How to Heal A Broken Ankle

I have this personal trainer, Chris. I first met him at Colorado Athletic Club. I liked him right away. Chris is the kind of person who restores your faith in humanity. He served in the Army in Iraq, earning his degree by taking online courses in between missions. He wants to help other veterans through exercise and nutrition. He’s a bona fide hero.

Earlier this year Chris opened a gym with another trainer, Mike. Mike is from New Jersey, a fact he will remind you of whenever he feels misunderstood. He said one time someone complained that he was a misogynist, and Mike replied that he didn’t know what they were talking about and he hadn’t been massaging anyone.

What do you expect? I’m from New Jersey! Mike will say, as if this explains any perceived deficiency in his education or etiquette.

Mike is loud and brash, and he will not hesitate to yell at you as a motivating tactic. Personally, I do not respond very well to this tactic. Mike says he was a chubby kid, which is hard to imagine. One day he just decided to change his life. He joined a boxing gym. He says that you know a really good boxing gym when the guys jumprope double-dutch. I would love to see that.

Mike will not take no for an answer. You can’t do it? Impossible. You can’t lift heavier? Mike doesn’t believe it. Is that all you got? You can’t do 10 more? You can. You will.

This kind of driving optimism must have been how Mike got in shape, how he got out of New Jersey, how he got his own gym. And he’s only like 26. One time I saw him running through Boulder with a backpack on, and you just know he ran all the way up and down Sanitas. He probably ran all the way from Denver.

Mike yelled at me in my first class because I wasn’t trying to win a race across the room. I rationalized by saying something like “I’m just not very competitive,” which is like throwing down the gauntlet to Mike. He vowed to get it out of me, to make me a competitor, to make me want to win.

After a six-week introductory deal, Mike and Chris had me hooked on their exercise crack and I was ready for more. I was pumped. Sore today, strong tomorrow. I prepaid for a three-month membership.

Mike took my measurements so that we would have baseline numbers to assess my future progress. He pinched me with those creepy gym teacher calipers and then measured the circumference of my arms, legs and torso. He was like, “Wow, your legs are surprisingly fat.” That’s not exactly what he said, but it was something about how I was carrying more weight than was apparent to the casual observer. If anyone else had told me this, I might have been offended. But it’s Mike. He’s from New Jersey.

We talked about my goals. I wanted to finally have the body I’ve always dreamed of. I wanted to be a boxer. Mike designed an aggressive schedule of classes in the coming weeks. We were going to do it together. I was going to win. U-S-A! U-S-A!

The next morning, I got up early and went to boot camp. I felt strong. I felt like I could do this every day, get up before the sun, exercise, sweat, start off like a fucking champion.

It was the last round of reps in the last circuit. There was 10 minutes left in class. I was running in place with my hands on the wall. My partner, Kristi, was on the floor doing crunches — I had to run for as long as it took her to finish her reps. I turned my head to see how far along she was, and my left foot landed like a limp fish on the floor.

My ankle rolled out. There was a loud POP! — so loud that Kristi heard it clearly over the blaring music. I crumbled to the ground. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t feel any pain. My ankle started swelling. I was in shock. Mike asked me where it hurt. I found out later that he thought I had ruptured my Achilles. Kristie offered to stay with me at the hospital, but I told her that I’d be fine. I thought maybe I’d just twisted my ankle. Even the doctor seemed to think it was less serious at first. But the x-rays showed a clean break through the lateral malleolus of my left fibula.


When my foot landed wrong, the ligament yanked on that little protrusion on my fibula and just snapped off the end like a rice cracker. Because it is not a weight-bearing bone, I was able to put pressure on it without feeling much. It didn’t require surgery, but I would have to be in a walking boot for at least six weeks.


It has been exactly four months. The recovery has been pretty easy, all things considered. I’ve moved from the boot to a bandage, to nothing. But as I’ve transitioned to using my ankle more, walking more, standing more, I’ve been feeling it.

X-rays show that my bone has healed. They actually say that a healed bone is stronger than the original bone. It comes back reinforced, even better than it was before. But now I have the other effects from being in the boot, which restricted motion in my entire foot and calf during the recovery.

All my good intentions succumbed to Netflix and comfort food. I did manage to move to a new apartment while in the boot, so I wasn’t totally inactive, but it’s been the polar opposite of the Rocky workout montage I envisioned prior to my injury.

As I try to jumpstart myself back into shape, I am faced with new challenges — weakness, atrophy, lack of balance. And mostly, I just don’t trust myself anymore. If my ankle could roll once, it could roll again. (I saw this funny thing that said, “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do, it’s my ankle.”) Even the doctor told me that once you’ve had an injury like this, you are more likely to repeat it.

My medical treatment up until this point has been spotty. The doctors at the ER were cool, but they couldn’t do much more than give me some crutches and send me on my way. My primary care physician is at a community clinic, where they have way more serious issues to deal with. They said that if it swells really bad, go get it checked out. So far I haven’t found any way to measure what really bad swelling looks like as compared to just sorta-bad-normal swelling. But hey, I’m not a doctor.

Last week I had my first physical therapy appointment. My experience with my PT, Lindsay, was totally different. She was focused and present. She talked through her observations.

The fact that I was just running in place against a wall when my ankle rolled told Lindsay that there was a disconnect between my mind and my body. The inner ear controls our sense of balance. She hypothesized that I had inner ear issues prior to my injury, and my ankle rolled because the message from my brain to my foot misfired.

I remembered that my left foot had been acting up the night before and the morning of my injury. I knew my foot was tired. I could feel that it was stressed, but my mindset was to ignore what my body was telling me and push through the fatigue. To power forward.

But sometimes forward motion actually requires that you slow way down.

I was at this bowling alley once where they had automatic scoring — rather than writing or typing in your own scores, the computer scored the game for you. In order for the lane to keep score, the sensors had to read the position of the pins accurately. Any jostling of the pins would throw off the sensors and require the system to reset again.

When it was my turn to bowl, I was chit-chatting and didn’t notice that the system hadn’t finished resetting the pins from the prior turn. I positioned myself just left of center and sent the ball rolling down the lane, only to have it smack against the rail of the pinsetting machine.

The guy working at the bowling alley was sort of a country dude. He had a thick twang, and he looked like a larger version of Eminem in the Slim Shady video. He came running over to tend to the pinsetter like it was a sensitive child.

He turned to me, sounding very annoyed, “Can you pay intention please?”

I remember we got a real kick out of that. Pay intention. It’s a brilliant flip. Rather than simply paying attention, why not pay intention. Don’t just observe; declare your purpose. Participate mindfully.

It is not surprising that my body rebelled just as I was about to launch a huge push to change. That’s the way life works. Just when you are ready to do something monumental, just when you are about to face a challenge bigger than you’ve ever faced before, you are shown your weaknesses. Not as punishment, but to reveal where you are vulnerable.

My body said, OK, if you are serious about getting in shape, you’re going to have to communicate better. Sometimes pushing is not the way. Sometimes you simply can’t force things. You can’t progress to a higher level until you’ve mastered the one you’re on. Life intervenes to show you where you still have some work to do. This isn’t a failure, but a matter of timing and experience. It’s like cooking — you can have all the right ingredients, but then you have to let them blend together. If you take the casserole out too early, you miss the full flavor. If you force yourself to compete at a level that you’re not ready for, you are going to stumble.

I’ve been back to the gym a few times. Chris and Mike have been their typical supportive selves. They modify exercises for me; they look out for me; and of course they just believe in me so much. It’s kind of annoying sometimes.

Mike usually is bursting with energy, bouncing around, singing along to Beyonce with his hair dyed green or purple as he barks at you to run faster, push harder. But a couple of weeks ago Mike and I were alone in the gym, and he was quiet. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he’d just returned from a trip home. One of his friends had overdosed on opiates, a huge problem where Mike comes from.

The neighbors who found the body also found Mike’s friend’s dog alone and in need of care. The friend’s ex-girlfriend lives on a farm several hours away, so Mike and another guy agreed to drive the dog to the farm. Mike showed me photos of their road trip on his phone. He and the other guy are wearing suits. They are in a convertible. The dog looks elated. They’re from New Jersey.

I can tell that his friend’s death lays heavy on Mike. Having mustered so much personal strength himself, Mike feels a responsibility to show others the way. He knows what is possible and he believes in overcoming obstacles. He believes you can do it, anyone can do it, no matter what you are up against. But, as I learned the hard way, it doesn’t matter how much Mike believes in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

With Lindsay’s help I hope to get back to the starting line soon, back to where I was four months ago. Mustering the energy is very challenging, but no one can do it for me. No one can listen for me. No one can restore the communication between my mind and my body but me. No one can save me but me. Just as the lateral malleolus of my left fibula has grown back stronger than it was before, I know that I will be stronger for acknowledging my vulnerability. I will be wiser for seeing my weakness. I will pay intention. And I will reach my destination better than when I started.


Life and Death

A couple of days ago a friend and colleague of mine lost her father suddenly. It’s hard to know what to say when something like this happens. This kind of death carries a heavy grief, filled with so many what ifs and unanswered questions.

How you get through it depends on what you believe, I guess. Believing in an afterlife helps, or in some kind of divine logic. If you don’t have anything or anyone to give your grief up to — like God, or Jesus or the universe — then you might feel kind of stuck with the sadness for a while, struggling to process it.

Another friend recently went through a scare when her niece nearly died from a sudden illness. My friend and her family sat vigil in the hospital for days and nights on end. Even though her niece came through, my friend says that she feels a new kind of pain now, a deeper pain. There’s an anger and a shock when bad things happen to good people. Because even though we all know intellectually that good people suffer all the time, many of us still never think it will happen to us. It’s a loss of innocence, when we see how unfair life can be.

I haven’t been reading fiction over the past several years. A few books here and there. I took some deep dives into Infinite Jest, but still didn’t finish it. I read George Saunders stories. I read My Struggle (just the first book) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Then a few months ago I joined the kind of book club where you actually read books (although I like the book club where you just drink wine too). The first book we read in Actual Book Club was The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. The second meeting, it was my turn to host.

I put some choices out to the group and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy got the most votes. I felt a certain hostess pressure. But when I finally sat down to start the book, I struggled to get through the opening chapters. The relationships were difficult to remember. I kept confusing the main characters, boy and girl twins, because their names didn’t correspond to my gender associations. The girl twin is Rahel and the boy twin is Esta. Typically, I associate girls’ names with ending in ‘a,’ so I kept thinking Esta was the girl; and the name Rahel, ending in ‘el,’ made me think of the masculine pronoun in Spanish.


I reread the first part like five times. And then I made myself a cheat sheet, which helped a bit.


The story jumps between the 1960s, when the twins are children, and the ‘90s, when they are adults becoming reacquainted with each other after a long separation. I was slogging through it, not getting into it, and then there was a kind of tipping point. At book club we decided it happens when the narrative starts to catch up to itself — when you finally start to see the events that have been hinted at and foreshadowed begin to unfold. I haven’t confirmed this, but it felt to me like the language got less fussy. I didn’t have to work as hard to understand, so I just started to flow with the story.

This also is the time in the book when Roy unleashes a very Knausgaard-ian-ly realistic, Lynch-ian-ly grotesque scene of child abuse that is so disturbing that I had to put the book down for a couple of days. There are several times when the writing is so visceral, and so barbaric, that it takes fortitude to read every word. You want to close your eyes like in the movies, but there is no way through it except through it.

Despite my resistance nearly all the way, I was in body-shaking sobs by the end. I felt like a stronger person for having allowed myself to mentally experience the brutal unfairness that Roy describes so vividly. She also applies that sensual realness to love scenes, which sort of balances the scales a bit.

[Spoiler alert] This book came out in 1998, but the police brutality theme is eerily current. My famous friend DeAnna and I were the only two to finish the book (which was no small feat, let me tell you) and we were both thunderstruck by about five pages toward the end when Roy dissects the rationale of the policeman beating Velutha to death. The way she describes the coldness of it and detachment of it – like the body attacking a disease — is chilling and terrifying.

There is very little justice in the world that Roy describes in The God of Small Things, and very little comfort. It just so happens that Roy recently announced she is working on a second novel. I might have to wait about 20 years to read the next one. Maybe by then I will have recovered.

But apparently, I hadn’t had enough of India, so I picked up a book that my dad had given me to read a long time ago.


I love how Chester snuck into this picture.

Despite his reassurances that it would fly by, and despite other friends telling me how much they enjoyed it, I just hadn’t been able to get into Shantaram. But with India on the brain and emboldened by the slog through the first part of Small Things, I decided to try again. I gave myself a deadline. I would try to finish it in time to return it to my dad the next time I saw him, which gave me about 10 days to read 930 pages.

Shantaram is quasi-autobiographical (you don’t exactly know what’s real and what’s embellished, but you get the feeling that Gregory David Roberts knows a fair amount of what he speaks. And what is up with having three first names? It almost always sounds pretentious, right? Unless the person has three diminutive names, like Billy Joe Bob).

The narrator is an Australian fugitive who goes by the name Lindsay (later mostly called Lin or Linbaba). The story opens in the 1980s as Lin enters Bombay on fake papers. All we know is that Lin has recently escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving 20 years for armed robberies that he committed to feed his heroin habit.

Lin joins the local expat community, and falls in love with a woman named Karla, who, like all the non-Indian characters in the book, made her home in Bombay out of a desire to disappear. The expats Lin interacts with operate at varying levels of petty crime; and the Indians Lin interacts with range from slumdwellers to Mafia kingpins.

Like The God of Small Things, Shantaram depicts brutal suffering. Children sold as slaves, slumdwellers dying of cholera, paper-thin homes ripped through by fire and drowning in shit, starvation, rats the size of cats, malicious packs of street dogs, violence, soul-less sex, drugs, corruption and gruesome torture that seems to have no bottom, no end. It is all so unfair. The most unsettling part is that you can tell that the bad parts are real, because no one could make up the kind of cruelty that The Greg Pirate Roberts writes about.

Yet, intertwined with all the suffering, Lin experiences a different and cathartic kind of love. In particular, Lin’s guide, Prabakar “Prabu” Kharre, embodies the moral, noble heart of India. With his radiant, honest smile and his relentless optimism, Prabu insists on seeing the bright side. When tragedy strikes, Prabu says, you are very lucky, it wasn’t your house that burned down. You are blessed; it wasn’t you who died of Cholera. At first, Prabu’s approach might seem callous or selfish, but as Shantaram unfolds, we learn along with Lin, what Prabu has learned from a lifetime of inconceivable unfairness and unmerciful fate — the only way to survive is to purposely and intentionally insist upon seeing the light.

Faced with the weight of your grief, you can howl and scream, pound your fists, stomp your feet, curse the world, denounce God, give up hope, lash out, cut ties, gouge out your own heart, blame everyone you know, deny the truth, stuff down the parts you don’t want to remember, block out and numb out the things you don’t want to see or hear. You can rage, rage, rage, but none of it will change a damn thing.

On the surface, you could read Prabu’s character as a simplified stereotype, a goofy Uncle Tom type, smiling comically and getting cheap laughs from his broken English, as in the scene when he first approaches Lin:

“Good mornings, great sirs!” he greeted us. “Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?”

But throughout the book, Prabu is a constant reminder of goodness. His genuine care for Lin and others, his humor and spirit wash even the most heinous of realities with the soft light of compassion.

I don’t know why good people get sick. I don’t know why good people die. But I know that the only real weapon we have against suffering is love. Love can’t survive in a hardened heart; there’s no room for love when you are pumping venom or churning bitterness, blaming everyone else, carrying a big old chip on your shoulder. Love can’t survive in suffering. But also suffering can’t survive in love. And the thing about suffering is that it has an end — human bodies are built with an auto-shut-off safety function. When we reach a certain level of pain, we go numb. We can’t feel it anymore. But love is limitless. There is no end to how deep it can go. There is no ceiling. It just keeps getting more and more creative in how it grows. The more you feed it, the more surprising it is. And just as you can’t close your eyes and continue to read the book, the only way through is through. And until you actually get there, you have no idea the gifts waiting for you on the other side.

So, if you have a copy of Shantaram holding down a bunch of papers or propping open a very heavy door, all I can say is: It will fly by, I promise. I really enjoyed it.

Happy Birthday to Me

So it’s my birthday. Again.

As my friend DeAnna said somewhat accusingly in my birthday message, “I feel like your birthday has come very fast; I don’t know why — other people have also had birthdays — but I feel like the time between this birthday and your last birthday seems like less than a year.”

I hear you, DeAnna, how do we slow down this crazy train?

DeAnna is constantly surprising me with her perspective. She’s one of the few people I know who brazenly and totally bravely thinks for herself. She questions things I would never think to question (like has it been less than a year since my last birthday?). Everyone needs a friend like DeAnna.

You know, I thought 40 was the big birthday, but I think it’s 41. I mean, my birthday is a pretty big deal, as evidenced by this post on my Facebook wall from my friend Jenn:


Jenn is going to remember my damn birthday. I tell you what.

When I turned 40 last year, I just wanted to be alone. I took a solo trip to Connecticut. I slept in a greenhouse. They called this “glamping,” that’s “glamorous camping” to you and me. On my actual birthday I kayaked. I am not comfortable with any kind of deep water, so even on a dead calm river, I found it challenging. The whole concept of steering with the oar seemed counterintuitive.


I did make it upstream to a spot where you had to duck to get under this bridge and then on the other side you were in like a mossy green fairyland. On the return trip, floating through the narrow opening, I thought of it as a rebirth. Onward to the next phase of my life.


This year, Lani and Chris came to visit from San Francisco. It had been a long time since they had been in Colorado together.  We decided to take an overnight trip to an AirBnB in Salida with amazing views and a hot tub.

The whole time leading up to it, I was all about the hot tub. I could not wait to sit under the stars in the damn hot tub. But when we got there I had a respiratory infection and it was frigid cold outside – in the 20s and 30s. Definitely not get-wet-and-be-outside weather. I was grumpy and disappointed, and not that fun to be around. I pouted and went to bed, which apparently I still do, even at 41 years old.

From our deck, you could see a string of 14ers, which the owner, Drew, rattled off the names of when we arrived. Drew built the house himself using strawbale construction. He has chickens and turkeys, and a huge sow named Tammy. Drew gets the vegetable scraps from some of the downtown restaurants, and the waste barley from the brewery to feed her. (Tammy wouldn’t pose for a picture, but just imagine the biggest pig you have ever seen.)

We shopped at a great thrift store in Salida the next day called Ruby Blues. This actually was the impetus for the whole trip; when Mom and I were in Salida over Christmas, I just knew that Lani and Chris would love this store. The owners are a husband-and-wife team. Their selection is authentic vintage and very reasonably priced — like varsity letter jackets, and jean jumpsuits, riding pants and 70s sweaters. A lot of amazing pieces. I’m going to go down there just to go record shopping. I want every record in the store.

Chris found a 1940s reversible military jacket with fur trim that basically had never been worn before. One side is green and the other side is white. When wearing the white side, he looks like he is in Siberia in a James Bond movie.


He also got these 1970s sparkly motorcycle helmets.


I got a pair of clogs. For some reason, they have a robust selection of Dansko clogs at this place.

We had lunch at the Mexican restaurant in town, then stopped at a roadside Gem and Rock Store outside Buena Vista. Lani has a thing for rocks.

Lani was a pretty miserable baby. She had constant earaches. She only wanted to be held by Mom. She cried like crazy.

When Lani was about one-and-a-half my mom was pouring boiling water into a pitcher when it burst in her hands. Lani had been on the floor, possibly even clutching my mom’s leg. She was burned all over her little body.

My earliest memory from my childhood is walking down the hospital hallway and the nurse saying, “Now remember, you can’t touch your sister, or she’ll bleed.”

I must have been about three. It was dark in the hospital room, with only a few dim lights on. When they opened the door, Lani was standing up in the crib holding the bars. She had gauze around her head and this huge smile on her face. She was happier than she’d ever been.

We were pretty shy and quiet kids. Our parents were introverts. So imagine our surprise when Lani was about five and she picked up her stuffed bear and began to speak for him in a deep, growling voice. None of us would have believed such a big voice could come out of such a little kid.

Dad asked the bear what his name was.

The bear replied, “G.B.”

Dad: What does G.B. stand for?

G.B.: Gray Black. (G.B. was a gray bear, with black eyes.)

G.B. started watching the Broncos games with us, yelling at the TV screen, high-fiving Dad. Occasionally, Dad would pick G.B. up and throw him in the air, prompting G.B. to growl, “Stop it, Gery!”

One day Dad asked G.B. who his hero was.

G.B.: [thinks for a minute] Kirk Blueberry.

Dad: Oh, yeah, what is Kirk Blueberry famous for?

G.B.: He found 10,000 rocks.

Lani loved nature from the beginning. To me, a rock is a rock. But when we were in that rock store on the side of the road outside Buena Vista last weekend, it was clear that Lani has a very special talent for seeing beauty in normal, regular things. She chatted up the geologist proprietor, asking meaningful questions, picking the best things out of the case. Lani didn’t go to school for this, but she just enjoys it; she likes what she likes, not what anyone else likes, not what she is told to like. She and Chris have this sixth sense for cool stuff. I just see a rock.

Everything shifted for me when we got to the hot springs. It was a cloudless day, gorgeous fall colors, just a bit of chill in the air. After being sick and crabby, floating in the hot springs with the sun on my face was rejuvenating. We finished out the weekend with a nice gathering at Dad’s house where we ate cake and ice cream, and did a mini birthday celebration surrounded by extended family.

On my actual birthday Mom brought me the most beautiful lunch. Salmon with garlic and dill; quinoa; an amazing salad with romaine from her garden, feta cheese, strawberries, blackberries and pecans in a blush wine vinaigrette. She even made me a cheesecake. She went off-recipe and replaced the heavy cream and whipping cream with yogurt and cream cheese. Like she does.

She helped me repot my herbs and bring them inside for the winter. And she made me the most hilarious and awesome present. Over the weekend, I had been admiring the drawings in this old cookbook she had. We especially liked this one of the cowgirl and the vegetables.


So my mom copied the drawing and made these kitchen magnets. She really is the best mom.


All in all, I’m optimistic about 41. I received many sweet, genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt birthday wishes. I have many people to love, so many people who love me. It’s a ridiculous abundance of friendship. I am grateful to have known and shared my heart with so many. It really is the best gift.

It’s easy to focus on what’s lacking. Like, I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, I don’t have pets, I don’t own a house, I’m out of shape, I’m exhausted and unmotivated, my ankle still hurts after breaking it three months ago. I’m sick, blah, blah, blah. It’s easy to let my mind ramble on, cataloging all my faults and failures, but there comes a point (age 41, maybe?) when all that toxic noise just gets really boring.

As I was floating in the hot springs, trying out various arrangements for the sad limp pool noodles — Under the knees? The ankles? Propped under the neck? — I overheard two ladies discussing the movie “Age of Adaline” (currently available to watch on Amazon).


I’d seen the promo for it, but frankly, Blake Lively bugs me. She’s headed down that Gwyneth Paltrow road of self-righteous clean-living that just lacks any sort of spark of life. Where is the authentic woman behind the complexion and the ever-calm-and-collected smoky voice? Where’s the blood? Where’s the heart? Where’s the soul?

But as the ladies discussed the plot, I became intrigued. In 1930s America, Adaline (Blake Lively) is a young widow with a daughter when she accidentally slides off the road and her car ends up in a freezing lake. Adaline dies submerged in her vehicle in the icy water. But, it just so happens that within minutes of her death, the lake is struck by an electrical charge, which restarts her heart. She is alive. She climbs out of the lake, and from that day forward, her body doesn’t age another day. Adaline remains 29 years old forever. Even as her daughter grows up and becomes an old woman, Adaline still looks exactly the same. In order to avoid being kidnapped by the government or some crazy scientists, she changes her identity every 10 years. She has no life of her own. No one except her daughter knows the truth. Over the years, Adeline falls in love, at least twice.

(Spoiler alert) the movie unfolds as she meets a relentless young rich dude named Ellis (actual dialogue: “Like the island?” Ugh). Despite her reservations, Adaline, now going by the name Jenny, “falls” into bed with Ellis the way it always happens in romantic comedies: They drink a bunch and then ravage each other like horny virgins. These movies make you believe that the only way to “fall in love” with someone is to get totally hammered and have sex on the first date. Because that works out so well in real life.

Of course, Ellis is inexplicably drawn to Adaline’s aloof demeanor and distant gazes. He absolutely will not take no for an answer. Again, this only happens in movies. If a real dude were this persistent, you would be like hey stalker, no means no, brah.

Adaline agrees to go with Ellis to his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary celebration. But (plot twist!) it turns out that Ellis’s dad, played by Harrison Ford, also fell madly in love with Adeline in the 1960s, and planned to propose to her on the day that she ditched him to change her identity. One of the main reasons to watch this movie is to see the flashback scenes where the actor who plays the young Harrison Ford does like a crossover impression of Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

Eventually, Harrison Ford figures out that Jenny actually is Adaline. He begs her not to hurt his son the way she hurt him, but Adeline just can’t conceive of a life where she gets to be loved and to love another honestly.

As I watched Blake Lively’s shiny blonde hair flowing behind her as she ran through a forest, the point of the movie hit me. It’s about running away from life, making excuses, giving in to doubts, letting whatever the obstacle is – money, health, social awkwardness, fear, anger, shame, eternal youth, whatever – letting that thing stop you from even trying.

When Ellis discovers that Adaline has left, he asks his father what happened. What made her leave? Why’d she do it?

Ellis: Dad! Tell me what she said!

Harrison Ford character: She said she’s not capable…

Ellis: Of what?

Harrison Ford character: Of change.

Over the past few months, I’ve slowly opened up to the idea that my future could look different from my past. I don’t have to run. I don’t have to listen to the mindless critical chatter. I don’t have to settle. I don’t have to lock my heart away, and I don’t have to deny myself the life I deserve as penance for my perceived faults and failures.

The media and the advertisers will tell you that aging is about loss — the loss of beauty, of health, of optimism, of potential — like if you haven’t made your career and had your family by 35, if you haven’t maintained a perfect physique and resisted all addictions, if you haven’t found inner peace and eliminated negativity, if you haven’t accomplished something, become somebody, achieved your dreams, healed your family, saved the world, then you might as well just completely give up.

But it’s a lie.

The reason prior generations valued youth so much is that everyone expected to be dead by 50. Life was hard. People were dying all the damn time. You got married at like 12 and had 10 babies by 40. You probably wished you were dead. You worked on a farm or in a factory or a mine where nobody cared if you didn’t feel like going to work that day. Nobody cared if there was a blizzard or an ice storm or a dust bowl. You didn’t have choices. Youth was valued because you didn’t expect to be young for very long. You had to grow up fast, and the decisions you made as you launched into adulthood had serious, lasting repercussions. Marrying the wrong man or choosing the wrong job could put you in the hospital, or in jail, or in the grave. We have so many choices now. We have so much more to work with than any generation before us. Including time.

So, here’s to 41. Here’s to change. Here’s to choices. Here’s to anything can happen. Here’s to another year. (And I’ll try to make it a full year this time, DeAnna.)


IMPORTANT: Forehead Coverage Options

Yesterday, I had to get a patch of potentially pre-cancerous skin frozen off my forehead.

Just a Band-Aid on my huge forehead

No forehead coverage

As I was getting ready to leave the house, I had a split-second thought that perhaps I could cover up this Band-Aid. Here’s what that might have looked like:

Photo 12

This one reminds me of the time I dressed as Christina Aguilera for Halloween and my downstairs neighbor was like, “Who are you supposed to be? Bret Michaels?”

Photo 20

Et tu, Axl?

Photo 24

Myself in junior high. Or Zoey Deschanel.

Photo 29

Howdy, Tex!

Photo 39

Fuck it. I’m a hippie. I have a Band-Aid on my head. Deal with it.

Photo 43

The Contessa. I did watch Under the Tuscan Sun recently.

Photo 56

That chick is so sporty in that flattened liquor store swag hat.

Photo 60

I can’t ride my bike because I still have a fractured ankle, but safety first.

Photo 61

The ’90s are back, right? I mean, apparently. Look at that TV in the background.

This last one makes me think I should totally go as Alanis Morrisette for Halloween this year. Maybe I’ll see my old downstairs neighbor and he’ll be like, “Hey, where’s Silent Bob?” To which I will reply, “Fuck you, Matt! I no longer want to hump you so bad!”

The Humbling

My first failure was an elementary school science fair. I set out to create a model of an underwater city. I could envision it clearly in my mind—I staged some little buildings on the bottom of an aquarium, glued a clear plastic bowl over them, and filled the tank with water.

You don’t have to be Bill Nye the Science Guy to imagine what happened. For an hour or so, I stood in front of my floating bowl of gluey soup, forced to own my failure.

My first shot at being on stage came in high school, when I was given a solo, “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls. I practiced. I know I practiced. But obviously not enough, or maybe it was just nerves—the moment I opened my mouth, I could tell I was out of tune, with no way back. I attempted to find the right notes again, but ultimately pushed through the whole awful song as the audience cringed.

Being on stage, alone, knowing and feeling my failure, was like being outside my body. I knew what was happening, but the more effort I made to correct it, the worse it got. Afterward, I expected jeers and teasing, but instead, everyone was as kind as they could be. No one outwardly acknowledged my failure. Some even tried to make me feel better by saying how brave I had been to try at all.

There have been more bad performances than I care to remember. The time I tried to play guitar in front of class, my stiff and strange graduation speech, lackluster dance routines with the high school pom squad, and of course other singing disasters—from choir to karaoke to my college a capella group—no matter how well I could picture myself succeeding, no matter how much I tried to prepare, no matter how much others tried to support me, I fell flat, and sharp, and off, just about every time.

The Myth of Specialness

— Those are pretty verses, my little one, very pretty. How does one compose such a charming poem?

— It isn’t difficult, you simply say it out loud.

                            — Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector

The author and her sister (the short one practicing her Bill Murray in Caddyshack impression)

The author (right) and her sister (the short one practicing her Bill Murray in Caddyshack impression)

My sister and I were latchkey kids. When my parents got divorced, Mom moved out and got a job; she lived with roommates, but came over every morning after Dad left for work to get us ready for school. In the afternoons, sometimes on the weekends, and over long summer vacations, my sister and I spent a lot of time alone. We didn’t play on sports teams or take piano lessons. There were no ballet classes, swim meets or gymnastics—just hours upon hours of free time. Left to our own devices, we did what kids do—we invented our own realities.

In my imagination, I could be anything I wanted—a dancer, a singer, an ad exec, a restaurateur. (I once told my dad that when I grew up I wanted to be, “an actress or a waitress.” His response was that I could probably be both.) I filled journals with poems and songs. I spent hours performing in front of the bathroom mirror, dreaming of an audience.

I also was blessed—or cursed—with a healthy dose of beginner’s luck. Whether it was schoolwork, playing a game or sport, even navigating the tricky landscape of teenage social life, I seemed to be just naturally pretty good at stuff. I had talent. I had gifts. And I developed the belief that these were innate in my being, part of who I was. I was one of the special ones to whom success was fated to come easily and effortlessly.

Unfixing The Mind

Several years ago I was introduced to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who developed the theory of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.

People operating from a fixed mindset believe that they are hardwired with certain skills and talents, and equally not hardwired for others. Like they might say, “I’m just not good at math,” or “I’m not a runner.” When someone with a fixed mindset performs well at something, they attribute it to their natural abilities, which is all fine and good when they hit a homerun out of the park.

The problem arises when a fixed-mindsetter fails at something he or she thought was one of their God-given gifts. Self-worth is so intertwined with the things they are good at that a bad performance means they are “slipping” and “losing it”—as if they were born with a limited amount of skill that, one day, will run out.

On the flip side, the growth mindset emphasizes effort over talent. Whether novices or pros, those operating from a growth mindset believe that they always can get better. The most obvious example is sports. Michael Jordan might have been born with natural athleticism, but he also was coached. He learned and practiced, learned and practiced, and learned and practiced some more.

The key tenets of a growth mindset are persistence and perseverance. Try, try again. Growth-mindsetters are able to “fail” because they recognize that losing the battle—missing the shot, not being chosen, falling short of the goal—is not losing the war. There is no risk of running out of talent or skill. There is no fear of “using up” a limited amount of luck.

Getting What I Deserve

In tenth grade, I went with my mom to parent-teacher conferences. I always had been an A and B student, but a few months into my first semester of high school, I had a C in English—which was my favorite and best subject. Mom suggested to my teacher, Mrs. Scornovaco, that perhaps she was grading my work especially hard because I was such an exceptional student. Mrs. Scornovaco did not hesitate. No, she said. I gave Cara the grade she deserves.

Although I’ve dabbled in all manner of arts, writing has been the thing. I wanted to be a writer. A good writer. An unnaturally great writer. A prodigy. But just as with other performances, my creative writing always has fallen short. I work on it and work on it, freewrite and rewrite, reorganize and rearrange, switch out the words and chop out the clunky parts, and yet still I never seem able to convey my vision on the page.

I have taken writing workshops, been in writing groups, read writing books, “finished” a draft of a novel, started and abandoned short stories, penned pages upon pages of poetry, and yet that click, that flow, continues to elude me.

The temptation to give up is strong. Every rejection from grad schools, writing programs and publications is like reopening an old wound. It stings, but when I’m being honest, I have to agree with Mrs. Scornovaco: My work has gotten what it deserves.

Because deep down I know that I have not really tried.

Sure, I have spent hours and days alone with my computer, usually at the last minute of some deadline for a contest or submission, funneling into an idea. I can write adequate sentences describing what I find in my imagination, but it always comes out stilted and bland, no spark, no life.

In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master something. That would mean practicing two hours a day for about 14 years. What have I given that amount of effort to?

It’s not that I haven’t been trying—in fact, I’ve been working really, really hard. Which might actually be the problem: I’ve scattered my energy across so many things, fueled by beginner’s luck and magical thinking, that even the best of my attempts has amounted to little more than a hail Mary pass into the endzone. Without a structured, focused and disciplined practice, the only thing that I have really mastered is daydreaming about mastering things. That’s not a whole lot to hang your hat on when you’re alone on a stage, facing an expectant audience.

The Importance of Feedback

My most recent bad performance was at my grandfather’s funeral. After my failed attempts in college, I gave up playing an instrument. But in the last year or so I picked up the guitar again, and began teaching myself. I’ve taken some lessons, but mostly I’ve just played for my own enjoyment.

We knew Grandpa was dying for months. You could see it in his gaunt frame, hear the exhaustion in his voice. He was just done. I brought my guitar to Thanksgiving and stumbled through a few songs. It wasn’t great, but it was passable. Grandpa especially seemed to enjoy my rendition of “Dang Me,” the old Roger Miller tune. I don’t think it was my performance, so much as the memory of that song.

Grandpa died in December. We rented out the event room in his retirement trailer park and invited all his friends. My uncles and cousins were there; my sister flew in from San Francisco. Since I knew that he had enjoyed my playing, I wanted to honor Grandpa by performing at his service.

I played a few songs, fumbling through the chords and trying to keep it together with a roomful of retirees staring at me in shock and discomfort as I missed cues, lost notes, played wrong strings, but just kept singing, kept going, because what other choice did I have? Was I going to just throw my hands up and say, sorry, I can’t do it? Would it be better to just stop, put my guitar back in the case, and shuffle to my folding chair in the front row without finishing?

The response was lukewarm. At least you tried, everyone seemed to say. Trying is something. Trying is commendable. But an equal number of people avoided my gaze, eager to slip out without being forced to concoct some apologetic encouragement. My shame was visceral to them. They could not stand to be near it.

That my failure was too awkward to acknowledge was, in some ways, the worst part. No one just flat-out said, Well, that obviously sucked. This might seem like an odd thing to begrudge anyone—after all, they were just being nice. I have certainly employed the same tactics many times myself. But this messes with the third, and in many ways, the most crucial aspect of a growth mindset. In addition to persistence and perseverance, growth-mindsetters need honest feedback to improve performance.

Testing… Testing…

The cycle is the same in any iterative improvement process: Plan, build, execute, evaluate, adjust; then plan, build, execute, evaluate and adjust some more. It is nearly impossible to have continuous improvement if you skip the evaluation step.

The problem with locking myself in my room and burrowing into hours and hours of editing my own writing is that there is no calibration with the outside world. It’s a closed loop with no opportunity for real advancement—like a needle stuck in the same groove of a record, it will just continue skipping along.

Inviting and accepting feedback—whether from a coach, teacher or audience—is especially critical when you feel stuck. Often we can get so in our own heads that we reinforce bad habits and develop blindspots.

About a month ago, I attended a three-day workshop on Human Computer Interaction in Chicago. The facilitator was Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini, one of Steve Jobs’s original “boys.” Tog was Apple’s first HCI designer and worked with the company from 1978 to 1992. He is now a principal at the Nielsen/Norman Group, where his partners are Jakob Nielsen, the inventor of heuristic evaluation, and Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, widely regarded as a foundational book on usability.

HCI is based on applying evaluative data from testing to create the best possible experience for the user. The workshop covered a lot of ground, but what I found most fascinating was Tog’s insider view of what made Apple so successful—it wasn’t just brilliant engineers; in fact, brilliant engineers were sometimes the problem, especially when they got overconfident on their own designs and proceeded full-steam ahead without user testing.

There is an arrogance about the refusal to acknowledge negative feedback. This is when you hear artists, writers and musicians say things like “they just don’t get me” or “I’m ahead of my time.” Chances are that you are not actually a misunderstood genius, but that you are too closed off from feedback to see that you are failing to connect.

In the case of singing and playing guitar, I certainly could have gotten better on my own by practicing more. But the one thing that I was not practicing was performing in front of people. When I sing and play alone, I feel free to mess up. If something isn’t going well, or I miss a note or lose a lyric, I simply start again.

Also, when I play by myself, what feels and sounds good to me is all that matters. However, in the real world, performing for others is a form of communication—it requires an interplay and exchange of energy. We have all seen performers who are totally oblivious to the audience. They are clearly enjoying themselves, but they are not paying any attention to the lack of energy coming back to them from the onlookers. Not only is this painful for the audience, but it is actually pretty selfish on the part of the performer, tantamount to public masturbation.

By contrast, we’ve all seen great performers—so attuned to the audience, so open to feedback, that they can adjust on the fly. They improvise, explore, expand and even surprise themselves with their performances. Sure, they might make a few mistakes, but that is expected when an artist is truly in the flow of the creative process.

Making music, writing, and just about every other artform is really about play. The fixed mindset, I-was-born-with-it approach doesn’t allow room for play. Even little failures mean that I must not be talented after all; I must not be a writer; I must not be a singer; I must have “lost it.” And because this is such a depressing thought, I must hide from the feedback. I end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I stop practicing, stop listening—stunting any progress I might have made—and vow never to try again unless I’m sure that I will be absolutely perfect.

The Rules of The Game

The Lamstons were a family that, after a good start, had come to be characterized by permanent overall failure, and people generally shunned them for it. In return, they withheld themselves. It was their only point of pride, I suppose. Which is why the children remained so sadly aloof, even to me. And who could begrudge them?

The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks

In 2005, when I was 30 years old, I declared personal bankruptcy. Looking back, it seems like such a cowardly and lazy thing to do. I got into credit card debt in college. I was lucky in that my tuition was covered by Pell grants (this was back in the olden days when in-state tuition was incredibly cheap), but I still took out about $15,000 in student loans.

I lived with roommates and paid for all of my own expenses, including rent and utilities, food, gas, car repairs and maintenance, my phone, books, clothes, etc. I wouldn’t say I was an elaborate spender, but I definitely bought a few too many new outfits because I had “nothing to wear.” I spent a lot of money going out to eat and, mostly, drink.

My part-time, minimum-wage job at the pizza place covered some expenses, but I often found myself struggling to make ends meet. When I graduated, I had about $10,000 in credit card debt, and by my mid-twenties it had climbed to $20,000.

At 30, I was in a long-term relationship. We did not share a bank account, but we split bills and rent; and we bought a car together. My debt felt like an insurmountable burden by that point. I had never really tried to keep a budget or track my spending. I certainly wasn’t prioritizing paying off my credit cards. It felt too big. Too scary. My boyfriend and I decided as a couple that bankruptcy would be my best option—after all, we would have his credit, which was pretty good. And I didn’t have any assets to lose.

The bankruptcy itself was pretty painless. I met with a lawyer and filled out all the paperwork. To be honest, I can’t even remember going to court. I just got an email from him saying that it was all taken care of.

While my credit was definitely shot, my bankruptcy didn’t really affect me in any other way. Within a couple of months, I was already receiving credit card offers, and within a few years, I had racked up about $5,000 in credit card debt. Again.

Ultimately, it was the Great Recession that motivated me to change my financial behavior. It really pissed me off that big banks and financial institutions got away with preying on people’s ignorance—whether through subprime mortgages or handing out credit cards to unsuspecting college students, or simply making credit card agreements so hard to understand that if you weren’t savvy or conscientious enough to read all the fine print, you could easily get screwed by skyrocketing interest rates. I recognized that, by carrying balances on my cards and making only minimum payments, I was empowering these institutions to control me and my money.

I now have paid off my credit card debt, and almost paid off my student loans. I began by tracking my spending, keeping a budget, and creating a payoff plan that meant drastically adjusting my lifestyle. For the past several years, I have not had a car, or TV or even Internet at home. I have learned to cook and prepare my own meals rather than going out to eat. I still splurge—quite a bit, actually—but I am confident that I will never get into the same kind of debt I was in before.

As of last month, it has been 10 years since my bankruptcy, which means that it no longer appears as a mark against my credit. I have a near-perfect credit score, and more importantly, I now view money as the seeds of my future rather than as a shackle holding me back from my goals.

Ironically, I now work as a marketing manager for a nonprofit that promotes financial capability. We are funded by an endowment that is basically a very well-invested chunk of change we got when we sold the College for Financial Planning in the mid-90s. This puts us in a highly unique situation for a nonprofit, in that we never ask anyone for money. We don’t take grants from corporations or the government. We never charge for anything, and there are never any advertisements. Everything we produce is completely free, unbiased and noncommercial.

Our only purpose is to help people—especially those who are not getting this information anywhere else—make better financial decisions, to improve their lives and reach their personal goals, whatever those might be.

But you’d be surprised how hard it is to give away good information. For one thing, everybody already knows what they’re supposed to do. Just like we all know that we’re supposed to eat vegetables and exercise, we all know that we should live within our means and save for the future. But these are the kinds of behavior changes that feel really hard, if not impossible—mostly because there often aren’t immediate results.

Completely changing your health (physical, mental, emotional, financial) is a long process accomplished through a series of small, boring choices. It is hard to build momentum in the beginning, and for a while, you have to fight to find the motivation to keep doing it. But there comes a moment when you start to feel the positive change taking hold, and when the breakthrough comes, it feels so obvious. It makes perfect sense.

I believe money habits are so hard to change because there is great risk of failure, but even more than that, we are taught to believe that being “good with money” is one of those fixed, inherent traits that you are either born with or not.

But let’s get real—most of the people in the world right now who have money started out with money to begin with. Sure, there are lots of examples of scrappy go-getters who built their wealth from the ground up, but the majority of wealthy people began with privileges that placed them way ahead of the curve. What makes this especially unfair is the stigma that gets attached to financial mistakes. The deck is unconscionably stacked against poor people who have never really been taught the rules of the game.

That’s why applying a growth mindset to one’s finances is so powerful. Rather than allowing past mistakes and misjudgments to define you as “bad with money,” you can take that power back from the corrupt system and simply say: No more. When you are educated to avoid predatory practices (some malicious, some just opportunistic), and when you start holding yourself accountable for your own actions, you can actually make that system start to work for you.

Freedom to Fail

So be heartened. Yes, you may have done badly this time but you are not what you did. You are many possible acts — some of which you will discover if you keep trying.

— Albert Ellis

I recently wrote an article about gaming and game culture in financial education. My research drew heavily from the 2011 book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. She argues that more and more people are playing games—be they traditional video games, multiplayer online games or casual mobile games such as CandyCrush—not because the Internet is turning us into antisocial, screen-addicted hermits, but because our society is not designed to motivate us.

McGonigal says good games satisfy a longing for meaningful work and provide opportunities to face increasingly difficult challenges within an environment where it is safe to fail. In fact, failure is often what keeps players coming back. When your avatar doesn’t advance to the next level, you immediately want to play again—you get better the more you play because you are gathering feedback from the game about how to do better next time.

This is a stark contrast to real life, which often leaves us feeling powerless and unsure of how to improve our situations. We often are punished for making mistakes; we are given few opportunities to “try, try again,” and the pressure to perform perfectly feeds into fear and risk aversion. Failure feels like such a huge risk that we choose not to stretch out of our comfort zones and push our abilities. We would rather be the ones sitting in the audience judging the performer than step out on to that stage and face the possibility of embarrassment.

I once heard a story on NPR about psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy. Ellis was a shy, awkward young man coming of age in 1930’s New York. He wanted nothing more than to start dating, but he was deathly afraid of rejection.

When he was 19, Ellis devised a plan—he went to the Bronx Botanical Garden every day for a month. If he saw a woman sitting alone on a park bench, he forced himself to sit next to her and start up a conversation. He attempted to talk to 130 women. Thirty of them got up and walked away immediately. Ninety-nine of them talked to him, but rejected his offer of a date. One woman said yes to the date, but never showed up. Ellis may not have made much progress romantically, but after that month he was no longer afraid to talk to women.

That is one of the happy side effects of failing over and over again: Eventually you just stop giving a shit. It takes the punch out of the fear of embarrassment and other people’s judgments because you know that these are all just feelings, and feelings pass.


In the story of my life so far, 2007 was my year of epic failures. From the outside, it appeared that everything I had ever wanted was coming my way. I was making more money than I’d ever made before. I had worked my way up from associate editor, to managing editor, to editor-in-chief of a magazine in a very short period of time. And I was engaged to my longtime boyfriend.

The only problem was that none of it felt right. I was way too inexperienced to run an editorial department, and way too timid to fight for what I needed to do my job well. Disagreements with management and discontent among the staff grew. My own feeling of powerlessness caused me to make rash and desperate decisions without considering the effects of my actions on other people. It reached a point where I wanted nothing more than to just get out of that situation, which I did in a clumsy and inconsiderate way. One of my former colleagues said it was if I had “farted and left the room.”

At this same time, my relationship with my fiancé hit a rough patch. In the five years that we had been dating, I believed whole-heartedly that we would be together for the rest of our lives. But suddenly, once we were engaged, all the little landmines we’d been avoiding as a couple started to blow up in our faces. I realized that the things that I could live with when we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I could not live with as husband and wife.

The hardest part was that we could not communicate our needs to one another. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the reason I couldn’t ask for what I needed was that I didn’t know what I needed. I did not know how to be in a mutually supportive and beneficial partnership. I didn’t know how to love and be loved as a whole person.

When all the dust settled, I found myself single again and back living in my hometown, working as an associate editor at a B2B magazine in the natural foods industry. There was something unexpectedly liberating about hitting the reset button and starting over. I knew that I still had lessons to learn, both professionally and personally, and I was willing to take a few steps backward to regain my footing.

Not that it was much easier the second time around. I never went to journalism school, and never had any training in interviewing or writing articles. I just sort of fell into features writing and found I had a knack for it. (Duh! I’m just good at stuff!) All of my prior editorial experience had been at a free advertorial publication where there wasn’t much danger of messing anything up too badly, because the sources we interviewed usually approved the copy.

By contrast, the B2B publication prided itself on news writing. In addition to features, I was responsible for scanning the wires and writing at least two news stories per week. This was an enormous learning curve. Not only had I never been a reporter before, I also knew next to nothing about the natural foods industry. I was interviewing experts in highly technical fields and was forced to quickly get up to speed on everything from organic regulations and nutrition science to retail sales and merchandising.

For one such story, I interviewed a longtime source of the magazine for a story about President Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of the USDA. It was not a contentious or controversial story and our conversation had been easy and free flowing. But when it came time to turn the story in, I found that I was unable to decipher some of my notes. Under deadline pressure, I made a rash decision to take a guess at what my notes meant without double checking with the source before publication.

The source was not pleased. He called me the next day and made sure I knew just how disappointed he was that I had not even made an effort to clarify my confusion before the story went live. He was absolutely right, and I knew it. I started to apologize profusely, but he stopped me and said something I’ll never forget. It was just one word: Onward.

That has become a sort of mantra of mine. No matter what has happened, what mistakes were made, where I have fallen short or how many times I have given a bad performance, the appropriate response is always to keep going. The past can’t be erased, so why waste time and energy fretting over it. Correct what you can, learn what you can, and proceed.

Even if the opposite were true—if everything went perfectly, all the pieces fell into place and the results far exceeded expectations, the appropriate response still would be… onward. It’s not over until it’s over and getting stuck on past successes can be just as stunting as being hung up on regrets.

The Humbling 

Last year some friends invited me to sit in on their band practice. They have a space in an old school building in east Denver where many local bands rent rehearsal rooms. Playing with a drummer and a bassist, singing into a microphone with a plugged-in guitar—it was the first time I felt like a real musician. And I played surprisingly well. This was before I’d attempted to play in front of an audience, and at least six months before Grandpa’s funeral. It all seemed to be flowing so easily; I had so much confidence that I felt virtually unstoppable. My friends in the band could tell that I was excited, and one of them turned to the other with a knowing look.

“She hasn’t had the humbling,” he said.

I honestly can say now that I believe I’ve had “the humbling” in just about every aspect of my life. I’ve been knocked down and slowly built my way back up, only now I have a much stronger foundation.

Romantic failure has been the hardest to overcome, but also stands to be the biggest and most important lesson. I have not had a serious relationship in the eight years since we called off the wedding. I’ve dated and had a few short interludes, but nothing approaching the committed partnership I desire. In some ways, I know that I have sabotaged my chances—partially out of fear of “failing” again, and partially as punishment for all the things I felt I did wrong. It goes back to that fixed mentality—since that situation didn’t work out, it must mean that I’m just bad at relationships. That was my one shot, and I blew it. But that is silly. I was a great girlfriend, and I know that one day I will be an even greater wife.

How can I be so sure? Because as I have intentionally developed more compassion and understanding of my own failures, I also have developed more empathy for others. One of the hardest things in a relationship is to give up the need to be right. By consciously working to live from a growth mindset, I have been able to allow more ease and flow into my life. I let things go more than I ever have before, and I’m much more willing to concede to another’s point of view.

I also have a much more relaxed idea of what it means to fail, and to succeed. I know now that I am not a good writer or a bad writer; I am a writer. I am not a good musician or a bad musician; I’m a musician. I’m not a good person or a bad person; I’m a person. And above all else, I am not a finished product. I am a work in progress.


Books that make you feel things

A few months ago a coworker told me about this new thing called “sensory fiction.” Three students at MIT created a “connected book and wearable” that portrays the scenery and sets the mood of a story while you are reading it, allowing you to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions. Basically, it’s a book that makes you feel things.

A book that makes you feel things.

As the protagonist’s mood changes, the wearable—a vest with a personal heating device and pressurized air bags—alters the reader’s body temperature, produces vibrations to influence heart rate, and inflates or deflates the air bags to induce anxiety or relaxation.

The existence of such a device assumes 1) that feelings have physiological aspects that can be manipulated; 2) that manipulating these physiological aspects will produce the same or similar reactions in everyone; 3) that the wearable’s programmers are able to deduce from a writer’s words what a character is feeling; and 4) that they can push the appropriate physiological buttons to simulate that feeling in the reader.

Bibliophiles everywhere will hate this idea. They will say, if you need a wearable to feel the despair that makes Juliet plunge a dagger into her own heart, then no amount of chest squeezing by pressurized air bags is going to be able to feel it for you.

But, as a user named Jim wrote in the comments section of the MIT project blog:


Jim gets it. If you could feel whatever you wanted to, whenever you wanted to, if a book literally could turn you on, wouldn’t you read it over and over and over again?

But what happens when, the thousandth time Christian Grey moves his fingers rhythmically inside you while you suck harder and harder, it somehow just no longer quite does it for you?

Or, what if the connected book and wearable’s idea of what it would be like to be pinned against the wall “climaxing anew, calling out his name” instead makes you feel like you just ate from a bad Indian buffet? Hot. Shaky. Tight in the chest.

Or, even worse, what if your wearable becomes the only thing that moves you? At least you don’t have to worry about rejection. As long as you keep the battery charged.

Given the option between a book that triggers the neurological lightning bolts of love or the real thing, who among us would choose the replica?

How would the wearable represent the feeling of being waist-deep in shit in the jungles of Vietnam, searching for the body of your fallen friend? Would your heartbeat quicken again? Would your body temperature rise? How would this feel different from floating down the Mississippi in the sweltering summer or plunging your hands into a caldron of whale fat and mistaking someone else’s fingers for your own?

Books to Fix Us

There are some obvious advantages to simulating emotional responses in readers. The opportunity to educate children about empathy, for example. And to engage the ones who might not appreciate literature.

But, why stop at kids? What about people who lack the necessary brain chemistry to feel remorse? Sociopaths. Violent criminals. Rapists. Child murderers. What if they could read something that helped them to understand what it feels like to be a victim?

Where is the line between making people feel things as education, and making them feel things as punishment?

But, of course, physiology is only one part of emotional response. You can shake without feeling fear, overheat without feeling angry, choke up without feeling sad. It is not only the firing of neuron to neuron in our brains that animates us. The reflexes, the instincts, the built-in responses, are only part of the story. Those instincts get triggered in the brain, producing the physiological response—the shivering, the sweating, the tension—but what triggers the instinct? And why do we suppose it’s not a one-way neurological highway? If we start dialing up emotional responses from the outside in, what might be the risks?

Of course, we are already doing this through pharmaceuticals that alter our brain chemistry, allowing us to be happy when we are sad, relaxed when we are anxious, and relieved of depression while our children sit by, focused and controlled.

How is dialing up our emotions with a book any different from dialing them up with Xanax or Ritalin?

What happens when someone in a fragile state of mind “feels” a book that disturbs them, changes them, makes them seem less like themselves?

Will the connected book and wearable come with a full-page warning in miniscule print describing all the possible side effects?

The Unpredictable Human Soul

These scientists at MIT may have whittled down the human experience to a neat and tidy formula, but what about that unknown ingredient, the thing that mixes with physiology to produce the richness of our unique emotional landscapes?

We may be able to simulate the relative likeness of fear or anxiety or romantic love by artificially triggering the physical symptoms, but if that is one half of the picture, then what is the other half, if not the soul?

And, as Carl Jung said, “If the soul is really only an idea, this idea has an alarming air of unpredictability about it.”

The physiological is the wild animal, ruled by instinct, triggered by specific stimuli to a programmed reaction. The other part is the one who makes sense of it all. The human experience is defined by the tenuous balance between the two. As Jung posited:

The closer one comes to the instinct world, the more violent is the urge to shy away from it and to rescue the light of consciousness from the murks of the sultry abyss. Psychologically, however, the archetype as an image of instinct is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon.

Literature has a large part in documenting that thin boundary between the instinct world (the physiological) and the light of consciousness (the sense-maker). And humankind’s ventures along that line have taken us to some very, very weird places.

For example, how would the connected book and wearable portray this moment in Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

… he would crawl up to the windowsill and, propped up in the chair, lean against the window, evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window. For, in fact, from day to day he saw things less and less distinctly; the hospital opposite, which he used to curse because he saw so much of it, was now completely beyond his range of vision, and if he had not been positive that he was living in Charlotte Street—a quiet but still very much a city street—he might have believed that he was looking out of his window into a desert where the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably fused.

And how would the wearable portray Kafka’s scene differently from this one in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

… poor Gregor Samsa, his little legs trembling, climbs his armchair and looks out of his room, no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him. And just as Gregor’s dimmed eyes failed to recognize the quiet street where he and his family had lived for years, taking Charlottenstraße for a grey wasteland, so I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place.

Maybe sensory fiction is not about nuance. Maybe it’s just about the butterflies in the belly when you’re flying on your Nimbus 2000. The question remains, why are we so desperate to be made to feel things?

Our Aching Loneliness

What else could this desire for constant, emotion-inducing entertainment possibly be about, if not loneliness?

And, given a product that stimulates our emotions, wouldn’t we choose to feel anything but loneliness? What costs would that have?

In her 1976 essay “On Being Alone,” published in The Village Voice, Karen Durbin writes:

Loneliness. There it is. Miserable, perpetual lump in the throat. I haven’t got the wit to find a lover who would love me more than he loved fantasy. Maybe I’ve become something unlovable. Maybe men and women are now on such divergent paths that we will never manage again without maiming ourselves irrevocably. ‘You mustn’t end up lonely,’ says Ma, going as ever to the heart of the matter. ‘Lonely people are afraid, and you musn’t be afraid.’

But that is the crux of the human experience—we are alone together. To deny our loneliness is to deny one of the very things that makes us human.

In the opening chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the protagonist, Rick, argues with his wife, Iran, whom he discovers has been intentionally dialing her mood organ to feel so-called negative emotions. She responds:

… ‘I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.’ Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. ‘So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything’…

The physical manifestation of human emotion, ranging from the macro—the shivering, the shortness of breath—to the micro—the spark of lightning flashing in the brain—is not, in and of itself, life. Those neurons are not life. Life is the thing that makes us kill and die for each other. The thing that keeps us striving and striving and striving despite our repeatedly broken hearts.

Literature is the place where we seek to find that spark of consciousness, that real life, reflected back to us. Sometimes what we see is truly terrifying as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:

… leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and the horses lay screaming.

And other times, literature is redeeming, as in one of my favorite passages of all time, from Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Beneficence:”

… I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

What would sensory fiction do that literature does not do for us already? And are we sure that it would be an improvement?

The Book Experience

I love flea markets. I like to just walk around and take pictures of all the weird consumerist ephemera from other people’s lives. On one of these excursions, I came upon this:

Grease Lightning

That’s right. It’s the 1978 adaptation of the musical Grease in every lo-tech media possible. It’s a VHS tape and an 8-track. An album and a cassette. Trading cards. And a book.

Now, as a woman of a certain age, let’s just say I have seen this film many times. I always had a thing for Kenickie. Danny was just a little too goofy. Kenickie was goofy too, but he was a little more real. Jeff Conway, the actor who played him in the film, had this certain kind of fuck-it attitude that felt authentic to the character: a greaser kid with few prospects and no money.

I opened the book expecting to find a shmaltzy transcript of the movie. Instead, I found this:

KenickieWatch out, Rizzo. Kenickie’s got a new baby mama.

Somehow, reading this story that I have watched so many times as a film, felt completely different. And in many ways, better.

The Netflix Generation

You know who loves the idea of sensory fiction, who absolutely can’t wait for it, are kids.

When I told her about it, nine-year-old Julia hopped up and down with excitement, saying, “I want it! I want it! I want it!” in the way that other little girls might beg for Justin Bieber tickets.

Julia is of the Netflix generation. Media-binging is a way of life. She is not at all conflicted.

Julia’s favorite books are the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, in which the titular character, a lonely Long Island juvenile delinquent, suddenly finds that he is living in a world populated with Greek gods.

So, even as they are perpetually plugged in, geotracked, and optimally marketed to, Julia’s generation is still inspired by the themes and archetypes that have sparked human emotions since circa 900 B.C. (Cue Jung again).

The thought of a generation of little Julias growing up with air bags strapped to their chests believing their wearable knows what love is supposed to feel like is heartbreaking and, in so many ways, unnecessary.

Instead of being locked up in their bedrooms subsisting on literary life support, what if Julia’s generation were gathered in cafes and parks talking about literature, sharing how it makes them feel as unique and emotionally complex individuals, and perhaps locking eyes with the boy or girl across from them and falling in love for real?

6 Organizations that Changed My Life, Vol. 2: Wiseman Group Interior Design

This might be the closest I get to going out with a guy who drives a Jaguar.

This might be the closest I get to going out with a guy who drives a Jaguar.

I moved to San Francisco in 2000. It’s strange to think about that now. The year 2000 felt like such a big deal leading up to it. I lived at the turn of a century, the same as my ancestors who lived in 1900, 1800, 1700—only they lived in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Sweden. They spoke different languages, but likely led similar lives—they were farmers, ranchers, and farmers’ and ranchers’ wives. I was just a recent college grad working as a hostess at a sushi restaurant.

I moved in with my best friend, Hari, who lived off Divisidaro, in a damp old Victorian with a cast of characters that included a guy who had recently split his head open and had staples holding his skull skin together; a party chick; and a dude who we referred to as a “techno hippie” due to his love of both jam bands and electronica. I picture him in oversized raver pants and a hemp necklace. That was San Francisco at the turn of the century—somewhere between the Summer of Love and The Jetsons.

I literally got on a plane and shipped a couple of boxes, with no job lined up, no car, no furniture. For the first couple weeks I slept in blankets on the floor. Maybe I was punishing myself for something. I’m not really sure. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that nothing ever got dry. Your hair stayed wet. Your clothes stayed wet. The floor and the air were wet. And cold as hell.

The good news was that there were lots of jobs. It was the tech boom. I went to a downtown temp agency and filled out an application. I had never had a real job before, so I didn’t know what I could do, but I was pretty sure I could do something. I had an English Lit degree, so at the very least, I could analyze the shit out of some prose.

My first temp job was canvassing with a guy who was running for city council. I met him at his nice townhouse, had coffee with his wife and kids, and then we went door to door with fliers. We went to Robin Williams’ house. Of course, we didn’t ring the bell or anything; we just left a flier in the mailbox at the gate.

The next week, the temp agency called me and said they had a receptionist job at an interior design firm. The office was on Potrero Hill in a Victorian that felt more like a posh residence than a business. The receptionist desk was at the top of the main staircase, in a nook that might have been a coat closet or a converted dressing room. It had a nice sunny skylight and a mirror behind the computer so that I never had to wonder if there was anything stuck in my teeth.

This was my first time answering multi-line phones, which is no joke—you have to answer and transfer many different types of calls, watch to see if the person picks up, monitor calendars, know who is in and out and when they will be back, take messages, send callers to voicemail. Then you had to meet the mailman and the UPS guy, sign for packages. And do all sorts of administrative tasks in the meantime—helping with data entry and typing letters, organizing, filing. Anything that was asked of you.

Anyone who thinks that it’s difficult to be a CEO or president of a company should try being a receptionist. Talk about pressure.

Add to that the sensitivity of working in a firm that served high-end clientele—movie stars, musicians, and powerful businessmen (and powerful businessmen’s wives). You had to make everyone feel important. I was expected to know who certain people were, and to treat them with special care.

Having no experience in the design world, everything was new to me. Thankfully, I had a great supervisor, Cynthia, who helped me along and encouraged me. I remember once she was having me categorize a bunch of items in a spreadsheet, and it had categories like “Lighting” “Floor coverings” “Window coverings” and I came across “Kilim” and I didn’t know which category to put it in, so I think I put it in the lighting section, and then Cynthia looked over my work and started cracking up laughing. She was like, um… a kilim is a rug.

I don’t know why I didn’t just look it up. We had the Internet! I had a computer! But maybe that was back when I still thought that I was supposed to know everything. (Business Lesson #1: People who act like they know everything usually don’t know shit.)

As it turned out, I was pretty good at the job. After a few months, I was promoted to Design Team Administrator—I was taken off phone duty and put to work assisting with project management for a team of three designers and an interior architect.

In another firm, with other designers, this might have been a DevilWearsPrada-style nightmare. I mean, we were working on multi-million dollar projects for big-name clients. Thirty-thousand dollars for an armoire? No problem. A $20,000 chair? You got it. (Case in point: I was assigned to a project in an enormous apartment that looked directly down onto author Danielle Steele’s courtyard.)

But, as luck would have it, the Wiseman Group was not that kind of place (at least not to me—I can only speak from my experience). The people were warm, kind, generous, and fun. Despite my youth and limited skills, I was entrusted with important projects; I was challenged to learn new software, to develop my own procedures and work processes, and to go as far as I wanted to go professionally. I never felt stifled—to the contrary—they seemed to think that I could do anything I put my mind to.

I got that encouragement from my coworkers and superiors, including the founder of the company, Paul Wiseman. I’m not exactly sure why Paul liked me so much (I’m sure I botched plenty of things that affected his projects), but he was one of my biggest supporters. That made a huge impression—that someone who had been so successful—an award-winning designer whose work appeared in Architectural Digest and House Beautiful—could see something special in me.

Ultimately, it was that support, and the confidence I gained from my work at the Wiseman Group, that encouraged me to leave San Francisco (and a well-paying job with growth potential) to pursue what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write. And, thanks to Paul, and to all of my friends and coworkers at the Wiseman Group, I finally believed that I could actually do it. I will always be grateful for that.


These are some of my favorite, and most ridiculous, photos from my time at TWG. We were invited by another design firm to a luau, and we somehow came up with the idea that we were going to crash it as “bikers.” (Grease 2-style, though I don’t think anyone but me would have gotten that reference.) That’s Paul in the middle with Kimberly and I playing the biker babes.

biker luau

Yup, we were pretty tough.

butterfly and me

This is Butterfly. She belonged to Paul’s personal assistant, Susanna, who used to let me housesit for her when she went out of town. She had the most amazing apartment, chock-full of cool trinkets and knick-knacks. I wish I had a picture of it.

luau ladies

Aw, TWG ladies. That’s Cynthia waving. She was instrumental in showing me what I was capable of, and I will forever be grateful to her for being such a thoughtful and compassionate manager.

Greg, Susanna, and Michelle

Maybe one of the reasons we all got along so well was that we went to a lot of parties. And you know I love parties.



xmas2 girls at bar


sound of music

I think this might have been the night we went to the Sound of Music sing-along at the Castro Theater. Christine, Amy, and Tamara were super mentors. I really could not have asked to work with more badass chicks than these three.

After I left TWG, I think it was Amy who sent me these pictures. Look how chic and elegant everyone was!

paul owning it

Paul, owning it, in his tux


I could write volumes about Tamara. She knows everyone in San Fran. She is full of spunk and love. I adore her.

beautiful amy

Beautiful Amy Frank! She and her husband, Chris, are two of the raddest, most creative people ever. I feel like I am so much cooler for having known them.


Aw, Jasmine and Mark. Jaz was a real San Francisco chick who grew up in the Mission. And Mark is a true rock ‘n’ roller. I’m pretty sure he took the day off when Joey Ramone passed away to properly mourn.

glam amy

I love this picture of Amy. So glamorous!


Before I move on from this period, just a word about my post-college job at Sushi Tora, on Pearl Street in Boulder. While I learned that I really don’t care for hostessing or waiting tables, I was sure lucky to work with these fantastic people. 

Saito-san (who would often come down to Round Midnight with us after our shifts to party the night away!); Mari, who was so sweet and patient with me; Enrique, Eugene, and Kay-san, who gave me a shot despite my lack of knowledge about sushi, food service, or Japanese language. I learned to count from 1 to 20 so that I could take orders at the sushi bar, and that was about the extent of my Japanese.

Saito-san (who would often come down to Round Midnight with us after our shifts to party the night away!); Mari, who was so sweet and patient with me; Enrique (? I think? I am not sure on his name, but he was a cool dude), Eugene, and Kay-san, who gave me a shot despite my lack of knowledge about sushi, food service, or Japanese language. I learned to count from 1 to 20 so that I could take orders at the sushi bar, and that was about the extent of it, but they were very forgiving.

Next up: 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 3: The Colorado Daily