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.

Poetry Thursday: Slow death by bullshit happiness

old clip-art dude holding sign: Dead inside. You? You think to yourself: "I can do this!" or "This will be good for me!" or even "It doesn't matter."

And so you smile when someone asks how things are going, broadly, you smile, with most of your teeth, and you flick aside what's left of your heart, and you stick out your hand and say, "Grrrreat!" or "Couldn't be better!" or, when life is particularly bleak, "Things are looking up!"

And you recite from memory a menu, several pre-selected items from columns "A" and "B", of all the marvelous wins and fabulous opportunities and other stale pellets of extruded terror formed into appetizing, life-like shapes, tarted up with brio and garnished with a wilted sprig of false humility until you question whether you can even remember what it felt like to really, truly feel anything.

What happens, I wonder, when you just fucking say, "Damn, I'm tired. Business sucks, traffic was awful, my husband left me, my hard drive crashed, the dog has cancer, and the Emperor's ass is a flat, pale, pockmarked bucket of sad the sight of which is going to take years to wipe from my memory banks. What's new in YOUR world?"

Whether everything is awful right now or everything is perfect right now everything IS right now.

And I can't think of a single thing that doesn't get a little bit better served up fresh and truthfully, with humor, with tenderness, with the judiciously-chosen expletive, dependent on company.

Besides, what's the alternative, slow death by bullshit happiness?

The end is coming, either way.

And I'm guessing, just guessing, mind you, that if you let at least some of it hang out, the two of you might even toast to the ironies of life, and the way a bump in the road can turn two complete strangers into fellow travelers.

xxx c

Poetry Thursday: 50,002 miles

I waited

for weeks
for that odometer to roll
the first 50,000 miles
I'd put on a car

First EVER.

Not the extra fifty
I helped put
on the family car
or the twenty/ten/five
that got me to fifty
on all of those  
other cars,

50,000 miles,
from zero to five-oh
(save the few it took
to get it from factory
to me),
all by my lonesome.

For months
I guessed at
the rollover date:
in L.A.,
on the 101,
running mundane errands
or my own crazy ass
over the hill and back
for to get my head shrunk?

In the valley of Ojai,
at night, climbing
the hill toward the stars?

On the road in between,
windows down,
singing to the oldies?

As it happened,
I was somewhere on the outskirts
of Sacto,
negotiating my way
through a surprising number
of Sunday drivers
on their way to salvation,
two miles before I had a moment
to look down
and notice.

and two.

I thought about it
all the way
to Bakersfield.

And then,
somewhere on the outskirts
of L.A. County
I realized:
I would remember
and two
far, far longer
than I could have dreamed
I'd remember


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

Ice cream for everyone!

illustration of 3 anthropomorphized ice cream cones

Maybe it's a reaction to the stress of not knowing what's next, even though I've had a full four months to suss the sucka out. Maybe it's the Resistor whispering sweet uglies in my ear as I near some kind of (oh please oh please oh please) creative breakthrough.

Whatever flavor of fear is to blame, I have been horrified to note of late a creeping desire to trash-talk, whatever, whomever, whenever.

I know it's no good for me: even if it wasn't the #1 poison the Four Agreements warns against (which it is) and even if happiness handmaiden Gretchen Rubin hadn't discussed the downside multiple times (which she has), I literally feel awful now when I gossip. Sick to my stomach, plus a little dizzy. And that's on top of the self-loathing that kicks in.

Fortunately, my friend Dave Seah introduced me to the ultimate spell-breaker for lifting the hex and clearing the fog that a good, and by "good," I mean "bad", gossip session induces. I was at the end of a long jag of gnarly, personal posts to our Google Wave project, not gossipy blips, per se, but that kind of venting that's just to the side of it. When I finally copped to overindulging and confessed to the weariness it had brought on, rather than batting back a similarly heavy reply, or a snarky joke, or just ignoring it entirely, as though it had never existed, Dave said the exact perfect thing:

"Okay, then, ice cream for everyone!"

I laughed out loud when I read it, the sticky ugliness vanished in a poof of delightful, and immediately, God was back in her heaven and all was right with the world.

Since that exchange, Dave and I have used it at least twice more in the Wave and I've found myself using it quite a bit in the course of my day to get myself back on track from all kinds of derailments: Accidentally read another horrible thing about racist fear-mongering while you were on the interwebs? Ice cream for everyone! Crabby friend on the phone attempting to launch a bitch-fest? Ice cream for everyone! Catch your own ungrateful self complaining again? Ice cream for everyone! It's short, it's easy to remember, and it doesn't dangle loosely from my bony wrist.

So. Weekend over? Tough week ahead? Stupid guy cut you off in traffic on the way to work?


Unless you have a better one. Eh?


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

Poetry Thursday: Magic

airport terminal interior looking very space-age

I used to wish
I could blink my way
to happiness
like Samantha on Bewitched

making things appear
or disappear
at will,
myself included.

Okay, I still do.

Standing in line
after ever-lovin' line
at LAX,
I transport myself
in my thoughts
to my destination

without baggage
or more than the moment
it takes to twitch my nose.

If I am lucky
something shows up
to remind me
of how much magic
there is in airports
the terrazzo underfoot
the screens, both silent and blaring
the overpriced water in plastic
the baggage carousels
the light through the glass
the air, cooled or heated
the thousands of stories being carried
from one point of the globe
to another,

almost instantaneously
to someone who considered herself lucky
to secure a berth
on a boat
bound for land
she had not even seen on a map.

If I am lucky.

And these days,
I almost always am...


Image by U-g-g-B-o-y-(-Photograph-World-Sense-) via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: The Book of Awesome

toy figures shining a lifesaver tower + cover of The Book of Awesome

The Book of Awesome will not make you more so.

It's neither prescriptive nor is it wildly illuminating. After all, most of us can sense the difference between good and bad, easy and difficult, delightful and not-so-much, and when we're thinking clearly, we know how to open ourselves up to the light and steer clear of the stuff that pokes, stings, smarts, bogs or otherwise makes life, well, less awesome.

Here's the thing, though: it's easy to forget how colossally awesome life is most of the time. How almost unbearably fortunate most of us are in so many ways just because we get to wake up in the morning, stretch our relatively healthy and make our stupid beds. That whole Be Here Now thing the Buddhists are always (gently, patiently, eternally) harping about? If we were wired for it, we wouldn't need those pesky Buddhists; we'd just BE.

Fortunately for himself, blogger-newly-turned-author Neil Pasricha remembers to remember, and fortunately for us, he is HI-larious while doing so. Oh, yes, my friends: while reading The Book of Awesome, I laughed loud enough to startle the neighbors no less than a dozen times. TWELVE TIMES. Which made me physically feel awesome in addition to being freshly able to appreciate additional awesomeness around me because, as Pasricha and many others have pointed out, laughing is quite good for you, physiologically-speaking.

Some of the entries (chapters? items?) are also quite moving. There's a beautiful piece toward the end serving as a tribute to an awesome friend of Pasricha's who died tragically young, and the piece that closes the book, well, I won't give it away, but I will say that it alone is possibly worth the cost of admission. Well, it and the HI-larious laughing parts.

If you're already a longtime fan of the blog, you'll notice some duplication of entries, although the book is carefully edited for the best of the best, plus what I felt was really great flow. As a fan of the intimate and thus far irreplaceable something that happens when you read words on pulverized dead trees, I would consider getting a copy to dip into as needed, to remind yourself to BE HERE NOW (and maybe, just maybe, find the AWESOME in the moment). Even better, I would definitely consider getting it as a gift for your sad friend or your Internet-free friend, or even your sad, Internet-free friend.

AWESOME is as AWESOME does...


Yo! Disclosures!

1. The advance review copy of The Book of Awesome upon which I based this review was provided to me for free, and may vary from the book you purchase (although I didn't find any errors of a spelling or typographical nature, so, you know, kudos to Neil, Amy Einhorn and Team Awesome.

2. Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: 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.

Image (left) by beadmobile via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. Image (right) ©Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group Inc.

Book review: The Happiness Project

Full disclosure: Gretchen Rubin is a friend. But I was a reader and fan of her blog long before we even met, and there's no way I'd have done an elaborate pre-launch pimpage post if I didn't think this book was so terrific. Also, this review was based on my reading of an uncorrected proof; there may have been minor changes in the book that ultimately went to press.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with self-help books: I love finding new ways to wake myself up, fresh strategies for altering the course of my life, novel frameworks that give me a real look at myself; I hate the dull and plodding style most of them are served up in.

Gretchen Rubin's newest book, The Happiness Project, escapes both the pedantry trap (i.e., scholarly tracts with snooze-a-licious prose) and the newage-rhymes-with-sewage, self-important, Lite Lifeâ„¢ Solutions b.s. of the quick-to-market "guru" book. Its content is both well-researched and delightfully served up, evidence of not only a fine mind and truly generous soul, but someone who reads lots of ACTUAL BOOKS for the purposes of ENJOYMENT and SELF-EDUCATION.

Like Aristotle! Montaigne! Schopenhauer!

But also A.J. Jacobs! Joan Didion! Daniel Pink!

Even Elizabeth Gilbert, that wonderful lady writer everyone now feels it's their bounden duty to crap on* because she committed the heinous sin of writing (gasp...the horror!) a P-O-P-U-L-A-R  best seller (and going on Oprah to talk about it). One of the most impressive parts of Rubin's book is the Suggestions for Further Reading, at the end, where she lists 76+ sources** that run the gamut, genre-wise, from philosophy to science to fiction.

Why is this so fantastic? Because Rubin is a synthesizer, one of that rare breed who can take things in from multiple sources, parse them wisely, and smoosh them into beautiful new ideas and practical suggestions the rest of us can benefit from. Most likely, she finds patterns without even trying, because she's trained her brain to note and sift so deftly. And then, in the case of a project like this, she finds ways to apply all this good learning to herself, further filtering it through her own experience, and finally reporting on it in such a clean, spry, engaging fashion, we don't see the work that went into it, we just get what we need out of it.***

And what do we need from a project about finding happiness?

Direction, for one. Effecting meaningful change is tough stuff, and if there's one thing that requires big-time change, it's moving from asleep to awake, from unhappy to happy, or, hardest of all, from asleep to happy. It's necessarily a self-directed, one-of-a-kind thing, since we're all special snowflakes; how do you go about teaching that?

I think we find our way by studying the great synthesizers before us, which is why I've long preferred biography and memoir to other forms of self-help nonfiction. Rubin agrees. As she says in her opening note to the reader, "I often learn more from one person's highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies."**** We read her well-told tales of struggling with exercise, with spending, with keeping her temper; we watch her apply her book knowledge in real time, see the ease that it brings, and start to look at how we might apply this learning to our own peculiar areas of fucked-up-ness. Are her solutions, a 20-minute circuit with a trainer, soliciting help from her mother to buy needful things in bulk, singing in the morning, mine? Nope. Not even close. But the process she goes through to find the solutions could be, and that she does it is inspiring.

Process and inspiration aside, the book is bursting with great, concrete ideas for changing your own life for the better. You may not recognize them as such, since Rubin is about as far from a proselytizer as you can get, but they're there, and in abundance. And there are even more at her blog, and in the communities that have sprung up around the Happiness Project Toolbox, her DIY-with-support site she's set up to complement the book. (And if you're wondering, no, the book is not repurposed content from the website, but longer stories told with more detail, with lots of never-before-seen material. It actually is an object lesson in the differences between good blog writing and good book writing.)

Before you even think about changing your own life, though, just read the book. Bask in the sunny pleasures of good writing on a useful topic.

If nothing else, this will make you happier...


BONUS! Erin Rooney Doland, who writes at Unclutterer and wrote a really great book herself recently, posted an excellent review of The Happiness Project on her blog. In addition to thoughtful observations about Gretchen's process, Erin makes some really good points about the connection between happiness and decluttering and of getting clear on your goals before you get going with any project. A great read for the start of the new year.

*Yeah, I didn't like the "love" part so much either, but you know what? That book still kicks more ass than you'll ever admit. And I love Oprah.

**The "+" part, because she's read the entire Samuel Johnson canon, no doubt, and a slew of things that probably weren't 100% salient to the discussion, so she left them off. Because, as I said, this woman is about reading for the right reasons (ENJOYMENT! EDUCATION!), not the icky ones, like trying to impress people with her bowing library shelves.

***In acting, which Gretchen also developed an interest in learning about, because she is that way, we talk about "catching someone acting." You rarely catch Meryl Streep doing this; you catch people on soaps and three-camera s(h)itcoms and even Important Oscar-worthy Films all the time. If that example doesn't work for you, think of how ice skaters make it look easy, or of the difference between the very elegant Fred Astaire and the very muscular Gene Kelly: they were both terrific dancers, but only Fred made it look easy.

****"Or talk out of their opportunist, I-have-a-theory asses." , Colleen Wainwright

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

The delicate thing that is a mood


It's been four days since I split from the ever-lovin', everlasting sunshine of Southern California to the decidedly cloudier, grayer skies of Portland, and on this fourth day, which Nature chose to fill with uncharacteristic amounts of bright and cheery sunlight, I find my mood has shifted dramatically for the better.


I harbor these dreams, you see, of me, living elsewhere. Somewhere with a chill to it, and some weather. Somewhere I can wear one of my 14 light-to-medium-heavy jackets (accessorized with one of 25 complementary scarves and 10 or so pairs of leather gloves) every ding-dong day. Non-bikini, non-shorts, non-sunblock-wearing weather, where it is crisp all day, punctuated by an extra chill morning and night. Where politically incorrect fires can burn wastefully, beautifully in brick fireplaces, allowing more politically incorrect wastage of heat up the chimney than they emit from the hearth. Where soup and chili and roasty meats (again with the political incorrectness!) are perpetually on the menu, and the principal fruits and veggies are apple and winter, respectively.

Now I'm wondering whether I'm built for unrelieved gray or not.

When the one thought that punctuates the fog that wraps itself around you is "Damn, I feel low," and it only squeaks through at around 3 or 4pm, when the bulk of the sad, sad day is trailing forlornly behind you, you might want to have another think about this relo thing. Yes, I feel instantly at home here in Portland, weirdly, eerily at home, almost in a deja-vu kinda way. Maybe, however, that is less of an awesome thing than once I thought. Maybe it's better for me to be a somewhat uncomfortable stranger in a strange and sunny land than it is right at home in a place where my happiness baseline seems to float a good 15 inches in a downwardly direction. Maybe I am so unbelievably mundane that my naturally sunny disposition is not, in fact, natural at all, but like most folks', a byproduct of extra light during the day.

I get the whole as-much-coffee-as-humanly-possible thing in a way that I did not last year, up in Seattle. And I think it is because last September and October while I was there, Seattle was uncharacteristically sunny. The misty rain and gray I found so noteworthy was, you'll forgive the expression, a drop in the bucket compared to the usual fall weather. Dour skies call for more coffee, they just do.

Oh, well. Time and circumstances will tell. The BF and I have also toyed with the idea of relocating to a different yet equally grim climate, in a place far less fabulous in other regards than the naturally glorious and culturally significant PacNW. Part of getting away, much like peeling away and paring down, is making it easier to see what's really there, like it or not.

"Liking" is almost beside the point...


Book review: Simple Abundance


There are some books you can sit down and write a smashing, relevant review about instantly upon finishing reading them.

Pam's book is one of those, as is Chris and Julien's. Whether or not I learn something new from them (and I did with both books), these kinds of books cover topics I know well enough to recognize that they'll be outrageously useful to someone coming to them for the first time: they're the kinds of books I wish I'd had at the beginning of my odysseys in self-employment and the social web, respectively.

Likewise, it's a fairly straightforward proposition to review a work of fiction or a biography or a memoir once I'm done. Not easy, necessarily, but simple: did I like it or didn't I, and why? I might write a slightly different review after a re-read years down the road, deeper, more nuanced, with additional insights, but it's unlikely that my opinion will fundamentally change (assuming that I'm ingesting the book with the requisite knowledge for basic comprehension the first time around. Or it hasn't happened so far.)

Books of prescriptives are a little harder to review wholeheartedly because, like products and services and classes, their true value often isn't apparent until way after the fact of consumption. The Artist's Way is a perfect example of this. It's an outstanding book, and perfect for a certain type of person seeking a certain kind of self-knowledge. But I wouldn't have been able to endorse it until years after the fact (and as someone who does it so frequently now, I'm overdue to write a formal review). Getting Things Done is another one. While the lights go on as you read it if you're the Right Audience for David Allen's great but really complex system, only implementation and time will tell if it's good for you.

Two things have come up recently that have me looking hard at books I've not only read, but consumed, and that have proven useful to me. It's easy, perilously so, to forget once you've trod the ground and moved on to other things how intensely you struggled with something when first you ran hard up against it. (Walking, anyone? Or omelet-making? Or driving stick?)

The first thing is the preponderance of talk in the air about decluttering or paring down or what have you. Maybe it's the economy, maybe it's a function of acceleration, but all of a sudden the zeitgeist seems to have shifted from acquiring stuff or organizing all the stuff we've acquired to getting rid of it. My new friend Lisa Sonora Beam and I were just talking yesterday about how the stuff, once gone, seems to let the ideas and emotions flow more easily (not to mention remove a lot of worry about dusting and insuring and suchlike). Andy Dick, of all people, was on Adam Carolla's podcast talking about getting rid of all his beautiful stuff and moving into an Airstream trailer in his ex's backyard to spend more time with his kids. (It's an especially good episode, by the way; check it out.)

I'll write a separate post about that at some point, perhaps, but let me say this about the simplification books: almost without exception, you should not buy a book on simplifying, at first. Even Leo, who wrote a really terrific book about the power of less and supports his family with his writing is with me on this: he gives his book away for free. Buying a thing to solve your problem with acquiring things is like cracking open a beer to troubleshoot your drinking problem: might feel good in the moment, but is getting you further from, not closer to your goal.

The second thing is how many people I'm hearing who are looking, looking, looking for meaning, at all points in the trajectory. Because I'm sorry to be the one to break this to you, but it's an ongoing thing, the looking, looking, looking. I've gotten much closer than I ever thought I'd be pre-Crohn's onset, and off-the-charts close compared to head-up-my-ass, ad whore me, wandering the streets of Westwood, filled with falafel and inchoate longing.

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, was one of my guidebooks out of that particular hell of inchoate longing. It's an agnostic prayer book of sorts, a volume of 365 daily exercises, thought- or action-based, to lead you from some kind of confusion to some kind of clarity. Honestly, I think that almost anything done methodically and incrementally can be a tonic: a photo a day, a page a day, a walk around the neighborhood a day. (Probably not a beer a day, but don't quote me on that.) Bringing yourself back to the same activity lets you loop around the mountain again and again, slowly and deliberately, slowing you down and giving time and space for truth to bubble up and patterns to emerge.

The value of Simple Abundance at that particular point in my life was its gentleness and softness. I am (still) given to handling myself with a certain brusqueness: my shrink says I suffer from a chronic lack of entitlement, which is not humility (that's a nice thing that requires softness and awareness) but a brutality mindset. And the world doesn't need me being a brute any more than I do. It was, come to think of it, really humiliating (or at least humbling) at times, working the Simple Abundance book. Certainly I felt like a Class A jackass, and kept that sucker hidden away from sight like it was super-kinky p0rn. It got me where I needed to go, though, and, FOR ME, was a perfect follow-up to The Artist's Way. Or maybe prelude, honestly, it was so long ago, I can't remember.

While it's been in print a long, long time and has many adherents, it may not be for you. It's very fluffy-cozy-precious-tea, if you catch my drift. The cover is pink! With scrolly stuff! Before plunking down your hard-earned money, you should definitely page through it in the store, or at least peek inside on the Amazon page. And read the 1- and 2-star and 3-star reviews as well as the 4- and 5-star ones (that's a good rule of thumb in general, if you're not doing it already. You'll learn more from the full scope of reviews than you will the gushing ones).

There are lots of copies available used, as well. Perhaps there are a lot of haters out there, or perhaps, like me, it's a journey you only want to take once. For a while, I'd buy up a copy whenever I came across it in the field, then give it away when I came across someone who needed it.

Here's the thing: if it speaks to you, even if you're a hardass and embarrassed by the speaking, go ahead and get it. Put it in a plain brown slipcover and lock it away in a secret cupboard, if you have to, but do it. We hardasses need to do tricky end-runs around ourselves with some of this self-improvement stuff, but we need to do it. Because your hardass gifts are of severely limited use to anyone if they're not tempered by a little softness and understanding. And I'm here to tell you now, they will turn on you at some point if you don't stay the (gentle) boss of them.


Image by Tom@HK via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Poetry Thursday: What consumes you


In my youth
I thought
I had to be dark
to be interesting

for a girl
who was lighter
than helium
than 14 Presbyterians
having high tea
at the Ritz
was problematic.

exactly true
but proves a point:
how black
or blue
can a child of privilege
with a naturally sunny
obviously buoyant
basically optimistic bent

as it turns out
is a relative thing.

You can adjust
your vision
to prisons
of every variety,
from plush-lined, air-conditioned luxe
to pits dug out
from dirt
you displace yourself
at the end of an insistent,

Or so I've heard.

I have said before:
my darkest days
took place in full daylight
surrounded by blessings
and love
and riches so bright
their shine shames me still.

And my brightest days
I spent
shedding blood
the hard way
amidst people
who were on their way out
for good.

Dark is neither glorious
nor foul
it is just the opposite
of light.

You can try it on
in your youth
to mimic the burdens of elders
and other, less fortunate souls
like children dressing for Halloween.

But not for too long
and only for play.

Dark exists always
to remind us
of the choice of light.

The sometimes hard
choice of light
that people in times
and circumstances
of such blackness
we cannot imagine
time and time

I do not dress for Halloween
nor do I pose in black.
Too much real pain
to play dress-up
unless it serves
to illuminate
or charm
or coax a laugh
from the darkness.

And so, my friend,
I say to you:
I see your darkness
and raise you a candle,
a glowstick,
a toothy grin, in a pinch.

Be dark
if you like
but remember:
the light
is always there
on the flip side
or the end of a tunnel
or what have you
when you are ready
to turn into it.


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

Referral Friday: 10 reasons why you should pre-order The Happiness Project

GretchenRubin crop

Referral Friday is an ongoing series inspired by John Jantsch's Make-a-Referral Week. For more about that, and loads more referrals for everything from cobblers to coaches to gee-tar teachers, start here. Pass it on, baby!

My friend, the brilliant, talented and all-around-awesome Gretchen Rubin, has a new book called The Happiness Project coming out. In December. That's over four months from now.

But I want you to buy it now, anyway. Why?

I'll tell you:

1. Pre-sales sell more books. Well, that's what they tell me, and who am I to argue. Plus, it makes sense. Sell out the first edition lickety split, your publisher is gonna be all, "Day-um! We need to print more of these here things!"

2. Sales keep readers in good books. This is kind of a no-brainer, but as an aspiring author of books people actually pay for, I feel it bears repeating.

3. This is one good f*cking book. I'm just over five chapters into it and it rocks. Seriously. A great mix of humor, insight, wisdom and (hallelujah) actionable info sans preachy-fussy sidebar lists of prescriptives. You can just read the hell out of this book, or you can read the hell out of it and pluck out a bunch of good ideas to try yourself. Inspiration, entertainment and utility, ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

4. I pre-ordered it. Before I even asked if I could get a galley. Because I knew it would be one good f*cking book and I want to support that. (I also pre-ordered Chris Brogan & Julien Smith's Trust Agents for the same reason. I should have done for Hugh MacLeod's Ignore Everybody but I dropped the ball on that. I'm an ass; Hugh, you're the tits, and I still cherish my deconstructed business card. Plus all your creativity posts that inspired me to start blogging way back when.

5. If enough people buy it, maybe they'll send Gretchen on a junket. If you've ever met Gretchen, you'll understand. If you haven't, you should order it so maybe you'll get a chance to.

6. Because you might write a book someday and you're going to want people supporting you by pre-ordering your book. Karma, baby.

7. Because I'm definitely writing a book someday, and soon, and I need all the good juju I can get.

8. She didn't ask me to. Well, she didn't ask me specifically. Nor did she ask me to write this post asking all of you. As one who is regularly pummeled by often boorish requests, I think grace and restraint should be rewarded.

9. The subtitle is awesome: "Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun." This, too, happens far too infrequently, so its awesomeness should be rewarded.

10. I can buy more books to review. That's right, baby! Every book link in here takes you straight to Amazon and nets me a few cents. Believe it or don't, they add up enough to buy me a book or two every quarter. The more books I read, the better the chance I can tell you about more good books. Plus, they make me either smarter or angrier, either (or both) of which make me a much better blogger.

And while you're there, feel free to continue shopping, so any money you're throwing Amazon's way has them throwing a little bit towards me. And if every little bit helping doesn't do it for you, look at it this way: my birthday is right around the corner...


Art, life and the Happiness Dip


Launch is great. Synthesis is superb.

In between the two, however, is most often an ocean of hell, a vast, tedious chasm between the happiness of just being and the happiness of informed being.

That's way denser than the fluffity-fluff I usually throw out here, so let me back up a moment and tell a story. Two stories, actually.

The first is a story of my happiness. It's something that, despite what a certain tag on this blog might have you believe, I don't think about much these days, although I'm still curious about the mechanics of happiness as I do my work, since so many of the people I align with seem to find themselves in various stages of getting to happy.

Anyway. That story.

When I was a baby, I was a happy baby. Not a touchy baby or a gooey, juicy, hug-me-up baby, but, if eyewitness reports are to be trusted, a shiny, happy baby who was interested in most things and delighted with a large subset of these. Additionally, putting aside my status as Only Grandchild, I was, if these same reports are to be believed, Fun to Be Around, a quality that most of the people I've polled say I was able to maintain throughout my childhood. So fine: a happy child.

If you asked me to pinpoint the time that I stopped feeling happy, I peg it at around age 10. I peg it thusly as I have a memory, not to be completely trusted, as I have a not-completely-trustworthy memory, of standing in my maternal grandparents' backyard, feeling what I now recognize as creeping blues wrap its arms around me. I'm sure there were other moments leading up to it, but the realization of that moment was that the party was officially over, with no notification of when or assurance that it would someday start again.

Thus, I spent the next 30 or so years chasing happiness, or a clue, or whatever I was making it out to be at the time. A feeling of wholeness, I guess, and of being centrally me but able to connect with...what? The other side? "Happiness"? At one point, I named it "Big Colleen," imagining some kind of eternal, omniscient, wiser me who was also the face of the universe. (I know, I know, but these things are slippery-hard to describe, dammit.) There was this feeling that maybe, if I learned the right path or the right key combination or the secret handshake, I could get either back to myself or forward to myself, whichever way it worked. Meanwhile, there was a lot of the psychic equivalent of being out in the rain and cold with insufficient protection, and inchoate longing, and other piece-of-shit states of being.

If you have read other bits of my story, you know I had my real-life equivalent of that moment in the cartoon (or was it Gilligan's Island?) when the coconut fell on my head and I woke up, as if from a dream, to happiness. I've yet to fully explore that epiphany, but I've taken stabs at explaining it in a play I wrote several years back, and have hinted at it an essay here on the blog. Since I'm obviously not going to get at it here, either, it was basically like this: there was a pre-Hospital Epiphany me and a post-Hospital Epiphany me, and the post-me was as astonished that I'd ever felt bad about anything as the pre-me was that something like this could really, truly happen.

The other story is about my trajectory as an actor.

I've written bits here and there about my odd-10 years in the acting profession (including an acting-related epiphany that I was clueless to act upon, but was interesting, nonetheless), and have not shied away from discussing how very, very bad I was for some time. Because I was. For years, even as I felt this obsessive need to pursue acting and become better at it, I was pretty miserable while practicing most aspects of it.

What I haven't discussed is that I was good when I started. Really good, apparently. Couldn't-go-wrong good, where I was an effortless conduit for Real Human Emotion. I believe the teacher's first words upon seeing me onstage the first time were "well, we've got us a live one," but I couldn't say for sure because I was so live, so full of passion and as-yet-unexpressed longing, I could hear almost nothing. I was just Real Energy, up there in front of people. This lasted for perhaps six months, at which point I'd started to accumulate some real, if shaky, technique, and the whole thing fell apart. The whole experience can be summed up in cartoon form as that moment when whichever Warner Brothers character finally realized he'd run past the cliff on sheer fury and energy, and, looking first downward to confirm, then audience-ward for the gag, plummeted to the earth below.

Seth Godin talks about The Dip in business: that long, slow slog between getting an idea and getting it to the place where it works like crazy, where it takes off into the stratosphere, where it becomes that unstoppable rocket to the moon you'd half-envisioned, half-just-hoped it would be at the beginning of the curve.

I think there's a dip in life, a big dip, the king-daddy of all dips. If you were looking at it from a Hegelian perspective, it would be the antithesis phase, where every last bit of every idea put forth in the thesis phase got challenged. What I like to call the Sucks Ass phase. Because here you are, happy and carefree and connected, when all of a sudden, and generally, for a long, long time, things start seriously sucking out of nowhere, and everything you thought was true and possible becomes unclear and maddeningly out of reach.

What I finally realized was happening in those years, for me, it's important to interject, was that the carefree awesomeness of childhood finally got burdened with the icky structuredness of adulthood, or rather, training for adulthood. I went from having my own ideas and minimal external pressure to do or be anything to having my own ideas squished and squashed and sometimes pushed aside as I learned all of the Very Important Things that were necessary to ensure I was able to be a capable adult.

Or, in the parlance of acting, I learned technique.

There's nothing wrong with technique. Skills and knowledge are wonderful tools, both, but mastery of them is a bewildering and not particularly intuitive process. There is a lot of Fucking Up, and dropping your tools on your foot, and breaking things with your tools, and breaking your tools on things. Worst of all, at some point in the process, I think we get so into process that we become process, instead of realizing that process is there to be our servant. That we and process are there to serve some greater good. Like an actor must learn to master technique, whatever technique, so she can reliably and artfully channel the emotions needed to tell a story, we must learn to master these tools so we can bring our humanity to bear in useful ways, instead of just HULK SMASHing our way through life.

I confess that I got back on this tear after reading my friend Gretchen's post the other day about whether artists are unhappier than their non-artist counterparts. I have no data and an uncharacteristic lack of opinion on it, other than "the tortured ones, probably." I think that unhappier people are people in that chasm, or dip, where they're still figuring out how things work. I think that happier people are ones who have either figured it out or, mean and elitist though this may sound, never thought much about anything in the first place. I've maintained for a while that a good indicator of intelligence is knowing that one isn't, really: you have to be a certain level of smart to have any idea of all the things you can't possibly know; people who are very, very certain that they know best scare the crap out of me.

Not much point for a long and winding post, except maybe this: if you're struggling with something, the way is through it.

And if you're through it, try doing a little analysis of the stages you went through. It's not going to speed things up for the guy right behind you, but it might make the tedium more tolerable...


Image by i does tze rue-bot via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Stop! Sucking! Day 11: (Not) keeping it to yourself

Most times, I don't really want to do x, where "x" = shower, work, walk, f*ck, sleep, cook and yes, write.


Relentlessly optimistic, workaholic, always-on me: most of the time, I'd just rather. . .not.

Because. . . ?

Because I don't like feeling like I'm obligated. I don't like feeling like anyone is the boss of me. I don't feel like I get enough "off" time so I rebel during my "on" time, which ends up being "most of the time."

And then there's that weird hangover from growing up the only child around many bright and interesting adults: I do NOT want to go to bed when I know I will be missing out on the best part of the party.

Over the past 12 or 13 hours, I did a lot of stuff I didn't want to do. Getting up, for one. (No earplugs + Snore-a-palooza + craaaaazy dreams = Poor Night's Sleep.) Walking the dog. Making breakfast, doing a bunch of Stupid Monkey Work I've been dreading, doing a last-minute job I didn't get until 7pm. (And for those of you reading in the far-off future, this is 7pm on a Sunday.) All fairly innocuous to outright delightful things. Whine, whine, whine.

I didn't actually whine, of course. (Well, okay, maybe a little, about the 7pm gig. Which I really shouldn't have done, because it was a nice chunk of change and helped out The BF, to boot. Hey, no one's perfect. And I did apologize. . .possibly. . .)

I used to whine a lot, which I actually considered a vast improvement over my previous modus operandi, aka "suck it up, bitch." There are times, of course, when we all must suck it up, but those times should not be all the time. Something will give, and it won't be the backrub fairy handing out free massages. It will be your heart or your colon or some other relatively important part of your functional anatomy.

And speaking of massages, just to prove my point, I will never forget the time when, after working on me for half an hour, a visiting shiatsu practitioner at the agency I was freelancing for told me in a gentle but very firm voice that something was going to go massively wrong if I did not seek some kind of ongoing professional help when I returned to Los Angeles. And I hadn't told her about my mom dying of cancer and my grandmother in and out of the hospital and my failing marriage: all she knew about were the ridiculous hours all of us high-wage slaves were pulling at the ad factory and the iron-like muscles in my scrawny neck.

So venting, my friends, is a good thing. Even better is to check in pre-vent, when the "ick" feeling sets in. As in, "Ick, I don't want to (your task here)".

Go to your mother-in-law's. Review the presentation one more time. Brush your teeth. To acknowledge out loud, and by "out loud," I mean quietly and to yourself, that there is some Thing you should do that you don't particularly want to.

Seriously. Just the act of giving it some attention can be unbelievably helpful. It is oddly comforting to (briefly) commiserate with yourself, both to acknowledge that you're undertaking something less than pleasant and to start to get an idea of how much stuff you're doing that you're resisting. For me, when I find myself saying it a lot, I actually begin to give credence to the idea that maybe it might be a good idea to get to sleep earlier, or to say "no" to the next thing that comes down the pike, or just to carry a spare pair of clean earplugs. As I said to a friend this weekend, when you're in a place that feels helpless, it's important to figure out where you can start to exert some control. And the place that starts is with voicing it. Getting it out there.

It's nowhere you want to live. But it can be an exceptionally refreshing place to visit.

xxx c

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

The role of personal integrity in change, or "I am my own homeboy"

Monk Debate: The Young One Like driving in Los Angeles (or electricity most anywhere else), change continues to be both a sticky wicket and the only game in town. In other words, I'm not the only one wrasslin' this bear.

Exhibit A (from Andrew, in an email exchange generated by the last post on Change, that Bitch-Dog from Hell):

Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about all the aspects of personal integrity and how important it is to a person's sense of identity. Some of it is the aftermath of events from last year and some of it has to do with my dissatisfaction with the way things are in my life and my commitment to changing them.

By amazing coincidence (or not), the very same day I happened upon this TED talk on happiness by ex-pat French Buddhist monk (say that 3x fast) Mathieu Ricard. It's a fascinating talk, I mean, how can a discussion of the impact of mind training on happiness as measured by MRI patterns of high-level meditators not be?, and I'd highly advise a look-see, for the delicious fusion of book smarts (Ricard completed his PhD thesis in molecular genetics), humor (he's funny!) and orange robes (he's a monk!) (and he's funny!)

But if you're not into it just now, the salient point of his talk as far as this humble, little blog postie goes is that you are your own best shelter against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In Ricard's parlance, the trick is a high enough level of detachment to see that you are a part of The Whole, and that emotions are not the truth of you, but more like colors, light playing on the waters of you.

The bad news is that some people come to it more naturally than others: he uses the contrasting examples of the very poor man who seems content despite having "nothing", and the very rich man who, ensconced in the most fabulous luxury, penthouse apartment, outfitted with the sweetest amenities, in the tallest building in town, sees his window only as a thing to jump out of.

The good news is that, according to tests like this on meditation and "happiness" (possibly better described as "peace of mind" or maybe "inner peace"), given a strong enough desire and a commitment of time and effort, one can alter one's default setting.

Where integrity fits in, as I see it, is in helping to actualize that good-news change. Buddhist teachings are chock-full of references to "right" this and "right" that, living, thinking, work, etc. If you've got no integrity, or it's on the weakish side, you're going to be far more likely to spend time on the bad path, partly because it's the easiest path and partly because you may, at a certain point, not be able to discern any difference, much less benefit, between various paths.

If, on the other hand, your integrity is shored up nicely, you not only have a keener eye for the salubrious choice, but you also have the spine (or the stones) to make it.

All of this stuff is pretty simple, when you get right down to it, which is why it's so blasted confounding. I know that I'll be better off if I keep it to two glasses of Pinot, a few hours of farting-around time and early to bed. But in the moment, the choice can be difficult, because, and I'm a little sheepish about this, my integrity is a little weak in places.

"But Colleen," you say, "don't you mean your discipline is weak? Surely one can have integrity and lack discipline."

I used to think that; now I'm not so sure.

I don't believe I'm a bad person for eating French fries when it's been pointed out to me by my very own intestines that I shouldn't; I believe I'm a weak person. But framed that way, I'd say "weak" equals "lack of integrity."

Or let's take another example from my pathetic life. I got in a big fight with The BF today, which both Jon from my new-favorite coffee hang and Neil, from That Blog About the Talking Penis will attest to. Ostensibly, it was about money, but as with most things, it turned out to be about other stuff: my inability to communicate, my fears about communicating, my fucked-up views about abundance and scarcity and my lack of integrity when it came to gossiping. Don't worry, The BF wasn't dumping on me. He was providing the valuable and needed service of Calling Me on My Shit, something that probably doesn't happen enough these days.

And that last thing, the gossip thing, was what finally got to me. Because I understand the power of early patterning about money, and am working on repatterning mine. I can talk about what a petty bastard I am; I brought up the very topic of my petty bastard-ness. What I was deeply ashamed about, that is, what pierced my heart with the flaming arrow of truth, was that I was foaming at the mouth about someone else whose actions over the past year, AN ENTIRE TWELVE MONTHS, had progressively enraged me to the point where I blew a gasket (behind her back, to someone else) over an absurdly insignificant display of cluelessness which should have invoked, if it invoked anything, pity or compassion.

So much for enlightenment.

Here's where the change part, and the integrity part, comes in: five years ago, I would have fought it, and him, and the whole #%$@! world. I would have carved out a bunker next to Mt. Self-Righteous and hunkered down for the duration. But I've been working on observing (first step of change) and acknowledging (second step of change) my self as expressed through my actions fairly actively for the past ten years, and assiduously for the past five. Simple actions, but with a significant effect on integrity. And, I'm starting to see, "happiness", in quotes because, sadly, I think it's become too often confused with "pleasure" or, more specifically, "fleeting feelings of pleasure."

Oo-la-la. Such fancy talk. Really, it all boils down to another good news/bad news thing. If you get on board the integrity bus, both the good and the bad news is you're responsible for your "happiness-in-quotes." I think it's good. I like the idea that if I make some possibly tough choices up front, I can change the way I see and move through the world. I like that anyone can do it, and that it doesn't cost money. I like that personal change, or an investment in integrity, can possibly effect other kinds of change.

I like that I'm my own homeboy. Except when I hate that I'm my own homeboy.

But liking isn't really the point. The point is, it is what it is.

Namaste. And out.

xxx c

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

The Happiness Project

happiness is helping

Alex Shalman has a lovely and ambitious project going on over at his eponymous personal development site this month. He got an impressive cross-section of people to answer a simple, five-question interview on their own feelings re: happiness, and aggregated the answers, along with some other various & sundry information.

There are some big names on the list, 800 lb self-dev gorilla, Steve Pavlina; 800 lb biz/self-dev gorilla, Tim Ferris (the 4-Hour Workweek guy); and 800 lb social media/self-dev gorilla (and my pal!) Chris Brogan.

What's neat, though, is that not all the entries are from what would explicitly call the self-dev blogging pool. And their interviews are at just as fascinating and illuminating, BoingBoing co-founder, Mark Frauenfelder and Brian "Copyblogger" Clark turned in wonderful takes that owed as much to tight writing as right perspective.

Not that there's a wrong perspective when it comes to happiness. The proof is in the pudding, and while the new, positive psychology has gone a long way towards illuminating certain consistent traits found in the happy person, ultimately, it's a pretty personal pursuit. Another internet friend of mine, Gretchen Rubin, studied happiness for a year, turning herself into a lab for the experiment, much in the way I try to do with communicatrix; it was no surprise to me that her interview was one of the best of the bunch.

Of course, I've dwelved into and on happiness here, as well as created my one-and-only Squidoo lens on the subject. But Alex is welcoming submissions, and I think it's good exercise to wrap my head around other people's questions now and again. So here are the five questions, along with my answers. If you'd like to do a little thinking and sharing, too, you can either grab the list and post to your site (don't forget to link back to Alex!) or write out your thoughts in the comments section of his post.

Either way, to borrow from one entrant, so much more happiness-inducing, to focus on the positive than its musty, sad sack cousin, Mr. Boo-hoo-hoo.

The Questions

1. How do you define happiness?

First off, to differentiate Happiness with a Capital "H" from the fleeting kind of woo-hoo! happiness, I like the phrase "deep contentment" or "private joy." I mean, I don't actually like these more, I'd have to be an utter asshole, as "happiness" is way pithier, but the word been been co-opted by too many hair care products to be truly useful anymore.

And to me, Happiness with a Capital "H" is either or both of those things: an abiding inner peace that's matched by a sort of "thrum" in the heart area. Making me the world's biggest cornball, I know.

2. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your happiness now, versus when you were a child?

Until age 10, 8 or 9. From 10 - 40, around 4 or 5.

Today, praise jeebus, I'm back up to around 8 or 9. And plan on keeping it that way!

3. What do you do on a daily basis that brings you happiness? (and how consistent is the feeling of happiness throughout your day)

It's not anything in particular, but an aggregate of right thoughts and right actions. To put it in Stephen Covey terms (I'm heavily into the 7 Habits right now), when I spend most of my time in quadrant 2 with a wee sprinkling of time in quadrant 4, I'm good. I need my quadrant 4; I've just got to be diligent about not spending too much time hiding there. (Here's the time management matrix for those of you who have yet to drink the Kool-Aid; I know, I know, I'm on the tail end of this curve.)

Oh, and a little one-on-one time with Arnie will snap me back into shape if I veer too far off course. It's good to have a short list of non-prescription mood enhancers for when Monkey Brain takes over.

4. What things take away from your happiness? What can be done to lessen their impact or remove them from your life?

As soon as I move off of what I have and onto what I don't, I'm tobogganing down the icy slopes of Mt. Misery. You can pick up serious speed on that sucker.

Fortunately, a quick adjustment, looking at the myriad riches of my life, usually gets me back pretty quickly. That, or remembering the days of my colon being a greased and bloody chute.

5. What do you plan on doing in the future that will bring you even more happiness?

Committing to a life of greater service. Sharing more of what I know. Letting go of things that hold me back, and ceaselessly working to identify new outliers.

And treating myself to lots more walks with Arnie, of course...


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

What are you really buying, anyway?

paper lantern It's been an interesting week so far, and it's only Monday.

First of all, something seems to have been dislodged in my brain, that thing that keeps me from processing stuff I don't feel like, like paperwork and phone calls (wah wah wah, First World white girl) and from finishing things I've started, like work. Not that I've gotten everything tidied up and on its way: today saw the dispensing of my DMV registration, some queries about my post-COBRA world (universal health care cannot come soon enough) and a number of other annoying/scary if smallish items, but several others are getting rolled over (again) to tomorrow, my favorite day. (Just like my favorite week, month and year are "Next.")

I made a dent in it though, especially by my standards. And I felt so gosh-darn good about it, I decided I would spread a little of that sunshine and head over to My Country House (a.k.a. The BF's) to visit the dog (a.k.a. Arno J. McScruff) as his master (a.k.a. The BF) is living in the Land of the Stupid Day Job for the next several weeks and poor Arnie, well, he has dogly needs.

Now, this sort of thing does not occur to me usually, and when it does, to actually do it feels burdensome. Yes, I'll go see you in the hospital or water your plants or take in your mail, but only if I'm allowed to feel grumpy and put-upon, at least to start with. Do not let the cheery photo fool you, my Internet friends! I am a crab and a bee-yotch of the highest order, and I've got plenty of real-life backup on that.

But today, I'm driving the five miles from my place to Arnie's and practically whistling. At 3:30, no less, pretty much guaranteed that I'll hit traffic going at least one way. In fact, I think I probably was in traffic; it just didn't bother me, so it didn't feel like traffic. And as I'm cruising through this traffic-that-is-not, I pass a place I've passed 1,000 times before. No, really: this is the route I take between my place and The BF's; I could probably drive it blindfolded. Once, anyway.

It's a shitty little storefront restaurant, nominally Chinese, but selling all manner of crap from gyros to boba tea like every other shitty little storefront restaurant I've seen like it. Might not, probably isn't even run by Chinese people. Could be Koreans, could be Salvadorans, could be Armenians: it's that kind of neighborhood.

But whoever owned it had hung one of those bright paper lanterns with the fringe on it that you see in Chinatown stores. It was kitschy and alive and pretty, and one thought flitted through my head:

I want.

Now let me assure you that while my taste in furnishings is somewhat eclectic, it's not so boho-funky that a Chinese paper lantern would fit right in. In fact, it would look dreadful. I know this because I'm a designer, and I make my living knowing what will look right and what will look like ass. This would be the latter, trust me. There's not one place in my place it would look right, including outside my front door, bapping about in the breeze just like it was in front of the not-Chinese restaurant.

Instead of feeling disappointed, though, I had this amazing flash of insight into why, for most of my life, I've been a hopeless accumulator of crap: I want that feeling.

That feeling that a particular shirt or dish or gadget gives me. The promise that's inside that book, I want to retain that rush of inspiration I felt when I pulled it from the shelf. Or to be the person who has absorbed and processed its contents. Or to have a piece of that author (or artist, or musician) in my hands.

Or I want to be the person who can cook a perfect omelet with that pan. Who has pictures filling frames hanging on walls that burst with life, a host of beautiful craft projects made from these bolts of fabric, a lady who has the carefree life requiring, as my old art director, Sherry Scharschmidt used to call them, "Running-on-the-Beach Dresses."

Maybe that's why Peter Walsh and his ilk are making so much money these days: because we all have needs we're shortchanging ourselves on; we're all spending money instead of time, which becomes starting instead of finishing, which becomes a heap of never-worn, never-used crap we eventually haul off to Goodwill. And, since I've trained myself to understand that I never will have the time, that I will rush and rush, on and on, never stopping to take a breath and do the thing or even feel the feeling, I buy the souvenir instead.

It's scarcity thinking in the middle of unprecedented abundance. And it's a bitch of a habit to break.

I stopped myself today, though, in the middle of a thought of buying such a lantern. Because for ONCE, I realized I wanted the feeling of serendipitously stumbling upon a beautiful thing like that, blapping around in the clean, post-rain breeze. And I can't own that any more than I can bottle happiness and save it for later. The wet jewels you find along the shore on holiday are just dull bits of rock when you get them home; a fleeting whatever is beautiful, in part, because it's fleeting.

I'm not quite ready to do a spend-out yet, although I'm starting to see how it might help people like me who are used to going too fast and treating themselves too roughly. For now, though, I think I'll try something else: going slower and treating myself more kindly.

Better. Cheaper.

And takes up a lot less room in a tiny apartment...

xxx c

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

And life begins when you start giving

yin yang I had an interesting chat today with my colorist (and good friend), Marc. Really, I have interesting conversations with most folks these days, since I discovered that the art of conversating (as the kids say) lies in the asking of questions and the hearing of answers rather than the spouting off of commentary. (Fancy that!)

Today's conversation was interesting because it revolved around kabbalah, about which I know little save it's an esoteric offshoot of Judaism that has something to do with red string and expensive bottled water (thank you, Madonna.) But Marc studied it (if that's the term) for many years, and he was able to shed a surprising amount of light on what I confess has always been (to me) a dense, deep and impenetrably mysterious practice. After all, it is very old and complex and we only had about an hour, as I'm a single-process kinda gal.

The topline of kabbalah, however, is really easy to get, and lovely, to boot: the more we learn to give, the more will come back to us. It's about "giving" as world view, which of course carries all kinds of other nice things along with it, like cultivating trust and fellowship, learning to communicate by finding common ground, and practicing abundance rather than scarcity thinking.

It got me to thinking about where to start. Because really, that's what I would've loved to have known 20-odd years ago, when I was flailing around in a sea of my own misery: where the hell do I start? Just tell me where to point my damned guns, already! And, while I now think that "observing" is probably the absolute best place to start, the very critical first step of many, and a mode to stay close to always, I think giving is a really good practice to have in your head even while you're in observation mode.

Part of what makes me think this is my many years of experience as a corporate tool. There was very little uncalculated giving in that world, and precious little happiness, too. Coincidence? Perhaps. Held up against the world of strings-free giving I've been blessed to live in these past five years, though, I think the causality is obvious: the nature of life is change, and we're happiest when we let ourselves go with the flow of that. It takes awesome fearlessness or, as in my case, having nothing left to lose. When you weigh 90 lbs (45 of which is your enormous head), and your intestines are in tatters and you're so weak that you can't walk to the end of the bed without support, you learn to accept help, to accept giving, with the very clear understanding that you certainly cannot pay in kind now, and may well never be able to pay it back later. Get down with that, and you've got one big, honkin' secret of life under your belt.

I'm not advocating sap-hood. I can only give to the extent I'm able and willing. Ironically, before I understood this, I used to give too much, receive too little. Now I finally understand you've got to let go to receive as much as you do to give.

To take this down to a practical level, Marc charges what I think is an incredibly reasonable price for his services, and I pay him. He gives me what I see as a deal, and I accept it. Occasionally, I get a bug up my ass and give him a bunch extra, just because. And he accepts that. I suspect that if I showed up one month and had no money, he'd give me coverage for free. He's that kind of guy, is Marc. And I'd do my best to receive it, graciously.

If you're not so good with the money yet, and I get it, I do, I have issues myself, start small. With compliments. Give one. Maybe give five. And be on the lookout for ones you get, and see how you are about receiving them. I used to answer every compliment about clothing with a rundown on how much I paid for it at the Goodwill. Still do, but at least I (usually) say "thank you" first.

Remember this year's motto: "help is everywhere." And the corollary, which I may not have shared yet, "...so ask for it, dumbass."

It is. You should. We are.

xxx c

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

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 08: Baldy

This is Day 8 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House.

me, as cadaver

In my family, we were not blessed with good teeth and gums, cancer resistance genes, chemical balances predisposing us to happiness, or a low tolerance for alcohol: we got hair.

I'm not talking nice hair: I'm talking great hair. Hair of the gods. Breck-Girl hair. Movie star hair. Curly or straight or frizzy or wavy, male or female, dark brown or red or blond (and eventually, perfect snowy white), whatever our particular flavor of hair, we have shitloads of it. The kind of hair that turns heads, you'll pardon the expression. That causes overheating in summer. Hair whose drying time alone provides a for-real all-night excuse to stay in.

Sometimes I would crab about my hair's unruliness or color. I went from beautiful, stick-straight blond hair as a baby to crazy, Roseanne Rosannadanna pubes as an adolescent. And in the Chicago weather that I spent most of my life in, hardier hair than mine has a mind of its own. But most of the time, I didn't give my hair a thought.

Until, of course, it started falling out.

The first round of thinning I attributed to stress and sympathetic hair loss. Out of the blue, my mom was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer which had metastasized to her lungs. Well, it wasn't really out of the blue: that crazy alcoholic mistress of denial hid the massive swelling in her leg from the rest of us with her hideously frumpy long skirts for a long, long time. But it was a death sentence, and for the 18 months from DX to death, I was a mass of stress.

But after some time had passed, and I got over her death (and the deaths, in rapid succession, of my beloved grandparents), the hair came back. And stayed back, even through what I now know as my own long, slow onset of Crohn's disease. (For the record, I was not in denial about said onset, but the recipient of some borderline unethical care from a particular colorectal surgeon. Live and learn.)

In fact, I looked my absolute freakiest (I thought) when my weight had dropped to its almost-nadir and my crazy-thick hair was dyed almost-black for a play in which I was cast as a Bulgarian art curator. Photographic proof of said period above, from the only headshot session I ever had where absolutely none of the photos were usable. I wept when I saw myself in them.

I even hung onto my beloved hair in the hospital during the 11-day incarceration. The steroid drip I was on didn't kick in, hair-loss-wise, until I got home. And then, on oral meds, my hair started falling out in earnest. By the handful. It would fall out when I washed it, when I dried it, when I brushed it. It would pretty much leap from my head whenever and wherever. I distinctly remember my good friend, Mark the Carpenter, over to help retrofit my apartment during my invalid phase, coming up from a brief rest on the floor with a rat's nest of long black hair woven into his fingers and a look of horror on his face. Steroids and hair do not mix. And as long as I'm on them or any immuno-suppressants, it would now appear, I will lose hair.

My GI doc doesn't believe it. He sees plenty of hair still. And he is a man, grateful for any hair at all on his head. (For the record, he has a lovely head of hair and a handsome face to match). But I know. I am baldy, and that's how it is. My crowning glory is gone, quite possibly for good.

So what, you might ask, is the good in that?

Tolerance. Acceptance. Understanding. In the same way that my newfound muffin top has made me more tender-hearted towards people who might be carrying a few (or a lot of) extra pounds, my hair loss and the corresponding reduction in feminine beauty status has made me far, far more generous and accepting of the less-obviously beautiful. Don't get me wrong: I was never a raving beauty like my mother or grandmothers; but with makeup and effort, I could "pass." And even without effort, I'm rather ashamed now to count off the many blessings I took for granted.

No more. I both care less about things that mattered so much so long ago, and am more appreciative of what's left. I'm guessing that some of this is the gift of wisdom that time brings, but I also know myself. And I am about as stubborn and slow-learning a fella as ever was born to woman.

So thank you, my crazy, kamikaze hairs. Eventually I may have to shave you off entirely like the mens do. Let's hope that my ginormous head isn't as weird and lumpy as I'm afraid it might be.

Or let's hope it is. My, what an adventure in learning that would be...


Photo of me, circa July 2002, by Tom Lascher. Dreadful, large size gives you a better idea of how sick I really looked at the time.

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™ (A 21-Day Salute™)

This is Day 1 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in the comedy classic of my generation, Animal House.bird crap

It's easy to be grateful when a pride of angels swoop down from the heavens and spoon-feed you chocolate pudding to the sound of winning lottery numbers sung in four-part harmony.

It is somewhat less easy when they do a fly by and take a collective crap on your head after an all-night angel pizza party.

But this is when we should try the hardest to cultivate a sense of gratitude, in mid-curse, reaching for the baby wipes. Not thanks for the poop, but for everything else around it: the two legs that hold us up as we walk down the street, putting us in the line of fire. Or the wheelchair, or the cart, or just the air in your lungs that's making you+day possible.

Plus, let's face it, it's those really nasty times that, in hindsight, bring with them the greatest lessons, and often, the greatest attendant gifts.

So for the next 21 days, as we ramp up for that holiest of holidays (non-U.S. readers, please play along), I'm going to be grateful for the crap: some that I know of; some whose magical beneficence remains to be seen.

Feel free to play along in the comments, or consider yourselves tagged to take it elsewhere. Or not. Maybe just read and think. Think about what good came out of the bad. Think about what crumbs, or nuggets...or, hell, vast washes of excellence still surround you.

Yes, there is much suckage. Yes, we must continue to fight the good fight. But how much better armed will we be with some fortifying gratitude?

A lot, I hope...

xxx c

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

Making things

ceramic butterfly I was going to sit down and talk about how hard the past week was...how draining.

And it was, in its way. For whatever reason, there was an abundance of drama over the past eight days, the missed deadlines, botched communication and general farkakte-ness that seems to accompany Mercury going retrograde. (I wonder, could things have been this messed up before I knew about such silly nonsense?)

There was also a paucity of rest. Social engagements out the wazoo, back-to-back, every day but one. Not light-hearted ones: thinking ones. Emotionally draining ones. Ones that required attention, a lot of driving, or both.

Like my ex-husband's wedding reception, where I was the surprise guest to a raft of folk who hadn't seen me since I lost them in the divorce eight years ago (let it never be said that my ex doesn't have a wicked sense of humor...or his new bride, for that matter). Like dinner with the one friend of my dad's who stood by my sister and me in the ugly, ugly aftermath of his death. Most devastatingly, like the memorial service for a brilliant 26-year-old artist who was stolen from the world too soon. It took three beers, The BF and a Harold Lloyd flick to talk me down from that last night.

I want to run and hide when it gets like this. I want to live in a place where it rains a lot and gets dark early, where I can bundle myself up in a scruffy, fluffy sweater and read books on the sofa with a bottomless mug of peppermint tea. Instead, I live in an overbuilt parking lot with fires breaking out at each end, wearing boxers against the heat and earplugs against the noise. And I have no upholstered furniture. Still.

Fret not, however, for in the midst of all this mishigoss, I am, bizarrely enough, happier than ever. There is work work work and feeling like you do not make a difference, and there is the other kind; right now, and for some time, I feel like I've been living the other kind. It's exhausting, but wonderful. Not particularly lucrative, even, but wonderful. I never felt this way after a day of wrangling copy. Never. Not once. And I did that for 10 years and a lot of money.

Still, this schedule is a brutal one to maintain, and something has to give. It's kind of been my health, which has to stop, and it's definitely been my "optional" writing, which also has to stop.

It's the optional-type writing, you see, that's made all this possible. I'm starting to get it now. So it really isn't optional at all for the life I want to live.

People: create. Make things. Think things and write them down, or tell them, or draw them. Note things and mull them over (or not) and pass them along (for sure.) When I get bone-tired like this, I can feel the pull to buy. It's odd; I feel it. Possibly other people feel the pull to watch TV (I used to feel that, although I'd never give it my full attention) or to play games. Consuming isn't inherently evil, but it leaves you more empty than full.

Tonight I made a (SCD-legal) pizza and this post. It was all I could muster after a long day of pushing pixels. But that pizza tasted better than anything I could get delivered.

And this post? Even better than that...

xxx c

Image by Sidereal--who is rapidly becoming a communicatrix staple, it seems--via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.