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.

god-of-small-things-insta

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

god-of-small-things-family-tree

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.

shantaram

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.

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.

Onward

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.

Onward.

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

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?

On George Saunders and things that happen on my way home

It started on Sunday. I was waiting for the bus at Lawrence and 16th St. Mall after a long bus ride from Boulder, and all I wanted was to get home as soon as possible.

It had been a draining day. I had seen both of my parents—and both of them alone, which is rare. My stepmom was on a trip and my little brother, home from college for winter break, was at work. He has a job as a tour guide at the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, where our dad has worked for the past 35 years. I was a tour guide there when I was his age too.

But on this day it was just me and Dad. We didn’t talk about much in particular. Football—since the Broncos were playing the Chargers that day—and my new job, life in general.

My mom picked me up and we got Mexican food for lunch. Afterwards, we went to her house and hung out. I must have been storing up some stress, because as soon as we were alone, I pretty much immediately broke down in tears. There’s something about being with my mom that just makes me feel like I can finally let go. So, we talked through it and my mom was very supportive, but afterward I felt emotionally spent and just ready to be alone.

I had just gotten to Market St. Station in downtown Denver and was waiting for the 38 bus, which would be about a 10-minute ride to my house, when a woman approached pushing a stroller, with two young kids trailing behind.

The woman looked tired. It was cold that day, and the kids were dressed in warm coats, but she just had on a thin jacket. I heard her ask a man standing at the stop if he knew if the 38 goes to the Samaritan House, which is the local homeless shelter.

I know about the Samaritan House because I stayed there when I was in college as part of a social justice/leadership training program that I was in called INVST. A cohort of 12 of us, plus two facilitators, volunteered there for a week, interacting with the “guests” and eating what they ate, seeing what they saw. The only thing we didn’t do was sleep in the dorms with them. Our group slept in the kids’ playroom, on the floor, in sleeping bags.

During the days, we did projects with nearby charity organizations like the Denver Rescue Mission and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. On one day, we went out onto “the streets” without any money. Some of us tried “spanging” or “spare-changing.” But others of us didn’t feel right about it because it seemed like we were cheapening the experience of those who have no other choice but to ask for money.

As part of the program, we also read and discussed critical essays about the poverty cycle, the causes and effects of homelessness, and wealth disparity in general. The most memorable was a book called Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol. It’s Kozol’s true account of the months that he spent in The Martinique Hotel in New York City in the 1980s—It was a “homeless hotel,” basically a condemned, rat-infested building where many of the residents were young children who barely had enough to eat.

As a college student, raised in a pretty sheltered place, I can’t say that I fully got it at that point. I understood that a lot of folks had been dealt a raw deal in life.

I got the injustice of the fact that a handful of privileged people, most of whom got to where they are through no real effort of their own, make the rules that govern the lives of everyone else, and that they basically perpetuate the continuous cycle of the rich getting more and the poor getting less.

I was sympathetic, but I can’t say that I felt comfortable around homeless people. I was scared of them. They were dirty. They were rough. They had a rawness about them.

Over the years since then I have come to understand the significance of that experience at the Samaritan House. Although I didn’t get it at the time, it definitely made me see homelessness in a different way—like, these people aren’t that different from me or my family. It doesn’t take long to internalize feelings of hopelessness, and to continue to spiral downward. Especially if you have no one to help you out and no resources or education to fall back on.

So on Sunday, when I heard the woman ask about the Samaritan House, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she knew the address and she said yes, 2301 Lawrence. I looked it up on my phone and figured out that they would need to get off at Park West.

Her two older kids, a girl and a boy, were hopping around the bus bench, laughing and curiously listening. I told the boy that I liked his glasses, which seemed to make him bashful. I told the mom where they would need to go and then I remembered that I had a booklet of bus tickets, which are basically the same as cash for the bus fare.

I asked if they ride the bus often, and the little boy called out, “Yeah, we do!” So I gave the mom the bus tickets. She thanked me, but seemed a little shy about it.

When the bus pulled up, the little girl looked at me and asked, “Is this your bus too?” I said yes. I watched them until they got off at Park. In my head, I said a little prayer for them. I wanted to tell the mom that, despite what are obviously difficult circumstances, she must be doing a good job. Her kids seemed so happy and inquisitive, curious and kind. I tried to imagine a hopeful future for them, that their bright spirits won’t be squashed by the fear and the bitterness that must come with that life.

I made it home and I didn’t think much more of it.

The next night, I had my first voice lesson. I am starting to take singing classes from this real cool chick named Kristine who has a studio in a church on Capitol Hill. I had ridden my bike, but I didn’t want to ride all the way home in the dark, so I caught the 15 bus to downtown, where I would then have to connect to one other bus.

First of all, the 15 took for-freaking-ever. I was waiting with two stylish high school boys, two drunk old men, and a guy on a bike who I think might have had a slight mental disability—which I guessed might have something to do with PTSD, because the dude gave me a very military vibe. Not in a bad way, but he just seemed very efficient and concerned about things. He was socially awkward in a way that indicated that he might have been medicated—not the sloppy disorderliness of a drunk or a junkie, but the hyperclarity of someone on anti-psychotics. I had already been waiting for 10 minutes or so when he rode up and asked if I thought we could get both of our bikes on the bus.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” I replied.

And then he very sweetly added, “Well, you get the first shot at it, cuz you were here first.”

I told him I appreciated that.

But eventually the bus took so long that he rode off, bidding us to have a good night. The bus finally came, and I got my bike in the rack, no problem. It was pretty full, so I sat down next to an older man. He asked me if I knew where the 15 turned when it got off Colfax. I blabbed out some unhelpful answer where I tried to pretend like I knew, even though I didn’t really know. I asked him where he was going, and he said, “23rd and Broadway.”

From the night before, I remembered that the Samaritan House is on 23rd and Lawrence, but I didn’t want to assume that was where he was going. I asked him if he really meant 23rd and Broadway, and he said yes. So I looked it up on my phone, and got the directions for him, but they weren’t easy to convey—he would have to get off the 15, then walk a block to another bus stop, where he would catch the 48.

I tried to help him, but the directions were so long and convoluted that I feared I had confused him more. He was anxiously sitting on the edge of his seat, looking at every stop, trying to figure out where to get off, but I could tell that he was too embarrassed to ask me again.

I decided that I would get off at the stop with him, and try to make it look like it was coincidental, and then I would offer to walk him to the next stop. But he pulled the buzzer and got off a stop too early. I didn’t tell him because I sensed that his pride was more important right then. I didn’t want to condescend to him or embarrass him more.

I felt terrible that I hadn’t helped him, but what could I do? I got off that bus and rode a block or two to my transfer. I saw that my bus was just about to round the corner. All I had to do was to sprint a block or so to get ahead of it. I was so in the zone, apparently, that when I got to the stop, feeling very lucky that my timing had worked out so well, I rushed to put my bike in the rack and get on. I sat down, very relieved, until the bus turned on 17th. At first I thought maybe there was a detour. But we kept going straight, so I asked the driver, “Is this a 38?” and he said, “No, this is a 15.”

Um, WHAT?? I had just boarded a bus going back to Capitol Hill, where I had just come from. Somehow without my noticing, a no. 15 bus had passed the no. 38 bus and arrived at the bus stop first. In my rush of relief, I had gotten on the wrong bus.

Crap.

So I had to get off and ride my bike back to the bus stop, where I would now have to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

I was not pleased. I was cold. I was pissed. I just wanted to get home.

A few minutes later, two young girls walked up. They looked about 15 or 16. Neither one of them had coats, just thin hoodies. They asked me if the no. 12 bus stopped there. I said no, and I asked where they were going.

“Westminster,” they replied.

I don’t know every bus route in Denver, but I was fairly certain that they would need to take the regional bus to Boulder, which costs $5. I told them this, but they said, no way, they didn’t have that kind of money.

They weren’t from here—one of them was from Vermont. The other from the Midwest. They had met in a group home for adolescent girls—the kind of place where you end up when you’ve gotten in trouble for fighting, or drugs, or when you’ve been so discarded that the system simply doesn’t know what else to do with you.

I could tell they were a couple, but I didn’t say so outright. One of the girls seemed to identify as more male. Her girlfriend still had a full set of braces—a sign that someone, somewhere, had at least invested in her wellbeing that much.

Once again, I took out my phone and looked up the bus routes. As I suspected, the directions suggested they take the Boulder bus. But it also suggested an alternate route, that would take a lot longer, but wouldn’t involve an increased fare. They would ride my bus, the 38, all the way to Wadsworth, then transfer to the 76 the rest of the way to the Westminster Park ‘n’ Ride.

They thanked me and we started chatting. The girl without the braces told me that she used to come to 16th St. Mall “all the time” with her dad. And that they would ride their longboards, and get drinks at Starbucks. The way she said that they did this “all the time” made me think that they had done this once, and that it was a special memory for her. She kept saying that she knows these streets “like the back of [her] head.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

They had been out on the streets for two nights, trying to get back to Westminster. They said that no one would help them. So they had just gotten on bus after bus, getting more and more lost. I didn’t ask them where they slept, or what they had encountered in those two freezing nights.

The girl with the braces pointed to the steam rising up from the sewers. She asked if there was something wrong. I told her no. It’s always doing that.

As we boarded the bus, I confirmed the girls’ route with the driver and he said that it was correct.

I sat across from them in the front seats. I gathered up all the cash I had—a dollar bill and a handful of coins—and I handed it over to them.

They were very grateful, thanking me, saying that they really appreciated my help.

“So many people wouldn’t help us,” they said. “They just walked on past us.”

I told them that it’s just because people aren’t used to talking to each other out on the street. That we’re all sort of in our own worlds.

“Or they’re creeps,” the one girl said.

Yes, I concurred. There are a lot of creeps.

I leaned in and looked them both in the eye, “But you have each other,” I said, “and that’s not nothing.”

The girl without the braces seemed to light up. She cuddled under her girlfriend’s arm. “She’s protected me from a lot,” she said. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.

Ironically, when we got to the stop for the Samaritan House, the man who I had tried to help earlier passed me on his way off the bus. So, despite my poor directions, he did make it there, which eased my mind.

We reached my stop and, as I was exiting the bus, I repeated the directions to the girls. “Get off at Wadsworth and catch the 76,” I said. I looked at each of them as I said it, trying to ingrain it in their brains.

They thanked me again.

The girl with the braces said, “It was really nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I told them. But I never got their names.

I said a little prayer that they would get to their destination and be able to sleep and get warm that night.

Which all leads up to yesterday.

My coworker came into my office mid-morning and informed me that the short stories writer George Saunders would be signing his book at the Tattered Cover that night. I was turned onto him by my friend Dimitri who leant me his copy of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, Saunders first short story collection which made him an immediate literary sensation due to his darkly comedic yet tender storytelling style.

Saunders is thought by many to be the writer of his generation. He has been praised by everyone from Thomas Pynchon and Tobias Wolff (his former writing professor at Syracuse) to Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace who said of CivilWarLand that it was “well worth a good deal of attention.”

On my lunchhour, I went to the Tattered Cover to get a ticket for the reading—tickets are free, but you have to get one to guarantee a seat. I bought a copy of his newest book Tenth of December, even though I was worried about spending the money. I’m trying to stick to a budget, and I can’t be randomly blowing all my cash on books.

So I was already a little stressed about money when I left the bookstore, and just a few feet from the door, I passed a young man who was standing stone-still on the sidewalk, watching me go by. He had a sleeping bag and a backpack, and he looked a little rough around the edges, so I assumed he was homeless. He seemed to want to get my attention, but he was speaking so softly that I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I asked him to repeat himself, even though I knew I had no cash on me, and that he would likely ask me for some.

He seemed surprised that I was speaking directly to him. I stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. He looked to be in his early to mid-20s, very soft spoken and humble in his demeanor. He said his name was Kevin.

He spoke louder—he told me that he had come out here from another state (I can’t remember which) with a woman who had told him that he could rent a room in her house for $400 a month. They had driven together, with all his stuff, but when they arrived it turned out that she didn’t have a house or a room at all. She took all his stuff and his money, and left him with nowhere to go. He had been on the streets for two weeks—homeless for the first time in his life.

For most of that time, he had been able to get a bed at the Denver Rescue Mission, until the previous night, when they had already filled up when he got there. He tried to get into the overflow beds at the Samaritan House, but they wouldn’t take him until he got a $25 tuberculosis test to show he didn’t have TB. He said he had already met with a caseworker there though, and that they may be able to help him, if he could just find somewhere to stay.

He said he needed $30 for the hostel, but that he’d been asking passersby for spare change for over two hours, and had made less than $3.

The night before, he had slept outside—he had found a steam grate which was keeping him somewhat warm, until about 2:30 am, when a cop came by and told him to move along.

Kevin said he begged with the cop, “I’m not intoxicated,” he said, “the shelter is full—I’m human. I can’t walk around all night. I have to sleep.”

“That’s not my problem,” was the cop’s reply. He said it’s illegal to sleep outside in public due to Denver’s Urban Camping Ban.

I just felt like I had to help Kevin. We walked over to the ATM and I withdrew $20. I told him to consider that, even if he could raise the rest of the money for the hostel, that would only get him one night and then he would be right back in the same predicament the next day.

I suggested that he would be better off spending that money on the TB test. At least then he would have the option of getting into an overflow bed at Samaritan House. I shook his hand and wished him luck.

I stopped into Illegal Pete’s for lunch, feeling sad for Kevin, and also frustrated at myself for withdrawing another $20. I had already been feeling guilty about spending money. I had already splurged on a book. What was I going to do, give 20 bucks to every homeless person on the 16th St. Mall?

I reached into my wallet to pay for my burrito, and noticed the corner of a check folded up in the billfold part. That’s when I remembered that I had meant to deposit that check earlier in the week. It was a refund from when I cancelled my Internet.

The amount of the check was $20.90.

So, basically, the money that I had been so worried about withdrawing and giving to Kevin, was sitting right there in my wallet, ready to be deposited back in the bank.

What struck me about all of these experiences was how different all of these people were on the surface—the mother and her kids were African American; of the two teenage girls, the one without braces was white and the girl with the braces was Asian; the vet on the bike was white, as was the old man on the bus; and Kevin looked to be Hispanic or possibly part Native American.

What made them all similar was that they were all kind and vulnerable. And none of them seemed to deserve to be homeless. Yet there was something still hopeful about them too.

That night at the reading, George Saunders said that he really only found his writing voice when he stopped trying to “climb the mountain of Hemingway”—stopped trying to live up to some impossible standard—and planted his flag in the “dung hill of George Saunders.”

During the Q&A, someone commented that they were surprised, considering the dark content of his writing, to find Saunders himself to be so upbeat.

Saunders has heard this before—he said that one time someone actually referred to him as “perky.”

“How can that be?” people always want to know.

They ask him: Which is it?

Is life terrible? Or is life wonderful?

Yes. Saunders replies. It is.

Amy Tan is not dead yet

I know that I am right in the middle of telling the story of our trip to Costa Rica, but I have to interrupt to post about something else that happened today.

It actually started with something that happened in Costa Rica.

Our flights left San Jose at 6am, which meant we had to get on the shuttle from our hotel around 3:45 to be at the airport by 4. Chris and Joy knew from their last experience traveling through Central America that Costa Rica charges an “exit tax.” You have to pay about 30 bucks just to leave the country. If you don’t know this, and you cut it close timewise, you could end up scrambling to get all the security and customs taken care of before your plane takes off.

Because our hotel was literally about 7 minutes from the airport, and there was a shuttle that did the loop every 15 minutes, we decided to save ourselves the stress in the morning and just go over the night before to pay our tax and check in to our flights.

For some reason, the airline couldn’t print Jenn’s boarding passes, but a very nice girl, who looked about 12, was helping them figure it out. While we waited, Joy, Chris, and I looked around the extremely expensive gift shop. They actually had a pretty good book rack—not the newest releases, not classics, but just good books from all different genres.

One of them was Stephen King’s On Writing, which is one of those books that people are always telling me to read and I’ve just never gotten around to it. I have a theory that Stephen King will be seen by future generations as our Charles Dickens—a popular author who can actually write.

I mean, I’ve never read any of his books, per se, except about half of The Shining, but even just his plots are amazing—Carrie, Pet Semetery—the short story that inspired Stand By Me. I actually think the reason I didn’t finish The Shining is that he is too good a writer. I was scared.

So at the San Jose Airport gift shop, I picked up On Writing and started reading the introduction, which is all about how he (Stephen King) is in a rock and roll band with Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, a bunch of other authors, and Amy Tan. Apparently, they formed as sort of a joke during some kind of author conference, and they enjoyed it so much that they continued to play shows here and there for 20 years.

I love this. It is so refreshing to think of writers who like to have fun together. Even as a teenager, I thought Dave Barry was hilarious. That was back in the days when you still read his syndicated column in a real paper newspaper that was delivered to your house. And I adore Barbara Kingsolver—The Poisonwood Bible, especially.

And Amy Tan. When I was a senior in high school, I was in A.P. English. It was my first and only A.P. class, and it was what convinced me that I wanted to be an English major. We read some incredible books: As I Lay Dying; Native Son; Bless Me, Ultima; Beloved; The Brothers Karamazov.

One of my favorites was The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Like its predecessor, The Joy Luck Club, it is historical fiction based on stories from Tan’s own family in turn-of-the-20th-century China. It’s almost mystical the way that she transports you to other times—all in an effort to untangle messy present-day family relationships by better understanding why the elders think and behave the way they do. It just shows how universal so much of our family issues are, regardless of culture or ethnicity.

A few years ago, I was given a copy of her memoir from 2003, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life. There is a chapter called “A Question of Fate,” in which she writes about being a doctoral student in linguistics at Berkeley in the mid-70s.

She and her husband had a friend named Pete, also a Berkeley student, who worked part-time with them at a pizza place. They often drank beer and talked after their shifts about philosophy, metaphysics, and the nature of life—free will vs. destiny.

It turned out that Pete had tragically lost his wife in a car accident a couple years earlier. He revealed to Amy and her husband, Lou, that he had recently been having dreams about joining his wife in the afterlife. He had premonitions that two men would break in to his apartment and strangle him, but he felt that it was going to be okay because his wife would be there to guide him to the other side.

They were all feeling vulnerable because there had been some trouble with a gang that Amy, Lou, and Pete had thrown out of the pizza parlor. They felt they were in so much danger that they had reported their situation to the police, but there wasn’t much that the cops could do except advise them that they might want to move to a different neighborhood. Amy and Lou thought that Pete was just experiencing heightened anxiety because of this situation, and was having traumatic flashbacks to his wife’s death.

They decided that it would be best for them to move. They found a building in Oakland. Pete would move first; Amy and Lou would follow as soon as another apartment opened up. It was only a couple of days after he moved in that Pete was strangled to death by two men who broke into this apartment, just as he had predicted.

The way that Amy Tan writes about this is so inspiring, because she really doesn’t play it up for drama—the real things that happened were so dramatic already. She takes you through the feelings, the doubts, the skepticism that she experienced both then and now about what happened next.

She had a series of dreams in the months that followed wherein Pete guided and comforted her. In these dreams, he told her the names of his killers, which turned out to be accurate. He assured her that he was okay. And he encouraged her to release her fears. Eventually, he helped her question if she was really on the right life path. This self-reflection compelled her to quit her doctoral program and take a job doing speech and language therapy for developmentally disabled kids. She says in her memoir that this experience was fundamental to her becoming a writer.

The dreams ended when the murder trial wrapped up, and Tan is careful to say that, in reflection, she now believes that these dreams were probably a result of the shock and trauma she felt at losing her friend. But she also acknowledges that—real or imaginary—these visits from Pete after he died completely changed the course of her life.

So, today, I went over to the Tattered Cover on my lunch hour, and there was sign announcing that Amy Tan would be speaking and signing her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, tonight at 7:30. I had a few moments of feeling like, “Ugh, I’m too tired” or “I just want to curl up at home” right after work, but then I thought: When is the next time I am going to have this opportunity to see someone in real life who I find so interesting and inspiring? So I went.

She didn’t end up reading at all—instead, she showed us pictures of her grandmother as a young woman in China. She talked about what she has been doing these past eight years since her last book, and told about new revelations she has had regarding her family history.

And she talked about the power of coincidence—synchronicity—serendipity—the importance of just allowing things to unfold the way they are supposed to. Getting out of the way so that strange, magical things can happen.

The very first question of the Q&A, someone asked her about the rock and roll band. She said that Barbara Kingsolver quit because she decided to become a “a grown-up” and that some people in the group, like Dave Barry, are actually really good musicians. She is not very musical, so she dresses up in leather and sings “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” while doing a sort of campy dominatrix act.

They played with Bruce Springsteen once and he told them to stop trying to be good. He said that they are just good enough, and if they got any better, they would be bad.

Toward the end of the Q&A, she recounted something that had happened on a prior visit to the Tattered Cover, for a different book tour. She was waiting off to the side as she was being introduced, and standing next to a wire rack full of CliffsNotes.

She, herself, used CliffsNotes a few times in college, much to her embarrassment. She was taking more than 20 credit hours in one semester, plus working two jobs, and she just couldn’t do all the work. So she used CliffsNotes for three works: Lord Jim, Hamlet, and Ulysses. (No one can read Ulysses in one night, she joked.)

She saw those titles among the selections on the wire rack that night in the Tattered Cover. Then she looked further and saw The Joy Luck Club. She says she was shocked. She thought, “I’m not dead yet!”

Maybe that’s what I find so inspiring about Amy Tan. She believes in allowing mysterious things to unfold. She investigates with compassion and writes with purpose. She has lived through tragedy and explored the tragedies of her ancestors. Yet she still likes to play. She is still funny and warm, and smart and fierce. And she’s not dead yet.

Austin greatest hits: what to do

Nature and stuff


Before I had my bike, my favorite thing to do on a day off was to walk all the way down the Shoal Creek path from around 38th St. to Lady Bird Lake (and then take the bus home because I would be fucking exhausted.) The path has many phases, at times beautiful and solitary, at times crowded with dogs and  runners, at times strange and sad—like when you read the historical markers describing pioneer girls abducted by Indians, and you feel sad for both the girl and the Indians.

hamilton-pool

Are you kidding me, Hamilton Pool? You are amazing.

But the main attraction in the Texas sunshine is definitely swimming. I am totally spoiled by Barton Springs and Hamilton Pool. I doubt if I will ever be satisfied with a regular old chlorinated pool again.

Farm culture

Austin has an amazing community of sustainable food advocates and farmers. The East Austin Urban Farm Tour was well worth the money. I was part of Farmhouse Delivery’s CSA for a while and loved it. I also got really into cooking, and the Farmhouse Delivery folks put out a beautiful recipe blog.

Yoga with AdrieneYoga

During the summer, there is free yoga outside Barton Springs on Saturday mornings. If you are affiliated with UT, you can go to the University Yoga Club, which is also free and takes place every Thursday on campus. It is very chill and includes meditation. But my absolute favorite is Yoga With Adriene at Salvage Vanguard Theater. Adriene is so gracious and compassionate and her classes are always fun. Case in point: she once did an entire class based on TLC’s album “crazysexycool.” Check out her web series!

Writing & Literature

Bookpeople gets just about any author who you would want to see in the store at one time or another, so it is definitely worth watching their calendar. I worked on the events staff for a while and I was always impressed by the quality of the authors. I also enjoyed the Texas Book Festival, where I saw people like Russell Banks and Colson Whitehead, and the Texas Observer Writers Festival, where I saw Jim Lehrer and my literary crush, Jake Silverstein, the editor of Texas Monthly.

la-ca-jc-manuel-gonzales-20130106-001As for writing, I took an adult writing workshop at Austin Bat Cave with ABC’s executive director, Manuel Gonzales, who was recently profiled in the Chronicle. Manuel was one of the best writing teachers I have ever had. He struck a perfect balance between challenging and encouraging us. If I get into an MFA program, it will be in part due to my workshop with Manuel. And if I don’t get in, I blame him too. Haha.

OrlandoSports & Leisure
Even though it is hot as balls, Austin is still a super sporty town. I joined a beginning running group with Rogue Running that almost made me forget how much I fucking hate running. And as a UT employee, I was able to take adult swimming lessons at Gregory Gym, where I kinda (sorta) learned how to swim laps. But the best was Absolute Beginning Ballet with Orlando Canova at Ballet Austin. Picture the sassiest person you’ve ever met. Then multiply that by 10 and remove any sort of political correctness filter. Then put him in charge of teaching 25 adult women how to do ballet. It was hilarious, and it finally satisfied my unfulfilled childhood desire to be a ballerina. Because now I understand that ballet is for masochists.

The rest of my time in Austin was pretty much spent working, drinking, or watching movies. I used to rent five movies at a time from the Faulk library, where they have a highly respectable collection. The other best place for movies is obviously I Luv Video. Free beer on Tuesdays and every weirdo, classic, avant garde movie you could ever want? And messages like this on the marquee?

I love video

Forget about it.

Welcome to Sucktown, Class of 2012

You’ve earned your college degree and now it’s time to step out into the real world of shitty office politics, lowered expectations, and crushing debt. Mazel tov!

First, you’re probably going to travel to Thailand or some shit. Or spend a few months in a daze of post-college keggers working on your flip-cup skills. Or just pick up more shifts at PitaPit. Or whatever it is you’re going to do to celebrate your graduation from the best higher education system in the world! Who cares if a 13-year-old in Finland or South Korea knows more math than you. The register tells you how much change to give anyway.

I’m probably not supposed to say this, but just like the cool aunt who lets you drink wine coolers and watch Sex and the City, I really just don’t give a fuck. You need to know.

Here’s the thing: You’re going to be hearing a lot about excellence. And about how important it is to be exceptional. To be the best. But that is absolute crap. Being the best is actually the fucking worst. You know what’s better than being good at shit? Fucking sucking at it.

I am not saying that you should intentionally fuck things up. Unless you’re an anarchist. But if we tear down the society, and get rid of all the government and structure, then we won’t be free to sit around drinking tequila, complaining about how shitty everything is, and watching Mad Men. I bet they would probably even stop filming Mad Men all together. Is that what you want? Is that really the world you want to live in?

No, I am actually suggesting that you try your damndest at something that you are NOT GOOD AT. Give yourself the freedom to be really, really bad at something. But the kicker is that it only works if you are actually trying to be good at it. You gotta want it. You gotta work at it, and eventually you won’t suck at it so much anymore. That’s ok, too. There are plenty of other things for you to suck at, don’t worry.

You know those people who never have b.o., make delicious cookies, look like fucking Michelle Pfeiffer, have fellowships to grad school and can accessorize the shit out of any outfit (a scarf with an evening dress? Fucking earmuffs with a bathing suit? Somehow it just works on her…)

Sleepytime Dr., Snoozeville County, Boretown, USA. Population: Those fucking people.

If you ever encounter such a person at a party, start a game where you go around the circle and everyone talks about their most embarrassing moment. Everyone will be falling off their chairs laughing about the time you shit your pants (granted, you’re all pretty baked). Meanwhile, Ms. Perfection’s story will be about the time she accidentally wore her shirt backwards, but then everyone thought she did it on purpose, and it actually became kind of a thing to do at her school.

It’s not your fault, Boring Girl. I’m sorry that you’re so lame.

The point is, go out there and fuck up. Try things that are actually difficult for you. You’ll know you’re doing it right when it doesn’t bother you so much to fail. You can laugh about it after your PitaPit shift when you’re in the baby pool in your front yard, drinking your last $2 in the form of a Lone Star tallboy.

And honestly, go see the world. Go to South America. Go to Asia. Teach English. Then maybe ask those elementary schoolers to teach you some math. Seriously.