The Inspiring Science of Fitness & the Brain

I think I’m in love with Dr. John J. Ratey. What’s not to love about this declaration:

What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain and to demonstrate how it plays out in the lives of people.” p. 7, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Amen!! Now that I’ve just outted myself as an ecstatic nerd, let me explain.

Lately I’ve been on a crusade to get more people “using the brains in their whole body.” This is a deeply personal crusade, as well as a professional one.

PE Classes That Teach Kids to Think!?

As an educator, I got especially excited about Ratey’s case study of a revolutionary approach to PE classes. Imagine–  heart rate monitors replacing dodge ball:

The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness instead of sports.  The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life. And probably a longer and happier life at that. Spark, p. 12

Ratey presents study after study that proves that fitness is essential to maximizing not only people’s health & happiness — but also their smarts. Turns out we think especially clearly and effectively after we engage in:

  • 30 minutes of aerobic activity, and
  • complex physical tasks.

This kind of fitness literally builds new neuropathways in our brains, as well as strengthens old ones. As the coaches in Naperville 203 are fond of saying, “in [the PE] department, we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them” (Spark, p. 19).

MuseCubes Help Us Remember to Move

I’ve known through experience that movement effects my thinking. In fact, the more I move, the more I experience freedom, passion, balance, and productivity.

What’s amazing to me, though, is how often I forget to move! Yesterday I spent over 6 hours on the computer. I woke up this morning in physical pain, emotionally drained, and without an ounce of alertness.

As a heady intellectual, I’m constantly looking for ways to be more embodied. That’s where MuseCubes come in.

Now, a MuseCubes break takes 30 seconds, not the recommended 30 minutes.  However, I notice this: the more I remember to roll the MuseCubes, the more I choose to move in other aspects of my life, too.

For example, on days that I wiggle and howl with the MuseCubes, I’m more likely to take a 10 minute dance break, and then ALSO go on a longer walk. Movement inspires more movement, which eventually builds up to fitness! Ahhh, I love incrementality.

Ratey himself says that “the most important thing is to do something” (Spark, p. 250). And if that something ultimately adds up to six hours a week of exercise on behalf of your brain — well, that sure is smart!

OK, speaking of moving, I’m gonna finish this blog post and walk to the library to return Ratey’s book. What are you going to do to exercise today?

Oakland Tweetup Makes History

The first ever Oakland tweetup in twitter history happened this week!!!

A tweetup is an event where people who twitter gather to meet each other in person.  Hosted by the serene and scrumptious Numi Tea, we introduced, shared, laughed, colored — and even danced and yelled, thanks to MuseCubes. Don’t we look like we’re having a great time?! (Thanks for documenting, Naomi).

Naomi @nthmost
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Christian @cstiehl
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Laurel @AngelLaurel
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Kira @Kiramau
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Ren @RenDodge
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Dorothy @DorothyFun
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Jen @jenrudolf
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Chris @wildheartqueen
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Julie @juliedaley
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Gretchen @gwegner
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Go Ahead and Fake It!

Children doing tae kwon do.

I stopped short when I stumbled upon the following quote yesterday:

“To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.” ~Derrida

My friend and mentor Meri Walker had posted it on her blog. She proceeded to ruminate about how she and her partner John are both artists, and imagine the craziest things into being:

John imagines something and then commits to fabricating it, come hell or highwater. That’s how he put skylights in the top of the TransAmerica tower, for instance. The union asked him if he could do that, he looked inside his imagination to see if he could “see” that scene, said “Yes,” and then set about discovering how to make what he had seen show up in the 3-D world.

When you are imagining something, you’re pretending that thing already exists. John and Meri have proved in their own lives that once you fake it, you can make it! I highly recommend reading the rest of her post.

When I read Meri’s words, though, I couldn’t help but think about the InterPlay classes I teach. InterPlay is an active, creative approach to unlocking the wisdom of the body. Classes include improvisational storytelling, movement, and singing.

During the InterPlay warm up, I’ll invite people to try on different movements by faking them. “Try some fake karate!” I’ll suggest. “Now, how about fake tap dancing!?” And finally, “Get into those hips with a little fake hula, why don’t you!?”

New Interplayers always giggle when we start faking it. Perhaps out of nervousness. But mostly, I think, because it’s fun and freeing.

In fact, some recent personal “aha!”s have emerged from the fake forms.

See, I’m a perfectionist. Big time. Which doesn’t always allow me to relax and have fun because I’m often worried about doing things right. That’s why the fake forms are so good for me. They let me off the hook for being perfect.

Now that I’ve gotten good at doing fake karate, I’m finding other ways to trick my inner perfectionist into letting go. For example, when I started my blog, I gave myself permission to be a “fake blogger.” Somehow, that allowed me to just start DOING it.

And before I knew it, my posts weren’t fake anymore. Somewhere along the way they turned real.

Of course, Derrida would disagree with me slightly. He’d say that pretending to do something is, ummmmmm, actually doing it. So my blog posts never turned real. They were real all along.

Yay for faking it! Because once you fake it, you’ve already started imagining that new thing into being.

This all just begs the question: What are you going to fake today?

(If you’d like to be a fake InterPlayer, come on down to one of my classes in San Francisco or Oakland. I’d love to play with you!)



This post is part of a project to share reflections about all 28 of the Core Elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

What creates information overload for you?

Too much time browsing the internet does it for me. And juggling multiple creative projects at once.  Not to mention the emotional ups and downs of navigating the world as a (hopefully) clear and honest communicator. Phew!

Information overload can sometimes be too much of a good thing — like excitement about falling in love or finally accomplishing a personal goal.

When I’m in a State of Too Muchness, I crave balance. And that’s where exformation comes in.

Exformation is InterPlay‘s word for the process of moving unnecessary information out of one’s body.

Imagine for a moment that information is physical, and it accumulates inside our bodies. It’s almost like our bodies are sieves that process our daily experiences.

Most of the time our experiences flow easily through us, like the flour in the picture above. But sometimes that sieve gets clogged. What can we do to loosen up that gunky, yucky clogged feeling that comes with stress and overwhelm?

We can exform! And if information has a physical component, then so does exformation.

The simplest kind of exformation is breathing, sighing, and shaking your body out.

But exformation can include just about any activity that allows you to be truly in your body. The InterPlay facilitator’s manual suggests activities like

exercise, art-making, journalling, making love, taking long showers, meditating, doing housework, cooking, walking in nature, singing, etc.

I invented MuseCubes as a simple exformational tool. After a roll of the dice, folks can howl, twist, and sigh their way to feeling more refreshed and balanced. I’ve been collecting stories about all the ways people use MuseCubes to exform; you can read those stories here.

The regular practice of InterPlay is another way many people choose to get exformation in their lives. By telling our stories, playing with our voices, and moving our bodies, exformation becomes a multi-sensory experience!

The beauty of exformation is that we don’t have to wait for a State of Too Muchness in order to do it.  Instead, we can build exformational activities into the daily rhythm of our lives. Preventative exformation! I try and incorporate movement, creativity, and play throughout my day.

What do you do to keep your sieve clumpless and flowing freely?

Wreck This Journal, Week Four


This week on The Next Chapter, I learned a TON!

The video explains more, but if you prefer to read, here’s my list:

  • It is possible to braid books.
  • Red flowers actually look purple when you rub them on paper.
  • Carrying scissors, pens, and glue in my purse allows me to be spontaneously destructive…and creative!
  • It feels quite intimate to destroy/create alone. Prior to this week, I had mostly destroyed/created in the company of friends. Both are wonderful — just different.
  • If I cut out all the name-of-people on a book’s acknowledgment’s page, the words that are left reveal the heart of the book.  Or at least, the heart of the author. And, it turns out, my own heart as well.  In the video hear me read a  poem I created from Keri (the author’s) left-over words.
  • Creativity koan of the week:  destructive creativity vs generative creativity.  Similar or different?!

IMG_2244***Fellow Wreckers: Do you notice that a cloud of dust puffs out of your journal whenever it’s opened?! Sheesh!  If I open my book over my keyboard — my typing feels grimy for at least a day.***

If you’re wondering what this is all about: a delightful group of national (and international?) bloggers has joined forces under the Master Destructress herself, Jamie Ridler. Jamie’s got a book club called The Next Chapter, and this summer we’re interacting with the book Wreck This Journal.  To see what wreckage others are doing this week: click here.

Juggling and Expressive Arts — for Veterans!


Welcome to my first guest post ever! Occasionally I will use this blog to highlight how facilitators use InterPlay to change the world. This post is written by Dorothy Finnigan.

This Work Could Save Lives

I stared at the email.  “This work could save lives,” it said.  Had I really just been invited to teach InterPlay and juggling to a group of Iraq and Vietnam War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?!

A day later, I was granted clearance to the Veterans Affairs (VA) facility. My host drove me through the rain, warning me to expect a tough reception from the vets. Some had just returned from Iraq; others were still healing from Vietnam. Once a week, they all took mandatory art therapy and wellness classes. On this day, I would be given the entire “wellness” hour to share whatever I wished.

Accessible, Playful, Unpretentious

InterPlay had been a personal practice of mine for under a year. I found it when I was craving the embodied wisdom of elders and the space to share my stories. With its practical forms and accessible, playful, unpretentious philosophy, InterPlay had helped me transition through harrowing circumstances and enjoy life more than ever.  Now, I wanted to share simple tools for relaxation, healing, and enjoyment with these vets.

A dozen people took their seats around the perimeter of the small, naturally-lit room. I stood before them and took a deep breath, letting it out with a loud sigh. “The best way I know to help myself relax is to take a deep breath. I invite you to take a deep breath with me.” This invitation seemed simple enough, and everyone obliged.

Optimal Health and Happiness

“I’m of the belief,” I explained as I drew five bullet-points on the whiteboard, “that to have optimal health and happiness in our lives, there are five things we need on a daily basis. The first one is to have our voice. Sighing is one of the simplest ways we can let ourselves have our voice throughout the day. So let’s take a deep breath, and let it out with a sigh. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.” The sighing got louder as people relaxed into the permission to have their voice.

“Another thing I need on a daily basis is movement. Right where you’re sitting, shake out a hand. Shake out another hand. Shake out a foot. Shake out another foot. Shake out what you’re sitting on.” Everyone participated. A few chuckled. One veteran got really into moving her rear around her chair. Within myself and around the room, I could feel the anticipation of fun growing.

It’s Not An Order; It’s An Offering

“Anything I say to you today,” I reassured them, “is just an invitation. An offering. It’s not an order. Feel free to alter or abstain from any activity.” I invited them to stand up. Everyone complied. I didn’t yet sense the major resistance I’d been warned about. “Shake yourself down into your spot…”

And with that, I took them through the InterPlay warm-up, welcoming and awakening parts of our body from head to toe. At one point a couple of veterans chose to sit down; true to my word and in keeping with InterPlay’s commitment to honoring individual choice, I simply continued leading. Soon both veterans were on their feet again, perhaps because they realized that my “do what is good for you” rhetoric was for real.

Juggling Is Good For You

After warming up, it was juggling time! I had spent 15 years teaching tens of thousands of people to juggle using slow-moving nylon scarves; yet, only recently (thanks to InterPlay) could I articulate why juggling helps heal the supposed “split” between mind and body. Neurological research increasingly confirms the integrative health benefits of juggling. Moving cross-laterally and tracing infinity sign pathways (which are the “secrets” to juggling) are movements that activate communication between left and right brains. This may help to inhibit Alzheimer’s, deal with dyslexia, and develop reading skills and higher order problem solving abilities. Turns out that juggling is not only fun, it’s really, really good for you!

Sharing Stories

Earlier, I had been cautioned by my host to expect the veterans to be self-conscious in the group because of certain judgmental personalities. However, as each individual’s nylon scarves kept falling to the floor, they just laughed at themselves and continued to enjoy learning. When I casually asked half the room to stop juggling in order to witness the other half, the vets enthusiastically applauded for one another! By slipping in this opportunity to witness and affirm their peers, we had avoided setting up a stressful paradigm of “audience” versus “performer” that might have activated judgment of self and others.

InterPlay is essentially a practice of doing stuff (with our bodies, voices, etc.) and then noticing our experience. With that in mind, I invited each veteran to take 30 seconds to share with a partner about learning to juggle. The vets were proud they had learned a new skill; they were also surprised how much of a workout they got out of three floaty scarves. With the group relaxed and confident, I then led them through a storytelling series. They got to talk about things like their favorite place in nature and a person on their mind. There were nods of agreement all around when I said, “I believe that sharing our stories — both the monumental AND the mundane — is another requirement for health and happiness.

The One Hand Dance

To close the hour, I taught the quintessential InterPlay form: the one hand dance. The beauty of the one hand dance is that anyone can do it. Raise your hand in the air and move it through space. Play with both smooth and jagged movements; make different shapes; vary the speed. For the veterans, I put on a piece of music and invited them to do a hand dance on behalf of the person who was on their mind. As partners witnessed each other, some pairs fell into deep laughter and others had tears in their eyes. One vet ended his piece with his hand over his heart. He and his partner sat in stillness for a silent minute.

And our hour was up. I invited them to take an idea or activity into their lives beyond this room. If nothing else, I hope they feel a greater sense of permission to take a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh whenever they need a moment of grace.

A New Way to Express

Earnest “thank-you”s filled the air as the vets filed out of the room. As I packed up my scarves and sound system, I overheard Archie (one of the “resistant” vets I’d been warned about) telling his friend who hadn’t been able to attend, “You really missed something. Too bad for you, man. It was fun.” My host, who’d also overheard the comment, shook her head in disbelief.  “You won them over,” she marveled. “Even Archie.”

The other staff were impressed, too. “Not only did you give them an opportunity to relax and have fun, but there was a sense of peaceful group cohesion we desperately needed. Thank you!”

As I was leaving the facility, a veteran who had done a hand dance on behalf of his daughter, thanked me again for allowing him to have “a way to express.” Over the course of the class I had shared the belief that for optimal health, we need to be able to have our voice, our movement, our stories, our stillness, and our contact with others (otherwise known as InterPlay’s Five Recommended Daily Requirements). The invitation and opportunity to have these things, had given this vet a way to connect with his own truth.

Creating a Space of ProFUNdity

Who could have guessed that my old skill — juggling! — would integrate so seamlessly with InterPlay’s tools for holistic community development, creating an environment of ease, affirmation, and grace. The strength of these men and women, and particularly their willingness to open up when given the choice, touched and inspired me. I see now that this work has the power to be sneaky deep: to be both playful and transformational for individuals and communities. I’m looking forward to new opportunities to create a space of proFUNdity for groups, from intergenerational gatherings to corporate cultures.

Until then, I continue to work on having InterPlay’s five recommended daily requirements in my own life. Even now, sitting in this coffee shop writing, I take a deep breath, let it out with a sigh, and am grateful for this moment of grace.

Who is This Dorothy, Anyway?

Dorothy Finnigan grew up on the road, living in a motor home with her family as they taught juggling in elementary schools across the United States. She was world-schooled (her version of being home-schooled) until age 18, after which she traveled solo internationally, paying her way by juggling on the street.  After a brief stint of formal education at Yale University, Dorothy “walked out” to pursue intergenerational embodied learning. Now a graduate of InterPlay’s Life Practice Program, Dorothy is developing several workshops that integrate her skills as a juggler and a body wisdom practitioner.



The following post is a project to share reflections about all 28 of the core elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

What if…we lived life consistently looking for the good in our own experiences?  What if!?

As a classroom teacher, looking for the good was not part of the culture at my school.  Critique was, though. What are kids doing wrong? Point it out so that they can grow and learn!

When I was grading papers, it was so much easier to notice what kids did wrong (poor use of a semi-colon, again!) than what they did right (creative imagery!).  After marking up a paper, I had to force myself to re-read it in order to find some compliments.  How messed up is that — that I had to force myself to affirm my students?!

Now I work as an academic coach at a private school.  Although I’m technically there to support kids with learning disabilities, it’s become apparent that teachers crave support too.  Especially affirming support.

At a meeting last week, I had been pushing the school to create systems that help students be accountable for their work.  Over lunch, a teacher approached me and asked, “Gretchen, I really think that the system I use for communicating grades to parents and kids is the best possible system for what you’re talking about.  Am I deluding myself? What do you think?!”

I was so struck by how much this teacher needed feedback and acknowledgment.  The subtext I heard was: I’m trying. I care. I’m doing my best.  Do you see me?

In fact,  all year I’ve admired his system for using Google Spreadsheets to communicate grades and missing assignments to families.  I’d been thinking it but I never said it.

And yet, I know full well that we “can create much more change in another by pointing out their strengths than by criticizing their weaknesses” (from the InterPlay leader training handbook).

In the InterPlay context, affirmation refers to naming the good in ourselves and others.  But it also has to do with practicing noticing the best parts of our own experience (as opposed to fixating on other people’s experiences).

I coach a student who loves to write. Although she doesn’t care an iota about academic writing, she hungers for feedback about her creative short stories. However, she hates it when I give general compliments like “This story is great! You’re such a good writer.”  Rather, she wants specifics; she wants to know what I’m experiencing as I read her words:

Wow, the way you describe your characters in the opening sentences makes me really curious about what’s going to happen. But in the second paragraph the curiosity went away because I got a little confused about who was talking.  I had to reread several sentences to figure it out.”

Certainly, there is a place for general praise and encouragement.  In InterPlay classes, we’re trained to say “good!” or “yes!” frequently so that people feel supported.  Creating an atmosphere of affirmation, after all, is crucial to opening up people’s creativity.

But I’m also fascinated that, in the story above, my student continued to feel affirmed even when the feedback I was giving was technically “negative.” Maybe it really is true what Marshall Rosenberg says, that the most basic human desire is to contribute to others.  I like feeling curious, and my student wants that for me.  Because she cares about me, she’s motivated to fix anything in her writing that gets in the way of my curiosity.

And as the InterPlay facilitator’s handbook says, “To be headed toward our desires is always a good direction in which to go.” Yuh – huh! What would formal learning look like if both teachers and students had the freedom to move towards their desires?

More and more, I’m committed to creating a culture of affirmation.  It’s one of the reasons I love twitter so much — affirmation is such a huge part of the culture (at least in my circle of followers; follow me, and you’ll see what I mean).

Developing a habit of affirmation, though, doesn’t come naturally to me; I have to practice looking for the good. Here are some basic tips that are helping me develop the habit.

Tips for Creating a Culture of Affirmation:

  • Notice when I’m thinking an affirmation or appreciation. Say it out loud.
  • Pepper my language with affirmation blurts: “Nice!” “Yay!” “Wow!”  “Cool!”
  • Make sure, though, that all the affirmations are genuine. (Folks can smell fake a mile away).
  • When possible, be really specific about what I appreciate.
  • Speak from my own experience.
  • Name feelings rather than opinions.

What else?!  I’m sure there are tons of other tips!!  Please comment if you’ve got one.

Wreck This Journal Week Three


Welcome to Week Three of  Jamie Ridler’s The Next Chapter: Wreck This Journal! Please enjoy this week’s stories of random wreckage:

1. Control. Controlled creativity. Controlling other people’s creativity. Thanks to my roommate and fellow Wrecker Katherine Kunz, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between control and creativity.  I don’t have any profound thoughts about it yet, but the question of the day for me is, “What is the relationhip between control (or lack thereof) and creativity? Watch the video (above) and you’ll notice Katherine talking questioning her impulse to “control.”

2. Closing time at the local meat market.  I have a fun crush on one of the butchers.  This particular day I realized with glee that the store had just closed.  If I waited outside, my crush was likely to emerge soon.   Sitting on a nearby bench, I opened up Wreck My Journal (I bring it everywhere, after all!) to a random page.  “Dedicated to internal monologue,” it said.  Perfect!  I started writing some affirmations, but quickly transitioned into writing about how silly and nervous I felt:

Internal Monologue about Crushes

3. Camping. On a 24-hour excursion last weekend, I woke up early and decided to take my journal for a walk. With the book bouncing behind me on the end of a string, I hiked the 400 foot drop to Lake Chabot. Through dust.  Over dead leaves. Across fallen eucalyptus bark.   Soon I discovered (to my delight and surprise!) that my book had a 2-foot long tail made out of eucalyptus bark (wish I’d snapped a picture!).  Runners-by look at me like I’m crazy, and I was certainly embarrassed. But I walked on! Here’s a picture of the damage I did:

Wrecked Edges

4.  Last week’s Tuesday night InterPlay class ended. As we chatted near the shoe shelf, I  showed  Marcus my  wrecked journal. The first page I opened invited me to “ask a friend to do something destructive to this page.  Don’t look.”  How serendipitous! Marcus left for 2 minutes and returned grinning, dripping book in hand.  Today I turned to the page and discovered a dried and soapy mess:

Soapy Journal Page

P.S.  In case you’re curious, my crush did come out five minutes later.  I promptly discovered that I’m less enthralled when we’re not discussing what meat I’ll buy.  Now that is fascinating…



The following post is part of a project to share reflections about all 28 of the core elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

Last week I spied a teeny inch worm gracefully maneuvering across the top of my laptop screen.  Its miniscule body curved up and then flattened itself, advancing a millimeter each time.

Curve up. Flatten down. Curve up.  Flatten down.

I was entranced by it’s slow, steady — even artful — progress.

The idea for my MuseCubes business came to me last August.  Since then I‘ve received a lot of advice from well meaning friends:

It’s cheaper to manufacture them in China.  Sell the idea to a game company. Distribute them to Barnes and Noble.

These suggestions used to stress me out.  I heard them, and felt pressured to grow my business Bigger! Faster! Richer! Now!

Lately, however, I’ve decided to learn from the inch worm. One graceful little step at a time. I don’t want to grow this business faster than I’m able to nurture it…and myself.

I’ve also been learning from InterPlay’s philosophy of incrementality.

Incrementality is the process of breaking a task down into small, manageable steps.

We have learned many of the important things we know incrementally — how to walk, talk, read, use a computer, play an instrument, learn a language.  We accept that these skills are learned in many small steps, over a long period of time.” (Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, Self Study Handbook)

The philosophy of incrementality gives me permission to apply this same wisdom to the big things I want to do — like start a product manufacturing business.

In a culture that pushes me to work harder, faster, and better than the competition, InterPlay recommends the opposite. It’s perfectly acceptable — even downright healthy! — to build my business at the speed of my own body.

Now I ask myself, “What’s the next easiest step I can take?” And I take it.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t set big goals. Or push myself. But I do so with balance. I give myself permission to pursue the lofty goals one little, slow, easy, fun step at a time.

Interestingly  — (Huh! I’m just putting this together right now! I love how much I learn when I write) –the MuseCubes are a practical tool to help people remember incrementality.

So often when we feel stuck, the real problem is that we’re trying to do too much.

For example: (1) Why can’t I just finish writing this paper!? (2) Arrrrgggggh! Reconciling this whole spreadsheet is driving me crazy!

The MuseCubes remind us to — quite literally — shake ourselves free from the tyranny of Too Much.  Once we’ve moved our bodies and voices around a bit, we’re better able to see the whole picture. We can then recognize the next, easiest action to take in service to that larger goal.

For example: (1) How about I write for 5 minutes without a single edit, and just see what I produce? (2) Maybe I’ll plug in 10 more numbers into the spreadsheet and then see where I stand.

So  now I’m curious.  What about you? What’s the next easiest step you can take to get you where you want to go?!

Wreck This Journal, Week Two

Journal with Charcoal

During Week Two of Jamie Ridler’s The Next Chapter: Wreck This Journal, I learned how fun it is to wreck things with friends!!

Over the course of my week, four different women sat at my kitchen table and slung food in, on, and around my journal — jam, coffee grounds, miso paste, black beans. I’ll let you know when the mold sets in.

Sarah drawing with charcoal

The crown jewel of the week was a walk with my friend Sarah.  She was totally game to bring the journal along on our hike.  When we stumbled upon an old fire ring, we looked at each other with a glint in our eyes.  Charcoal!!!  Here’s Sarah creating our masterpiece.  See the fire ring behind her?

car running over book

Sarah is so creative and zany! I shouldn’t have been surprised when she shouted suddenly,  “Let’s run the book over with my car!” Terror was my first response! I mean, I have NO qualms about smearing my journal with food and charcoal. But… ummmmm… running it over with a car?  Wouldn’t that break it’s spine?

“Come on, Gretchen.  If it breaks, you can just tape it back together again.” Oh, right.  Tape makes everything better!

Tire tracks on book after being run over

Nervous as I was when the car started rolling over my journal, I felt disappointed when the the spine didn’t break! Check out the gorgeous tire tracks, though. (Hmmmmm…. maybe next time I’ll paint the tires first).  Although you can’t see it in the picture, the cover is all pockmarked. Yay, asphalt!

As I reflect on my crazy week wrecking things with friends, I’m reminded of an exercise I did from the book Attracting Perfect Customers.  The book asks you to identify what gets you out of bed in the morning.  Here’s what I wrote:

I feel most alive when I am creating for, or with, other people in a way that enlivens and deepens our sense of connection to each other and the world.

In the context of the fabulous Wreck This Journal experiences, I now know that the opposite is also true — I also feel incredibly alive when I am DESTROYING for, and with, other people.  Destruction definitely enlivens and deepens my sense of connection to others and the world.

But then I have to ask myself — aren’t creating and destroying the same thing? What do you think?

By the way, if you want to check out how other women are wrecking their journals, visit this week’s The Next Chapter page.

And if you missed it, check out my video from week one in which I bang a coffee-soaked flower into my journal.

“Relax Your Brain” with MuseCubes


Last August I invented an office toy called the MuseCubes.  It’s designed to liberate people who think too much.

Although I originally intended the MuseCubes for grown-ups, teachers have been buying them right and left.  They recognize the MuseCubes as the perfect, short break for stressed out students.

This afternoon, a geography teacher from a high school in Texas sent me the most amazing email.  She’d just read through all her course evaluations and couldn’t help but notice all the references to MuseCubes. Dedicated customer that she is, she typed up her teenagers’ words for me to read:

You should keep the muse cubes. They’re really fun and when you do what they tell you to do, it’s funny and it gets our hopes up. –Jose M.

I think you should keep the fun little cube game for next year because it relaxes our brain by making us laugh and, in that way, we think better. –Maria S

You should keep the muze cubes because they are a lot of fun and they are a great way of giving us a well needed break but not losing our focus at the same time. -Cesar M.

You should keep the little dice thing because that’s funny. –Irving A.

I think the cubes you used at the end of the semester were awesome and it lightened up the classroom when it was dead. -Lizeth C.

You should keep the silly dances you would do when we were tired. -Mariza S.  [Note: Mariza is referring to the fact that, sometimes the kids would watch Susan while she, alone, did what the MuseCubes said to do. It must be refreshing for students to watch an adult be such a goofball. At least, Mariza thought so!]

Wow! This is such great feedback.  I’m thrilled that Susan’s students realize how important movement and laughter is for their brains.

We humans were not designed to sit and think for hours on end.  We were designed to move and think.

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to share your students’ words!

Intergenerational Healing

The following post is written by Cynthia Winton-Henry, co-founder of InterPlay.  Every Monday she sends out a morning email, and this week it was so sweet, I just had to share.  There are so many applications for the InterPlay philosophies and practices.  Soyinka Rahim’s intergenerational work is yet another crucial example of how InterPlay bridges the divide of difference (in this case age) — and gives people a common way to play.  Here are Cynthia’s words:

In an intergenerational, multicultural InterPlay session, Soyinka Rahim led five adults and five children in a warm up.

We squirmed and delighted in moving each body part. There was a mom who had lost her hair due to chemo for breast cancer, her two creative, home-schooled kids, a grandma in her seventies who loves to dance and her two shy grandkids – a boy two years old carrying a toy truck and his sister. There was a single mom whose first grade daughter was wrapped around her mom seventy percent of the time, and there was me. Everyone enjoyed moving. The two year old wanted to watch.

Following Soyinka, we reached out our arms then wrapped them around ourselves. As we hugged ourselves Soyinka said, “Just say to yourself ‘I love you. I love you. I love you. Like a chant.” As I did it myself, I watched the moms and grandma with eyes closed, sway, and say those words. They weren’t trying to say them. They knew that this was important work for them, too.

We moved and played as a group for an hour and half. By the end the littlest and shyest child, the one who was allowed to watch, was dancing and asking people to talk in funny voices as we passed a dragon puppet and used weird voices as we said, “Thank you very much for coming!” As we blew bubbles and thanked Soyinka for leading this class, I thought, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Is the golden rule. In this session we got to do both, and all ages became more than neighbors. We became friends.

(More information: Multigenerational Play with Soyinka in Oakland – 1st Saturdays of the Month at InterPlayce, 10am-noon)

Easy Focus


The following post is part of a project to share reflections about all 28 of the core elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?! Subscribe by email to receive updates.

Easy focus. Eeeeeeeezy focus! Easy, now.  Easy!

I love things that are easy. So when I learned that the most fundamental InterPlay tool is called “easy focus,” I knew I was onto a good thing.

Easy focus is the process of widening our focus, relaxing our bodies, and using all of our senses to percieve the world around us.

A Personal Story

Just last week I was at a wine bar on a first date. Now, I don’t know anything about wine.  Nada. Zilch. So I got a little stressed when my date playfully suggested I do a blind taste test.  Always the good student, I prepared by studying a sip of each wine in our flight, willing myself to find words to describe their subtle differences.  I was concentrating so hard, my forehead wrinkled and my eyes squinted. Focusing too hard can be uncomfortable!

Luckily, I caught myself mid-squint and realized I was taking this taste test far too seriously. “Gretchen dear,” I told myself.  “How about just relaxing, and trusting that your taste buds know the difference?  You’ve tasted the wines once.  You’ll be fine!”

In other words — have an easy focus about the whole thing!

Immediately I relaxed. Smiled. Took a deep breath. Closed my eyes. Tasted…and voila! I passed the test with flying colors! Not a single wine misidentified.  Proud was I. Impressed was my date. Well played, Gretchen, well played.

Both a Physical Experience and a State of Mind.

Easy focus is a physical experience in that it involves relaxing the face muscles, loosening the eyes’ hold on any one object, and widening one’s peripheral vision.

Easy focus is also a state of mind in that it involves a loosening of our need to control situations.  It is an accepting state, a surrender of sorts.  Easy focus acknowledges that our bodies are capable of holding multiple feelings and ideas at one time.

Sheesh! The weekend after the wine bar date I had a bajillion feelings swirling inside of me — sorrow over a recent break up, thrill about this new connection, fear about all of life’s uncertainties, and more.  All these feelings, all at once! I’m grateful for the InterPlay practice of easy focus because it allows me to hold two or more seemingly conflicting realities at one time. As the facilitator’s handbook says so reassuringly,

We can go crazy trying to focus on one thing or another, or we can relax and have the fullness of all the elements that make up our lives.

How to Create Easy Focus

Tip 1: Take a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh. Try it now (you’ll see; it’s really satisfying!): Deep breath. Loud side. We do that all the time during InterPlay.  In fact, there’s nothing sweeter than the sound of 10 people sighing together.

Tip 2: Roll the MuseCubes. They’re a set of dice that help people shake themselves into new mindstates.  Roll the dice, and then do what they say: Shake and howl! Twist and whoop! Most people report feeling more relaxed, more vibrant, and more open.

Tip 3. Take a walk outside. Recently, I blogged about the role that nature plays in calming our attention, which results in more brain power when we go back to trying to focus later.  This is exactly the effect Phil and Cynthia talk about when they say, “it can be quite wondrful to be in an easy focus state and then let the focus come out and do its wonderful work.

Tip 4.  What do you think? What creates a sense of easy focus for you? Please comment!

Du Bist Wunderbar!

I just asked my student, “What support do you need from me while you finish writing this paper right now?”

He said, “Nothing. I just need to type.” But then he added, “How about every five minutes you spin your chair around and tell me how awesome I am…in German!?”

“That’s EXACTLY what I’d love to do to support you,” I responded.  

Thanks to an online English-German translator, here’s what I told him (how well did I do?): 

  • Sie sind unglaublich klug!  (You are unbelievably smart!)
  • Sie sind auch ein Arbeitspferd! (You are also a workhorse!)
  • Sie machten Sachen, Mann! (You get things done, man!)
  • Ich denke, dass Sie schrecklich sind! (I think you’re awesome!)
  • Sie werden so eingestellt, das ist unglaublich! (It’s unbelievable how focused you are!)
  • Sie schaukeln Ihre Welt!  (You rock your world!)
  • Reisen Sie ab, wie stellar Sie sind. (Check you out, how stellar you are!)
  • Sie sind so stark, Sie machen Wellen! (You are so powerful, you make waves!)

When he got done, we rocked out to Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” (on my iTunes) and “Panzurlied” (on his iPhone).

Whatever works!

Wreck This Journal Week One


Welcome to Week One of The Next Chapter: Wreck This Journal.

I’m completely and utterly thrilled to be participating in a creative book brigade with Jamie Ridler and  a whole crew of amazing bloggers.  This summer we’re “reading” — Ahem!  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say we’re “destroying” — the book Wreck This Journal.

Watch me as I destroy this beautiful book — this morning I go at it with coffee stains, orange juice, and a smashed flower.

It’s also my first attempt to Video Blog (otherwise known as vlogging).  I have to say, the idea of Vlogging is so-completely-wonderfully in line with the whole Wreck This Journal philosophy.

See, this summer we’ll be playing around with creativity as a process of messing things up! Imperfection! Chaos! Disaster! Destruction!

And those of us who vlog are trusting ourselves to make it up on the spot while the video is running. Talk about potential for disaster! I guess I could edit out the bad parts, but there’s something delicious about sharing myself and my ideas in all their rawness, imperfection, and chaos.

In fact, if you watched the video, you’ll undoubtedly notice that it ended abruptly.  Totally accidental. And totally perfect. My final words were something like, “In InterPlay we start things, we mess them up, and we find a way to end–”

This summer, I invite you to do this process along side me.  Start something! Mess it up! And then find an ending! (Even if that means allowing the ending to find you).

Wrecklessly yours,


What the Heck Is InterPlay?!

So, I do this thing called InterPlay. And it’s kinda hard to explain exactly what it is.  People still scratch their heads and say “huh?” when I try to describe it.

Officially speaking, it’s an active, creative approach to unlocking the wisdom of the body.  Sounds great to me! But there are tons of people out there who have no idea what this means.

So, I’m devoting the summer to this problem: How do I describe InterPlay so that people get it!?

Why Do I Care About InterPlay?

But hold the phone — why does it matter if people “get it”?  Why do I care?

Partially because I want people to get ME. And InterPlay and its philosophy of body wisdom is a big part of who I am.

But I also care for this reason — I’ve found a great deal of freedom in my life thanks to the InterPlay philosophy and practices.  I think it’d be most excellent if other people got to experience this freedom too.

New Agey Blah Blah Blah?

I’m a pretty open person, and I’ve gone to a lot of new agey workshops on personal development and body/mind/spirit integration.  So much of it is really good stuff, and I’m a better person for it.

But this stuff also inaccessible to a great number of people. The language used by gurus and their followers is often so insular. Not to mention “airy-fairy” or “hoity-toity”. Their practices — for example, gazing into another person’s eyes for minutes at a time, or sharing deeply personal pain stories in public — feel threatening and uncomfortable. Most people (myself included) don’t like to dive head first into transformation.

Good for Average, Regular People

InterPlay is one of the first workshoppy things I’ve done that made me think — Wow! These folks have figured out how to bring body wisdom to your average, regular person.  There’s no need to be ultra spiritual or liberal to benefit from InterPlay.

Those of us who love it share bits and pieces everywhere we go.

Bobbie just called me yesterday to share how she used the babbling activity in a recent church meeting (Result: a group of people who’ve been friendly-but-distant for years starting feeling more connected).

Dorothy even got Iraq veterans doing — and loving! — a hand dance. (Result:  “It’s a new way to express myself,” one of them reflected gratefully. Yes!! More about that in a guest post soon.)

Uh oh. Look what I just did! I’d intended to try to explain what InterPlay is briefly and clearly. Instead, I used a bunch of wierd terms like “babbling” and “hand dance.” Does it put you off, because you have no idea what these things mean?

Come On, Already, Gretchen — What the Heck is InterPlay!?

I really do have a commitment to talking simply, directly, and clearly about InterPlay.  I just don’t know how! So, before I end, let me take a stab at some more statements:

  • People often practice InterPlay by gathering in groups in dance studios. But it can actually take place anywhere.
  • In any InterPlay experience, folks get together (community), do stuff (play), and then notice about it (reflection).
  • The “stuff” that they do includes improvisational storytelling, movement, and playing with the voice. I’ll be describing these forms in more detail in future blog posts. The “noticing” includes anything a person is comfortable saying about their experience. Often people don’t say anything at all.  Luckily, in InterPlay you don’t have to articulate your experience in order to have it.
  • In any InterPlay class, you’ll experience the 5 daily requirements — tell a story, use your voice, move around the room, have some stillness, and have easy, playful physical contact with others.
  • All activities in InterPlay are broken down into small, bite-sized pieces that are easy and comfortable for participants to do. (For example, “Take 30 seconds to tell your partner what you had for breakfast this morning”).

Please Give Me Feedback:

To those of you hearing about InterPlay for the first time, I’m curious: what have I said here that resonates? What confuses you?  What questions do you have?  Your feedback will really help me get better talking about this thing that I love so much.

Stay Tuned…

Starting this weekend and every Monday throughout the summer,  I’ll be blogging about the InterPlay core elements.  My goal is to provide clear, non-jargony descriptions of the core elements of InterPlay, including:

Body Wisdom Tools: Easy Focus, Body Data/Knowledge/Wisdom, Internal Authority, Physicality of Grace, Exformation, Spiritual Practices, Incremenality, and Affirmation

Body Wisdom Practices: Warm-Up, Babbling, Big Body Stories, Circle Stories, Contact, DT3s, Following and Leading, Group Toning/Singing, Hand-to-Hand Contact, “On Behalf of” forms, One-Breath songs, One-Hand dances, Shape & Stillness, Side-by-Side Stories, Solo Movement, Walking/Stopping/Running, Warm-Up, Witnessing, Noticing

Or Just Come Play

The truth, though, is this: no matter how much I say about InterPlay, you really need to experience it to get it.  Here is a quick brainstorm of ways to try it live and in person:

Goodness, this has been a long post.  Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom. Please DO leave your feedback! Here are those questions again:

What have I said here that resonates? What confuses you?  What questions do you have?

Your comments will really help me get better talking about this thing that I love so much!

As always, playfully yours!

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Nature

DogDiggingI, too, am a digger of metaphors! Thanks, Cairene, for this fabulous phrase via twitter.

Not only do I dig (as in, get a kick out of) metaphors, but I also dig (as in, actively seek out) metaphors that have special meaning.

So I totally ate up this blog post about the Spirea Bush as a role model. Shannon admires the sheer volume of flowers on the spirea bush.  They remind her that she needn’t stress about watering the many new blooms in her life. She can simply trust, and have more ease around nurturing all her new opportunities.

Shannon’s ability to turn a flower into a role model reminds me of my recent trip to Yosemite National Park.

For five days I camped alone. Days were spent on long hikes searching the terrain for teachers.  Nights I lounged in front of the campfire with my journal, reflecting about what I’d learned.  Three teachers emerged, and I’ve been carrying them with me ever since.

The Waterfall

Yosemite FallsWhat I Observed: The water above the waterfall is quiet and serene.  Just trickling along.  As soon as it gets to the cliff, momentum builds. Before you know it — the trickle becomes a powerful wall of water that whooshes down to the bottom of the canyon. Small droplets from the waterfall travel surprisingly far away (I felt drops a quarter mile away).

Lessons in Entrepreneurship: Power comes from momentum. It’s OK if I’m just the little stream right now, as long as I’m heading in the direction of the precipice. Once the momentum of my business builds, my success won’t just be in the waterfall itself.  There will be little sprinkles of my message that travel far and wide.  And guess what — when the sun shines into these sprinkles, a rainbow appears!!  I’m curious what my rainbow will be, when my MuseCubes business gets off the ground.

The Sequioa Tree

RedwoodsWhat I Observed: Alone in the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, I craned my neck up to stare into the branches of a 290 foot miracle of a tree.    Such peace. Steadfastness. Confidence. At over 1000 years old, the trees in this grove have truly withstood the test of time!!

Lessons in Entrepreneurship. Did you know that these ginormous trees can’t survive without help from the tiniest of creatures!? Evidently, their pine cones don’t fall of their own accord. So in order to get their seeds to drop and spread, the redwood depends on squirrels to collect the seeds. Or little bugs, which kill the branch at the base of the pine cone, forcing it to drop.  This makes me wonder: who are my squirrels? what little bugs help me out? How open am I to the support that exists in my ecosystem? If I want to plant far flung seeds, it’s time to engage others in helping my business grow!

The Woodpecker

WoodpeckerWhat I Observed. I spotted Mr. Woodpecker pecking at a tree right off the road in my campsite. He was so focused on the tree, he wasn’t at all bothered by my presence three feet away.  Such determination and perseverance! He changed positions several times, finding new angles to bore deeper into his chosen hole.  Finally…he tore an entire piece of bark off of the tree, gobbled up his prey, and flew off, all within seconds.

Lessons in Entrepreneurship. Keep on pecking. Find new angles for old problems. Stay focused on the goal. Don’t let gawkers distract you. Enjoy your successes, but don’t spend too much time dwelling on them.  Fly off and find a new tree.

What about you? What teachers have you found in nature?

Do tell!

Crazy Fun Creative Writing for Teens

Do you know a teen in the East Bay who’s ripe and ready to explore their creativity?

In a summer writing intensive? For high school credit?

I’m thrilled to announce the creative writing course I’m teaching this summer. To learn more, check out this video (created by an enthusiastic student).


Doesn’t that sound fun!? Here are the details about the class:

  • June 22 to July 14, 9am – 1pm, Monday to Friday
  • 1 semester/ 5 credits, $700
  • Classes held at Orinda Academy, Orinda, CA
  • To register, call (925) 254-7553
  • Questions?

Outsmarting Desire?


Do you want more self-control?  Or less of it? I can’t decide.

I got thinking about delayed gratification thanks to a recent New Yorker article titled Don’t! The Secret of Self Control.  It’s all about the marshmallow experiment that was done back in the ’60s.

Give 4-year-olds a marshmallow; tell them not to eat it for 15 minutes; reward them with a second marshmallow if they’re successful.  The guy who wrote the study followed up with the subjects as adults.  He discovered that the kids who were able to delay their gratification also scored higher on the SATs, earned higher salaries, and were more conventionally successful than the subjects who ate the first marshmallow.

The article concluded: Self-control is more important than IQ in helping people lead successful lives.

Outsmarting Desire

Throughout the article I was more-or-less on board with this whole “self control” thing. But then I read the following paragraph:

…even the most mundane routines of childhood — such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning — are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. (Don’t! The Secret of Self Control p. 32).

Really? Is that the goal?! I’m all for cognitive training. And there’s certainly value in learning how to wait for what I want.  But — outsmart desire?

Why Would I Want To Do That?

On one level, I get it. It’s important to learn how to control my desires, rather than letting them control me.

Last week I made the unusual choice to wait to eat the Ben & Jerry’s icecream until after I folded the laundry, as a reward.  Usually I do it the other way around…but then never end up folding the laundry!

The reason the phrase “outsmart desire” stopped me in my tracks is this: it suggests that “desire” and “smartness” are diametrically opposed.  Desire happens in the body.  Smartness happens in the brain. Conclusion: The brain needs to control the body.

This is a dangerous assumption. The body has so much wisdom. Desire is a teacher, not an unwelcome visitor who needs to be controlled.  And besides, there really is no such thing as a body that is separate from brain. We’re really one, big, holistic system.

Being in Relationship With Desire

I’m left with this. I do want more self-control. So that I can have more of what I desire, not less.  So I can be strategic about how I prioritize my many desires.

Yes, I want to eat all the ice cream right now! But I also value clean, unwrinkled clothes that are organized in my dresser drawer.  Fold laundry first. Eat icecream second.  All my needs get met.

Yes, I’d prefer to dive right into writing another blog entry. Writing’s fun! But I also desire to have a heathy body — and buying health insurance will help with that. (Not to mention, having health insurance meets my needs for security). Maybe I can send off an email to the insurance agent first, and then write for half an hour.

It’s less about control. And more about an ongoing relationship with myself and my desires.

Or perhaps I’m trying to out-desire my smarts! That’s a curious thought to ponder.

Meditation and Social Media


Social media is eating away at my attention and my self-control. I’m sure of it.

As I bounce between facebook, twitter, and blog stats, I’m clear that my attention is increasingly fractured.  It darts about, trolling for cool people and  interesting data. Almost like a nervous tick.

In fact, just as I was writing the last sentence, I had an attention-lurch. You see, I got stuck about what to write next.  In the ensuing pause,  I experienced a strange “twitching” sensation. I opened a new Mozilla tab and checked my twitter messages.  All before I was conscious of what I was doing. Do you experience this too?

On the one hand, Twitter has proven to be the best professional development I’ve ever experienced (after all it’s where I’m finding about all these articles that inspire blog entries).  On the other hand, I’m out of control.

Why I Care About Self Control & Attention

The topic of self control and social media is relevant to me for at least two reasons.

(1) As a newly self-employed entrepreneur, I no longer have the structure of a 9-to-5 job to control my time.  The great part of this is I actually have time to pursue my passions.  The hard part is I have so many passions, that my attention is increasingly scattered.

(2) I coach teenagers, many of whom are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD.  Parents are constantly asking me to help their kids control their IM/textmessage/facebook habits.I’d love to, I tell the parents, as soon as I figure out how to control my own social media habits!

Right on cue, two relevant articles have flitted into my universe: one about attention and meditation (I’ll talk about that one today) and the other about self control and outsmarting desire (I’ll blog about that on Thursday).

Meditation and Attention

The first one came as a tweet from my dear friend Meri Walker:

Good idea to put meditation in the same sock drawer of mind as you put exercise:

Huh! As a lapsed meditator, this tweet stood out.  I clicked on the link, and read about a study about the brains of Buddhist monks engaged in different forms of meditation. Turns out that people who meditate really do have significant control over their attention compared to those who do not meditate.

However,  it matters what KIND of meditation you do. Evidently compassionate meditation (focusing on the suffering in the world) was not as successful as “one-point” meditation (focusing on one part of their experience; the breath, for example). At least in regards to helping the monks perform better on attentional tasks after they meditated.

This makes total sense! To have more control over how we place (and sustain) our attention, perhaps we ought to practice placing (and sustaining)  a single-pointed focus.  Meditation is not the only way to do this.  But it’s sure a straightforward approach.

And you can meditate almost anywhere. Inspired by the article, I practiced that evening while taking BART to my Bollywood dance class in San Francisco.  Eyes closed while the train rattled through tunnels, I tried hard to keep my attention on my breath, even though it was being pulled every few seconds by interesting sounds around me.

What Do You Think?

I don’t want to stop using social media, that’s for sure. And I don’t think my students should stop either. But I AM interested in how we can find balance.  So I’m left pondering: So reading this study leaves me pondering:

  • Will I experience better control over my beloved social media habits if I meditate regularly?
  • To what extent would my students with ADD and ADHD benefit from learning simple meditation practices?
  • What other tricks do ya’ll have for stabilizing attention amidst the social media frenzy?

I’d love to hear from you…especially about that last question!