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Rarely There

A collection of discourses - myriad, profound, uplifting...
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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Crochet: Bear and Bunny Lovies

bunny lovey bear lovey crochst handmade lovies

Lovies, aka mini security blankets, were a great thing to have in the stroller for my kids when they were little. I remember an atrociously pink bear that my older child used to cradle in the crook of her elbow when I used to take her on stroller rides to the park.

The blanket part is super soft thick and chunky chenille, and the head and arms are made with fine soft fingering/baby acrylic yarn.

Popular vote at home is that the bunny is cuter than the bear, but, am sure the babies for whom this is intended won't care.

This is for twin girls that a friend is expecting, and I weaved in my prayers and good wishes for the safe arrival of her babies.

bunny lovey bear lovey crochst handmade lovies

Of course, my middle-schooler, who can make her own lovies, very sheepishly asked if I could crochet one for her as she watched me make the bunny lovey. How could I refuse?

bunny lovey bear lovey crochst handmade lovies

I had a bit of soft sheep-fleece-like fabric, so, I made a Sheep Lovey for her one Saturday night after she was in bed.

I gave it to her on Sunday morning.

And, all of that Sunday she didn't let go of it! Took it with her to the library, to Costco, to a little league baseball game (as audience, she doesn't play baseball)... I am guessing she likes it.

Either that, or she felt a certain obligation because I put in all the effort to fulfill her request...

I didn't write down the pattern, I just made it up as I went - started out with a magic ring as usual and worked my way up to one third of the sphere and then decreased appropriately to get the muzzle shape.

Looks more like a cow, apparently, but, i am sticking with the sheep theory.

Since, this is not for a baby and so no choking hazard, I hot-glued googly eyes rather than little French-knot eyes I embroideredfor the baby lovies.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sewing: Baby Changing Pad Tote with Pockets

I've eyed wistfully at some of the tutorials for making changing pad clutch. However, I didn't want to do a clutch -I am more of a "hold-all" kinda gal. Clutch seemed too fancy, with an implied assumption to keep it elegant and slender. I have a tendency to stuff things into my knapsack and call it my "purse".

For the longest time, my "purse" held just-in-case diapers and wipes, just-in-case bananas and Baby Mum-Mums®, and sure enough, just-in-case onesies, hat, and socks.

When I saw this cute print of laminated cotton at JoAnn, I knew I had to make a changing pad. However, I didn't like that changing pads were not fully washable and dryable in the machine. So, I made a cotton and fleece changing pad that can be washed and dried using the machine. And, with Velcro™ to attach the laminated cotton that acts as the waterproof barrier for changing, this becomes a convenient changing pad that doesn't just have to be wiped down, but actually thrown in the washer.

I added two pockets - one for diapers and butt paste, and one for wipes, which can all be toted easily with the roll-up changing pad.

And, I also sewed some small cotton cloths that can double as washable/reusable wipes, or burp cloth.

Simply tuck the pockets in, fold in the long edge, and roll it up to tie into an easy carry-along changing pad.

This was an extremely satisfying and rewarding sewing project and am glad I had a good reason and motivation for doing it: it's for my colleague and friend who is expecting her twins this summer.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sewing: Flower Play Mat

This flower play mat is a fun and easy project. It took me a whole weekend to finish, but, only because I was juggling cooking, laundry, house-cleaning, grocery-run, and library-run.

The project from start to finish, if one can devote uninterrupted time, should not take more than a few hours. Once the pieces are cut and ready, the sewing goes quite fast.

The fun part is to add little baby notions like mini rattle, cellophane etc tucked into the petals for the babies to discover and engage with. I can just picture little cuties getting their Tummy Time and grabbing a petal to have the rattle amuse them.

Of course, this was not for my babies who are much too old for a play mat. It's for a good friend who deserves all the happiness that life can give, who is expecting her babies this summer.

The idea came from DK Books Made for Baby, which has 50 beautiful projects to sew.

I went with a 28-inch diameter circle for the center. The petals are roughly a rounded rectangle cut in half, coming to about 10 inches tall and 13 inches wide. All the fabrics are baby flannel which was on sale at Fabric Depot. The batting for the flower center is actually two layers of fleece fabric plus a layer of quilt batting, so it is well-padded and snuggly warm to hang out in.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sewing: Citrus Orange Baby Quilt

With all the color-coding going on for baby stuff, what with blues and greens, pinks and purples and such, I decided to skip the convention and go with a bright orange quilt.

It's a simple block pieced cotton top, with a cotton backing, and warm cotton and fleece batting. Finished size is approximately a square, barely a rectangle, at 40" x 48"

I was dreaming of making very cute applique quilt with whimsical baby animals, but, ran out of time. Well, rather, I realized that by that time I get that done with my current schedule, the baby for whom it was intended might be off to college...

This is not for either of my babies, of course. It's for a colleague and friend who has the best smile and attitude at work that makes others want to do their best. And, who is expecting twins this summer.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sewing: Baby Diaper Covers

Another quick and easy project to sew baby diaper covers. I loved adding the lacy ruffles. And I broke the convention of pink and purple and went with sunny yellow print for these adorable covers.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Crochet: Baby Rattles

Not the prettiest, but gets done so quickly that it is a lot of fun to whip some up just because..

I stuck a little cowbell in, stuffed with scrap flannel and fleece fabric instead of polyfill and am hoping the intended recipient babies find it fascinating and entertaining.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Crochet: Earrings

crochet ear rings

It was fun to make a few crochet earrings with the older child, who is not that much into crochet per se but loves jewelry-making... Simple designs, not too fancy, and each pair can be done within 20 to 30 minutes.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sewing & Crochet: Baby Blanket and Baby Toys

For a new nephew who arrived six or so months ago, I made a quick little baby blanket, simple block pieced quilt top and a fleece backing for this blanket. And a little crochet teddy bear, with tiny cowbells inside so it can double as a baby rattle toy.

Now, the colors are not typical pastel baby colors for this quilt. I went with some batik and some kid-friendly panels that I cut out from a fabric remnant piece I had stashed.

Also crocheted some tortoises for fun...

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Presence by Amy Cuddy

Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges
by Amy Cuddy

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to present your strongest and most confident self -- like a job interview, or a business presentation, or a competitive athletic event, or your thesis defence? The very moments that demand your best also cause anxiety and self-doubt, making you feel powerless, leading you to walk away with regret, wishing you could have done better.

Many of us approach life’s biggest moment with dread, muddle through it feeling ineffective, and walk away from it dissatisfied at our own shortcomings. We all suffer from ‘Impostor Syndrome’ that convinces us that we don’t measure up. In Presence, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy expands on her popular TED talk about adopting confident body postures, or ‘power poses,’ to bring your best self to social and professional situations.

Instead of just a collection of poses to practice in front of a mirror, the author takes us on a journey of self-discovery to learn to nurture our authentic selves, to overcome the damage that Impostor Syndrome inflicts on us, and finally to try some practical approaches to feeling personal power in order to take control of the challenging situations we might find ourselves in. The book collects real-life anecdotes from everyday folks who have surmounted difficult situations by being present and practising the power posture that worked for them.

What is “Presence”?  We’ve all read about mindfulness, being present in the moment, bringing our authentic selves to every situation, but the author gives a simple yet accessible definition:

“Presence, as I mean it throughout these pages, is the state of feeling connected with our own thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions, so that we can better connect with the thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions of others.”

In other words, if we can train our speech and nonverbal behavior to be in tune with our beliefs, abilities, and values, we can achieve a synchronized inner state that can then reflect outwards.

Referring to psychologist William James’ body-mind theory of emotions, the author shares an assertion that struck the deepest nerve with her: “I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.” This eye-opening idea, attributed to James back in late 1800s, asserts that bodily experiences cause emotions, not the other way around. This is the basis for proposing that physical power poses can in fact alter the emotional state.

A research study shared in the book states that by adopting behaviours that emulate power and strength, the testosterone levels increase while the cortisol levels decrease, priming our mind for potential success. Much like “Fake it till you make it” principle, once you start practising expansive ‘power poses’, the biochemistry can help transform the fear and anxiety to excitement and intensity that helps us navigate the tough situation with confidence.

A few of the poses shared in the book might seem frivolous at first glance -- like, the Wonder Woman pose with arms at the hips and legs planted firmly apart -- but, by expanding our body laterally (and/or vertically) we give ourselves power to be there, to occupy that space and own it, much like dominance display in animal kingdom. Slouching and hunching, sitting with arms wrapped around the body or placed on lap makes us look small and thus makes us feel subordinate, like we don’t belong in that space, in that moment. However, the author is quick to point out how certain poses might be offensive in other cultures and cautions us to use it for our own self affirmation rather than to project superiority.

While talking about personal power, the author shares the disturbing results from a study done with kids ages 4 to 6: there is a definite strong male-power gender bias. She challenges us to change it by changing the stereotypes that our kids are exposed to: powerful poses are not exclusively masculine, and powerless postures are not necessarily feminine -- we are not encouraging women to be men with such power poses. Adopting a triumphant posture is not about competing with others but to accept one’s own strength and personal power in a given situation.

When we focus less on how others might be judging us and more on fully inhabiting the moment -- feeling neither threatened or dominant --  we are thoughtfully engaging with the present, and therefore experience personal power.

The author points out that presence is not a continual state of being but a  moment-to-moment experience which we can tweak through body language, behaviour, and mind-set. The ideal effect of presence in a challenging situation, as the author puts it, is to execute your role with comfortable confidence and synchrony, and walk away with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, regardless of the measurable outcome. That is true personal power.

[image source:]

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Book of Doing and Being

The Book of Doing and Being
Rediscovering Creativity in Life, Love, and Work
by Barnet Bain

When we hear the word ‘creativity’, visions of paintings and sculptures and poetry and music float through our minds, our conventional wisdom suggesting that it is a special gift.

However, creativity expert Barnet Bain holds the view that everything we do is a process of creativity-- we are creating all the time.

In The Book of Doing and Being, he walks us through a series of over forty practical exercises while providing eye-opening insights into recognizing and reactivating that spark, that energy, that we all possess, that we call creativity, no matter what our job involves.

This is a book best read in small doses. And reading alone is not enough. As the author suggests, the book can be a helpmate, a companion, in our journey of rediscovering our creative self. It would help to have a journal handy and jot down your thoughts as you work through the exercises in this book.

Starting with a call to become aware of our hurdles to creative expression, the author provides a Self-Inquiry Practice to help us identify if the barriers to our inspiration are hand-me-downs or self-imposed -- more of a habit than a conscious choice. We learn that there is a cost to ignoring our creative intelligence. When we have a groupthink mentality, often trust popular culture and societal norms to give us an understanding of our world, we diminish our originality and eventually suppress our inherent artistry.

Whether it is the way we care for the people we love, or the way we brainstorm in a boardroom, we have an innate desire to improve the world in some way, based on our values. The author urges us to jot down a Life Wheel to serve as our values map-- a tool for identifying our goals, desires, dreams, priorities, and visions, not just in career and finances but also in family life, love life, health, relaxation, and spirituality-- represented as seven slices in this life wheel. As we tailor this wheel, reflecting on how much attention we would like to give to each slice, we are better able to recognize our deficit areas that need attention.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to form new neural connections at any stage in life, allows us to compensate for injury and disease and reclaim our functions. Similarly, the author proposes Creative plasticity: an imaginative malleability that welcomes and enhances creative flow. The four exercises in this chapter essentially serve to rewire the brain through relaxation. Be it mindful breathing to promote alpha brain waves, or a nap, or a nature walk, or a sojourn at a favorite body of water, we can all find what relaxes us and helps us refocus. Another practical and easily doable exercise for rewiring is to change up our routine - write with the non-dominant hand, drink beverage from a different utensil than the preferred one, sleep on a different side of the bed, sit at a different spot at the family dining table, take a new route to work. By approaching common things a bit differently, we can rekindle the flames of creativity.

The author notes that, “When the dynamism of doing comes together with the receptivity of being, creative innovation cannot be stopped.”

The book closes by asking us to be brave and “Let Go” - of a job, an identity, a way of being or relating, especially when it is difficult and full of complaints. The fear of what we could lose by letting go of the familiar is not easily offset by the promise of where we think creativity can take us. As a reassurance, the author acknowledges that Creativity is a gift --  a gift that is given to everybody, if we are open to receiving it.

[image source:]

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Sewing: Palazzo-style Pants

A dear friend sent me this lovely cotton fabric a while back and I was wondering what to sew with it. I thought of a matching Mama-daughter skirt at first and soon realized the resident preteen will not wear skirts, especially skirts that match her mom's.

Then, it struck me to make my usual lounge pants - easy elastic waist for house wear. But the fabric was too gorgeous for that.

So it became a lovely pair of Palazzo-ish pants with a sash waist that ties at the side to hold the pants in place.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want To Be

Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want To Be
by Marshall Goldsmith

We have all set goals for changing certain behaviors in ourselves at one time or another, and failed to follow through to achieve the results we envisioned. Perhaps we want to be a better neighbor, or perhaps we want to stay calm and not raise our voices at our children -- we manage to easily identify what behavior we want to change, but somehow, we don’t manage to change it successfully.

In this book, leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith takes a look at why some of us find it challenging to change our behaviors even though we perfectly well know we need to and we want to; and gives us practical suggestions to overcome the obstacles to getting there.

The book is laid out in four parts. In part one, “Why Don’t We Become the Person We Want to Be?” the author explains that it is easy to find excuses and blame the environment or circumstances for our inability to change our behavior. Our reactions are impulsive, not thoughtful and responsive. For those of us who have identified the behavior we want to change, and are motivated and committed to changing that behavior, the author encourages us to find the triggers - both internal and external - that hold us back and keep us where we are.

In part two “Try”, we are introduced to the acronym AIWATT: Am I Willing, At This Time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? Every time we are faced with a choice of either to engage or to ‘let it go’, the author encourages us to ask ourselves this AIWATT question as a first principle to become the person we want to be. The answer to that question at the given time, under the given circumstances, will determine how we react to that situation, thereby helping us create the behavior change we are working towards.

Another interesting insight is the difference between asking ourselves active questions rather than passive questions. For example, when asked a passive question like, “Are you happy?” we might provide an “environmental” answer like “no” and attribute external factors for our unhappiness. However, when asked an active question like, “Did you do your best to be happy today?” we quickly search ourselves and come up with a few ways in which we consciously engaged in making ourselves happy. The passive question tries to gauge the state of mind whereas the active question challenges us to take responsibility and defend our actions, spurring us on to seek our own behavioral changes.

In part three, “More Structure, Please”, we learn that structure not only increases our chance of success, it makes us more efficient at it. Not all structures are the same, so we must arrive at what works for each of us in the given situation. When we make a shopping list, we are imposing a structure by clearly stating what we need to buy and what we don’t. We schedule our appointments on our calendars and set reminders to impose structure on our daily life. Yet, when it comes to interpersonal interactions, or our own reactions, we prefer to wing it and go with our instincts, which hinders our attempts at changing our behaviors in a thoughtful and structured way.

The author also points out that our environment constantly conspires against us and depletes us. Perhaps a big part of our day is pacifying irate customers, or perhaps  we sit in a too-long meeting without accomplishing much, or perhaps we battle with technology all day to get even simple jobs done. All of this can drain us, deplete us, leaving us prone to less prudent actions that we might regret.

The book suggests that there is an infinitesimal ‘space’ between a trigger and our reflexive response. If we can learn to recognize this space and increase it to allow for awareness and choice, we can learn to redirect our impulse to arrive at an appropriate response. When we turn our thoughtless impulsive response to a thoughtful chosen response, we are on the right track to achieving the change we want.

In the last part, “No Regrets”, the author asks us to imagine what a drudgery it would be to go through life never changing the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the social and political views we hold. We know that change is the only constant thing in life. Yet, when it comes to changing how we treat people or how we interact with others, we wear the badge of changelessness with pride. We tell ourselves “this is who I am.”

When we cling to a negative behavior that affects us and the ones we love, we are choosing to be miserable and make others miserable. The book concludes by asking us to think about one change that we won’t regret later on. Be it the scolding response to our misbehaving child, or the sarcastic remark we are quick to blurt out, if we can change one thing and continue doing it forever without regretting it, then now is the time to do it.

[image source:]

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sewing: Kids lounge pants with pockets and knee patch

Same standard pants pattern, but, since I was short on fabric I took some creative liberties.

The fabric remnant was too hard to resist at 75% off - it had US states on it - and the younger kid loves anything to do with states, countries, administrative divisions - everything to do with political geography.

So, with not enough to make the flare pants I love so much, I decided to use a strip of plain blue fleece on the pant legs side seams. And then, it seemed like a cute idea to add pockets and knee patches with the same blue fleece fabric.

If only I can get the child to model it for me by standing still... And who says lounge pants can't stop at the shin?

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rising Strong

Rising Strong
by Dr. Brené Brown

The book cover states, “The physics of vulnerability is simple: if we are brave enough often enough, we will fall. Being brave and falling helps us grow and changes us for the better.”

Social scientist and best-selling author Dr. Brené Brown has spent several years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. While her previous two books are a “call to arms” to Wholehearted Living, this third book is all about acknowledging the desperation, the shame, and the vulnerability that comes along with failure, and rising up to own our story. She writes, “Here’s how I see the progression of my work: The Gifts of Imperfection—Be you. Daring Greatly—Be all in. Rising Strong—Fall. Get up. Try again.”

In an age where raw data has sought to trump the richness of human experience, where quantitative  reigns over qualitative studies, Dr. Brown bridges this dichotomy by integrating data and stories -- infusing data with life and supporting stories with data -- in an effort to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”

When Dr. Brown talks about failure, it is not just in some large-scale professional endeavour, but also the personal heartbreaks and catastrophes in our lives. She addresses the complex nature of failure, reminding us that we tend to "gold-plate" failure and grit, sugar-coating the process and the pain involved in falling and in deciding to rise again. The book is not about the tired cliché of failure being the stepping stone to success.

Rising Strong from our failures involves a three-step process:

The Reckoning: Walking into our story and recognizing that a button has been pushed and that we are about to explode with negative or undesirable emotion
The Rumble: Owning our story by being honest about what we tell ourselves, by admitting our deeper emotions of shame, guilt, blame, and being willing to revisit and challenge these self-narratives to arrive at the truth of who we are and how we engage with others
The Revolution: Writing a new ending and changing how we engage with the world on a permanent basis.

Of these three steps, the Rumble is the messiest: the place of the greatest struggle, and, a non-negotiable part of the process. It’s about becoming aware of the story we're telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain. In an effort to come out smelling of roses, we tend to glorify our recovery and the redemptive ending while casting off the emotional darkness that engulfs us when we are down, face-in-the-dirt, struggling.

The book suggests that we write down our raw emotions and feelings at this stage of rumbling -- what is called the SFD (“shitty first draft”, per the author) -- without filtering the experience or worrying about how our story makes us look. Then we examine our self-defeating assumptions by asking:
What do I know objectively?
What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story?
What more do I need to learn and understand about myself?
Now we can look for the delta – or space -- between the story we make up and a more objective truth.

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage."

As with the previous two books, Rising Strong is rich with anecdotes from Dr. Brown’s own life. Early in the book, she shares a story about a tough moment that surprised her while swimming across a lake with her husband during a family vacation. Her self-doubt, emotional reaction, anger, and pain will resonate well with readers with similar experience. Instead of painting herself into perfection, Dr. Brown tears apart that experience to seek the truth about her story and learn to own it, and thereby engage from a place of understanding and compassion.

“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”

Our thoughts, actions, and feelings are like a three-legged stool, each equally important to make a positive change in our lives. Positive thoughts combined with negative feelings will not lead to positive actions. Off-loading, or bouncing, or numbing our hurt, or even stockpiling or bottling them up, or simply denying them, is not the way to deal with our deep dark pain.

Borrowing from Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Dr. Brown proposes that: For every emotion we feel, there is a definite response elicited in us. When angry, we can mindlessly lash out or we can be aware of what we’re really feeling and adjust how we respond. We learn that to be vulnerable and resilient is the best way to engage with the world so as not to be paralyzed by fear of failure or hide behind the veil of perfectionism.

[image source:]

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Gifts of Imperfection:
Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be
and Embrace Who You Are

by Dr. Brené Brown

Many of us tend to be our own harshest critics. We analyze and scrutinize our words and deeds (and, possibly, our appearance and demeanour) and deride ourselves for not measuring up to some esoteric standard we hold ideal. We focus on our flaws more readily than our strengths.

“If only I get that promotion; if only I own a beach house; if only I were five kilos lighter; I’d be happier.” We defer the sheer joy of being alive by focusing on external entities that we believe are the indicators of our state of being.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. One of the outcomes of her research is this book.

We are, in truth, vulnerable and imperfect. We make mistakes and we are not always in control. To project an image otherwise is, in essence, an attempt to not be true to oneself.

As a champion of Wholehearted living, Dr. Brown urges us to take a compassionate attitude towards living by learning to embrace our imperfections. She notes in the book,“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.” Rather than a self-focused approach of How can I improve?, perfectionism is other-focused, pressuring us to ask, What will they think? “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Perfectionism is not self-improvement.”

The book offers 10 guideposts for introspection. With illustrative anecdotes from personal and professional life, the author focuses on one guidepost per chapter to encourage us to cultivate qualities like self-compassion, a resilient spirit, gratitude and joy, even creativity and meaningful work.

Practicing gratitude is a big part of being at peace with oneself no matter what hardships and disappointments we face. The book shares a few practical ways to consciously incorporate gratitude in everyday life, like: maintaining a gratitude journal by writing down the small everyday things we are thankful for; consciously thanking a service staff or a family member for their thoughtfulness; or even vowing not to criticize or complain for a week by only looking at the positives in any tough situation. This form of gratitude practice puts things in perspective where we look at the bad and the good from a place of calmness and composure, rather than with panic and desperation.

One of the startling insights shared in this book is about shame and guilt. While guilt is about our behavior, shame is about who we are. The effects of guilt is often positive, leading us to make amends and apologize. But shame tends to be self-destructive, leaving us feeling disconnected and desperate for worthiness. This insight has led to the modern practice of not shaming our children for their mistakes, instead, giving them a chance to recognize their error and engage in making it right.

One of the ways Dr. Brown suggests to handle this is by cultivating healthy relationships rather than placing importance on performance and achievement. Self-esteem thrives via healthy attachments/relationships/connections that are devoid of judgment.

The takeaway message of this book is that when we acknowledge our limitations, recognize our strengths, and stop trying to gain the fickle approval of others, we are being authentic, and incidentally, one step closer to leading a purposeful life that is free of self-imposed hurdles to equanimity.

[image source:]

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mindfulness, Power of Habit, Four Seconds

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan For Finding Peace in a Frantic World
by Mark Williams and Danny Penman,
with Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn

When was the last time any of us took just one solitary raisin, held it steady and observed its tiny wrinkles and its deep rich color before placing it in the mouth to feel the burst of flavor and unique texture, and then finally chewed with awareness, swallowing the little morsels, paying attention as it went down the gullet?

Eight weeks ago, I underwent this Raisin meditation, inspired by an exercise in the book. Until then, a handful of raisins shoved quickly into the mouth and chewed unceremoniously, registering a generic sweet taste, while the mind juggled the bills due at the end of the month, the doctor appointment to be scheduled for the child, the deadline for the project looming up, as the hands tapped away at the keyboard, was the norm.

To be awake in the moment has become tough for today's hectic lifestyle. It has become a race from one moment to the next, working towards something else, thoughts wandering somewhere else, far away from the current experience, leading to needless stress and anxiety.

The book offers a practical plan for finding, or rediscovering, a way to slow down and strive for calmness amidst the chaos around us.

Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg

Human beings are creatures of habit. We typically buy the same foods, even the same brands. We take the same route to work and back. We drink a cup of tea/coffee or other favorite beverage first thing in the morning.

We have consciously developed certain actions and routines over time so much so that we do it without much thought or analysis, as if we were born with this set of behavior. We need this auto-pilot mode to cut down on the complex and innumerable decision-making that goes into each of our everyday tasks. “[Habits] are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Duhigg writes.

However, our habits are not set in stone. Including the not-so-desirable habits we develop like smoking or junk food consumption. Habits can be changed in a systematic way, which many companies have taken advantage of to increase profits.

Power of Habit is not a self-help book, but an in-depth look at the science of habit formation and change, laid out in three sections: Habits of the Individual, Habits of Successful Organizations, Habits of Societies. Culled from hundreds of scientific papers, with case studies, anecdotes, and personal stories, the author shares interesting findings from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience.

Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-productive Habits and Get the Results You Want
by Peter Bregman

All too often, we do things that are counterproductive- we have the best of intentions but our delivery is off; or maybe, we fail to empathize and end up focusing only on our own agenda; or maybe, we are so overwhelmed and overloaded in today's life that we struggle to meet our own expectations, let alone others'...

With personal anecdotes and insights, Bregman offers us a simple strategy: Pause 4 seconds - the time it takes to take one deep breath - before acting on impulse, so that we can replace bad habits with more productive behaviors.

In many such self-help books, the anecdotes might seem contrived and not applicable to one's own life, but, there are always strategies and ideas to take away from such books.

One anecdote at the beginning of the book that stuck with me is how easily a very common volatile situation can be replaced by a kinder, gentler one through empathy and four seconds of purposeful pause: The author is running late with a client but he knows his wife is waiting for him at the restaurant for dinner as planned ahead and committed to by both parties. Well, of course, job is important and things do come up which one cannot foresee or avoid. But, how we handle it can be thoughtful. The author says he walked with the intention of apologizing for being late and lining up his excuses, while his wife was already upset as this wasn't the first time this has happened. They end up arguing and getting defensive as most couples do. Whereas, the author says, all he had to do was pause for four seconds and say, "Your time is precious as well, I understand your frustration, I know this must not be easy for you to deal with my tardiness..." without any attempt to come up with excuses like, "it was an important client, I could not just cut that meeting short and walk away" which subtly hints that his time, his client, and his work are more important than his wife's somehow...

Four seconds -- I've tried it. It is very hard to pause when one is already quite riled up and ready to attack. The book has some interesting examples and practical tips to be more conscious and engage with purpose to get the results we want.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Binge-Reading: Lee Child and Daniel Silva

Lee Child and Daniel Silva Jack reacher gabriel allon

It seems like every summer or thereabouts, I get into this binge-reading mode where every spare time is devoted to feverishly finishing one  novel after another till I am saturated for the time being.

The key is "spare time" - viz., time not spent working for bread-and-butter, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring.

Anyway, of late, I've read one Jack Reacher novel after another, in no particular order. Starting with Personal, I went backwards a bit, and then decided to read them as and when I could get my hands on one.

Of course, commercial/pulp crime thriller is a sweeping label, but, there are well-written crime novels and there are poorly-written crime novels. Jack Reacher novels fall in the brilliantly-paced always-a-can't-put-me-down category for me.

I was skeptical when I picked up Personal on a whim. It was on my To Read list since its release early this year, along with other Jack Reacher novels.

I am not for scouring the Best Sellers list often and reading them all within 3 months of release date and discussing it avidly among fellow fans and such. I'll read the books at my own pace and at my own time of choosing, when my lifestyle allows such luxuries on and off.

And cosmically, the binge-reading bug bit me at the same time that Personal showed up in Parent Book Exchange shelf at my kids' school a few weeks ago. I snatched it up for my "car book" right then.

I have a book in my lunch bag, "the lunch book" (which currently is Hook's Revenge by Heidi Schulz), to read at lunch time in the lunch room at work. I have another in the car, "the car book", when I am waiting in the car to pick up the kids and chauffeur them as needed (which currently is A Wanted Man by Lee Child). Another book nestles in my backpack, "the bag book" (which for a few weeks has been Forget Me Not by Fern Michaels, with slow progress). Plus about 3 or 4 sit on my nightstand (which happen to be  Jack Reacher and Gabriel Allon books for now.)

On any given day, there may be 2 or 3 books that I am "currently reading"...

Over the last 3 weeks, I've managed to read a few Jack Reacher Novels.
I remember feeling a certain strong and favorable emotion for Jason Bourne back in my youth when I read them with starry eyes. After a long time, I can admit to feeling the same strong and favorable emotion for Jack Reacher now.

While some Reacher novels are in first person, I like the omniscient third person narratives better. Through Reacher's lines, we start shaping an image of him that fits our requirements. One might object to the overtly technical elements in physical confrontations that the author, Lee Child, tends to throw out frequently, but, it is relevant and sophisticated nevertheless, and it establishes Reacher's pedantic nature and his precise actions.

I also managed to read a bunch of Daniel Silva. The two older Michael Osborne novels - The Mark of the Assassin and The Marching Season - appealed to me a bit more than the later Gabriel Allon ones. I've read the first four of Gabriel Allon, plus The Messenger. And so far, Allon is not evoking the same strong and positive emotion that Jack Reacher is evoking in me, that Jason Bourne originally fired up in me.

Silva's book are intelligent and well-researched, with just enough of the improbable to keep it interesting. Not quite as intense as a Dan Brown but certainly not as boorish as a James Patterson either. However, Silva's books could use some tight editing, and a change in the narrator's tone that doesn't come across as pompous and high-handed -- it gets rather tedious and meandering at times, leading off in paths that have no relevance to how the plot ties up in the end.

I used to devour Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre, Frederick Forsythe in my youth. While crime thriller, espionage, and mystery are not my top genre anymore, I have constantly read a fair share of them over the years only to be saddened by the deteriorating standards in presentation and the formulaic plot points.

For now, I am all set for a few more weeks with Reacher and Allon, and they all promise to be a satisfying read.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Plugged and Screwed

plugged eoin colfer book review

Plugged: A Novel,
Screwed: A Novel
by Eoin Colfer

After being introduced to the wry style, colorful characters, and an intricate yet fulfilling story in the Artemis Fowl series, I was curious about Colfer's novel for adults. I wasn't disappointed.

Plugged introduces Daniel McEvoy, a disenchanted ex-military Irish guy working as a bouncer in a sleazy New Jersey club. While not instantaneously charismatic, Daniel grew on me as the story unfolded. His heart is in the right place, he is rugged and resourceful, and he happens to be lucky as well, else there would be no story to tell.

A strange concatenation of circumstances takes Daniel from tragedy to calamity to disaster to near-annihilation. Being the main character, we know he'll survive somehow. At least, we hope he will, as the story is told in his flippant voice.

Clearly, Plugged isn't anything like Artemis Fowl as it is not a Young Adult fantasy but an adult crime thriller. However, it is anything but predictable. Though contrived, the plot is tight and unfolds at a rapid pace that kept me frantically flipping the pages in anticipation.

I used to devour Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre, Frederick Forsythe in my youth. While crime thriller, espionage, and mystery are not my top genre anymore, I have constantly read a fair share of them over the years to notice the deteriorating standards in presentation and the formulaic plot points. The more recent James Patterson books co-authored with others comes to mind as the prime example of disappointing novels. Women's Murder Club books were difficult to read. Somehow tedious repetition is supposed to project urgency and direness of the situation when all it ends up being is annoying. But, I am digressing...

The pleasures of reading any genre for me lies in the language nuances and style of narration. Most crime thrillers are fairly predictable - the hero is invincible/lucky/resourceful etc., the villain is devious/evil/equally resourceful etc. The circumstances arrange themselves to allow for plenty of action, and our protagonist and antagonist are physically supreme and well-matched, and possibly mentally as well. And yet, some of us keep going back to the same authors and protagonists wanting more because of the immense reading pleasure we derive.

The irreverent comedic undertones along with Daniel's sardonic wisecracks add to the reading experience. Early on in the book, we learn that Daniel has recently received hair plugs/implants as he is self-conscious about his receding hairline. And then, we encounter a disembodied sidekick Zeb, the "doctor" who performed the hair transplant, who talks in Daniels' head, thus adding a bit of zest to Daniel's monologues.

The subtle nod to erstwhile master of the espionage genre brought a smile: "I am surprised. ‘A disk? A bloody disk. What do I look like to you? Jason goddamn Bourne?”

Early on, in chapter 2, as Daniel slowly unfolds his personality for us, it was perfectly amusing when he asks: "A hair-obsessed ex-army doorman. What are the odds of those Venn diagram bubbles intersecting?"

It is these little nuggets that kept me reading on in furious pace. Of course, there's the usual drug turf war, murder, mayhem, ruthless mob boss and other such typical elements to keep the story moving, but, it is how Daniel moves through these elements that makes it worthwhile.

The sequel, Screwed, is equally cheeky and endearing at the same time.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sewing: Refabrication: Value-added Custom T-Shirts

I made some fun t-shirts for the ten year old. Or, to be precise, I added some iron-on transfers to store-bought $3 t-shirts which I customized for her style.

One t-shirt got a scalloped hemline plus some photo pile-like arrangement of pictures (iron-on t-shirt transfer) from her recent trip to Winston Wildlife Safari, Humboldt Redwoods, Golden Gate Bridge, Monterey Bay Aquarium and such.

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made

One white t-shirt was partially dyed blue to evoke a feeling of flowing water in which I ironed on some pictures from our recent trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium.

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made

One t-shirt got an angular and slightly asymmetrical hemline, to which I added cute picture of her pets - cat and guinea pig - with the words, "Make new friends but keep the old; One is silver and the other's gold."

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made

And her favorite is this white one with a picture of the cake pops that she had made a couple of years ago; the special feature being the fringe hemline and sleeves that I added. Coupled with white capris, this t-shirt has become her favorite outfit of late.

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sewing: Refabrication: Flags T-Shirt

oblasts krai bundeslander flags t-shirt

The shirt front has flags of 6 Russian oblasts, krais and republics; the back of the shirt has 6 German Bundesländer flags.

The youngest was into studying administrative divisions of various countries and wanted badly to have shirts with flag of his choice.

Simple iron-on transfer, no fuss, no mess.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sewing: Mug Rugs

I completely sat out the Mug Rug fever at its peak. I told myself it is a glorified place mat no matter what everybody else wants to call it. I've made enough place mats in my life so far and we didn't need any new ones at this time, I convinced myself.

Then, around the time when I was wondering what to make for my family as Xmas present, Mug Rugs took hold of my consciousness. I could not ignore them. I could not let them go. I had to make a few.

On Friday evening, after tucking kids in bed, I took a piece of paper and drew some tentative designs. The next morning, being a weekend with no outside commitments, I raided my stash of fabrics and scraps. There was no turning back.

I made 4 Mug Rugs with simple applique depicting winter designs I had drawn the previous night. I had enough inexpensive felt fabric which I used as batting for these mug rugs. I intended to quilt them, but they looked fine as-is so decided not to.

Being a bit lazy, I didn't iron the white background fabric well enough, and not being one for measuring accurately, the rectangular fabric pieces were skewed a bit causing some pinches and folds. I thought I can handle it in the finishing process, and possibly hide it with quilting.

A simple pine tree design - a favorite around this time of the year.

A heart-warming scene of mittens and stockings hung to dry from a tree, with a giant ornament suspended from somewhere in the upper regions and two little birds perched meditatively.

A pair of cutie birds roosting on a winter-bare tree, with diamond accents adding the elegant touch. (wanted a plain fabric for all the diamonds, but, ended up with a self-design blue one somehow)

And, liking the birds too much, and finding myself with a lot more triangular trees cut out and ready-to-go, another wintry scene, bringing in the cute birdies and the diamonds.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Napoleon's Buttons, Disappearing Spoon, Organized Mind

There are these 'must-read' books that keep getting added to my Reading Wish List depending on my mood. Sometimes it is action-packed YA escapism, sometimes it is pure brilliant humor, sometimes it is a stack of poetry picture books, and sometimes it is mind-opening non-fiction.

After intense YA action with the Heroes of Olympus series, I was in the mood for non-fiction and devoured the three books that I am writing about here. The style of writing, the facts, and the nature of  the topics made them fascinating.

Napoleon's Buttons 
17 Molecules That Changed History
by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson

From Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves - the spices that gave birth to the Age of Discovery, to Morphine, Nicotine, Caffeine; and Chlorocarbon compounds that made refrigeration an everyday reality for food preservation, the book talks about seventeen molecules that the author feels were pivotal in bringing about changes that led us to where we are today.

Engaging style and crisp text makes this an absorbing read. Chemical structure of these compounds are shown diagrammatically, with clear explanation to follow along. Having enjoyed organic chemistry in high school and college days, I found it engaging to compare the structures of closely related molecules.

The Disappearing Spoon
by Sam Kean

With a cheeky voice and affable sense of humor, the book tells us about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Early in the book, the author types out a complex page-long name of a molecule which I sincerely started to read; then, conveniently flipped to the next page thinking it might not make a difference if I read the whole confusing name or not.

But, the author catches us skip-reading! With a mild reprimand, he sends us back to the previous page to discern the pattern in naming the long molecule, referring to it as the "anaconda". I was hooked.

The title derives from a practical joke that was popular in the early days, when a spoon made of Gallium would be given to an unsuspecting guest at tea; the prankster-chemists would watch with glee when the poor guest's spoon dissolved while stirring the hot tea.

Relevance of chemistry to the real world is impossible to ignore. yet, somehow, the curriculum texts ignore this connection and make the study of the subject as insipid and sterile as possible.

For the nitpicky experts, there might be some sticky points and outright errors in this book, but as a science-loving semi-layman I found this book well worth the time.

Organized Mind
by Daniel J. Levitin

If we've ever lost or misplaced our keys or cell phone, we know the frustration.

And when we take an inventory of our “miscellaneous/junk” drawer only to notice rubber bands, old batteries, maybe an unnamed CD or DVD, some loose change, ticket stubs, assorted pens that don’t write and half a dozen other things, we are afraid to throw them away as they might be needed the minute they are tossed out.

The author, Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, explains that when everything has an allotted place - in the house, and in our memory - there is minimal chance of things ever getting lost.

And when things that don’t easily fall into a predefined category and cannot be organized in a coherent manner, we tend to file them under the “miscellaneous/junk” section, both physically and mentally.

Now, what happens when we have way more things than slots to organize them in? That’s where we run into issues.

The book is organized in three parts. Part One sets up the scenario where we have too much information and too many decisions to make in our current lifestyle, and explains how Attention and Memory work. Part Two is all about organizing - our homes, our social lives, our business, our time, and all the information we need to make the hardest decisions. Part Three gives a glimpse of the future by laying out what to teach our children, and finally the significance of having a “junk drawer” to make our lives manageable.

I was particularly interested in Part Three. Whereas in my pre-Internet school days, if I wanted to know anything in particular about prehistoric life on earth or about firewalking, I had to look it up in a book, possibly at the library. Sifting through index catalog and getting the librarian's help, I might narrow down a handful of books and microfiche to look up, with no guarantee that the exact piece of information I am seeking will be in any of those books.

But my children, when stumped by questions, unabashedly say, “let me look it up” and they dash to the iPad or iPhone or laptop, whichever is handy, and simply “google it”. Is this form of getting information quickly any better than the delayed gratification of physically poring over shelves of books at the library? And, are the online search results reliable? What happens when they run into contradictory information? How can we help our children develop the ability to screen and weigh the information and recognize patterns in general and organize it efficiently, and apply the scientific methods to delve deeper and gain expertise?

[image source:]

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heroes of Olympus

After zipping through Percy Jackson and the Olympians series four years ago, I knew that if Percy and Annabeth return for another quest, I must find out how it went.

So, when Blood of Olympus was finally released, I was ready to get my hands on all five books at once and read them back to back. And, circumstances so arranged themselves that I was ill one Friday and was curled up in bed. But, I was patting myself and smiling smugly as I had just picked up the first four books from the library. The fifth one, being a recent release, was in high demand and my place was 97th of 130 holds on 8 copies or something impossible like that.

Anyway, that's how I managed to finish all four books by that weekend, just recovering in bed, and escaping into the demigod world.

The books have all the right elements to make them a rollicking fun read. Non-stop action, one thing after another, impossible odds that our favorite demigods mange to beat... all with light-hearted exchanges and quick-thinking under duress. Hints are tucked in here and there, and the picture unfolds bit by bit... I could easily see my 9 year old willingly entering Percy and Annabeth's world and staying there, much like she wanted to with Harry Potter and Hermione.

As I've already mentioned my main discomfort and objection to the demigod adventures in the Percy Jackson post, I am copying and pasting the same here, as it applies in triple-fold to this series.

Being a jaded adult, I naturally shake my head and roll my eyes when the movie hero artfully dodges the bullets from multiple machine guns fired by the demented assailants and somehow manages to target every single one of these machine-gun-toting assailants with a mere pistol and triumph in the end.
Something about stacking up the odds against the hero completely disproportionately, only to make his victory seem all the more meritorious irks my senses.
However, that does not stop me from getting entangled in a well-spun yarn.

Giants abound, huge and menacing, and yet our tiny demigods manage to thwart them somehow. Especially the fourth book, House of Hades, set in Tartarus, with Tartarus rising towards the end, and the giant Bob along with a tiny cat aids Percy strategically, seemed completely unbelievable. I felt almost as if I was reading a screenplay written explicitly for action-oriented colossal CGI effects. 

At every tough spot, it seems like our favorite demigods summon the last of their strength, exhausted beyond recovery, to avoid certain death, only to find that a few minutes later they again summon the last of their strength to avert another major disaster that could end the whole world... It is nice to have a tight deadline to keep things moving, but right in the first book, The Lost Hero, the three demigods Jason, Leo, and Piper, manage to go all over the country and get bashed up and lost and betrayed and chased and hunted and blackmailed and defeat the giant and save Piper's father, all in 3 days' time.

One other thing that irked me was this deliberate twisting of mythological characters just for the shock effect. Like, Heracles/Hercules is a pompous, deluded jerk in this story. We already read about Dionysus in the original series and we learnt to accept him as the character had some novelty then.

Having said that I am a jaded adult, I must also admit that I look for enough internal consistency for the story to resonate with my young-adult heart. As an academic pursuit, I cannot but wonder at the author's immense energy and talent to write five 500+ page stories that make the kids want to read. Over and over sometimes. 

I like how the narration switches between the main demigods and we learn about them as we follow along their adventures. I like the peppering of Greek and Roman elements in this series. I like the irreverence and the heart-warming aspects inter-playing to a perfect balance. 

I like that it was not all about Percy and Annabeth, and in fact, Percy is overshadowed by Jason and Frank and Hazel and Piper and Leo, five of the most wonderful characters kids can relate to; plus Reyna and Hylla come across as strong and courageous. I did not want to put the book down till I knew everybody was safe, for now, until things started going haywire at the next turn...

And the best part for me? Having my 9 year old pick it up voluntarily and read it feverishly and discuss it with me, completely defending the book and dismissing any objections or inconsistencies I bring up. Of course, Mist will take care of stuff like that. Of course, you are not a demigod so you can't know how well they can do what they do... Of course, you are thinking like a human mommy...

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sewing: Handmade "Bumblebee Dress" with Cross-stitch Motif

I don't have the patience for cross-stitch for some reason, although I love to do hand-embroidery on and off. My mom loves cross-stitch and has this fantastic technique where she likes to stitch right onto the dress fabric!

Basically, she bastes the canvas on to the dress or shirt or skirt on which she wants the cross-stitch, then, does the cross stitch as usual on this canvas, using interfacing as needed depending on the weight of the fabric. When done, she very carefully removes the waste canvas, thread by thread. This is a zen-like activity that she enjoys more than the cross-stitching itself, sometimes.

Anyway, a while back, for her grand-daughter's birthday, my mom had sewed this yellow+black dress and added cross-stitch to the neckline, chest, and skirt-front that is just too precious.

Now that my daughter is outgrowing it, I am thinking of ways to recycle it so I can still use the precious work on another outfit and hopefully keep carrying it forward for as long as the fabric and stitches will last.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sewing: Upcycle Adult Skirt to Girls Asymmetrical Hem Dress

On a whim while shopping with a friend over a decade ago, I had bought this skirt with a sort of tiger-like print as I liked the flow and the style. I wore that skirt about thrice in the last decade as it was not exactly my style, the print at least. But I didn't have the heart to give it away as I thought I could reverse engineer and learn how it was made.

I really liked the design of the skirt - flowing lines, asymmetrical hem, a little detail at the front that gives the illusion of layers... but, after a decade of no reverse engineering, it seemed like it was ready to go.

My daughter, however, wouldn't let it go. Her heart was set on it as she loves that print.

So, I upcyled this old skirt into a nice dress/tops for her to wear over capri shorts or Bermuda or biker shorts, or even leggings. It has all the hallmarks of being a favorite and most-worn dress in the near future.

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