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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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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Sliding doors

"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.)

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Choose your own adventure

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

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Feet to the fire, hands off the wheel

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.

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Egg on my face

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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