Proust’s Questionnaire

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Last night, I was emailing a friend some suggestions for an endeavor he’s about to embark upon—one that requires him to ask some tough questions of himself and define his voice before he puts it out there into the world in a big way. While I was trying to figure out some prompts to get him thinking about big things and little things and igniting some Really Deep Thoughts in the process, I decided to toss in a link to the Proust Questionnaire—that age-old list of questions French writer Marcel Proust himself didn’t invent, but rather, was known for trotting out among acquaintances as a sort of parlor game to get conversations rocking and rolling beyond the drudgery of small talk.

You know what? These are some great fucking questions.

I decided to sit down and dive into them myself (well, the modified Vanity Fair edition, anyway, because it was the most copy-and-paste-able version I could find in 30 seconds or fewer and I’m lazy), putting my responses in writing so I can come back to them later and see how my perspective changes over time. I think I might sit down and answer them again every year or so, without looking at my previous answers first, just to take my own philosophical pulse and see if I’m growing at all as a person as the years go by.

Here are my responses as of today. Feel free to answer these yourself, and ask the people you love (or want to get to know) to do the same. In fact, I’m fairly confident that one of the best (or worst) dates ever, be it between people who just met or who have known each other for decades, involves this questionnaire and a good, good bottle of red.

Off we go:

1.What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think it has something to do with the notion of flow. To be deep into something you’re creating or engaging in, where you’re just fully ensconced in your fascination with that thing, whether it’s a thing you’re writing/painting/singing/playing, or the endorphin high that comes from the act of doing something amazing with your body, or the intensity of the connection you feel with someone during a conversation you’re having, or the bliss of tasting something wonderful. The feeling of being fully in the moment and grateful for all of it is the essence of happiness to me.

2.What is your greatest fear?

That there’s nothing after this—that there’s just a void. Even with my very, very limited understanding of how the world works, I find comfort in the concept of energy never being created or destroyed, but transferred, because if our spirits or souls are really just energies, then they have to go somewhere, right? If, on the other hand, the end is the end is the end and that’s all there is, then I suppose it’s nothing to fear anyway since when you are nothing, you feel nothing, and you don’t even know that you’re nothing, so what’s the fuss all about? It’s just sleep, and this life is a gift, and what a bunch of selfish paranoid weirdos we all are. I think about this all the time.

3.What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Vanity.

4.What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Cruelty, especially under the guise of humor.

5.Which living person do you most admire?

Barack Obama. It’s true. I’m unoriginal. Sue me.

6.What is your greatest extravagance?

Food and travel. #notsorry

7.What is your current state of mind?

Gratefulness. Joy. Actively keeping worry at bay as best I can. Always sliding along the spectrum of contentment and restlessness, but pretty close to the contentment end today.

8.What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Charm.

9.On what occasion do you lie?

Less often, the older I get. Sometimes out of politeness to people who probably wouldn’t be moved by the truth anyway. I’m working on it, though.

10.What do you most dislike about your appearance?

My stomach. And it’s stupid. My stomach is a sign of a life well-lived, of good food eaten and good drinks drunk. I really ought to let it go. We all should. It’s just stardust anyway.

11.Which living person do you most despise?

Naming names is silly, so I’ll describe them this way: people who mistake kindness for weakness, and who exploit that trait in others. People who step on other people to get where they’re going. People who backbite. People who do these things because they hate themselves and can’t figure out a better way to be. I feel sorry for them more than I despise them, I guess.

12.What is the quality you most like in a man?

Kindness.

13.What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Kindness.

14.Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“No worries,” but I remain steadfast in my overuse of it. It’s not going anywhere.

15.What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Is it trite to say my husband? It’s trite to say my husband. It’s also true. My parents and my friends are the loves of my life, too. So are some of the places I’ve been and the feelings I’ve felt. Bjork once said the most romantic thing: “I never really understood the word ‘loneliness.’ As far as I was concerned, I was in an orgy with the sky and the ocean, and with nature.” You can’t argue with that way of looking at the world. I can’t, anyway.

16.When and where were you happiest?

There’s not one particular moment or year or era. I experience little pockets of joy almost every day, even in the dark times. I think happiness, for the most part, is a choice. To some degree, I look at joy as a perspective that becomes a practice that becomes a habit that becomes a way of being. There’s a sense of ritual to it for me. I don’t know if it’s like that for other people or not. But I try to make room for it to come in and stay as much as possible, and I hope to keep doing that for as long as there’s breath in my chest.

17.Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to speak eloquently to a room full of people without being eaten alive by crippling self-doubt before the first syllable comes out (or afterward, for that matter).

18.If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

See responses #17 and #10.

19.What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Carving out a life for myself that feels the way I want it to… a little creative, a little unconventional, mostly unfettered by things that don’t matter to me. I can’t take all the credit for getting here, but I’ll take a fraction of it.

20.If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

Since things don’t have souls, as far as we know, I wouldn’t come back as an inanimate object, given the choice. I wouldn’t come back as an animal, either, because my god, look at how we treat them all. I guess I’d come back as a person with a strong voice and a will to make the world a kinder place. I suppose I’m already the second part of that sentence, still working on the first part.

21.Where would you most like to live?

Right where I am today.

22.What is your most treasured possession?

I try not to be too enamored of material things, but I have a real affinity for an old teal typewriter I picked up on eBay for maybe $30 about 8 years ago. I think it signified a shift in the way I viewed myself and my place in the world. It reminded me to write, and I like thinking about the letters and memos and stories and who knows what else that may have been tapped out on those keys in the 80+ years before I got my hands on it.

23.What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Regret.

24.What is your favorite occupation?

Writing.

25.What is your most marked characteristic?

Too-long sentences?

26.What do you most value in your friends?

Their open hearts. For as diverse as their personalities, political leanings and perspectives on the world might be, they’re all kind people who exercise their ability to see the good in others.

27.Who are your favorite writers?

In the general order in which I discovered their stuff: Judy Blume, Harper Lee, e.e. cummings, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Klosterman, Joan Didion, Cord Jefferson, my friend Tolly Moseley, Cheryl Strayed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and my friend Clara Bensen.

I also loved Pablo Neruda until I found out he was a rapist who even wrote about his crime. Tell all your friends.

28.Who is your hero of fiction?

I have absolutely no idea.

29.Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I’ve been a little obsessed with Nellie Bly lately. I don’t do any of the things she did, exactly, but I like what she stood for.

30.Who are your heroes in real life?

My parents and my friends.

31.What are your favorite names?

I’m not planning on having kids, so I don’t have names picked out. I do have an affinity for musicians named Stevie (Nicks, Wonder) and Jimmy/Jimi (Page, Hendrix), though, so that’s something.

32.What is it that you most dislike?

Cruelty and pigheadedness. To a lesser extent, the sound of people chewing and CRACKING THEIR KNUCKLES OH MY GOD. Also, the sound of liquid being poured into a glass. Those commercials where you hear the soda can open, followed by the sound of a glass filling up with whatever carbonated beverage they’re selling? No. No. No.

Mostly cruelty and pigheadedness, though.

33.What is your greatest regret? 

Not spending more quality time with my mom before she died. We were on great terms, as usual, and the last thing I said to her was “I love you,” having no idea it would be the last time we’d speak and that she’d be gone the following afternoon. But I could have stopped procrastinating and booked that trip to London (one she never knew about because I was going to surprise my parents with it) years earlier, when she would have been able to enjoy it. I could have stayed with her a little longer the last time I visited. I could have hugged her tighter. These realizations affect the way I treat people today, ten years later, probably for the better. But back then, I should have loved her harder on the surface and not just deep down underneath it all, where she might not have been able to see it as clearly.

34.How would you like to die?

I want to die old (and I mean OLD), tired and ready. I want to have said all my “goodbye”s, “I love you”s, “thank you”s, and “fuck you”s. I want to finish all my business as best I can, reach the end with very few regrets about what I did and didn’t do during my time here, and then I want to slide quietly and painlessly into a good long nap. I know it’s not sexy. I don’t care. I’m just not drawn to the romance of a dramatic exit; there’s been plenty of drama in the living years, and there’s sure to be more before it’s over. Toward the end, I hope it’s just a tranquil send-off into whatever the hereafter might be. I’d also like for my remaining sack of nonsense to help a tree grow big and strong.

35.What is your motto?

  • “If you see something beautiful in someone, speak  it.” -Ruthie Lindsay

 

  • “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.” -paraphrased from Alan Watts

 

  • “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” -Bill Nye 
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photo source: public domain

 

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On aging

Joy BianchiA writing client of mine posted a photo on Instagram this afternoon, and as it often does, a comment caused a spring in my brain to fly loose.

“Go shopping with the perennially bespectacled Joy Bianchi, a grand dame of the San Francisco philanthropy scene and one of the world’s premier couture collectors,” the caption reads. The photograph focuses on an elegant woman resplendent in deep red lipstick and a zebra-striped dress with a black sash, her dark grey hair pulled back with a bit of lift on top, her eyes covered with outsized black glasses. A huge cocktail ring hangs from her right hand as she gazes into the camera with comfort. She’s got the kind of panache that might make Diana Vreeland smile if she were still around — the sort of look that probably elicits comparisons to Iris Apfel from people who know who that is.

“So cute,” typed a commenter.

So cute.

I decided to take a moment to look up Joy Bianchi’s biography, or at least a quick swath of it. I found some interesting notes:

“The spirited woman about town has dedicated the past 62 years to supporting the Bay Area’s developmentally disabled residents with developmental disabilities -ed. through fashion.” –WhereTraveler

“In Catholic grade school, she was taught about St. Vincent de Paul and charity as his predominant virtue. ‘I got hooked on him,’ she said. What followed were decades of service to developmentally disabled people with developmental disabilities -ed.” –SFGate

“Her humanitarian spirit blossomed at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Pacific Heights. At the mere age of 14, she began working with developmentally disabled children with developmental disabilities -ed., then called mentally retarded, through Helpers of the Holy Innocence. Once a week she accompanied the nuns to visit the poor on Pixley Street, where she saw rats in the basements of homes. After graduating from San Francisco College for Women, she worked in the social work department at the University of California Medical Center but stayed involved with Helpers of the Holy Innocence. When the organization needed a new Director, Venturini Bianchi was hired. That was 1962. A year later, she opened Helpers’ first home at 2626 Fulton Street.

It was there that six developmentally disabled women women with developmental disabilities -ed. received another chance. The first female to move in had lost both of her parents, arrived from a foster home, had been physically molested, mentally abused and put in the juvenile court system. ‘She was the person who spurred this home to become this wonderful place,’ Venturini Bianchi said.

Eventually there would be three Helpers homes that simultaneously took care of 18 men and women daily. Venturini Bianchi didn’t just provide a bed and meals. The residents were afforded the same life she enjoyed.

Interior decorator Eleanor Ford and antiquarian Bernard Stout outfitted the bedrooms using the favorite colors of the residents, some of who lived at the home until their 60s and 70s. Only fresh produce was served and the residents reviewed the book Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers before going out to dinner. Wilkes Bashford dressed the men in his shirts and cashmere sweaters. The women wore clothes from I. Magnin. Nothing was too good for Helpers’ residents, who frequented museums, went to the opera and symphony, ran errands to FedEx, learned to read and write and became known in the community.” –Haute Living

We can save the lecture on using person-first language with regard to developmental disabilities for another day; for now, those edits will have to do. Today, my f-stop is set to highlight something that’s bothered me for years: the way we treat our elders as if they’re less than they are. As if they aren’t entire human beings with textured lives and stories to tell.

About the word cute

“Cute” is puppies. “Cute” is babies. “Cute” is the first scarf you ever tried to knit, the drawing a child made, the moment two people on a first date acknowledge how awkward the whole thing is. Outside of the costume of sarcasm, I think most people who call other people “cute” are attempting to pay a compliment. We mean well; we just don’t know what to say on the fly, and we’re hypocrites about the things that scare us. “She’s so cute,” we say of women who were old enough to have an informed opinion on Roe v. Wade as it was actually happening, because it’s nicer than saying “I’m terrified of getting older and this woman reminds me that I’m going to.” “He’s so cute,” we say of men who were old enough to fight in Vietnam, Korea or either world war, because winking and smiling is easier than staring the passage of time in the face and acknowledging it fully. “They’re so cute,” we say of people who’ve survived in this place for the better part of a century, reducing them to innocents on par with infants and fuzzy little yellow chicks emerging from their eggs.

But they’re not innocents. They’re not children. They’re adults.

Most had babies of their own long ago, and lots of those babies have had babies since. Many forged careers, built things, lived through hardship, got sick, broke through boundaries, fought for what they believed in, took care of other people, and tried to take care of themselves. Plenty still do. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. They’re flawed, they’re sentient — they’re people. They’re survivors of the same things the younger among us face every day, and probably far more than that. They see us for who we are and who we might someday be, and while we pat them on the head like toddlers, some might be thinking, “Please. I could eat you for breakfast.” And you know what? They probably should.

In fact, they’re not “they.” They’re “we.” We’re all “we.”

I don’t know Joy Bianchi, nor had I ever heard of her before today. But I do know one thing, and I’ll say it three ways:

She is fierce.

She is a fox.

She is anything but cute.

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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.

a.

[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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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. This should go without saying, but a kind word, a handshake and a little direct eye contact wouldn’t hurt, either. We’re all just humans doing the best we know how, after all.

A bonus idea for the fall: 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.

Update, April 2015: actually, maybe don’t do this before you’ve done a ton of research. While ‘voluntourism’ sounds lovely on the surface, it can sometimes hurt more than it helps. Here, a few resources to help parse what’s what: an NPR piece from July 2014, an article in The Independent from last fall, a 2013 post on CNN, and a trailer for the documentary film H.O.P.E. Was Here that compelled me to add this cautionary blurb in the first place.

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. While buying stuff just for the sake of buying it won’t help anything (i.e., a spoiler alert: crass consumption isn’t going to save the world), when faced with a choice between buying two similarly priced, equally useful and essential 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 — often, both. Whether it’s a gift for a friend or daily basics like toothbrushes and tee shirts, 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.”

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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? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXe8PFKsOIc

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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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