think you’re listening to Neil Young, and “Lifted” is described as a modern day hippie-spiritual collection. The sound, songs and Nash’s voice put him squarely in the Canyon vibe for me.

The Mamas and The Papas ~ “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears” (1966)
The Mamas and the Papas are such an interesting group of people, and they all have such incredible voices in their own right. But together, the harmonies are incredible and produce a unique and distinctly California style. Since “California Dreamin’” is a favorite of mine, I went with their debut album.

Judee Sill ~ “Heart Food” (1973)
I was only recently introduced to Judee Sill, but after one listen to “Heart Food” and researching her background, it’s clear she belongs in the top Canyon collection (she was the first artist signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records). She has such a troubled background, which adds an interesting element to her calming voice and music; it’s really too bad she was not more recognized with success. “The Phoenix” has been on repeat as of late, and it has soothed my soul in a way I desperately needed.

Traveling Wilburys ~ “The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” (1988)
The Traveling Wilburys may be a controversial pick for the Canyon collection. With the exception of maybe Tom Petty, the individual artists themselves do not hail from Canyon roots. However, put them together as Wilburys and I feel like their songs have that inclusive Canyon vibe, especially as collaboration is very much a Canyon trait. The Traveling Wilburys are the ultimate collaboration. It’s too bad that Roy Orbison passed away so soon into this venture, as I think they would have had a long run.

Lowen and Navarro ~ “Pendulum” (1995)
David Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro met in the 1980s as songwriters. Little known fact: the two wrote Pat Benatar’s hit, “We Belong.” In an NPR story, they talked about how they didn’t like each other at all. But when they wrote songs and performed together, they were stronger than being apart. So they made a pact to stick together despite differences. They were active creating their own indie rock music in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I discovered this album in 1998 and it’s always stuck with me (I still have the CD). Sadly their twosome career was cut short when Lowen died of ALS in 2012.

Don Henley ~ “The End of the Innocence” (1989)
Whereas Glenn Frey’s solo career pivoted more toward 1980s rock, much of Don Henley’s post-Eagles work stayed within the Canyon sound. “The End of the Innocence” is still one of my favorites. But you also can’t overlook songs of the storytelling nature like “New York Minute” and the compelling “The Heart of the Matter.” Henley’s strength is his songwriting, and his best works are ones that stay within the Canyon themes (hence why you’ll never find “Dirty Laundry” on a playlist of mine).

Gregory Page ~ “The Romantic Adventures of Harry” (1998)
Gregory Page was well known in the San Diego music scene from playing alongside Jewel, Steve Poltz, and The Rugburns. He was a Saturday night performing regular at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach, where I saw him many times in my formative post-college/single life year of 1998. I listened to it again recently, after a very long hiatus and I still think it’s as good as you’d find coming out of Laurel Canyon. His songwriting and singing talent is the type who would do really well today, where mediums like YouTube and Spotify could give him more exposure and popularity.

Farewell Milwaukee ~ “Autumn Rest Easy” (2009)
Can we really consider a band that hails from Wisconsin in a Laurel Canyon Top 25 list? Some may say no. But Farewell Milwaukee has such a great sound that reminds me of anything that was out of the Canyon. Their folk/indie rock sound comes through in spades with ”Autumn Rest Easy.”

The Byrds ~ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (1965)
I’ve come to the conclusion that The Byrds can really be two bands with two distinctly different styles. The first Byrds would be in the early to late 1960s with David Crosby and hits like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The second Byrds band is in the country folk-rock vein, influenced by Gram Parsons. I almost chose two Byrds albums to reflect this distinction (“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” being the other pick), but opted against it because I didn’t want to duplicate artists. I’m partial to early Byrds; hence my choice of album here.

Counting Crows ~ “August and Everything After” (1993)
When I heard Sari included Counting Crows in her top Canyon list, there was no question they needed to be in mine too. This 90s folk/indie rock band is one of my favorites and every track on “August and Everything After” is a story and gem onto itself. Each song conjures up a memory and the album is still in heavy rotation today.

Cowboy Junkies ~ “Trinity Sessions” (1988)
I’ve loved the Cowboy Junkies since first hearing “Me and the Devil Blues” in “Pump Up the Volume” back in 1990. I wasn’t sure if they were Canyon-inspired necessarily, but Margo Timmins’ mesmerizing voice feels like it could have grown out of the Canyon roots of Joni Mitchell and the like. And clearly I’m not alone in my thoughts because Sari and Steve both included Cowboy Junkies in their lists.

Michael Nau ~ “Michael Nau and the Mighty Thread” (2018)
If I’m being honest, Michael Nau is probably considered more indie rock than true Canyon. But his songwriting yields songs that are simple and no frills, yet complex at the same time. I think the Canyon crowd would appreciate the work, and how else was I going to share these tunes with Sari and Steve?

Thanks for hanging with this post. I know it was a long one. Hopefully it was worth it!

Roadside Views, Or Getting Lost and Found in Indiana

September 28, 2018

For most of my life, I felt like I was constantly in a hurry to get somewhere. Even when there wasn’t a destination in mind, I lived a rushed life. Maybe it was a side effect of living in a crowded city where I was surrounded by people and cars constantly on the go. Or perhaps it was my personality — always rushing to complete one task in order to move on to the next, hoping serenity would be just around the corner when the projects were complete.

I used to get so irritated with myself anytime I’d make a wrong turn or get lost while driving. But one day last year, I drove down the “wrong” street while on my way to a destination. And on that street was an amazing tree house. I immediately pulled over to take a photo. I thought about kids playing and hiding in it, and wondered what they could see from up there. I was so glad I went the wrong way. Had I not, I never would have found that tree house.

Since moving to Indiana, I’ve had many opportunities to get lost and venture onto new streets and towns, discovering so many unique sights along the way. Maybe it’s the laid-back nature of the Midwest, but now I look at those wrong turns as paths to discovering something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I no longer feel rushed through life. And I purposefully drive on new streets, getting lost and seeing what can be found — constantly pulling over, getting out of the car, and taking photos of interesting things.

Here’s a look at some of my roadside finds in Indiana.

The tree house that made me rethink my point of view.

I was driving on Highway 46 to Bloomington, Indiana and stumbled upon this vintage garage. The property entrance sign reads “Tierra de los Sueños” (Dreamland). The owner was nice enough to indulge me in photographing his collection of vintage signs and cars.

The first contour-shaped Coca-Cola bottle was designed and manufactured here in Terre Haute.

A marker that signifies the Underground Railroad stop in the Lost Creek community in Terre Haute.

In the year 1844, the University of Notre Dame received its charter from Indiana. The first electrical telegram was sent by Samuel Morse from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to the B&O Railroad. The Great Flood of 1844 hits the Missouri River and Mississippi River. And Durham Farm was established here in Terre Haute. I wonder if it was as beautiful at sunset back then as it was the evening I took this photo.

A log cabin on the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College campus.

Americana on the Indiana countryside.

Happiness found in Fairbanks Park, overlooking the Wabash River.

I was intrigued by this barn-looking building with a red roof, a wagon wheel, paintings and a miniature barn replica.

Dumpsters never looked so cool.

Traveling on U.S. Highway 40, which takes you into Terre Haute, is the Clabber Girl sign. It is Indiana’s oldest billboard that was first put up in the 1930s, and it always has a working clock.

Happiness is right around the corner.

When I first drove by this fence, I did a double-take and backed the car up see this happy sight. This is the front of the Eden of Ryves community garden, a place for neighborhood kids to learn farming and sustainability skills.

Can’t wait to see where the road will lead me tomorrow, and what I might find along the way.

Welcome to 5th Grade

August 16, 2018

Last week Sophie started fifth grade. Fifth grade. The last year of elementary school.

I don’t remember crying when Sophie started kindergarten. Maybe because by that time, she already completed three years of preschool. But for some reason, starting fifth grade was tough for me. I think because it symbolizes the end of an era; the end of the elementary, or kid years.

Next year, Sophie will go to middle school, which she is SO excited about. I’m not at all worried about her being at a large school and changing classes. We’re used to large from our former city life. But I fell apart when I realized this will be the last year I can take a photo of her at her classroom desk at back-to-school night.

Everywhere I look, the signs show she’s getting older. I see all the activities for children around town – activities like storytime and community festivals, events that she and I always attended together when she was young. And it makes me a bit sad realizing she’s now too old for all those things. The little kids are not her anymore. I like that she’s getting older, asking new questions, and wants to participate in all these new activities and challenges. But at the same time, it’s bittersweet knowing all that time has passed and she’s a full-on tween now. I keep thinking about Gretchen Rubin’s extremely moving story about parenting, which she described as this: “The days are long but the years are short.” This is SO true!

I’m so incredibly proud of Sophie. Two years ago, she transferred to a new school — in a new city — where she didn’t know a single person. She’s done so well academically, making new friends, getting involved in different activities, and adapting to her new home. I wish I was as strong as Sophie when I was that age.

We’re now into the second week of fifth grade, and I have a good feeling about the year ahead. I make this first-day-of-school photo collage every year so we can look back at how far she’s come.

I use Picmonkey to create this if you want to make one for yourself. It’s my favorite photo editing tool, and it’s free!

First day of school for my fifth grader.

Riding the bus to and from school has been great for Sophie, and life-changing for me. We love our bus driver! Sophie forgot to pose for the obligatory “getting on the school bus” photo. So our driver made her go back for the photo. So glad he understands these priorities!

Sophie’s school has a back-to-school night the evening before school starts so we can meet her teacher and see the classroom. Here’s the last photo I’ll take of her at her classroom desk.

Cheers to a great year of school!

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Reflections on Two Years in Indiana

August 7, 2018

When I announced on this blog that we were moving from San Diego to Indiana, I started the post with the following paragraph:

In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly makes the difficult decision to close her beloved The Shop Around the Corner children’s bookstore. It’s a decision that, she notes, was not an easy one as the shop was such a large part of her life since she was a young girl. When she tells the older and wiser Birdie of the plan, her friend replies, “Closing the store is the brave thing to do … you are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.”

Last month marked two years since we moved to Indiana. At that time, I never could have imagined the different life I have today. But I am so grateful for it.

On July 24, 2016, I drove away in a packed car, along with Sophie, two dogs, a cat, and a nervous excitement for the road trip and new life ahead. One of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life was driving that four days across country, away from San Diego and toward Terre Haute. There was something incredibly freeing about knowing that all I had was the open road ahead and what was in the car with me. Even if I wanted to turn back, there was not a home to go back to (in the general sense). I don’t remember ever feeling that unconfined in my entire life — there was no going backwards; only forward, to a new idea of home.

On July 27, 2016, I pulled into the driveway of our new home in Terre Haute. I (literally) did not know one soul in town. I had no idea where anything was and had to use Google Maps to find the closest grocery store and coffee shop. I was a complete stranger in my new town. I slowly started meeting people, going to events around town, and joining Sophie’s  school PTO. A few months later, I was almost jubilant the first time I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store.

About a month after we moved to Indiana, I wrote this blog post about my observations of Midwest life and how it differed from Southern California. So much of this still rings true. I’m still in awe of the lush greenery, towering trees, and vast open spaces around me. I’ve never in my life felt this “free” in my surroundings, and I love experiencing the four seasons and seeing nature change before my eyes.

I’ve come to love living in Indiana for other reasons too. Living here – and moving out of my bubble – has given me a new understanding and perspective when it comes to understanding friends, neighbors and those that may have different political affiliations and backgrounds. That new perspective led to my editorial about how moving from a blue state to a red state changed my life. Living here also helped me write other pieces, such as this one about how we can honor Anthony Bourdain’s legacy by embracing one of the guiding principles that was present through his daily work: going to parts unknown and getting to know “the other.”

It’s surreal to know I never would have these new perspectives and written these pieces had we not moved to Indiana.

Moving to Terre Haute also helped me take ownership of my health and wellness. And living here helped me fall in love with running, and how running throughout the seasons would become a life-changing experience. I now crave being outdoors and exploring new trails, parks and sights in a way I’ve never felt before.

While I’m an introvert at heart, I can’t imagine not sharing this life with the wonderful friends I’ve met here, and I’m so grateful for my new tribe of people. And while not every moment of our life in Indiana has been happy and stress-free, I am so grateful I have the life I do. My core feels home. I belong in this place — both physical and mental — with everything that symbolizes home to me.

If there’s one truth I’ve learned in my two years in Indiana, it’s this: with every change comes new opportunities, new perspectives, new experiences, and new people. I can’t imagine being in a parallel universe where I didn’t have this life. And while change is scary, it’s not something to necessarily fear. Because you never know what may be on the other side of that door to a different life.

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