Nice Is Not the Most Important Thing To Be

SMILE.png

Scene: a gray office in a gray office building. My boss and I are on a contentious conference call, which consists mainly of folks complaining about how a project we are trying to plan is literally impossible.

"It's really hard! It's going to take us two years! This is insane!" I listen for a while, doing jerk-off motions to make my boss laugh, then I unmute our line. I speak slowly and directly. 

"Okay, guys, so I guess I should go back to management and tell them no, it can't be done, and they should either give up on it or find another team to do it ... right?" 

I hear crickets for a moment, then a heavy sigh. "No, I guess we'll have to figure something out." And we do. 

At the end of the call I turn to my boss and say, "Haha I bet everyone on that call thinks I'm a massive megabitch now."

He shrugs. "Maybe, but why do you care?"

And in that moment I realized that my Pittsburgh Steelers-loving boss is also a bad-ass feminist, because he was RIGHT.

In that moment, on that contentious call, nice was not the most important thing for me to be. It was far more important to find a way past the complainy part of the discussion, into the "OK, assuming we ARE going to do this, what's our best path forward?" part. And, in that moment, the easiest path from A to B was for me to de-prioritize my need to have everyone in the world think I'm a sweetheart. Because I'm not. At least, not always.  

Niceness = Silence

More often than not, being nice means being quiet. It means swallowing our own thoughts and wishes and desires to make life easier for other people. It means silencing ourselves in order to keep the social order peaceful and conflict-free. It's a word that is constantly used to rein women in.  

  • "It's not nice to answer all the questions, Hermione! Don't be such a know-it-all!" 
  • "Be nice! Your coworker didn't mean to be racist, he's just clueless!" 
  • "I know you don't like this guy but you should be nice to him anyway, he's a nice guy!" 

Somehow, in all of these situations, women being nice is more important than women being educated, or true to our own values, or honest about how someone else's behavior impacts us.

Knowing all this, it's incredible to me to realize how deeply this need to be seen as nice is embedded in us, from our earliest moments existing as girls in this culture. Even with the giant Don't-Give-A-Fuck streak that I seem to have been born with, I STILL start to feel frantic when I'm in the midst of a situation where what I want diverges from what the people around me want. Even when someone is habitually overstepping with me -- I am still the one who feels like I've done something wrong when I uphold my boundaries. 

The dude at the bar who keeps pressing his ass against mine when there is PLENTY of room for both asses to exist without touching. The fellow at work who keeps interrupting me to repeat what I just said, only louder. The man who is taking up two whole tables at the coffee shop when there are no empty tables available. I will speak up to all of them now, for sure, in a clear and direct voice. But that doesn't change the fact that I still feel a huge amount of pressure to find a way to make myself okay with all of it. 

Niceness = Upholding the Social Order

This is because I was taught to make myself okay with all of it. That is what girls and women are supposed to do -- fill in the gaps, gloss over the inequities, invest our emotional energy into making everything okay for everyone except ourselves. And THIS is what niceness truly is about -- holding our tongues in order to uphold the social order.

The patriarchy relies on girls and women to do this, rewarding us with the moniker of "nice" when we succeed, and punishing us as bitches when we either fail at being nice or choose not to prioritize it. It's like niceness is a circle of light, and we get to stand it in only so long as we don't cause too much trouble. The instant anything becomes more important to us than niceness -- like justice, for instance -- we're outside the circle. We're not nice anymore -- we're nasty, cast out of the realm of low-maintenance, lovable womankind. We're feminazis. We don't know our place. 

Niceness = A Weapon Used Against and Wielded By Women

We are taught to enforce niceness in ourselves and in the women around us. Like, the last time some dude was pressing up against me at the bar, 51% of me felt LIVID at the encroachment, and 49% of me felt ASHAMED that I was going to have to do something about it. I wanted to unobtrusively back my stool away from him forever, or even leave the fun night at the bar with my friend, just to avoid the conflict.

I didn't, of course -- I ended up throwing some elbows when words didn't work -- but I really wanted to. A huge part of me was more than willing to give up on my right to take up space in the world without being groped, simply to avoid the conflict, to continue to "be nice." 

I've seen this kind of policing happen between women as well, in dirty looks and shocked expressions when other women step out of the circle of niceness and start to be a little more real. And it's not just about interpersonal relationships -- it's about politics, too. I've seen it in groups of liberal white women when they don't want to listen to women of color because it's "divisive" -- aka "not nice" -- to talk about race. I've seen it in groups of women who respond to valid arguments with statements like "Don't be so hateful -- some Trump voters are good people!" 

But I've also seen what happens when women let go of niceness as a goal, and let other concepts be more important instead, and it's a beautiful thing.

Qualities That Are Far More Important 

If "niceness" is far less important than we think, and basically a tool of The Man used to keep women quiet, and something to which we no longer need to aspire, then what should we aspire to? Well, thanks for asking. I believe that all of these qualities are far more important than and even often in complete opposition to "niceness."

  • Honesty
  • Directness
  • Compassion
  • Justice
  • Equality
  • Righteousness
  • Protection of vulnerable people 
  • Wisdom
  • Forethought
  • Social sensitivity
  • Listening

Am I Saying Everyone Should Be A Giant Bitch? 

No, of course not. There are many situations in which it makes total sense to be nice. We want to be able to share our toys, to extend each other compassion, to get along with minimal friction in the nuts and bolts living of life. 

But when niceness is the highest priority, not only do we end up silencing ourselves in service to it -- it can also become comically inefficent, like when there are 4 cars at a 4-way stop and each one waves the others through. Everyone's just trying to be nice, sure, but we all sit there for ages waiting for someone to do something. It's much, much better to be that someone, to take the brunt of being "not nice" to get going again. 

So ... this week I'm reflecting on my deep desire to have everyone think I'm nice all the time, and what that costs me when I heed it, and what's possible when I don't. For me, it's about being willing to speak and hear the truth, regardless of whether it makes me look like a sweetie. I am really fucking nice, goddammit! But it's not the only thing I am.

How about you? Does your desire to have everyone think you are a nice person hold you back in any way? What might your life look like if niceness as a concept slid a few spots down your priority list? Tell me all about it below. 

 

My Best Time Management Tip: Stop Hating Your Body

leia-chokes-jabba.jpg

How many hours of your life have been spent wasted having a cow about the way you look? More than you'd like?

For me, those wasted hours always seemed to come upon me when I was getting ready to go out somewhere and do something that had nothing to do with my appearance. I'd be trying to get dressed for work or for a party or to go out and play with my band, but everything I tried on would made me look and feel like Jabba the Hutt.

And I'd sit on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands feeling like a total failure. Why am I even trying to look cute? It's not even possible. I'm too fucking fat!

Then I'd put on my schlumpiest pants and head out the door, my confidence to face the world pre-shredded.

The interesting part is that, even from that place of feeling like a disgusting hosebeast, I still went out and did some pretty awesome things. Like, me and my body would give a killer class at work, or have a blast with my friends at the party, or rock the crowd at the bar till they couldn't take it anymore. Once I got past my freakout and into doing my thing, I completely forgot about my Jabbaness.

So feeling ugly never really held me back from doing anything I really wanted to do ... but it did cause me to waste a lot of time and emotional energy. Every single time, I had to hack a pathway out of it. And every single time, it was hard work.

What an odd sensation it was -- on one level I felt super cool, and on another, I knew I was absolutely vile. And I'd watch the two levels duke it out from day to day. Sometimes the cool feeling won and other times I got lost in vileness, but either way, the struggle was real and also absolutely exhausting. I was just trying to put on some pants and live my damn life and all of a sudden I'd find half of me having to talk the other half down off a ledge? Brutal.

Eventually I got sick of the back and forth -- I'm worthy! No, I'm heinous! -- and I decided I was NOT going to waste ONE MORE MINUTE of my ONE PRECIOUS LIFE worrying about my gut or my stretch marks or one boob being bigger than the other or whatever. And, obviously, when I achieved this, I got the benefit of feeling generally okay about myself and my appearance most of the time. A little-heralded side benefit is that I also reclaimed a huge chunk of my time and brainpower and life essence.

Ever since I took steps to evict from my head the patriarchal ideas of what I was worth being equivalent to what I looked like, getting dressed hasn't been a big deal at all. Not even on my wedding day, where at the last minute I decided not to bother with Spanx after all, because we were serving barbecue and, reader, I was planning to ENJOY IT.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be free from the gravity of the beauty shame spiral? How it must feel to be able to keep and spend your energy on worthwhile endeavors rather than throwing it into the body-hatred black hole? How your life might change if you could step out of this madness?

Well, here is the good news -- it is COMPLETELY POSSIBLE to change the way your brain works on this topic. It's COMPLETELY POSSIBLE to dismantle what we've been taught and learn to evalute ourselves by much worthier standards. And it's NECESSARY if we want to live full and bold lives.

How can you evict the patriarchy from your head when it's been squatting there since before you can remember? That I can help you with -- just click the pink box right over there in the sidebar >>> and I'll send you a free copy of my book. Read it, try what it suggests, and I guarantee you'll get to reclaim big chunks of your precious time.

Basic Shit I Should Know By Now: Try To See It THEIR Way, Especially If They Are Dealing With Stuff You Are Not

This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too? 

I really hate the song "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles. Check out the lyrics and see if you can see why.

Try to see it my way
Do I have to keep on talking till I can't go on?
While you see it your way
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone
We can work it out
We can work it out

Is that a classic dudebro argument or what? There's no, "Let me try to see it your way and you try to see it my way and from there we'll work it out." Nope, it's just the old My Way or the Highway trick. We can work it out, but you, my dear, will be doing ALL the work.

Now, I'm sure that Paul has matured in the 50-some years since he sang this song, and probably has developed the ability to have two-way conversations when he's in conflict with someone, so I can't bawl him out too badly.

But it's amazing to me how many people walk around with the attitude that others must always try to see it from THEIR perspective, without ever making the effort to understand anyone else. This plays out interpersonally all the time, from disagreements with friends to differences in opinion at work.

Nowhere does it play out more blatantly than when PRIVILEGE is involved.  

Like, seriously, have you noticed how completely unwilling most folks with lots of privilege are to even contemplate walking a mile in the shoes of someone with less? Men dismissing the perspectives of women without ever really considering them ... white people assuming that they know everything about racism even though it has never touched their lives ... able-bodied people believing that people with disabilities are taking FULL advantage. You know what I mean. 

Here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Right after the election of the Donald, I was part of an online discussion of mostly white women. (As we all know, white women voted for the Donald by a 53-47 margin.)

In their grief over the results, some of the liberal white women in this discussion thread started talking in alarmed tones about how many Latinx people voted for Dolt45, until one of our Latina members got pissed and told everyone off. In what world does it makes sense for a bunch of white women to bitch about the few people of color who voted Republican, when it was clearly white people who did this in the first place?? Don't you even try to blame this shit on us! 

Maybe you can guess what happened next -- it was not an opening of white lady hearts and minds after they listened to the criticism and tried to imagine how it would feel to be Latina and hear your people being bashed when white folks are the ones responsible. 

No, what happened was the white women lost their shit. How dare you speak to me like that! I was only asking a question! Why are you getting so angry at me? This is abusive! 

Now, I can imagine and you probably can, too, that if I were a Latina woman who had dealt with various expressions of racism and discrimination my whole life, I might be pissed about the oblivious white-centeredness of that discussion, too. It only takes a little effort to swallow the defensiveness and try to see it HER way ... but these white ladies chose to defend themselves in their racism rather than have the chance to grow past it.

Part of the function of privilege is to shield people from the awareness of what non-privileged folks go through. So, the more privilege a person has, the less aware they are of the fullness of reality -- they are literally only seeing a small, curated slice. 

Coupled with this cluelessness is the assumption by the privileged that they already know everything about what everyone is going through. More than that, they also feel they know how everyone else should meet their challenges.

To the fat, such a person might say, "You just have to eat less and exercise more, it's not that tough!"

To women, such a person might say "Please, tell me which laws make it legal to discriminate against women."  

To someone with mental illness, such a person might say "You just need to get some fresh air, you'll be fine!"

If you've never experienced having your problems privilege-splained to you by someone who has never experienced them, well, it's exquisite. I mean, the irony is exquisite, once you get past the stabby feeling. 

I don't want to be such a person, and my guess is you don't either. Which means that we all need to remember -- if we want to be halfway decent people, we absolutely need to make the effort to listen and empathize and learn from people with less privilege. Otherwise, by default, our worldviews will be missing huge chunks of reality. 

This kind of privileged-dismissal-by-default is a HUGE mistake, and people make it all the time -- with big important issues like racism and sexism and also with many smaller, dumber situations as well. 

Like not bothering to put yourself in the shoes of the person you're annoyed with at work who is taking a little longer to solve a problem than you would like.

Or glaring at the old person who doesn't know how to handle the credit card machine instead of imagining how it must feel to be an old person trying to figure this out while a lady behind you fumes that it's taking too long.

Or shutting down a dear friend who is trying to show you genuine errors in your thinking, instead of just listening.

I have to admit that I am no master -- my desire is to try to see it from the other person's perspective, but I don't always succeed. Too often I bulldoze along like baby Paul McCartney, expecting other folks to come along to my way of thinking without making much of an effort to understand what they are saying. But, I want to do better.

So that's my challenge to myself -- try to see it THEIR way, especially when they have a perspective that I can't see from where I am sitting. Because when I take the time to do so, I notice two wonderful outcomes. First, I learn something I didn't know before, and second, I find it easier to behave more like the compassionate person I want to be. 

How about you? Is it easy or difficult for you to put yourself in someone else's shoes? If you're a bulldozer like me, how do you remind yourself to make the effort to see it from a different perspective? Would love to hear your thoughts, please share them!

Basic Shit I Should Know By Now: Eliza's Right, Take a Break

This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too? 

How often do you find yourself all jammed up, and you try to power through, but the more you power through, the worse things get? 

It happens to me daily. I work in software, and my job involves a great deal of troubleshooting and problem-solving. My process is both intuitive and analytical, and when I'm on the trail of a solution, I never want to give up until it's done. I push and push, and sometimes I get there, but more often, I just get more and more frustrated.

The same thing happens when I sit down to write. When the words are flowing, I'm flowing, too, and nothing feels better. But when the words stop, or when I have a concept that I'm not sure how to break down for the reader, the frustration again starts to rise. 

What is that frustration? Is it a sign that I'm useless and a failure and no solution is possible, and I'm just going to sit here in front of this computer raging and muttering to myself like a crazy person until I die and devolve into a skeleton? 

Probably not. What I'm starting to see is that frustration is only a sign that I need to take a break. Make a cup of tea, watch the birds, take a walk, do some dishes -- anything to break up the glut in my mind and open my perception back up again. 

Because when I don't take a break, and I keep trying to power through the frustration? I start fucking things up. I make silly mistakes, I forget what step I was on, and I get super-real-to-the-point-of-bitchiness with the people around me. And then I feel awful. 

If this sounds familiar, well, there's a good reason for that -- it's how human beings work. When we are in the midst of bad juju, our perception narrows to a point. We tend to focus on what's wrong -- risks, dangers, likely pitfalls. And that makes sense, in a way, because of where we came from and how we evolved -- like, when there's a wooly mammoth with giant tusks charging at your family, you should probably focus on that first. 

But a software problem in 2017 is not a mammoth, wooly though they both may be. A desire to express a complex thought in my writing with clarity and humor is not equivalent to a desire to stay alive in the face of danger and strife. The kinds of problems that I face these days generally aren't even solvable from a space of fight or flight. They require that I open up my attention and consider new ideas. Even if my customer is having a cow and my boss is having a cow and I am also having a cow, I need to find away to set all that aside and let my mind breathe for a minute. 

This requires that I stop freaking out. It requires that I allow my brain to relax and the ideas within to mix and mingle freely. And the very best way to do this is to take a break, to focus on something different and allow the pressure and vexation to run out of me. 

It's best if it's a major break from what I was doing before. Like, if I'm troubleshooting something on the computer, picking up my phone doesn't make for a very good break. It works much better to do something completely different, like vacuuming or lifting weights or painting. The goal is to exercise a different part of my brain and hopefully get my body and blood moving, too.

It takes effort for me to remember and allow myself to step away for a while, because what I've been taught is to stick with it. At school, at work -- all of us are taught to sit still, to override our natural instincts to ebb and flow, and to keep our little noses to the grindstone for the allotted amount of time, whether it's an hour in math class, or eight hours in the office. So my default is to try to push through, even though it doesn't work that well. 

When I do remember to take a break, though, and afterwards I go back to the issue at hand? I have fresh eyes and a new perspective. Without exception, I'm able to do what I wasn't able to do before I switched things up. It's kind of magical, how breaks can lead to breakthroughs. 

The dangers of NOT taking a break are spelled out in the second act of the genius musical, Hamilton. In "Take a Break," Hamilton's in the midst of shit-tons of work drama, and his wife and sister-in-law exhort him to run away with them and spend the summer upstate. Their voices entwine in gorgeous harmony as they try to convince him, and it's not only about the fact that they want to spend time with him -- they both can see that he's in the frustrated place and desperately needs to switch things up.

Tragically, he doesn't see their good sense. He makes a terrible decision -- to stay in town and power through -- and in the very next song he fucks up majorly, sowing the seeds of his own political destruction as well as the death of his oldest son. Everything unravels for him, and it all stems from his inability to step away from the fray for a minute and reconnect with the easy and free-flowing parts of life. If only he had listened to Eliza and Angelica and taken the damn break! 

So, this week, let us all learn from Alexander Hamilton's mistakes and NOTICE when we are getting frustrated. Let's pay attention to the moment when trying to push through an obstacle starts to feel more like banging our heads on a wall. And let's use that feeling as a cue to step away and give our minds a chance to unclench for a minute. 

Are you good at recognizing when you need to take a break from whatever you are doing and switch up your internal experience? Do you find frustration to be a good workmate, or a barrier to getting your work done? Tell me all about it!

Basic Shit I Should Know By Now: Being Productive Is the Most Fun

This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too? 

Last weekend, when I was taking my day long break from the internet, I cracked open one of my favorite books of all time, The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

The Gazette was a newsletter in the 90s, dedicated to "Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle," and it's a hilarious and illuminating read. Author Amy Dacyczyn has a wry sense of humor and a gift for finding the juice in dry topics like the efficacy of pre-patching kids' jeans before they sprout holes, or the cost savings of using cloth versus paper napkins. 

So I was flipping through this beloved book the other morning and came across an article called "A Proclivity for Productivity," which is about how Amy doesn't understand why people like to lie on beaches doing nothing. To her, doing something is far more enjoyable.  

"Being busy, being productive, doing things that improve your family's long-term prospects should not be seen as drudgery to be endured until you reach the cherished goal of utter inactivity. The happiest and most successful people I know have realized a critical truth: The act of doing things is more fun that doing nothing. If this is not your current attitude, you should work to acquire it."

And, boom. My hair blew back a little at that point -- Amy was COMING FOR ME, because I am what is known in the common parlance as "a lazy whore." As a kid when I'd spend time with my thrifty, hard-working paternal grandparents, my lethargy used to drive them crazy. "HEIGHTH OF AMBITION!" my grand-dad would bellow when he'd see me lying on the couch, watching cartoons hour after hour, eating endless baloney-and-butter sandwiches. 

My tendency has always been toward lying around, consuming media, and partaking in the fanciful delights of the mind, aka daydreaming. I have this part of me that just loves doing nothing so much, omg, it's THE BEST. And, when I'm deciding how to spend my time, "doing fuck-all" is often my top choice. 

Which in some ways is great! Some folks have a really hard time relaxing and I feel super lucky to not have that problem, I guess?

But my proclivity for sloth-like behavior doesn't make me happy when it crowds out too much of the productive stuff I could be doing ... that I actually love to do. 

Because Amy's right -- being productive is pretty fun! A work day when I can get into a flow state and knock out a slew of problems, an afternoon spent painting or writing or cleaning something that was gross when I started -- all that simply feels good, in and of itself. Plus, at the end you have a painting or a song or a clean kitchen to boot -- and there is nothing not to like about that. 

So, the last few days I've been trying to pay more attention to how I choose to spend my time, so that instead of my default choice being "Put your feet up and chill," it's more often "Find something to do and do it!" And it's been good -- especially alongside taking some consciously internet-free time during the day. Bursts of productivity uncoupled from internet distraction -- it's a powerful combination. 

As is my wont, I made a huge list of things that I want and need to do, and when I am looking for something to do, I just pick something and run with it. And it's been working for me! Dishes, paintings, work problems, blog posts -- I've been knocking them all out, and liking not only the results but also the way productivity makes me feel. In a world gone batshit crazy, nothing brings me more joy than to offer a few small contributions to the other side of the scale. 

How about you? Are you like my grandparents, who worked constantly all day and never even sat down outside of mealtimes? Or like me, the heighth of ambition over here eating Lucky Charms in front of the television? Do you feel like you could use a productivity boost, or do you need to cultivate the ability to chill? (I am soooo good at chilling, y'all. Please feel free to request any tips.) Tell me all about it! 

Basic Shit I Should Know By Now: Get Off the Internet Every Now and Then

This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too? 

Recently, I’ve been a little down-hearted -- and I know I’m not the only one. The world gets more and more bananas every day, and though I’ve been feeling like this off and on since last November, the last few weeks, it’s been mostly on.

Many times per day, I set myself some task or other, and then moments later somehow find myself lying prone on my couch scrolling through the day’s atrocities on my phone, feeling lost and tired and afraid.

Like most people, I’ve had a moderate internet addiction for years, but recent events have definitely made it worse. I keep thinking I’m going to miss something big, important, or extra ridiculously dumb, because big, important, extra ridiculously dumb stuff seems to happen in abundance every damn day.

It’s not like I’m a recluse drooling on the keyboard all day -- I mean, I have a husband, a job, friends, places to go and shit to do. But I’m definitely on the internet more than what feels healthy. It feels like this low level thrum of fuckedness rumbling through my gut all the time now. Somehow, checking my phone turns it down for a minute, but also makes it much worse in the long term.

The addiction has recently ramped up to the point where I often pick up my phone and start cycling through my favorite apps and online places without even realizing it, mesmerized and unfocused, my consciousness dissolved into the device in my hand.

But to be constantly neck-deep in this river of fucked-up news makes me feel physically ill. The world in the phone is such a shitshow, and we need to keep our eyes on it for sure, and stay involved and engaged … it doesn’t have to be every moment of every day, though, does it? I mean, it can’t be every moment of every day. It just ... can't.

So last Sunday when I woke up and found myself scrolling and feeling gross before I’d even made it out of bed, I realized I needed to switch this habit up, and I made a decision -- I was going to stay off the internet all day long. No Facebook, no Instagram, no podcasts, no videos -- just me and some books and paints and stuff to do around the house.

And, oh, it was marvelous! I did so many chores! I washed dishes, scrubbed the range, swept up all the nasty crumbs that gather under the kitchen cabinets, took down some rather impressive spider webs, and vacuumed AND steam cleaned the carpet.

Then I read a book -- a paper book! -- and painted a girl and hung out with my husband and drank tea in the backyard and sang my favorite parts of Moana while I worked. And I wrote for a while with a turquoise fountain pen in a journal with fantastic paper, and I stared at the trees and let some lovely ideas slowly unfurl in me.

By the end of this day of doing only 3D activities in the 3D world, I was surprised to notice that I felt brand new. My mind unclenched and lost itself in the moment, watching ants marching around the patio and birds zipping through the sky. My brain felt like it'd had a nice glass of wine in the bath, followed by a relaxing nap on clean sheets.

Do you also feel like maybe you’ve been plugged in too long and too hard? Like it’s time to disconnect from the Borgian reality that is the internet for a minute? Like your brain could use a bath and a nap, too? If any part of you is saying “Yes,” then you should take a day off! It’s easier and more luxurious than you think. Here’s how:

  1. Put your devices elsewhere. If my phone is sitting next to me, I know that I will definitely pick it up and start dicking around before I even realize what I’m doing. To break that habit was so simple though -- I just put my phone and my iPad away in my bedside table where I couldn’t unconsciously pick them up. So easy.

  2. If you have a random question you feel the urge to look up, write it down. Since the advent of the internet, my tolerance for sitting with an unanswered question has gone way down, but it’s not like I actually NEED TO KNOW the name of the actor who played Walder Frey and Argus Filch RIGHT NOW. So I jotted these random questions down to look up later. Interesting fact: by the next day I had lost interest in them.

  3. Make a list of activities that sound fun or productive to you. Go for a bike ride, clean your closet, visit your mom, hit up the library, work in the garden, day drink and write poetry, go to the shelter and play with homeless dogs -- whatever you want.

  4. Do the stuff on your list all day long. When you are done with one item, move on to another. Go ahead -- live a little!

  5. Go to bed without checking your phone. Congratulations -- you did it! You successfully remembered what it was like to be alive before 2007! Go you!

Is it ridiculous that something as simple as getting the hell off the internet requires tips? Sure it is. And maybe you don’t need help with this particular issue. Maybe you already have extremely healthy boundaries with your phone -- if so, mazel tov.

But if you are a craven half-cyborg like me who finds yourself melting into your device more often than you would like, and it makes you feel shitty, then maybe give the day-long fast a try. My guess is that you will feel more like a real human person by the end of the day.

Fuck Fish, or What It's Like To Be a Hummingbird

fuckfish

When I was nine years old, I learned about a way to twist up different colored pipe cleaners into spirals, then combine them to make cute designs. I soon started making refrigerator magnets and selling them to all the grownups I knew ... but a few months in, I got bored and started collecting weird stamps instead.

As a teenager, I had a massive crush on a dude who was super into Allen Ginsberg, and I got super into Allen Ginsberg, too -- so into him that I wrote my junior year history paper about him and won a shit ton of awards and got to go to Washington, DC. I even sent the paper to AG himself, and he marked it up and sent it back! <3 After a few months, though, I lost interest in Beat poetry and that boy, and moved on to my next obsession, Les Miserables.

One weekend in my early 30s, I suddenly felt the urgent need to make purses out of old album covers, and I started a business, and I got to travel around the country selling them to fabulous shops including the Liberace Museum in Vegas!!! But within a couple of years, the thought of making another purse out Madonna's first album made me want to kill myself, and I lost all my desire to dig through dusty old racks looking for album cover treasures, and I quit.

I went through these cycles of obsession and disinterest so much that my friend Michelle and I developed a term for them -- Fuck Fish -- after a scene from Adaptation. In this scene, Chris Cooper's character talks about how he, like, falls in love with a succession of things -- turtles, fossils, mirrors -- then suddenly just can't deal with them anymore. At a certain point, he always gets to the place where he's just done. Fuck fish.

And, yep. I'm the same damn way. I used to feel bad about it. Shouldn't I want to develop mastery so that I can be super duper great at something? Don't I need to put in my 10,000 hours or else I'm a useless dilettante? Don't I need to focus on one thing or else my life will be a rambling, ramshackle mess?

But, as in so many cases in life, "should" doesn't matter a whit compared to "is." Maybe I should want to devote my life to just one thing ... but I don't.

At the beginning of the Fuck Fish cycle, I gulp down enormous amounts of knowledge and do huge amounts of practice and I grow so quickly that it's almost amazing, and I'm super productive and having about as much fun as it's possible for a nerd like me to have.

But after I reach the Fuck Fish point, I just ... can't. Continuing to knit, or play in a band, or whatever it was that I was so recently gung-ho for feels like trying to walk through slowly hardening concrete. So, even though I know that I should buckle down and keep trudging, usually I don't. Usually my eye is caught by some other shiny object, and I levitate toward it.

My beloved Elizabeth Gilbert is the opposite of me, one of the mega-focused, single-pointed souls who find one thing they love and never deviate from it. When I saw her speak last fall in Brooklyn she talked about how when she was sixteen or something, she lit a candle and took a sacred vow to devote herself to writing forever. She just knew and that was that.

She calls her type of person a sledgehammer, and says that these are the folks who tend to be rewarded in our culture, and their focus can make them capable of truly amazing feats. (99% of Olympians are sledgehammers.)

But there's another kind of person, too -- the hummingbird. This is the kind of soul whose natural process looks like this -- they go up to a flower, they drink deeply, and they are satisfied. Then they move on. THAT'S A-ME. And though it's true that hard work, determination, grit, focus, yada yada yada ... sorry, I just nodded off there for a second ...

Anyway Liz reminded us that hummingbirdness is also important, because of cross-pollination. Hummingbirds inject calligraphy into computers and puppies into healthcare. Hummingbirds are how you get chocolate into peanut butter.

But, you may ask, isn't it true that hummingbirdness is basically the same as flakiness? Yes and no. I will be the first to admit that there can be a wide overlap between the two, and this is something that all hummingbirds need to be on the watch for, including me.

At the same time, I would not characterize myself or many other hummingbirds as flaky people. Over the several decades of my life, I have developed some ability to knuckle down even when I don't want to, and I do enormous amounts of work very quickly and very well, and I do my best to honor my commitments.

Still, I can't ignore the fact that my nature loves freedom. The experience of liberty motivates me more than the possibility of becoming an expert. I love to be able to drink those first extra-sweet, brand-new flavors from a blossom and really, deeply enjoy them ... and then I love moving on to the next one.

You have to understand that I tried to change. For years, I tried to push through the end of the Fuck Fish cycle, and sometimes I have been able to. And these, I guess, are the loves of my heart that ebb and flow and always come back to me -- mostly writing, singing, and making pretty things with my hands.

But there are lots of other times when I just can't find a way to push past my natural stopping point, so I just move on. And if I'm honest, I have to admit that once in awhile I feel a tiny twinge of regret. Like ... if I had focused on writing songs or upcycling album covers or sewing dresses for the last twenty years, who knows where I would be today?

When I look at my life now, though, the regret dissolves away, because I am already living my damn dream. I have a level of freedom to do what I want that almost no one in history has ever had -- especially a woman! And I'm surrounded by so much love and so many opportunities to enjoy myself and be of use. Fundamentally, I really do treasure my capacity for learning and connecting the dots between lots of different, tasty parts of this world. And I'm grateful for all that has flowered from it.

So who knows whether my brief love affairs with knitting, the musical Hamilton, using technology to make custom clothes, Vipassana meditation, creating album cover purses, Beat Poetry, writing songs, or Jane Austen movie adaptations will ever flare up again. If they do, I will be ready.

For now, what's got my heart is walking through the yummy-smelling pine forests of Colorado. Coming up with ideas that feel smart to me, for work and for my book and for my life. Playing with paint and pastels and iridescent inks. Filling old books with fresh new paper. And noticing, and appreciating, the almost magical way in which everything I've done infuses and inspires everything else I do.

What's Happening?

IMG_0157.jpg

A month or so ago, my website was hacked and I lost a year's worth of posts :( so allow me to recap. Last summer my husband and I got rid of a great many of our belongings and hit the road. We spent about six months rambling around the country, from Portland to NYC, and finally decided to settle down in Boulder, Colorado. Here's why:

IMG_0223.jpg
IMG_0237.jpg

It's incredibly beautiful here, and quiet, and the winter has a sunshine/snow ratio of about 90/10. We lucked into a super cute house one block from the bottom of a mountain, and we now have a couch and a bed and dining table again. Still no chairs for the table, but that will come soon enough ... and we do have this guy:

IMG_0084.jpg

Working from home, taking lots of walks, drinking lots of tea -- it's a nice life. I'm working on the whole making friends thing, and painting, and writing. Yes, friends, I got myself a writing coach, and he is great, and my second book is rolling in a direction that Goddess willing will eventually lead to it being done. Very exciting.

It feels a little bit like we've dropped off the edge of the world, and I rather like it.

More adventures loom in the next few months -- San Miguel de Allende, Amsterdam (or Amsterdang, as Jolene and I call it), Dusseldorf, London, Scotland, and New York City. Stay tuned for pictures and maybe even fabulous insights? We'll see. I can guarantee pictures at least.

IMG_0148.jpg

Self Improvement for Rebels

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. Even when I was still “good,” like in high school before I discovered sex / drugs / rockin out, I was always questioning the validity of rules and kind of being a pain in the ass.

So when I took happiness heavy-hitter Gretchen Rubin’s online quiz about how I react to internal and external expectations, it wasn’t too surprising to see my results. Want to guess?

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

The quiz pegged me as a Rebel (though I think there’s a good bit of Questioner in there, too), and like the Ask/Guess distinction I read and wrote about a little while ago, many mysteries revealed themselves to me when I considered these ideas … Like

  • Why I can’t seem to develop and stick to any kind of rigid schedule, no matter who imposes it
  • Why rah-rah-type self-improvement stuff doesn’t seem to work for me
  • Why I have always gotten so angry about gender-based assumptions and expectations
  • Why rules have always read more like “guidelines” to me
  • Why my Upholder/Questioner husband is much better at setting routines and deadlines for himself than I am, and why we sometimes differ on which rules we deem OK to break

Examining a person's default response to expectations is an interesting way to understand their motivations and level of pain-in-the-assness, one I hadn’t really considered before I read Gretchen’s work on this.

To me, it also begs the question of where people are oriented in time. Do rebels rebel simply because they have a hard time connecting to the future? It's well-documented that the ability to control yourself today for a benefit in the future is strongly correlated with success in life. What many people don't know is that it's also strongly shaped by your childhood surroundings.

In the classic marshmallow study where kids who were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes, the 15 minutes kids are the ones who learned to trust that the world would indeed follow through on its promises. But the now kids learned that anything concrete now is better than an amorphous promise for the future. We develop a bias toward the present moment, and we become rebels, or at least rebellious.

I'm definitely one of these present-moment people, and I've known many others in an up-close and personal way. It can be either a beautiful way to live or a very effective method of throwing your life away, depending on how you play it.

So, even as I appreciate the lovely side of my in-the-now-ness, I do also see the value in future-oriented habits, and I have developed some and I want to develop more. It's just that "yeah willpower woo!" doesn't seem to work for me as a strategy. Here are some that do work.

1) Improve the structure of your life to support the choices you want to make.

Here's what I do: I don't keep large amounts of ice cream in the house. I unsubscribed from my Sephora emails. I leave my yoga mat out and available all the time. The idea here is that I am trying to make it physically easier to make the choices I want to make, and more difficult to stray from the path. Build barriers to things you don't want to do, and remove impediments from things you do want to do.

2) Link healthy habits to present-moment feelings that are pleasurable.

Rubin talks about this in her video about rebels, and she suggests that we connect the habits we want to develop with freedom and present-moment pleasure.

This absolutely works for me. I get myself to do yoga by focusing on how good it feels to stretch and hug my muscles around my bones and watch myself getting stronger. I take walks because I want to see the surface of the reservoir sparkling in the sun, or because I want to listen to a podcast and get a cup of coffee. The pleasure of it is what gets me.

3) Link healthy habits to your freedom to do what you want even when The Man doesn't want you to.

OK, we all know that there's no particular man named The Man who conspires to keep us down. How we got to this point in history is a far, far more complicated story. But there's no denying that defying The Man is a compelling reason for a rebel to do basically anything. And it is hilarious and fun and allows me to channel my natural Fuck Off disposition in useful ways.

For instance … when my brain starts in on the self-hating body loop, sometimes I identify it as the Voice of Patriarchy, smirking like Dick Cheney while it tries to bring me down the fat shame spiral.

And then the Wonder Woman part of me bursts in like, Duuuude, fuck offffff. You run enough of the world out there, I'll be damned if you'll run my fucking head, too. Die in a fire! This instant!

And then he bursts into flames and I laugh and the shame spiral thoughts are definitely shut down.

Now, it's not like I'm, like, picturing slitting Patriarchy’s throat and playing around in the blood (usually). It doesn’t have to get that real (usually). It’s more like a way to remember The Cause of Women’s Freedom To Love and Respect Their Own Damn Bodies, and to rally the love I have for that cause into a private moment where I find myself in need strength and perspective.

And it works for all kinds of habits I want to improve.

Want to stop buying so much makeup? Fuck off, Sephora! Your shiny consumerist trap ensnares me not!

Got to shut my brain up so I can get my eight hours? Suck it, continuous stream of thoughts about work when I go to bed! The Man doesn’t get to intrude on my fucking sleep!

Need to let go of some unnecessary internet drama? Blow me, dude who doesn’t believe sexism and racism are real! You don’t even exist!

Is it stupid? Oh god yes. But when I have a cognitive dissonance between who I want to be and who I’m actually being, this kind of silly mental shit helps me stick to the right side of the street. Maybe it will help you, too.

In conclusion, if you are a rebel, or if you have rebel tendencies that you are able to keep in check enough to at least stay out of prison and keep a job, then

(1) I empathize, and

(2) I hope this is helpful, and

(3) Let’s party.

The Best Time I Basically Believed In A Fictional Religion

Have you ever been reading a sci-fi book, and one of the characters creates a new religion, and it’s so close to what you think about life/the universe/our place in it that you are basically ready to sign up for this fictional religion by the time you’re done reading the book?

No? Just me?

It is an odd sensation, to see your worldview precisely spelled out in the pages of a novel about a dystopian near-future, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. (I can't get enough of her — read my thoughts on Kindred here.)

In the Parable books, our protagonist is Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl who has seen some major shit and creates a new religion called Earthseed in response ... though she would say she discovered rather than created it.

Earthseed’s major tenet is this: Change is the most powerful force in the universe, and we are both subjects of and participants in it.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God Is Change.

In the Earthseed worldview, God is not a person or a person-type entity who cares about your thoughts or whether your favorite football team is winning this season. God is nothing but Change itself, inevitable and impersonal and beautiful and devastating.

It’s a clear-eyed and some might say cold perspective, but to me, it’s perfect, because first off, it seems more accurate than believing there is an entity in the sky listening to my thoughts and/or caring about my football team.

Secondly, it underscores the fact that we do not need and in fact must not rely upon divine intervention to make a better world for ourselves and for each other.

God is not our supernatural mother or father. God is Change, and its job isn’t to take care of us. That task falls squarely on our own shoulders. We need to take care of each other.

God is Change,

And in the end,

God prevails.

But meanwhile…

Kindness eases Change.

Love quiets fear.

And a sweet and powerful

Positive obsession

Blunts pain,

Diverts rage,

And engages each of us

In the greatest,

The most intense

Of our chosen struggles

That positive obsession she mentions is the destiny of Earthseed as she sees it — to spread itself throughout the universe, to take root among the stars. This mission, this large and audacious project is meant to give humanity a goal, yes, but it's also designed to get humans to organize our thoughts about each other at a higher level. To see each other not as rivals, but as family. To be Earthseed, before we are men or women or rich or poor or American or Korean or South African or anything else.

The Destiny of Earthseed

Is to take root among the stars.

It is to live and to thrive

On new earths.

It is to become new beings

And to consider new questions.

It is to leap into the heavens

Again and again.

It is to explore the vastness

Of heaven.

It is to explore the vastness

Of ourselves.

To my delight, Butler goes all the way with this — Olamina writes her verses and shares them with others running from the fires of the future. With her verses and with her own personal strength, she gathers a community around her to practice Earthseed. They welcome newcomers, focus on education, and make carefully considered but bold moves to shape chaos to their benefit. They become a formidable and capable group of people, practiced in the art of adapting to new situations quickly, learning as much as possible, and putting themselves in the strongest position they can.

In one particularly painful part of the second book, we get a chance to see how Earthseed functions when the shit hits the fan and the community falls on the hardest times imaginable. Even when everything falls apart, their beliefs galvanize them. They remain focused on surviving, on learning, on keeping their eyes open for opportunities to influence what happens, instead of just being the ones it happens to.

Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.

Seek them out.

Any Change may bear seeds of harm.

Beware.

God is infinitely malleable.

God is Change.

The ending of the book is extremely satisfying to me, but I know from reading interviews with Butler that there were meant to be lots of Parable books. We were meant to follow Earthseed as it spread around the universe, as it shaped and was shaped by many other worlds, but Butler died before she cracked the nut of how to tell the rest of those stories. Such a shame … maybe someone will pick it up and run with it in the future.

When I say I’m ready to sign up for Earthseed, I guess my tongue is in my cheek a little … probably because I’m the only one who would be signed up, and I’m not like Olamina. I'm not ready to devote my life to spreading the ideas of Earthseed.

But to me? Everything Butler/Olamina came up with is fucking sound. And I get a deep charge when I think about change in this way — inevitable, unstoppable, but malleable, too. It makes me remember that to dig my heels in against change is a fruitless effort. It reminds me that I can work with it instead, I can shape it, I can play an active part in creating what happens around me. As Olamina puts it,

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

We adapt and endure,

For we are Earthseed

And God is Change.

To me, this seems just about right, even if we don’t get the G-word involved in it. Change is happening all the time, all around us, and even when we feel like we are its victims, in truth we are always, always participants as well. Best to recognize that and run with it.

photo by Gianluca Mastrascusa // cc