Stories from middle America

I cannot tell you how much social media makes me long to be a fancy photographer. I refuse to follow people who post poorly lit images or blurred lunch shots. I feel a sense of false superiority when I reach the coveted “11 likes” level on Instagram. Because of this many of these platforms are not so much a reminder that everyone is living a better life than me — it’s that most people are better photographers than I am.

And here’s my ultimate problem: I’m competitive in the most unfortunate way. If I’m not going to be awesome at something, I don’t want to do it at all.

At first, I thought this was just laziness. I have a collection of half-assed hobbies I’ve hoped to master based on natural talent: partially filled journals of incomplete stories; a guitar, resting neatly next to a borrowed piano; a dusty collection of fancy cameras set to Auto mode.

There are so many moments in our lives when we need to realize that we don’t have all the answers or skills. Humans sitting right next to us offer expertise beyond our experiences.

I get really embarrassed when I put myself out there with a creative talent. Writing for COOP on a regular basis was Amanda Actually Trying Step 1. Being a part of a team of different discipline forced me to put aside my insecurities and finally just write. Just writing has been the biggest reward.

Step 2 was taking a photography class from Hooton Images. It went awesomely — and horribly — all at the same time. I forgot to charge my battery. The first picture we took, my shutter speed was waaaaaaaaay wrong, and five seconds later it finally closed. The whole class looked at me.

But I learned and put myself out there in a way I had only done behind filters and staged iPhone shots before. Now I have a mentor that I trust and who will push me to keep trying and finally step away from my security blanket: my iPhone. It was a thrill to learn from someone whose skills I deeply admire — and to then befriend.

Step 2.1 was having my best friend get me to start dragging my camera around with me again. And take glamour shots of her.

I’m embracing the learning process, instead of focusing on the end goals. Celebrating my friends who have deep talents that I can learn from is one of the best things in my life right now.

I can’t wait to take another class.


Black-and-white photos by Hooton Images. All other photos by Amanda Rucker

Anxiety and depression are definite things in my life. Being a yoga teacher doesn’t make me immune to them, and they’re not something I try to hide. When I share my experience, people often seem relieved that they’re not the only one who’s had those feelings.

Since my teens, I’d always thought that I had a tendency toward depression. At 28, I went to an Ayurvedic doctor while I was in India studying yoga. Ayurveda is a holistic healing system that’s thousands of years old — basically a form of Indian traditional medicine. When I described symptoms that I thought might indicate some kind of gluten intolerance or autoimmune disorder, the doctor informed me that I had anxiety.

That was the first time anyone had ever mentioned that as a possibility, but in retrospect it was so obvious. My obsession with perfectionism, my control issues, constantly comparing myself to everyone else — all manifestations of anxiety. And essentially the source of most of my depression. Voilà! Mystery solved. Sort of.

I didn’t really know what to do with this information. Practicing yoga and meditation helped, but I wanted more. I started to experiment with elimination diets — cutting out dairy, meat, gluten and sugar at different points. None of these individual changes made a huge impact.


Modern science is beginning to recognize the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation on mental health.


I started to research foods that could affect anxiety — either reducing or triggering it. I turned to my best friend, a Columbia University-trained psychologist, and was surprised by the plethora of information available. I decided to do a 21-day experiment. I came up with a list of about 25 anti-anxiety foods that would make up 75 percent of my diet. The list included foods like salmon, leafy greens, nuts, yogurt, berries, avocado, whole grains, dark chocolate — things I already enjoyed on a regular basis. I would try to avoid (or reduce) caffeine, alcohol, added sugar and preservatives.

I enlisted the help of about a dozen friends and yoga students who were also interested in finding out whether natural measures could help reduce their anxiety. Our goal was to follow the dietary guidelines plus add 20 minutes of meditation and 20 minutes of exercise for 21 days. We used surveys and journals to record our experience. It proved to be a little bit trickier than I expected at the outset, but I learned so much.


Beets contain tryptophan — an amino acid that boosts serotonin levels in the brain.


For example, instead of total elimination, I discovered that moderation is the key (isn’t that always how it is?). Instead of changing my diet radically, I decided it was more important to identify ways I could make a few changes sustainable after the 21 days were up. So I did drink coffee and wine a few times.

Even with that moderation, I noticed several changes by the second week. I felt more patient. I was able to think before reacting in a couple of situations that would’ve normally set me off. I was sleeping better and had more energy. And my skin looked amazing — an unexpected bonus!

And I wasn’t the only one. Others experienced similar results. Taking a more mindful approach to eating translated into taking a more mindful approach in other areas of our lives. Less time overreacting meant more time feeling calm. A calmer demeanor translated to fewer feelings of anxiety overall.

Of course, I’m sure the meditation (most people averaged fewer than 20 minutes daily) and 20 minutes of exercise played a role in our enhanced mood as a group. But those were things I already did. So for me, I know that the dietary changes were a major factor.


This delicious high protein smoothie has banana, strawberries, flaxseed, greek yogurt and soy milk — all foods with anti-anxiety properties.

Three eating habits to reduce anxiety

If you’re thinking you’d like to try out some dietary changes to lessen anxiety in your own life, give these changes a try:

  1. Eat more protein. Try to start your day with at least 20 grams of protein at breakfast. Think about high protein snacks like nuts, hummus or low fat yogurt or cheese.
  2. Eat less junk. Especially preservatives. Try to eat mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unprocessed meat or fish. Read food labels and be aware of added sugars and preservatives.
  3. Always be prepared. Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with plenty of whole foods. Take time to plan your weekly meals and snacks before you go to the store.

Full disclosure: I’m not a nutritionist or mental health professional. These are just my suggestions based on the experience of myself and a handful of others.

Here are just a few things I’ve been interested and inspired by this week:

  • The Curious Case of Men and Women’s Buttons.

    Have you ever wondered why men’s and women’s shirts button on different sides? Several theories exist, but let’s all blame Napoleon. Dammit, Napoleon.

  • Fictitious Dishes.

    I stumbled on this wonderful book at Rare Device in San Francisco last fall. They were featuring some of the original photography and the evocative tables capes caught my eye. After reading that the artist, Dinah Fried, started this series of “photographic interpretations of culinary moments from contemporary and classic literature” while a student at Rhode Island School of Design, I was hooked.

    It’s all my favorite things: art, design, food, and books. I’ve been perusing my copy this week, and it’s made me happy.

  • Hotel Covell.

    This boutique hotel in Los Feliz is on point. It’s the right mix of hipster-cool, airy California vibes and refined luxury. I have a huge design crush on Sally Breer now.

I was sitting in the place where my grandmother died just 12 hours earlier.

In the time it took me to pack, grab my work computer and drive four hours to my hometown – her imprint on my childhood home was already vanishing. Where hospice had put her hospital bed the couch now sat, quickly replacing the empty spot in the living room. I sat on the third cushion in from the inside wall and read the evening news headlines.

This is death. To help with the pain, we try to go back to normal as quickly as possible.


Two years ago, Gram left her beloved Florida to live with my parents. Dementia paralyzed her mind into an almost-toddler state. My mom cared for her own mother in ways that mirror how my brother takes care of his five-year-old daughter. She stepped up to the task with little question; it was just what she had to do.

There’s a hint of the things my mom is free to do now. Today, we drove to a town an hour away and grabbed a burger. For the last two years, mom would have been glued to her phone; worried a home healthcare nurse would call with an emergency.

But no one wants to say anything about that.

No one wants to tell my mom that the norm of her last two years is now different. We don’t want to get excited about the weekend trips that she and my dad can take now. In the back of our minds, there’s the spicy chili my dad can make again. No one wants it to be different, but yet – they do. Because getting old, as my Gram would say, is for the birds. And watching your loved one slide downward is hell.

Death can feel incredibly personal even when it has nothing to do with you. An accident you hear about from a friend of a friend. An obituary you read in the newspaper. We never talk about it, and it’s always there. I thought about the bartender who served me a beer at lunch the day I left town. I can still see her, in an ivory and black printed shirt and bright pink matte lipstick. She smiled at me with those pink lips and asked why I was driving four hours into the middle of Nebraska on a Tuesday.

“My grandmother died,” I answered, with slight hesitation. I knew what would come next: the apology. The sorry everyone says when someone dies. The sorry I don’t know how to respond to because it was time for Gram to go. The sorry that makes me feel bad for my mom, for losing her mother. The sorry I worry about receiving when it’s my turn to lose a parent. I instantly regretted exposing my personal tragedy to a stranger when I could have just said “for family.”

Last night, I was elected to stay in Gram’s old room since the three other bedrooms were taken. New sheets and blankets were put down. But it smelled like her. I slept with the light on, opposite of her spot, and stared at her pillow. I wasn’t that close to her. I felt the predictable pang of regret for not trying harder before dementia took her. I felt the predictable resentment for her not trying harder.


When I think about the death of my Gram and about when I’ll take care of my own family, I think about what kind of legacy I want to leave. I will not be remembered for my subpar musical talents or nonexistent basketball skills. My mother has given me the greatest lesson there is: We accept the love we think we deserve, and we deserve great love from those we chose to surround ourselves with. My legacy, I hope, will be that those I care about will never have to question my love. I’ve never had to question hers.

Rest in peace, Gram. You raised one hell of a woman in my mom.

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