How rude

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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.

Slow your roll

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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.

Living in the margin

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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.

illustration via Drawing Saudade

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.

Sliding doors

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"You can never have enough FLEUR DE SOL... or OLEEEEEV OIL."

image: saveur du jour

Do you have weird little penchants for things you love to hate? I realize I’ve been crowing a lot lately about being nice and thinking nice and writing nice things about nice people, but let’s just put that on pause for a second.  Let me pull you in close for a seething discussion of my deep-seated loathing of one hell of an archnemesis. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’s done a lot of things in her life, but perhaps her most telling achievement — in my nasty little slam book, anyway — is the fact that she’s the lady who made “GOOP.”

I haaaaaate Gwyneth Paltrow.  I’m irrational and mean about it.  My reasons are flimsy, but I stand by them like a Walton.

I don’t think I’ve always had a problem with the woman.  I’m pretty sure my nose didn’t wrinkle at her until she launched a website based on… well, mostly, the perks of being Gwyneth Paltrow… at the onset of a tremendous economic recession.  I’m sure she meant no harm, but somehow it made her wan, privileged existence that much more difficult to take.  For me, anyway.  She probably cries about this a lot.  Because in case you didn’t know, I’m kind of a big deal.*

We’ll let this little thing of hers explain itself: “From creating a delicious recipe to finding a perfect dress for spring, Gwyneth began curating the best of lifestyle to help her readers save time, simplify and feel inspired. Determined to publish a genuine and resourceful issue each week, for many, goop has become their most trusted girlfriend on the web.”  Sounds innocuous enough, aside from the weird grammar, right?  Well, I suppose it is, until you consider the fact it launched in 2008 when people were losing their jobs all over the place, and its sole purpose in the beginning was to share things like $250 pairs of shorts, essentially classify them as “total steals,” and do so with a vague yet palpable sense of someone bending over backward in $500 yoga pants to whisper in French that she’s better than you, darling.

The devil was in the details, really.  I’m not one to begrudge anyone’s success, and there’s nothing wrong with doing well in life — I love a little decadence too, and I struggle with all sorts of weird middle-class guilt whether I’m doing just fine or scraping away paycheck to paycheck.  I’m a fan of fancy.  I try not to judge people who simply work their asses off and reap the rewards — as well they should, since they earned them — but there’s just something irritating about blithely slapping people in the face with your flippant ignorance of their problems, riding roughshod over the folks whose meager monthly entertainment budgets actually kind of comprise your paycheck.

I also might be jealous of her apparently scot-free life before the klieg lights hit her.  I remember watching an hour-long profile on her once, and the worst thing that had happened to her in her first quarter of a century was the loss of a grandparent — understandably painful — make no mistake — but for serious, could the girl not have had some bullies or buck teeth or strife or something to round her out a little?

Then there was that whole “n****s in Paris for real” tweet that gives me some odd, sick (and self-aggrandizing) sense of pleasure that I’m somehow intellectually superior to her.  It’s like See? Pretty, lithe little lady married a rock star, named her kids Moses and Apple and travels her face off on probably a weekly basis, but we everyday minions still know more than she does about the world in general.  About culture.  About being a human being.  It’s really not fair of me.  I’m likely just envious of her perky little life, even though there’s nothing wrong with mine.  But DAMN does she annoy the living daylights out of me.

Oh hi, I really didn’t set out to write a post about how much I can’t stand dear Gwynnie.  I actually meant to sit down and tap out something thoughtful about the brilliant lack of awareness we have about what’s waiting for each of us around the corner in life, and how the tiniest moments can have the grandest of impacts, and I was going to use one of her old movie titles as a jumping off point.  Buuuuuuut apparently I have some issues I need to work out in the schadenfreude department.

Bitter, party of one?  Your lonely little stool is ready.  Down there at the end.  Facing the wall with a mirror on it.  Enjoy!

So — Sliding Doors.  In case you haven’t seen the movie, it’s got something to do with the alternate series of events that would have taken place if GP’s character had (or hadn’t — I forget which) missed her subway train home from work one day and had to (or didn’t have to… crap, now I have to watch it again) take another one, thus making her late (on time?) and somehow stumble in on a cheating boyfriend, catching him red-handed.  (At least, I think that’s how it went.)  Anyway, the movie sets into motion two parallel lives: one in which the course of her life is altered by her philandering himbo, and the other in which she keeps going on about her daily life, blissfully unaware that she’s dating a total a-hole. (Sidenote: in one of the parallel arcs, she dyes her hair brown so the poor audience can keep up with just what the hell is going on and which life we’re watching at any given moment… a cheesy move on the director’s part, maybe, but whoa if it doesn’t do the trick and keep it all on track.)

{Puritanical public service announcement: Prepare for a curse word in 3… 2…}

Back to reality: isn’t it a mindf*ck to consider how our lives could have turned out drastically different based on one single moment?  Sure, there are the big, obvious ones that signify a pivotal shift — saying yes or no to a proposal, a job offer, a hit of some weird drug — but the tiny things are the ones I can’t help obsessing over sometimes, probably much to my detriment, yet also much to the pleasure of my weird little imagination, and they apply to all of us in some way or another:

If you hadn’t run that red light, you wouldn’t have made it to your interview on time and ultimately gotten the dream internship that charted the course for your illustrious neuroscience/aerospace engineering/rodeo clown career.  

If you’d just said no to that fourth cocktail that night, you wouldn’t have said that thing to that person, and then been too embarrassed to bring it up again, and then been too embarrassed to even get together for another first cocktail, much less a few.  Oops — there went that friendship, and for what? A vodka tonic?

If you’d stayed home from the co-worker’s birthday party, you never would have met his gorgeous friend and tumbled head over heels into a love affair for the history books… aaaaaand subsequently received a soul concussion from said tumble, thus causing you to run off in a huff to Hollywood, live on the streets for three years and then write that Grammy-winning pop song about rolling in the deep of your teenage dream or whatever.  

“What if”s are a trip.  I used to think a lot about what my life would have been like in the present if I’d stayed with someone — let’s call him “this dude” — I’d spent years living with.  I genuinely thought I was going to make a life with this dude, even though somewhere deep down, I knew we weren’t even remotely right for one another.  I can say with certainty that breaking up was the best thing either of us could have done for ourselves and each other; ultimately, I think it sent us both in the directions we should have been heading in the whole time.  But if you’d told me way before that — say, ten years in advance —  that in 2012 I’d be pursuing a writing career (finally), joining a hippie commune/coworking space, and walking a red four-legged monster around Austin, Texas three or four times a day, I probably would have cocked my head to the side in confusion and looked at you like you were crazy.  I might also have gotten a little excited, though… because wow, that sentence actually sounds pretty great.  So much for that white picket fence I was trying to build… and thank god.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s next… about what comes after the big writing conference in New York next year, after the first year of freelancing, after the second year of the best relationship I’ve ever been in.  That’s a lot of afters, and a lot of open space.  Such things used to terrify me.  Somewhere in my 20s, I got used to living life like it was set to the tick-tock of a metronome, and I let it turn into paralysis.  Once life flung me outside of what was comfortable, though… that’s when I started to lose my fear of flight.  I figured out I could touch down every once in a while, gather my bearings, and pick back up for the next adventure, each one a little bit bigger than the last.  I still feel shaky sometimes.  I still get scared.  But I’ve started realizing how great fear can be… at least, when you work up the nerve to go toe to toe with it.

Since those metronome years, I’ve come to love the fact that in some ways, I have no idea where life is taking me.  There’s terror and relief in that knowledge (or lack thereof).  There’s anxiety mixed with comfort.  I guess the word’s “exhilaration.”

Knowing we can bounce is a beautiful thing… because if we’ve done it once, we can do it again, and higher.  In the end, it probably doesn’t matter which trains pass us by… it just matters that we get on a few — jump a turnstile if we have to — and take a big huge bite out of wherever they end up taking us.

*to my dog, at least

(And as for Gwyneth, hell… maybe she’s a nice person.  Maybe she does crazy awesome things we don’t know about and maybe I’m a jerk for loathing her.  Either way, I feel bad for loving that autopsy scene in Contagion so much… but I’ll never stop saying ‘fleur de sel’ and cracking myself up over it.  And if I ever run into her in real life and she doesn’t have devil horns sticking out of her head, I’ll come back and amend my words.  Like I said… you never know.)

Choose your own adventure

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Damn straight, Hells.

Image: Coco+Kelley

When I was a little kid, my parents and I would drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, a couple of times a year to see my grandpa, who lived in an apartment on the 11th floor of an independent living facility.  The six-hour drive from my hometown of Jacksonville was largely unbearable except for several elements: my Madonna-stocked Walkman, the grandeur of the neverending bridge we always crossed toward the end of our trip, whatever book I happened to be reading, and the immediate promise of its successor, which I knew I’d be bringing home from our trip to Haslam’s Book Store.

Haslam’s was (and hopefully still is) one of those magical old bookstores that just sort of wind and twist around themselves, with janky ramps between the rooms and tattered old books mingling on the shelves with their freshly-minted cousins.  I’m almost positive that old shop on Central Avenue was the spot where I discovered the Sweet Valley High series (it’s seriously no mistake that I now drive a Fiat, have a close friend named Elizabeth and distrust all orderlies named Carl — remember that crazy-ass pancake-making kidnapper?) and it was most definitely the place where I bought my first Anti-Coloring Book.  Now, let me explain the latter half of that sentence: I had nothing against coloring books by any means, and neither did my parents — in fact, the title’s completely misleading.  To this very day, you can hand me a simple sketch pad and Sharpie and I’m a very happy girl.  The thing about this series in particular, and the reason for its provocative name, is that it gave the most fantastic prompts and then just kind of let you fill in the rest using your totally insane and therefore absolutely wonderful 7-year-old imagination.  Aside from the fact that I got to stare out over the 11th floor balcony of my grandpa’s digs during each visit — and believe you me, the 11th floor of anything was a super big deal at the time* — the family tradition of letting me romp around this crunchy old bookshop every time we were in St. Pete was a highlight of my childhood.

So, about these beloved activity books: one page might have 20 or so circles of varying sizes strewn about it with the prompt, “How many different things can circles be?” spelled out underneath.  Another would feature a Jack Sparrow-eque character in the bottom left corner with a thought bubble taking up the rest of the page, prompted by the question, “What kind of adventures do you remember from your past life as a pirate?” Others delved into emotional topics — say, an angry-looking girl sitting at the bottom of the page alongside the question, “What is it that makes you angriest at your parents?”  And the list went on and on: “Make a wish on this wishing well.” “You’ve been hired to design a new subway token.” “Make up your own big lie.” “What does a skunk smell like?”

These books were safe spaces where you could create, create, create as far as your colored pencils could take you.  I was addicted.  So last week, when I found myself inside one of the coolest new/used bookstores in the nation — Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon — I was on a mission from the kindergarten gods.  Something had pushed these awesome creativity boosters to the top of my memory, and I wasn’t stopping until I found one this past Sunday.  Luckily, I did, and now it’s sitting here with me on the couch.  I’m almost afraid to touch it, it’s so freaking precious.  In part, these books made me who I am.  They cracked open the hinge in the center of my imagination and encouraged me to put dreams to paper — ideas into tangible forms.  They gave me an outlet with guidance that was way less strict than a typical coloring book but far less intimidating than a blank white page.  They made it okay to make something crazy.

On the plane ride back home, I tucked my new/old Anti-Coloring Book into my bag and chose to hold my inner elementary school student at bay in favor of the book I’d taken on the trip with me to begin with: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.  It’s about a guy who, sort of on a whim, decides to train for the USA Memory Championships — an event where people do things like memorize thousands of digits in a particular order and recite them back exactly, or memorize a 100-line poem in 15 minutes or less and transcribe it from memory with perfect precision, including punctuation.

The author really did this in real life; the book is straight nonfiction.  As a journalist researching an article he was planning to write about the annual event, he was intrigued by a comment one of the competitors made about the fact that anyone could become a memory champion with proper training — that it was mainly about using tricks, mnemonic devices and good old-fashioned discipline.  So, he decided to give it a go and see if these champions were, indeed, complete freaks of nature or just highly-practiced memorizers.  In doing so, he wound up diving into all sorts of questions about what paths we choose for our lives and why, as well as what our memories are really made of and how they work.  Questions like, are we really recording every little thing we experience and then just repressing the stuff that doesn’t seem useful?  Or are we constantly filtering and forgetting things that can’t ever be retrieved, even with cues and prompts that would pull them out of our subconscious if they were still truly filed away somewhere?

Foer met with researchers, scholars, cognitive disorder patients, and fellow memory champs-in-training while undergoing this process, and chronicled his own doubts and frustrations along the way.  At the book’s onset, he admits his distaste for soupy self-help types and voices his wonderment at so much of the irony that exists in the competitors’ lives; some of them have what we would consider to be photographic memories (a concept that’s largely discounted throughout the book, oddly enough) and yet can’t hold down jobs or meaningful relationships as a result of some of the obsessive — not to mention competitive — behaviors that creep into their lives.  You’d think a guy who never forgets a birthday, an anniversary or the way a girl takes her coffee could charm his way into any given skirt or corner office, but apparently that’s not the case.  So, the good news is, there’s hope for us Forgetful Joneses out here.  Crazy as it sounds, we might be better off in some manner of speaking than the Doogie Howsers and chess champions of the world.  It’s strangely comforting, in a way.

I do wish I could improve my memory, though.  So many things fly in one ear and out the other; others take up residence deep in my core for a while and then, oddly, fly away into space, never to return, even though they once seemed indelible and oh-so-important.  I’ve never been able to extract rhyme or reason from the way I remember some things and forget others — that’s what the author of this book is on a bit of a quest to figure out from the sum of his sources.  It’s also something my boyfriend’s sister is on a quest to figure out, from an entirely different angle, through her work each day in a proper science lab in Manhattan.  On some level, I think we’d all like to understand how we remember things so we can start remembering more (and, of course, forget the things we wish we could but can’t.)

I’ll never not be fascinated by these sorts of things.  One point that’s agreed upon by practically everyone Foer encounters is this: even though we forget a ridiculous amount of our life’s experiences, the more enriching moments we take part in — the more adventures we have, risks we take, places we go and thresholds we cross — the longer our lives seem to have been when we get to the end of them.  Days in a cubicle can blend into one another month after month, year after year, until they feel like one lifelong eight hour block, while one simple, lazy morning in a French bakery might make us smile for decades after.  That’s a perfect reason for us to wheel our chairs back from our desks every once in a while and get on a plane, play a little hooky, jump around in the ocean, and laugh until it hurts.  Setting expectations aside and letting our imaginations lead us to new places is, in my not-so-humble opinion (when it comes to this topic, anyway), one of the best forms of therapy in the world.

There’s already plenty of crap to cry about — plenty to bemuse us and punch us in the gut.  Those things, I think, are easier to forget… or at least set aside… when we balance them with the pursuit of extraordinary things.  Even if we barely remember any of it once we’re through, at least we did it anyway and loved the hell out of it while it was happening.  So it makes sense to me that the best way to live is to choose our own adventures and not worry so much about coloring inside the lines.  As far as we all know, we only get one shot at all of this.  I, for one, intend to make the most of it.  That’s a plan I hope I won’t ever forget.

a.

*and kind of still is

~

Feet to the fire, hands off the wheel

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Light 'er up...

image: Hua Mao

wrote a piece earlier this week about something called The Birthday Project. It’s a little movement — or idea hub, really — started by an event planner in my home state of Florida.  On her 38th birthday, she practiced 38 acts of kindness and turned it into a whole day of mini-adventures for her family.  They taped spare change to soda machines for anyone who needed it.  Bought gift cards at the grocery store and randomly handed them out to people waiting in the checkout line.  Made handwritten Valentines for the residents of a local assisted living facility… and on and on and on… all these wonderful deeds to make people smile and maybe feel inspired to pay it forward too.

See?  Good things DO happen in Florida… occasionally.

Once the day was through, she wrote about it and posted pictures on her company’s blog. The response was so overwhelming, she created an online community around the concept to give people ideas for reverse birthday celebrations of their own — the notion being that birthdays can be a day in which you give instead of receive, and in doing so, bring loved ones together not only for fellowship and fun, but also to expand the do-goodery way farther than you could have accomplished on your own.

Wait… isn’t this all a little Brady Bunchy?  You bet your ass, and I love it. 

A few months ago, I was blabbing on and on about getting up off my tush and volunteering, what with this mega-flexible schedule I supposedly have these days.  Specifically, I challenged myself, IN FRONT OF THE INTERNET AND EVERYTHING, to kick it all off by giving blood for the first time in my life, even though I’m deathly afraid of all things medical and am officially, as my college roommate would say, “a fainter.”

Because I’d put it out there, though, I followed right on through.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I missed my self-declared deadline by about a week, but hey, we’re talking decades, so I’d say it’s negligible.)  Now, while I didn’t technically faint, I did come thisclose a solid three times, and it’s possible but not proven that there might have been some crying in the parking lot beforehand.  Since we’re being honest: I stayed in that chair so long after it was over, I’m pretty sure the med tech thought I was cheesing it up on purpose for all the Gatorade I could handle, like I was pulling some sort of free snack scam.  Sadly, though, I really was close to melting into a puddle from anxiety the whole time, even though it didn’t hurt a bit.  All in all, I gave a pint and, per the big red sticker I wore for the rest of the day like a five-year-old, maybe saved two lives.  Wonders never cease, my friends.  And next, I’ll learn to tie my shoes.

So, back to the first part — about volunteering.  I’ve skipped a few Fridays on this page, and it’s partly because of the too-few hours in a day (which according to the Times is all in our heads, and they’re probably right), but also because I sit here at the end of each week, staring wide-eyed into a WordPress screen, feeling like I’ve run out of words after churning out thousands of others and being deathly afraid that the few I have left will sound dumb.  There’s a doctrine that if you just produce, produce, produce in the beginning, even if you think what you’re doing is crap, the process will strengthen your voice.  I want to believe that.  But I’m also terrified I’m the exception.  So I keep plugging away at the stuff that pays — I write write write, taking on projects that edge me ever closer to my goals, but as a result of my fears I keep neglecting what you’re reading right now… just like I keep neglecting that vow I made to donate my time and give back.

We’re such babies about getting started with stuff like this, aren’t we?  What if it makes us face things?  Ew!  Or shows us our vulnerabilities?  Gross!  Makes us take A WHOLE AFTERNOON to do something nice instead of other, more important things like putzing around online?  Oh, now you had to go and make a point.

That, of course, brings us to a new promise — one I’m spelling out in the sand for everyone to read.  In the next 30 days, I will volunteer with an organization that needs help.  I haven’t decided which one to start with, but VolunteerMatch, as always, has some stellar options.  Maybe I’ll stick with my “do what scares you” mantra and host a brain aerobics hour at a senior center, talking in front of a group without having a panic attack.  Maybe I’ll work at a hospice, face to face with death — something I’m far too familiar with but refuse to go anywhere near for fear of what it might stir up.  Really, it’s not about me.  These things never are.  It’s about shutting up and doing something because it needs to be done.  The logic is simple enough.

So, off we go.  By August 20, I’ll have signed myself up for something concrete, and I won’t back out when I start feeling squeamish or too pressed for time.  My first experience won’t be my last, either — it will be Step One of a big, fat habit change.  You guys are my witnesses.  Feel free to check back and hold my feet to the fire.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t ever want to preach, but if I do anything resembling it, I’d better practice whatever I’m crowing about.  I can write all I want about other people’s good deeds, but I’d better do some of my own while I’m at it.  Maybe I should write about them here and quit skipping so damn many Fridays.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

a.

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard

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I could teach you but I'd have to charge

image: Smashingbird Vintage

Where was I last week, you ask? Busy making milkshakes. If you’ll be sweet enough to forgive my absence, I’ll share the recipe with you.

I picked up a killer new writing gig this week. Its subject matter is exactly the direction I’ve been wanting to go in for some time… I just haven’t been sure where to start.

To be clear, I’m crazy fortunate to have the clients I do, and I already write about topics I love. Austin. Travel. Green living. Interior design and architecture, with a cultural essay or two thrown in for fun. I work for cool people who do interesting things, who take risks, and who have unique perspectives on the world. Most days, I pinch myself that this is the space in which I get to play. But there’s still the next step… the one where I get personal and write things just for me — oh, and for the people who’ll hopefully pick it all up at bookstores and order it online someday (assuming I play my cards right and wind up in such places… fingers crossed).  There will come a time when I start spilling my guts 200 pages or more at a time, or craft tall tales, or some balance of both. You’ll see down my ears and up my nose and into the depths of the places I’ve been. That’s some scary business, folks, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling a lot lately, trying to figure out how to put it together.  For years, I’ve been rattling ideas around, but hot holy hell, have I needed a nudge.

This week, I got one, and it made me fall forward.  My new client is a company called Milkshake. It sends out an email a day with a short feature on a business, organization, person or product that’s doing good in the world — or as they like to put it, “good finds that give back.”  You’ve probably heard of TOMS, for instance — the canvas shoe company that operates on a “buy one, give one” model, or Warby Parker, which does something similar with cool and affordable eyewear. Milkshake covers businesses like that, and also things like Bright Endeavors, a Chicago-based non-profit that helps young, at-risk mothers by employing them to produce eco-friendly soy candles in upcycled containers, the proceeds of which go back into their own mentoring and professional development. It covers programs, brands and ideas that give people hope and — go ahead an insert an eyeroll here if you’d like — make the world a better place.  And now, I get to serve as editor of its kids’ edition.

“Sweet god, sign me up,” I thought when I saw the opportunity to write nice things about nice things.  Because truth?  I don’t have much energy for sarcasm; I look at someone like Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey and get tired just watching them spit out one-liners like PEZ dispensers.  I love listening to it, no doubt — but coming up with my own?  I’d spend equal amounts of time apologizing for everything that flew out of my mouth.  Zinger… apology.  Zinger… apology.  And no one wants to read that.  I’ve been told time and time again to check out what Lena Dunham’s up to, and I know when I do I will envy her wit. I have some, sure, but it’s always meted out with equal doses of cheese. Ooey gooey, goshdarn delightful, good old-fashioned cheese. And I’m okay with that. Sweet Andy Griffith passed away last week, and it’ll take quite a few of us to keep all that Mayberry-style do-goodery alive.

There’s an old saying in the media: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  And sadly, it’s true.  We’re conditioned to be compelled by the gore of a drama, the thrill of the bite.  And sure, a charity cookie sale is far less sexy than any given scandal, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Here’s my deal: I can’t bring myself to slam anyone without losing sleep over it. It sometimes drive me nuts. I’m a writer, damn it. We’re supposed to be acerbic, right? Keen and merciless and incisive and hard. Cynics who chew the ends off of pencils — seekers of secrets, tellers of truth. But when truth is so often subjective — when we cut someone off at the knees and later go, “oops!” — well, there’s not much coming back from that. So I think I’d prefer to tell stories that want to be told — stories of things that inspire and build. Stories of people who’ve overcome.  And if anyone listens, kickass. Please enjoy.

We all have the capacity to do good things, even if it’s quiet and done without fuss. Actually, those are my favorite kinds of heroes: the ones we don’t ever hear squawk.  I don’t mind tooting their horns for them; they, more than anyone, ought to be heard.  I’m cool with being the nerd who writes about the bright side.  It is, after all, what makes life sweet.

a.

Brains for free

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A photo signed by Einstein to the attention of news reporter Howard K. Smith. It reads, "This gesture you will like, Because it is aimed at all of humanity. A civilian can afford to do what no diplomat would dare."

image: public domain

I stumbled across something this week that made me smile at the mere idea of it.  It’s called Skillshare, and in case you aren’t already savvy to its charms, it’s a community marketplace in which you can “learn anything from anyone.” In short, much like TED, it connects inquisitive people to their subject matter of choice, but it does it through folks in their local communities, opening up an in-person exchange of knowledge.  It basically seeks to make education — in its broadest sense — more democratic and accessible, and by accessible, I mean right around the corner from your house.

Call me easily-led if you want, but it had me at its tag line: “The future belongs to the curious.”  Can I get an amen? 

You could say that the internet, on its own, opens up a wealth of information and places it at our fingertips, and you’d be right.  You could counter that a lot of information on the internet is complete crap, and you’d also be right.  Try looking up any medical symptom under the sun and give me a rough estimate of the accuracy rate of your first 10 search results.  Abysmal, right?  But that’s okay.  Because as with anything, I think there’s been a bit of a pendulum effect in terms of the quality of content on the web.  We started at the far end of one extreme where there was nothing but esoteric data understood only by programmers, then swung wildly across a vast expanse to the other side, filled with a ton of SEO-loaded, nonsensical muck peppered with funny memes and, thankfully, The Oatmeal.  We’ve spent a little while capitulating in a ping pong match of sorts and are finally, many years since the advent of dancing babies, evites and Blue Mountain Arts birthday cards, finding ourselves somewhere in the middle.  I’m excited to dive into the big glass bowl of brain candy that’s emerging in the center and gobble it all up.

Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve been trying to dial down my incessant need for crap trivia — like what lipstick Zooey Deschanel is wearing this week, for instance; at the moment, I’m proud to report I have no earthly clue — and make way for something more satisfying.  Sure, there’s always NPR, god love it, and it’s amazing how much more easily one can get pulled into PBS programming once one eliminates a few hundred other channels from her cable lineup (imagine that!) but it’s cool to know there are people out there who want to — and apparently will — offer an unlimited amount of free education to whomever wants it.

In the spirit of sharing cool stuff, here are two websites I can’t get enough of, and if you’re an even remotely curious person at all, you’re bound to find something worth falling headfirst into on one or both of them:

Open Culture is essentially a tremendous brainpower hub linking out to every kind of free online class imaginable — no, no, I’m not talking about schmaltzy “how to make a zillion dollars overnight”-level nonsense; I’m talking about a downloadable “The American Novel Since 1945″ course from Yale, video lectures from a human behavioral biology course at Stanford, and more than 400 others of that ilk.  Apparently, such things are called “MOOC”s — massive open online courses, and multiple startups are emerging from the likes of the guy who invented the Google self-driving car and other brainiacs and mathletes — see edX, Udacity, et al.  Anyway, Open Culture also employs a staff of freelancers who post multiple times a day with cultural gems like rare recordings from legendary musicians, lost interviews with cultural luminaries and random trinkets of geekery you’d have to see for yourself to fully grasp the magic of.

Then there’s Brain Pickings, the personal blog of Maria Popova, an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow and contributor to both Wired UK and The Atlantic.  She calls herself “an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large.”  She posts ridiculously fascinating things every day, and of course, her writing is impeccable, unfettered and smart.  I adore everything about her work so much, it’s not even worth wasting energy being envious; I just eat what she dishes out each day and enjoy every speck of it.  The best way I can describe her site is to say it’s like a big plate of bacon-wrapped smartness served with a cocktail of sugar-rimmed creativity.  On second thought, that was terrifically dumb.  Let’s use her words instead:

“It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Yeah.  What she said.  Basically, if I ever meet this woman, I might kiss her square on the mouth.

There’s this great quote from someone named Roger Lincoln:  “There are two rules for success: 1. Never tell everything you know.”  …and it’s brilliant.  In the competitive society in which we live, both professionally and personally, it’s spot-on, and I laughed out loud the first time I saw it.  But wouldn’t it be cool if it didn’t make us laugh?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we looked at each other after reading it, completely puzzled as to what it meant?  I realize such a reality may never arrive, but the curious little kid in me who’s been taught to share her carrot sticks still likes the notion of it.  And I think it’s doable on a smaller scale: it starts with each of us stepping outside of our silos and sharing our brains with our friends.

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.  And while each new revelation of my own lack of knowledge is pretty terrifying, at the same time, it’s kind of not so bad.  When you get down to it, nobody knows everything, but everyone knows something.  So why don’t we share more often?

a.

Pick a direction and go

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Pen to Paper

image: The Nervous Breakdown

Most weeks, I attack this blog with an exact — or at least fairly specific — idea of what to write about.  Today, though, I’m back inside two old cycles: “don’t throw stones” and “it’s too silly to spend 800 words on.”  The way I see it, there are three modes in which I operate when it comes to spinning sentences: the day-to-day client stuff, most of which is topical, informative and not particularly inflammatory; the long-form, being-printed-inside-bound-books-someday stuff, which takes time and thought to percolate; and the stuff you see here each week — random musings from a curious human being trying to make it as a writer.  And today, it all just feels like fluff.

Believe me, I have Things to Write About… capitalization intended… but most of them won’t fit inside a blog post, nor do they really belong in one.  Although I’ve borne witness to things awful enough to beg plenty of in-depth conversation, it’s impossible to commit them to a page — or, in this case, a screen — without causing pain for those involved.  On the other hand, I can wax poetic for ages about the silliest and most mundane of things, but even though it’s sincere and I thoroughly enjoy reading the same sorts of things from other people, I worry that I come off sounding about as substantive as sea foam.  I’ve watched people around me deal with loss, illness, suicide, crime, infidelity, incarceration, poverty, addiction, depression, anxiety, and everything else that comes part and parcel.  And while I’ve certainly been affected by it, in some cases much more deeply than others, I’ve still somehow managed to escape it and live a life that, while imperfect, has ultimately been sort of charmed.  I’m nobody’s judge and jury, and it’s not my place to point fingers unless I want them pointed back at me; I’m also fully aware that, conversely, standing on a mountaintop and crowing about the fantastic, amazing, sublime perfection that is my life at any given moment is basically an open invitation for the fates to tear it down.  But I know I’ve been put here to tell some kind of story, and I need to figure out what it is.

Like anyone, I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.  I subscribe to Emerson’s version of what that means (oh, wait, hello; apparently it wasn’t Emerson!), but at the same time, it’s not quite enough.  I want to say something intelligent.  I want to change something somehow.  But the last thing I want to do is preach some kind of sermon, because what in the hell do I know?  Or any of us, really?

I guess I’m trying to say I’m working on striking a balance before I plant myself inside the literary world and attempt to convince people I can write things worth paying for.  There’s telling the truth, and there’s the amount of balls it takes not to run and hide once you’ve told it.  If you’re going to summon up the latter and, in doing so, accomplish the former, you’d better be damn well sure your “truth” is what you say it is, and you’d better tell it in a way that isn’t foolish.  I’m petrified to get it wrong.  I need to get it right.

I had a conversation with someone recently about the way we each experience a story and remember it later on.  We compared a few movies we’d seen together and talked about what we remembered from them, and the differences in our recollections were crazy.  More to the point, we came to the conclusion that I’m crazy… and maybe incapable of linear progression.  Here’s an odd bit of trivia about yours truly: I’ve seen Almost Famous — a film I list among my all-time favorites — countless times, and yet I truly can’t remember if Penny and Russell wind up together in the end.  Look, I can illustrate the grabbing-the-sunglasses-off-the-ticket-agent’s-counter shot frame by frame, and I can draw a picture-perfect outline in my mind of the layout of William’s house and where everyone’s standing when Russell shows up under false pretenses… but seriously, are there things after that?  Because I’m too busy knowing exactly who comes in on what note during the “Tiny Dancer” sequence and reflecting in awe at all the perfect glances between the two lead characters throughout the entire movie, and then, of course, there’s that score, which couldn’t be more brilliant.  I stare in wonder at the artistry of the whole thing, but I’m clueless on some of the 1-2-3′s even though they’re right in front of me.

I’m like that about a lot of things in life.  I get the deeper meaning, the basic message, and the underlying juju of it all, and I take in all the miniscule details on top as if my memory were photographic… but when it comes to the normal stuff most people pay attention to in the middle — major plot points, the bad guy’s motivation, where we last left character so-and-so — I’m blank.  I have a fear, I think, that this will eventually haunt me if or when I make an attempt at fiction, and maybe that’s a sign that I need to stay away from it.  Or, hell… maybe it’s a point on which I should start challenging myself.  Either way, I’m on a self-imposed timeline here, and at some point I’ll have to pick a direction and go.  I saw something earlier this week about the travesty of the fact that some of the world’s most incompetent people are the most self-assured and confident, while the wisest ones are pacing around, wringing our hands and second-guessing ourselves.  I thought back over people I’ve known throughout my life who fit into each group, and the consistency gave me an odd sense of comfort that I might be in the latter… until I caught a whiff of my own vanity and started second-guessing it.

Either way, I’m sure of one thing: I know I was put here to write, and I’ve got a firm grasp of my voice.  The question is: what do I want it to say?

a.

Egg on my face

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oopsie daisy

image: zazzle

Writing prompt:

Write about a time when you were embarrassed.

A time?  As in, one singular time?

Excuse me while I reach into my grab bag.  The act of choosing just one anecdote is, hands down, WAY harder than the act of writing it out.

My blunders in life have been plentiful and occasionally massive.  Luckily, I’m just a normal person living an ordinary life and therefore haven’t had to barndance my way off the SNL stage or explain to the American public just what in the world I was thinking when I did the “hey girl hey” with a White House intern.  My oopses, thankfully, are mostly garden variety screw-ups, but I’d still rather not rehash them; I’m oddly adept at replacing the old ones with new, sometimes even more inventive versions of their former selves anyway.  But then again, in re-telling the tales of our utmost idiocy, sometimes we get a good laugh out of things and even enjoy realizing how far we’ve come, followed swiftly by the sobering — exhilarating? — realization of how far we still have to go.

So, screw it.  Let’s empty out the whole big bag and count up all the goodies.

In no particular order, I’ve done all of the following: wore things in the 80s; confided in all the wrong people about all the wrong things; overslept and missed a nonrefundable flight; spent way too long dating someone (make that six or seven someones) who was were comically wrong for me (this epiphany, of course, only presents itself in retrospect); spent too much time lingering on half of those fools once all was said and done; nearly got fired from Bath & Body Works for having no clue how to work a register; wore things in the 90s; nearly got fired from Victoria’s Secret a year after the Bath & Body Works debacle, also for having no clue how to work a register (I was young, okay?); misspoke on a conference call and used the word “canoodling” (making out) instead of “cavorting” (just plain socializing), thus inadvertently accusing several higher-ups in one of the world’s largest PR firms of making out with one another in the middle of the workday; told a roomful of people, through a microphone while wearing a suit, that I was “so excited to finally meet most of them”; genuinely loved the show “Blossom” and had a miniature crush on Joey Lawrence; locked myself out of my own home while wearing a bikini; got pulled over for drunk driving while actually stone-cold sober (yes, my driving is sometimes that bad); and conversely, had far too much to drink on multiple occasions, getting tangled up in all the usual shenanigans folks get into when we’ve gotten too cozy with our spirit of choice.  And we’re not even going to get into my music collection, since a) we already did that last week and b) if I tell you I once stood in the fourth row of a Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch concert, what more information do you need?

Nothing embarrassing happens when we’re sitting at home alone.  Well, plenty of things would probably render themselves utterly mortifying if anyone were to walk in and catch us doing whatever weird nonsense we happen to do when we think no one’s looking (read a phenomenal book called The Visible Man for a lingering head trip on the matter).  On its own, hanging out alone doesn’t so much lend itself to embarrassment.  Playing it safe, staying on the couch and being creatures of habit aren’t the sorts of behaviors that render red-faced humiliation.  To properly embarrass oneself, one has to walk out the front door.  One has to face the world.  One has to take a deep breath and go, “Okay, let’s try something.”  One has to have — how do you say? — chutzpah… moxie.

Nerve.

The guy doesn’t get the girl by sitting in his room, staring at the wall.  The girl doesn’t win the Olympic medal by playing video games all her life.  Nobody ever won a Pulitzer for standing around, reading Us Weekly and waiting for their microwave dinner to ding.  The guy gets the girl by getting rejected a hundred times, giving up, turning around to go home and slamming face-first into the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.  The girl gets the Olympic medal after training like mad, falling flat on her face, knocking out a tooth or two, and getting the hell back up again a thousand times if that’s what it takes.  The Pulitzer Prize… well, apparently that takes a lot of writing.  Like a LOT a lot.  And here, my friends, we are, with a long stretch of Fridays before us.

Am I aiming for a Pulitzer?  Actually, no, and certainly not with this little confessional.  I’m aiming for bylines I’m crazy proud of and good books with my name on their jackets.  And I’ll keep aiming, every day, including these ramble-bramble posts each week to keep me accountable, as long as you keep aiming for whatever you want, too.  Let’s embarrass ourselves.  Let’s f*ck up royally and live to reminisce about it.

Let’s have some stories to tell.

a.

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