When my grandma was alive, we had a lot of fun together, but when we did run into problems, it was generally because she was a Guesser and I am an Asker.
By that I mean that Ma wanted me to guess what her needs were. In the time and culture she was raised in, it was polite for people to be indirect in their requests of others, to pick up on subtle signs, and to fulfill unuttered desires. In Guess culture, when someone correctly guesses your desire and fulfills it, it is a mark of love and respect. But even when desires go unguessed, there is still a sense of plausible deniability — never actually saying what you want means you can’t be humiliated when you don’t get it.
My communication style is the exact opposite of this. Having been raised by wolves, I made enough mistakes reading subtle social cues that I learned not to put too much stock in them. In fact, once I realized what a thankless task it is to try to decode the opaque behaviors of other people, I gave it up. Instead, I learned to ask for what I want directly, and trust the askee to respond to me honestly. Sure, I have to open myself and admit that I actually want something and also face the possibility of hearing No in return, but it’s worth it to me to save the goofiness of having to analyze and decipher and guess.
As you can imagine, Ma’s way and my way didn’t always jive. Like, if she needed me to take her to the drug store, instead of saying, “Hey Meg, can you take me to the drug store?” she would talk about how she needed to get her prescriptions but she wasn’t sure how she was going to get them, and she was almost out of pain pills but maybe she could take the bus there or one of her friends could pick them up.
Generally I knew what she wanted — she wasn’t subtle! — and although the indirectness of it all drove me bananas, I’d get her to the drug store in the end. But there were a few times when I missed the Ma signal in the sky and she went without what she needed and, even worse, felt like I didn’t care about her. Which would make me feel like a turd.
For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me so much about all this, but then I read this piece about Ask Culture and Guess Culture, and things clunked into place in my head. I spoke with her about it, and true to my nature I asked her directly to be more direct with me about her needs. I explained that I loved her and I was always going to help her but that I needed her to be clear with me so I could.
And I guess she saw the good sense in it, and maybe was even relieved to not have to beat around the bush anymore? Because for the last years of her life she was much more direct with me. It was much simpler and much more fun for both of us.
Now, the discussions I’ve seen of Ask vs Guess Culture are careful to treat both communication styles like they are equally valid ways to live, but I have come to understand that they aren’t. In fact, it’s my ardent belief that, for human adults, asking is superior to guessing in almost every day. Especially for women. Especially at this time in history.
Why? So many reasons!
Guessing is Inaccurate.
This is one of the reasons babies kick parents’ asses so hard — there’s no way to know what’s wrong with them, and there’s nothing to do but guess until you find something that makes them stop screaming. Once they learn how to speak, it gets a little easier. But it’s important to remember that even with people you love and spend loads of time with, you still don’t know what they are thinking. You may think you know, and you may even be right, but there is only one reliable technology for finding out and that is asking.
If you guess instead of asking, then you are by definition basing your actions on unverifiable data.
Guessing is Incomplete.
On an abstract level, most of us can buy into the idea that every person is a special snowflake, each of us a universe unto ourselves. But in everyday life, we collapse the ridiculously huge and complex interior lives of other people into sound bites. This is what makes it easy to say “Poor people should just stop spending all their money on giant TVs” and “Fat people should just not eat so fucking much” and “If you didn’t want a baby then you shouldn’t have had sex!” and a million other possibly true but incredibly reductive and completely unhelpful things.
This scientifically demonstrated phenomenon even has a name — it’s called the Attribution Error — and it means that we have lots of very reasonable reasons why WE did some fucked up shit, but everyone else’s reasons are excuses. Our problems are attributable to complex forces; the problems of others are attributable to them being nimrods.
This is an Error — it says so right in the name — and humans are never more susceptible to it than when guessing. Situations are always more complex from the inside than they are from the outside, and sharing those complexities is called having a relationship.
Asking is quite literally the only way we can delve into the deep reality of another human soul.
Guessing is Manipulative.
Sometimes this manipulation is intentional — a conscious stirring of the pot meant to unsettle or even wreak havoc — and sometimes it’s not. But make no mistake here: requiring the people around you to conduct a scavenger hunt just to discover your wants and desires is by definition a manipulation.
Does that sounds fun to some people? I guess it must. But to me and many others, it feels gross, because it’s all under the table. No room is left for an honest response. The moment you begin the hunt, you’ve agreed to whatever is found at the end of it. This feels like a trap, because it is.
Guessing is Passive.
To me, this is the worst part about operating out of Guess culture. Rather than identifying and verbalizing what you want, Guess culture teaches you to rely on the time-worn virtues of wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that someone will guess. This is HUGE, especially for women, because a significant portion of our conditioning tells us that we should expect to spend a significant portion of our lives waiting around for someone else to make things right … and it is all clearly some life-limiting bullshit.
Now, I understand the appeal of guessing. We’re conditioned to it, and there are consequences when we don’t comply — directness still looks like “leadership” on a dude and “megabitch” on a lady.
And what could feel more nurturing than someone knowing what you need and providing it to you without you even having to ask? It’s beautiful when such moments happen — when your sweet husband brings you a nice hot cup of tea just as you were wanting one, or your friend calls you right at the moment you really need to talk, or you arrive at work and some gnarly problem you thought you were going to have to wrangle into submission has already been resolved by your lovely co-worker.
But, regardless of how we were raised and regardless of how nice it is when other people are intermittently able to read our minds, the facts are clear: other people are almost never capable of identifying and granting our desires without our involvement. So to live our lives expecting this is at best very silly and at worst capable of really screwing shit up.
Like, how are you and your special person ever going to have any orgasms if you don’t ask/don’t tell? Are you magically expecting each other to figure it out? And if you guess successfully, will you then call it love? (Baaahhh! This is so crazy?)
And how are your friends supposed to know that you want to spend time with them if you don’t ask them to hang out?
And have you ever had a boss come up and say, “Wow, you are working way too hard and just not getting paid enough, let’s fix that”? LOLOLOLOL
The stakes on this are very high indeed. Because while you are waiting for someone to guess what you want, it is all too easy to acquire a life you DON’T want, and to find that years have disappeared in the process.
But this doesn’t have to be your fate. You can simply learn to ask in an above-board, direct, and clean way. It requires only that you identify what you want and then take the bold step of forming words to request it. Which is the essence of being an adult, and also the first step toward becoming a badass or growing in any way.
Yes, asking makes you more vulnerable. You’re putting your desires out there instead of hiding them away. And it’s no good making demands — you have to face the possibility that even with all your wanting and asking, you may still be denied. But that is a small clean cut that heals easily, whereas living your life waiting for other people to give you what you desire is the saddest kind of malady: extremely painful and entirely preventable.
If you are concerned that asking directly for what you want and responding directly to requests may seem impolite, then I invite you to step waaaaay the fuck back and look at it from a bigger perspective. There were times and there are still places where it’s impolite to seem too gay, or to say out loud that someone raped you, or to tell that dude with a Confederate flag on his truck that he is an unmitigated asshole. Politeness is oftentimes the mechanism by which oppression is maintained.
I don’t mean that we should go around farting and slamming doors in each others’ faces. I’m not asking you to be a dick — just to be honest and direct. It might make you just a bit more difficult to deal with at first, but how important is it to be easygoing all the time? Is it more or less important that creating a life you want to live? Of course it’s impolite for a woman to be direct, but who fucking cares!?! Awesome life trumps impolite, every single time.
Guessing is a fairy tale, an artifact of the homogenous and genteel world my grandma grew up in. It’s something we can look back on with wistfulness, the way we do hoop skirts and corsets.
Being bold enough to ask for what you want, on the other hand, is a True Feminist Act, and one of the most important skills for every woman to develop as she quests for ever-higher levels of capability and liberty and delight.
Badassity. Noun. The state of being a total badass. The level to which a life demonstrates the qualities of competency, determination, and willingness to engage in hard fucking work.
And if a person wants to pass their time on this planet in a happy and useful way, badassity is also a good metric to track because of this fundamental truth: trying harder in basically any area of life results in vast increases in existential satisfaction with being who you are.
It’s not something that our modern culture is so concerned with, at least not on a conscious level, though we are inspired by examples of extreme badassity such as Beyonce and Elizabeth Warren and Malala Yousafzai. But the bulk of our culture seems to think that being awesome means having Ls and Vs on your purse, when in fact it means something much simpler than that. It means paying attention and not giving up.
And the effect of focusing on developing badassity is kind of remarkable, because it’s kind of a meta-goal that turbo-boosts all your other goals. Without it, I can fall into a somnambulant state where things happen to me and I bounce around vaguely. And it kind of feels shitty, like wandering through a swamp with no destination in mind.
When I keep it at the front of my mind, though (working hard makes you stronger, you can learn this, keep going) I get a lot of fun stuff done! And moreover it feels amazing. How else could it feel to push yourself in the pursuit of something you truly care about? Or to achieve something you never could do before? It’s the difference between stumbling into bed after a day on the couch, and falling into bed after a day of honest hard labor.
You could use a lot of words to express this feeling — pride, accomplishment, wisdom. But I like badass because it has a bad word in it and it implies a sense of experience as well as a willingness to always go further, all wrapped up in some hilarious Dirty Harry-ish connotations. And it somehow gets to the heart of what it means to live a satisfying and meaningful life: it’s about working hard and learning from your work, over and over again. Eventually, inexorably, if you do this, you will know many things, and you will be a badass.
Some people have had the habit of badassity ingrained in them from a young age. Maybe their parents were badass, and so they learned to be, too, or maybe they were just naturally born that way. I am not one of these people, though I did have a super badass grandfather, and he made quite a lot of fun of me as a child because of my lazy bones. “Heighth of ambition!” he’d bellow on his way to work outside, as I lounged in front of the Great Space Coaster.
He tried to teach me that doing stuff is more fun than watching TV. He’d make me go for bike rides on nice days and he’d take me to his ginormous garden and show me how to pick strawberries and at the end of the day we’d go to the A&W drive in for big, frosty root beers which was awesome.
When we went home from Grandma and Grandpa’s though, we’d slip back into our patterns of watching TV and reading books and going to movies instead of baking pies and building with blocks and watching ants outside. That pattern has kind of continued into adulthood as well — I’ll work really hard at developing myself for a while, then slide back for a while. And that’s fine and probably even normal … but what I want to work on now is making badassity the ethos by which I live my life rather than just something I’m doing until the next time I get stressed out.
Now, to get from doldrummy inertia back into badass momentum, there is a short but steep hill to get over, and after that things start rolling. In The War of Art, they call the hill Resistance. In chemistry, they call it activation energy. In life, it’s just the amount of effort it takes to flip the switch between being at rest and being in motion.
The funny thing about this little hill is that it looks ENORMOUS from a static position. Once you get started, though, you realize it’s totally doable and isn’t it a nice fresh-smelling day today anyway? Zippity do dah, let’s do this!
Sometimes you can get stuck in the loop of overcoming Resistance, then giving into it, then overcoming it again, then giving back into it, forever … and you end up expending a lot of effort without building up much momentum. Instead of keeping the energy going, you let it dissipate, thinking it will be so easy to just get it back again. You tread the same ground over and over. It’s slightly ridiculous, yes, and also exhausting and disheartening, and all too common.
I say “you,” but I mean me. I have gone through that loop so many times that I could probably cry about it if I were pre-menstrual! But, meh, fuck it, I don’t feel like crying … I feel like getting better.
What about you? Are you feeling badass about anything these days? Or feeling stuck on something? Do you have some inertia and/or momentum going? What’s shakin’?
Alaska is where my consciousness came online. I remember dark wood paneling and dazzling bright snow and Sesame Street with my mom, who was super smart and had already taught me how to read. My dad was big and funny with golden red hair and a hard hat because he worked on the pipeline. My older brother and sister wore blue plaid uniforms to school, and, babynerd that I was, I couldn’t wait to join them.
As I recall, my family had an adventurous yet normal and fun life … but everything changed in 1977 when my mom found a lump in her breast. A year later she was gone. I was five, my sister was ten, and my brother turned twelve just a couple days after she passed. We were bereft, especially my poor grandma, who had just lost her only child.
This sucked for all of us, to be sure, but I think being little helped me out a bit, because there were parts of what was happening that I just wasn’t developed enough to understand or be upset about. Like, the morning they told me my mom had died, I didn’t imagine anything awful; I imagined her rising up to heaven in a glittering swirl, like Cinderella’s gown. She wasn’t “dead,” she just became abstract to me. I didn’t see her anymore, but it didn’t feel like she was really gone.
She was, though. A month or so later it was Thanksgiving and I remember staring out the window and thinking, “Well, this is how the world is, okay? Sometimes you get to go to Disney World and other times your mom gets sick and dies. Anything can happen. Don’t forget it.” And I accepted this as the Real Truth that it is, and I developed my strategies for dealing with it (reading, eating, doing like Deenie).
My dad, though … Sigh. My poor dad. Left a widower at thirty-two with three shell-shocked kids to care for, the love of his life taken from him in a painful and horrific way … well, it’s no surprise he foundered, and honestly never really recovered. He drank, he raged, he got and lost job after job. We moved three or four times a year, sometimes to a big beautiful home with a pool and other times to crash in my dad’s friend’s living room. I call this the “raised by wolves” portion of my upbringing.
Luckily, I was a smart little babynerd, and teachers loved to teach me, so school is where I got my love. I went to something like fourteen different elementary schools in total, and I faced the first day at each of them with one goal — to supplant whoever had thought they were the smartest kid in class previous to my arrival.
This rather mercenary technique actually ended up serving me pretty well, because my teachers did give me a lot of affection and attention. I mean, how could they not? I was a motherless little girl with big brown eyes and neglected dirty hair, so hungry to learn that I jumped out of my chair at every question, and they weren’t made of stone. So I spent my days eagerly learning as much as I could, and I spent my nights reading and trying to stay out of the way.
A lot of messed up shit continued to happen through those years. I was courted and beaten and abandoned by a succession of stepmom wannabes. One of them stole all our furniture and skipped town while we were at our grandfather’s funeral. Another one had a couple wretched kids of her own and liked to chase us all around the house with my dad’s leather belt. Another one sang Linda Ronstadt covers in her band when she was nowhere NEAR as good as Linda Ronstadt. None of them lasted long.
But here’s where I turned out to be super duper lucky — because my response to all this was never “Why me?” It was always “What the fuck?” I think if I had internalized that craziness to the point where I felt responsible for it, I’d be a very different person today. But thankfully, I didn’t. Whether this was the result of simple healthy self-esteem or some sort of in-born bitchiness, I’ll never know.
Though I didn’t take what was going on personally, I did notice that the way we lived was different from how other families lived. For instance, they stayed in one place long enough that their kids knew their way around, whereas I was always having to find a cop because I was lost. They had people over to their house. Their kids had piano lessons and ballet class and birthday parties. They ate dinner at home.
At first I didn’t understand why our family’s life was so different. I mean, sure, we didn’t have a mom, but there were other things, too, and over time I began to connect the dots. Like … I saw my dad drinking and losing his temper at home and I figured that stuff must be going on at work, too, and that’s why we moved so much. Or I’d notice how we went out to a fancy dinner and got a new stereo one week but our electricity was shut off the next.
I got it — a lot of these things happened as a result of my dad’s choices. I could never bring myself to get too mad at him, because my heart breaks for everything he went through and in spite of it all he was always a gentle and loving father to me … but I did learn a lot about randomness and choices and consequences by watching him.
My childhood gave me an early education in the fact that the world can be awful and it can also be amazing, and that sometimes which way things turn out is pretty random, but other times it is entirely about choices you make. So how do you make good ones? And how powerful are they? What are they capable of?
I’m still thinking about those questions, but I have learned something that is kind of mind-blowing: It is possible to make choices that transmute chaos and pain and bullshit into rocket fuel for living. It is possible to make choices that not only help us withstand the awful parts of life but also actually make our trials mean something.
So, what you have been reading here today is the story I’ve chosen to tell myself about the early part of my life, entitled What I Went Through as a Kid Didn’t Make Me Weird; It Made Me Strong As Hell. Being raised by wolves didn’t make me savage; it gave me the freedom to decide things for myself. Moving a million times didn’t destabilize me; it gave me the ability to walk into any circumstance and feel like I got this.
If human beings have a superpower, I think this is it — to choose what the events of our lives will mean to us. To choose what we become in their wake. To whatever extent we can.
Culture plays a role in all of this, too, as I learned when one of the stepmoms stuck around! More on that in Part 2 …
I shared this quote on Be Less Crazy’s Facebook page over the long weekend, and I wanted to make sure to post it here, too, because it basically encapsulates everything I’m thinking about/trying to do:
It’s funny, because just before seeing this on Facebook, I’d been watching this video from Dr. Mike Evans about dealing with stress … and he focuses on this quote, too, in the context of squashing stress and improving your life by changing the way you think.
It’s not The Secret-style magical thinking; it’s just cultivating some quiet and space in your mind so that you can choose what you’re going to do instead of just acting out whatever bullshit patterns you may have been indoctrinated with.
It comes down to this: the bigger the space you can cultivate in your mind, the bigger the freedom you will experience in your life.
It’s true! Whatever monster, specter, obsession is haunting you right now? It lives in your very own head. Which means it belongs to you, and you can do what you want with it. Dress it up in your grandmother’s hat, put roller skates on all of its legs, shrink it down to 1/10th of its present size — absolutely anything.
We get this mixed up sometimes, I think. Something huge rears its ugly head in our heads and we’re like “Aaagh! Something bad is happening and there’s nothing I can do!” And we hunker down and cower in the corner until it’s over.
But there IS something you can do. It’s your monster, so talk to it. Work with it. Make it do your bidding.
I know that some monsters are massive and terrifying and you might need some help to deal with them. But honestly? Most of them are pretty standard issue, nothing special about them — we just picked them up from living at this place and time in history. Like, I dunno, obsession with one’s thigh size, or paranoia at what other people are thinking about you and your life choices, or thinking you’re an incompetent fraud and it’s only a matter of time until everyone finds out.
These kinds of insecurities have been drilled into our heads from the moment we arrived on this planet, but they are not accurate reflections of reality, right? I mean, your thighs are just thighs. And even if someone is judging you, are you really going to live according to their judgements? And you’re not a fraud, you’re just lacking confidence because you were raised to believe that fitting in is more important than courage.
And you know all this, of course, but these monsters are still real, and sometimes they still flare up, and in that moment it is very easy to allow them to take possession of your body. But this is the thing we are trying to avoid — shutting down and letting them take control. Because they can do a lot of damage … plus once they get going, it’s hard to quiet them down again.
So what can you do? Well, first, try to understand them. Try to keep them calm as much as possible. And when they do rise up, do your best to limit the detonation radius. Remember that they belong to you, they live inside your head, and they are, in fact, your responsibility.
The cool thing is, by learning to deal with your own, you become better able to deal with other people’s, too. You don’t take them so personally. And you become a shining example of what it looks like someone has a small, chilled-out monster entourage (it looks pretty good).
Life becomes a thousand times easier when you stop fearing and fighting the contents of your own head. It works a lot better to acknowledge that there’s some weird shit in there, and try to get to know how it operates. What triggers it? What quiets it down?
You are bigger than your monsters. You can handle them.
Well, hello, dear reader. I’m writing to you today from my hotel in São Paulo, Brazil, where I arrived Saturday after two stellar weeks in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. Yes, it has been a helluva trip, and I am fully aware that I am basically the luckiest bitch alive. (So are you, probably, if you think about it!)
Saturday night was particularly amazing, because I got to experience the explosion of color and sound and energy that is Carnaval. It was a little surreal, because it’s Carnaval, and also because I’d just gotten off a 12-hour flight from South Africa. After a short nap, my confused body and I found ourselves here, in the middle of a full-on fiesta, at midnight.
Before I got there, I have to admit that my ideas about Carnaval were pretty stereotypical. I expected to see lots of beautiful almost-naked women with amazing bodies, and I did …
But I saw lots of other kinds of people, too! Old ladies doing hip rolls in neon spandex crop tops. Big hairy guys grinning and jumping up and down in crazy pink and green and gold outfits. Skinny girls with crooked teeth … thick girls with soft round bellies poking out of their bikinis … people of every color, size, and shape having a blast and getting down.
Sure, there were lots of conventionally sexy gals in tiny costumes with giant sparkly headdresses — it’s Carnaval! I’d expect nothing less! But what really got me, and brought tears to my eyes more than once, was the fact that, on that night at least, everyone was beautiful.
Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it didn’t really matter who was hot and who was not. What mattered was the music and the color and the feeling in the air. What mattered was that we were all together, shaking what our parents gave us and loving life at 3 am on a steamy São Paulo night.
Now, I understand that Brazil is not a body-image utopia. I know people here struggle with the same kinds of things that you and I struggle with. We all have days when we feel like Jabba the Hutt. We all board that train to Crazy Town at one point or another.
But what I’m feeling here — what I felt at Carnaval, and what I feel when I watch people walk down the street and when I see the variety of bodies in bikinis at the beach — is a decided lack of shame. We might not all be perfect, but by God we all have the right to feel the sun on our bellies and our bundas. We all have the right to enjoy our bodies and what they can do, and there is absolutely no reason to be ashamed. Not one.
Our imperfect bodies can bring us mortification, or they can bring us pure undiluted joy. It’s up to us to decide … so let’s go for the good stuff, what do you say?
Getting ready to get ready is that thing people sometimes do, when we really want to do X, but we build it up in our heads that before we can begin, we must first do A through W.
Usually when I find myself getting ready to get ready, it’s because X is something big and important and daunting. So I make plans to do X, I try to figure out a really good methodology for accomplishing X, I even buy some X-related things … all of which are pretty good delay tactics for never actually doing X.
X might be a lot of different things. It might be exercising, in which case you might read a lot about different exercise regimens and maybe even buy some equipment … without ever exercising. Or it might be meditating, in which case you might read a lot about meditating and buy a nice cushion and a shawl and some guided meditation CDs … again without any meditation taking place.
In my case, I’ve been getting ready to get ready to write my next book for more than a year now. My first book, Be Less Crazy About Your Body, was honestly pretty easy to write, because I knew what I wanted to say: we’ve been conditioned to be obsessed with how we look, to actually hate our bodies, and there’s no rational reason for it, and it’s hurting us so badly … so here are some things we do to shift the pattern.
The intro for that book basically sprang complete from my head one afternoon, and though I did put a lot of effort into writing the book, it was mostly about shaping, editing, and adding more 30 Rock references. Challenging, but fast, and also super fun.
This next book, though — Be Less Crazy About Love? Well, it takes a bit more ‘splainin. My goal is to help women understand how we have been brainwashed into being obsessed with love and thinking that our lives are incomplete and we are worthless without it. Which leads us to settle for pale imitations of love, spin our wheels in terrible relationships, and tap-dance our asses off trying to make bad things workable. All of which is painful as hell and also a colossal waste of our time, talent, and energy.
And, like being obsessed how we look, it’s just not necessary at this point in human history. We can make love a force for good in our lives just by changing the way we think about it, de-prioritizing it a tiny bit, learning to see it as a part of life, not the point of life.
This message is a harder sell. Everyone can get behind the idea that hating your body is irrational, hurtful, and self-limiting … but there are a number of people who can’t or maybe don’t want to see how being hyper-focused on romantic love is just as bad an idea. Even just sharing my thoughts on this with a few of my friends, I’ve encountered some surprisingly strong resistance.
But it’s also not like love is always terrible and useless, the way that body-based self-hatred is. Sometimes our beliefs about love and the way we participate in it come together in a way that royally fucks us, but sometimes it’s truly wonderful, too. So it’s not like the answer is just to shut off the love valve. It’s like the difference between alcoholism and compulsive overeating. Both are complex, but you can give up alcohol entirely, while you are gonna always hafta eat. Having a shitty body image is painful and unnecessary, full stop. But not so love. You have to sift through it with a finer comb.
Anyway … yeah. It’s complicated. And I’m spending a lot of time not really making progress on any writing that will end up in the book, but more just trying to figure out what to say and in what order. It’s hard in a way that writing has rarely ever been for me. Hence: procrastination. Distraction. Getting ready to get ready.
What does that look like for me? It’s kind of funny …
- I make a lot of Platonic Ideal Schedules where I’m meant to get up at 5 am, meditate and yogafy myself till 6, then write until it’s time to go to work. This, of course, sets me up so that if I don’t get up at 5 am any particular day, I’m screwed. Also, if I’d have executed this plan half as many times as I wrote it down in my journal, I might be on book three by now.
- I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I should write on the computer or freehand. Google Drive or Scrivener? In my regular journal or in a dedicated notebook? Outlines? Mind maps? Index cards? I can spend a hilarious amount of time debating this methodological approach stuff with myself.
- I moan to my friends about how impossible it is to get into a good routine when I’m traveling a bunch for work, or when work is really busy, or around the holidays, or when it’s cold outside, or when I’m premenstrual, or or or.
- I debate whether I need to figure out a way to get a month off so I can go back to Costa Rica and have a big chunk of time to focus on writing this book and nothing else. This is typically followed by daydreams about swaying gently in my hammock on a deserted beach and how amazing it is to snorkel over a giant coral reef and the magical quality of the Costa Rican butterfly population.
So … I’ve set it up in my head that unless I get up before dawn and have a perfect routine and an optimal technical setup and at least an entire month to focus, I’m never going to be able to write this book.
And it’s so, so stupid … because obviously there will never be a routine that I can hold to perfectly. There will always be busy times at work and business trips and shiny new notebooks and software and workflows to try. But all of that is 100% tangential to the basic task I need to achieve which is just fucking sit down and write this book that my heart tells me is important to write. Even if it’s painful, even I’m not perfectly ready. Because, really, there’s no such thing, right?
So, instead of trying to figure out when I can write, I’m going to just write whenever I can. On airplanes, in hotels, first thing in the morning instead of cuddling up with the internet. Not everything I come up with will be decent or useful, but some of it is bound to be, right? Law of averages.
And how about you? Are you getting ready to get ready to do something important? What would a real step forward look like? Can you take it today? Do tell!
Aaaah! Work has been chapping my ass lately! I’ve been on the road a lot, busting my hump ten or twelve hours a day, and taking responsibility for a lot of big projects. I’m not averse to hard work, and I like my job a lot … but there is also this situation where my compensation is not quite keeping up with the level of travel and responsibility and pain-in-the-neck-ness. (Literally … it gives me a pain in the neck.)
So … yeah … when I’m on hour five of my drive home from the client site, or hour eleven of thinking and talking about nothing but work, or day four of not having more than an hour or two to myself per day, it’s been really easy for me to slip into feeling anxious and unappreciated and all kinds of gnarly stuff I have no interest in feeling. It’s been hard to keep my attitude in check.
And it’s tricky … because this isn’t the kind of situation that I can just let go of. To let go of it entirely means that I will be allowing myself to be taken advantage of, and we can’t have that. But I can’t constantly be bummed out about it either, because that is just a raggedy way to live.
I do have faith that I’ll be able to work the work situation out soon — either that or I’ll find another job — but in the meantime, I’ve been struggling with how to stay happy right now. How to stay out of that raggedy, put-upon place. How to be patient, but not too patient, and also enjoy myself in the moment. And what I’ve come up with is this: consciously making the decision to be grateful.
Because here’s the thing — a year ago I was way more in debt than I am now, living in a house I didn’t want to live in and having no idea how I was going to get out of it. Two years ago I was riding four busses a day to go and make like twelve bucks an hour. Three years ago I had no income at all. Four years ago I had just lost my fancy job. Five years ago I was downsizing my fancy apartment because I had a feeling I was about to lose my fancy job. Six years ago I was making a lot of money but spending every last dime of it. Seven years ago I had just been dumped and was spending a lot of time in sweatpants watching cable with my BFFs Ben & Jerry.
You see where I’m going with this? Regardless of the BS I’m dealing with today, when I step back and look at the big picture I can see that many things in my life are wonderful, and have actually gotten appreciably better over time. This job has been part of that. And when I consciously focus on this fact, well, it makes my chapped-ass feelings go away like nothing else.
Human beings tend to focus on what’s messed up. Our minds seem to want to continually repeat the loop of things that are pissing us off, while at the same time, the wonderful things in our lives become as familiar as furniture, and we stop paying attention to them.
This is such A Thing that there’s even a word for it — hedonic adaptation. And it makes sense that we’d be this way, if you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors wouldn’t have gotten very far if they were so caught up in enjoying the sunshine that they didn’t notice the lion coming to eat them.
But hedonic adaptation can also turn us into bitchy ingrates. It can make our hearts pound in outrage over what are, in the grand scheme of things, very minor slights. It can make us spend all of our money and then some on fancy things that will only really provide a few minutes of happiness. It can make us place our attention on entirely the wrong things, and blunt us to the enormously positive forces that are working in our favor every single day of our lives.
The good news is that hedonic adaptation can be conquered, and even used to our benefit, but only when we develop the ability to keep being grateful for all the great shit we’ve got going on. How do we do this? The same way we tackle any other sort of insanity going on in our brains — we notice it, we shut it down, and we replace it with something else.
Like … sure, work is chapping my ass right now. But it also gives me a workable paycheck twice a month, and it’s sent me to fun places like Italy and Brazil, and it’s right next to a beautiful stretch of river, which I like to gaze upon when my tea is brewing. Most important, I have friends there, wonderful friends who know who I really am and still (generally) like me.
So, while I wait for the right time to fix the things that aren’t working, I’m trying to focus on these good things. Trying to stay in the moment rather than being crushed by the enormity of my responsibilities and all the things I have to do in the next few months and all the uncertainty about everything else. And so far it’s working pretty well. The prospect of having a four-day weekend this week is helping a lot, too … and mashed potatoes … and pumpkin pie … mmm …
At any rate, taking a moment to consciously be grateful for all the great things I’ve got going on beats the hell out of the alternative, which is muttering to myself like a crazy person about how unfair things are.
How about you? Have you got a lot to be thankful for? Have you noticed, like me, how much better your life is when you make an effort to be appreciative for good things instead of or at least in balance with being pissed off about bad ones?
Tell me what you think in the comments, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving. <3
One year and one day ago, I got married to this wonderful person.
And now that I sit and have a think about the last year, I realize that Year One of our marriage has been kind of bananas. Here’s the highlight reel:
- Got married!!
- Went on a Costa Rican adventure for a month
- Started a new job the next day
- Dislocated my shoulder! Sling, physical therapy, the whole shebang
- My grandma fell and broke her hip and ended up in ICU for a few nights, then a nursing home
- Visited grandma in nursing home every other day, and tried not to go crazy from how depressing it was
- Suffered from some fairly debilitating and terrifying attacks of vertigo
- Husband lost his job
- After months of trying, we finally sold our house in the ghetto (in the ghett-toooo)
- Got a promotion at work and went to Brazil to start new project
- While I was gone, lost my sweet grandma
- Came back, cleaned out her apartment, and tried not to be too sad because she had a pretty great and long life full of love and laughter (but was still pretty sad)
- Husband found a new, better job
- Moved to new place, and while moving sucks, apartment is perfect.
Soooo yeah … Year One of our marriage has been EVENTFUL AS HELL. It’s also been extra validation that I was 1000% right to throw my lot in with my guy. Because no matter what craziness goes on, we seem to make a pretty righteous team, like the time that we built this Snotoro (OK, he mostly built it).
Anyway, I know that life will be back to smack us upside the head sooner or later … but for now we are relishing the boring. Reading, puttering, staring out the window, and every so often grinning at each other for no reason, and all the reasons, at the same time.
Happy anniversary, my love. Thanks for always helping me be less crazy. <3
Last week, I read a beautifully written piece on The Toast about a young woman’s experience with beauty … how it feels to be beautiful versus not beautiful … how feedback on our looks seems to severely impact our choices even when we don’t want it to … and, most poignantly, how to deal with little girls’ ideas about beauty. Is there anything we can say or do to keep them from falling in the Beauty Trap just like we did?
It’s a lovely piece — you should go read it — but I gotta admit, it kind of bummed me out. Especially toward the end, where the author’s little sister is making up a story about a couple of fairies, one beautiful and not-so-good, and one good but not-so-beautiful, and she’s struggling with how to reconcile the ideas about beauty and goodness that are emerging in the tale. The author tries to help her out, but finds that she’s at a loss, too:
I look at the time and try to get off the phone. I don’t want to hear the rest, and I don’t have a counter story. Even in my make-believe world where looks shouldn’t matter and girls should be free to be who they are, unbound by appearance, I can’t escape beauty …
It’s the same bullshit story. It’s the same place my sister’s fairy story was going to end up. It’s the same place I was going with my fairy story. It’s the only place we know.
I loved this piece, because I get what she is saying. The hard truth of it. The inescapability. The feeling that for all our progress in the external world, not much has changed in how we see ourselves. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. When you realize that your culture has actively attempted to turn you against yourself from the moment you were born … well, it’s easy to go straight to despair. To assume that all this crap is embedded so deeply that there’s nothing to be done.
But, really, can we afford to accept that as truth? We’ve been brainwashed and now that’s it? I appreciated this writer’s honesty in describing the enormity of what we face, and she did so with a great deal of eloquence. But where is the next part of the story? Knowing what we know about how we’ve been infiltrated by the patriarchy, where can we go and what can we do?
These questions go a lot deeper than just figuring out a non-beauty-obsessed bedtime story. They go straight to the heart of figuring out what a woman is.
Is she, as our bullshit sexist culture teaches us, merely a bag of meat on a marketplace?
Or is she actually something more like a portal through which unique hilarities and adventure and discoveries and growth and goodness can come into existence?
I believe that this is a question each of us must decide for ourselves, and then, even more important, we need to try as hard as we can to live up to our decision.
I won’t deny that it takes effort to rise above a culture that wants to reduce all women down to a hot-or-not rating. It takes courage to reject the prevailing paradigm, to forge a different kind of story, to imagine and then live a heroine’s journey that’s centered around something bigger than being pleasing to others.
But it’s not impossible. There are billions of other stories we can develop — about soccer stardom or dragon-slaying or colonizing Mars or running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or living off the land or studying gorillas or literally any other thing. We’re not really trapped in beauty. None of us are. We’re free to write any story we want.
So then why do so many of us behave in ways that are complicit with culture’s bullshit sexist story? Why do so many of us objectify ourselves so completely — more thoroughly than anyone else possibly could? Why do we live our lives as though we agree that, yes, we ARE less important, it’s only RIGHT that we should be subject to constant appraisal, and what we’re good for really IS about our appeal to other people?
I think it’s a simple lack of understanding. We think that the way we are right now is our destiny, and that destiny is immutable as stone. That we have no freedom or ability or hope to change, not even in the privacy of our own minds.
But I am here to tell you, that is also the voice of our bullshit sexist culture talking to you. You ABSOLUTELY can change the way you think about yourself. We ALL can. The ability to transform our patterns of thought is, in fact, one of humanity’s only true superpowers, and it’s available to anyone who makes a sincere grab for it.
Right now, I believe history is asking us to decide what we are … what women are. Bags of meat? Or something more?
And it’s not just about you and me being happier with our bodies and our lives in the here and now. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is about the future of womankind.
This is our generation’s fight. Our foremothers busted their asses to gain freedom in external reality, to vote and own property and exercise the right to do as they pleased with their bodies, and now it’s our turn to keep the emancipation party rolling. Only this time, our task isn’t to get anyone out there to recognize our freedom. It’s to recognize it for ourselves.
Our brains have a Beauty Bug programmed in them — it’s true. But it is possible to work around it. And once we learn how, then we can show our friends how to do it. And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and before you know it, a million new stories will sprout up from the rubble of what women used to think they were, illuminating the truth of what we really are, and the path toward what we can be.
It all starts with believing it’s possible, and being willing to try really hard to get there.
How do we do this, you may ask, and it is an excellent question. I wrote a lot about it in my book, and you can read the intro here. Here are a couple of blog posts that may also help:
Guaranteed or Your Money Back
Be Less Crazy About … Weight
Be Less Crazy While Shopping