personal growth

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.


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.

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…


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.

What it takes to hew to you

car with stuffed animals glued to the outside of it

Back in my adhole days, I worked on an unusual account, writing ads for a unique product.

Not pretty unique or really unique or any other slovenly, modern crimes against a once-useful word, but unique, period: there were no other products like it. It was “automobile” when the only other choices were “horses” or “feet”; it was upper-case Kleenex before the name became the generic term for “disposable facial tissue.” It created a category and reigned as its sole entrant for a crazy number of years, considering its high margins and low barrier to entry.

I was brought on when this was changing. Not because I was some hotshot copywriter or had any affinity for the market (it was sports-centric, and I have always been, as The Chief Atheist liked to say, a non-athletic mug), but because I had a solid track record of making packaged goods sexy. Never met an incredibly dull product I couldn’t coax the sizzle from: cereal, deodorant, moribund shelf-stable dessert brands.

Plus, and this was at least as important as any so-called talent I had, I was user-friendly. The kind of copywriter you could take home to meet your brand manager.

* * * * *

My first sign that there might be trouble ahead was the laundry list of non-negotiables that had to be shoehorned into every ad. A dubious animated “demo” and an accompanying list of superlative claims that still lived safely in parity land. A tagline that made me die inside a little every time I had to type it. A goofy, no, seriously goofy, jingle. And I liked jingles.

But okay, it was a start. We would maybe not solve this in a fell swoop, but we would inch along, steadily raising their tolerance for the new and outré. I would earn trust and cred by delivering slightly better iterations, by remaining accessible and amenable throughout the endless rounds rounds of meetings, testing and production, even by learning something about sports so that I could discuss it like a non-nimrod. And when the time came, I would be poised to deliver the work this formerly unique, still unusual product truly deserved, in spite of itself.

The time, however, never came. Not in four years of working my ass off on that product.

It almost came. For brief and shining moments here and there, within the commercials themselves, even, it looked like it came. But if it had been the 17-year-old male that we were positioning it towards, it would have been walking around with the worst case of blue balls in the history of jacking off and balls.1

Why? Because what the protectors of this brand really wanted was to be “kind of” unique. Which, as we’ve established above, is un-possible. They wanted to stick their necks out with a guarantee that heads would not roll. They wanted exciting, breakthrough work that was familiar enough to be comfortable with. Award-winning work that did not make them in the least bit nervous.

And you can’t have those two things at once. Not in 1989. Not now. Not, period.

* * * * *

Believe it or not, this piece started out in my brain as a screed against modal windows.

You know, those things that pop up when you’re on a site, exhorting you to do something or other, usually to subscribe to the site’s feed, or to download something excellent and free NOW in exchange for an email address.

I hate modal windows.  I hate them almost as much as my friend Nathan does, and he really hates modal windows. We hate them because they are insulting, disruptive, and insistent, which is exactly why site owners use them. Well, they don’t use them because they’re insulting; they use them because of the disruptive/insistent part. It converts. I’ve talked to many of my fellow bloggers who use modal windows, and they all confirm that modal windows convert. (Interestingly, many will cop to disliking them as users in the same breath.)

So, could I increase my subscriber rate by adding a modal window? Most likely. Will I even try it? Unlikely. Not because I am right and all those people who are actually increasing their subscriber bases are wrong, but because I am me and I hate modal windows. Modal windows go against everything I believe in when it comes to good behavior online. They look like they are there to help the user, but really, they are there to help site owner. Me using modal windows makes me less me. For you? Maybe not. Maybe they make you more you. Maybe they are the Newest Sliced Bread you have been waiting for all of your Internet life, and to you I say “Mazel tov! Work the sh*t out of that modal window, my brother!”

But if I use them to get me somewhere faster, even if I get there, I lose. Even if I gain subscribers. Renown. Fleets of yachts and strings of polo ponies. Because a piece of me dies every time I vote against who I really am. I do not cease to be unique, but I trowel a layer of stucco over it.

And stucco, I think we can all agree, is not a thing you want to be troweled under.

* * * * *

For the past five or so years, possibly longer, my favorite quote has been this one from American opera singer Beverly Sills:

There is no shortcut to any place worth going.

It means there will always be distance, for which you may read “work” or “pain” or “doubt” or anything else you like, between you and what you really love. Will some pretty nice things fall in your lap? Of course. Or, well, we hope so. Treats are important! Nothing wrong with treats.

There is another quote that lodged in my brain fairly recently, though, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and it’s pretty much the perfect companion piece to old Beverly’s:

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.

No fast lane. No lane, period, and no finish line, it’s not a race. There’s just me and the road I create day by day, choice by choice. I can choose a thing that feels right and scary. I can choose a thing that feels awkward but safe. (And hey, I’m not a masochist: if it feels truly right and also pleasant, I’m gonna roll with that, too.)

In the course of all this walking, I’m even likely to take quite a few steps that feel very “me” in the moment but that in hindsight look like embarrassing missteps. Have you looked at your ’80s photos recently?

There’s a difference, though, between trying things on for size and doing things that don’t fit just because everyone else is. The first is life. The second, a slow, steady death.

If modal windows speak to you, for god’s sake, use modal windows. But if they don’t, and I confess, as a reasonably savvy user and longtime student of usability on the web, I truly hope they don’t, for the love of your very own self, please don’t.2

* * * * *

A final note, small but worth mentioning: hewing to yourself does not necessarily mean that the things you are hoping will happen will do so less quickly. On the contrary, they may happen faster.

Yes, the 10,000-hours rule holds (for anything with staying power), and yes, you do have to put yourself out there, but when someone really starts being herself, people tend to respond pretty quickly and word travels fast. It is intoxicating and alluring, what the lack of need can do. And really, when you are copy-catting around, that’s just your need showing.

Even if it doesn’t translate into the accelerated growth you’re hoping for, hewing to yourself is infinitely more sustainable. Not easier, but simpler.

And from the reports that have come back to me, infinitely more rewarding, in the real sense of the word.


1Actually, shortly after I left the business, I would argue that it finally came. It was not I that brought off this feat, but a wonderfully clever person who also happened to be a man, and one who did not particularly give a crap about solving problems within parameters, but just solving them. I wish I could have worked with him longer; he remains one of my favorite people I’ve ever met in advertising.

2I pause here to cede that there is a point at which an unwillingness to be obtrusive becomes just as hurtful to the user as the willingness to sock it to ’em and to hell with the cost. Like not clearly delineating where and how and for what one might be hired, for example, something I am taking pains to correct. I also confess that I’ve been woefully negligent about providing easy, front-page access to (1) my newsletter signup, (2) my resources for actors and (3) my articles on Crohn’s disease and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. I defend #2 and 3 on the grounds that most people needing those pieces come straight to them via search. The newsletter thing I need to correct. I am officially on notice!

Image by Highway Patrol Images via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Trixercising, “video is hard” and Tuesday, deconstructed

I’ve been a bit wobbly, finding my land legs again.

Or maybe my regular-usual legs are my sea legs. Maybe I’m usually adrift, out voyaging in an inward fashion, and the concrete trips here and there, the actual vagabonding, are my trips ashore, where I land hard, and, finding the land hard, can hardly walk.

Either way, it has been an interesting process this past week or so, getting back into the groove I’d just begun to establish before I hit the road.

We discussed grooves today in my now-Tuesday morning writing group: what are habits and rituals and patterns? And what does it mean if you make having no habits/rituals/patterns your habit/ritual/pattern? Is that even possible, or do we just not have our radar tuned in properly to pick up on them? Does it take a major happening, or maybe a series of minor ones, plus one to tip us, to make us see them well enough to consider changing them?

Not all rituals are bad, of course. Most aren’t, or at least, not until they’ve outlived their usefulness in our lives. If you had to think through every process you’ve learned since you started learning things, just driving to the 7-11 for a Big Gulp would be an odyssey of epic proportions. (I know; it was a joke, see?)

The reason I take classes and seek out accountability partners and hire professionals to help me untangle my brain and redirect my chi and see my stuff clearly enough to decide what should stay and what should go is because I can’t see it all by myself. Not all at once. Not when it matters. And I’m someone who sees a fair amount. What I could not see about Monday’s post, though, is what my colleagues pointed out in Tuesday’s workshop: that I’d left some things hanging, that I’d missed some opportunities. I mean, I knew these things; I know I’m missing opportunities and dropping threads of ideas all over the place. These are not polished essays I write, but blog posts. For the most part, I write them in one shot, straight through, with very little editing. The true miracle is when one works.

I would like to write a whole post about trixercise, because I think that this idea of true discovery coming from these three things, a cordoning off, a distancing, and a mindful attention throughout the process, might be a big and a useful enough idea to warrant deeper and more thoughtful explanation. Just not today. Because I write this at the end of a day where I’d thought I’d be posting a breezy instructional video, not wrassling for three hours with firmware upgrades, bad light and goddamn .AVI files.

In the meantime, I will settle for a wrap-up of discoveries from the day:

  1. Your writing needs to be done first, or you’re done for.
  2. You can make a dent in your gnarliest issue if you chip away at it for a half-hour per day.
  3. Just because pain is dormant doesn’t mean it’s over.
  4. Knowing there is a little chopped liver left in the fridge is a great comfort.
  5. Setting yourself a hard in and hard out may be the self-employed’s greatest self-gift.

May we both continue to uncover many wonderful things moving forward…


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

Boxing yourself off for a while

an open wooden box of clutter

There’s a clutter-reducing trick many people advocate for dealing with the really stubborn, clingy stuff.

You take a box, fill it with the Questionable Clutter, and mark it with a date. Then, over the next weeks or months, if you find yourself truly in need of one of the items, you go back to the box, retrieve it for use, and find a permanent place for it among other like items, kitchen gadgets, the coat closet, what-have-you.

Some versions of the trick have you seal up the box, noting only D-day; some others have you additionally remove it to some hard-to-reach place, like an attic or basement.

The variations matter far less than the act itself: of bringing your attention to something, of cordoning it off and creating distance from it without recklessly, mindlessly tossing it. Because the real lesson in the trick, the exercise, let’s call it, is not whether you need this particular hand-juicer or that particular argyle sweater vest: it’s to bring your attention to something to create meaning and lasting change. It’s to transform yourself through a timed examination of your relationship to objects. And so each of the components of the trick is necessary for the trixercize to work: the cordoning, the distance, and the mindful attention.

This is what sabbaticals are for, I am finally realizing, or at least, what this particular one has been for me. I remove myself from my way of being, set a span of time in which to observe what’s needed and what can go, and throughout, do my best to bring my mindful attention to it. How do I feel, not working with clients? Not marketing myself constantly? Or, and much, much more on this to come, marketing myself completely differently? Un-marketing myself.

This is also why, over the course of this sabbatical, I’ve found it very useful not only to travel a great deal more in general, but to take a couple of extended trips away from Los Angeles, specifically. I was in Ojai for most of August and then, after a two-week turn at home, off to Ojai and the PacNW for a month in September and October. Somewhere in the middle, I felt an insanely strong pull to call it all off, to just stay in L.A. and start working on the various ideas that had begun brewing during my long, daily walks in Ojai. I’d committed to a few things in Portland, though, and am trying to get better about following through on my commitments, so I didn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t, because the extra four weeks and 2,000 miles of driving distance back and forth from that giant, marked box that is my life here in Los Angeles helped me to see much, much more clearly what I have use for and what can go.

I love my apartment, for example. This surprised me, how much I missed my incredibly modest and even slightly dingy rent-controlled slice of paradise here in an undisclosed sector of Los Angeles. I missed my things a bit, after all, pretty much only the stuff I really love is left. But I missed using those things more: sleeping in my own bed, cooking in my own kitchen, working at my own table, with my own rig set up just as I like it.

I’d go so far as to say that I could dispense with Los Angeles as a location and just have my stuff wherever, but for now, I realized I’d also really miss the incredible light we have here, that for now, I really depend on it. It was far more difficult to stay buoyant in Portland, where, paradoxically (if I’m using that correctly), they were enjoying the sunniest time they’ve had so far this year. Kill me now.

I realize this is an incredible luxury, being able to take this much time off and away in one chunk. I have definitely relied on the kindness of fine and amazing facilitators to make this happen; I’m blessed with dear and interesting and incredibly generous friends who also happen to jetset it up enough to require housesitting services. Not to mention the staggeringly long list of people who have offered up their spare bedrooms and couches for those in-between times. I’m also in the highly unusual position of having sufficient funds, via savings, investments and dumb luck, to deliberately take time off from pursuing paying work (although sadly, there are a whole lot of people these days with more time off than they’d anticipated having, paying-work-wise.)

Is there a way to do this when one is encumbered by responsibilities? Families, mortgages, debt, local obligations? I think there must be. Not for as long, maybe, and not so dramatic a separation. But I’ve managed to maneuver myself through other massive transitions, other gigantic lettings-go, by doing it more incrementally. Julia Cameron’s tools, the Artist’s Date and Morning Pages, are both good for this, as are walks of any length beyond your car to the mall entrance. Walks by water are my main thing, but I’ll take a good, long walk anywhere, city streets included, over nothing. In fact, I have been drumming up ways of incorporating more massively long walks into my daily life, like my ingenius friend, Havi, has done.

Maybe the simplest way is this: to set a goal of looking, and some objects or practices to look at, and an end date for the looking. When that date rolls around, you must take some sort of action: a letting-go, a deliberate decision to keep (and an attendant resting time/place for the thing) or, if neither of those are possible, some ideas for concrete help making one of those two things happen.

Something to think about.


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

Book review: My Misspent Youth

author Meghan Daum & her book, My Misspent Youth

I came to Meghan Daum’s writing backwards, or sideways, or at least, highly out of order, my fault, entirely.

While she was living in Manhattan, getting published in The New Yorker, I was going off the deep end in Los Angeles, and had let my subscription lapse. By the time she’d moved to Los Angeles and landed her gig as a columnist for the L.A. Times, I was obsessed with moving to hicksville, and (again), had let my subscription lapse. (Well, the weekday one, anyway.)

Finally, this spring, I spied an interview with Daum and another writer in a publication I still subscribe to, the excellent and ever-lively New York magazine. Said piece was clearly part of a P.R. push to accompany the birthing of her latest book; in a stroke of something-or-other, someone had gotten the idea to have Daum and another lady author interviewed together by a third lady author. Oh, the lady authors!

I am leery of stunts in general, as they bring up the phantom stench of all the sleazy things I’ve done in the name of advertising, and this particular stunt was, well, stunty. But the oddest thing happened. Quietly, gracefully, in the midst of this flack-driven circus act, Daum somehow managed to rise above it all and assert her brilliance, using nothing more than her extraordinary gift with words and her non-crazy perspective.

This piqued my interest, onto the to-read list she went.

Her second book, a novel, turned up first. It is smart and funny, with some sharp characterizations and surprising plot twists. Then her most recent book popped into view, literally, on the same shelf my now-friend Brooks’ did. It’s a quite-nice memoir on the longing for roots and the inevitable discovery that there’s no goddamn “there” there, something I not only relate to, but could write a book on myself.

Finally, on a recent Bart’s run, My Misspent Youth appeared before me. It is Daum’s first book, a collection of essays from her salad days as a young writer and editor living in New York, and it blew my doors off. All of a sudden, or rather, bit by bit, with strings of long-dormant nerve cells lighting up like Christmas lights, the references to Joan Didion made sense. The superficial similarity, yes, the stories are New York-centric, involving dreams of living the life of a Manhattanite as much as her subsequent (and slightly more grim) reality.

The real Didion-like comparison goes much, much deeper, though. Because, like Didion’s for a certain kind of (crazy) person, Daum’s is the kind of writing you find by accident that makes you believe in Divine intervention. There you are, living your stupid life, a little despondent and starting to lose it because really, really there is no one out there but you thinking these crazy thoughts, who is disturbed by things other people seem to find completely normal, when suddenly, there is this gift from an angel, these batches of words that whisper, “No, no, you’re fine, and see? Here’s the curtain, and there’s the funny little man madly pulling levers behind it.” This is writing that’s startling and clear and still deeply, deeply human. There is horror nestled in there, but it’s always flanked by humor, as it’s supposed to be. There is no coyness, no winking, no pandering; there is no muddiness, no equivocating, no pedantry. There is just sharp, clear insight and humanity channeled onto every page. AND HUMOR. Did I mention humor?

It’s extraordinary. And for those of us who feel a little crazy most of the time, it might be very comforting, as well.

If you are not a little crazy, you might not get the big deal. You might be shocked, even offended, by a few of the pieces. Trust me, if you want to be a writer, those are the ones you should read twice. (Ira Glass very rightly kept a copy of Daum’s essay “Variations on Grief” handy for years, to hand out to people inquiring as to who the strong, new voices were these days.) The truth is not comfortable, but it is the truth, and if you can open your heart to it, amazing things start to happen.

So, yes, enjoy the memoir. Read the novel on the beach during what’s left of this summer. But me, I’d start with My Misspent Youth, and carve out the time to read it properly, slowly. It is a wonder of a book.


Photo of Meghan Daum by Laura Kleinhenz.

Disclosure! Links to the book(s) in the above post are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: while small, it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Reframing your ducks

signed keith haring poster

I have a signed Keith Haring poster from the New York Book Fair that’s been with me for 25 years now.

It’s moved with me from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Chicago, where I finally had it framed and hung it proudly on the wall of my first bona-fide “grownup” apartment (i.e., all mine, with furniture I purchased myself); it’s moved with me since to three other places and one additional city, Los Angeles.

Somewhere along the way, I fell out of love with it, but I hung onto it because it was valuable, literally, perhaps, but more personally, because I could remember the moment of signing, me, nervous and sweaty on one side of the table, Keith Haring, weary and sweaty on the other. (New York summers are the opposite of dry and temperate.)

He asked me who to make it out to, and in a fit of stupid reaching to be different, I said, “C-A-W”, my initials. Because more than anything in that moment, I wanted Keith Haring to think I was interesting and unusual. I’m sure that’s exactly what he thought, right after “Christ on a bike, they come out in the heat.”

Anyway, there it all is, in one framed, signed poster: me in my lost, twentysomething yearning, and New York City, and the closest I ever got to Keith Haring (other than the dance floor of Area a couple of times, where everyone served as background for everyone else’s ongoing New York music video.) It’s not serving to do anything but remind me of what a sad little tool I was, both for my pathetic stabs at cool and for selecting an orangey-red frame that matches nothing I’ve ever had nor will have in my home. Yet even though I am committed to letting go of what’s not working for me, I can’t give this the heave-ho. The idea of selling it hurts my heart; the idea of giving it to Goodwill is unthinkable. It needs its Next Right Home, but it’s not fit to go out into the world yet. Its Next Right Home’s owner would (rightfully) look at it and politely decline. It is ’80s in the worst of ways, bright, loathed, neglected.

It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, the thing was not empirically awful. That it could be saved by, perhaps even made lovable by, reframing. I scouted readymade frames, Aaron Brothers coupon in hand (does anyone shop at Aaron Brothers or Bed, Bath & Beyond without one anymore?) but came up short. Which is how, a few fiscally painful exchanges later, I wound up with my same old poster looking completely awesome on my bedroom wall in its new, plain, wildly overpriced, custom black frame.

Getting rid of new stuff, stuff that you haven’t had for a while, or that hasn’t been in your family for a while, getting charged with multiple hits of emotional energy, isn’t too hard. Even the expensive new stuff is relatively easy to let go of, once you get over that first hump.

Getting rid of old stuff is much, much harder. For starters, you’re invested in it seven ways to Sunday; it becomes so much a part of you, it’s hard to see how it could serve you differently, or serve someone else better completely.

I recently unearthed a mamaluke of an old habit, not remembering, that is going to be an unholy bitch to wrangle. My shrink and I spent the better part of this month’s session unpacking it, and I just know I’m going to be a long time at turning this one around. The reframing began with me being introduced to the idea that when you come from a fucked-up home, you tend to do a lot of dissociating, and that leads to a lot of not-remembering. For a long time, it either didn’t matter (I could look things up, or ask) or the problem wasn’t that bad. But with perimenopause, things have declined precipitously, I forget names almost instantly after they’re made known, and random nouns are getting harder to grab as my rickety head-RAM spins fruitlessly. Plus, I want to live a good life, and that means addressing my demons, even the stinky, hoary ones I paved over or figured out a way to work around a long time ago.

At some point, I will let go of most everything. And at some point further down the road, I will let go of the rest of it, as we all will when the clock counts down to zero.

For now, I let go of what I can as I can, and reframe the rest, so it can continue to serve. And it warrants remembering that one can enlist a little help with the reframing, as well as help with the outright tossing. None of us got here on our own; sometimes, we can all use a little help getting to the next place…