change

Overriding wants, or, “What Detroit’s got to do with it”

americano from caffe umbria in seattle

Every morning, after ramping up with a mug of weak tea, I have one giant cup of incredibly strong coffee.

Almost immediately, I am filled with focused energy, high spirits, and love for my fellow man. Which, even though it’s happened every single day for the past 30 years (give or take the occasional streak of repentance), still manages to surprise me each time.

It feels so surprisingly good, in fact, that as soon as I finish my giant cup of coffee, I want another one. Just today. Just this once. Because that first cup really put me in the right mood, only I didn’t quite get everything done that I wanted to while I was riding the black wave. And I have a lot to do. And, hey, it’s Thursday (or Monday, or Saturday) and sunny (or hazy, or sometimes, even raining), and no one is the goddamn boss of me—why the hell not, right?

The part of me that’s self-actualized, well-shrunk, and sober enough to remember the vapor trails of coffees past knows why, of course. It recalls that while one is good, two is more likely jitters, or a disruption in sleep cycle, or even (you’ll pardon the indelicacy) significant gastric distress. And it further recalls, with no small quantity of shame, that two often leads to three, which inevitably opens the gateway to a flare.

But that un-evolved bundle of impulses that’s jacked to the tits on Shortcut Joy Juice? It couldn’t care less; it just wants more, please.

Now.

* * * * *

I’m not a Desire Noob. I grok the whole Buddhist “attachment is suffering” thing—intellectually, anyway. I’m aware that quite often, in the same way that thirst or sleepiness can masquerade as hunger, objects of desire stand in for other, less-easily identified or fulfilled (or acceptable) needs. I definitely understand that when I’m going after something outside of myself, it’s usually because I’m feeling unfed somewhere inside of myself.

Where and what are a little harder to suss out.

The Universe, for its part, seems to love nothing better than a good self-improvement project, so it’s been throwing resources my way.

One book I’ve stumbled on describes extramarital affairs—a veritable hotbed of attachment and suffering—as a duck-and-run for something each party involved would prefer to avoid addressing in himself. Which on the one hand is kind of a gigantic “no duh” and on the other, is a little unsettling: all infidelities? For all parties—transgressors and aggrieved?

So for fun (because this book sure isn’t), I leaf through the back catalog of my own sordid past—the wrongs I’ve done, the WAY worse wrongs that have been done to me. And I reluctantly admit to myself that indeed, in every case, we were a trio of self-deluded, sometimes self-righteous jackholes who were, in one way or another, refusing to live in our truth of truths.

Another book helpfully provides a definitive list of things that spur us on to do other things. Things like wanting sex & love or fame/money/power are, no surprise, at the top, followed fairly logically by things like “master mind group” and shared survivor experiences. (Also, surprisingly—but awesomely—music!)

At the bottom, the author lists two negative change agents: fear and drugs/alcohol. Which at first seemed nutso, until I really thought about them as part of a hierarchy of intentions. After which I had to admit, they made a lot more sense: the same rotten conditions that can foster a peaceful revolution can, when you add fear, create an angry mob and insalubrious changes. And chemically-altering substances can foster all kinds of actions, but erratically and unreliably.

By this logic, it appeared that if it was my desire to feel energized, focused, joyous, and loving that drove me to drink coffee, it would take some equally strong—if not stronger—desire to counter it.

* * * * *

Speaking of sex and love, back when I was in the process of quitting smoking—which basically involves stopping all at once, then keeping yourself from starting over and over (and over) again—I remember thinking how great it would be if, every time I wanted a cigarette, in lieu of lighting up I could grab someone and make out with them. I hadn’t worked out the why of it, exactly; I think I likened it to that thing where you distract yourself from an aching tooth by pinching your arm really hard. Only this would be a craving that could cancel out another craving.

Now I wonder if that wasn’t what smoking was for me all along—a way to distract myself from a powerful but terrifying craving to create and/or connect with the All-That-Is.

Perhaps it wasn’t ever the nicotine I really wanted, but feeling at one with all life.

* * * * *

I’m officially on the road now. San Diego and Boston last week, Minneapolis this one, a U.S. City Near You coming soon. In just over two months, I’ll have traveled more than I did in the first nine months of the year combined.

This is not a complaint; I’m out there doing what I love and getting paid for it, which is something I’ve worked toward for a long time. It’s just a reality that constant travel is far harder on my current body than the one I had when I first envisioned this as a viable lifestyle. (And that’s not even getting into how travel itself has declined since my previous traveling heyday, aka the ’80s.)

However, the travel is good for my body in one way. Because my desire to do this work is so strong, whatever helps me do it serves as a powerful motivator for not doing something else—in this case, drinking that second cup of coffee. When the urge to re-caffeinate comes on, I now ask myself: “Do you want that cup of coffee, or do you want to go to Detroit?”

I get that “Detroit” might not work for everyone. Right now, however, it works for me.

* * * * *

One final thought on using will (or greater, future-you wants) to override current wants: some compassion is necessary. Because change is a process, not a switch. Some days, I have the best intentions of sticking to one cup…then wash them down with a second. Other days I slip up (or back, or sideways) in other ways: I’ll eat something that’s not on the SCD, or I’ll stay up too late and clip my sleep on the other end, or I won’t go for my walk, or I overindulge on wine or (legal) sweets.

Not that any of these things are terrific, but what’s worse is beating myself up over it. Note, correct, and move on. If there’s time in there, I do some sussing for triggers. If not, don’t beat myself up over that, either.

Because beating myself up doesn’t get me closer to anything. Even Detroit.

xxx
c

On becoming a reliable conduit

close shot of wood shavings

Once upon a time in a dingy Hollywood studio far, far away, I took my very first acting class.1

I was there because it had been suggested to me by my improv teacher that while my writing was passable, my ability to convey actual human emotion onstage was somewhere between “painful to behold” and “chair”, and that if I wanted a chance at surviving the increasingly brutal cuts up the ladder, I should hie my civilian ass to an acting school now.

I wanted that chance, all right, and a whole lot more. Things I wouldn’t admit out loud: to be rich, for example, and famous, and the envy of anyone I’d ever envied. But also things I couldn’t articulate yet because it would be years until I understood them: to tell the Truth, to serve with meaning, to live. I’d wanted all of these things, the ignoble and the good, so very much and for so very long that when I stepped up to work on my very first exercise in this new acting class, I was like a human funnel for raw, super-concentrated desire. It was, by all accounts afterward, electrically exciting to watch.

The next week, I got up in class to do the same exercise again and I sucked. Hard.

And continued to suck, over and over, week after week. Well, that’s not completely true: occasionally, something…magical happened, and I did not suck. On certain of these rare occasions (and, significantly, when I was either exhausted, well-coached, or both), I could move emotion as well as the most skilled members of the class. The difference was that, unlike them, I had zero control over this ability; it would either be there or it wouldn’t. The experience was not unlike showing up every week for a bus that might take you on a champagne-and-donut-filled ride to Disneyland, or that might drive you to the wrong side of town, strip you down to your underwear, dump you by the side of the road and make you find your way home. At night. In December.

Finally, after about a year, I became reliably good at the exercises. Never brilliant, like that first day, not once, ever again, but good enough that people didn’t shrink from being assigned me as a scene partner. One of them even suggested it might be time to move to another class, a more advanced class at a different studio.

I checked it out, enrolled, and promptly reverted to sucking. Immediately, this time, without even the whispery hope of a first, great at-bat to see me through the humiliating 18-month slog to the next plateau.

* * * * *

Here is the mission statement I came up years ago, sometime after my bloody epiphany but before I started dating things so I could place them later:2

To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.

I’ve since been taken to task by my more focused friends (i.e., all of them) for establishing an overarching goal of the mushier variety, my goal does not stand up well to the heat and pressure of daily life, nor does it offer many clues as to what “done” looks like. (If you spy any, let ‘er rip.) It’s even difficult to hold opportunities and projects up against a “goal” like that to see if they’re a good match. Or rather, too many things end up being a good match, and I miss out on the kind of focused intent required to build empires.

Then again, I’m coming around to the idea that empires are a lot like boats, vacation homes, and fancy cameras: it’s nicer to have friends who have them than to deal with the upkeep yourself.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful novel I read last fall that haunts me still. It’s called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and if the horrible title doesn’t put you off of reading it, maybe this will: it’s about the life trajectories of two students of a masters program in poetry. (I know, right?)

Maybe after I’ve read it a few more times, I will be able to write a real review that does it justice. For now, the salient point is this: the author uses these two intertwining stories, one of a graduate who achieves early acclaim and concomitant financial rewards, the other of his friend who does neither, to paint as fine a picture as I’ve ever seen about choices, consequences, and the day-to-day costs of “success” (deliberately left in quotes). This is a chief gift of art, its ability to bypass logic and pierce the heart of the viewer, or reader, with truth through the use of meticulously crafted obliqueness. Great art may be the ultimate in teaching a man to fish: when someone connects the dots themselves, the resulting pattern truly belongs to them.

Communicating on this level, like any kind of deliberate transfer of emotion, requires off-the-charts levels of mastery. In order to do it well and consistently, provisions must be made. By the artist. At what sometimes look like extraordinary costs.

Don’t kid yourself, though: there’s a cost to everything. It’s only the currency that varies, and the payment plan.

xxx
c

P.S. Looking for links to old posts I could not find did turn up this and this (from 2008!) on the rather annoyingly sloggy slog this kind of work can be. Then again, I also found this (from 2005!) and this, which provide some actual, concrete steps one can take to ease the pain of conduit-refinery. The blog giveth, and the blog taketh away.

1I’d actually taken some acting classes as a kid, and even one in college. But this was the first one I’d taken where I wasn’t, you’ll pardon the pun, just playing around. I really and truly wanted to be an actor. Stakes change the game.

2I worry sometimes that this portends a future for myself fluttering with yellow sticky notes placed on everything, like that man who mistook his wife for a beret or just a garden-variety Alhzeimer’s victim. Given how much I fear winding up with a faulty mind in an unbroken body, you’d think I’d be better about floating it in warm baths of alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Let us just say that my capacity for tricking myself has grown right alongside my other abilities.

Image by Matalyn via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Work in progress

graphic notes of mark silver's workshop from the World Domination Summit

You need a lot of things to sit down and write.

You need a chair, for example, to sit on. You need a pen or pencil and paper, or a typewriter and paper, or a computer and no paper. You usually need something a little more reliably horizontal than a lap to serve as a writing surface, a desk, a table, an ottoman, a step.

Then there’s the light that you need, natural, if it’s daytime, or artificial, if it’s not, or if it’s daytime in Portland, Oregon. You need heat sometimes, unless you are in Arizona (or my apartment) in the summer, in which case you need air conditioning (or a wet bathing suit and a series of strategically placed fans).

Depending upon who you are and what you’re like, you might also need complete quiet and privacy, plus a set of earplugs. Unless, of course, you need noise, a series of carefully crafted playlists, or streaming white noise, or, if you were someone completely unlike me, an orchestra of leaf blowers and grumpy neighbors. You might also need water, plain, coffee- or tea-flavored, and snacks. And a timer. And a distraction-free writing environment, and noise-canceling headphones to place over your earplugs. And another sweater, or perhaps a vest, or perhaps a sweater-vest. If you are a certain kind of writer, you might even need a lucky sweater-vest, and a special mug from which to drink your variously-flavored water and a special coaster to put it on, and a timer.

You will almost certainly need to have for your very own self a particular stretch of day that begins and ends at particular times, or else how the hell could you possibly get anything of any seriousness done, much less writing, for god’s sake? And you will need to be well-rested to greet this time of day, and sufficiently exercised, fed, watered, burped, pooped, scrubbed, and groomed. You will need to have ideas to write, perhaps that you have sketched out the day before in a special notebook, perhaps during one of those invigorating constitutionals, or upon index cards with a particular fineness of Sharpie, or upon coated white vertical surfaces with special erasable markers.

You will absolutely need the complete love and understanding of those closest to you, a door separating this room of your own from the rest of the household, a room somewhere entirely off the premises, preferably located close to some additional place that serves coffee- and tea-flavored beverages and provides tables and chairs to work at and wifi for breaks between the working.

You will certainly need all of these things. ALL of them, or how can you possibly be expected to produce anything of consequence? And that is all that is worth producing, right, something of consequence?

* * * * *

I am a planner. Like most of my character traits, it’s something I use to both propel myself forward and to hold myself back. (And that others have used both to praise and to diminish me.)

About a week ago, I had to give a talk rather unexpectedly, the kind of thing one cannot really prepare for.

I was part of a team of people helping out behind the scenes at a friend’s exciting new conference in Portland, and we had hit a snag: one of the scheduled speakers suddenly fell ill, he’s fine now, don’t worry, and had to cancel his talk and fly home, leaving us an empty hour to fill with content and less than 24 hours in which to do it.

Working together (which, more and more, I’m seeing is as critical to accomplishment as is working alone), we came up with an idea that would build on the message he would have delivered in his talk. The new plan became: show an excellent video of a shorter version of his talk that had been uploaded elsewhere; share a few personal stories that contained examples of the theme of his talk; coax from the entire body of attendees their own experiences with the theme of the talk; tie it all together with a magical, meta bow. Ta-da!

In theory, this was a simple, elegant solution that, while it could never replace the particular experience of having this speaker give his talk live, honored him and his work and the entire spirit of the conference in an interesting and (at least to us) inspiring way. For what greater thing is there than having your work carried forward in the work of others? None, that’s what. (Okay, sunsets, smiling babies and bunnies in cups, satisfied?)

In practice, this meant a whole lot of things lining up pretty seamlessly. I, for one, was terrified. While I only had to provide a measly two minutes of programming, and while I knew that the story of my bloody epiphany fit the theme, that really awful things can turn out to be really great, life-changing things, well enough, I had never told this story in less than five minutes. And it had taken me something like 20 hours to boil it down to that, plus another 20 or so hours of running it over and over like a madman. This time around, after dispensing with the rest of my commitments for that day and the next, I’d have roughly three hours of private time to cut the talk in less than half, and not particularly well-rested hours. Maybe someone who did this every day could do it with no problem, but I’d basically promised something I wasn’t entirely sure I could deliver. Not my favorite thing in the world.

But I had to do it, you understand. Not because anyone made me: I offered. Because I wanted to do it. Because we had to do something. Because I had to do it.

* * * * *

There have been two stretches of my life where I stopped writing: a nine-year break during my tenure as a professional ad ho and a four-year hiatus after I fried my brain and before I had my bloody epiphany.

Even during these times, I wrote privately. (Or as privately as someone who commits thoughts to paper and doesn’t destroy the evidence later can be said to write.) My writing was sporadic, dull and repetitive; I wrote to release things no one else would listen to, things so tedious they bored even me. I did it to stave off doom, not to stay sharp against a time when I might be again willing to step up to the plate and swing in front of God and everyone. Still, the fact remains that I wrote: hand moving across a page, over and over again.

* * * * *

At the same conference I ended up delivering my small, semi-improvised talk, I had an experience in one of the sessions that will change forever the way I think about my work. Almost offhandedly, before dispatching us to do one of his really useful exercises designed to help you do better work, Michael Bungay Stanier said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much, “The first time you tell your stories, they suck.” (Is it any wonder I loved Michael immediately?)

I reflected briefly on this nugget, decided to go with a known quantity, then turned to my partner…and proceeded to tell him the most boring, uneventful version of a pivotal moment in my life I have ever told.

So apparently, the fourth, seventh and ninth time you tell your stories, they can also suck.

My partner then told me his story. It was the first time he’d told it to anyone. It was long, winding and looped back on itself. I was riveted all the way through, and cried more than once.

If I had not had 10 years of acting study, I would not have understood why, but I have, and I did: he was completely present for all of his mess. He did not worry about nudging the pieces of his into some kind of tidy shape; it was his life, and it was untidy, with no clear arc, no neat lesson. But clearly, he had spent a good deal of his life really taking things in and reflecting on them, reading, being present. He had lived the kind of life my well-meaning father might have called unfortunate, the life of a person who was clearly capable, but who couldn’t get his act together, which is what a person needed in the end, to make it in this world.

My father is dead now so I cannot tell him this, but I can tell you: because of this stranger I did a five-minute exercise with, I will be able to tell a story that has thus far eluded me, and in a way that might actually land with someone else.

Also, this is as good a definition of “making it” as I think one can come up with.

* * * * *

I used to think there came a time when, if you worked long and hard, all the strands of everything you’d done and learned wove themselves together and magically transformed you into an Extraordinary Being of Knowing: kind, capable, wise, endlessly patient and a delight to be around. You, only grown up.

Now I think that if there is such a you, it is there all along, gently poking and prodding you to get on with your business. And that if you do enough business, eventually you get to meet the extraordinary person who was there all along, patiently waiting for you to stop your whining about wanting to be of service and log your miles/build up enough muscle to be of real, reliable service.

So yeah, You, Grown Up has lived longer and knows more. You, Grown Up has logged the miles and can deliver on command. But the only reason You, Grown Up is able to be of use (much less someone anyone is delighted to be around) is because You, Grown Up has managed to stay open and available, to tolerate change and mess, and to yuk it up a little instead of taking life so seriously. The things you can do right now with zero training (albeit sometimes in very small amounts, and often only when external forces back you into a corner).

The little talk I had to give turned out fine. Even if it hadn’t, though, it would have turned out fine, just not the way I’d envisioned.

Show up, show up, show up. Raise your hand when volunteers are requested. Try to remain focused on the moment and unattached to outcome.

All work is work in progress.

xxx
c

Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. (Don’t know who did the graphic notes of Mark Silver‘s workshop, but they’re dandy.) UPDATE: The visual notes are by Cynthia Morris, who wrote about drawing them at WDS. Thanks to Melody Watson (and her extraordinary comment) for pointing it out.

The work that goes into magic

girl in tub full of cheese puffs by hypnox

I went to a wonderful wedding over the weekend.

It wasn’t wonderful because I got to see a bunch of people I knew again; I knew almost no one, although I enjoyed meeting everyone. It wasn’t wonderful because of the food or the dancing or the setting, although all of these were top-notch (as was the officiant, who outshone my efforts by a country mile).

It wasn’t even wonderful because it was one of those situations where the bride and groom were so perfectly suited to one another that every last person there was cheering on the union. Well, okay, that part was pretty wonderful. But it was magically, specially wonderful because of the how.

The happy couple met via a wise mutual friend who knew them both well, and who served as conduit. Long before she was able to do that, however, each of the two lovely people had done a whole lot of work.

They dated people who weren’t right (in some cases, egregiously so) and learned from their mistakes. (Note: this took a not-inconsiderable length of time.) They accepted the counsel of friends and trusted advisors, then got their own shit straight and their priorities in order. They built lives and homes and friendships that not only sustained themselves, but that they thought would be worthy of the significant other they each dreamed of meeting someday. One of them even made extensive, detailed lists of the exact things they wanted in the other (while continuing to take a fearless moral inventory of themselves, to cop a phrase from the Big Book.)

There was no sitting around eating Cheetos, watching TV, waiting for lightning to strike. There was no putting in some cosmic order with the universe and fluffing things up just enough to pass muster. There was constant, specific, meaningful work with focused intent.

Then, and only then, came the “miracle.”

* * * * *

Here’s what I have learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.

They come from not knowing what the people you’re envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of shit they’ve shoveled; how grueling and unglamorous the day-to-day maintenance of success can be.1 Occasionally, someone will graciously do us the courtesy of exploding the myth of overnight success or of showing us how scary success can be, but it’s rare to get a peek behind the curtain. (It’s one huge reason why I’m always hammering away at people to read more biography, the other being that they wipe the floor with most self-help books.)

For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you’re capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It’s far easier to envy someone else their success than to figure out what yours might look like, much less to go after it.

I’ve been guilty of any number of these not-knowings so many times over so many years, it shames me. I feel as though a preponderance of resources have been expended futilely in an effort to get me to K-N-O-W things. I’m like a black hole, a running toilet, an uninsulated shack of not-knowing. I am the most energy-inefficient knower I know when it comes to knowing this.

Then again, it takes you as long as it takes to figure something out. At least when you finally do know something, you get to keep it. You can’t send the knowing back any more than you can un-ring a bell.

What you do with it after that is up to you. My go-to responses have been anxiety, sadness, and (surprise!) more shame. (Shame has racked up an insane number of emotional frequent flyer points in my brain.)

These days, I’m finding action works much better. I would go so far as to say that action can be startlingly effective. It almost doesn’t matter what the action is, just that it’s an action with right intention behind it. Lists are good. Physical activity is really good. Acts of service are outstanding, no matter the size. Seriously. Anything that takes me out of myself breaks the spell, and nothing pushes me and my b.s. to the side faster than an act of service. That, and a 45-minute walk will cure just about anything. Instant perspective.

It’s also useful to have good friends and trusted advisors, like our aforementioned not-so-young lovers. I suspect that kings lose kingdoms because they have no one around them willing to argue against their own fortune in service of the crown’s. It’s really, really easy to eat Cheetos and believe your own press, a lot easier than doing the hard work of change, or the scary work of facing up to things (and working, regardless).

But all of it, work alone, or work facilitated and guided by other people, is work. The magic is the dazzling bit that the world sees, where all the work comes together.

* * * * *

More days than not, I write. I write three college-ruled sheets’ worth of morning pages that no one will ever see. I write in the Wave with Dave Seah. I write a monthly newsletter and a monthly column for actors. I write interviews (which I’m beginning to collect here). Increasingly, I write articles for publication elsewhere. I write comments on the blogs of people you’ve probably never heard of. I write (and rewrite) pages of content on this very site which most people never see but that need to be written, regardless. I write poems. I write songs. I write an unbelievable amount of emails.

More days than not, I’d prefer doing anything to writing. But every minute of every day, I’d rather have written something wonderful. So I write.

This is how I am starting to look at what I write. At choosing the things that I will write, which means choosing the things that I won’t write, and figuring out what I’m supposed to be writing. The very mushy, very vague communicatrix-dot-com has served me well as a means to get me writing, and I may well decide to keep it that way, as an outlet, and nothing more. The public-facing side of my inner work, to share my toys and keep me honest.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the need for more focus, more specificity, and more writing (or just more something) that supports flesh-and-blood me as much as spiritual me. I’m not sure yet what that looks like, or what that means for this space. Perhaps it’s this whole turning-50 thing, hard to kid myself that I have endless time anymore. While I don’t require a huge stack of money to loll around on in my old age, it’s reasonable to assume I’ll need some, and that while the spirit is willing, eager, even, to work until the bitter end, the flesh may not be able to keep up the necessary pace.

I am doing what I can to get clear on this on my own, and my trusted advisors are helping me with the murky bits. It’s about as much fun as writing every day is guaranteed to be, but like the writing, I seem to be getting better at it the more I do it.

When I am ready, though, I will have no problem asking loudly and clearly for what it is that I want, or for soliciting the assistance of a matchmaker (pro or amateur), or for smiling ear-to-ear when my Specific Thing and I are finally united.

And I will share with anyone the story of how a “miracle” was really nothing more than an assemblage of ordinary parts selected with ordinary concentration and fused together with ordinary labor, and finished off with a tiny dollop of magic.

xxx
c

1Or, in some of your creepier cases, how many dead bodies they have buried in the backyard or what that portrait stowed away in the attic looks like.

Photo © Hypnox, via. (Both NSFW)

What taking care of yourself looks like in real time

gustave flaubert quote about work and creativity

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but when I was a girl, I had a brilliant notion: what if I could have all of the sicknesses of my lifetime at once, rather than having them parceled out here and there, when they were least expected and seldom welcome?

Or, because I quickly figured out my genius solution would probably kill you (after a few mind-blowing days of unspeakable agony), what if we could at least choose when we’d have them, rescheduling broken bones and burst appendixes from rare or inconvenient times (holidays, big presentations, nice weather in Chicago) to dull stretches where nothing is going on, anyway?

Like most things that seem like a great idea until you see them played out on an episode of Twilight Zone, I eventually figured out the flaw in Plan B as well: there is never, ever a time when it’s good to be sick; there are only times when it’s less awful than other times.

* * * * *

Staying healthy has both hard and “soft” costs attached to it, just like getting sick does. But because we don’t notice health nearly as much as we do the lack thereof, it’s hard to get people to pay upfront. Nothing new here. And of course, this refusal to deal with something until it’s in tatters or on fire, demanding our attention, is not limited to our physical well-being. How many people do you know who have harnessed the Magic of Compound Interest by maintaining a fully-funded 401-K from the time they entered the workforce? Or, closer still to home, who have never run out of toilet paper? I mean, really, toilet paper! If there’s one thing that’s easier to make sure you have handy, I don’t know what it is. And yet,

Well, let’s leave this train of thought while the disembarking is good, shall we?

* * * * *

It is very, very easy for me to tell myself I will pay myself Thursday for a hamburger today, and gladly. To stay up late working or, even more stupidly, watching Jackie Brown for the 57th time. It is easy to say I should go to a particular event, that one of my promises to myself was to keep my promises, and that breaking them will cause me as much or more stress as keeping them. It is easy to not exercise, to drive rather than walk, to eat poorly rather than well. It is as easy to say “yes” as it is hard to say “no”, and the consequences of a flippant choice are so far down the road that surely, we reason, a conveniently-timed meteor or other bit of TBD pixie dust will save us between now and then.

For me it is easiest of all to work, and to work poorly, honoring neither the time it takes to do work well, nor the extracurricular effort that goes into maintaining the infrastructure upon which the work relies. Forget what’s theoretically possible; being ill these past five months has forced me to examine what is honestly possible, and desirable, and tenable.

While I’ve (mercifully) always been a woman of narrow interests, this go-round of illness has forced me to narrow them to a point I would not have believed possible.1 These days, I work and I take care of myself, and that’s about it. Sometimes I marvel at all of the purely social activities I hear other people talking about (on Twitter and Facebook, since I rarely go out). To me a weekend is just a calmer, quieter couple of days where the phone stops ringing, the emails at least slow down, and I feel less of a pang shutting down operations to get some rest. And I’m fine with that, there will be other times with a different mix of activities, just like there were before.2

For writers, at least, good work, like contentment, comes from boring, well-ordered lives.3 The more mental and physical clutter I removed from my life, the more room was left to do my work.

But the clearing also makes more obvious the crufty tangles that are left. Money murkiness. Patchy systems. Sludgy workflows.

So part of taking care of myself has been crazy stuff you’d think had nothing to do with taking care of yourself, all of it having to do with imposing structure. For example, my return to the uniform: establishing one look and investing in multiples to reduce stress around dressing and traveling. Dividing my week into sectors for reading, writing, and talking. I can’t speak for the BDSM crowd, but in my little pedestrian, decidedly non-kinky way, I’ve found constraints very freeing, so much so that I continue to implement new systems as I tweak the old ones, testing for friction all the time.

The biggest recent shift in my self-care has been a rededication to GTD. Although really, what I’m doing has a whole lot less to do with any particular system for organizing one’s stuff and a whole lot more with slowing things down to get clear. Which is, I think, what the best systems are: clearly thought out. Eight years after discovering David Allen’s book, I’m finally getting that the crux of the system is the questioning: What’s the next action? Where does this go? What does “done” look like? And that the questions themselves must be asked every single time, slowly and painstakingly before swiftly and organically. Organization doesn’t come from occasional actions any more than health comes from popping an occasional vitamin. Truly taking care of myself means living in truth all of the time, not just when it is convenient.

I don’t know yet what “well” looks like. It may end up not looking at all like robust good health I’ve been dreaming of since my Crohn’s onset, health that lets me spend my energy as cavalierly as I did in my 20s and 30s.

But as I finally (knock wood, throw salt over shoulder, stab a leprechaun) pull out of this flare, I have a better idea of what putting “well” first looks like for me. It is as predictable as a uniform and as strictly run as the Catholic elementary school I wore mine to for eight years. It trades the highs of coffee for the gentle buzz of tea. It favors dollars placed toward proper food and time invested in preparing it. It goes to bed early. It enjoys fellow travelers. It dislikes drama. It spends a surprising amount of time in the bathtub and on foot.

It’s my boring-ass new life, and it is awesome.

xxx
c

1When I was in recovery from my Crohn’s onset, back in 2002-03, my illness was so profoundly far-reaching that convalescence was the sole item on the menu. This particular almost-flare is more like having a flu that’s constantly teetering between a plain old cold and walking pneumonia that’ll put you down for months, or descend quickly into some unknowable, unnamable worse. Gray areas are the hardest to navigate on your own, health-wise. At least, they are for workaholics.

2Okay, I don’t solely work and rest. Over the past several months, I’ve lunched and dined with friends two handfuls of times, seen at least one movie in an actual movie theater, attended a party for at last a half-hour, and been to hear live music, a comedy show and a play. The play, which is running through May 29, I highly recommend (and I recommend very few plays). If you live in Los Angeles and like your theater well-done and funny, it’s a must-go.

3 This gets into semantic jockeying, but for our purposes, that other contentment-plus stuff I find comes more from peak experiences. That poor, poor word “happiness” has been so batted about that I wonder what it means anymore. I tend to think my friend Gretchen, who for my money is the smartest, most accessible writer on the topic of happiness today, really writes about contentment. But it’s not her fault the filthy hordes came in and mucked up a perfectly good word.

Finding a way to not start

jose-martinez-cookie-monster-cupcakes-5007403719_2e10472c75_b

For a long time, I’ve been aware of the most obvious form of addiction in my family: alcoholism.

First of all, because Mom drank. A lot. And so did Mom’s dad and some of Mom’s brothers. A lot. Once it spirals out of the societally-determined safe zone, alcohol addiction gets obvious fast, what with all the clanging empties and lack of employment and whatnot.1

It took me much longer to spot the other, less obvious manifestations of the addictive temperament in my gene pool, Dad’s workaholism, for instance, or my maternal grandmother’s massive sugar jones, or everyone’s need to have the television on as loud as possible as often as possible, especially when someone else was in the room. Hey, those aren’t problems, they’re part of being American!

I will pause for the briefest of moments to say I’m going nowhere near any discussions of the root causes of addiction, of whether addiction is a disease or symptom (although I suspect the answer to that is “yes”), or of where addiction and compulsion overlap. I am not a mental-healthcare professional nor have I done any scholarly boning up on addiction and its underlying/concomitant behavioral disorders.

What I can say, and with the rock-solid confidence that only years of experience and obsessive (haha) self-observation can bring, is that the triggers that set my own self-destructive behaviors in motion are manifold and insidious.

* * * * *

The purpose of drinking too much or working too much, like all self-destructive behaviors, is to create distance between you and something else: Distance between you and your feelings, usually the painful ones. Distance between you and another person, usually one whom getting close to would involve the stirring up of painful feelings. Distance between you and the truth, which, as time and the behavior goes on, becomes about how much distance between you and your feelings or you and your loved ones your addictive/compulsive behavior has created.

Most of these buffer reasons for addictions are pretty well-established. Freud was hip to them, for crying out loud. You do something bad because somewhere in your brain, you think it’s keeping you from something worse.

Your first order of business in changing this stuff seems to be sussing out the “why”: I work too much because no matter how well I did, I was told I could do better if only I worked harder. That I should do this was left unspoken, but hung thickly in the air at all times. So I work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear that I am not enough, and that I am unlovable as I am.2

Okay. I get why I work too much. What I didn’t get, because I couldn’t make it fit, is why I couldn’t get to the work of working too much. I mean, seriously, if I love work so freakin’ much, why am I screwing around in Facebook? Why am I checking my email for the 57th time, hoping against hope that it holds some horrific fire that must be put out NOW? (Or, barring that, a really, really important and necessary special offer that must be acted upon immediately?)

And then, like a bolt from the blue, I got smacked upside the head by Captain Obvious: my incessant fiddling, my noodling, my (say it with me, now) P-R-O-C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-N-G is there to put distance between me and starting, so that I don’t have to fail by finishing.

Given my fondness for the work of Seth and Uncle Steve, not to mention my up-close-and-personal experience with the Resistor and all those years of shrinkage, that this lightbulb moment comes so late in the game is more than a little humiliating.

On the other hand, I’m a shoo-in for Dumbass of the Year award. And I do like me some award-garnering.

Lest we end this section on a sour-ish note of self-flagellation (more distancing!), I will add that like all discoveries of a disastrous or humiliating nature, if I can really and truly turn them into lessons learned, I win.

And I really, really like winning. Obviously.

* * * * *

So. How does one turn a discovery into a lesson really and truly learned?

On a recent episode of my new-favorite podcast-slash-obsession, the host, Marc Maron, who quit drinking 15 years ago, describes the process of his getting sober.3 For a long while, it sounds like he had a waking-up to how drinking (and for him, drug use) was really taking away much more than it was giving. Once he really and truly got that, he said, he had to find a way of not starting, which sound like what the Program was for him. AA is all about not starting, not taking that first drink. If you don’t have the first one, you can’t have all the subsequent ones, which are what get you into trouble.

Not-starting looks like not-doing, but really, it’s doing other things. Taking other actions. Probably small, simple actions (although we’re not going to be foolish enough to bait the Resistor by calling them “easy”). And probably many actions, over a long period of time. There may be the occasional grand, cinematic gesture, like throwing a half-full pack of cigarettes into the trash just like that. But the real work begins with the not-starting later: not fishing the pack out again four hours later when you get back from dinner really wanting a cigarette. Not buying a fresh pack the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.

And my own experience of becoming a person who didn’t smoke after having been one who did, and like a chimney, and for 12 years, was that while the story of throwing away that half-pack was great, it was the actions I took that got the job done. The stupid mantra. The mass quantities of cherry Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drops. Inventing errands. Making myself go places where smoking was not allowed (much harder to do back in 1980s-era Chicago). Keeping my hands and mouth and brain busy with something, anything else.

I do these things so I do not do that thing. I choose these actions so I do not lapse into that one.

* * * * *

Fortunately, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about this shit. On the blog alone, I’ve got over six years of obsessive self-analysis. Then there are the volumes of journaling and morning pages, the now-hundreds of hours in the Google Wave with Dave (I’m kind of glad I can’t see those stats), the countless discussions with friends and fellow travelers, the aforementioned years of shrinkage. Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, I read. A lot. (Obsession: it has its upside, too!)

Between all of the talking and all of the thinking and all of the reading, I’ve learned a good deal about the nature of what I want to stop, i.e. both “work” that gets in the way of Work and too much work, period. At almost-50 years old, I think it’s safe to say that I will be addressing their root causes, fear, mishegoss, until they scatter my ashes at sea. But I’ll also say that at almost-50, it is beyond time to put on my Big-Girl Pants and do some of the tedious, outside-in work of taking actions, if for no other reason than the idea of not being able to do my Work or to work or even to “work”, if it comes to that, is anathema and time and gravity are conspiring against me. Those cocksuckers.

The actions?

Well, I have a long list. I may get to itemization in future posts. Or I may just dive into action and leave you hanging. To spend any longer on this post would be a starting, not a not-starting, if you catch my drift.

For now, I will leave you with my vaguely-defined commitment to (a) establishing actions that support Work and (b) establishing additional actions to ensure not slipping into “work” and overwork. These include, but are not limited to, such incredibly mundane and tedious actions as brushing my teeth, logging time, and processing emails according to a specific protocol. In other words, a lot of things I either do or should be doing regularly.

I will also leave you with this excellent post by Ramit Sethi on barriers which I wish I’d read five years ago. Or that maybe I did read five years ago and was too dense to get. Whatever. It’s excellent, and pertinent to this discussion.

And, finally, I will leave you with this exhortation: try to be nice to yourself. At least as nice to yourself as you’d treat someone you were indifferent about, preferably nicer. Not in an indulgent way. Just nice.

It’s not going to fix everything. But it’s a start.

xxx
c

1It’s also terrifying enough to serve as a deterrent: I drink, but I scrutinize my intake ruthlessly, one might even say with an obsession that borders on the ironic, for fear of ending up like the family drunks.

2I would assume I also work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear of dying, probably because I always say I’m not afraid of dying, and the lady doth protest too much/etc.

3More on this soon enough, much more, but if you like your introspection served up with a healthy dose of wit, heart and savoir faire (and don’t mind swearing), do yourself a favor and subscribe to the WTF podcast. Insanely good, obsessively so, even.

Image by chilebeans via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

What it takes to hew to you (Part 2)

leaf growing through a board fence

This piece builds on this one, which you may or may not want to read as well.

Once upon a time, when I was very much like I am today, only with a lot more income and a lot less happiness, I found myself shopping in a store that sold nothing but sexy ladies’ underwear.

Now, if you know me in even the most passing of ways, you know this is a very unusual thing, and if you’ve known me in the Biblical sense, you’re probably re-reading the above sentence to make sure it says what you think it said. For I am no more a lady of lingerie than I am a lady of pedicures, blender drinks or fancy jewelry. Not that I judge! To each her own, and more power to her. But I buy my panties plain, on the cheap and under duress. Any top/bottom color coordination happens strictly by accident, luck of the drawer, if you will, and most of it looks better off than on. Which, to my mind, anyway, is the main point of underwear vis-à-vis your vis-à-vis-type situations.

True to form, I was there at this sexy lingerie store under duress as well. My boss at the time, a chic and lovely woman whom I’m sure had no end of matching drawers in her own drawers, had extracted from me a promise: that while I was in Los Angeles on my next production gig, I would go to this particular lingerie store and buy myself some high-end undergarment of the completely superfluous variety. It had to be expensive, in other words, and it had to be sexy.

Half of the store was dripping with lace and the rest of it vibrated with the various colors of the rainbow. Promises or no promises, there were some depths to which I would not stoop, which pretty much left Sheer, Black and Clingy. I found some one-piece something or other that looked okay, sexy, even, I guess, given the right lighting and enough liquor. It cost $75 (I still remember!), it itched (the better, I supposed, for wishing oneself out of it) and served no actual, foundational purpose.

I tried it on at least fifty times, and wore it exactly three. Each time I felt not only stupid for having wasted $75 on a shitty piece of nylon but whatever the opposite of sexy is. And itchy. Off it went to Goodwill.

I am sure it made a terrific addition to some girl’s Slutty Olympic Swimmer costume that Halloween.

* * * * *

I was having coffee with The Chief Atheist while back, one of those occasional treats I look forward to with a genuine pleasure I would not have believed possible ten years ago when we were fresh out of the marriage. He is a sincere, smart and forthright fellow; also, he is hilarious. And for my part, I am fairly pleasant to be around now that I’m not a miserable wannabe stewing in her own hot soup of envy and denial.

At some point during the conversation, we were talking about the shapes our day-to-day lives had taken now that we were no longer together, and now that I was (finally) living alone. His, as always, is filled with lots of laughter and activity, always well-populated with friends, colleagues, or loved ones. Mine, by contrast, is filled mostly with quiet and work, punctuated by spikes of peopled activity, and dotted lightly with extremely low-key relaxation amongst one or two close friends. Excepting perhaps the financial freedom to have it all more so, neither one of us could be happier with the way things had turned out.

We had just about wrapped up the topic when he paused, smiled just a bit and said, “I never really got it while we were together, but I finally realized it recently: you weren’t kidding; you really did need more time alone than most people.”

He’s right, I really do.

* * * * *

The good news about the Internet is that it makes it really easy to get ideas; the bad news is that it makes it really easy to think you should be applying them to yourself, now!

The always-on, always-up nature of the Internet is great when you’re feeling low and need to get you some hot baby penguin action. It’s not so great when you’re feeling unmoored and adrift, in an in-between phase, unsure of what the next shore will look like, much less how to get there. This accounts for a lot of the business bipolar disorder you see on the web: constant overhauling of business models, flip-flopping of pricing, re-branding of websites, and of course, rampant copycatting of UI elements, visual identity and even language.

I’m not talking about evolution or emulation. Things can and should change, and we all learn by adopting and mimicking the styles of those we admire, all of us, even the geniuses (and if you don’t believe me, go rent the Scorsese documentary on Dylan. It’ll blow your mind.)

But if you’re doing things because you see other people doing them, beware. If you’re using things because so-and-so is, beware.1 Not only do you have no idea of why they’ve chosen do x, y, or z, you can’t even be sure it’s working for them. Or that it will for much longer. To borrow Seth Godin’s astute summing-up of the futility of emulation in this era of constant and rapid-fire change, “if you’re looking for a map…you’ve totally missed the point.” He was talking about business models, but it works for positioning, for identity, for personal trajectory as well. Today’s opportunity lies in uniqueness and novelty, in innovation and personal touch, and the quickest way to quash that is to lose the thread of yourself in the tangle of other people’s business.

Does this mean you should not surround yourself with people you admire? Read good things? Take in with an eye toward what works, what draws you in and delights you? Of course not. If anything, I would do more of it, and more broadly. As with food, so with brain food: the healthiest diets seem to be the most varied (provided you’re not just varying which drive-thru window you pull up to).

A good exercise for making sure you’re hewing to you is to be able to point to any element of your life and say why you chose it and why you love it. A sofa. A fragrance. A logo. An entrée. A cellphone. A lover. A project. A pair of jeans. A business partnership. A morning spent on Facebook. An evening spent with American Idol.

Even a blog post.

I wrote this one because I get challenged a lot for my business and marketing decisions, or the lack thereof.2 I can point to much of what looks crazy to the outside world and tell you why I do it my way. But there’s a distressing amount that I cannot explain with anything better than I don’t want to be like them. Or I hate that thing, over there. Or just I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!

Which, for a person who not only is into the whole self-actualization thing but who also hires herself out to help people sort out what’s working and what’s not, is not only hypocritical, but more than a little nutty.

On the other hand, who among us isn’t a work in progress?

* * * * *

Are you a philistine for not personally sweating each individual detail of your life? Hell, no. Neither am I, and I’ll wager I have a helluva lot more free time to muse about these things than you.

Could you benefit by thoughtful ongoing review of particular elements of your life, your work, your outward face, your inner workings? I cannot see how you couldn’t. The unexamined life, and all that.

If you don’t know who you are, start there. If you’ve got a pretty good handle on that, pick one aspect of your life (or your business, or your marketing) and start doing an inventory to see if things jibe.

Is this me or is this something I’m defaulting to? Is this something I want, or something I think someone else wants of me? Is this an outdated me, and am I okay with changing it?

It is not a speedy process; when you rush it, you end up with things like a $5000 website you hate in three months and want to completely change. Or a $75 onesie for whores.

Do not look to the left or the right. Look at yourself.

Chances are, that’s what that other guy you admire so much did…

xxx
c

1And of course, if you’re using things you dislike because you think you should, or you think it will get you there faster, just stop right now.

2A lack of a decision is always a decision. Think of it as passive-aggression against yourself, and see if that doesn’t move you to get off the dime and do something about something.

Image by k david clark via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.