The rain in Spain

So much beauty, only two eyeballs.

image: author’s personal archive

The French have this word: flanerie. (Pretend there’s a little carat over the a.) It means something along the lines of “wandering the streets in search of something new.”

I spent the first ten days of May doing things that, for me, only used to exist in movies and dreams. I visited Europe for the first time in my life.

Embracing my inner cheeseball, I tried to do it all, albeit as unobtrusively as possible. I walked across Abbey Road, marveled up at the Eiffel Tower, took high tea at Kensington Palace (well, in its yard, anyway), got lost in Le Marais, ate dinner in a crypt, stood face to face with the Rosetta Stone, climbed down the towers of Gaudi’s most famed cathedral, ate half my weight in tapas, drank twice my weight in wine, and wandered around Rodin’s backyard, rubbing my right eye like a madwoman.*

In short: with boyfriend, camera and insatiable sense of wanderlust in tow, I tried desperately to pack the highlights of London, Paris and Barcelona into a ten-day trip and pull it off like a traveler instead of a tourist. Strictly speaking, I think that’s probably impossible to do. By definition, if you go to a city that’s foreign to you and make a point of seeing, say, at least five of the ten things on any given “top ten things to do” list, you’re a goddamn tourist whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter if you left your bright white sneakers, dark socks and flip-up sunglasses at home; it doesn’t matter if you try to be discreet with your map and speak the language as best you can while apologizing for your lack of eloquence; it doesn’t matter if you try to take up as little space on the metro as possible and not stop like a jerk in the middle of the sidewalk every time you see something interesting, causing a logjam behind you full of locals just trying to get home from their jobs.  If you think it matters that you make a point of going off the beaten path and experiencing the local culture as best you can, just listening and observing and absorbing like a sponge instead of hopping on a tour bus and snap, snap, snapping away, you’re wrong.  Well, strike that – you’re right, and all that stuff matters a lot.  Regardless, you’re probably a tourist. Still, I tried like hell not to be one while I flanerie‘d my butt off.

It helped a lot, I admit, that B speaks a little French and I speak a bit of Spanish. Neither of us speaks Catalan, though, so visiting Barcelona was a lot like touring another planet. A picturesque, internally energized planet full of the most brilliant food ever concocted, that is.  Nonetheless, despite the facts that our spines and legs were burning at the end of each day, that every city threw us some sort of “you stupid American”-style setback we had to smack ourselves for and gingerly step around with a nod and a terse-lipped “duly noted for next time,” and (*)that a godforsaken sty (a STY!!!) blurred my vision from the moment we set foot in Rodin’s garden until we woke up on a sleeper train in Spain the next morning, I’ll never remember this trip as anything less than magical.  Something about the push and pull of a new experience — especially one as overstimulating as this — is a lot like getting a new eyeglasses prescription; you thought you were seeing things pretty clearly before, but actually you were way more myopic than you knew, and now everything’s in much sharper focus.

Every time I see a person without a home begging for money or just looking defeated on the side of the road, whether it’s in Austin or anywhere else, my heart breaks for them in probably much the same way a five-year-old’s does. Particularly in Paris, we encountered a lot of them, and every time we did, I felt even more sheepish about the stupid things I’d gotten irritated over earlier in the day (damn this stupid lens cap, why the hell is it raining, OMG the Louvre is closed today) and guilty for being so ungrateful for all the luxuries I enjoy.

I think that guilt informs a lot of what I write.  I think the fact that I grew up in a family that didn’t really travel makes me feel compelled to go as many places as I can, but it also makes me emphatically aware that not everybody gets to just hop on a plane when they want to.  I’ll admit I’ve got a few things going for me: a) the fact that I have no kids, b) the fact that I don’t own a home and kind of don’t care about signing a mortgage on anything, ever, and c) the fact that my first long, lean year of freelancing seems to be turning into something self-sustaining and not so scary after all.  To say I’m thankful for all these things would be an understatement.  To say I’m both inspired and a little paralyzed by this trip would be another.

On Tuesday, we spent some time wandering around the Musee Rodin — easily the coolest museum I’ve ever seen, mainly because it’s set in the man’s old house, with an amazing array of sculptures arranged carefully throughout a labyrinth of gardens in what was once essentially his backyard.  I don’t know a lot about Rodin, but from what I could gather from the afternoon, he was quite the egomaniac, and a total , *total* player. But aside from all of that, he was also ridiculously talented.  So were the folks who designed the Eiffel Tower, even though lots of their contemporaries thought it was the ugliest piece of crap they’d ever seen.  So was Jim Morrison, whose grave we didn’t get a chance to visit but who rests in Paris all the same… and Picasso, and the Beatles, and Proust, and on and on.  The same can be said for every artist, musician and writer, both noted and unsung, who ever called those places home: they were all ridiculously talented, and they all contributed something interesting — even transformative — to the world.  Smacked in the face with all of their accomplishments, one after another after another in the span of just over a week, my thoughts started interrupting one another like crossed telephone lines. As badly as I wanted to just stop in the middle of the Rue du Saint-Germain and start creating something, too, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “But what in the world am I supposed to be saying? What kind of a mark could I ever leave with my life?”  Because those of us who write don’t always know what the hell we’re writing, or even really why; sometimes we just sit down behind the wheel and the car ends up driving itself.  We write because we have to.  The words are a little like sweat, cooling us off from whatever’s generating all that heat inside.

We’re crazy people just trying to breathe.

That’s what I’ve been doing lately… sweating my ass off and seeing where this car can go.  I haven’t written much here in the past few months, mainly because I’ve been transitioning my small writing projects into larger ones, taking on meatier work with clients, and diving back into the book I started almost four years ago — now, finally, with a plan to get it published.  Paying the rent as a writer is more than I ever could have imagined back in high school, college, or even (make that *especially*) in those drab, endless days when I was trying to fit myself into the box of a 9-to-6 life.  But now that I think I’ve found some footing, I’m taking more risks and living more life.  I think it’ll pay off in the end… because I’m starting to realize something. The contribution I want to make to the world through the things that I write is this: a message that anyone can do anything they set their mind to with a little patience, a smidgen of luck, a dedication to their craft and a hell of a lot of hard work.  I won’t have sculptures in a garden that people pay money to see, but I’ll leave behind words that, god willing, might help people believe in their voice.

My story’s not that sexy.  I’m not a rabble-rousing womanizer with a warehouse full of marble or a mop-topped songwriter from Liverpool, but I’ve still got something to tell you. It may take a little while before I can whisper it all in one go, but rest assured I’m making sure I  use all the right words when I do.

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What’s mine is yours

this won't hurt a bit

image: Valentina Gonzalez Wohlers

I crash-landed into Austin the first week of 2009 with no idea (but every expectation) of where my life would take me.  I’d run like hell from the suburbs, from a broken heart, from anything and everything that had ever hurt or bored me, to a mecca of creativity whose air just kind of hugged me the second I got off the plane.

People with open minds immediately get the draw of this place, and people who scrawl crappy articles for a living write mean things about it in what they perceive to be brilliant exercises in linkbait, but the fact remains: Austin is an amazing place for anyone who needs to start their life anew.  I should know.  I’m one of the fifty zillion people who’ve done it here (yes, I’m a cliche and I’m okay with that), and I will always be grateful for it.

Fast forward four years from that January night and we’re smack in the middle of now.  I went to my first writing conference this past weekend, and while it was in many ways a terrifying experience, it was an emboldening one too.  As agents, publishers, journalists, novelists and other industry experts gave us the names to know, the rules to break, the tips to employ, and the courage to try, an army of aspiring novelists, essayists and nonfiction writers cowered in the face of so much information — not to mention the statistics (oh god, the statistics) — but something else was happening at the same time.  A community was forming.  Even if it was only momentary, and even if most of us who made small talk in the hallways never see each other again, for three short days I felt completely understood.

Without having to explain what feels like a proprietary blend of confidence mixed with crippling self-doubt that altogether makes no sense — even to me, and it’s mine — everyone around me last weekend seemed to be dealing with the same push and pull within themselves.  Toiling around New York City on our off-hours, wondering how we should finish building our stories, what sorts of revisions we should make, and how we should pitch them to people who can actually get them printed on paper and shipped to local bookstores, most of us crawled onto our planes home exhausted from the sheer volume of decisions we knew we had to make (and soon) if we wanted to keep calling ourselves writers.  And I hope to god not one of them gives up.

These people have stories to tell — some of them staggering. These people have lessons to teach the rest of us, whether they realize it or not.  And for 72 wee little hours, I got to be a part of them.  I got to wring my hands right alongside them while I hoped and prayed I really did have what it takes to keep writing until I’m 100 and hit the mile markers I’ve set for myself.  And the rest of them spent the weekend (and will probably spend the rest of their lives) doing the very same thing.

The word “community” gets kicked around a lot.  Community center.  Community college.  Online community.  Community of professionals.  But in Austin, that same sort of ethos I sensed in that conference hotel exists in the air.  People trying to create something beautiful all sit across from one another in public places, anonymously enjoying our breakfast tacos while we plug away at whatever we’re working on and hope to hell we get it right.  The funny thing is, while our insecurities are probably a big part of what keeps us honest and working really, really hard, at the same time, a lot of it is probably unwarranted.  This city is full of creative genius — of dedicated craftsmanship — of artistry unparalleled for miles around.  The painters, writers, designers, chefs and shutterbugs in this town all love what we do, and many do it so well it’s astonishing.  That’s why I’m beyond honored to collaborate with nine of them on a new project highlighting everything I’ve spent this paragraph talking about.

Citygram is the convergence of ten (and eventually more) Austin-based scribes, photographers, and other aesthetes reporting on the creative community we all love.  After getting inspired by photographing and writing house tours of Austin’s creative community for Apartment Therapy in his spare time, my good friend Chris Perez left his “sure thing” (an engineering job) behind last month and threw himself full-throttle into a passion project that I predict will become a staple of local culture as the years go on.  Pulling together local talent to share yet more local talent, Citygram will be available in the Apple app store for free once it launches next month, and it aims to be the most interactive animal of its kind on the market.  Like the restaurant we’re reviewing? Pull down the menu from the very same page and make a reservation. Love the concept of the band featured in a spotlight piece? Have a listen right there in the middle of the text. Wondering what Citygram’s contributors are up to right now? Just open the app and you’ll see our live tweets. (But please, no stalking, dear serial killers. The rest of you: knock yourselves out!)

Oh, and did I mention it’s beautiful? Because it’s beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

Chris and the Citygram team are doing our best to raise enough funds to get us up and running, keeping the digital magazine free for anyone who’s interested in checking it out.  If you’d like to help us produce what’s sure to be a phenomenal step forward for Austin’s small business community and local artists of all kinds, you can contribute to our Kickstarter campaign.  In fact, we’d love it if you would, and we’ll make sure you have something to show for it — photography lessons, a locally-made gift basket full of goodies, even a full-page ad in our app.  Around here, we like to give as well as we get.  So, if you’d consider giving us a bit of your goodwill, I can assure you you’ll get it back in spades.  Because that’s what a community is: people who look out for one another and help each other live their dreams.  Regardless of what some desperate reporter might say, doesn’t that sound like utopia?

help us make Citygram (every dollar counts!)

visit Citygram’s website

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Meeting the maker

Image: Not on the High Street

Image: Not on the High Street

I almost died this week.  It’s not something I’d recommend.

The short version: I was scooting along the highway on Monday morning, heading to the kennel to pick up the pup after taking a redeye home from New York Sunday night. I was about to ease into the left-hand turn lane when a driver who was evidently a) speeding like mad and b) not paying attention to the road slammed into me with a force I can’t even quantify.  It shot my car into the wide grass median, completely out of control, moving at an angle that was quickly edging me headfirst toward oncoming traffic.

“I’m not going to make it out of this,” I thought, clear as a bell.

Realizing a second later that I had a chance to maybe, just maybe, stop the car by turning the wheel, I made a quick decision. “Don’t turn too far,” I told myself, having no idea if the steering or the brakes were even operational, since they seemed to be under the control of a force greater than they were. “Just a smidge. Maybe it’ll be enough.” Thankfully, it was.  My car came to an abrupt stop, slowed — I’m guessing — by the traction of the earth beneath it.  All I could do was sit there and shake, realizing over and over again with shock that I was still alive.

What happened next was a blur.  I remember a girl running toward my car, cell phone to her ear, and when I looked back, I saw a Range Rover parked at a crazy angle in the median some 50 yards back.  She’d seen me get hit, and I’d been heading straight toward her as my car was jettisoning across the grass.  If I hadn’t turned the wheel, we would have had a head-on collision, each of us going at least 50 mph.  Range Rover vs. Fiat.  I’ll leave the math up to you.

I think about death all the time.  All the time.  I had my first taste of it at 16 when my brother committed suicide, and then as each grandparent, one by one, died of old age.  My uncle, of an aneurysm.  My cousin, again of suicide.  My mother, of an embolism.  Others, in ways I refuse to talk about.  I grew up living under the daily fear of two cops showing up at my parents’ door, telling us another brother of mine was gone because of his addictions (which thank god he’s now actively winning the fight against).  I’m constantly walking around thinking I have some silent disease that’s killing me slowly, that I’m the next one to go.  It’s been that way since I was a kid.  I think it’s why I write.

I’ve been in at least ten car accidents, two of them severe but several involving being rear-ended while sitting still at a stoplight.  The last time that happened, right after I moved to Austin a few years ago, it left a dent in my car but I let the guy drive away without calling our insurance companies.

“Just promise me you’ll do something nice for somebody today,” I said.  He seemed stunned, but agreed.

Aside from my little car’s five-star safety rating and perhaps the grace of a guardian angel or two, I have no clue how I walked away on Monday.  I’ll find out today if Frank the Fiat is no more… it’s not looking good.  But that’s okay.  It’s been stopping me in my tracks all week to think about how a half-second’s worth of hesitation, or how misgauging the turn of the wheel by a millimeter or two, could have changed everything.

Add to that the shock of last week’s events, from which I was sitting just an hour away in a coffee shop in Greenwich, CT as it was happening, talking to a client about gearing a website more toward mothers who want to do good in the world, and let’s just say I’ve been really, really quiet this week.  No need for a lot of talking.  Just thinking.  Reflecting.  Kissing the boyfriend.  Hugging the dog.  Indulging in a weird sense of detached heartbreak for others, standing in stark contrast — or maybe harmony — with an overwhelming thankfulness for this second chance I’ve been given.  There’s probably some survivor’s guilt in there, too, having sidestepped so many awful things in life.  I suppose I’d better do something amazing before my number’s actually, legitimately up, which as we’ve all been reminded lately, could be any minute.

Step one: being thankful.  Step two: maybe caring less about being uncool or seeming clichéd.  Uncool and alive is a combination I can live with.

And I plan to.

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Go take a leap

IT'S PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME, B*TCHES

image: Junebug Photography

This Wednesday was my one-year anniversary of being a full-time freelance writer.

I’m still not entirely sure what that means. I’d love to craft a beautifully worded treatise on the joys and foibles of the past twelve months, but there’s no way to encapsulate it in a blog post. This little girl with misaligned socks is a pretty solid representation of what it feels like most of the time, which is why I chose her to accompany this week’s installment… but to write some sort of summary would be damn near impossible.  I really wish I’d written something that first day about taking the leap so I could look back on it now and laugh at what a dolt I was.  I think I was too busy to jot down any thoughts, though. Not too busy with clients (yet), mind you… just too busy freaking out, looking in nooks and crannies for rent money.  Too busy trying to find my footing.  Too busy wondering if I’d ever drink fancy coffee again.

Instead of blathering, I’d rather share a few of the notions, words and people that have inspired me from the start.  If I’ve done the math right (and I’m not proud of this, but that’s a big ‘if’), I’ve written more than 1,300 blog posts and articles totaling something like 396,000 words this past year, and that was just the dry run.  So today, I’m taking the day off to celebrate the fact that I’m able to pay the bills and feed the dog (at least this month, if not next) by doing what I love. I’ll let these pictures do the talking while I take a tiny break and figure out what’s next.  After I finish this here fancy coffee in my hand.

image sources: author's archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

image sources: author’s archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

For those of you who’ve made the leap yourselves, I salute you.  For those thinking about doing something scary that’s been tugging at you from the inside, I say, “Do it.”  If it’s how you truly want to spend your life, and if you’re willing to pay your dues, it will be worth the wait, the fear and the struggle.  The coolest part: when you get to your first benchmark, you’ll realize you never once looked back.  Because why would you?  That shit back there was awful.  This stuff right here is great, even when it isn’t.

Happy Friday, folks, and happy 2012. Thank you for coming here.  Thank you for believing in my work, whether you’ve checked out my portfolio or just enjoy reading these public diary entries.  I hope they make you smile, give you an idea every once in a while, or at least provide the distraction you’re looking for.

Most of all, thank you for your kindness, encouragement and time.  I appreciate it more than you know.

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How rude

What would Stephanie Tanner do?

image: Mark Shoberg

Lonesome George is dead, you guys.  I wish I’d known that sooner.

It’s funny how the world works.  I got not one, but two, nastygrams from strangers this week, taking me to task for something I’d written for a blog I contribute to on a regular basis.  But it wasn’t because the piece I’d published was mean, or acerbic, or controversial or crude; it was because smack dab in the middle of it was a big giant mistake about a tortoise who is no more.

Quick backgrounder: I write daily stories for a website focusing on companies, organizations and people doing good in the world in some way.  The concept is broad but narrow; we cover brands that give back a considerable portion of their proceeds to charities — no small feat in today’s economy — or who are built on a buy-one-give-one-model.  We cover individuals, too — regular joes who are paying it forward and doing cool things in the face of adversity.  We write about the good stuff, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before.  It’s gratifying.  It’s really fun.  And it’s a lot of work.

This week, I posted a piece on a company that gives back 10 percent of its proceeds (which, again, may not sound like much to the unindoctrinated, but for a startup, it’s insane) to a charity working to cure the ills that we as a society have dumped on the environment.  (Now, bear with me: I’m not about to get into a political debate about global warming or saving the oceans.  Just suffice it to say here’s a guy who saw what he considered to be a big problem and is doing what he can with his small business to help solve it.)  The brand is predicated on the concept of Lonesome George, the very last tortoise (a pinta, to be exact) of his species, who died earlier this year.  To paraphrase the company’s founder, “It’s not about cloning him or finding him a mate; it’s too late for that.  It’s about learning a lesson and making sure we don’t let this happen again.”  Fair enough, right?  So I wrote a story about it, focusing on the tortoise as the central character, ran it on Monday, and by Wednesday, I had two ugly emails sitting in my inbox from people I’d never met.

You need better fact checkers, the first one said, and informed me that Lonesome George, to whom I’d referred as the last living member of his species, had died over the summer.  At which point I sucked in my breath, Googled it faster than anyone has ever Googled anything, and began emotionally flogging myself for being such an idiot and not catching that small but clearly significant fact.  I wrote her back, thanked her for the catch and made the correction in our content management system as fast as my wee little fingers could type.  Rarely do I freak out over someone else doing something wrong, but when I’m the one at fault, it’s like the sky is caving in.  My PR training and merciless sense of perfectionism kicked in immediately as I set about considering all the possible reasons I could have missed something like that, and how to never ever let it happen again.  Add another oops to the oops pile, I thought to myself with more than an ounce of utter humiliation.

The second email, which came in the next day, was more… pointed. This is appalling.  Is this a joke, or just shockingly vapid? it began. How much research do you actually do prior to promoting a particular cause or product? Are the causes themselves important or [are you] nothing more than a flimsy attempt to justify hipster consumerism with a whitewash of social consciousness?  I noticed that you changed the text… to correct the egregious errors. Clearly you owe [the company founder] an apology unless his true aim is to exploit an extinct species to sell t-shirts, then I guess all you did was pull back the curtain.

I read this on my phone while I was still in bed.  It was literally the first thing I saw in the morning after responding to the buzz on my nightstand.  I found myself composing a response — one as elegant and humble as I could muster — before my feet had even hit the floor.  And after I sent it, and stood up, and poured myself a glass of water, and patted the dog on the head, a new thought finally occured to me.

What a dick.

Both emails actually came from women.  I hate the connotation behind the word “bitch,” though, so it’s less of a preset for me than “dick,” which somehow sounds funnier when you apply it to a woman, like calling a pet or a child an asshole (behind its back, of course, and oh hello, now I feel like a terrible person for even typing that out loud).   The fact that it doesn’t exactly fit in terms of logic makes it greater somehow.  Anyway, I thought to myself, where does this dick get off writing such a nasty jumble of words to someone who was just trying to do something nice?  The next day’s story, for instance, was about an online community of craftsmen and women who are custom-designing holiday presents for underprivileged kids in the Bronx.  The individual gifts are based on designs drawn by each kid; it takes the idea of a toy drive and makes it personal, introducing elementary schoolers to the creative process and letting them know they actually matter in the world.  The project’s fueled by donations from sponsors who contribute online — regular people like you and me.  That’s the kind of stuff we cover, up and down, every day, without fail.  We’re not out to make a zillion bucks here, lady, I fumed, and the Lonesome George guy probably isn’t, either.  We’re trying to do something decent.  If you want to talk about materialism or people who are vapid, go send some of your anger to Fab or Gilt or one of the Kardashians.  I’m really sorry I made a mistake, but your bile is misdirected.

After a flurry of texts with my boyfriend, who kindly offered to do something I won’t go into detail about (but in a nutshell, it involved vengeance and a chainsaw), it occurred to me that, rather than going about my morning having brushed off the fact that just one person was jumping to rash — mean! — conclusions about little old me and my pristine — noble! — intentions, I was instead spending the entire morning freaking the hell out about the fact that just one person was jumping to rash conclusions about little saintly old me and my impeccable intentions, and between waves of self-pity, I was sending texts about chainsaws and trying to figure out exactly what was so broken in this person’s life that she felt the need to spend her morning sending nasty emails about…

Stop.

Right into the cyclone I’d jumped, like a fool.  Immediately, all those pithy little platitudes that make us roll our eyes came flashing before my eyes: “Don’t bring yourself down to their level.” “Kill them with kindness.” “Bad begets bad, but good begets good.”  And I decided to sit down, write something out of it, and be done.  Lesson learned, moving on… back to the business of being a grown-up.  Right?

But then that feeling started creeping back in again.  That insidious sense of (flawed) self-righteousness that had me wondering things like Seriously? Has this woman not seen all the vitriol that’s out there?  The bitchy celebrity gossip sites, the abject snark with which everything everywhere is written anymore, that show on E! where Joan Rivers sits around and talks about how fat that girl’s ass looks in that dress?  Listen lady, I’m not part of some conspiracy to end the world through my posts about doing nice things.  I don’t know if the guy who makes the tee shirts is a nice man or not; I don’t know how genuine he is or if he’s kind to puppies he passes on the street.  But at least he’s doing something.  What about you?  How many mean emails have you sat on your tush sending out today from the comfort of your couch instead of doing something worth something?  And then I thought: Crap. For all I know, maybe she was sending that email from the women’s shelter where she volunteers, or from the place where the Dalai Lama lives, because maybe she’s him in real life and he just likes to send out mean emails as a girl with a yahoo address in his spare time for kicks.

We’re all imperfect, I concluded.  Not exactly a revelation, I know, but sometimes I forget how full of holes we all are — me included.  And then, I really got put in my place.

Feeling sorry for yourself is all fun and games until you get an email from your best friend’s grandma.

I’ve met Joan maybe four times, and let me tell you, she’s magnificent.  This lady has a spirit about her that’s unlike anything you’ll ever see, and she’s raised a family we probably all ought to pay attention to and maybe do a study on, because these people know what they’re doing.  So when Joan talks (or emails, for that matter), you drop your BS and you listen.

amy, i have just read your blog and as always do enjoy reading your “thoughts”!  however , when i read this one, i was reflecting back to jan. of this year when i had experienced the “coughing, sneezing etc.” for about three full weeks and just assumed i was going to die!   thank God i did not.   but i do remember having the time as you stated to just think.   and during this “crisis”, i  thought how profoundly grateful i was to be at this stage   –   and age  –   in my life and to have experienced such wonderful blessings.   needless to say, with these blessings have come many adversities.  what we make of these or how we let these consume our life i believe is up to us   –   with a lot of prayer time for me personally.   but my goodness, there are so many beautiful memories in my memory bank  and still more to come i hope.  i guess we all need this “thinking” time at some point and just wanted to share this with you.  thank you for sharing your comments with me.   i look forward to receiving them .   i hope to see you at some point and visit with you.  and i wish for you and yours a thankful Thanksgiving.  your friend,  joan

After I read her note, I burst into tears, missing my mom.  She always had a way of zooming things back out into perspective.  I try to do that, too, but shit, it’s not as easy as it looks. (Joan, if you’re reading this: sorry for all the cursing.)

I should clarify the fact that I referred to Joan’s grandson as my best friend a few lines back.  I actually have a cadre of them, each one as important to me as the next.  And I’m stupid lucky to have them in my corner.  Even though I don’t see them or even talk to them nearly as much as I’d like, each is as much family to me as my actual family is, and in some cases, then some.

That’s sort of a thing we do when we lose people, isn’t it?  When someone dies and we can’t get them back, we unknowingly seek out people who embody some of their best qualities so we can still enjoy them even after the source is gone.  That’s how I choose to deal with pain.  Look it in the face and fix it.  Not turn it outward and smack other people around with it so they can feel it too.  It’s tempting sometimes to be rude and cut people down to size, sure.  But that’s the thing about temptation.  Give into it too much and someone almost always gets hurt.

I realize I’m preaching to the choir here since most people reading this are either friends of mine or fellow writers who are equally empathic souls, but let’s all do ourselves a favor and take heart anyway. The next time we’re rude to someone, remember: that person may end up being a person like Joan, which makes us just about two feet tall.  So, sing it, Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

a.

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Slow your roll

robin's egg blue bicycle

Image: Paper Social

Maybe it’s all the advertising or the lull of Bing Crosby’s voice, but doesn’t this time of year just beg us to slow down? Somewhere amid the sugar crashes and extra blankets, sleeping in seems more delicious than it does in any other season, and quiet nights at home feel like utter luxury.  When it’s cold outside, I just want to curl up and do nothing and enjoy every delectable second.  Don’t you?

I heard a phrase used in a radio ad not long ago that gave me pause, and then alarm.  It had something to do with a traffic app, and the announcer used the term “up-to-the-second,” as if “up-to-the-minute” wasn’t current enough.  Hey, 9-to-5ers, remember when “cutting edge” was too old-school, so it became “leading edge” and then what I think started out as a joke somehow turned into an actual thing — namely, “bleeding edge”?  Yeah.  That.  This reminded me of that, and I had to roll my eyes.  I realize I’m about to sound like I’m a hundred, and that’s okay, because I mean it: when did we all get into such a big damn hurry?

Last month, I caught a nasty cold and lost my voice completely.  It was one of those I’m-so-weak-and-tired-I-have-to-plan-trips-to-the-refrigerator-in-advance-and-gear-myself-up-to-change-the-channel kinds of bugs, and I ended up in bed for a solid 72 hours.  Even looking at my computer screen made me dizzy.  So, I took an uninterrupted break from the world outside and let the television distract me from my coughing in the scant hours I was actually awake.  Aside from developing what I thought was going to be a minor addiction to American Horror Story (I’ve since kicked the habit… but maybe I’ll pick it back up in a marathon over the holidays?), a weird thing happened: I actually had time to think.

Just think.

Not frantically try to mentally file ideas from links flickering before my eyes at a million miles an hour; just enjoy some good old-fashioned thoughts, floating gently through the air and taking root in my brain instead of shooting right through it 140 characters at a time and dissipating into nothing.  I ended up spending a good deal of my Nyquil-flavored haze evaluating how this first year of freelancing has gone… how insane I was to have jumped into it the way I did (i.e., without a cushion or much of a real plan other than “Hit it hard, don’t give in and do not f*ck up because failure is not an option; coincidentally, neither are rent and electricity”)… and how fortunate I am to do something I love, even though it scares the tar out of me sometimes (read: all the time).

For what I believe to be the first time in my life, I handed back a chunk of work to a client recently and politely explained I couldn’t do it justice.  I’m not used to saying “no” to the people who sign my paychecks, or in this case, respond to my invoices.  I’ve made a career out of being the boss’s right hand, taking on whatever might be needed to get the job done, and anyone who’s ever worked in public relations (my old gig) understands that negativity is not allowed; “no” is the ultimate negative, even when it’s not.  But I was depleting myself of creative ideas, working myself to the bone.  So, when I realized over the summer that I had to lighten my load to stop phoning some of it in, it felt foreign.  I’m a people-pleaser; it’s in my DNA to nod and smile even if I think something’s terrifically stupid and feel like punching someone in the face.  “On it,” I chirp, just like we’ve all been trained to do.  Push through.  Make it work.  Get it done.

But this time, I was literally running out of words and sounding like a broken record in half of the work I was churning out.  I’d hit a point where I’d taken on so many responsibilities, there wasn’t as much joy anymore in something that had started out as fun.  Now, listen — I know life isn’t a big bowl of Jelly Bellys.  Work’s called work for a reason.  But I’d bitten off more than I could handle and my flame was starting to go out.  For anyone who works in a creative field, it’s like an athlete’s muscles refusing to cooperate or a surgeon’s hands losing sensation — in a word: terrifying.  For a freelancer, having too full a plate is just about the best problem in the world to have — far preferable to its alternative — and the idea of turning away work is counterintuitive to survival.  But still, I had to ask: if we only get one shot at being human, isn’t it important to actually let ourselves be human sometimes?  And if I only get one shot at being an honest-to-god writer, shouldn’t I be a good one?

Slow your roll, I told myself.  (Yes, indeed, I’m southern.)

Breathe.  In and out.  Again.  

There’s no need to go on an anti-internet rant; I can’t hate on something that allows me to have this life.  I know I wouldn’t have the job I do if it weren’t for the advent of blogs and social media and, quite frankly, the recession itself; it forced companies to slim down their marketing teams, edged entrepreneurs into action and created this odd and amazing little space in which freelance writers can actually do what we love for a living while playing by our own rules. On top of that, I get to keep in touch with the people I love who are in an entirely different time zone; political rants aside (and thank GOD that’s over and done with), I actually love seeing what they’re eating for lunch… the art their kids brought home from school today… the random little observations they make about the world around them.  I’ll never get tired of that stuff… it keeps us connected in some small but significant way, and although some may pretend to be too cool to care, I’m onto you.  You’re not.  

I love that I got to virtually walk around downtown Austin with Google Maps’ street view before I ever set foot in it, just to get a sense of what it would be like to live here.  I’d handpicked coffee shops and restaurants and bookstores and gyms to check out before I even bought a plane ticket, and when I got here, poof: there they were in the flesh for me to explore.  The web makes the unfamiliar familiar, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.  I was talking with someone not long ago about how our parents never really cared to travel all that much, yet one generation later, the two of us have an insatiable need to get on every plane, devour every dish, and conquer every continent — it probably has something to do with the immediate availablility of everything, all the time, we reasoned.  I’ll always be a proponent of libraries, but back in the day, if you were curious about Barcelona, for example, you had to go to the travel section on the third floor and stand on a step stool and select enormous tomes to lug around with you.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but today if I decide I’m curious about Barcelona, I hit “save” on this blog post and I’m exactly two clicks away from up-to-the-minute… oh, excuse me: up-to-the-second… bloggers’ reviews, tourists’ Instagrams, daily deals, and satellite images.  If I’m feeling super ambitious, I can keep typing this sentence with one hand while using my iPhone to log onto Fodor’s in the other.  It’s insane.

You know that Louis C.K. bit, “Everything Is So Amazing and Nobody Is Happy“?  That completely sums up the way I feel about life.  I’m that person sitting on the plane going “OH MY GOD WE”RE FLYINGGGGGGGGGG” and I hope I always will be.  But sometimes — sometimes — we forget ourselves and act like brats.  I’m ashamed of that, really.  Who cares if the TSA line takes a while?  YOU’RE FLYING LIKE A BIRD WHILE DRINKING GINGER ALE.

In all honesty, who do we think we are?  We’re itsy little specs on a fairly tiny planet, yet my god, there’s so much to discover.  It makes sense that we’re always in a hurry, but are we in a hurry about the right things, or do we rush around in circles just because?  I like the sound of taking a breath.  I believe in quality over quantity.  I think I’ll take a minute — a whole one — to ruminate on where this is all taking me and why, without letting the buzz of my phone or the flicker of my laptop get in the way.  I love technology and the conveniences it affords us, but it’s time to start using it on my own terms and unplug when I just need to think.  To paraphrase Prince or Aristotle or some such crazy scribe:

Tonight I’m gonna focus like it’s 1999.

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Living in the margin

illustration via Drawing Saudade

My friend Saudi is a gifted artist, loyal friend and first rate human being. She’s lived on several continents, has a love of all things Disney and pulls no punches when speaking her mind. She’s a tough cookie, but a kind one. She’s used to playing the role, I think, of defender.

Saudi’s not only my friend; I was, strangely enough, her boss for a brief time, and I distinctly remember the fact that she always had a protective sensibility about her — a mama cub energy of sorts — always sticking up for the little guy. She was the good-hearted troublemaker in the back of the meeting who never actually made any trouble — really, she was productive, thoughtful and in many ways had a glue-like quality that helped hold the team together with humor in times of stress. She’d occasionally grumble just loudly enough to hold the title of “rebel,” and I think she took pride in that. There’s really no messing with Saudi, even though she’s a generous soul; she just has a tough exterior. So, needless to say, the image of someone marginalizing her and sending her home in tears isn’t only odd to me; it’s wholly unacceptable.

That’s an image I had to try to picture, though, when I read something she wrote this week. She shared a link to an editorial in a Canadian newspaper in which the writer at first appeared to give a somewhat balanced, if not particularly well-researched, accounting of the fact that fewer Canadian women are having babies than ever before. Balance flew out the window, however, in the latter portion of the article as it spun off its own rails with asinine conclusions — and then, of course, there’s the headline: Trend of couples not having children just plain selfish.

“I thought this was an Onion article,” Saudi began, and then went on to explain how much crap she gets for not having children with her husband. “I get, at the very least, one serious talking to from a stranger every other week, more if I happen to meet new people and have to exchange small talk with them. I try and ignore it and not let it bother me, but after a while it starts getting to me and I end up going home and crying, feeling terrible about myself.”

The article, at first blush, made me laugh — not an audible guffaw, but more a quiet series of eye rolls. I think my favorite parts were these three little nuggets of gold:

“Indeed, there are more finite calculations involved: Career demands. Timing. Not having a partner, or not having the right partner. Flaky fears about overburdening our already overburdened planet, personal choice and a bunch of other hooey that serve to hide the fact that happy couples that choose not to have kids are, at root, well, let’s see: selfish.

In Canada, a new normal could be on the rise, a great divide where, standing on one side will be the old guard — the haggard, the proud, the poor-looking schleps with their baby strollers and shrieking brats — while on the other will be childless twosomes, sipping their lattes and skipping off to a 10:15 a.m. appointment with their personal trainer.

What will it mean, for us, as a nation? What could be lost? And what will become of those trim, fit and fat-free-yogurt loving folks when decrepitude inevitably creeps in; when they age, as we all inevitably do, and the children they chose not to have aren’t around to look after them?”

Now, maybe this guy’s the Andy Rooney of Canada… a lovable old grump who likes to grouse and moan. Maybe he’s contradicting himself on purpose. Maybe there’s an intended wink in there somewhere (personal choice equals “hooey?”), and maybe it’s just lost on me. But after I let his words roll off my shoulders, I remembered they were still sitting squarely on top of Saudi’s.

I grapple a bit with my own questions about parenting… about creating life… about leaving something good behind. But as far as geriatric care goes, I’ve got news for this guy: if Canada’s treatment of its parents and grandparents on the whole is even half as abysmal as some of the atrocities we commit stateside, he needs to find another argument.

That job where I worked with Saudi?  It was at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, and you don’t even want to know how many hundreds… thousands… of seniors we came into contact with who hadn’t heard from their children in months or years, regardless of the fact that their health was declining, that they were being subjected to all sorts of maltreatment in the long-term care facilities in which they’d been placed, and that all they really wanted was just to connect with the people they loved who seemed to have once loved them. But we won’t go too far into that.  It’s been said that we can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its elders. In that regard, we have a long way to go — grandkids or no grandkids.

Parenting is far from easy.  I’ve never tried it myself, but I can tell from a mile away that it isn’t something to be taken lightly, and as a result, I have a ton of respect for those who enter into it and take it seriously. As for me, I very well may spring out of bed someday and exclaim, “NOW! Now’s the time when we do some kid-raising!” and then again, I very well might not. The verdict’s still out on that one. Even still, I wholeheartedly squeal at every birth announcement I get in the mail, every sonogram that pops up in my newsfeed, and every tweet sent from a hospital room that “mommy and baby are doing just fine.”  Because life is beautiful. Babies are awesome. And I’m as much of a sucker for the pure, clean slate of possibility each one holds as anyone else is. I don’t disagree with the act of having children; there’s not one molecule inside me that looks down on it at all.

My friends’ kids are some of the most engrossing, engaging, entertaining people I’ve ever met, and they can’t even spell their own names yet. There’s something to be said for that, and I can say with honesty that I take great joy in seeing my friends’ contentment over raising their families. But there’s also something to be said for those of us who are as yet undecided on the topic for ourselves, and certainly for those who’ve made the choice to contribute to the world in other big, bold, courageous ways instead. In the end, there’s more than one way to leave a legacy.

So, to the people out there with quips, sideways glances, raised eyebrows and opinions about friends and strangers alike who don’t have bambinos of their own, here’s a revolutionary idea: let’s try to coexist. You inspire us with stories of your families’ shenanigans and we’ll regale you with tales of our travels. We’ll write books and illustrate children’s stories while you teach tomorrow’s leaders how to read them. It doesn’t have to be either/or. There’s really no need for an air of competition. For anyone on either path to say one is better than the other isn’t only ignorant; it’s… yep, you knew this was coming: selfish.

The next time I hear anyone give someone a hard time about not having children — whatever the reason, whatever the argument — they just might get a stern, old-fashioned talking to, in much the same manner my mother would have given it. If I sound overly protective of those of us without little ones of our own, well… perhaps that’s my maternal instinct talking.

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