New Year / New Moxie – Spots still available!

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Give your writing the time and attention that it deserves.


Can you see it? It’s the Hivery–a dreamy space for you to write away from your usual commitments and obligations. In the corner: coffee, tea, snacks (many of them chocolate-covered and/or gluten free.) Writing prompts and writing books scattered on various desks to provide you with additional inspiration.

 Sheri Hoffmann will start off the day with “Time to Honor the Writing.” This is more than a mantra; Sheri will give you strategies and tools to give your writing the sacred space it needs for your creativity and productivity to flourish.

 After two hours of unstructured writing time, Janine Kovac and Tarja Parssinen will host an optional breakout session with “Map Out Your Writing Year” and “Slay the Social Media Beast.”

Award-winning author Naomi Williams turns the tables with her talk, “Self-Doubt: Not Such a Bad Thing?” As Naomi says, “As writers, we’re all about nuance. And nuance almost always requires doubt. The question, I think, is about managing that self-doubt and learning from

Ready for a break? 

Belden Barns will pour their exquisite wines while dinner is served. Browse Vicki DeArmon’s pop-up bookstore All Things Book and pick up your complimentary book. Which will you choose? Naomi Williams’ LandfallsJanine Kovac’s SPINNING: Choreography for Coming HomeOr perhaps you’ll go home with a copy of keynote Brooke Warner’s newest book Green-Light Your Book

And finally, we’ll send you off into the night with the wise words of our keynote speaker Brooke Warner. As a publisher, writing coach and author in her own right, she’s seen it all and in every iteration. From idea seedlings and revision cycles to the finished product: your words in the world. This is the Green-Light Revolution.

The world needs your stories. But first you need to write them.

Spots are still available!

Sign up here.

What Stays With You?

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Today was the first class in our five-class workshop Regenerative Writing Wednesdays. The exercises and prompts are inspired by Pat Schneider’s AWA method and always–yes, ALWAYS–yield amazing results.

Here’s a little nugget from our two-hour guided writing session:

Last night I went through the apartment picking out things that can’t be thrown away (they are not broken or old or worthless) but they can’t be put away because they have no home. They are things like a pine cone painted by one of my children, probably the girl, since it’s painted purple. And a little blue sponge with a needle and thread. A cob of Indian corn that should be part of our Thanksgiving spread but really just sits on the counter all year long. A shot glass from another world, another time. Another country? Another boyfriend? I can’t remember. They probably should be thrown away but I can’t bear to add to the landfill out in the world which means they stay in the landfill inside my house.

So I bring them here to Regenerative Writing Wednesdays. They will be the prompt for a writing exercise in lieu of words. Writers sit around the table, eyeing a marble, a cork, a guitar pick.

There are stories behind each one. There are real stories that I can’t remember and the invented stories that will come forth over the next fifteen minutes between writing exercises.

When I look at the objects, I see emotional space around their histories. I remember not from where the paper yellow umbrella appeared but only that my daughter wants to keep it. Similarly, the fake dinosaur tooth came from a necklace that my youngest will never wear but will never part with, either.

The second time we sit around reflect on these objects I do remember: my brother and I bought that shot glass from Mexico. The umbrella came from a lemonade stand at the neighbor’s house.

We write. We reflect. We write some more. It’s a perilous journey from brain to blank page. And we are the shepherds for these vulnerable words. We make sure they find their way. We say, “You made it!”

Tomorrow I may look at these words, discard half and use the other half as a springboard to other ideas. These words will be honed, sculpted, shaped. They will have served their purpose as raw material.

And then we’ll come back and do it again.

There’s still room in the workshop to sign up!

You can register for the next four classes here or if you just want to drop in, you can register for single classes here.

The Hard Nut Offers Timeless Beauty of Dance While Rebuking Old Traditions

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During a season fraught with shopping and social appointments, a trip to theater for live holiday entertainment is often more obligation than joy. And yet we persist.

For those who can’t bear to sit through another Nutcracker but also can’t imagine a holiday season with it, Mark MorrisThe Hard Nut, returns to Zellerbach Theater in Berkeley for a two-week run through December 24.

While the inspiration may have come from the 1816 fairytale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A Hoffman, Morris’ rendition is thoroughly modern. Set in an American living room in the 70’s, party guests dance the hokey-pokey, the bump, and even grab a move or two from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Many elements follow the traditional Nutcracker ballet template: Drosselmeier brings Marie a nutcracker. Bratty brother Fritz breaks it. The house grows. Mice battle soldiers. Marie defeats the Rat King.

Even the second act, which deviates from the traditional ballet libretto with a fairytale within a fairytale as told by Drosselmeier to Marie, feels similar. The music is the same and we enjoy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, France.

But what’s really bold is not Morris’ choice to put a new spin on the old story but his choice to break out of the traditional norms that often make the Nutcracker a dated relic while preserving the timeless elements of the quest narrative: a gift, a battle, a challenge, and true love.

As a modern dance choreographer, Mark Morris’ vocabulary extends past the French terms of classical ballet and therefore

Snowflakes, men and women, all in the same skirted costume, all dancing with same choreography and here before us the feminine is strength and masculine is equally graceful—what emerges is the dance.

Of course, no artist creates within a vacuum, and scenery, costumes and exuberant dancing contribute in equal measure to the broad appeal of the Adrienne Lobel’s black-and-white scenic design, based on Charles Burns’ iconic comic book style, is sharp and clean, offering contrast to Martin Pakledinaz’s bright and bold costumes.

Brian Lawson is a delightfully spunky and annoying as Fritz. Lesley Garrison (older sister Louise, Princess Pirlipat) comes as close as she can to stealing every scene while still sharing the stage with her colleagues.

For those who miss the aesthetic lyricism of classical ballet, there is Billy Smith’s (Drosselmeier) arabesque and Aaron Loux’s (the Nutcracker Prince, Young Drosselmeier) double tours. Lauren Grant returns as the ever-graceful and charmingly youthful Marie. Her performance and technique achieve what every beautiful dancer should accomplish: transcend the confines of ballet and modern to allow the joy of dance to reach the audience.  

In a world that is increasingly challenging old norms, the Hard Nut is the best of everything: athletic dancers, breathtaking emotions and just plain good fun.

Bringing a Book into the World

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Earlier this month I was scheduled to appear on a panel “What’s Easier: Birthing a Book or a Baby?”

Strictly speaking, nothing was easier than an emergency C-section for my twins. I made no decisions. I did no work. I went into labor at 3pm and they were born an hour and a half later at 4:30. I mean, this easy birth was still fifteen weeks before my babies were due. So that sucked. As did the three months in the newborn intensive care unit and the two years of early intervention therapy.

But the birth? That was easy.

As for the birth of a book, I’m not precisely sure when that milestone happened. Was it when I purchased the ISBN? Or when I got my first page proofs? When the cover was complete? When I mailed ARCs to potential reviewers? Or was it when I delivered a box to the bookstore that hosted my book launch?

In that sense, when a book gets published, it’s more like a grownup than it is like a baby. After the final proofs, the pub date, and the book deliveries, that book is out in the world doing its own thing. I have no control over how it will be received or appreciated or even misinterpreted. Just like when my kids grow up, hopefully I’ll still be around, but I won’t be shaping their narrative.

The book launch isn’t the birth; it’s the wedding.

Perhaps the birth of a book is its first draft. That’s when the book comes into being for the first time. There’s still a lot of development and guidance necessary and, as every parent (and writer) knows, you can get all the advice in the world, but it’s up to you to impart it. If you don’t, that baby (or book) does not thrive.

And so you guide and shape and make mistakes. You learn things such as a later time for a baby does not mean he will sleep in the next day. Maybe you go to a class or ask the advice of an expert. That’s when you learn that you constantly write the word “coo.”

The big difference is that a book doesn’t grow up unless you feed it, shape it, discard it, pick it up again. The chances that your baby will become an adult are much greater.

There’s one similarity between birthing a book and a baby: post-natal amnesia.

What was so terrible again about those late-night feedings or the hours of revisions looking for extraneous uses of the word “so?” The times I cried, “I can’t do this” or looked at my screen and thought, “this is the suckiest idea I have had since my last suckiest idea.”

I have no recollection. Was it so bad? I can only remember the peace of holding a sleeping infant, the thrill of finding the perfect image for the end of a chapter, the joy of moving a paragraph to quicken the pace of a scene.

That means just one thing: I’m ready for another baby.

 

 

 

Creating the Judgment-Free Zone

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A year ago I decided to write morning pages. I’d read a blog post that guaranteed my writing would change if I started this simple practice. The post recommended writing three pages a day, front and back, handwritten. No cross-outs. No going back and fixing what you’ve written. I added one more rule for myself: I couldn’t write about what I planned to do (in other words, no “I need to remember to write that post for my She Writes blog.”) Everything else was permitted.

I’ll admit to picking out a really tiny journal to make sure that I would make my goal. And while another must-do for the magic formula was to write these three pages first thing in the morning before doing anything else, as the mother of three children and two cats, that would never be a realistic goal unless I was away on a writing retreat. My compromise was that the writing had to happen sometime between when waking and sleeping and it had to be done before I began my “real” writing—the work that I am consciously shaping and revising.

Usually new writing habits are difficult to integrate but once I realized that my writing didn’t have to be coherent, topical, or even legible, the practice was surprisingly easy to incorporate.

I wrote every day, three pages front and back, except on Christmas (I only managed a page and a half). After a year I’d filled up sixteen journals.

“What do you get out of this?” a friend gently asked.

It took me a moment to figure out the answer.

Sometimes I mull over a question or theme that I’ll write about during my actual writing time. (How did my husband react when they told him our newborn babies would need surgery? What does it feel like to dance on stage?) Even though I never refer back to my journal, just jotting down stream-of-consciousness thoughts helps me organize them later.

Sometimes I play with ideas that I’d never tackle seriously. Like science fiction worlds in which aliens invade our bodies and give us the ability to go back in time. For example, back to November 8th. It’s mostly silly stuff. But the point isn’t to write compelling fiction. The point is to write three pages front and back.

Some of my sentences aren’t even grammatically correct because I’ve started writing before the thought is fully formed. That’s okay. I keep writing. Or I start over mid-sentence without correcting. The point isn’t to write well. The point is to write.

And while sometimes I do find a turn of phrase that I’ll use later or conjure up a poignant memory, the biggest advantage is that for three pages, I write without hesitation or second-guessing.

There are other pieces that I write, revise, and incorporate feedback. For example, my memoir SPINNING: Choreography for Coming Home, which I’ll self-publish in the fall through Moxie Road Productions, just went out to a seventh pair of eyes.

But my daily three pages are a 100% judgment-free zone. It’s not writing that will ever be evaluated or improved. It’s like my version of a sand painting.

It’s completely freeing to write knowing that the goal isn’t to be better. The goal is simply to do. As long as I write my three pages, mission accomplished.

Spinning the Story

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The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

Gratitude in a Brave New World

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This weekend, inspired by those who have been relentlessly calling their representatives on every issue from the ACA to the EPA, I sent 56 Valentines to government officials on behalf of my friends.

Each thank you Valentine is unique with cutout hearts on the envelope and card and a personal message on the inside. THANK YOU each one reads on the back of the envelope as well as on the front of the card.

I’ll admit I made the project more elaborate than it needed to be. Either because I harbor a nostalgia for handmade Valentines or because I really really like glue sticks.

“John McCain is never going to see this Valentine,” I thought, as I picked the perfect shade of metallic blue to address his fourth envelope, a different gel pen than the one used to address the next card I wrote to him.

Likewise, Congressman Jason Chaffetz will probably never see his purple-and-green hearts and with gold lettering thanking him for suggesting that a commander-in-chief who is mentally sound is a really good thing. If the DOJ doesn’t forward Sally Yates’ mail, those pink-and-silver hearts will probably just end up in the trash.

But with each card I wrote, I thought of all the people who would see them—from the mail carrier in Oakland, to the mailroom in Washington. Whether the envelope has been discarded or not, THANK YOU and a heart from handmade paper is sure to be visible.

So if you’re assigned to open mail for Rep. Beth Fukumoto or Rep. Barbara Lee you might feel a twinge of pride that you work for someone who stood up for what’s right and was acknowledged for it. Or perhaps you’re an aide for Senator Graham and you walk into the office of an aide of Senator McCain to work out the agenda for that investigation on Russian interference. The paper heart catches your eye and reminds you of the one you saw on your boss’s desk. You are making a difference. People are noticing.

Maybe you’re part of the custodial team and you see glittered envelopes in the recycling. THANK YOU. And it reminds you that you are a part of something bigger. Something that is changing. Whether that change is positive or not, that’s up to the people taking action.

Moreover, the ripple effect of thank-you card goes beyond expressing gratitude. These cards were a group effort. Chiara wrote “THANK YOU” on all the envelopes. My friend Fionnuala looked up addresses and wrote them on the all the envelopes (with the appropriately colored metallic gel pen, of course.) On top of all that, she donated all the stamps, too.

It was an opportunity to talk about the marches we’d both participated in and how empowering it was to take action. It was a chance to explain to Chiara why Senator Collins’ speech on Wednesday, coupled with Senator Murkowski, was so important.

This is how you become the change you seek. This is how a drop in the bucket becomes a splash.

Thank you to Leslie Ayers, who gave me the idea in the first place and thank you to all the Facebook friends who sent me suggestions.

Pledge for a Frantic Activist

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So I called some senators. I knitted a hat. I’ve marched, signed petitions, and typed a jillion angry emojiis on Facebook. I can’t keep up with the news, real or fake. It all feels like Whack-a-Mole politics. Idioms that used to be metaphoric are now literal: my head is spinning. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m so angry I can’t see straight.

I’ve become a frantic activist. A Franticivist.

At the same time, life is marching on as well. There’s the personal—lunches to pack and little people to take care of. There’s the professional: ballet classes to teach, submissions to read for a storytelling series, and a revision deadline for my memoir.

Something has to change. I can’t just ignore what’s happening in the world but I can’t neglect what needs to be accomplished in my personal life. Moreover, the phone calls and postcards are important, but I have a gut feeling that this is not the best way for me to make a difference. So, inspired by this article How To Stay Outraged Without Losing Your Mind, here’s what I’m going to do. Because the franticivsm is going to be the death of me.

READ
I used to get my news from the New York Times and the Daily Show. Now I get it from Lit HubTheir daily newsletter is a compilation of articles from around the web that keeps me informed. The diversity of voices and demographics is comprehensive with a variety of women, WOC, and prominent writers from all over the world, all are intelligent without being shrill or reactive. Lit Hub is where I first saw this article by Rebecca Solnit and this one from Roxane Gay.

WRITE
Last weekend I had to explain to my nine-year-old daughter why it’s called a pussy hat. Which meant we had to talk about personal space, innuendo, and what it means “take a word back.” We talked about the N-word and how words hurt. This story goes beyond pink hats. This is about finding a voice and using it. I want my daughter to take for granted that she can speak up. It starts with me putting that story down on paper.

LISTEN
Just before the inauguration I attended this Litquake event at the San Francisco Public Library in which writers such as Sarah Lapido Manyika responded to the current administration. As with reading intelligent commentary from authors I admire, listening to their words made me feel connected to a larger community. Online click-bait often makes me feel anxious and panicked but listening to nuanced analysis and opinions was inspiring. For those in the SF Bay Area, litseen provides a comprehensive calendar of where to go and who you’ll hear.

SPEAK OUT
Currently on my plate is an event at Kaleidoscope Coffee with the Write on Mamas and Michelle Gonzales. The theme is Plan B: Now What Do We Do? I’m also reading submissions for the San Francisco production for Listen To Your Mother in which ten percent of all ticket proceeds will go benefit a local nonprofit that benefits women and children. This is my opportunity to amplify the voices and stories that I think need to be heard. It doesn’t all have to be about politics. Compassion starts when someone else’s experience resonates with you. Now with the current political climate, I’m seeing that people (writers, cafe owners, librarians) are actively on the lookout for events and many have a community calendar already. There’s a lot of energy to be harnessed around creating a lit event.

RINSE, REPEAT, AND REVISE AS NECESSARY
This is a plan that I think can help me feel engaged, informed, and pro-active without feeling overwhelmed and frantic. But this could change. I know that new opportunities will present themselves and that might involve taking different actions. Until then, I’m going to cozy up with a copy of RAD Women Worldwide for an extra dose of Yes, We Can.