How Do You Spend a Lonely Life?

Wanted:

Someone who breathes from the diaphragm.
Compassionate. Balanced.
With a strong inner ear.

Must love reading
The sun as it shines through the windows,
Stretching, dancing, laughing, telling stories,
Making breakfast.

Someone who feels music with their whole body.
Who wants to grow things,
and decompose things,
and grow things again.

Someone who puts their hand on my lower back as we cross the street,
and their arm around my shoulders when I am cold,
and their fingers through my hair before we fall asleep.

Someone who is strong in ways that I am not.
Who stands on all four corners of their feet
Someone who listens for understanding.
Who weathers a storm.
Someone who chooses me.

I’ve been single for nine years. It hasn’t felt like a choice, but looking back, it probably was. They say in numerology that energies move in nine-year cycles. Last year, was a 9 year (2 + 0 + 1 + 6 = 9), which represents the end of a cycle. This year is a 1 year (2 + 0 + 1+ 7 = 10, then 1 + 0 reduces to 1), which is the year of starting over. The year of my last break-up was 2008 (2 +8 = 10 = 1), also a 1 year.

I’m not big into numerology; I just found that interesting. Normally, we think of the beginning and ending of a thing—a relationship, an event—but this hasn’t been so much a thing as the lack of a thing. While I’ve watched many friends start and grow their families, I’ve spent the last nine-year cycle in a relationship with myself. As with any relationship, I’ve learned a lot about the other person.

For example, I’ve learned that, left to my own devices, I can eat an alarming number of chips. (After all, chips are my favorite food.) I also will watch a wide variety of shows on the old Netflix, sometimes following whims that I’m sure another person would find annoying.

That’s the beauty of being alone; no one to argue with. Not that I ever have been much of an arguer. All my relationships have been very polite, which is probably another reason I don’t mind some solitude. As a people pleaser, I often will give up my own wishes to avoid confrontation, or because I just don’t care enough to fight about it, and all that compromise leaves me feeling drained.

When I’m alone, I can feel whatever I need to feel, process it however I need to, recharge, hide out. I can put myself back together in peace, without the pressure of anyone else’s gaze. I’ve often thought you must have to be brave to be a parent—to know that your children always are watching you and learning even the things you don’t intend to teach.

I asked my friend DeAnna what it’s like to have her children and husband always around. I think I said something like, “You must feel like you have no place all your own.” Her reply had never occurred to me. She said, “Well they can’t get in your mind, Cara.”

DeAnna’s such a cool mom. She really treats her kids like whole people. For example, as she lists the children’s activities in her holiday letter, she says things like “he seemed to enjoy it,” or “she appeared to have a good time.” Even while her children are young, she doesn’t presume to know what their inner lives are like. She also knows that if she’s not happy, her kids are not going to be happy so she continues to pursue her own passions. It doesn’t hurt that she has a supportive husband who seems to take his role as a father equally seriously.

These are the kinds of things I think about as I try out some new farro-kale salad recipe for dinner and end up watching a show called The Fantastical World of Hormones.

The first couple years after my break-up, I really didn’t think I would be single much longer. I held onto the hopeful notion that my new life, my new self was just around the corner. But as the years have gone on, I’ve grown less hopeful, and I’ve had to grapple with the idea that I might not ever be married, or have children. That’s been a tough one to swallow. I’ve had to ask the question: What is my life worth if I am single? Does it still have value, even without a husband or kids?

What Do You Do With Eternity?

According to fan sites, Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) spends 12,403 days, or about 34 years, living the same day over and over again in the movie Groundhog Day. He goes through stages of disbelief, anger, fear, ecstasy, hopelessness. He indulges every sin without consequences. But even with total freedom and power to do whatever he wants, Phil grows bored. He gets depressed. He tries to kill himself. Yet every day he wakes up stuck in the same place, at the same time, like a needle stuck in a groove on a record.

Eventually, after trying every self-serving thing he can imagine, Phil gets the radical idea to turn his time to helping others. At the same time, he starts to pursue his own passions, a little bit every day. Time begins to have meaning and purpose. He learns to love others, to be loved by them, and to feel the pleasure of mastery. He becomes a musician, a sculptor, a doctor, an intellectual. And that is when he really falls in love with another person, and when she really falls in love with him.

I like to think that I’ve spent my last nine years in a similar process. While I haven’t achieved much mastery, I have put in a lot of effort to get to know myself. And I’ve stripped away a lot of layers, dealt with a lot of pain, uncovered a lot of hidden wounds, grudges, arrogance. One thing’s for sure: when you’re alone with yourself, you find out how imperfect you really are.

It’s like the mirror of truth at the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story. Atreyu is told that when he looks in the mirror he will see his true self. Even great warriors have fallen at the realization—kind men discover they are cruel; brave men find that they are cowards. When I am alone, I have no one else to blame, or deflect my anger to. There are no scapegoats. Just me. If there are dirty dishes in the sink, it’s because I left them there.

I have chosen to stay single because I haven’t felt the right way about anyone, and they haven’t felt the right way about me. It’s not that no one has been worthy; I just haven’t been in the right headspace for dating and also, the older I get, the fewer people I am attracted to. (Maybe it has something to do with hormones. I should watch that documentary again.)

When I was young, I was constantly, deeply, hopelessly in love. The object of my love changed periodically, but the feeling always was there, that obsessive, possessive need to be wanted by another person. I thrived on romance like a drug.

Over the last three years, I’ve pretty much stopped dating all together. Again, it’s not that there haven’t been worthy candidates, or that I haven’t tried at all, but it doesn’t feel the same. I can’t play the games anymore. I want something deeper than drama, something more consequential than sex, something more balanced and sustainable. I want a whole relationship with another whole person.

I don’t know what the next nine years look like, or whether I ever will get married or be a mom of any kind, but I can tell you one thing: If I am still single nine years from now, I’m going to be a hell of a guitar player and a much better cook.

 

IMPORTANT: Forehead Coverage Options

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

Just a Band-Aid on my huge forehead

No forehead coverage

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

Photo 12

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

Photo 20

Et tu, Axl?

Photo 24

Myself in junior high. Or Zoey Deschanel.

Photo 29

Howdy, Tex!

Photo 39

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

Photo 43

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

Photo 56

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

Photo 60

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

Photo 61

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

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

The Humbling

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Specialness

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

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

                            — Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector

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

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

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

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

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

Unfixing The Mind

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

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

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

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

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

Getting What I Deserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing… Testing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rules of The Game

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

The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom to Fail

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

— Albert Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

badasses

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

biker luau

Yup, we were pretty tough.

butterfly and me

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

luau ladies

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

Greg, Susanna, and Michelle

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

david-mary-eloisa

xmas1

xmas2 girls at bar

masqueradekimberly

sound of music

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

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

paul owning it

Paul, owning it, in his tux

tamara

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

beautiful amy

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

jasmine-mark

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

glam amy

I love this picture of Amy. So glamorous!

laurel-amy

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

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

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

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

6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 1: INVST

I went to college in my hometown and lived with my mom freshman year, so I never had the dorm experience. Once I got over the shock at how scary it was to be on a big campus, college just felt like an extension of high school.

Toward the end of my sophomore year, I saw a chalk message on the sidewalk by the library, announcing an info session about a leadership and social justice program on campus called “INVST.” I thought to myself: Leadership? That’s me. Social justice? I’m all about it. So I went to the meeting.

It was a two-year program that combined the study of social justice theory, which we learned in a 3-credit class during the school year; with practical skills, such as meeting facilitation, conflict mediation, and grassroots organizing, which we learned in a 1-credit practicum; and real-world experiences, including an internship during our first year and two summer community service trips.

A big part of what INVST teaches has to do with living and working in community—derived from the novel concept that, if we want to train young people to be good citizens, we should equip them with tools to help them cooperate, resolve conflicts, and participate in true consensus decision making. So, the idea was that you would go through the entire two-year program with the same small group of people.

I started INVST in the summer of 1996. That year, the program accepted eight chicks and two dudes. Not everyone who applied got in. The curriculum was academically rigorous and included serious courses in sociology, political science, and global economics.

The reading list included everyone from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Paolo Freire and Ram Dass. We studied real case studies of political movements, nonviolent protest, liberation theology, and civil disobedience, as well as intense histories of oppression and injustice throughout the world—from the unbelievable atrocities of the “disappeared” in Latin America in the 80s; to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; to Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight in Burma, and on and on.

We read about environmental destruction, poverty, racism, and white privilege. And we disagreed. We argued. We were encouraged to explore all angles of an issue, so we often played devil’s advocate to each other.

On top of all that, we had our personal relationships with each other, which brought up all other kinds of issues. We got comfortable enough to get on each other’s nerves and the INVST program encouraged us to approach these conflicts using tools we learned in our practica—such as active listening, and objective reasoning that helped us separate our emotions from the facts at hand.

We learned how to set ground rules and structure our meetings to ensure that no one person could dominate. We all participated equally. No one was above anyone else. And if someone was bringing something toxic to the group, we were encouraged to address it openly and honestly.

I could not have had better training for the real world than that. We were being prepared for a different kind of leadership. Not a “power over” kind of leadership, but a model of shared power, equal opportunity, and encouragement of divergent perspectives (so long as they were presented respectfully). I use something I learned in INVST every single day. It was like an intensive on how to live in a democracy. Or at least how it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, you realize once you graduate from INVST that all of your great practical skills are a lot harder to use in the real world, where most other people have not had similar training.

It is especially hard to enter the workforce and find so many people who feel powerless, and who seem to have no outlet for their frustration. INVST helped me to understand that the hierarchical system of leadership just doesn’t work as well as a community-based model—it doesn’t work in classrooms (as Freire taught us), nor does it work in economics, or in social welfare.

When small groups of privileged people are given the authority to make the rules that everyone has to follow, the wealth does not “trickle down.” The privilege is rarely acknowledged, and, typically, the least powerful are made to feel that their poor situation is their own fault—a result of their laziness, bad upbringing, or wrong decisions.

INVST helped me to understand that there is another way. Real community is absolutely possible, but we have to have integrity in our actions and respect for divergent opinions.

Most importantly, we have to really listen to each other and make persistent effort to better understand the other’s point of view. That is the only way to generate enough compassion for one another that we can start to tackle the real problems facing all of us. Like, for instance, the environmental degradation of the planet and the fact that by 2020 (in SIX years) the United Nations estimates that there will be 1 BILLION people worldwide who are living in extreme poverty in urban slums. These are the kinds of problems we need to put our minds together to try to solve.

And I haven’t even mentioned the summer service experiences yet, which were in many ways the most impactful part of the INVST program. So, here goes:

The Domestic Summer Service Experience
My cohort met only a few times before departing for our first trip together in the summer of 1996. We came together to do a little bit of fundraising and we had a few days of orientation, then we hopped in a van and headed to New Mexico for a “wilderness experience” in the mountains outside Taos.

My cohort at the very beginning. We called ourselves "CEADS." I honestly don't remember what it stands for now. One of my fellow INVSTers will have to remind me.

My cohort at the very beginning. We called ourselves “CEADS.” I honestly don’t remember what it stands for now. One of my fellow INVSTers will have to remind me.

It was kind of like an Outward Bound experience: We did group-bonding exercises and played games. Our facilitators (who were former INVST students themselves) gave us self-reflective journal assignments. At night, the facilitators led discussions and guided us through exercises to help us make deeper meaning of the experiences we were having. On this portion of the trip, we talked a lot about human impact on the environment, and what can be done to preserve the wilderness.

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Here we are a few days later, all crusty and bonded.

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The second part of the trip was to Denver, where we spent a week in the Samaritan House Homeless Shelter. I wrote about this in my last post, so I’m not going to do it again here.

The final two weeks of the first summer were spent in the four corners area, on the Navajo (Dine) and Hopi reservations, where we volunteered with the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. Basically, we dug ditches for two weeks in the summer in Arizona.

Permaculture is a system for shaping the desert land—by digging irrigation ditches, and building burms—so that when it actually does rain (which is obviously rare) the water has places to collect and enrich the soil, making it possible to grow vegetation.

This is Justin from the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. He was a serious, but very cool dude.

This is Justin from the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. He was a serious, but very cool dude.

Gaffney, Summer, and Carol

Gaffney, Summer, and Carol

We studied the effect of the coal industry on the four corners area, where the Peabody Coal Company (the largest private coal company in the world) has forced or coerced the Navajo and Hopi people to relocate repeatedly in the ongoing quest to satisfy Americans’ insatiable consumption of fossil fuels. We talked with the local people, visited a school where we ate our weight in fry bread, and even participated in a sweat lodge.

And we had a lot of fun too.

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Jen and Gig

Seana-Baxter

This is Seana Lowe, who ran INVST when I was in the program. More than anyone else in my college career, she was my mentor and inspiration to do the best work I possibly could. I will always be grateful to her for that. And Baxter was the sweetest pup ever. Although, if you played Frisbee with him, look out. He came at you like a linebacker.

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I love how everyone looks like they’re having fun except Steph, who looks like she’s about to puke.

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Yes, I am wearing a do-rag and walking like an Egyptian. So sue me.

After the first summer, we were a pretty solid group. Then we had a whole school year of classes and practica together, where we reflected on our experiences, read, theorized, argued, and discussed. And we each did an internship at a local organization.

I was a legislative intern for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) in Denver. I helped organize phone banks and lobby politicians. I worked closely with the volunteer coordinator, Molly Harlow, who was also an INVST alum. It was an incredibly educational experience. I realized that political organizing is really, really, REALLY hard.

The International Summer Service Experience

The second summer, we went to Mexico. Before we left, we were required to read all about Mexican politics and history (which, if you think the U.S. has issues…) This was right around the time that President Clinton enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so we read a ton about how U.S. consumerism fuels shady manufacturing practices just over the border.

We learned about “maquiladoras,” the U.S.-owned factories on the Mexican side, which employ mostly young women who work for measly wages and suffer humiliating treatment as they assemble the clothing, medical supplies, and other products that we use every day. Thanks to NAFTA, U.S. corporations were now free to exploit Mexico’s cheap labor with little to no restriction or oversight.

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This is Anapra, Mexico, where many maquiladora workers live. It’s just outside Ciudad Juarez (across the border from El Paso, TX). This is also the location of the notorious Maquiladora Murders–hundreds, if not thousands, of young women who work in these U.S.-owned factories have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, and murdered here with practically no intervention by the police or the companies who operate here (many of which are household names that you likely use every day).

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Dave is not really using the toilet here. It’s not connected to anything. But it sure looks convincing.

Steph

Steph was my roommate for a while. She and her (now) husband are some of the coolest people you will ever meet.

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One of the most amazing parts for me was staying at Annunciation House in El Paso, which is a safehouse for refugees from all over the world who come to the U.S. seeking asylum. It’s kind of like a halfway house or a shelter–group meals, community rules–and it’s a place for people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries to settle while they go through the legal process of getting permission to stay in the States. Some of the refugees are from Central and South America, and some are from as far away as Iraq.

After our border experience, we headed to the small fishing community of Bahia Kino on the West coast of Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. There, we volunteered teaching English and doing other odd jobs like painting the school.

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Dave and I are painting “Def Leppard Forever” on the wall. Don’t worry, we painted over it. But I will say that the people of Bahia Kino might have appreciated it. They had some interesting hits in the juke box in town square. All I really remember is a whole lot of Air Supply.

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I don’t know why my pants are so huge and high waisted. It was the 90s.

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I look totally shell-shocked. Like, what am I supposed to teach these children again? On the back of this photo, I had written out some of their names: Claudia y Alonso, Daniel, Victor, David, Miguel, Julian, Ansel, Gabriel, Lucas, (Jen), y
Hector

Abigail

Our host mom, Abigail (ah-bi-gy-eel) and mi hermana, Sara! They were so sweet to us and let us sleep in their air conditioned room with the whole family after our guest room was infested with flying red ants.

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All the kids loved Dave. I will always remember one morning he told us that he’d had a wonderful dream the night before that he knew all the lyrics to Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.” He said he was so disappointed when he woke up and it wasn’t true.

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There is a lot more I could write about Mexico and about my wonderful friends from my INVST class, but those are stories for another time.

After completing the program, any INVST alum can apply to be a summer experience facilitator, and lead a whole new group of INVSTers on their trips. I was a facilitator twice: Once for the domestic experience and once for the international experience. I can’t find any pictures from the international trip that I co-led with the amazing and fantastic Carol Lynn, but I do have pictures from the domestic trip that I co-facilitated with Gig.

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This is permaculture, folks. And it’s a LOT more work than it looks like.

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Adam, Beth, and Christine. Doesn’t this look like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad?

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Christine

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I mean, did Gig EVER work? Way to set a good example!

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Phil LOVED this kid.

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Christy

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Sara Nix, aka, “Hottie”

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Sabrina and Christy. Sabrina actually runs INVST now. Aw.

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Adam is such a ham. On the wilderness trip, I vaguely remember something about a squirrel that stole his hat while we were camping. We named it Funky the Squirrel and made up a whole song to the tune of “B-I-N-G-O.”

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Me and Hottie Nix

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I am OBVIOUSLY the better facilitator here. Way to slack off, Gig.

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Just another part of my daring leadership style.

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Gig

Seriously, though, Gig (pronounced “Jeej” or Francois Guillaume, if you want to get technical about his name) was the best co-facilitator I could have asked for and a great friend. I will never forget how he and I each had to drive Suburban trucks full of our INVST students all the way to Arizona to do the permaculture work, and we made up a song to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” that went, “I’ll never be you’re big Suburban…”

INVST is still around and still making a huge difference in the lives of its participants, the local community, the nation, and (yes!) the world. You can find out more about this amazing program on their website.

[Just to be clear, I did not take all (or possibly any) of the pictures in this post. After each trip, we would all get together and share our photos, so unfortunately, I don’t know who to credit.]

Finally, although I am not going to write a post about it, another very important part of my college experience was singing with All Rights Reserved, a women’s a capella group at CU-Boulder. It was just another mind-blowing, enlightening exercise in group creativity that I treasure to this day. I also don’t have many pictures of All Rights Reserved. But here is one:

all-rights-reserved

I don’t remember what we are singing, but DeAnna was one of my favorite people to sing with because she had a beautiful alto voice. She did a kickass solo on “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac.

Tune in next time for 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 2: The Wiseman Group Interior Design, aka, How I Moved To San Francisco and Immediately Got a Job that I Was Not at All Qualified For.

6 Organizations That Changed My Life

thegirlwhousedtobeatemp

This nameplate came courtesy of Mr. Phil Swann at UT-Austin.

I have never been one to worry about my career trajectory—I haven’t stressed over showing progression in my title or my pay. I’ve always believed that any potential employer who would nit-pick the gaps in my work history or the lack of advancement isn’t going to be a good fit for me anyway. I am more interested in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development than I am in impressing some HR person.

(By the way, I picture this HR person as a vogon:)

Considering my general blasé attitude, I find it incredible that somehow the right job has always come to me at the right time. And that I have worked in such diverse fields (Sort of. I mean, I haven’t been like an astronaut or a Solid Gold dancer or anything.)

I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature, which—like most undergraduate liberal arts degrees—basically prepared me to do nothing and anything. One thing you realize when you’ve been in the real world is just how little what you are taught as a young person has to do with the reality of work life.

If school really taught what you need to know to be a successful person in this society, you would take whole courses on Etiquette When Sending an All-Company E-Mail (Does it sound too bitchy? Should you include a smiley face?)

You would take lessons on How to Create an Office Kitchen Cleaning Calendar, wherein you would learn how to craft the “Anything in the fridge without a name on it is going to get thrown out on Friday” message. And practice masking your handwriting on the “Please don’t leave you’re dishes in the sink! You’re Mom doesn’t live here!” sign, in which you purposely misuse “you’re” to throw people off so they don’t know it was you.

If school really prepared you for life, you might even be taught how to pick a health insurance plan, determine your 401k contributions, read your credit card statement, and understand your taxes. But I digress.

All of my jobs have been perfect in their own way for what I needed at that moment. In the next few posts, I would like to acknowledge six of them. The ones I am leaving out are not omitted because they were any less influential, but the six I will write about distinguished themselves because they came at a pivotal time in my development, or gave me a key opportunity to learn or master a skill that served me later.

So, tune in tomorrow for 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 1—The International and National Voluntary Service Training (INVST) program, aka, Pushing The Boundaries Of Social Justice … And Personal Hygiene: The College Years.