Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adjusting My Life Arithmetic

Here and here are two great posts at the Harvard Business Review about being mindful of what we add, and what we can subtract, from our lives. A similar notion is life coach Cheryl Richardson's Absolute Yes list – those things that are most important for you to focus on over the next few months.

Both speak to that insidious way that, if you’re not conscious about what you put into your day (and therefore, your life), it’s likely that any old thing will slip in there.

My To-Subtract List
  • mediocre sitcoms (They’re so easy to watch! So mildly amusing!)
  • the dreaded f-word (facebook- seriously, do I need to know what random people from my freshman year dorm are up to? Do I?)
  • checking my email 6,000 times only to delete one new message that is usually from a random mailing list I’m on.
  • reading newspaper websites as an excuse for procrastination (but look Ma! It’s educational!)

Note that all these time-sucks are all related to a big light-up screen. And they’re easy! They happen at the click of a button, the tap of a mouse, and frequently result in a rewarding squirt of dopamine. (See article about email compulsion.)

By contrast, a lot of the things that are on my Yes List don’t offer that same instant gratification. 

My Yes List
  • Applying to grad school. Important step toward a rewarding career, but frankly? Bit of a drag. I'm sorry my life doesn't fit precisely into the boxes you've created for it, ApplyYourself online application program!
  • Bringing in the cash-monies. Again, solvency, and the food and shelter it provides, is pretty key to the kind of lifestyle I want to be leading (you know, the kind with a roof. And a shower. And breakfast.) And don’t get me wrong, in this economy I’m lucky and grateful to have an income stream, but still…it’s no Big Bang Theory.
  • Friendships. This is one that at least has a more immediate payoff, in that I truly enjoy time spent with good people. But even this one can’t happen at one push of a button. There’s coordination that must be done, decisions to make, hours of coffee shops to look up, schedules and timing to consider.
  • Meditation. I am proud to say that I have managed to sit quietly in the morning for 10-20 minutes almost every single day for that past few months, and it really has been transformational in terms of my chilling out and getting some perspective. But again, I enjoy the rewards, and sometimes the process itself can be lovely and interesting. Other times though, sitting and listening to my own mind is like watching a twisted, panicked circus sideshow of paranoia and low self-esteem.
To Add
Typing out my list like that made me realize that it's long on goals and responsibilities and kind of short on you know, fun. Maybe it's time to add a category for relaxing in a way that really does replenish me and not just send me into an LCD stupor.

Et toi? What are you trying to add and subtract from your day (and the microcosm of your life it represents)? What's on your lists? What do you do when you're in the mood for fun? (I'm not just curious, I'm looking for ideas.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Question of the Day

How do you make yourself do something?

Something you know you need to do, that you know you will feel millions of times better after doing, that needs to be done like, now? But that you kinda sorta really don't feel like doing and it's been on your list for like a week and at this point it's turned into a Thing and every time you think about you get a shock of anxiety?

Issue at hand: I need to get in touch with two recommenders who have agreed to write me letters as I apply to grad school. But I'm filled with inexplicable anxiety and dread at the task ("I hate to inconvenience them, it's so close to the holidays, what if they don't have time, etc. etc."...even though I know the longer I procrastinate the more inconvenient it becomes for them.) You could probably read some deep psychological tropes into this issue about how I like to be a giver and make things nice and comfortable and convenient for people but then when it's time to ask for something and receive for a change I shut down.

Curiously (or not), Procrastinatory Action Item #2 also involves asking people for things. For one of my jobs I'm doing research on various images and objects that will be a part of an exhibit, and I have to actually get on the phone - with strangers and ask different institutions for the rights to things. I'll even be paying their fees, so it's not like I'm asking for them for free or something. It should be a normal, grown-up, not a big deal interaction, and yet somehow it sends me cowering under my blankie.

What's my deal, people? Any suggestions? How do I clear these hurdles? How do you turn a heinous festering to-do list sore into a thing of the past?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Movies As Mood Enhancer

It was a wintery Sunday. I woke up with my to-do list churning in my head: so much to accomplish! Full speed ahead! Damn the torpedoes, there are action items! No time to be wasted when there are gold stars to be earned!
But the words of His Wiseness Martin Seligman echoed in my head, about how our culture is so consumed with future-mindedness, the rat race, that we are constantly missing out on what is enjoyable in the present moment. This reminded me of one of my personal resolutions (one of many resolutions, future-minded American that I am) to try to do at least one thing a day that is enjoyable or pleasant in the present – to not hoard every single one of the acorns I so conscientiously collect for some future day that never seems to arrive.
So yes, I said to Pirate Redbeard, after prevaricating for longer than I like to admit--yes I will go see The Muppets with you. Who cares about exceeding our paltry entertainment budget? Who cares that my to-do list carries over to the next page? Who cares that I will have to change out of my sweatpants? If I die next week I’ll be glad I took the time out to see a Sunday matinee while I had the chance.
And as it turned out, it must have been meant to be, because the theatre’s computers were down and the manager waved us in for free.
When we left the movie, I felt buoyant and buoyed up. Redbeard said “I needed that.” And we did! We needed that. Because the times, they are dark. Literally, it gets dark at like five o’clock lately. And it’s cold out, and the salad days are over for now, and after the holidays a long dark bleak winter stretches out silently, ominously before us.
And sometimes you just want to escape to a world where little cloth animals are true to their word; where people are honest and sincere and not too jaded to believe in the beauty of their dreams; where you know that goodness and earnestness will win out in the end; where you can forget your problems and goals and ambitions for a little while and snuggle up to some laughter and celebrity cameos; and where it all wraps up nicely with fireworks and a dance number.
I guess what I’m saying is the movie made me feel hopeful, is all. It made me walk back home and look at cold sunshine slapping up against the buildings a little differently. It made me feel inspired, it made me feel like I should sit down and write something and try to contribute, because what movies and art and books and blogs really are is disease vectors: they spread the contagion of ideas, emotions, moods, messages, worlds. Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that magical? Isn’t that a privilege? 

A privilege. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This Is A Love Letter

 My goals for the months in Paris were modest: I wanted to be taken in a by a ragtag group of expatriate merrymakers and bons vivants. I hoped to be discovered and taken under the wings of whoever the 2005 equivalents were of Hemingway and whoever those buddies of his were – I was vague as to the historical details. I wanted to be swept away by art and romance, sit around a table in a bistro drinking wine and smoking long cigarettes and wearing berets and cradling baguettes to accordion music and every other French cliché you can think of. And if I fell dramatically in love with a ravishing Frenchman and never came home, well then, so be it.             
             Like every journey, my trip was not as I had envisioned while safe at home. Although at first I was entranced (Outdoor markets, dangling veggies and meats! Quaint and ancient cobblestone neighborhoods! The toilets flush with buttons!) as I settled in I found it reminded me a lot of New York or any other big city. Glossy stores, shopping malls, dog feces, homeless men sleeping in subway tunnels.
             I was also surprised at how lonely I was. And yet, walking among the towering curlicue-d buildings, consulting my pocket size book of Plans de Paris to navigate the geometric scribbles of streets, watching winter give way to spring, staring into the inky waters of the river, loneliness seemed somehow beautiful and appropriate. Before I left, one of my poetry teachers advised me to spend lots of time staring from bridges. He was totally right.
             And although I never did locate the throbbing epicenter of the romantic expat literary lifestyle, just when I start to give up on it, I would walk into a fleeting whiff of that scent, a memory in the air. Vestiges of the bohemian Montmartre artistic vibe were still around, though many had been shellacked with a generous patina of tourist-friendliness, polished to smoothness by so many people’s love for them.
             And while I never did spend a night in a dark cafe pounding a table with literary greats, it still seemed their ghosts lingered everywhere, as if I had just missed them. And when I walked through the threshold of the cheery, dingy yellow façade of Shakespeare and Company, I felt like I had found the porthole to their dimension.
             After long weeks and months of the alienation that came from knowing only superficially the language that floated through the air, to find rows of English-language books waiting for me was like a reunion. I only bought one book there-- a fat collection of short stories by Carol Shields-- but I was captivated and spellbound by it in a way that no other book has done for me before or since. In the disorienting, French-language hustle and bustle, these words in English tasted exquisite to me. I savored and drank them like a thirsty person given water.
             By the Seine, skeezy drageurs in leather jackets would patrol the walkway along the river, looking for girls to hit on.  They said “Il faut profitez,” meaning, let us live to the fullest, while we can, drink deeply, live for the moment, squeeze all the juice from this thick fruit. It was a line of course, but I agreed with the sentiment, even if at the time I could never quite make it work. I never felt that I was doing the whole European adventure thing quite right (too timid, too broke, too studious…)
             But when I discovered that bookstore! Its old craggy wood shelves; narrow staircase; the bored, hungover-looking traveler sitting at the front register -- I felt like I had made a great and personal discovery. And the clues upstairs to the travelers who were welcomed there overnight: flea-bitten blankets hastily put away; outside the window, set on the roof just below the windowsill, the remains of a true bohemian feast— bread and crumbs in a plastic bag, a half-finished bottle of wine.
             A hand-painted quote above a door said “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” And it made me feel welcome there in the crowded book-filled haven, in a city which could indeed seem inhospitable and too fast, and where I did indeed feel strange.
             The crazy white-haired guy haunting the cluttered shelves, ancient, hunched,  I later learned was the famous George Whitman. He was like the ghost of all those greats come alive, just shuffling through. He was a link to them, and just as he had dined with them and invited them in, his shop invited me in as well.
             I went to a reading there of an American poet. At the end she suggested that aspiring writers in the audience could mail her their poems, which I did. I will never forget what it was like to listen to the voicemail she left me asserting that I had talent, and that she would allow me to come to her apartment for her to critique my work.  I was riding an escalator. My insides felt like bees.
             I remember, at the reading she read a poem about being invited to play tennis with Elizabeth Bishop, how young and awed she felt. I could relate.
             So this is a love letter to the ancient guy named George Whitman and the little store he owned on the banks of the river Seine called Shakespeare and Company, and all the strangers he welcomed, and all the stories he was a big or small part of.
             Also this is a drinking-straight-from-the-bottle toast to the things we do when we are twenty years old, the courage it takes to up and leave, even for a little while, to learn a new city, a new language, a different world.
             To the back alley cobblestone romance that always seemed to be just out of reach, just around the next corner.
             To the outsize expectations that led me to Paris to chase whatever I thought all those famous literary dudes were chasing:  color and shimmer, bright lights, transparency, vigor, blood pumping through the veins, sex, aliveness, everything,  and to digest it and proclaim it to be good.
             To the chemical high that those who were in love with the written word back when we were young and foolish can still remember, can still almost taste on the tips of our tongues, and which leads us on still…still typing, still scribbling, still pulling over to the side of the road to jot down some notes.
             A love like that changes you in ways you only realize as time goes on.
             And isn’t that why we do these sorts of things, tell stories, write poems, make a storefront into a bohemian legend – so that even when we die, we live.
             Rest in peace George Whitman, ghost of giants. Wherever you’re going, I hope you’re welcomed as an angel in disguise.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Groping Toward the Light

             Here’s a recent interview at The Paris Review with artist Gabriel Orozco. It includes many important reminders about what it’s really like to be on the front lines, making stuff. 

o   Orozco on the sense of freedom and challenge:

“You feel free when you are painting. You feel that you are concentrating on something very particular that is very difficult, but that you enjoy doing it, even though you know that you are probably going to fail, because it’s very difficult to make a good painting.”

If I’m not mistaken he is referring here to what positive psychologists call a state of “flow,” or what Martin Seligman would call one of the “gratifications” – the things we do that we get totally absorbed in, which we can’t totally describe as pleasure because we are so caught up while we’re doing them we aren’t really registering anything but the task at hand -- we’re concentrating, we’re working, but we’re also playing.

o   Speaking of play and exploration:

“I say, Oh yes, that is interesting! I try not to judge myself or analyze too much why I might be attracted to that one thing at a particular moment, as opposed to another. Instead I try to explore it and see what it is. I begin to play with it.”

The Boyf and are totally obsessed with this show on Bravo called Work of Art, which is basically like any other reality show with a prize at the end for the person who is judged to be “the best,” only this one is about visual artists. But you can see this tension come up again and again, between being told by producers “Make something! By this deadline! Out of a CAR!” (or whatever random task they’ve dreamed up that week) and the way that making something that is actually something requires a certain amount of looseness, go-with-the-floweyness, playfulness, experimentation. And at the same time, you also see those parameters motivate them, push them, put some hustle in their bustle. The arbitrary rules become a container for that vast ethereal creative spirit.

o   On trying and failing:

“Trial and error is a part of the work. So that is how the “Working Tables” [his recent exhibition] came about, as a way of showing off the trash or mistakes I had produced. It’s a bit like exhibiting all the little experiments with the thought that maybe someone else will be able to make use of them somehow. I think it is important to show the possibility of failure.”

This is easy to forget when working with the creative animal. There is so much emphasis on product, is it good, is it marketable, was it a waste of my time? It’s easy not to value the scribbles, the doodles, the ones you crumple up and throw away. It’s hard to just follow something you’re interested in and see where it leads. We want detailed GPS directions, we want some disembodied voice to reassure us that yes, we are in fact headed somewhere, there’s a plan to all this, somebody smarter than ourselves knows how this all works out in the end.

What would people say if they knew we were drawing the map as we went, and it’s not even to scale? And what if we get sick of the map and start sketching the local flora instead?

Orozco might talk about

o   Pushing your own boundaries:

“When you are making work you are not trying to repeat yourself, but to revolutionize yourself.”

I had a poetry teacher who urged us never to write the same poem twice.

o   But what if we get lost and it’s all a spectacular failure?

“Your own process of experimentation… is going to be full of errors. It’s important for me to make that very clear—that I will try to fail in that sense, and I will try to disappoint in that sense—because I am doing something that is new for me.”

What are you doing that is new and uncertain today? What quiet whispering interest are you following even though you have no idea where it leads? What are you managing to fail at today? What can you experiment with, even though you might later crumple it up and throw it away?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

We Can Dance If We Want To

I promised someone that if she started writing again, I would too. She’s two to three posts ahead of me already, and yet I’ve found it hard to get started, and here’s why.
            It’s frightening to put yourself "out there". It’s scary to tell the truth about yourself and your life. Especially for those of us who are so invested in making it seem like we have it all together, we know what we’re doing, we have a plan, darnit. Especially for those of us who are allergic to rejection.
            Last night I watched Celebrity Rehab Revisited in which they played a clip of one of said celebrities. She was returning to ballet class after a long time away. The teacher told her that for anyone who is a dancer, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been away, they can return to the barre at any time and they are home.
            This struck me as a beautiful way to talk about the way that we pursue creative things. This struggling addict/porn star/dancer/person, it was too late for her to become a star ballerina (the implants didn’t help either), but the teacher’s words reminded me that people dance for other reasons than to be a star. You dance because you like it. You dance because when you do, you feel at home.
            This is what it’s like for people who have been into writing, too… people such as myself. Although I learned a lot about writing by studying it as an academic subject, it also changed writing for me. What used to be a private, primal, personal act that I did for reasons that I didn't fully understand, became twisted up with grade point averages, approval, certificates of merit. It was about people liking you or not, approving or not, and that was maybe not good for me because what I found I loved even more than writing was the approval of others. The writing was the meat and potatoes, the approval and ass-kissing was the blow. It was easy to write because you wanted to be a star.
            But I think writing here on a small corner of the internet will be good for me. Since I’ve been gone I decided to go to grad school to become a school counselor. There were many reasons, but one was that I decided to stop fighting myself. For many years I was trying not to be what I already was. So, fine, so I'm sensitive, so I understand people's feelings, so I want to help people. So what? I thought it might be better if I were some other way. 
            Writing has been the same for me. I’ve been fighting that, too. It might be better not to write, instead to learn how to be a bookkeeper, a naturalist, a puppeteer. It might be better to fight against myself. Oddly enough, it was that scourge, standardized testing, that got me thinking differently about it.  I’ve always minimized what people have called my “gifts” -- that whole Marianne Williamson fear of adequacy thing -- but seeing that delicious high verbal score there in black and white, on the GRE report, which is ostensibly an objective measurement, it made me kind of go “Hmmmm”. No seriously, it seemed to say, this girl knows about words.  So why fight it? Why knock myself out trying to be above average at numbers when I'm already above average at words? Why force yourself to be a right-y if you’re just naturally a lefty?
            I worry that when I write I am too intense, too serious, too sincere, too sentimental. I know the style is to be hip and sarcastic, full of irony and bite, frenetic with cultural references. And yet I also know from all my studies that you can’t write for other people. Other people only confuse things, taking turns telling you either that you are too clever or too dumb to live. They offer you big, snowy-white piles of praise and a razor. They promise you that you’re going to be a big, big star.
            You can’t write for them, and you can’t write to prove to yourself how desperately clever you are. Your best audience, your ideal reader, is one of your oldest friends: what writers who write about writing often call “the page.” It is your best, most honest critic, because it never says anything at all. It will silently accept anything you say. It gives you infinite room to keep going. Even if everyone else laughs in your face it’s still there, silent as ever. It doesn’t matter if you’ll never make it to Lincoln Center, because you’ve already made it home.