Cool to be kind

image: Native Vermont Studios

Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” In honor of that sentiment, November 13 has been declared World Kindness Day – an occasion that hopefully inspires us to practice random acts of kindness when and where they’re least expected, and not just for a single day, but rather, as a typical mode of operation.

Here, five ideas to spark your imagination. Careful, though: these gestures may be habit-forming.

Buy the world a coke (or a coffee)

Event planner Robyn Bomar had the right idea on her 38th birthday a few years ago: instead of making the day all about her, she thought, why not make it about other people? With help from her family, she consciously committed 38 random acts of kindness, from feeding rows of parking meters and donating clothes to a homeless shelter to delivering homemade Valentines to an assisted living facility and giving gift cards to families in line behind them at the grocery store. Her blog post about the day created a stir, and then a movement; from it, The Birthday Project was born, encouraging others to use their birthdays for good as well.

Those same ideas are applicable any day of the year, and everything from leaving a huge tip on a small meal to putting a few dollars’ worth of change into a vending machine and attaching a note can bring a smile to someone’s face. Another act of kindness to consider: over-paying your barista on behalf of folks behind you, or using Starbucks’ new feature, @tweetacoffee, where you can sync a credit card and Starbucks account to twitter and buy a cup of joe for someone with a simple tweet.

Create a care package

A recent piece by The Atlantic posited that one in four Americans will have lived under the poverty line at some point before age 35. That sobering statistic serves to put a face on the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness, and hopefully hits home for those of us in a position to help others.

While some may not be comfortable simply giving money to those asking for it on the street, a simple, practical gesture can go a long way: consider creating small personal care packages by loading up freezer bags with a bottle of water, a pair of clean socks and piece or two of fresh fruit and delivering them to folks who could desperately use them. Maybe go a step further and donate non-perishables to a food bank or soup kitchen, many of which could benefit from extra foodstuffs for the holiday season.

Spend some time

Even if you don’t have a dime to spare, chances are, you have at least an hour. Time is one of our most precious resources, and it can be easily wasted on social networks, in long commutes and on all sorts of mindless diversions. Consider getting outside of your comfort zone and volunteering your time, even if you start with one commitment that lasts, say, an hour or two on a Saturday. Check out VolunteerMatch to find a local opportunity that suits your interests, whether it’s helping pets at a shelter, kids in a hospital or elders at the local library. (Intimidated? Don’t be. Pair up with a friend and do something worthwhile in lieu of brunch this Sunday.)

Rather go big? Start making plans to book a volunteer trip through Cross Cultural Solutions or Me to We. Your memories will last a lifetime, and so will those of the people you help.

Make your money talk

We live in crazy times. Think about it: any material object we could ever hope to own is likely a few clicks away. When it’s a choice between buying two similarly priced, equally cute and useful objects, one of which is ethically made and benefits a great cause and one of which isn’t and doesn’t, the decision should be an easy one to make. Sometimes, though, we don’t have all the information we need.

Sites like SHFT, Ethical Ocean, Uncommon Goods, Sevenly and TOMS’ new multi-vendor marketplace make those decisions easier; they only carry products that are ethically produced and environmentally conscious and/or have a proven social mission. Whether it’s a gift for a friend, a fun indulgence for yourself or daily basics like toothbrushes and chewing gum, you can impact the world in a positive way simply by making a more informed choice and putting your money where your heart is.

Put pen to paper

Pop quiz: When was the last time you sent an old-fashioned thank you note or a handwritten letter to someone you care about? In this era of tweets, texts and divided attention, it’s too easy to forget that a well-placed, self-penned word of encouragement or gratitude can brighten someone’s day or even boost them through a rough patch. It only costs the price of a postage stamp and a few minutes of your time, but it can make someone else feel like a million bucks, even if only for a day. That’s a return on investment that can’t be argued with.

However you choose to celebrate the day, any act of kindness is better than none at all. For more ideas on making a positive impact, check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (Yes, there’s actually a non-profit org called the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. There just might be hope for us after all, people.) Obviously, we’re not going to solve all the world’s problems simply by being kinder to each other for a day (or even all the time), but for those of us willing to take the first swipe at making things the tiniest bit better, we could stand to heed the words of legendary Grand Slammer Arthur Ashe:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

a.

ps… In case this post seems a little formal compared to what’s usually found here, it was actually pitched to and written for the website of a print magazine, but they ended up not running it. So, blah, I thought I’d share it with you kind folks instead. 

pps… hey, ‘member this?

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Hey jealousy

image: University of Wisconsin

image: University of Wisconsin

Growing up, I always hated the phrase “green-eyed monster.” Suffice it to say monsters are generally frowned upon by children, but moreover, I have green eyes — hazel, really, but mostly green — and the idea that I was a naturally jealous person because of my eye color just didn’t sit well with me when I was little. I think it was somewhere around third or fourth grade when I realized it was just a figure of speech.

Jealousy’s a funny thing. I used to assume some people were naturally predisposed to being jealous creatures while others just let the world spin past, unfazed by what everybody else was doing. I used to count myself among the latter set, but now, I can’t figure out what I was thinking. I’m jealous. I’m small. I can’t keep my eyes on my own plate. I’ve got all kinds of green eyes, and they tend to focus on stuff that shouldn’t even catch my attention, much less get under my skin.

I’m not talking about the don’t-look-at-my-man sort of jealousy — the clingy girlfriend kind, the Housewives of Such-and-Such-County type, the fly-off-the-handle-on-a-lark variety. In all honesty, I think that brand of insecurity lives mostly on TV; when I look around at the people in my life, at least, not one of them falls into the get-into-a-firefight-and-call-somebody-names category. I’m talking about the quiet, insidious kind of envy that creeps into the back of your head as you’re scrolling through the web each day — the kind that doesn’t have anything to do with real life in the first place. The kind that nobody suspects is there because nobody talks about it. The kind that presses down on our sternums, making it hard to breathe, telling us to stay put, lay low, get it perfect… measure up.

In my line of work, it’s my job to be online, scouting for information… inspiration… story ideas… trends. Here’s a trend that makes me ill: we’re so busy checking each other out that we’re forgetting who we are, or maybe even starting to turn into one another. At least, sometimes I feel like I am.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” the saying goes, and I know I’m caught red-handed. The more crap I take in, the more crap I spew out. And round and round it churns.

“What assholes,” I found myself fuming when I read about Foxygen’s freakout at ACL’s first weekend. I’d already decided upon my hatred for them weeks ago with one scant glance at their bio, in which they claimed to be “the raw, de-Wes Andersonization of the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Velvets, Bowie, etc that a whole mess of young people desperately need.” (Both members are 22 years old, incidentally, born the same year Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” topped the charts.) And when I started skimming the back story of their previous meltdowns at SXSW and listening to a bit of their music, my irritation went from a simmer to a raging boil. I shot an email to someone I knew would have a laugh over the idiocy of it all, and then kept clicking through concert reviews and bits of gossip about the band’s apparent inability to show up to things. And then I realized: here I am, a grownup with pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in life, spending a beautiful Sunday stewing over people I’ve never met and never will. Why? Because these two dudes, these kids who maybe fancy themselves as little rock gods and who probably need to lay off the pills, are getting paid to travel the world and do what they (ostensibly) love at a younger age than I, and okay, so maybe they’re not working very hard at it.

Oh, the outrage. Which member of Congress should I write?

What’s that? They’re not in the office today?

Oh.

Making a living as a writer sometimes feels like an endless uphill battle, and other times feels like swimming in a cool, calm lake on a crisp, clear day. On those in-a-groove days, I feel so much gratitude, it’s probably irritating to be around me. On those uphill days, though, it takes nothing — nothing — to spiral me into a hate-reading frenzy, pissed off to the high heavens that I haven’t finished a book yet, that I haven’t written for the Times yet, that I haven’t reached all (or even most of) my goals. A glaring typo in a usually-well-crafted magazine or a flippant, vapid remark from someone on Twitter makes me instantly irrational, questioning the balance of right and wrong in the world. Taking a break from doing actual work — i.e., being lazy — I find myself infuriated at musicians I’ve barely heard of over their… laziness. Off I go, worrying about other people’s business when we know it’s none of mine.

Or maybe it’s completely about mine.

“Why do kids in Haiti have to starve while this [beep] gets to sit around all day, snapping selfies and snarking about what people around her are wearing? Does she even have a job?” I’ll fume over a stranger’s vanity on a social network, but then I have to ask myself: How long has it been since I did something about kids in Haiti?

Ah, right. Yes. About that.

Sometimes I think there’s validity in the notion that the things we hate the most in other people are the things we hate about ourselves. Another angle, I think, makes just as much sense: the things that infuriate us the most about other people are the things we fear exist within us. I think the reason I can smell a narcissist a mile away and instinctively veer in the opposite direction is that I’m terrified of being one myself. (My finely-tuned sense of smell, by the way, was only developed through decades of trial-and-error involving several real-life Regina Georges. I wouldn’t recommend it.) People who don’t seem to work very hard drive me up a wall, and when I say out loud that I’m (still) working on my (first) novel, I hate the way it sounds.

So, I think I’m done — at least for a while — consuming junk media, clicking on link bait and paying attention to the ephemera out there just for the bruise-pressing pleasure it gives me to compare myself against other people and see how I stack up. I think the next time something trivial frustrates me about “the world,” I’ll stop and ask myself why I’m so hot and bothered, and then maybe back away from the screen a bit. Let in a little fresh air. Between hitting work deadlines and living real life, there’s a gap to be filled — spare time to be killed. I think I’ll stop killing little pieces of my soul along with it. I’ll maybe just feed it instead.

Envy, repulsion, boredom, lust… it’s all so entwined, isn’t it? I guess instead of wasting time feeling blue about not having done this or that, I’ll go do this and that and stop shuffling about.

I swept through my twitter feed this week and cut out a lot of the stuff I’ve been wasting my time on. There was nothing wrong with most of it, really — folks with great senses of wit, blogs with interesting articles from time to time — but if it didn’t help me grow or often made me sneer, it’s not on my feed any more. Talented writers, sharers of knowledge, kickass people who actually are doing something about kids in Haiti… they’re all still there. It’s the other stuff I had to let go of. The people I don’t know, whose lives I shouldn’t be peering into. The blogs and celebs and personalities I don’t even like, which I need to stop rubbernecking over. The brands selling me stuff I don’t need, which I need to quit thinking I do. The ones who don’t teach me anything (except PrinceTweets2U. HE STAYS.)

I’m saving me from myself. And to the folks I unfollowed, as if you even care: hey, listen.

It’s not you.

It’s me.

Just me and these green eyes of mine, trying to stay on my own plate.

- a.

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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.

a.

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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

follow Citygram on twitter

like Citygram on facebook

a.

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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.

a.

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Slow your roll

robin's egg blue bicycle

Image: Paper Social

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

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

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

Just think.

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

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

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

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

Breathe.  In and out.  Again.  

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

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

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

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

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

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Living in the margin

illustration via Drawing Saudade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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