Later, gators

ROLLLLLLLLL... BOUNCEHeyyyyyyy.

It’s been a while, huh?

Sorry about that.

So, this blog was born around the time I took the leap into full-time freelance writing. I knew I’d be working my butt off to make ends meet, and I knew a lot of the stuff I’d be putting together for clients wouldn’t exactly be poetic or heartfelt or deep; a lot of it would be designed to sell product, generate traffic, and any number of other un-sexy, un-writerly things designed to, at the very least, pay my rent. So, I made a promise to myself to write something creative just once a week and publish it here. Today, looking back over the last three years’ worth of blog posts, I have to say:

No. No no no no nononononononono.

Uggggghhhhhhhh. [dives under blanket] [peeks]

Nope. Still no.  

Now, it’s not as if I’ve become some kind of Important Writer — far from it — and I’m not even sure how much I’ve grown in the past three years. But a lot’s changed since I started writing for a living without the safety net of a PR job neatly depositing a check in my account every two weeks. I’ve still got growing up to do and a lot of crap to learn, but I’ve picked up some valuable things so far, including a keen sense of what my weaknesses are as a wordsmith (and a sole proprietor, and a person). Lots of them are on full display here on this blog, and even in this post, where there isn’t an editor to correct me or a vast audience to call me out on my crap. There’s a bit too much myopic self-indulgence here, I think, and it’s kind of mortifying to come back and read it now with the benefit (if you can call it that) of hindsight.

This has always been an open journal for me to ramble on about whatever’s on my mind, and yet I haven’t had the nerve to cover the heavier stuff I’ve dealt with since I started it:

I’ve gained firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to suffer from panic attacks — sure, I’ve dealt with them in pockets before, in the weeks after a loved one died and in the first month of living in a new city, but before 2011, never at random and without warning. (Hot damn, they’re awful.)

I’ve sat in the waiting room of a cardiac wing while my dad had open heart surgery, and every day that week as I drove my aunt home from the hospital, I tried and failed to ignore the fact that we had to pass the cemetery where my mom rests.

I’ve all but come to a conclusion about whether or not I want to be a mother myself.

I’ve stood by, mostly helpless, as my friends have dealt with immeasurable pain under unthinkable circumstances.

These are all big things, but I’ve barely whispered them here. In so many of these posts, I’ve been too busy posturing and being self-conscious and writing silly sentences for the sake of filling pixels on a screen. Too consumed with being cute to write much of anything real.

It’s time for that to end, I think.

Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to write some things I’ll hopefully look back on in a few years and still be able to read with pride. I’m coming to terms with an inconvenient fact about doing this for a living: I’ll never be 100 percent happy with anything I’ve finished. I’ll always go back over old work and find ways to improve upon it. But I’m also learning that it’s kind of okay — it’s something we all do. It’s what keeps us honest; it’s what helps us learn and evolve. I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can a) hand over a stack of writing I’m stoked about when someone asks for a sampling, and b) actually give sound advice to people who are just starting out. I’ve had three talented writers come to me in the past month alone, asking for pointers on leaving their old jobs behind and launching into the world of working for themselves. It’s been a kick and an honor to have those talks. It reminds me how terrified I was in the beginning, and how lucky I am to have this life… not to mention how hard I’d better keep working, because there’s always someone more than happy to take my place.

So, as I turn the corner into year number four once the holiday season’s in full swing (yep, back when I quit my last job to work for myself, I absolutely did it between Thanksgiving and the end of that year, because idiocy), it’s time to pack it in and keep my ramblings private until they’re ready to be poured into something fully formed. Those things might be essays or articles, some long and some short, but they probably won’t be blog posts, and they probably won’t live here.

Future entries on this site will be infrequent, but when I do post them, they’ll likely focus on things I’ve learned as a freelancer (or a human being), written in the hopes that someone else can benefit from them. I’ll also share the things I’ve published that I think you might enjoy. For starters, in case you’re interested, here’s a small taste of things I’ve written in the past year that make me smile just thinking about the process of putting them together.

Built, Not Born – I’ve long been fascinated by the Texas Roller Derby — especially the rebel faction of it known as TXRD, the banked track league — and I’ve long assumed that the stories of the women within it were riveting. For Citygram Austin’s Reflect Issue, I thought I’d dive into the sport and meet some of its players to see if my assumptions were true. Turns out, they were. The ones about the women being badasses, anyway.

Be Here Now: The Wild Night Sky (Field Notes from Magical Marfa) – Also for Citygram, but this time for the Escape Issue, I put together a travel narrative from my first trip to the beautiful, quiet, otherworldly town of Marfa, Texas. If you ever want to leave your life behind for a minute and pretend you’re Stevie Nicks, then get in a car, drive to West Texas and book yourself a tent at El Cosmico. But if you litter, insult a local or otherwise act a fool, I’ll rip your face clean off.

Through Her Lens: Esther Havens – I was asked late last year to write a few pieces for Alternative Apparel’s blog, Common Thread. Although they only ran one, it happened to be my favorite: a quick profile on Esther Havens, a Dallas-based humanitarian photographer who’s worked for everyone from National Geographic and charity: water to Warby Parker and TOMS. She’s lovely and kind and exactly the sort of person you’d hope to find behind such pictures. I hope she inspires a generation of creative people to stop with the selfies, once and for all, and do something more with their lenses.

Let’s All Go to Summer Camp with Amy Poehler – My favorite day of freelancing thus far was the one in which I got to spend a couple of hours at Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Summer Camp. Specifically, I attended the campers’ final showcase, and it honestly gave me hope for the future. I wasn’t thrilled with the way the piece came out in Refinery29, but that’s my picky, selfish ego left unchecked; for a true sense of how fantastic this organization is, just follow their Facebook page (and forward it to a young girl while you’re at it). You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably start looking forward to their posts every day. They’re a bright spot, those folks, and a much-needed one at that.

So, it’s time for another hiatus from this little corner of the web, save for an occasional pop-in when I have good enough reason to share something.

Thank you for reading this. I’ll contribute more when I have something worthwhile to say. In the meantime, no more endless babbling. I’m going to try to be a better writer — and person — today than I was yesterday.

 

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[image via Skate Talk]

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Insomnia in the Pacific Northwest (or, I wrote a thing for The Hairpin and I’m super duper stoked about it)

image: Tri-Star Entertainment

Can we agree that romcoms in all their traditional, predictable glory are sort of becoming a thing of the past? And that maybe it’s actually a good thing?

I’d say the old cookie-cutter boy-meets-girl storyline has undergone a few makeovers in the past decade or so and tried on some different looks — say, indie-esque (Garden State, 500 Days of Summer), irreverent (Knocked Up, Easy A) and genuinely almost great (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), but the formula’s mostly stayed the same, and it seems fewer and fewer are being made. At least, the tropes that acted as a common thread among them for so many decades feel like they’re (maybe?) fading and making way (I hope, anyway) for better, more real variations on the theme. I mean, I know zilch about movie making and have zero credibility when it comes to predicting film trends, but as a plain old movie-watching, critically-thinking citizen, I can admit to my former love of the genre as I look some of its greater offenders square in the face today with clarity of vision and ask them loudly, “WHAT THE HELL??”

So I wrote a piece for The Hairpin, a brilliant website beloved by literary-leaning folks primarily of the female variety, about my reaction to Sleepless in Seattle when I watched it again last month, more than 20 years after I fell in love with it at first sight. (And I mean LOVE love. Bridget-Jones-and-Mark-Darcy-after-the-blue-string-soup, Harry-and-Sally-on-New-Year’s, Mila-and-JT-during-the-Closing-Time-Flash-Mob-at-Grand-Central-Station-in-Friends-with-Benefits level love.) With all due respect to the very talented Ephron sisters, let’s just say my affections for the film have dimmed in the time it’s taken me to grow from a myopic 17-year-old into an (only slightly less myopic) adult. Ohhh, hindsight. Why you gotta be so smug?

Honestly, I’ll always love bits and pieces of that old Tom-and-Meg situation… but I confess those sorts of movies might have messed me up a bit in the lurve department, at least when I was younger. I’m more than a little mortified that I lapped up all those messages and internalized them for as long as I did. Give the essay a read, if you’d like, and feel free to tell me how crazy you think I am on a scale of one to Annie Reed.

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F*ck your f*cking Klout score

OMG TWITTER IS DOWNSometimes, I fear the internet is making me stupid and mean.

Before the web (in its current behemoth incarnation, anyway), there was college (for me, at least), and before college, there were books about the past and present — books I mostly ate like chocolate. But one afternoon in my junior year, one of my professors introduced a class full of Dickens-weary English majors to something that, back in the late 90s, few of us had ever heard of. Something that spoke of the future and how utterly crazy it was going to be. From that day forward, postmodernism grabbed us all and held us tight, from the opening pages of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions all the way through the end of DeLillo’s White Noise where god knows what was even happening — seriously, that book was nuts. Our wee little twenty-year-old minds were blown.

Simulacrum? Yeah, that could maybe be a thing. And wasn’t it terrifying? “Who wants to stand in front of a church with a camera pressed to your face just so you can look at the pictures later and remember what it was like to look through the lens at the church, when instead you could have just maybe, I don’t know… looked at the church? With your eyeballs?” we wondered. What if we got to a point where no one was experiencing anything worth talking about anymore, but rather, we all just started blindly making records of things, drawing a dotted line around what would have otherwise been real experiences, all for the sake of telling other people later about things we never actually lived through because we were too busy planning the anecdote and framing the shot for later? What if we all started pretending we’d really lived inside of all these moments when we’d actually been standing on the outside, snapping away and documenting it all from the perimeter like a bunch of little journalists? What if we started to live our entire lives that way? What if we forgot how to live, how to communicate, how to be?

We were all pretty freaked about the idea of people taking pictures of things instead of just living in the moment… about people being more interested in the perception of things than in the actual things themselves. Somebody who wasn’t worried about this later invented Instagram, and now I know what you ate for lunch. (I don’t mind it, really, but back in the 20th century, we were bugging out over the idea that there would someday be no “now”; that there would only be “let’s just capture this for later.” Somehow, I guess we’ve adapted? Maybe, kind of? Or not? I have no idea.)

At the time, The Real World was about six seasons in, and its originality was starting to wane as glimmers of the future began to cloud the vision of network execs in the forms of Survivor and Big Brother, which weren’t yet on the air but were probably in the earliest stages of development. No one knew what twitter was, nor Facebook, nor even MySpace or Friendster. It was in many ways a much simpler time, or so it seems in retrospect. Life was life, entertainment was entertainment, and voyeurism wasn’t quite the bloodsport it is today. Also, I’m fairly certain all the Kardashians were still in middle school.

I’m not going to spend the following paragraphs complaining about how awful pop culture and social media are. Actually, I don’t think they’re awful at all. What’s awful is what we’re letting it do to us. What it’s making us into. Well, some of us, anyway… and others by extension. As in, people who give advice to aspiring writers, and by extension, aspiring writers ourselves.

Thanks to some of this advice, I worry sometimes that we’re doomed.

I was reading an interview a literary magazine did recently with one of the editors of a popular female-oriented website I sometimes skim — the one that made Cat Marnell famous — and in this interview, the editor’s talking about the awards she won previously for her writing when she starts forgetting which awards they were. The following conversation takes place after that:

Interviewer: What, you can’t even remember them all any more?

Editor: No, not at all. I haven’t had an award since college. I just don’t submit to them anymore. It’s a different world—who gives a shit about awards anymore? Now it’s all about Twitter followers and Klout Score. Honestly, no one gets hired because of résumés anymore. They get hired because of a Google search. They get hired because of a Twitter feed. Do you know what I’m saying?

Interviewer: I do know what you’re saying. Do you use Klout?

Editor: Yeah. The reason I was interested in it was when I read that it was this kind of empirical measurement, like a Q Rating that shows how popular an actor or actress is in Hollywood. I’ve always been a fan of hard measurements of soft sciences, so it’s fun. It’s fun, especially if you’re kind of a workaholic and don’t have a boyfriend and that’s just a big part of your life to see: oh, my Bing results went up. And: my level of engagement on Twitter went up.

Interviewer: It’s interesting that Klout looks mostly at engagement. With Twitter followers, you can even buy them if you want, but what’s actually gained from that?

Editor: I looked at it the other day to see what the breakdown was in terms of what my Klout Score measured and it was like 50% Twitter, 10% Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook…

Interviewer: It seems like there are a lot of people who are secretly concerned with their Twitter and Instagram and how they’re doing, but they don’t want to admit it. I think that’s part of why your whole personal branding series was so popular.

Editor: Yeah. I need to go back to that.

Yes. Yes, please go back to that.

Yes, please inspire an entire generation of writers to worry more about how many followers we have than how good we are at writing. Yes, please make sure we all spend as much time whittling snarky one-liners about our immediate reactions to shit that means nothing as we do working on our craft and doing something that might actually make the world a tiny bit better in some way. Yes, please let’s make everyone spend as much time, money and energy as possible on our own personal branding, because there’s not nearly enough of that already happening. Yes, please encourage as much on-the-nose, self-promotional narcissism as you can muster. Yes, please teach a class on how we can all sit around taking pictures of ourselves and blather online about how great we are, in a year in which ‘selfie’ physically made its way into the dictionary. Yes, please discourage us from having a single thought without broadcasting it immediately, from taking time to let things simmer, from remembering how to express ourselves with any measure of eloquence.

Yes, please help us to be shocking, to “learn how to be authentic,” to get more page views, to gain a following, to say ‘f*ck’ a lot and reel everyone right the f*ck in to see what the f*ck we’re gonna do next. Yes, please do your part to force us to live in a world in which who people think we are is more important than who we actually are.

Yes.

Yes. Please f*cking do all of these f*cking things and more, you f*cking f*ck. Please use your f*cking powers to turn us all into a bunch of f*cking incoherent babbling… f*ck, I can’t remember the f*cking point I was trying to make.

BRB. Need to step the f*ck outside and #scream. (93 characters remaining)

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Cover to cover

image: Pamela Fugate Designs

When I was little, I wasn’t really much of a troublemaker. In fact, I was as straitlaced as a kid could be: reading was my addiction, and it was the only thing that regularly got me in trouble. I didn’t backtalk, I didn’t beg for attention — I just stayed up late almost every night, reading into the wee hours of the morning, or as long as I could get away with it before my mom would catch me. And book reports? Girl, I could bust a move on a book report. Believe it.

In college, though, I hit my limit. The summer of my first big breakup, I began the tradition that would carry me through every rough patch thereafter: I threw myself into work to get through each day. I took four accelerated summer courses all at once — those two-and-a-half-hours-a-day, four-days-a-week kinds of classes, and all of them together were supposed to satisfy my major’s literature requirement. I’ll just lose myself in the worlds of all these books, I thought, and then I realized what I’d done: I’d signed up to spend half the summer reading four books at once, one stack after another, week after week.

FOUR BOOKS AT ONCE. Have you ever tried that?

If not, don’t. If so, you’re crazy. CRAZY.

It took a few years after that for me to pick up a book again for the sake of pure pleasure. In fact, it may have taken about ten. Somewhere in my twenties I decided I was just too busy to read (Too busy doing what, exactly? Watching VH-1?), but now that I write for a living, I’ve rediscovered my addiction and fallen completely off the wagon. Stephen King’s been quoted as saying, “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

So, I’ve been stocking up on rope and pitons lately. It hasn’t been the most well-read year of my life, but I’ve torn through some satisfying stuff. I don’t usually squawk a lot about what book my nose is buried in, but I think I’ll do that today. Here’s a rundown of the pages I let myself get lost in this year, plus a few I’m about to dive into… because isn’t that feeling of connection half the fun of reading, anyway?


Girl Land by Caitlin FlanaganGirl Land by Caitlin Flanagan — It’s been an interesting year in Texas politics, and our national — no, make that global — conversation (or is it more of a screaming match?) about gender equality is far from over. Girl Land, a brief but writerly glimpse into the world of being something/someone between a girl and a woman — you know, that space Judy Blume always captured so well — tackles the topic without making me cringe, which is kind of a tough thing to do. The complexities of being female in what’s long been a man’s world are deeply personal, and it’s easy to get defensive when we’re presented with viewpoints that differ from our own, but look: the author has been on staff at The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and it shows. It’s worth a quick glimpse to remind ourselves of that part of our lives when we first started figuring out who we were and why. Those things, I think, are worth talking about with intelligence.


Paris by Janelle McCullochParis: An Inspiring Tour of the City’s Creative Heart by Janelle McCulloch — I went to Europe for the first (and absolutely not last) time in my life this year, visiting London, Paris and Barcelona over the span of a week and a half. I could have spent the entire time in just one of those cities and been happy as a lark, but even in the short time I spent in the City of Light, this achingly gorgeous book helped me get a feel for the arrondissements (that’s fancytalk for “districts”) and find some tucked-away places I would never have known about otherwise. Lush and detailed, this whimsically-written guidebook is a love letter to the city itself.



The Great Gatsby by F Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — F*ck Baz Luhrmann. Seriously, f*ck him and however you spell his stupid name. (Oh, sorry… didn’t realize I had so much rage pent up still). See, I’ve loved The Great Gatsby since I first read it in school, and last spring, I was looking forward to a fresh cinematic take that got it right. So much for those great expectations teetering precariously on the director’s decades-old Romeo + Juliet cred. Regardless, I’ll always love the narrative voice in this Great American Novel, and I’ll always find Daisy detestable, but that last part’s okay — I’m not alone. Such a quick read packed with so much social commentary. It’ll never get old, no matter how many more auteurs try to butcher it.



On the Road by Jack KerouacOn the Road by Jack Kerouac — I have an admission. Try as I might, I never finished this book. I know it’s a (mid-century) modern classic. I know it’s got that beautiful line about the mad ones and the yellow roman candles, and I know it’s got a lot of other beautiful lines, too, but there’s just so much mania between them all. That’s not to say I’m not up to the challenge, or that I have to be spoon-fed, but let’s be real: reading this guy’s prose is like riding in a car with no brakes. He typed it up on a scroll — a scroll, mind you — because changing the pages in his typewriter supposedly damaged his flow, for god’s sake. Still, I won’t be bested by this beatnik. I’ve picked the damn thing up twice and given it the old college try. I’m hoping the third time’s exactly as charmed as all those rumors swirling around it suggest.


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy KalingIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling — With chapter titles like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back,” The Office (which I love) writer-plus-cast-member and Mindy Project (which I can’t get into) star nails countless perfect witticisms of a hard-working girl who’s sometimes prone to abject laziness, narcissism and materialism but who always comes through in the end. Her rant about the fact that John Cougar (Mellencamp?)’s ode to the unburdened liberty of youth, “Jack and Diane,” is patently awful and ought to be changed to “Nguyen and Ari, a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review” is… well, c’mon. You laughed, right? Me, too.


The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan EvisonThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison — Whoa dang. I made the mistake of reading the first half of this novel on a plane. Oh, the crying. Actually, to be honest, some of the crying came from the author’s note at the end of the book, which I skipped to during a key scene because something struck me as familiar. Turns out, Evison wrote the tragicomic book in an almost involuntary attempt to deal with the loss of his sister, which makes complete sense given his adeptness at toeing the weird tightrope grief puts us on, balancing gallows humor in one hand and real, profound sadness and rage in the other. I found myself letting go of some of my own baggage while reading this work, and I’m sure lots of other readers did as well, so here’s hoping the crass but elegant writer behind this book was able to move forward a little bit, too, while he was putting its pages together.


Farther Away by Jonathan FranzenFarther Away by Jonathan Franzen — So, apparently I had a July full of Jonathans. Two of them, anyway… one full of heart, and the other, not so much. I chose this book by chance from a shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer after perusing the Essays section and haphazardly landing on a page dealing with the ethics of writing about family members, loved ones and other people who are in a position to get super pissed off about what’s been committed in ink about them. It sat on my nightstand and in a carry-on bag or two for the better part of a year, and then I finally dove in. Increasingly agitated as I trudged through his collection of essays, eulogies and commencement addresses, I finally declared, “I hate this guy.” and abandoned the book about two-thirds of the way through. A few weeks later, a link to the article “A Handy Guide to Why Jonathan Franzen Pisses You Off” popped up in my twitter feed, and I felt vindicated. I didn’t even know being pissed off by Jonathan Franzen was a thing until I’d been there myself and then realized it’s a universal thing, like loving bacon or cheese or Bill Murray.


Wild by Cheryl StrayedWild by Cheryl Strayed — Oh man. This one. This one stabbed me on page 38. Stabbed me in the ribs and kept me bleeding until the end. It’s easy to get lost in Wild and think you’re reading a work of fiction because the willpower, discipline and grit displayed by the protagonist is practically otherworldly, and yet at the same time, it’s impossible not to empathize with her. I’ve read quite a bit about how the boys’ club that is the literary establishment didn’t seem to want to let Cheryl Strayed in when this book sold like hotcakes last year. Personally, I think they’re intimidated… that’s why they tried to relegate her to the ill-fitting (for her) and utterly irrelevant chick lit section, even though she was caked in mud after hiking 1,000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone. Chick lit, my ass. This woman’s the truth. If I meet her someday, the Snapple’s on me.


Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia EphronSister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron — Full disclosure: I read this book as research for a Q&A I got to do with the author for a Citygram feature. Good thing I fancy myself a writer but not a journalist, since the tiniest anecdote about taking BBQ onto a plane can apparently win my affection in less than a third of a second. Anyway, this memoir by an acclaimed screenwriter, playwright and essayist (and incidentally, Nora Ephron’s sister) hit home for me in a number of ways: it deals with the subject of profound loss, it finds beauty in the tiniest of things, and it exposes the inner workings of a worrier who writes for a living. Check, check and check. Delia: you had me at “Sister.”



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What have you been reading? What’s up next on your nightstand? On deck for the holidays, I’ve got The Fault in Our Stars, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Brave New World (nope, I’ve never read it, nor its 1958 follow-up, but that’s about to change) and a whole bunch of essays. It’s so nice to delve into parallel worlds for a while to help us learn a little something about our own. Here’s hoping next year I’ll have a whole new mess of worlds to talk about with you. Maybe even one of mine.


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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.

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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.

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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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