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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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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Brains for free

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

image: public domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For those about to rock

image: The Shabby Creek Shop

Tonight, I’m going to my first metal show, ever.

I’m pretty much a Great American Songbook girl all the way, having grown up on a steady diet of Cole Porter standards, Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, a little bit of rock and a totally unhealthy stream of MTV pop trash for balance.  I have an open-ended appreciation for all forms of music, though, and new experiences have become something of a drug for me in the last few years.  So, when one of my favorite people I’ve ever known asks me to go on a road trip and absorb some mega-angry industrial metal with him at the Toyota Center in Houston, I’m all about hopping in the car, even though it’s going to be like this.

Ah, the things we do for love of learning… and also just for love.

Let’s be clear: my only reference point for this super-upset band we’re seeing, Rammstein, is a snippet from a song of theirs called “Du Hast” to which Beavis and Butthead banged their heads a long, long time ago when Beavis and Butthead was something people actually watched.  That’s all I’ve got.  That’s all I’m working with here, kids — a memory from the mid-90s.  The broader perspective isn’t much better; my entire metal catalogue consists of exactly one — count ‘em it, one — Rage Against the Machine song that everybody over the age of five probably also knows by heart, and yes, it’s the one with the F-bomb in the chorus.  Tee hee.

Cindy Brady here, reporting live from the mosh pit!

When my boyfriend first asked me months ago — a hundred months ago — if I wanted to go to this show with him, I saw how excited he was.  He’s a planner by nature, so the advance notice didn’t really surprise me, but apparently this particular (German) band doesn’t tour the US often, and he wasn’t passing up the chance to see them even if it meant going on his own.  This boy was logging onto StubHub and making some magic happen whether I was on board or not, but he was sweet enough to ask me along anyway.  I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Yes, on two conditions.  I’ll go with you if you let me wear a bike helmet and a light pink tee shirt that says ‘Baby’s First Metal Show.'”

Know what?  That fool agreed.

Just kidding… he’s not a fool at all.  But he did agree.  This brilliant and amazing person has totally signed up for my randomness in all its forms.  He’s fully aware he’s joined forces with a pearl-encrusted borderline unicorn enthusiast.  He understands he’s in a relationship with someone virtually incapable of sarcasm or acidity, and he’s completely cognizant of the fact that sometimes, hanging out with me entails Muppet references and a completely made-up language.  Although I try to keep the fairy dust to a minimum, he knows it’s entirely plausible that his date to the Rammstein show will be rocking pigtails and a maxi dress.  I might even scamper up into that joint in some ballet flats.  (I did find a sweet pair of earplugs made to look like 9mm bullets, but I didn’t order them in time.  I mean, look, though… I tried.)

In the end, I think we’re all just people looking for other people whose dreams, fears and weirdnesses fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces up against our own.  Although I doubt I’ll walk away from the Rammstein show a believer, I’ll likely have learned how to curse a jerk out in German… so, there’s that.  Perhaps I’ll have figured out how to throw the sign of the beast without looking like I’m rooting on the Longhorns or saying mahalo. And hopefully, I’ll see and hear in person some of the stuff I’ve learned this week from the metal documentary I’ve been watching a little of each night, which was produced and directed by a diehard metalhead who also happens to be an anthropologist and which includes sound bytes from my literary spirit animal, Chuck Klosterman, who would probably sigh and roll his beady little eyes if he ever read this sentence, because a) I’m such a rock neophyte it’s ridiculous, b) this sentence is nine miles long and horrifically constructed, and c) aside from being practically unreadable, this sentence also includes an a)b)c) section, which is something he does fairly often and which, therefore, looks super-reductive coming from me.  OHAI, Chuck.  Love your work.  <awkward pause>  Kbye.

Anyway, most importantly, there’s the fact that tonight’s show is going to make my boyfriend really, really happy.  If he can sit through The Muppets with me, I can experience Rammstein with him.  He’s a good egg.  I think I’ll leave the bike helmet at home and bang my head with him just this once.

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Those who can, teach

I covered a wall in Judy Blume last week.  Covered, top to bottom.

Step into my office...I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelance writer for five months now, and as sublime as days spent on the couch can sound when you’re daydreaming about them from an office, once you actually start living the dream, things change.  Days blend into nights.  There’s no separation between work and non-work.  You start having in-depth, two-way conversations with the dog.  All that structure you rallied so hard against and swore you’d never return to starts to actually make sense, and not only do you acknowledge its legitimacy, but despite all your freedom, you even begin to crave it.  I’m pretty sure it’s the primary reason (among many) that coworking spaces now exist — to save us from ourselves.

So, I decided to convert my dining room into an office.  It’s at the farthest point of my apartment from the space where I spend most of my time, so there’s some sense of a border between the two.  I’ve been writing so many pieces on home decor and design over the past few months that I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to inspiration, which is why it’s kind of hilarious that, after sifting through an all-you-can-eat smorgasboard of breathtaking ideas, I landed squarely on something straight out of elementary school:

A big black chalkboard and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

I’ve loved the idea of chalkboard paint ever since I first learned of its existence, and I’ve loved Judy Blume since I was a little kid.  In fact, reading my first two Judy Blume books in Ms. Shirkey’s fourth grade gifted class was what made me want to be a writer to begin with.  The dotted lines weren’t hard to draw.  “She’s a girl… I’m a girl,” I thought. “Her name’s Judy… my mom’s name is Judy.  I love writing… my teachers keep telling me I’m good at it.  I wonder if I could do it for a living when I grow up.”  So I spent several hours last week covering an accent wall with chalkboard paint and several more scrawling the first chapter of Judy Blume’s first book (or the first one I knew of hers, anyway) from ceiling to floor in chalk marker.  And without my even planning it, it fit perfectly.

As I was transcribing the words onto the wall, I started thinking about all my influences from when I was young, and everything somehow tied itself back to a teacher.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit something: we’ve all heard the term “PK,” short for “preacher’s kid,” and I’ll readily share the fact that I’m a TK, which is probably similar.  My mom taught kindergarten, second and third grade for about a decade apiece, and although she was never my teacher, some of her friends were, and I got to know them over the years as people, not just “Mrs. So and So from Classroom 4B.”  As a result, the phrase “those who can’t, teach” has always made me laugh, because I know anyone idiotic enough to utter those words has clearly never tried.

I have to wonder what some of my favorite teachers are doing now, or if they’re even still with us.  I hope, of course, that they’re all healthy, happy and retired — or close to retired, anyway — and getting some much-deserved rest from all of us snot-nosed brats.  They’re probably not chilling out at all, though, if they’re anything like my mother, who kept volunteering at her old school well after she was off the books, no matter how much we begged her to just take a load off for once in her life.  But she wasn’t having it; it was in her blood, just like it was for Mrs. Steinman, for whom only the act of teaching me cursive could pull me out of the coma of a crush I was in over Christopher Hutchins, the skinny little green-eyed boy I spent the entire third grade obsessing over at Hogan Spring Glen Elementary.  Then there was sweet Mr. Gunter, who patiently stayed after school to help several classmates and myself with our long division even though we were all pretty much hopeless.  He was tireless and kind.  He gave me my first C, but we all know whose fault that was.

I’ll never forget the lilting Southern accent, perfect dresses and love of classic literature Ms. Belote bestowed on all of us in the seventh grade at Hendricks Day School — nor will I forget the fact that one day in 1988 I took one look at her ice blue 300ZX and thought, “Oh man, English teachers are cool… I’ve got to be one someday.”  Because of that woman, I actually thought diagramming sentences was a fun thing to do, and I still dissect language in my head that way sometimes.

Senora Tyler taught English and Spanish in eight and ninth grade and scared the living hell out of me, but in doing so, she instilled a sense of grammatical discipline in me that no other teacher ever quite matched, while the beautifully rebellious Ms. J. — my junior year creative writing teacher — made sure I understood the importance of questioning authority and the brilliance of making the choice to break select rules once they’d all been mastered.  Those two women in particular still swirl around in my head from time to time when I’m writing.  But obviously, as amazing as they all were, none of them made nearly as much of an impact on me as the one whose class I never once attended — Mrs. Lynch.

Now, back to the first chapter of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: it’s about a nine-year-old boy bringing home a turtle he won at a birthday party and his mom’s reaction to the unexpected — and smelly — new pet.  Thanks to that fact, I looked up at the blackboard in front of my new desk the other day and realized I now sit eye level every single day with the words “my mother said.” Those words are staring straight at me while I work each day to achieve something she encouraged me to chase from the day I told her it was what I wanted until the day she took her last breath.  To call it mere coincidence would be a smidge naive.

She’s been gone for six years now, but somehow, but she’s still teaching me things.  Just like all the good ones do.

a.

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