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

Typically when one visits a friend’s house, they don’t enter into an obstacle course of unfinished renovation projects. That is, unless you visit my house. I welcome you with a myriad of hot messes: unfinished paint jobs, plenty of loose door knobs — you might get stuck in my bathroom, lucky you!


Speaking of my bathroom, it has looked like this for about… oh, maybe six months. Honestly, maybe even longer. Who can keep track anymore? The point is that I have subjected my friends and family to this state of affairs for way too long.

In my defense, I’m not a scatterbrain. I do have the ability to finish tasks. I continually help clients get to lovely and finished spaces. But when it comes to my own house, I have a harder time with commitment. That might be one of the hazards of the job since I’m constantly trying to stay current while also timeless with designs. Or it could be that after designing for others all day, all my creative juices are spent.

But times, they are a changin’. I’m finally getting the ball rolling on my main bath renovation.


The first stage to any design Birdhouse does is to create a vibe board. We scour online resources for inspiration images to help visually communicate the proposed design direction. We do it to speak the same language since not everybody’s “contemporary” or “Bohemian” is the same. We give those descriptions context in a setting with images.

My house was built in 1940, so I want my bathroom to be classic but still a little edgy. I plan to go with black, white, gray, mixed metallics, a little wood and a pop of green.


After we get on the same page with our clients, we create a game plan mood board. This is a collage of all the room ingredients that we’ve settled on.

My main bath is pretty small, which means I don’t have room for a large vanity. To help with storage, I selected a brass medicine cabinet combined with a small shelf to hold toothbrushes and other items. The mirror needed clearance to open, so I found a really cool tube wall sconce for overhead lighting. And finally, I want to use this indoor/outdoor striped fabric for a custom, extra long shower curtain.

I’ve ordered the light and mirror and plan on installing those within the next couple weeks. I plan on keeping the momentum going and hopefully complete the renovation by midsummer.

Next, it’s time to complete some room renderings to showcase what the space will look like in a few months.

Stay tuned!

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.


A glimpse of what’s on the way, on the corner of 9th and Dodge streets

It’s hard out there for the new kid. Fear of the unknown, fear of being unpopular, fear of being the weirdo eating alone in the cafeteria. The new kid wants to be liked, to be thought of as “cool” and to be invited to hang out. The new kid wants to fit in where all else has long been established.

In school, I was never the new kid. I was born and raised in the same town; I left when I was 19 years old. Looking back, I remember always wanting to be that new kid. I wanted to start fresh, to have a blank slate, so to speak, to be a new or better version of myself.

New kids always stirred things up. They showed up mid-year, right in the middle of our routine and breathed new life into the classroom. They didn’t know our stories or the daily dramas of our lives, and we didn’t know theirs. We saw them and accepted them for what they were: a newer, slightly different version of ourselves. And we couldn’t wait to hang out.

The restaurant industry isn’t so different from school. In any city across the country, new restaurants are popping up, trying to find a niche and make a name for themselves among the established. Diners are wary, unsure… yet interested in getting to know the new cuisine. And before you know it, the new kid in town becomes a place where regulars hang out.

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Sara Blake with LOCAL’s certified cicerone Eric Brouillette and co-owner Charlie Yin

That is the hope for my newest adventure. I was offered, and happily accepted, the position of Assistant General Manager to Omaha’s newest craft beer bar called LOCAL Beer, Patio and Kitchen. Our focus is Nebraska craft beer, and we can’t wait to share our stories with you. We’re taking over the former 9th Street Tavern location at 902 Dodge Street; Omaha’s gorgeous Old Market just blocks away.

We’re a little off the beaten path, but as the new kid, we have a lot going for us. Omaha superstar branding agency Secret Penguin has breathed new life into the space. We’ll will have at least 54 taps of outstanding craft beer, curated by Krug Park alum and Certified Cicerone Eric Brouillette, tasty bar food, prepared by Benson regular and chicken dad, Chef Ryan Kingkade. We’ll also have one of the best patios in the Old Market.

Much of our menu (which I’ve designed alongside Chef Kingkade) will be familiar — the usual suspects one finds in a bar: tasty burgers, chicken wings and tenders, sandwiches, salads and more. But I’m personally excited about our encased meats section of the menu. I admit it, I love hot dogs. There’s something so comforting, so nostalgic about eating a juicy, salty hot dog. Perhaps that’s the comfort and nostalgia I’m relying on when faced with the challenge of being the new kid in town.

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Sara with LOCAL co-owner Charlie Yin

I’m confident that LOCAL will have something for everyone. Whether that means a sunny spot on the patio holding a glass of your favorite double IPA, a seat at our bar with a basket of onion rings in front of you, or at a table with a flight of some of Nebraska’s best craft beers, I think this new kid is going to be one you’ll want to hang out with.