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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Meeting the maker

Image: Not on the High Street

Image: Not on the High Street

I almost died this week.  It’s not something I’d recommend.

The short version: I was scooting along the highway on Monday morning, heading to the kennel to pick up the pup after taking a redeye home from New York Sunday night. I was about to ease into the left-hand turn lane when a driver who was evidently a) speeding like mad and b) not paying attention to the road slammed into me with a force I can’t even quantify.  It shot my car into the wide grass median, completely out of control, moving at an angle that was quickly edging me headfirst toward oncoming traffic.

“I’m not going to make it out of this,” I thought, clear as a bell.

Realizing a second later that I had a chance to maybe, just maybe, stop the car by turning the wheel, I made a quick decision. “Don’t turn too far,” I told myself, having no idea if the steering or the brakes were even operational, since they seemed to be under the control of a force greater than they were. “Just a smidge. Maybe it’ll be enough.” Thankfully, it was.  My car came to an abrupt stop, slowed — I’m guessing — by the traction of the earth beneath it.  All I could do was sit there and shake, realizing over and over again with shock that I was still alive.

What happened next was a blur.  I remember a girl running toward my car, cell phone to her ear, and when I looked back, I saw a Range Rover parked at a crazy angle in the median some 50 yards back.  She’d seen me get hit, and I’d been heading straight toward her as my car was jettisoning across the grass.  If I hadn’t turned the wheel, we would have had a head-on collision, each of us going at least 50 mph.  Range Rover vs. Fiat.  I’ll leave the math up to you.

I think about death all the time.  All the time.  I had my first taste of it at 16 when my brother committed suicide, and then as each grandparent, one by one, died of old age.  My uncle, of an aneurysm.  My cousin, again of suicide.  My mother, of an embolism.  Others, in ways I refuse to talk about.  I grew up living under the daily fear of two cops showing up at my parents’ door, telling us another brother of mine was gone because of his addictions (which thank god he’s now actively winning the fight against).  I’m constantly walking around thinking I have some silent disease that’s killing me slowly, that I’m the next one to go.  It’s been that way since I was a kid.  I think it’s why I write.

I’ve been in at least ten car accidents, two of them severe but several involving being rear-ended while sitting still at a stoplight.  The last time that happened, right after I moved to Austin a few years ago, it left a dent in my car but I let the guy drive away without calling our insurance companies.

“Just promise me you’ll do something nice for somebody today,” I said.  He seemed stunned, but agreed.

Aside from my little car’s five-star safety rating and perhaps the grace of a guardian angel or two, I have no clue how I walked away on Monday.  I’ll find out today if Frank the Fiat is no more… it’s not looking good.  But that’s okay.  It’s been stopping me in my tracks all week to think about how a half-second’s worth of hesitation, or how misgauging the turn of the wheel by a millimeter or two, could have changed everything.

Add to that the shock of last week’s events, from which I was sitting just an hour away in a coffee shop in Greenwich, CT as it was happening, talking to a client about gearing a website more toward mothers who want to do good in the world, and let’s just say I’ve been really, really quiet this week.  No need for a lot of talking.  Just thinking.  Reflecting.  Kissing the boyfriend.  Hugging the dog.  Indulging in a weird sense of detached heartbreak for others, standing in stark contrast — or maybe harmony — with an overwhelming thankfulness for this second chance I’ve been given.  There’s probably some survivor’s guilt in there, too, having sidestepped so many awful things in life.  I suppose I’d better do something amazing before my number’s actually, legitimately up, which as we’ve all been reminded lately, could be any minute.

Step one: being thankful.  Step two: maybe caring less about being uncool or seeming clichéd.  Uncool and alive is a combination I can live with.

And I plan to.

a.

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Go take a leap

IT'S PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME, B*TCHES

image: Junebug Photography

This Wednesday was my one-year anniversary of being a full-time freelance writer.

I’m still not entirely sure what that means. I’d love to craft a beautifully worded treatise on the joys and foibles of the past twelve months, but there’s no way to encapsulate it in a blog post. This little girl with misaligned socks is a pretty solid representation of what it feels like most of the time, which is why I chose her to accompany this week’s installment… but to write some sort of summary would be damn near impossible.  I really wish I’d written something that first day about taking the leap so I could look back on it now and laugh at what a dolt I was.  I think I was too busy to jot down any thoughts, though. Not too busy with clients (yet), mind you… just too busy freaking out, looking in nooks and crannies for rent money.  Too busy trying to find my footing.  Too busy wondering if I’d ever drink fancy coffee again.

Instead of blathering, I’d rather share a few of the notions, words and people that have inspired me from the start.  If I’ve done the math right (and I’m not proud of this, but that’s a big ‘if’), I’ve written more than 1,300 blog posts and articles totaling something like 396,000 words this past year, and that was just the dry run.  So today, I’m taking the day off to celebrate the fact that I’m able to pay the bills and feed the dog (at least this month, if not next) by doing what I love. I’ll let these pictures do the talking while I take a tiny break and figure out what’s next.  After I finish this here fancy coffee in my hand.

image sources: author's archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

image sources: author’s archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

For those of you who’ve made the leap yourselves, I salute you.  For those thinking about doing something scary that’s been tugging at you from the inside, I say, “Do it.”  If it’s how you truly want to spend your life, and if you’re willing to pay your dues, it will be worth the wait, the fear and the struggle.  The coolest part: when you get to your first benchmark, you’ll realize you never once looked back.  Because why would you?  That shit back there was awful.  This stuff right here is great, even when it isn’t.

Happy Friday, folks, and happy 2012. Thank you for coming here.  Thank you for believing in my work, whether you’ve checked out my portfolio or just enjoy reading these public diary entries.  I hope they make you smile, give you an idea every once in a while, or at least provide the distraction you’re looking for.

Most of all, thank you for your kindness, encouragement and time.  I appreciate it more than you know.

a.

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Touch a snake & slap a pirate

When was the last time you touched a snake?

Whatsa matter, Joan?

image: RKO Radio Pictures

Having grown up in Florida, slithery little serpents have never really freaked me out that much, nor have bugs or even spiders, which seem to have a significantly higher “ick” factor for most people than their short-legged counterparts.  But believe me when I say I’m terrified of plenty of things.  Failure.  Success.  Public speaking. Looking stupid.  Awkwardness, which makes no sense at all since I practically invented it myself.  Tons of things make me want to crawl into the carpet and hide on a near-daily basis, which is why I was riveted by this particular TED Talk I stumbled across earlier this week.  It was given by legendary designer David Kelley, and in it he tackled the notion of creatives vs. non-creatives and pretty much crushed the fallacy that creativity is some sort of finite, predetermined thing that’s rationed out to some of us but not to others. Even though the subject matter was specifically about finding creative confidence, I walked away from it with a fire lit underneath me about conquering fear in general.

He talked about his experiences in creative workshops with his clients — top-level executives who tend to excuse themselves from the most critical points of such meetings to “take important calls” when really, they’re simply intimidated by the creative process and secretly don’t think they’re capable of taking part in a meaningful way because they “just aren’t the creative type.”  He talked about helping people build upon their successes, starting small and gaining ground over time until they become aware of their own power.  He likened it rather seamlessly to the phobia treatment process established by an esteemed Stanford psychologist named Albert Bandura.

So, Bandura.  This guy — yes, I’m calling him “this guy” even though his name is often bandied about alongside the likes of Freud, Jung and other high-rollers in the psych world… I call him “this guy” because he sounds like someone I would totally buy a beer if a) he’s in fact still alive and b) I were to run into him in a random bar somewhere and magically know who he was — anyway, this guy developed a methodology that cures people of their deepest fears within a matter of hours through something he termed “guided mastery.”  We’ve all heard of his process — you have legitimate phobias of, say, snakes and flying, and a therapist guides you through a series of actions that bring you closer and closer to dealing with both until you realize with horror/glee that OH MY GOD YOU ARE HOLDING A MOTHERF*CKING SNAKE ON A MOTHERF*CKING PLANE AND NEITHER OF THESE TWO THINGS IS KILLING YOU.  Tada!  Cured.  And also badass.

But really, the example Kelley gave that got deep into my bones and took up residence had to do with little kids and their fear of an MRI machine.  He told a story that I hope I’ll never forget, which is partially why I’m writing about it here — for my own selfish purposes.

The story goes something like this: Doug Dietz, a highly technical medical imaging equipment designer with an engineering background, was standing in a hospital watching one of his MRI machines in use.  Unfortunately, it involved a terrified little girl who was gravely afraid of the monstrous piece of equipment in front of her and who was rightfully pitching a royal fit about it, crying and pleading not to be forced inside.  He learned that the little girl was a prime example of the typical MRI experience at that particular hospital: 80 percent of kids undergoing the MRI process there (and probably everywhere else, too) had to be sedated in order to get through it.  The prospect of being put inside this godawful metallic coffin was petrifying, particularly for someone so young.

At the time, Dietz was attending Stanford’s design program and learning about things like empathic design and iterative prototyping, and thanks to the little girl, ye olde cartoon lightbulb blinked on over his head.  With kids like her (i.e., kids in general) in mind, he redesigned the machine to look — convincingly, I might add — like a pirate ship.  As a result, the entire imaging room now looks like something straight out of the imagination of Walt Disney himself, and the sedation rate has plummeted from 80 percent down to ten.  Dietz apparently always gets choked up when he tells the story of his creative journey and its results, including the fact that he once saw a little girl finish her scan, go up to her mother and ask, “Mommy, can we come back (again) tomorrow?”

That’s the thing about overcoming scary stuff — it strengthens us and makes us more fearless over time.  Bandura called the result “self efficacy,” or as Kelley describes it, “These people who had lifelong fears… ended up having less anxiety about other things in their lives; they tried harder, they persevered longer and were more resilient in the face of failure.”  He explains how we walk away from conquered fears with “the sense that you can change the world — that you can attain what(ever) you set out to do.”  The little kids that walk away from the “pirate ship” having totally conquered the experience… Dietz melding his technical background with newfound creativity he didn’t know he had until a child’s fear moved him to find it… even Kelley’s own bout with cancer, after which he decided to spend the rest of his days not just teaching design, but talking to large groups about the fact that we’re all capable of doing more than we realize… of creating great things… these people are all heroes in their own right.  These people illustrate for me with perfect clarity just how limiting my own fears and complacency can be.  These people make me want to grab a damn snake, get on a plane and go apesh*t on some pirates, like maybe even this weekend if I can find a coachwhip and a decent fare.

Screw fear.  Screw intimidation.

I’m ready to rumble.

Are you?

a.

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Hard but beautiful

Since last week’s post was a total copout (and I thank you for the mulligan), I’ll jump right in this time and get straight to the point.  This video, a typographically-enhanced snippet of a conversation with This American Life‘s Ira Glass, made me cry yesterday.

Now, maybe it has that effect on all creative professionals, or maybe I just need to eat more red meat.  Either way, sometimes it’s life-affirming to hear from someone at the top that it’s okay to struggle at the bottom, or even halfway up.  It’s nice to hear someone say they’ve been there.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a movie theater, about to take a bite of popcorn when I realized I couldn’t swallow.  You know how we sort of randomly swallow even when we aren’t eating or drinking anything?  It’s a simple involuntary function, obviously — like breathing or blinking — so when we realize we’ve momentarily lost the ability to do any of those things, we panic.  We panic like hell.

It’s happened a few times since, as have a handful of moments when I can feel my heart racing for absolutely no reason, and nothing I do slows it down.  One night last month, I was watching television and thinking about my deadlines the next day when my carotid artery started pulsing so hard, I could actually see it in the mirror ten feet away.  Talk about panic — I thought I might be dying.  I thought I was going to be one of those dead-at-35 cautionary tales about how “you just never know” — the sort of story that makes people hug their kids tight, or call up the object of their affection and throw caution to the wind, or book that vacation they’ve been putting off for years.  So after tidying up my apartment to the point where I was sure the paramedics — in case they came — wouldn’t have just cause to later describe the surroundings in which they found me as “a hovel” or wonder “how someone could live that way,” I hopped online and started self-diagnosing with the hope that there wasn’t any reason to call them after all.

Oh, hey, look at that.  I have clinical anxiety.  It likes to make you think you’re dying, and it takes great joy in making you do things like clean up your apartment in case the paramedics come to get you.  It loves to jack around with your blood pressure and your central nervous system.  It particularly thinks it’s hilarious when you get online, Google your symptoms and realize how foolish you must look when you see it sitting there on your screen, giving you the finger and telling you what’s up.  It’s sadistic like that.

I’m not sharing this for the purpose of drawing sympathy out of anyone.  What I’m dealing with is actually pretty mild, all things considered, and I’ve already started taking steps to send it packing.  I have amazing people around me who look out for me and give me comfort when I need it (not to mention a swift kick in the ass when that’s called for instead).  It’s also a small price to pay for what I’m doing with my life — I love it, I’m just getting started, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I’m sharing this because I think it’s important to admit that things aren’t always what they seem, nor are they as easy as they look.  I think things like anxiety, depression, addiction and self-doubt in general are things we don’t talk about enough, and I’m here to start a conversation.  Luckily, I’m only saddled with the first and last elements of that series, but I know plenty of amazing people who’ve dealt with any or all of them, and no one on the outside would ever have guessed it for a second.  Tremendous people who’ve accomplished great things — who look polished and pulled-together on the outside but who, in their quieter moments, fight epic battles with things that are, at times, bigger than their victims and hard to send back to the factory.  Those people deserve a hug.  Those people deserve a break.  Those people are pretty much all of us at some point or another.

Two tenets have carried me through life thus far: the belief that it’s important to be kind, and that it’s imperative to work one’s ass off, even in the face of adversity, because tenacity is what pulls us through to the other side.  My parents taught me those things less by dictation and more by example.  We’re all fighting a battle of some sort, and if we’re lucky enough not to be right this second, we probably either just emerged from one or are blissfully unaware of what’s waiting around the corner.  Life is beautiful for certain, but sometimes it’s hard too.  We lose people.  They die.  They run away.  They drift.  We get sick.  We fail.  We screw up.  We feel pain.  Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad, and the chasm between is full too.  It’s just life.  The phrase “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle” hits home for a reason.

My battle in particular isn’t so bad — it’s highly winnable, and it’s far outweighed by all the good stuff in my life.  But not everybody’s so lucky… at least, not all the time.  It’s kind to take the edge off.  It’s nice to be nice.  So let’s be nice to each other today.

a.

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