About two years ago, when I'd recovered enough from the Crohn's to get out and about but not enough to do it for more than an hour or so at a time nor in combination with anything physically taxing like breathing, I undertook an experiment of sorts with my friend, Lisa. Lisa, like Debbie, Jan, the other Jan and most friends of great consequence in my life, is very good at lavishing time and money on herself, which sounds like a witty snipe but is, coming from me, the highest type of compliment. The product of a workaholic father who equated financial worth with the personal kind and an alcoholic mother whose money-management skills were so finely honed that she died $70,000 in debt, it took more than a little effort to pry a buck from my hands or me from behind the desk where I made it.
On the other end of the work-play spectrum, Lisa, who at that point would have chosen "chew own arm off" if given the choice between that and "clip coupon," was very good at buying retail, socializing in trendy bars and hosting "Sex and the City" parties at her well-appointed, fashionably-located, cable-TV-equipped bachelorette pad, at least, when she wasn't giving herself stomache aches over where next month's rent was coming from.
You get the picture.
So I'm hanging out with ol' Lisa (who is quite a bit younger than me, by the way, and therefore not old at all, except maybe to a third grader) and we hatch this plan: we're going to give each other assignments. One a week, every week, for an open-ended number of weeks, until we feel like some much-needed good habits are seeded. Lisa got assignments like "balance checkbook" or "find checkbook." I got assignments like "go to bookstore, browse for a minimum of one hour and buy at least one book for entertainment purposes only" because she knew if I was merely instructed to get a book for pleasure I would have opened the "to read" file in my Palm, found the titles of five or six instructive manuals on composting (you know, for when I eventually own a house with a backyard) and ordered them to be delivered to my branch library.
After much initial resistance all around, I'm happy to report that the experiment was largely a success. Lisa turned her hateful job into a career she loves and has her finances so well in hand that she recently added both call waiting and DSL after doing, o joy of joys, a comparative cost analysis of her telephony services. For my part, I not only bought myself a new car, a painting and digital cable (with HBO!!!), I actually got a second box so I could watch quality programming like "The Simpsons," "Law & Order" and reality TV on my G5, sometimes even when i wasn't working!
I was reminded of The Experiment last night while visiting my writing partner, a.k.a. The Other Jan. We'd finished working on our pilot and I was relaxing with a glass or three of wine after a delicious meal (which she cooked for us while I yakked on the phone), and now we were parked on her sofa to discuss the (free) seminar she'd taken last weekend. Taught by our former acting coach, it was, apparently, a compendium of The Forum and Lifestream and a few other all-Kool-Aid-drenched-roads-lead-to-Rome methods of self-actualization, but I was interested because (a) for the first time in the three years I've known her, The Other Jan is actually talking about quitting smoking and (b) I adhere to the tenet "Love the idea, hate the idealogue."
I got the Reader's Digest version, but there was still a lot of planning and thinking and writing, and at the end of our hour, I had a list of no less than 27 things I had to do to make myself a better person. Tomorrow. It's tiring stuff, this self-improvement, so we knocked back a couple of episodes of my new-favorite show and called it a night.
But a funny thing happened when I left TOJ's. Instead of being excited about the program, I felt a little anxious and depressed. They were all good actions, and eminently reasonable ones to take if I wanted to achieve the goals I'd established for myself, but something about them felt wrong. Too familiar. Too much work, not enough joy.
And then it hit me: for my particular goal, they were too much work. If my aim is (HUBRIS ALERT! HUBRIS ALERT!) to become a joyful conduit of truth and beauty in the world, maybe I'd be better served by focusing a little less on working at truth and a little more on the joy and beauty part. Not to say that a plan isn't great and work isn't necessary, but for overachieving micromanagers like myself, sometimes joy is the work and not-planning, an infinitely better plan.
So instead of working on my 27 things this morning, I slept in. And this afternoon, I played (not practiced) a little piano and baked a little SCD bread. I took myself to the bookstore and bought a stack of books. Of course, it was the used bookstore and I "bought" them with a credit, but they're mostly fun books (if you can call Sinclair Lewis "fun") and I spent one whole hour poking around the bookstore looking for them. And no, technically, I'm no closer to my life's purpose for it. But my self feels greatly improved, which is usually not the case at the end of a long, busy Saturday. Which makes me think that there's something to this doing less thing, or at least, a balance of doing-less with overdoing.
And now, if you'll excuse me, my book and I have an appointment with a large vodka-rocks in a long, hot bath...