Book review: The Fire Starter Sessions

It seems like every 10 or 20 years, there's one breakthrough book in the personal development category.

The chronological first of the How-Do-I-Get-There-From-Here? books to help me find my way was Barbara Sher's Wishcraft. It's gentle and playful in tone, yet still filled with the kind of useful tools and practical exercises that make a Virgo's heart go pitter-pat.*

Next in the all-star lineup was the first I came to, Julia Cameron's legendary Artist's Way. Its language is a bit soft and dreamy around the edges, but structurally, the book is rock-solid. After finishing The Artist's Way, one friend of mine followed a long-dormant dream of becoming a singer-songwriter; I finally left copywriting behind and embraced the terrifying-to-me path of acting.

Which brings us to today, and to Danielle LaPorte's sweeping, energizing entry in the canon, The Fire Starter Sessions.

Like her predecessors, Danielle's exercises for excavating your true self are rooted in real-life experience, emerging over time from hundreds of sessions with actual clients. Full disclosure: I attended an early Fire Starter workshop in Los Angeles, and have been a friend and admirer of the Fiery One and her spark ever since.  Further, fuller-than-full disclosure: I am reasonably sure that Danielle may count "witch" alongside other credentials on her impressive resume. She has an uncanny knack for sussing out fuzzy and/or difficult truths that training alone can't account for.

That said, the worksheets and exercises in TFSS should prove enormously valuable in uncovering your own true self. Her core discovery tool alone ("The Burning Questions", of course!) will shine considerable light on your key truths, but please don't skip ahead: the book is designed to lead you through a process, and step-skippers will miss out on valuable anchoring ideas and frameworks.

While the central focus of the book is pretty clearly self-discovery, Danielle also has an excellent grasp of marketing and promotion, especially where they intersect with personal branding, and a keen sense of what stops many of us from making money (hint: usually, prior issues around money). The Fire Starter Sessions is definitely not a business book, but as with Wishcraft, the lessons you learn about how you engage with people, places, and money will impact your work life as well as your personal and spiritual lives.

Finally, if it's not already obvious, like Sher and Cameron before her, Danielle LaPorte writes for a specific type of creative mind: searching and open, especially to the connection between mind, body, and spirit. While she is absolutely down-to-earth—her language is lively and colloquial and her practical, real-world experience abounds—as the subtitle suggests, her attitude towards change is at least as soulful as it is practical. If pressed, I'd probably describe it as woowoo-friendly, with an edge. Which is far from a bad thing, but is a very particular thing. A quick read of her enormously popular blog or a sample chapter should immediately determine if this book speaks to you.

If it does, you're in for a real treat: The Fire Starter Sessions contains Danielle's best wisdom on creating the life you truly desire. It's comprehensive, wide-ranging, and packed with valuable stuff for the journey.

xxx c

UPDATE 4/25/12, 10:50am: There's going to be some kind of a Twitter party going on tonight at 6pm PT. 10 cents for every tweet marked with the hashtag #FireSS goes to WriteGirl, nonprofit beneficiary of The 50-for-50 Project. Go! Tweet!

Book design by Maria Elias. Author photo by Sherri Koop.

*One stellar example? The woowoo-friendly version of that time-tested accountability wonder from the business world, the master mind group. Scher calls hers "Success Team", and if you've been put off by Napoleon Hill's early-20th-Century, male-centric prose, it might be the thing that finally saves you.

Overriding wants, or, "What Detroit's got to do with it"

americano from caffe umbria in seattle Every morning, after ramping up with a mug of weak tea, I have one giant cup of incredibly strong coffee.

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

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

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

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


* * * * *

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

Where and what are a little harder to suss out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

xxx c


I vastly underestimated my ability to do something "impossible." And I vastly overestimated my ability to recover from it.

* * * * *

It is curious, the formless form recovery takes.

When I was recovering from my Crohn's onset nine years ago, there was a constant tension between wanting to leap forward, back into life, and needing to fall backward into bed. Maybe this is how our crazy will to live manifests itself: as soon as we're assured that we're not actually dying, we're programmed to grab for the next branch to pull ourselves up with. Only it's not the logical branch—that one right there, just a few inches above us, with a groove that looks uncannily like a handle; it's that one over there on that other tree—at the tippy-top, a mere vine's-swing away. And so—well, there's a lot of falling and flailing.

What I want right now, for example, is to EAT THE WORLD—to "Mary Poppins" my way back to order and sanity, to launch the 147 new ideas that have floated into my head since this 50-for-50 madness began, and to experience the hell out of everything I've had to put on hold. I want to wrassle my Excel spreadsheets to the ground and merge them with MailChimp and fulfill all those perks, already. I want to write that first book I've been putting off for five years. I want to bake a freezer-full of SCD-legal bread, walk a labyrinth, drive cross-country, spend an hour on the phone with each of my friends, and digitize my tapes. I want to read the 25 books piled up in my to-read stack and buy 50 more (and still check out a couple every time I visit the library). I want to go paperless, speak Spanish, walk a mile a day, learn calligraphy, buy a sofa, move, adopt a dog, fall in love, host a dinner party, spend a month in Australia, plant a garden, and empty all my inboxes.

What my body wants, on the other hand, is to sit in a tub of extra-salty water with the lights out, a glass each of seltzer and bourbon beside me, and some soothing BBC porn streaming from my laptop a few feet away. (While I slowly, carefully shave my head.) (For the third time in two weeks.)

Two steps up, four steps sideways, and a backwards dip into the bath. It's quite a pas-de-deux I'm having with myself.

* * * * *

For me, one of the most insidious but helpful indicators of overload is the desire to acquire.

It can manifest as the desire for tangible goods, like books or gadgets or art, but just as often these days, it shows up as digital items—electronic file folders overflowing with stories to read later, eCourses I have no time to complete. I have showed Brooks Palmer my considerable and embarrassing hoard of paper and CDs, but I lacked the fortitude to share the rickety hard drives filled with busted fonts, crufty Quark files, and PDF manifestos.

And let us not speak of the overworked, underutilized Someday/Maybe list.

I have now read enough books about clutter and watched enough episodes of Hoarders to know that this itch to take things on speaks to some lack that these items can never, ever fulfill. When I am sane and well-rested, I have the discipline to resist all stores but the one that sells groceries, and to visit that one only when well-fed, and with list in hand. When I have rested my body I can exercise it, and when I've exercised it, I can make it sit still and write. When I have allowed myself to really feel all the things I am actually feeling—which I hate to do, because it almost always involves crying—I find a calm afterward that allows me to do or even just be, that transforms me from Ms. Pac-Man nom-nom-ing my way through random ones and zeroes to an actual human being who can listen to herself and others with something resembling compassion, who stands an honest-to-God chance of really being useful.

* * * * *

When things get really crazy, the only thing to do is get super-normal. I go back to the small, simple-not-easy things that ground me in reality, then let me inch across that ground. I make my bed. I wash the dishes. When enough days have passed where the dishes have been washed, I clean the sink. I buy groceries and cook meals from them instead of eating takeout. I walk, I work out to an exercise video, I hold Horse Stance for five minutes. I lapse. I write my morning pages. I recover. I lapse again (which I guess would be a relapse). I meet with my master mind group; they tell me to do what I know I must, the simple-not-easy things.

Fall off. Get back on. Fall off. Get back on.

* * * * *

I had an idea that recovery would take two weeks, and so I dutifully blocked them off on my calendar. It turns out that blocking things off does not a restful time make—you actually have to rest, too. But there is always something else to be done that looks more interesting, and, more to the point, that seems more productive.

As always, the first step to changing a behavior is realizing you have it; the next is noticing when, then why it's happening. You get to—or really, you have to keep living your life as you change. Recovery, a.k.a. living, is messy and non-linear. But much like life itself, it beats the alternative.

xxx c

Wanna make some art, lazy-man style AND help clear out your house at the same time? Check out my friend Leah Peterson's Group Painting project and contribute some earthly detritus. I'm releasing last year's three Nikki McClure calendars. Yay, art!

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

On becoming a reliable conduit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

xxx c

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

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

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

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

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.

The value of the right questions, Part 1

girl with her moleskine

I've done a handful of interviews for the presentation I'm giving later this week, which has renewed my appreciation for the skill involved in asking the right questions.

My previous experience with this valuable journalistic skill has been minimal, but similarly instructive. It took an shockingly long time to draft a set of questions for Seth Godin that would be useful (to my readers) and worthy (of Seth's time) for my leg of the Linchpin "book tour" last year. You wonder why those legendary Playboy or Rolling Stone interviews from Back in the Day are so good? Or, for that matter, why Colin Marshall and Jesse Thorn have such compulsively listen-able podcasts today?1

It's the questions, stupid.

Good questions make for interesting answers, and interesting answers get you thinking about all kinds of questions you suddenly want to ask yourself. Good questions wake you up to the world around you, and get you reengaged with life. It's a huge gift to be interviewed by a smart, generous, curious interviewer. First, and foremost, you have a blast. A conversation all about the things that interest you, with someone who is (purportedly, anyway) interested in how you came to be that way? What's not to love?

But what's really wonderful about a great interview, an interview designed to liberate valuable information from your skull for the purposes of sharing it with other people who might then learn from it, is that it forces you to focus, but frees you to do it. You could wander off into the poppy fields, and I do, frequently, but there's that nice interviewer, ready to lead you back to safety. Or on to a more interesting topic. Or whatever. Someone else does all of that hacking-a-path-through-the-jungle stuff. Someone else keeps an eye on the map and the compass, and allows you to wander around, commenting on this or that fascinating sight, and the eight things it makes you think about, in glorious freedom. Rather than facing a blank page, which I realize is my main job as a writer, but which absolutely gets tiring at times, someone gives you some structure, some prompts: What about this? And this? And this other thing?

It's such a valuable thing for showing you parts of yourself you might not otherwise see and training you to think in a way you might not ordinarily think that if people are not lining up to interview you, I'd look for ways to give yourself this gift. The Proust Questionnaire is a great place to start: not only has it withstood the test of time, but you can compare your answers (afterwards, please!) to a world thinker so great, they ended up naming the damned thing after him.

My friend Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) is terrific at posing thought-starters. Check out her question frameworks for coming up with resolutions that will be more satisfying to pursue, making better decisions, keeping your temper. I also enjoy reading the interviews Gretchen does with people she's interested in. Like the Proust Questionnaire, the questions remain consistent, so you could certainly use them to do your own (unpublished) Gretchen Rubin Happiness interview.

Whatever your means, it might be useful to start turning your attention to good questions, what makes them, where to find them, rather than focus quite so much on tracking down answers. Not that there isn't still a place for plain, old information (God Bless Wikipedia, and long may it reign!), but the knowledge that you piece together as the result of good questions is the information that really keeps on giving.

It's a now-hackneyed tradition to end a blog post or seed one's Facebook wall or cop out on meaningful Twitter contribution by asking a question. Too bad, because asking good questions is not just a way to gain eyeballs or get a break from the relentless feeding of the beast or incite the troops to (heaven help us) "join the conversation," but to stimulate actual, creative thought.

Still, this is a post about questions, so I will scatter a few about on my way out the door, mostly as fodder for you to think about as you move through your day. (Although the comments are, of course, open, they're even unmoderated again, assuming you've previously proven yourself to be a friendly nation.)

  • Where is the last place you (unhappily) found yourself that felt so familiar, you were finally moved to take action?
  • What is your favorite color? Was it always? When did it change? Where is it in your life right now?
  • Replace "color" (above) with "book," "song," "teacher," "friend," or "food."
  • What five songs make you the happiest when you hear them? Have you learned the words to them?
  • What song could you sing right now in its entirety? Do you like this song?
  • What is your greatest fear? How are you living with it (or not)?


* * *

COMING UP WEDNESDAY: A fun question-and-answer exercise to lively up your next gathering. You're subscribed, right?

* * *

Speaking of someone who knows how to ask the right questions, my longtime blogging pal, Marilyn, did a really challenging one with me that she's shared on her new site, La Salonniere, today. I'm especially thrilled because I love all the previous interviews so much: between her eclectic interests and her devotion to learning how things work, she is one amazing interviewer!

* * *

1In the case of the live interviewer, it's all about the ability to improvise. Jesse probably has the edge here, improv fanatic that he is, although that could be my bias toward comedic presentation. I'm also mad for Adam Carolla, whose podcast was killer out of the gate. Nothing that 20 years of assiduous practice on terrestrial radio and crappy comedy stages can't buy you.

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

Life in the silo

drawing of commuter with earphones ignoring panhandler

I believe in the essential goodness of people.

I may forget it here and there, when I'm pressed for time, or not well-rested/-fed/-clothed, or when some deep, emotional trigger gets pulled. But usually, and fairly quickly, I recognize these lapses as such. They're my (temporary) deviations from an essentially optimistic, basically loving worldview, brought on by my own forgetfulness in administering self-care.

What reels me back in varies, but the underlying, foundational bit of knowledge I'm operating from goes something like this:

I do not change the world I live in by reacting to it like a jackass, except for the worst.

This is not a bad thing to keep in mind all the time (along with useful stuff like "breathe!" and "stop!" and "when's the last time you ate, anyway?"), but it's a really, really good thing for me to remember when something awful happens. It is quick and easy to reach for anger, for outrage, for righteous indignation. There they are, all handy and stuff, just like the drive-thru window of your favorite fast-food place. And hey, everyone else is at the fast-food place, right? Damn right! That's why this #$@(!) line is so long! *HONK!* *HO-O-O-O-ONK!*

At a little gathering this weekend, someone reminded me of a great assessment device for making sound decisions: what would your future self want?

Will your future self be happy that you shaved a half-hour off of your afternoon by picking up Extra-Value Meal #9? Or would your future self prefer to continue fitting comfortably in her pants, remaining ambulatory and independent into her dotage, continuing to poop from her factory-installed organs?*

The nice thing about this kind of projection is that it is easily (okay, SIMPLY) reframed to encompass more and more compassion and awareness as I get better at it. Does my future self want to wade through a world thigh-deep in single-use plastic? Or, how might my future self feel explaining to her theoretical nieces and nephews as we all munch dejectedly on our Soylent Green that yeah, we could sure use some of those resources my cohort and I burned through, but man, were those burgers fast-'n'-tasty! And, as you see, so on.

I am not always the best at considering Future Colleen. Far from it. One thing that really seems to help is keeping myself a wee bit uncomfortable. Not in a martyr-ish way, necessarily, although putting a cap on the thermostat, or asking whether you really need this or that important doodad, doesn't hurt. (More on that, and 2011's theme of Conscious Stewardship, to come.)

No, I'm talking about the discomfort involved in stepping out of the silo and bumping up against my fellow man. I dread the thought of socializing. Amazingly, more and more the actual experience usually varies from "pretty good" to "awesome," but even if it's objectively a low-grade Torquemada-fest of enervation or bombastery, if I can muster the right mindset, it's usually enlightening and it's always strengthening.

There are degrees of this, then, too, bumping up against lots and lots of my fellow men, in small groups and the occasional noisy crowd. Meeting them on their home turf. Acting as leader, or hostess. Things that are terrifying, at first, but that one gets better at. No, really. I'm not just a reasonably assimilated introvert; I'm so acclimated now that more often than not, I pass for extravert.

Achieving even this level of comfort took years of assiduous plugging away: Nerdmasters; networking practice, under the kind and patient tutelage of another reformed introvert; hurling myself again and again into scary, unfamiliar circumstances. In other words, not easy, not overnight. But oh, so well worth it.

I know how annoying it is hearing people parrot platitudes like "Be the change!", especially on Twitter or Facebook. Knee-jerk anything is suspect, save perhaps the impulse to throw oneself under a future bus to save one's theoretical niece or nephew. But at almost-50, and having foregone a great deal of potential income in favor of exploring more existential concerns, I think I've earned the tiniest right to suggest that maybe, just maybe, this lack of tolerance thing is kinda-sorta becoming a problem. And that perhaps, just perhaps, we might do well to bring a bit of awareness to it. That's all. I don't have a handy app or pledge page for this; just raising a thought. Maybe we could start small (it's usually best, in my old-lady opinion) by listening more. Literally.

There are all kinds of ways to start. Anything, I think, can be a start, provided you're bringing a loving intention to it.

Me, I'm going to go out and meet up with some people this week. Some old friends, some new ones. Maybe even some weird ones. (It's L.A., so definitely some weird ones.)

Because I have a silo, but I live in a world. Your world, my world, our world...


*On the other hand, if you're opting for the Filet-o'-Fish rather than ripping someone's head off and crapping down their neck, your future self thanks you, as does mine. It also gently and lovingly suggests you bring some attention to this "solution," and start exploring alternatives.

UPDATE [1/10]: A lucid, thoughtful, somewhat charged (he's blunt, folks!) piece by Jon Armstrong on the genesis and implications of the Giffords shooting; his wife Heather Armstrong also has a short but very touching post on what I think is one excellent way to move forward.

UPDATE [1/11]: Another excellent piece by Penelope Trunk on the role mental illness played both in the shooting and the tragic story of Bill Zeller. Link to Zeller's lengthy, sad and well-written suicide note via the previous link, or this MetaFilter post, or directly on this Gizmodo post and Zeller's site (as of this writing, anyway). My favorite takeaway from this horrible series of events came from a comment on the MetaFilter post:

The best I can do with something like this is to remember to always be nicer, because you truly never know what someone may be dealing with inside.

If I could make just that change, I think I could call this a live well-lived.

UPDATE [1/12]: Via Jeffrey Zeldman on Twitter, a very sharp op-ed in the NY Times on the role fear plays in all of this, and a reiteration that this is not a left/right issue, but an issue of thoughtful engagement vs. fear-mongering, isolationism and other insalubrious human tendencies.

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

Family, friends, health, work: Pick three

sign in cubicle: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

There's an old saying the creatives in my old ad agency liked to lob at the suits when they started fire-breathing stuff like budgets and time and quality:

Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick any two.

Actually, we were rarely this articulate or polite under pressure, usually, we used a lot more words, rapid-fire and sotto voce, most of them of the NSFW variety.1

It's a cheap truism, obviously crafted by someone who was paid a lot of money or given much time to come up with it, but it makes it no less truthful. That whole having-it-all thing? Bullshit bullshit bullshit. A bill of goods you've been sold by a similarly well-paid, overworked team of mad men, most of whom have the fat lifestyle or lousy home lives to back it up.

Which brings us to the updated project-triangle illustration for the modern age of self-actualization, the Four Burners Theory as (apparently) laid out by David Sedaris, and expounded upon by my young friend Chris Guillebeau. In the interests of symmetry, a model worth aspiring to, I lay it out thusly:

Family. Friends. Health. Work. Pick any three.

The metaphor of burners is a great one, provided the four you envision sit on a cooktop of the ancient variety (like me!) where there is limited gas to go around (unlike me!), and it is impossible to go great guns on all four at once. If you've been privileged enough to grow up cooking on Wolf ranges, think crappy, old plumbing, where a neighbor's flush means your scalding-hot blast of shower. (Or, in the case of Gloomy Manor, any water running anywhere in the house means the trickle of shower water you're under reducing itself to spittle.)

The idea is not that you can't have all four, even at once: it's that you can't have an exceptional level of all four at once. You cannot put in the time required to raise children properly and nurture outstanding friendships of depth and be an elite athlete and win the Nobel prize in chemistry. Because to be outstanding at any one thing requires an outstanding level of focus on that thing. Ipso facto, right?

Since you are a smartypants, your brain is racing to find exceptions to this rule. Lance Armstrong, maybe. (Although, you know, that's an awful lot of primary relationships, not to mention single-parent offspring, to qualify for categories #1 and 2.) As Ben Casnocha notes, Tim O'Reilly seems to be living the dream, but I'd wager O'Reilly himself would say that he's not all-in with any one of the four categories.

My own bias has always been towards a singular focus on work; it's how I was raised, and I suspect that to a degree, it's also how I'm wired. My Crohn's epiphany brought an end to that, though. In one fell swoop (and several subsequent months of recovery), I realized that while elite athletic performance was as meaningless to me as it had ever been, a baseline level of health and happiness was not. The former requires a certain amount of time and attention in the form of rest and, because of my annoyingly high-maintenance diet, food preparation. The latter? Well, sleep pulls double-duty, I refuse to be miserable at my own hand, and an average of eight hours daily is required to keep the Mean Reds and blues at bay.

The happiness part of the equation is far, far trickier, because family, friends and work each factor into that level of buoyancy I strive to maintain. I'm guessing they do for most of us; we feel better when we're being useful, and that requires both meaningful work and a level of reasonable engagement with other human beings. Historically, I've let the first two slide. Most of the serious relationships I've had ended largely because I just can't handle the demands of a primary relationship.2 Hell, I can't always handle the demands of friendship. So I have a few close friends who, for whatever reason, put up with my bullshit, and many more casual friendships which are less time-intensive and which I can thus maintain without a lot of stress and drama.

This means I forfeit most of the benefits of family, and for now, I've made my uneasy peace with it. I really, really, really want to hit these next ten years hard, work-wise. If it means I end up pushing a shopping cart or a ward of the state in my old age, well, there's no one to blame but me and my choices. I also accept that there's no guarantee my work will be of a quality that justifies these choices. Frankly, that's even scarier to me than ending up alone, which is probably an indication that I have a long way to go before I can join the ranks of the mentally healthy, but there you go: it's the truth, and that's as good a place as any to start from.

If I have a point here (other than my seeming one, which is to depress the hell out of you), it is this: you are the sum of your choices, and there is no gobbling up your cake and still having it whole on the counter, pristine in its lovely glass cake stand, there for you to enjoy tomorrow. And a non-choice is a choice, too, so there's no weaseling out of it. Your life will get eaten up from under you, even if you don't do the eating. (Pro tip: deep-six the TV.) I have been extraordinarily lucky in that the IDIOTIC amount of time I spent doing something I hated, writing ads, turned out to be of some utility later on. Really though, the sooner you can get yourself out of something you're done with, or release something you have no use for, the better off you are. Trust me on this.3

In other words, let us not miss out on the most obvious and helpful part of the whole equation: pick. Choose. Decide. Spend time in thoughtful deliberation, weighing the pros and cons of your choices and actions and possible outcomes and then BE a verb.

Do not be like me and let life live you for too many years. A few, fine. No harm done. Everyone needs a break, and there is some value in playing at Candide a bit, here and there, for the adventure of it.

But do not lose sight of the almighty power you have built into you. Yes, be, but also, do.

Pick one to hit out of the park or pick a life that lets you gracefully enjoy a bit from the sampler plate of all four.

Pick, though. Pick today, and then pick again tomorrow...


UPDATE: Here's a link to the Sedaris essay referencing the four burners The lady who told him about it (she'd heard of it in a management seminar) said the stove could be electric or gas. I think for the analogy to really work, energy-wise, it needs to be gas and old, per my description, above. But hey, what the flock do I know?

1If we could talk at all, that is. Sometimes, we were so apoplectic at the unreasonable demands, all we could do was fume and point to the graphical representation we'd clipped from wherever, probably an ad, while we kept working.

2There were other reasons, but I fully accept that I suck at giving my beloveds the attention they deserve. And until I figure this shit out, I'm off the market.

3Or, hey, just read the archives.

Book review: The Shadow Effect

cover of "the shadow effect" + pix of authors + pic of human shadow

There is a truism in acting that you cannot play a villain if you view him as such, because every character is central to his own life story and never, ever sees himself as a villain. The first thing you are supposed to do as a good actor doing responsible script analysis is to comb through the text looking for ways in which you and your character, villain or hero, are the same. Only once you've grounded yourself in those do you go back through and seek out the differences, to add color.

And if you're honest, whether you're playing a villain or a hero or, most often, for most actors, something in between, you will share most if not all of the qualities of that person, although they may manifest themselves in different ways. The most common example, thrown up the first time you have to play a killer and wonder how you can do it if you've never killed, is to take yourself back to some moment of murderous rage: in the car, at being cut off; at a mosquito who will not leave you alone; at a bully who humiliated you one too many times. (Once was usually sufficient for me.) With the possible exception of sociopaths, we are all made up of all qualities and all possibilities; we just act on them, or not, differently.

The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Power of Your Hidden Self is a collaborative effort on the part of three modern self-help authors to address the parts of us we don't or can't look at. From their individual perspectives, M.D. with a spiritual bent, recovering addict and teacher, spiritual seeker and teacher, respectively, the authors discuss the common threads in what holds us back from finding peace and joy, both as individual entities and humankind. If it can be boiled down to one thing, and maybe it can't, since the book is a little disjointed, it is that we suffer because of the way we divide and separate: ourselves, by not embracing the truth that we contain all kinds of impulses within us; and ourselves from others, mainly by denying our common humanity, looking for the differences between us, projecting and even magnifying them unduly rather than starting from the rather terrifying premise that (sociopaths excluded), we are mainly the same.

The process of re-integrating begins, as I'm finally realizing most things do, with noticing. (Damned meditators: they had it right all along.) You can start anywhere, but the authors seem to agree that a very useful place is to begin by observing how you project your own behavior onto others: he's a selfish ass; she's stuck up; they are imbeciles who refuse to listen to anyone. Very, very easy to demonize someone else. Much harder to use them as a mirror in which you view your own, horrifyingly unsaintly behavior. But really, any sort of embracing of truth will work, and there are multiple suggestions for getting started, as well as for understanding why we bury and cover and isolate in the first place.

As far as accessing the central theme of the book, that we contain multitudes, and that acknowledging the suppressed voices among them, however terrifying at the outset, is critical to becoming whole, which is critical to self-actualization, I found the first two sections, by Deepak Chopra and Debbie Ford, to be the most useful. Portions of Chopra's were actually thrilling/chilling to read, and Debbie Ford is an easygoing, super-accessible writer. Try as I might (and I did!), I can't fathom the appeal of Marianne Williamson, on the page, anyway. She seems like a lovely and compassionate human, and she certainly has a large and loyal following of people for whom her words resonate, so it's probably just me. (I feel like the same obtuse maroon reading those other giants of self-help, Wayne Dyer and Eckert Tolle, too. If someone can 'splain it to me, please do.)

If The Shadow Effect as a book is a bit fractured, the messages relayed in it are of a piece, and the range of techniques and tools fairly ensure you'll find a way in that works for you. I'd suggest letting significant time lapse between reading the three segments, and picking the one to read first that resonates with you. The very practical, carefully laid out "diagnosis/cure/prognosis" method that Chopra takes works best for me. If stories are your way in, I'd maybe start with Debbie Ford, and if inspirational writing is your thing, by all means, start with Williamson.

It's valuable work, worth doing. Hopefully, one of the ways of doing will work for you...


Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. Cover © HarperCollins, designed by LeVan Fisher. Photos of Deepak Chopra and Debbie Ford by Jeremiah Sullivan; photo of Marianne Williamson by Lisa Spindler.

Legalese, etc! Book furnished as a review copy, and links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as 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.

What accountability does and doesn't do

three young women running on beach

In a way, all the things we do to help us get things done are tricks: Carving up our schedules in this way or that. Eating our biggest frogs first.

Even accountability is a trick of sorts. If you take on an exercise buddy or join a mastermind group or self-help organization like AA or Weight Watchers, you're hoping that the specter of peer pressure will keep you on the straight and narrow where your stated intentions are concerned. (And if you're hiring a coach or therapist, in addition some part of you is probably hoping that the pain of spending money will be motivating.)

Of course, we're usually drawn to whatever outside resources we end up choosing because we think they'll have tools and processes that will make our task easier, whether it's learning how to speak or how to avoid lousy relationships. No one wants a dummy partner. But most of  the efficacy seems to come from establishing a set of mutual expectations for improvement, and then not wanting to bail on the contract. Why is that?

After struggling with all kinds of change for most of my life and finally, FINALLY, getting a handle on a small portion of it at the ripe age of almost-50, I now believe that the real "magic" of accountability itself lies within me, not outside of me. As I said to my friend Dave Seah in our little Google Wave Experiment, there are no real consequences to not following through on anything I say I'm going to do with any of my accountability setups. No one will make me walk the plank. With the exception of one weird bet with my first-shrink-slash-astrologer (and another, even weirder one with my mother), I don't ever lay cash on the line, so there's not even that to lose. While ultimately, my shrink might "fire" me or my friends stop hanging out with me if I set up a really bad pattern of reneging on my word, 99% of the time, no one gives a crap whether I do or do not go through with x, except for their concern as my friends that I stay aligned with my own intentions. And the reason I'm reasonably sure of this is because I love my friends, warts and all; unless they started regularly and egregiously and personally letting me down, or hurting themselves, to the point where my intervention was useless, I can't imagine throwing them over because they couldn't quit smoking again.

So how and why does accountability work, really? What's really going on? Here are some possibilities:

Wherever two or more are gathered in His name

I'm not religious, but there is a sort of freaky hoodoo-something that happens in community, when the purpose of community is for the betterment of anyone in it. Chris Wells, who created the Obie-winning artists' "church"/show/gathering, The Secret City, and who has begun teaching the Big Artist Workshop in New York and Los Angeles, said it in our final class last Saturday: "Everything is better in community." (This, after being struck by something extraordinary that came about as a result of a group exercise.)

And it is better in community. I sometimes hate that it is, because I'm an introvert and, as my friend Gretchen Rubin likes to say, most of the time I'd rather just stay at home by myself and read a book all day. But as she also says, she almost always feels better when she rallies and does go to the party, the event, the meetup, the whatever. Part of it is action, of course, but another part is action with other people. We're these weird, self-contained fragments but we get the Big Juice from proximity to other fragments.

Darkness made light, the invisible made visible

It is really hard to see myself. Really, really, really hard. The beautiful parts and the not-so-beautiful ones.

In company, though, all kinds of things start surfacing, because the people around us serve as mirrors for ourselves, good and bad. I started having massive breakthroughs in self-understanding when I moved past plain annoyance with an acquaintance and allowed myself to consider what in me she was reflecting. People everywhere can serve as mirrors, of course, but when you choose a challenging accountability partner or two, you get improvement on steroids.

In any kind of accountability relationship, though, even one without doppelgangers, a great benefit comes from just dragging my trolls out from under the bridge, or at least getting the gang to train their high beams on them. And professional or not, anyone you're in an accountability relationship with is bringing a different perspective to your problem, and a much more objective one. That is illuminating, and illumination disperses shadow and darkness.

More on that tomorrow. For now, I would be very interested to hear about other people's experiences with accountability, specifically, how you think the "hoodoo" works on you.


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

The power of tiny pieces

close shot of someone drawing fine pen & ink detail

When I was very, very sick, my body served as its own governor.

I could not push myself further than I should, because I'd be overcome by a sleepiness that would stop me in my tracks. There were times before I learned this that I literally had to lie down right where I stood to rest a bit and gain enough strength to get myself into bed. And this, in an apartment with less than 800 square feet of livable space.

Now that my body is stronger, my mind has gone back to playing tricks on it. Do this thing instead of that other, it will say. We can get to that ugly bit later. Depending on the bigness or ugliness of the thing my mind senses it's up against, I can end up squeezing myself into timeframes that are ridiculously taxing, both because they are so condensed and because they were mostly avoidable.

Last Thursday, for example, I'd committed to performing a new story at the Porchlight series: eight minutes, memorized. But an eight-minute story is a long story, and memorizing it takes even longer. I knew I should have gotten started writing it weeks ago, but I didn't. And didn't, and didn't. The "why" is simple: fear. Nothing more, nothing less. I had plenty of time; I frittered away large chunks of it on nonsense and worry, worry and nonsense.

Most of the worry was about not being good enough. That's old hat, and not particularly interesting. The nonsense, however, is where the gold lies.

In the nonsense, there were the following gems:

  • You have an outline; the story will write itself. NONSENSE. Nothing writes itself. Nothing. Not one thing. An outline may or may not speed up the process, and is certainly a fine thing to have. But in terms of story, it represents nothing more nor less than some thought devoted to the story, which might translate to some work completed.
  • You've memorized longer stuff before, 8 minutes will take no time! NONSENSE. It takes as long to memorize something as it takes. There's no mathematical formula, and no guarantees. The only guarantee, in fact, is that a poorly-written piece will take longer to memorize than a well-written one.
  • You can quit! NONSENSE. I mean, of course I can opt out. People do; people did that night. It always happens. But I know I am not just telling these stories as a lark. I'm writing and telling them as training for telling bigger stories, i.e., going pro. And pros don't flake. Not if they want to be hired more than once.

I ended up writing and memorizing the entire story on Thursday, the day of the gig. The entire day of the gig, which is a luxury I have now, on sabbatical, that I will not always have. And I was still a nervous wreck, because I didn't have the story in my bones, so I wasn't much able to enjoy the experience, either.

On the opposite end of the planning spectrum, there's the newsletter I've been editing for BLANKSPACES, a co-working space here in Los Angeles. In the five months since I took over responsibility for the project, this is the first one that's gone smoothly, actually enjoyably. Why? Because I worked on it incrementally, rather than waiting for the last minute. I broke down the process into a kind of system, worked that system, and came out the other end with a product delivered on time, in good shape and without anguish. (I can't wait to tell my friend (and client, and mentor), Sam.)

I've read 25 books out of the 52 I'd planned for the year, just by reading 40pp per day. From an investment of 15 minutes or so a day, my apartment has gone from a depressing, cluttered and filthy wreck to something that looks like it might be ready to move out of on less than a year's notice. My half-hour of daily Nei Kung practice has wrought changes in my body that continue to astonish me. Why I persisted in thinking that stories (or blog posts) would magically write themselves even when, especially when I was exhausted from working crazy-sporadically rather than slow-and-steadily is beyond me.

The solution is not. Seek the smallest move forward. If there's a hard out, put it in the calendar on the far end and the Smallest Move Forward on the near one. Stick the other small moves in between. Arrive at destination rested, refreshed, and excited about the next challenge ahead.



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

Book review: The Four Agreements

moonrise over snowy Four Peaks mountain range

For someone who never actually read The Four Agreements, I have thought an awful lot about it in the three years since I didn't actually read it.

Generally, I thought about how great it would be if there really was some very simple and straightforward "Practical Guide to Personal Freedom," as the subtitle promises, a four-part pact one could make with oneself that provided a clear-cut path of guided self-instruction.

Specifically, I kept turning over Agreement #1, "Be Impeccable with Your Word", in my head, wondering if its stickiness meant that for me, that particular agreement was the key. In the three years since I've been paying attention to my habits, I've noticed that my mouth gets me in more trouble than any other part of me after my brain: I'm forever over-promising and under-delivering, when every smart business guide out there advises doing exactly the opposite. So when a copy jumped out at my on the "Most Requested" shelf at my beloved Bart's Books on a recent trip to my equally-beloved Ojai, I figured I'd pick it up and use it in tandem with my friend Jason Womack's new book, The Promise Doctrine, and once and for all, I'd whup this over-promising thing.

Imagine my surprise when I found that for three years, I've had the wrong takeaway rattling around in my poor, overloaded brain. Memory is faulty, but it's faulty in reliably illuminating ways: what I'd conveniently forgotten was that being impeccable with one's word meant not using it in vain, against yourself or anyone else. Negative self-talk? The root of most problems, since the Toltecs (the tradition author don Miguel Ruiz hails from) believe that you need to get right with yourself before you can truly get right with the rest of the world. Being impeccable, literally, not doing harm with one's word means not using it as a destructive force in any way, but instead using it to tell the truth, to express love (which, in a bit of sneaky-pete dovetailing, turns out to BE the Truth) and build good things, like bridges of communication.

And there's a special circle of hell reserved for those who use their words to gossip. Bonus-extra? You're living in it. No, really, you're making a hell on Earth when you participate in word slime, either by spreading it or letting it land. Very practical, those Toltecs, to hell with the Hell of certain religions who shall go unnamed: let's get this man-made hell sorted first, anyway.

The other three agreements, not to take things personally, not to make assumptions, and always to do one's best, fall naturally from the first. While any one of them could certainly stand alone, it seems like they work especially well as buttresses for that primary agreement. Not taking things personally, in this context, is the inverse of being impeccable with one's word: if you adhere to it, it stands to reason you'd have some protection against other people not being impeccable with their word. Not making assumptions works the same way (as if Felix Unger's stunning bit of definitive logic wasn't enough to convince you). And always endeavoring to do one's best is not just supportive of the first agreement, it's Do-Bee 101.

One warning for those interested in a four-simple-steps approach: if I haven't made it obvious, simple doesn't mean easy, especially here. I've screwed up enough times at both really simple and really easy stuff to know. It's not even easy to get through: at 138 pages, The Four Agreements is a short book but not an especially breezy read.

Or perhaps I should say that for some of us who could really use the information contained within, extraction will be easier if we take it slowly...


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

Yo! Disclosure! 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.

Funhouse mirror

warped mirrors reflecting a warped image

I have a friend whom I guess the kids would characterize as a kind of frenemy: thrown together by circumstance, stuck together of necessity, we are close in some ways but wary in others, always doing this delicate dance of extending ourselves while keeping an eye on the exits, or using our powers of incision while endeavoring not to cut each other  too deeply.

Like most cases where I have a strong and somewhat negative reaction to someone, I suspect it is because we are more alike than either of us cares to admit: there are plenty of flat-out buzzkills I couldn't care less about because I feel no common ground; their shit isn't my shit, ergo I have no personal investment, because hey, when you get right down to it, it's all about us.

I had been having the hardest time putting my finger on it, though. We are unaligned in so many ways it's ridiculous, from our personal style (girly-chic vs. whatever mine is) to our modes of expression (sailor-colorful vs. whatever hers is).

On the other hand, on paper, we have quite a bit in common: love of the arts, wide range of creative expression, a fairly sharp mind. I'll even grant her a sense of humor, although of a much, much different variety.

As for our shared "challenges," after some painful reflection I've noted that we're both neurotic, controlling and highly insecure. I mean, I get all that, it's outrageously, neon-sign-obvious to me, although I question whether the similarity is even a blip on the edges of her consciousness. So you could say it's blazingly obvious, too, why she would push my buttons: seeing my most loathed behaviors come to whiny, annoying life in her would of course set me off, right? Who'd want to be like her, I mean, me, right?

Only that wasn't quite it. Trust me, I've noted my own, shameful behaviors in far more dark and/or lost souls than this woman, who really is more annoying than anything else, and really only annoying to me, not anyone else. This is my thing; I'm sticking my Dymo label on it.

Finally, while I was playing around in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, he held up the mirror that allowed me to see it clearly for the first time: she is me, inside out. She is fine with our flaws, while I'm still afraid or ashamed to truly hold them in my hands and own them in my heart. Or she seems that way, maybe she has no idea, and maybe that is her own path, coming in her way to that realization.

My path is to carry this with me, this uncomfortable burden of truth, until I can toss it about so lightly, I can toss it, period. And, no guarantee, of course, but maybe once I do, I will have a hand free to extend in true friendship...


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

Book review: Way of the Peaceful Warrior (or, the book that woke me up)


First, it was stumbling across this shockingly timely quote by Christopher Isherwood, the beauty and truth of which made me cry.

Next, it was swapping out my first-of-three annual Nikki McClure calendars from 2009 to make room for the first-of-three McClures for 2010 and noting what had been buried under all those months for all these months. (See above.) No crying, but not a little, "Hahaha, LOOK WHO WAS TRYING TO SEND YOU A MESSAGE 11 MONTHS AGO!"

Finally, in the midst of a mad dash of decluttering to peel the poppies from my eyelids, I was able to actually wake up long enough to tell the Resistor to suck it, because I knew what I had to write about:

Waking up.

Not how to wake up, because if it's even possible, it's well beyond the scope of my powers and one little review of one little self-help book. Hell, it's probably what this entire blog is about, if it's about anything, and five years into this process I'm only starting to get a grasp of how to do it intentionally and usefully. Honestly, I can't imagine phrasing the purpose of the search (nor the perils of ignoring it, nor the pain of actually executing it) more beautifully and succinctly than Isherwood, which is partly why I burst into tears. (Hey, never claimed to be done with envy.)

What I can do is write a long-overdue tribute to the one book above all others that helped me wake up. I'll consider it a closed loop, and maybe you'll find yourself a literary cup of coffee (or maybe you've already read it, are 100% sure it did and will do zero for you, and can move on to the next thing. Either way, good thing.)

A now-longtime friend pointed me to Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman's classic self-help novel about a clueless youngster and the (I shit you not) mysterious gas station attendant who changes his life forever. It's a parable of awakening that's derived from real life (the protagonist's story mirrors Millman's own journey), containing mystical elements that may or may not be true. As with the consumption of most myths and parables, that sort of stuff is beside the point: what matters is what the stories in the book do to you as you take them in. Are you intrigued? Do you feel questions bubbling up? Recognition, self- or otherwise? Do you feel tumblers falling into place or a coating of dust being blown away? Do you want to climb in and disappear, or pull the characters out and ask them questions?

There is instruction galore, real, practical, tactical stuff, and you can take as much of it as you're ready for. I wasn't ready for much of it for the many annual re-readings I did of the book, nor, to be truthful, am I quite sure I'm ready for much more right now. I like my sugar and my coffee and my booze, I struggle with exercise and discipline in general, and we all know about my ongoing battles with clutter. Even if you're not quite ready to jump on the bandwagon, the story of someone just (or way) ahead of you on the path can be encouraging or inspiring. (Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield's talks, which I found via Joe Frank's "The Other Side" on NPR, served a similar purpose for me, and deserve a whole other post unto themselves.)

And if it is the right book for you, it will ring a bell that cannot be unrung: that reminder that yes, there's something else and yes, one foot after the other, given some purpose, luck and assistance, will get you there...


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.

Feeling your way to fabulosity


I came across a couple of items recently about Jay Leno, which I particularly noted because (a) he's a person who doesn't typically blip across my news radar field, so twice in one week was a sit-up-and-take-notice red flag for this pattern-seeking monkey; and (b), one resonated with me rather deeply.

The first item was embedded in a conversation on the excellent Adam Carolla podcast, and confirmed what many before have said: like him or not, comedically-speaking, Jay Leno is a nice guy with his (gigantic) head screwed on right.

The second (whose source I cannot recall, but may also have been the Adam Carolla podcast, as I'm seriously obsessed with it these days) was something I'd not heard before but was not particularly surprising, either: that Jay Leno views his body primarily as a vehicle for carting around his brain. Which is to say he does not take exquisite care of of his body beyond the bare minimum of caloric intake and sleep, ergo (and this is my extrapolation/dialectic):

  1. Having been hit with the psychic whammy of being kinda-sorta shoved to the sidelines of the only game he's ever wanted to play...
  2. at a stage in his chronological life when the physical plant under the best of circumstances is already breaking down...
  3. he experienced some health issues which landed him in the hospital

It should be noted here that Leno himself has shrugged off the health issues as mere exhaustion, but the timing is interesting and frankly, there's nothing mere about exhaustion, especially when it causes you to cancel stuff and head to the hospital in a highly uncharacteristic fashion.

Here's the thing: I get it.

I mean, I'm nowhere near the level of a Jay Leno in terms of weight of the world on my back, or of work schedule, or of anything else (although my chin comes damned close). But I get the exhaustion thing and I get the body-being-a-brain-hod thing and I get the bifurcation of thinking and feeling. I am the person who cried for two years when she started doing the Relaxation Exercise in Method class, because, hello, you cannot start really moving a body you've been bottling stuff up in for 40 years without having some of the stuff leak out. Leaking happens under extraordinary circumstances, and for body-is-a-brain-hod types, moving the physical plant in certain specific ways is extraordinary. I also cried regularly and copiously during my initial six months of shiatsu bodywork therapy, and that wasn't even me doing the actual moving.

I am the person who got by because she learned to tune things out, which probably had a lot to do with being raised by two people who also got by because they learned to tune things out. The longer I live, the more I think most of us get by most of the time by tuning things out, which is not always a bad thing, I don't want pilots and firefighters and cops doing a lot of feeling at critical moments, and I think (haha) that they probably feel (haha) the same way. And that's fine.

What's not is me letting thinking become my default mode for dealing with everything. Just like FAST is not the only speed to do things at, THINK IT OUT, BITCH is not the only way to slog through a problem.

At a recent workshop I attended, I met many wonderful people and heard many inspiring stories and was treated to a few big surprises, but the greatest tool/takeaway/net-net I got was that maybe, just maybe, there was another way to get at that meaty nugget of Who I Am and What I'm Here For than making and executing another goddamn list. Maybe I could feel my way through it. Maybe I could look around at my environment and me moving through other environments and start taking note of what I was feeling when I felt the best. Danielle, the woman who led the workshop, shared the four feelings she'd identified for herself as ones that felt like True North, affluent (in all its various meanings), sexy, communion, playful, and suggested that we just start taking note of how we felt when we felt good: in various rooms of our homes, at various times of the day, with various people.

I'm sure there are a slew of exercises like this in all kinds of books that sit on my shelves right now, some of which I've likely read. Somehow, though, that was the evening when the message got through my thick skull: because I was ready, because the language she used was one I understood, because I'd paid to hear it.

But also, o, Irony Syrup on Obvious Pancakes, because I was exhausted. Sometimes, those of us prone to overthink need to be tuckered out enough to let things in.

I've started my list. I started it that night, in fact. There are feelings on it like "joy" and "safe" and "free". It's just a beginning, but I'm okay with that, too.

I will feel my way through this, I think...


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

Notes from the middle of activating


As I've mentioned before, in 2006, if any of you were alive back then, there's a frame in my bathroom that holds a magazine cover from the New Yorker with a picture of a glass half-full of what looks to be orange juice.

It's from 1995, probably none of you were alive back then, so it's faded now. The juice doesn't look very appetizing, and the water spots and toothpaste splatters aren't helping much, but for a few reasons, it's not going anywhere soon.

The first is that the issue date is January 30, 1995. That's the day my mother would have turned 59 had she not died the previous September, also on the 30th. The irony of that cover coming out on that day hit me like a wave of...well, orange juice. So there's that.

The other more far-reaching (and less sentimental) reason is an ass-kicking one. Every time I look at that picture and actually see it, which may or may not be every time I need to actually see it, I think about time remaining and the choices I can make about what to do with it.

I can think about how I'm still stuck or about how I've managed to move forward.

I can think about the ways in which I suck or, on a good day, if I'm feeling a mite brave, the ways in which I might possibly be considered to be awesome.

I can think about what I don't know yet or about all of the things I have the opportunity to learn.

You get the picture. (Ha ha.)

A fellow traveler and I had an impromptu conversation last week about being stuck and moving forward and how there's that time in the soup when, on top of a lot of patience, you need a lot of faith and a lot of help to see that you might at some time in the future not be in the soup. We were in our own, individual soups at the same time for a while, and it appears that he has made his way out, had a nice rinse off and change of clothes, and is on his merry way. And I'm happy for his merriness, in no small part because it reminds me that at some point, after enough patience and faith and help, I, too, will be out of this particular soup. (And into another, no doubt, but hey, that's a post for the Future Me to write.)

What's interesting about this time in the soup is that it seems to have lasted longer than previous soup-times, and, possibly as a result of this, I find myself more willing to try some outrageous (for me) things to see my way up and out of it. Like, for example, announcing on the same site where I send potential clients that I am, in point of fact, in the soup. Which doesn't exactly impair my ability to do for them, but does look a bit...inelegant.

And then there's the stuff I talked about previously, the opening up both to myself and to others in a way I may have thought of as silly or weak or too woowoo even for me. (And which, to be honest, I still do sometimes, I'm just doing it anyway. Nyah nyah nyah.)

All this by way of saying the following: if you think change is easy, there's a very good chance you're not actually doing it. Remember adolescence? When your body did it for you? How that felt? Yeah. It's like that, only this time you're picking it.

Of course, being in pain doesn't automatically mean you're changing, either. You can feel horrible and not be doing a damned thing about it: how great is that?!

Fortunately, even the pain of changing doesn't feel like pain all the time, at least, as I've experienced it. There are moments of peace and moments of ecstasy and moments of regular, garden-variety joy. Kind of

So from here, in the middle of Big Change (which includes the Change, which again, is a whole nuther story), being stuck is a lot

More notes as I have them...


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

I'm the kind of person who


Yesterday, via various miracles of modern technology and brave union brethren having fought for what's theirs, The BF done got a bum knee fixed up good as new (we hope) in less than seven hours, including schlep time to and fro.

While we were allowed a bit of canoodling time pre- and post-procedure (of a chaste nature, them curtains is flimsy), primarily we were on our own, him, blasted out of his skull on the good meds; me, making do with provisions from the local Starbucks acquired on foot.

Having been through many, many outpatient procedures of a colonoscopic nature thanks to my frayed internal jump rope, we brought things with which to entertain ourselves during our waking hours: he, a sole issue of Harper's; I, Quentin Crisp's autobiography, a self-help book, my current fatty spiral notebook (one should always have something sensational, etc.) and an iPhone. (Because really, if checking your email, Twitter and Facebook streams every five minutes isn't entertaining, what is?)

We brought them because we knew there would be down time. We brought them because we knew we would not have each other to talk to for seven hours. We brought them because we are the kind of people who bring stuff to read when we're going anywhere: the airplane, the surgical center, the toilet. God forbid we have a spare moment available and nothing good to fill it with.

As it turned out, I spent very little time with Quentin or Martha and a whole lot of time with Dolores. Dolores was there to accompany her friend of 35+ years who was finally having the cataract surgery Dolores had been begging her to have for ages now. She herself is very fit, save some miscellanea that comes with aging. (And she has had some of her miscellanea examined by the same guy who examines mine, Dr. Graham Woolf!) Dolores is 73 years old, lives about 10 miles due south of me and sings in several choirs (including a thing called a "bereavement choir," which she turned to on the recommendation of a fellow parishioner when she was "mad at God" for taking three of her five sisters from her in the space of 18 months).

Furthermore, Dolores grew up near Jacksonville, FL. She graduated from the last all-black high school in the state of Florida, a high school which had an over 90% rate of sending students on to college, where she was headed toward the end of this week for her 55th high school reunion. Husband #3 (she divorced #1 and buried #2) is not coming with her, as he's infirm, but Dolores seems not to mind much; in fact, Dolores seems like the kind of person who makes friends wherever she goes.

Dolores does, not me. I'm the kind of person who brings a stack of reading material because I'm the kind of person who is painfully shy around strangers, hopelessly introverted and most definitely does not make friends wherever she goes.

Only, it seems, I am not.

Somewhere along the line, I started talking to people. I started smiling, I guess, and asking questions. Offering chairs, runs to the Starbucks for muffins, information about my own I'm-the-kind-of-person-who self. I'm not entirely sure why except that somewhere, somehow, I started getting interested in people's stories, and people's energy, and seeing which kind of stories matched up with which kind of energy. Maybe it was a result of all those acting classes and shows and script writing, where one is forced to plumb the depths of one's soul to find where it overlaps with someone else's. Maybe it's latent Journalist's Disease kicking in, I am, after all, the granddaughter of a newspaperman.

I probably won't have a grasp of the wherefore for a long time. Hardly matters. Because what I finally realized yesterday is that I'm not the kind of person who I used to be, and moreover that it would probably behoove me to stop thinking of myself as "the kind of person who" anything. In my teens and 20s and even my 30s, it felt awesome to stick stakes in the ground, to say "I am for this" and "I like that" and carve out my identity. And it felt equally awkward to have that Person I Was change, to feel vaguely embarrassed about my earlier, over-the-top love of Aubrey Beardsley or Bachman Turner Overdrive or circus peanuts. I was the kind of person who likes circus peanuts? What the hell kind of loser was that?

We set so many unnecessary traps for ourselves, I think. And yes, I think other traps may be necessary, the shame in acting badly trap, or the guilt for not taking care of ourselves trap. At least until those habits are flipped over to their sweet side, those traps serve some kind of purpose. Pegging ourselves as this or that is perhaps understandable in our preteen and teen years, perhaps into our twenties. It's more of a trying-things-on activity then. But I've seen so many people stiffen into some grotesque version of something they should have tried on and discarded years ago, I'm not so much for the I'm the Kind of Person Who game any more. I still have ideas and preferences and loyalties, of course, but I'm far more interested in the Strong Opinions, Loosely Held game nowadays.

It is scarier to be fluid, for sure.

But it is far, far more fun in the waiting rooms of the world...


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

How are you changing the world?


At one time or other
everyone wonders
whether she'll change the world
in some way
or small

But the truth is
you can't not
change the world
because everything you do
makes it different,
and small

You can change the world
by the way you answer a question
or the phone

You can change the world
by giving change
or time
or right-of-way
even if they're wrong
(especially if they're wrong)

By the way you listen
and the way you speak,

By the way you greet the dentist
or the tax man
or the President,
the one you voted for
and the one you didn't

You can change the world
by the way you eat
and spend
and save
or don't

By the way you pray
and the way you talk to the people who don't
or by the way you talk to the people who do pray
if you don't

You can change the world
by writing a book
or by reading one
or by passing one along

You can change the world
by the way you love
or the way you hate

You can even change the world
when you accept
that we are all wired
to do both
and still choose one
in the face of another

You can change the world
with everything you think
and feel
and do

And you do,
with everything,
and great.


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

Get your motor runnin', Day 10: The power of 10


10 days into the new year, I can't tell you if I'll accomplish everything I've set out to do in 2009. I can't even promise I'll finish out the month with my goals intact.

But I can tell you this, and with some astonishment on my part: in 10 days, I just realized, I have probably played my guitar more than I did all of last year.

It's probably a no-brainer for a lot of people, but for those of us with perfectionism issues, this 10-minutes-per-day thing is positively magical. I release myself of any enormous expectations: how much, after all, can I be expected to do in 10 minutes? How much better can I get? How fast can my fingers reasonably be expected to move? How thick can my callouses grow?

In 10 minutes? Not a helluva lot. In 100 minutes? You'd be amazed.

I'm amazed, anyway, and that's what matters. I find myself resisting the notion of sitting down to do the practicing far less. Some days I actually look forward to it. But even if I'm just checking it off a list some days, just going through the motions, I'm putting in time doing something that makes me better at it as I put in time. And, as Leo says, I get in the habit.

Something tells me that the other real bigness to this idea is that habits breed habits, and accomplishments spur on additional efforts. I'm sticking to my Best Year Yet goals, but I'm going to look hard at how I can implement a 10-minute-per-day habit each month for each one.

I will not be doing my rendition of "Dueling Banjos" for you, or anyone else, anytime soon. At 10 minutes per day, it may take me 10 years to get through the first 10 bars.

But the power that I get from the doing of this every day will, I have a feeling, seep into everything else I do.

Which reminds me: time to do the next thing...


Image by yellowblade67 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.