embracing the tiny

Embracing the tiny, Day 21: Small finales

I began this series because I was having trouble beginning. (If that ain't the sound of one hand clapping, I don't know what is.)

I thought that if I kept things small, I could keep things going—I could keep beginning, every day. And damned if it didn't work, until about two-thirds of the way through, when my well-meaning, deeply toxic brain started off-gassing "should"s.

You should end it with a BIG finish—something grand and profound to wrap it all up with majesty. And symmetry! Or maybe irony!

You should compile these into a book, create a Tumblr blog, buy a URL, start a mailing list. 

You should have a plan. You should have HAD a plan. Or gotten a plan. You should have figured out some way to keep it going, to monetize it, to Grow the Brand.

And you know what? It's possible. It's possible that I should have done many things, and it's definitely possible that I could have done them. What I needed to do when I began this, though, was to begin. And then to keep on beginning, right through to the end. (At which point, of course, I am free to keep beginning.)

So at the end of this beginning, I tell myself this: You looked up at the trees, and saw them a different way. You slowed down, you fixed your gaze on thing after tiny thing, and saw their stories. And that is enough.

I am starting to think endings only seem big, and also that they only seem like endings. And, in the same way, that small things only seem tiny. There is so much there; there is the whole world in that one tiny thing, if you want to see it. Each tiny thing, a door into the whole, wide world.

And the only thing you should do, in the end, is know that you always, in any moment, have the chance to begin again.

xxx c

This is Day 21 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 20: A bit of sunshine

a sliver of PDX sunlight While I've been away from it quite a bit this past year, Los Angeles averages 186 days of sunshine per year.

On the other hand, my second-favorite city, "the People's Republic of Portland", gets a measly 68 days of sunshine per year.

This is as much of a reason to visit as any: never, ever do I appreciate a ray of sunlight the way I do when I'm in Portland. (And never, ever do I move as quickly or with as much purpose to capture it on camera.)

For a while after I arrive, the appreciation bleeds over into other areas, too: coffee tastes blacker; inside seems cozier; time spent with friends feels more buoying. The strongness of these sensations tapers off after a week or two, and my pansy-frail constitution begins to wilt under the relentless pressure of gray skies and mud underfoot.

Still, even when I am days—or hours, or weeks—from my crazy, California desert, along will come a slice of sunshine, a spray of crazy-colored buds, an elfin patch of moss, to give me a wee smile.

Good cheer, they whisper, and don't forget to thank the rain.

xxx c

This is Day 20 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 19: Full of care

a packet of teas, nicely tied It doesn't take all that long to tie up a packet of teas with a nice piece of string. But doing it 640 times takes a long, long time.

Yet that is what the fine organizers of the conference I'm attending did. Along with a number of other small things I can't disclose, lest I ruin the surprise.

But that today's conference will be extraordinary? That's no surprise. No surprise at all.

I cannot think of a better way of tying up March.

xxx c

UPDATE: Of course, I discover after the fact that my friend, Jolie, is the tie-er of delightfully tiny ribbons. Among other small and wonderful things. Of course.

This is Day 19 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 18: Land of the Super Grown-ups

brass door handle that says "pull" Do you remember what the world looked like when you were four years old?

How tall everything was, and how mysterious? How grownups navigated these mysterious things with astonishing agility—driving cars, getting on and off buses at the right stops, counting change, ordering food. And how they seemed to just know, without anyone having to show them (much less show them again and again, as you needed to learn things like shoelaces and chopsticks and bedtime).

When you spied something with a sign on it, with letters or instructions, you clung to it: it was a hint, a clue, some foothold in this bewildering world you would never, ever master. You'd whisper the word to yourself if you could, working out the letters, testing.

You do master it, of course, or at least some of it: adding up numbers and signing your name and cooking a hamburger. Other parts remain always a little out of reach, the domain of SuperGrownups who know how to navigate the rapids of change, or can manage to remember that the blues, too, will pass.

Perhaps that's what's so comforting about coming across one of those old signs in the wild now, when you are tall enough to reach for the handle from the top. I learned this, you think. At some point, I will learn the rest of it.

And you whisper to yourself as your fingers curl around the dented brass bar.


xxx c

This is Day 18 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 17: Getting over yourself

the kroger building in cincinnati, from Over the Rhine

It is not, as it turns out, that hard
to take a half-decent picture.

What's hard
is taking 4,000 horrible pictures first.
What's hard is standing in the middle of the street
like a stupid tourist hick
taking two, three, seventeen horrible pictures
while people stare at you with your doofus camera
and your zero credentials acting (as if)
this is something you do every day
because it is so much fun.

What's hard is going home
and sifting through
the ten, twelve, ninety horrible shots,
and trying to suss out
which are really horrible and
which are just bad and
which are...okay?
and which are slightly better than okay
and which of those remaining two is better
because they look exactly the same

And what's really really hard,
as it turns out,
is not taking the picture at all
but putting it out there for people to see
and judge
and form assumptions
about your talent
and your character
and your level of denial
and to not just do it once
but to do it the four thousand times (at least)
that you have to be bad
before you can start being halfway decent.

But taking a half-decent picture?
Is not that hard
as it turns out.


This is Day 17 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 16: Ur kettle

the perfect tea kettle To earn its keep on my cooktop, a tea kettle must do three things:

  1. Be as easy to de-scale as it is to fill. This rules out those ridiculous kettles with only a spout.
  2. Be easy to pour. All of those "helpful" kettles whose handles wobble? OUT. Double-ditto for those ones that leverage gravity so that tilting to pour releases the cap on the spout.
  3. Alert me to the doneness of water. What the hell's up with those whistle-free tea kettles? I mean, the non-electric ones? At least with those, you can't burn the house down. A little "ding" is fine under those circumstances.

Were you to view my own tea kettle—13 years mine, like the apartment—you would see it is missing the half-functional, half-decorative knob atop the cover. This is because when it broke, a mere year after I bought it, and I wrote off for a new one, the company informed me there was no way to obtain a replacement. Planned obsolescence, just like its higher-end cousins. Shameful.

I drink a lot of tea—just ask my dentist—so I have searched high and low for a kettle that meets these criteria, at any (reasonable) price. No luck, so same old kettle. So I've just had to use a pliers around de-scaling time, and adopt a wabi-sabi attitude about the rest of it.

Still, when such a small thing to fix is the first thing a company jettisons? Shameful.

xxx c

This is Day 16 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 15: Five dollars, long ago

label from a much-beloved scarf On a rare Saturday off from my big, fat advertising job, I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan to meet my friend Claudia for a movie.

The weather that was gorgeous and sunny and at least warm-ish when I got on at Park Slope was New-York-awful by the time I emerged from my stop on the Upper West Side.

Desperate for warmth and a half-hour early to meet my friend, I ducked into a nearby shop. Tucked away behind the expensive jackets and coats and sweaters was one sad bin of five-dollar items: damaged or ugly schmatte no one wanted at any price, and a cotton jersey sash that was...passable. (Well, passable as a scarf, anyway; I still can't imagine who'd want a big lump of cotton jersey tied around her waist.)

I figured that at five bucks, even a cheapskate like me could consider it a disposable item. I bought it, wrapped it around my neck, and wore it out of the store—and, then, much to my surprise, pretty much everywhere else for the next 25 years. The skinny stripes in boring, improbable colors (white, tan, taupe) ended up complementing almost everything I owned. The fabric grew softer with each wearing, and softer still with each laundering—it was delicious around my neck. When the blanket stitching wore out, I tucked in the ends. When the material itself gave way, it became my House Scarf.

Last week, the tag finally fell off in the wash. It had hung by a thread for days, much like the dragonfly on my little wish bracelet. When I found it, I chucked it into the God box, just like the dragonfly. I'm not sure what I'm hoping for this time: to slow down the alarmingly fast passage of time? To turn up a new scarf?

Or, most likely, an enduring awareness of the value to be found now and then in very small things.

xxx c

This is Day 15 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 14: Dingbats

dingbats on a tile, surrounded by petal-pink tiles The building I've lived in for the past 13 years—a double-eternity-plus-one in itinerant Los Angeles—was built in the late 1950s.

Undoubtedly, something grand was razed to make this possible. Equally likely, the neighbors on the block, most of whom lived in substantial structures dating back to the 1920s, found it an abomination. The exterior is boxy and awkward, and the materials—most of them gypsum-cheap even then—have not aged well.

But when I stepped inside, the first thing I saw was all of the light in L.A.. It poured from both sides into every room, kitchen included, warm and golden and delicious. Rare, period, but especially rare for modestly-priced rental apartments, even in sunny Southern California.

The second thing I saw was the tile on the backsplash and countertops of that bright, bright kitchen: petal-pink, mostly, studded with the occasional ornamental dingbat tile. The look was straight out of Barbie's Mid-Century Dream House, which is to say it was both ridiculous and perfect. That cinched it. I followed the apartment manager back downstairs to her apartment, where I signed the lease and turned over my deposit on the spot.

It may seem silly that kitchen tiles formed a main criterion in my selection of a home; then again, who hasn't fallen in love over the small gesture? I have dated people for years based on something similarly microscopic.

When the apartments in the building turn over now, the management tears out the old cooktops and double sinks, replacing them with enormous, stainless-steel ranges and dishwashers. The tiles go, too; these days, most people seem to want granite countertops.

Which are probably more sanitary and definitely sturdier, but which will, for me, always lack a certain je ne sais tiny.

xxx c

This is Day 14 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 13: Slightly better

how to take a great photo with a point and shoot, by felicia perretti Early last year, I started touring my little how-to-market-yourself-without-being-a-tool talk at a series of conferences hosted by the American Society for Media Photographers (ASMP).

I like to keep things lively, so I tend to use a lot of photos, much as I do here on the bloggity-blog. And, because I've never been especially good—okay, because I've sucked at taking photos, I've tended to use a lot of screencaps or terrific photos from Flickr to do the illustrating.

But occasionally, I cannot find the image I'm looking for elsewhere, and am forced to come up with it myself. This is how a truly horrible photo of a truly awesome thank-you note ended up in the presentation.

horrible photo of a nice thank-you note

My point was—and is—that all the fancy visual branding in the world does you no good unless you have great behavior to back it up. In this case, Chris Guillebeau combines great visual identity work (designed for him by the delightful Reese Spykerman) with the right action of sending a handwritten thank-you note, something he did for every single one of the 500 attendees of the first conference he hosted. It turned what was essentially a piece of collateral marketing (albeit a pretty one—yay, Reese!) into a meaningful memento. And really, that's what you want to do with all of your marketing: create stuff that either literally or metaphorically passes The Fridge Test.*

I did the best I could with my shaky skills and rudimentary equipment, then tacked on a self-deprecating credit line at the bottom, "Horrible photo taken by yours truly" and turned my nonexistent skillz into a joke. Because (a), play to your strengths, and (b), always head 'em off at the pass.

What I did not expect was for an enthusiastic young photographer named Felicia Perretti to bound up to me after the talk in Philadelphia and assure me in no uncertain terms that I could learn to take better photos, even with "just" a point-and-shoot, and that she could show me how. She seemed sincere enough, but as it was a heat-of-the-moment situation, I did not take it seriously. Nor did I take it seriously when she followed up with emails #1,2, and 3, a few days, weeks, and months after the presentation.

four tips on taking better photos

It was not until I received a birthday card in the mail—hand-drawn, with individual tips and a likeness of me holding a point-and-shoot camera—that I realized this girl not only was a woman of her word, but that she truly found joy in turning people on to the incredible things she'd already learned.

tips! on taking better photos

So when I had to expand my presentation from 60 minutes to 90 (and from 211 slides to 300!), naturally, the first great marketing story I had to add was the one about how selfless actions can end up being the best kind of marketing there is. Because some eight months after a sincere offer to help, Felicia Perretti was now a fixture in the canon, her name, story, and website plastered all over screens everywhere as an example of Doing It Right.

the author as as a happy Weegie

There is no guarantee that a small thing you do will make any difference in someone else's life, much less have a huge ripple effect. If you are using actions as lottery tickets, stop it now. (Or don't, but know that's what you're doing.)

But the things you are moved to do, big or small, "successful" or "failed",  will always make a difference to you. After almost eight years of writing posts here, I can promise you that. Many, many times when I hit the "publish" button, I was sure that THIS post was (god help us all) going to be the one that ignited the blogosphere, that THIS brilliant thought would make me, would usher in fame and fortune. No such luck—which is good, because it would have been the shittiest kind of luck.

It is not what ignites or explodes or propagates that matters. It is scribbling in journals, doodling on margins, pausing to take a photo—and another, and another, and then, applying the Rule of Thirds, thoughtfully, another—that matters. Conscious effort to improve yourself, your world, and the way you interact with it. Meaningful work, engagement with other life forms, and, as I am finally (finally!) on the verge of learning, having some damned fun in your life.

I have good teachers. Thanks to them, I am slightly better than I was last year, last month, last week, a moment ago.

And, god willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be slightly better than that tomorrow.

xxx c

This is Day 13 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Click through to see the full series of how-to photos on Flickr.

Embracing the tiny, Day 12: A little more me

I took a silkscreening class in college with an instructor who regularly railed against various indignities: the complacency of his lazy, American students (he was a Polish émigré); the Communists (ditto); the weather (Ithaca being quite possibly the only place worse than Poland as far as this went).

He had particular disdain for what he considered the craptastically low design standards of American art-supply producers. He'd snatch up some egregious example—a sketchbook, a layout pad—and launch into an impromptu diatribe on horsey type and lowest-common-denominator layout.

As much as his outbursts frightened me, I began to notice that he was right: the colors, the photos, and pretty much everything else about most American paper products except the paper itself  just...sucked. And we lived with this affront day after day—we, who were supposed to be surrounding ourselves with great, inspiring examples to help shape our fledgling art consciousness.

Last fall, while attending a retreat that left me with even more time than usual to avoid doing my work, I was seized with the hideousness of the cheap spiral notebook I'd bought to journal in. I don't like to get too fancy with my tools; it's too easy to obsess about them rather than focus on the work. Still, the hideous green of the cover and clunky faces of the text were an affront. I grabbed a Sharpie and scribbled out an improvised manifesto, not stopping until I'd covered every inch of the cover. If it wasn't beautiful, it was at least mine.

Since then, I've hacked every cover of every notebook I've bought. I draw, I inscribe, I doodle, around, under, and right on top of their design elements. I take all of two minutes to do it. Quickly, with whatever words or thoughts pop into my head in the moment.

It by no means turns them into the most beautiful of notebooks. But it turns them absolutely into my notebooks.

xxx c

This is Day 12 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 11: Crack

My collection of Things Familial has shrunk considerably over the years, mostly via a serious of small and deliberate contractions.

Fortunately, the most treasured artifacts lend themselves to repurposing. When they don't, I try to find other ways of keeping them meaningful and relevant.

Which is how my grandparents ended up hanging over the toilet.

On a purely practical level, they perfectly hide the wreckage left over from a fit of overly hasty remodeling, aka "renters' pique". Also, according to feng shui, my bathroom falls squarely in the "helpful people & travel" bagua, where reminders of fine folk and wonderful destinations are both auspicious types of things to display.

Most importantly, the light is good in my bathroom. It spends a lot of time there—almost as much as I do.

It would likely grieve Gram and Gramps to know that their beloved granddaughter is more often there out of necessity than she is vanity. On the other hand, together is together.

xxx c

This is Day 11 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 10: A thin, brown line

toasted pine nuts While they taste fine as-is, ten minutes in a warm oven transforms raw pine nuts into something sublime.

Unfortunately, anything more renders them useless. And the line between "fantastic" and "useless" is quite a fine one, easily missed and just as easily cursed.

But when I take care, I'm rewarded with two things:

A reminder that turning one's full attention to something can be rewarding.

And really delicious salad.

This is Day 10 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 9: Temporary housing

an aladdin-lamp-shaped object My grandparents had a love of tiny things: figurines, jewelry, grandchildren.

There was a menagerie I especially treasured, artfully fashioned of bronze and iron and brass, collected in the course of their worldly travels, in those days before you could go online and order anything from anywhere, instantly. We would look at each animal one by one, and once I could be trusted not to pop them in my mouth, I was allowed to hold them.

My very favorite tiny object was not an animal, however, but a small, genie-in-a-bottle-shaped curio that unscrewed into pieces: at the top, a whistle; in the center, a salt shaker; at the bottom, a miniscule compartment that would hold exactly one, very small pill—Poison!, my gramps would whisper, gleefully, for spies! And at the very, very bottom, an insignia, which the owner could use to stamp his initials in sealing wax. (Which is also how I learned about sealing wax.)

It is small enough not to matter, so I stay alert to ways that ensure it will. I have moved it from city to city, from nook to nook, like my own game of Traveling Garden Gnome. Recently, I was delighted to discover that it fit exactly perfectly between the second "L" and first "E" of a wood rendering of my first name that has also been in my possession a long, long time, and that I cannot bring myself to release just yet. So they sit nestled together now, making each other newly relevant and interesting, earning their keep in my life for a while longer.

But only a while. Because as all things passed down to me from other people and times and places are there to remind me, no thing is forever.

xxx c

This is Day 9 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 8: Presto!

an immersion heater Early tomorrow morning, I will leave on my sixth trip to the ninth city I've been to so far this year, and my 11th trip since this madcap schedule began last fall.

I've learned a lot in my travels—much of it about myself, which is one of the chief benefits of removing yourself from your regular-usual surroundings, but also, quite a bit about traveling in the early part of the 21st century.

One of the chief discoveries is that on the road, small things can have an outsized impact: a pair of slippers for the hotel room; a pair of waterproof shoes for everywhere else. A beanie, to ward off chills. A pound or two in laptop weight—or any weight.

It took me 31 nights in strange rooms to figure out that almost anything is endurable when you have a warm cup of tea first thing in the morning, and another right before bed. My last morning on the road, after I'd trudged out into some very cold weather to grab my cuppa, it occurred to me that I was probably not the only person in the world whom this had occurred to.

A few quick searches later, I was the proud owner of a brand new Electric Pleasure Device. Kidding. It's an immersion heater: stick it in a cup of water, plug it in, and presto! Instant-ish hot water.

Although really, from my perspective? They could just as truthfully called it "Electric Pleasure Device."

xxx c

This is Day 8 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 7: One four-minute egg

a hard-boiled egg in a dish Speaking of eggs, for almost 10 years now, since my Crohn's onset led me to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, my love for the humble egg has been ardent and, you'll pardon the pun, unbroken: most every morning I enjoy two of them, almost always scrambled, almost always folded over some kind of cheese and fashioned into something omelet-ish.

Obviously, yesterday's masterpiece would have been difficult to pull off with either of the main players in an omelet. So why this great (small) change? Because in my travels this winter, I visited an old friend who is rather healthier-minded than I; he made us each a couple of four-minute eggs for breakfast, and—surprise!—they were delightful.*

I have made certain adjustments, as I am wont to do: the addition of a curved dish which shows off the egg to better advantage; the subtraction of one of the eggs. (A lady of a certain age has, as nature well knows, little need of multiple eggs.) But it is almost a perfect breakfast for me now—so much so that I wonder how long I might have been forcing the old one out of habit, out of speed, out of willfulness.

It never ceases to amaze me, the valuable data to be mined in these small spaces, so easily overlooked.

xxx c

*Which, now that I think of it, some other dear friends who hosted me in Portland a few years back also made for me, and which I loved back then, as well. I guess it takes me a while to wake up to things. No pun intended.


This is Day 7 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 4: I see London, I see France

hand-painted ceramic hinged box The summer before I turned 13, my most unusual uncle—he'd already had a brief career as a Franciscan monk—was marrying a French girl he'd met while they were both serving in the Peace Corps, in Iran.

In one of my family's smarter moves, we decided to travel en masse to her family's tiny French village for the wedding. I believe that the mayor of said village not only officiated at the legal union, but catered the lavish event at my aunt's family's château after the church ceremony. (And that was the least remarkable thing that happened over those few days. By a French country mile.)

As long as we we'd gone that far, my mother figured her daughters might as well get a slightly broader sampling of culture. So the three of us schlepped first to Paris and Versailles, then over the Channel to an interminable series of world-class rose gardens in the countryside (mitigated somewhat by daily bowlfuls of mulberries drowned in heavy cream and blanketed with sugar), finally ending up in London (which might as well have been billed as Home of that Awesome Tower Full of Actual Dungeons and the World's Biggest Jewels.)

I know now that Mom must have grossly overextended herself to get us there in the first place, never mind the impulsive upgrades made upon seeing the ratty rooms she'd booked by mail in those pre-pre-pre-Internet days. But we still got to select a few treats as mementos.

The small, ceramic box I chose is barely big enough to hold the tiny hand-painted rose inside. Yet somehow, in the grand tradition of curio holders and clown cars, it also manages to contain so much more: my first waltz, first Champagne, first sleep under a down comforter; a house with both peacocks AND a wine cellar like the one in Notorious; the Mona Lisa and Buckingham Palace; candied violets and pizzas with an EGG in the MIDDLE; and me and my sister and our mom, camped out in our swanky hotel room watching The Muppet Show on the BBC.

All that, and, currently, a pair of bright orange earplugs.

xxx c

This is Day 4 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 3: A small game of fetch

a chew toy, a dog, and the gate between them There are many beautiful routes I can take to walk the mile that separates me from my mail, but my favorite passes an estate that's home to two German shepherds.

For years now, as I'd near the driveway, I'd glance down to see if there was a snout or a paw in that little space between the gate and the pavement. If so, more often than not I'd hunker down on the ground and play a highly constrained game of "fetch" with whatever chew toy the dogs were on their way to obliterating with their gigantic maws, a ritual that began years ago when I gallantly (if tentatively) retrieved an old Kong that had rolled just out of paw's reach.

I was late yesterday—the time change will do that to a gal—and there were no dog parts visible as I approached the driveway. Still, something made me pause, lean down and call out my usual greeting: Puppies! Pu-u-u-u-u-ppies! (They could be "Hansel" and "Gretl" as easily as "Hans" and "Franz"; no way am I sticking my hand in there to check for tags or anything else.)

Eight feet bounded toward the gate, stopped for a second, then bounded away again. I shrugged, feeling just the slightest bit hurt for ranking so low, and just slightly less idiotic for feeling ignored by two dogs who have never even seen me.

I had just straightened up to continue on my way when I heard them bound back to the gate. Everyone stopped, and a red rubber bone dropped to the ground, and rolled out to my side of the gate.

You really can't throw anything very far with only six inches of clearance and an eager dog in the way.

Then again, none of us seemed to mind that part a bit.

xxx c

This is Day 3 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.

Embracing the tiny, Day 2: Ablutions

A big part of me sides with the esteemed Quentin Crisp on matters of housecleaning.

The remaining portion grudgingly cedes the potential spiritual benefits of several days spent on one's hands and knees applying a handheld steam cleaner to an expanse of filthy carpet. Release from obsessive thinking for a slice of the day; redemption, one square foot at a time. Each one the sweeter for being hard-won.

Plus there's the sheer Morbid Fascination Factor. I mean, holy cats, that was one filthy @%$! rug.

xxx c

This is Day 2 of a 21-day series. For more scoop on the who/what/why, go here.