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 Afghanistan, 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.

img_0760

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.

img_0763

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.

 

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.

The Rob Delaney School of Manhood

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to score a free ticket to see Rob Delaney at the Scottish Rite Theater, aka, Austin’s freemason headquarters. Apparently, when they aren’t performing ritual sacrifices and inventing new satanic tax codes, they open their doors for comedy and rock shows.

On the outside, it looks like a church. On the inside, it looks like a place where Scooby-Doo would hang out with Phyllis Diller and the Harlem Globetrotters: dim lighting, red walls, brown wood paneling, ornately framed paintings of old white dudes whose eyes follow you as you walk down the hall. And globes. Lots of globes. Maybe they use these to plan out the New World Order to scale. When I went looking for the women’s restroom, I expected it to be a port-o-potty in the back alley. The first thing my friend said when we walked in was, “this place makes me want to break some shit.” Luckily, there was also a sign with an arrow that said BAR.

The actual theater had old wooden auditorium seats and a backdrop depicting some kind of ancient vista as seen through Greek columns, which I imagine the Austin Illuminati uses as a set when they videotape themselves shaving designs of pyramids and eyes into each other’s balls. As we sat down with our $7 rum and Cokes in between a nice Dell employee named Tab and a woman with the loudest and most awkward laugh since anyone ever, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

If you don’t know Rob Delaney, let me lay down some knowledge on you. I first fell in love with his writing when I read an essay he wrote for Vice.com, titled Problem Areas. It begins like this:

Hi everybody! How’s it going? If you’re a woman, I hope your answer is “I’m fucking starving!” Bikini season will be here before you can say “Jamochachino Surprise,” so you better be torturing yourself and focusing your meager intellect and out-of-control emotions on shedding those pounds, girlfriend!

He goes on to mock the ridiculous culture of beauty worship (perpetuated by both men and women), that routinely mind-fucks generation after generation of women into believing that their natural bodies are gross, that their instincts are untrustworthy, and that their value as human beings goes up as the numbers on their scale go down. He rattles off a list of just some of the things that are probably wrong with your body, including:

Saddle bags, upper-arm fat, cottage cheese thighs, midriff-bulge (aka F.U.P.A aka “gunt”), flat chest, asymmetrical breasts, butt-beard, bacne, pit-cheese, cankles, surprise tampon string cameos, eczema, ham spatula, ashy elbows, feet of any kind, hairy knuckles, beef knuckles, uncle’s knuckles, vaginal halitosis, bald spots, loaf latch, sideburns, flatbottom, creeping jimson weed, dowager’s hump, treasure trail, Pepperidge Farm, razor bumps, leakage, phantom dangle, and panty dandruff.

My favorite is Pepperidge Farm.

Of late, Delaney has become a pretty big deal on ye olde Twitter. He has more followers than God and is routinely hilarious in his political commentary, bathroom humor, and sexual non-innuendo. It’s non-inneundo because he doesn’t innuendo it at all. He just comes out and says whatever the fuck is on his mind, and I respect that.

Have I mentioned that he has the bone structure of Superman, crossed with Jon Hamm, crossed with a Kennedy?

My adult woman self wanted Mr. Delaney to come out like the James Bond of comedy and deliver a cleverly crafted satire of our current socio-political climate. My inner adolescent fantasized that somehow the house lights would go up, we would lock eyes, and, he would take me out for an innocent, but sexually-charged post-show ice cream cone and then we would become best friends, and then I would meet his wife and we would all three become best friends, and then they would invite me to a party in LA where I would meet Ryan Gosling and we would get married and Rob Delaney would be the maid of honor at my wedding.

What actually happened was more surprising and, in many ways, more satisfying. (Ok, maybe not more satisfying than sex with Ryan Gosling, but still.) He was just really real. He talked about the humiliation of being a bedwetter as a child, about his struggles with alcohol, and a drunk driving accident that landed him not only in casts on both arms, but also in jail. (Sounds like a laugh-a-minute, right? Well, it actually WAS.) He talked about the joys and fears of fatherhood, and about how insanely hard it is to maintain a healthy marriage. Perhaps the biggest laughs of the night came as he described how sometimes he wishes that he and his wife could forego the infuriating difficulty of talking and just beat the shit of each other.

I left that creepy-as-fuck Scottish Rite Theater having laughed my ass off and with a much clearer idea of what I want in a man: Honesty. Strength of character. Humor. Vulnerability. Willingness to admit and learn from mistakes. Passion for the adventure of life, even when it is painful, and raw, and messy.

I am sure if I knew Rob Delaney in real life, I would sometimes think he was an insufferable shithead. But that is what it means to be human. We are all insufferable shitheads sometimes. Thank you, Rob Delaney, for having the courage to joke about it.

How to find America

Dear esteemed visitors,

I saw you sitting on the bench between the Starbucks and the Mac Store, by the fountain made of flagstone, concrete, rubber tubes, and a built-in sign that says, “PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB ON OR IN THE FOUNTAIN.” You were drinking Frappuccinos. You talked amongst yourselves, watching the traffic, the teenage girls in short shorts, and the young couples pushing strollers. There was rock music playing in the bushes. The air smelled faintly of chocolate chip cookies.

When I saw you, I thought I should tell you something. I am only telling you this because I thought you should know, and so there won’t be any confusion.

This is not America.

If you want to see the real America, you will need $2 per person. Leave your car in the parking garage and begin to walk due south, away from the Neiman Marcus. When you reach the Dick’s Sporting Goods store, go through the entrance and out the exit on the other side. Don’t worry about not buying or even looking at anything. The people who built this store put it in your way on purpose so you would have to walk through. Just keep heading south, beyond the Dillards and the acres of parking lot dotted with spindly baby trees. Notice that there are six or seven groundskeepers maintaining the tiny plots of grass in this desert of asphalt. Keep going.

Get on the No. 3 bus and ask the driver for a day pass. When you get to the intersection of South Congress and Live Oak, change to the northbound No. 1 bus. Do this so that you arrive at 9 a.m. on Thurs., Aug. 9, 2012.

There will be a man there, a construction worker, wearing a neon yellow vest. He will appear to check you out from behind black sunglasses. You will think to tell him that you are not one of his tender-hearted village Mexicanas, and that his Rico Suave moves won’t work on you. But you will still look at his strong, dark arms and wonder.

When you get on the bus, the driver will have a goatee and smell strongly of cologne.

All of the young men will be falling asleep. Some will have baseball caps pulled down over their eyes and their heads propped against the windows. Directly in front of you will be a large white guy with a shaved head and a beard, dressed all in black. You will wonder if he is a skinhead. He will also be falling asleep, with his arms crossed like a pillow on the metal bar in front of his seat.

The woman next to you will get a call. She will say, “Ginny? Ginny? Can you hear? Ginny? Ginny?” Using your peripheral vision, you will see that she is about middle-age, dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt, and that she carries herself like a rancher or a farmer’s daughter. “Ginny? Ginny?” She will continue to say. “Can you hear?”

The pretty young girl in the seats reserved for the disabled and elderly will drop something that makes a loud clanging sound.

The old man to your right, wearing black socks and sandals, will tap his foot as if listening to a song in his head. His profile will be unmistakably South American.

There will be two women whispering and giggling like sisters. They will both have pleasantly round heads and their hair in matching buns. One of the women will be Asian and the other will look English or maybe German.

“Ginny? Ginny? Can you hear?”

An African family will board the bus. You will deduce that they are African by their language. The father will carry a delicate looking instrument made of a gourd, some knobby cork fingers and strings.

The daughter will be about 11 and will sit away from her parents as if having a tantrum. She will scold her father loudly from several rows back, though you will likely not understand what she says. The mother will have spotty extensions and a kind face. She will sit next to the man you thought might be a skinhead. You will wonder how this is going to go.

“Ginny? Ginny? Can you hear?”

All the boys in the baggy pants will get off downtown.

A beautiful full-figured woman wearing hospital scrubs will ask to sit next to the African girl. The girl will think she is supposed to give up her seat. “No, no,” the beautiful woman will say, “I want to sit with you.” The girl will smile at this. Meanwhile her mother will be chatting with the white guy who you thought might be a skinhead. They will appear to discuss important things. He will listen to her with gentle respect. You will smile at this.

“Ginny? Ginny? Oh, ok. Sure. Do you want to talk later then? Ok. Goodbye.”

The woman next to you will quickly ring the bell and get off at the next stop. She will look  out of place among the buildings.

Just after you pass the capital, there will be two teenage boys crossing Lavaca Street. A woman on the bus will see them and start knocking on the window as if to get their attention, but they will be too far away and the bus will be moving too quickly. She could be the mother of one of the boys, you will think. Or the auntie. The woman will dial a number on her phone. She will press her hand against the glass. She will hold her phone to her ear and watch the boys for as long as she can before the bus turns the corner.

Dude tasting notes

Just like wines, dudes come in many varietals—from the subtle and complex, with a lingering finish that will keep you guessing—(i.e., but what did he mean when he said he “had fun” and we should “do it again sometime”? Does that mean he’s going to ask me out? Does that mean he’s going to booty call me? Does it mean I am supposed to invite him to do something??)—to the cheap and easy that will fuck you up fast and leave you with a wicked hangover (i.e., OH MY GOD. WHAT HAVE I DONE? I AM NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN WITHOUT A RESPONSIBLE CHAPERONE. I REALLY NEED A LIFE COACH.)

There is no one “right” dude for everyone. You need to test out lots of different types to find out which suits your tastes. And just as with wine, the best way to keep track of which characteristics you like and which you should probably avoid is to keep detailed tasting notes. Here are the basics:

Sight
Find a neutral place for viewing, such as against a white wall with no other dudes around. Look for discolorations or abnormalities, such as spray-tan streaking. Also scan for shitty tattoos.

Smell
Try to get the dude to come to you rather than approaching him. Keep your head straight. It will help you take a better sniff and maximize the surface area in contact with the air. After the sniff, slightly agitate the dude — maybe do something that gets him to raise his arms a little. **The harder the aromas are to identify, the more complex the dude. If you can smell cologne from across the room, you can reasonably discern where this is headed: dry-humping in his mom’s basement.

Taste
We’re talking about kissing here. I mean, you’re not trying to MARRY the dude. Taste, also called smatch (!) or gustation, according to Wikipedia, is sensed through your approximately 100,000 taste buds at the back and front of the tongue; and on the roof, sides, and back of the mouth and throat.

There are five tastes distinguished by your tongue. There is no right or wrong here, just what suits your personal taste. You will probably encounter a combination of these tastes with any given dude.

Sweet: These flavors help to identify energy-rich foods, but in the guy department, too much sweetness might be concerning. I mean, are we talking very sweet, like he has been drinking schnapps all night (i.e., are you sure this kid is 21?) or mildly sweet, like milk. (Same question…?)

Salty: Could have been that tequila shot.

Bitter: In nature, bitterness is a warning sign of poisons. Conveniently, that tall vodka tonic you are drinking contains quinine, the bitter medicinal found in tonic water, which can be used to subjectively rate the bitterness of a substance.

Sour: Leaves a certain aftertaste, like cheese and feet. Excessive sourness is often found in heavy drinkers and smokers, especially toward the end of a bender. Unless this guy is the next Charles Bukowski (and frankly, even if he is the next Chuck B.) you should probably reconsider this life choice.

Umami: Difficult to discern and even harder to define, umami is marked by a “meaty” or “savory” flavor. Unless you have just eaten a gyro, kebab, or bratwurst from a late night food truck, this could also be questionable. **Important note: whatever you do, do NOT put that wrapper from your gyro in your purse and forget about it until the morning.

Download the dude scoresheet here. Happy hunting.

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.

Menstruation and you

Well, you got your period, which according to the latest data from the National Institutes of Health, suggests that you’re probably around 10 years old and have been wearing a bra for 5 years already. Welcome to womanhood!

The menstrual cycle is referred to by many names. In ancient Greece, it was called catamenia (as in, “Dude, what’s up with Medea? She must have the catamenia real bad.”)

It is also called “menses,” not to be confused with Mensa, which is a club for pasty white people with just the right cultural bias to excel at tests created by other pasty white people. Like Jeopardy. (Maybe you fit into both groups, because, hey, genius uteruses, e.g., geniuteruses, shed their linings one month at a time just like the rest of us.)

Older ladies in flowy skirts who do tarot card readings at the People’s Fair tell us that Native Americans called it your “moon.” As in, “One of you other bitches make me a bison pot pie, I’m on my fucking moon again.”

My friend Kate calls it Shark Week. Also see: Crimson Tide. Red Dawn. The coming of Gozer the Gozerian.

So, there are some things you should know. A few days before your period, you may start to feel a little weird. Like, maybe when someone eats the last of the peanut butter, you will want to rip their head off with your bare hands, put it on a pike, and dance around a fire while screaming like a banshee. This is totally normal.

Then you may have a slight disembowelment sensation like your intestines are locked in a vice and being squeezed and twisted around until what feels like your entire body weight comes out of your lower orifices all at once. Also totally normal.

From there, it’s easy-peasy. Just a short 5-10 days of steady blood flow from your vagina, which you can absorb with big wads of cotton on a string that may, possibly, give you a disease called Toxic Shock Syndrome. But don’t worry, they tell you this in a handy full page (front and back!) of tiny text that reads like stereo instructions.

Another word about tampons: You’re gonna have to get up in there. When I first tried to put a tampon in, I read on the box that it had an easy glide applicator that would guide itself to the right place. I thought this meant that a tampon was like a guided missile launched from a submarine and that if I held it in front of my vagina, it would be sucked up in there without me having to dig all around up in my business. This is not the case. Your body is your friend. Learn it. Love it. Use it. And if you haven’t made friends with your vajayjay yet, this is the perfect time because you’re going to get to know each other REAL well over the next 40 years of monthly visits.

One final piece of advice: Don’t wear white on your lower half for a while. Just until you get the hang of this, say, in about your mid-30s.