Podcast Guest Appearance: Dear Sugar

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Mirror by Myrtle Grove Furniture, photographed at woodshop in New Market, Md.

Sometimes when I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts while driving to work, I imagine what it would be like to be a guest on Dear Sugar Radio, Call Your Girlfriend, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, or Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert.

As a recurring feature on this blog, I will occasionally spin these fleeting thoughts into full-fledged fantasies. First up is Dear Sugar Radio

From 2008 through 2012, authors Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed took turns offering brutally honest yet compassionate advice in the “Dear Sugar” column on The Rumpus. Now they appear together as co-hosts of Dear Sugar Radio, which regularly rocks my world.

As a longtime advice column reader, typically I have no fewer than five questions rattling around inside my head begging to be sent off for diagnosis and remedy. Here’s the one I think is best suited for Cheryl and Steve to tackle.

Dear Sugars,

A while ago I read a letter in another advice column. The writer started by explaining how she and her family visited museums, went on hikes, attended the symphony, and did volunteer work. They all grew vegetables and made crafts together and didn’t watch much TV. I don’t remember what her question was, but the implied message was clear: This family was getting it done right.

Taken at the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I’ve been thinking about this letter and its writer’s attitude for years: Was her family superior to families who don’t take part in more high-brow or down-to-earth activities? Is there something wrong with lounging on the couch and watching TV?

My real question is inspired by this letter, but it’s far more personal. The struggle that keeps me up at night concerns living up to my full potential.

I often question whether I should have done more with my life by now. Would my life be better if I had published several novels by the age of 30, as the young me had hoped I would? What if I had gone to law school or traveled more? What if I had tried just a little bit harder to “make something of myself”?

I did work at a nonprofit organization for nearly two decades—perpetually underpaid, overwhelmed, and very fulfilled. But that’s over now, and my accomplishments there (of which I am most certainly proud) are fading fast.

Currently I work in marketing at a company that helps families, and this time around my job doesn’t invade my personal time nearly as much. I try to expand my life with occasional trips outside my comfort zone. I finally started a blog this year, but the posts are already coming fewer and farther between. And my morning walks have dried up.

Maybe I should give up TV entirely and force myself to write every night. Maybe I should get back to taking drum lessons or start rock climbing or both. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

Some people seem to have so much energy and drive. Some people work endless hours to make their dreams come true. Why isn’t that me?

A bridesmaid’s beautiful “do” at a Washington, D.C., wedding.

How do I know if I’m slacking off or just living within my limits? I see posts and memes on social media about how important it is to accept yourself, and then I see others about how important it is to challenge yourself.

I want to be happy, but I don’t know if doing more will make me happy. You can probably tell that I’m the type who drives myself to distraction questioning my motives, my abilities, and my worth.

Sugars, please help me decide what to do and how to do it: Should I figure out how to give myself a break for not being more accomplished? Or, do I need to get past my complacency to lead a life that will make me more satisfied?


Possibly Not Good Enough

The format of Dear Sugar Radio makes this next step a little intimidating. Usually the letter writer is not invited on the show. Cheryl and Steve talk about the letter themselves for a while, and then they welcome on a guest expert to join the discussion. On rare occasions they call the letter writer, but in this case I don’t need to babble on more about the problem—I need a solution!

So, with all due respect and humility, I’m going to try to channel the Sugar spirit and conjure up what they might say. And, what I think my mind and soul need to hear.

The Sugars might start by dividing my dilemma into two parts. First, there’s the issue of my tendency to interrogate and berate myself for not being more successful.  And second is the issue of procrastinating and avoiding doing things that I really am interested in doing.

Well-used sink at the Myrtle Grove Furniture woodshop in New Market, Md.

To address the first issue, the Sugars might recall a previous show they recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a little over a year ago. Musical artist and author Amanda Palmer guested on the show and performed her song “In My Mind,” in which she imagines a future version of herself who is “someone I admire.” In the song, Amanda laments that she is not exactly the person that she thought she’d be.

As the song progresses, Amanda comes to suspect that “I don’t want to be the person that I want to be.”  As the song closes, Amanda proudly pronounces that she is “exactly the person that I want to be.”

A similar thought was circulated on Nov. 11, when author Elizabeth Gilbert shared a quote from the recently departed Leonard Cohen: “There is a feeling we have sometimes of betraying some mission that we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it. And then coming to understand that the real mandate was NOT to fulfill it. And that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself.”

The Sugars might point out that many highly accomplished people suffer from the curse of doubting themselves. You can reach the top of your profession, yet still despair that you missed out on that one award, or you aren’t making enough time for family, or you still can’t please that one withholding parent—whatever fuels your lingering insecurity.

One of my other favorite podcasters, Ezra Klein, is a pretty successful guy, and even he noted that a recent guest “makes me feel boring and underaccomplished.”

No matter what goals I manage to achieve, I would probably still engage in the pointless art of constantly looking back, obsessive worrying, and self-flagellation. The trick is to figure out how to stop being so tough on myself. The Sugars might recommend that I work on stopping these thoughts as I have them, over and over until I tame them. And that I be kind to myself and grateful.

There are a number of ways to do this. I recently started meditating daily to train my brain how to focus and live in the moment. The Sugars might be interested to hear that I am already starting to feel the benefits after 30 days.

At the water’s edge at Elk Neck State Park, Md.

I have also adopted a ritual suggested in a TED talk by cancer survivor Sarah Trimmer (which I discovered via another post from Elizabeth Gilbert). At the end of each day, I ask myself to complete these five statements:

1) Today I am grateful for…

2) Today I helped someone by…

3) Something that made me happy today was…

4) Today I learned…

5) Tomorrow I will…

After encouraging me to agonize less and locate the grace in what I already have, the Sugars might move on to the second issue present in my letter. Cheryl and Steve, being writers themselves no doubt would want me to explore whether I really want to write. And if I want to, then I should darn well find a way to do so.

The only way to determine this is to carve out some time to actually WRITE. The Sugars might wonder aloud what I am currently doing with my free time, and they would glance back at my letter and easily surmise that watching TV is the main culprit.

To provide more inspiration to clear time on my schedule, they might point to several bloggers/authors whom I admire who have stated in interviews that they had to give up TV to find time in their schedules to do the work they wanted to do.

I’m not confident that the Sugars would point to the Cracked article titled “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” but they might have similar thoughts to share. The article is written primarily for an audience of young men bemoaning that they don’t have girlfriends. But it has wise advice for just about anyone.

The author, David Wong, states: “Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.”

And for those who need a real kick in the pants, he says: “The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict. . . . Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.”

Sign in Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Luray, Va.

Who knows—maybe watching TV is not a distraction, but is actually what I really love doing, and I just need to embrace it. Or maybe I do want to write and take photos and challenge myself to do new things, but I’m stuck in a rut.

So, in an effort to uncover the truth, I’m going to take the entire month of January off from watching TV (gasp!). I’m also considering trying the More Social Less Media program, but in the meantime, I will limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day of social media consumption.

I imagine that the Sugars and whatever awesome guest they invite on to discuss my letter (maybe one of the people mentioned above or Glennon Doyle Melton or Melissa Joulwan or Dallas Hartwig) would be pleased to hear that I am taking action to find out what truly floats my boat and lifts my sails.

Now, on to a mindful and productive 2017!

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Motivation capacity
  • Progress update