Five questions at five months

 

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A makeshift bridge to get over a muddy area on the path around Lake Linganore.

This post is a follow-up to Saturation Point, which introduced the subject of my relatively new sobriety. You may want to read that piece first, if you haven’t already (but you certainly don’t have to).

A couple years ago I started writing about my drinking. Scraps of paper, abandoned journals, and unfinished computer files contain those first attempts at documenting my relationship with alcohol. That was back when I wasn’t sure if quitting drinking was in my future.

One exercise I created at the time was a series of five questions designed to nudge me toward making a decision. What would it be: Ditch the booze altogether or try harder at moderation?

During this period, I completed several Whole30s — a program focused on eliminating certain food groups from your diet for a month, including alcohol. Thanks to Whole30, I discovered that I felt much better when I didn’t drink. Yet I couldn’t wait to pour that first glass of Pinot Grigio every time I crossed the 30-day finish line.

I contemplated my answers to those five questions over and over again in my head, but I never got very far writing them out. Now that I’m five months sober, I’m finally going to answer them, as a promise I’ve made to myself to continue exploring the path I’ve taken and to shore up where I’ve landed.

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That dorky little cheerleader is 14 years old. It would take another couple years before I looked like a teenager.

1. Why did I first start drinking?

As a shy girl who matured late, I missed out on those early years of adolescence when my friends were holding hands with guys and learning how to French kiss. I was short and scrawny with big frizzy hair, so I spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines as my friends flirted and boys circled.

By the time boys started noticing me, I was painfully behind in experience. If I wanted to catch up, I was going to have to jump into the deep end of the pool without ever trying out the shallow side. Alcohol came along at just the right time, when I needed some manufactured courage.

It seemed like almost everyone had started drinking by 16, so despite coming from a very conservative family, I didn’t much question whether to drink or not. I just did. And in addition to lowering my inhibitions and making even the most boring nights seem fun and adventurous, drinking helped me tap into some deep emotions that I had been stuffing down.

Yes, I was that girl — the one who frequently ended the night sobbing in the back seat of someone’s car. Alcohol allowed me to mourn the fact that I didn’t know my father, that my mother suffered from depression, that I didn’t feel normal. The stress of my home life would pour out through my tears, and being drunk meant I didn’t care who witnessed my meltdowns. Obviously this was not the ideal way to address those issues, but it felt good at the time — and thus the pact between me and the drink was written.

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Sign outside a local bar in my area. I took this photo four years ago and texted it to a friend who was having a rough day.

2. Why did I continue drinking regularly?

At college, drinking was practically a required subject. The drinking age was not yet 21 — it actually changed from 19 to 21 while I was in college, but for those of us who had already turned 19, the state of Florida graciously grandfathered us into the world of legal drinking.

We had a bar on campus, and alcohol advertising was everywhere. The fraternities and sororities took turns holding weekly campus-wide parties with low cover charges and all-you-can-drink beer.

No one in the dorms cared if you stumbled home late and threw up in the waste basket. No more sneaking out or worrying about your mom catching you. Not much driving was required — everything you needed to get trashed was within a small radius.

In other words, college was like an Olympic training camp for drinking, preparing me for an adulthood of medal-worthy alcohol consumption.

I moved to New York City right after college — a wise move for someone who wanted to be able to go out whenever the mood struck her, but didn’t want to drink and drive.

I loved that city. Among many other fabulous things, I loved the ability to go into a restaurant by myself, sit down at the bar, and within minutes be engrossed in a conversation with the bartender or someone else at the bar. The camaraderie that came with drinking created an instant connection. A warm buzz and a temporary new friendship made this insecure girl feel like the grown-up, sophisticated woman I wanted to be.

As I gained self-confidence, and the need to unearth my sadness diminished, drinking created a new purpose for itself in my life. I don’t think I explicitly used alcohol as a means to numb or escape, nor was I an every-day or an all-day drinker. But somewhere along the line drinking became a reliable release valve for ordinary stress.

After two or three alcohol-free nights, the pressure would build up, and I would need a night of drinking. Work was busy, whatever relationship I was in was complicated, mom was mad because I hadn’t called, the apartment was a mess, you name it. Good thing my friends were standing by to go out for drinks. And if they weren’t, I wasn’t afraid to drink alone. In fact, sometimes I preferred it.

After examining this release valve effect instead of just surrendering to it, I’ve come to realize that the alcohol itself was creating the pressure just as much as the daily stressors in my life. I had developed a dependency that needed to be fed every 72 hours or so. And when it was hungry, it was ravenous.

You know that feeling when you have to pee really bad, and how when you get to the bathroom, it gets infinitely worse? So bad that it feels like you might not get your pants down in time? Well, that’s how I often felt when it had been a while since I had last tied one on, and I was headed to the bar, and I knew that a drink would soon be in my hands. I could physically feel the anticipation welling up inside of me, my heart beating, my breath growing shallow and quick, adrenaline flowing.

This reaction was not unusual to me. My drinking seemed average, or at least in the high range of acceptability. For years I did not question that this hobby-slash-habit played such a prominent role in my life.

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Taken in the women’s room at Ottobar in Baltimore, Md. I was excited to see Heartless Bastards that night, but I got so drunk during the opening act, that I barely remember the headliner.

3. What are the reasons I should stop drinking or at least take a long break?

Starting from early childhood I was a worrier. As soon as I learned about serious diseases like cancer, I was convinced that I would develop one. So at some point in my early 20s I did worry briefly that I might have a drinking problem. But this concern felt like all my other fears and phobias of getting sick and dying — overblown and not based in reality.

Around the age of 24, I responded to an ad looking for volunteers to take calls for a suicide hotline. Why I thought this was a good idea given my typical level of anxiety is a subject for another time. Anyway, we recruits had to attend two day-long Saturday trainings before we could get on the phones. At the end of the first Saturday, they asked us to attend an AA meeting on our own time during the upcoming week, and then we would talk about our impressions at the next training.

I was excited to go to the AA meeting. Maybe this was what I needed, maybe I would realize I was an alcoholic and just keep going to AA meetings. But the people there sounded nothing like me. They had stolen from work, left children in cars while they scored, set fire to their homes, and been arrested.

I left that meeting feeling elated. I was not an alcoholic. I even bought a six-pack of tall boy Budweisers on my way home to celebrate my non-problem. (A quick aside: I never did complete my training for the suicide hotline. I called them before the next Saturday and chickened out.)

That AA experience sustained me for close to a decade: I was fine. My drinking was commonplace, dull even.

And yet, unpleasant incidents piled up over the years. Fighting with friends, embarassing myself in front of co-workers, public blackouts. Oddly enough, none of these occurrences were sufficiently unsavory to get me to stop indulging for any serious length of time.

What were the reasons that led me to finally say enough? Age, vanity, and the feeling of being stuck in a thick sludge of my own making.

As I reached middle age, I knew that I needed to start taking better care of my health. I quit smoking, started eating better, tried again to find a form of exercise that I could stick with, and began meditating. Alcohol consumption was the next natural target. Not only would quitting drinking improve my health, but it might slow down the visible signs of the aging process. Having looked young all my life, the idea of appearing old was not sitting well with me, and here was something that could help.

Not only that, I wanted to go to sleep with a clear head and wake up with a clear head. Never again did I want to stay up late listening to music in the bathroom, drinking my husband’s beer because I had run out of wine. Never again did I want to wake up in the middle of the night not remembering how I got from being passed out on the couch to being half dressed in bed, not remembering pouring that last drink now sitting on the bedside table.

Still, it was my desire to write more, read more, do more that convinced me I needed a break. I needed to make space in my life to fall in love with myself, and this decades-long habit was getting in the way.

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Wine tasting at Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville, Md.

4. Are there reasons I might want to try moderating my drinking instead of quitting?

First, there are the aesthetics. The sound of a wine glass being set down on a cool marble bar. The sight of pale wine poured into the glass, reflecting the light. The feel of the delicate rim of the glass against my lips. The taste of the dry wine after sucking down an oyster. Now and then, it would be nice to have a glass or two in the perfect setting. Why reject this magic dance of mood, color, texture, light, and sound, your sly brain asks.

Then there’s association. For many of us (and, let’s face it, society at large), the consumption of alcohol is tightly woven into many communal events: Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties, watching the Super Bowl, participating in drinking-friendly sports (bowling, pool, darts, poker, cornhole, bocce, etc), the list goes on. How does one celebrate a promotion, a new job, or a retirement without a drink? Why wouldn’t I want to be able to mark a truly special occasion by lifting a glass of an intoxicating beverage, as I did so many times?

Finally, there’s the social aspect. Drinking binds people together, almost immediately and with little effort (a sign, I believe, that the affinity is partly an illusion).

When others are drinking, and you’re not, something is lost. You feel separate. The laughter is slightly different on each side. And as the evening progresses, the difference grows. The experience of being the only teetotaler (or one of the few) is not the end of the world, but it is an adjustment. What a relief it would be to grab a drink and join the crowd. To sigh, to loosen your shoulders, to succumb, and see what happens.

This is going to sound pathetic to some, but it has actually saddened me to admit to myself that I will never again sit in a smelly pub and drink all day with my friends because we decided that the street festival wasn’t nearly as interesting as boozing and talking. I won’t squint at the daylight as someone opens the bar door. There won’t be that moment when we all decide to order yet another. No more tipsily moving onto our next haunt, then finding that drunk second wind back at someone’s place and staying up late, telling those same old stories one more time. I can’t lie, drinking is one of the easiest hobbies you’ll ever cling to, and it has its charms.

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Time doesn’t grow on trees, ya know. Taken at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

5. Why would it be preferable to quit drinking entirely? 

My husband thinks that I’m not an alcoholic, and therefore he doesn’t understand why I would choose the sober life. Why would I deny myself the joys of drinking when I don’t have a serious problem?

Now that I’ve seen the other side, I don’t know how I could choose otherwise. I feel ike someone turned the music on inside of me. Not all the time, of course. Life is still stressful and frustrating, and I don’t always react the best possible way when challenging stuff happens. I reserve the right (and ability) to disappoint myself — that doesn’t go away.

I’ve never experienced a serious depression, but my mother has. I live with the sense that there is a seed of darkness inside of me. I have long worried that the abyss could swallow me one day. The idea of letting go and sinking into the darkness is tempting — to let it take you over so you no longer have to fear it.

But that’s not who I am. That’s not who most of us are. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the message that we’re drowning, and sometimes we have to go under very deep. But we all have it inside us to pull ourselves into the light.

At first it was hard, making the adjustment to being a non-drinker. I reminded myself that I was doing this so I could have more time to develop new hobbies, new interests. I had given alcohol decades of my precious attention. I owed it to myself to find some more productive, fulfilling pastimes.

As the days and weeks went on, it got easier. Around the 90 day mark I got a surge of energy and satisfaction. It happened again at 120 days. Maybe that feeling is physiological — my cells coming back to life. Or maybe it’s my ego developing some swagger. Either way, it feels a lot like a wicked crush. Wooing yourself is far underrated.

I no longer spend time thinking about when the next drink is coming, contemplating whether or not I should have another, or bemoaning the fact that I drank too much last night. My brain, my body, and my soul are unburdened.

Why would I trade that for a drink?

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Taking the long view in Dewey Beach, Del.

Next time: Drinking as a feminist issue.

A new resource I’ve been devouring lately:

Take a Break from Drinking – Rachel Hart has a very different way of looking at drinking, which some may find controversial. Her podcast is full of lots of helpful advice, even if you don’t fully sign onto her philosophy. I do recommend going back to the beginning and listening to the first couple episodes before jumping around. Other key episodes include 7, 11, 13-19, 25, 28, and 32.

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Saturation point

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I’m usually the one behind the camera, but when drinking is involved, I often become the subject. All photos in this post were taken by my husband.

In honor of the one-year anniversary of the launch of this blog, I am posting something very much out of my comfort zone. Publishing this piece is terrifying, but here goes…

One hundred and five days days ago I stopped drinking. If you’ve ever knocked back more than a few with me, I forgive you for suspecting that a messy, humiliating event must have precipitated such a decision.

Did I roll down a hill in my underwear at a company picnic? Perhaps I got lost coming home one night and woke up in a neighbor’s yard. Or maybe I got in a screaming match with a stranger at a party and threw a glass across the room.

I can’t deny I’ve spent a substantial part of my adult life weaving down the fine line between goofy buzzed chick and reckless wasted woman. Even I’m surprised that the end was not more explosive.

Mostly I grew weary of how alcohol saturated so much of my free time. My last post was about watching too much TV, and drinking is the twin bad habit that has consumed me. Together, TV and alcohol made my life not so much tragic as repetitive and dormant. For a person who has always fancied herself creative and interesting, my life looked pretty dull and routine on the outside. And my inner life was twisted in knots — when it wasn’t glazed over with booze and binge watching.

Alcohol can serve as a handy tool for avoidance, a means to stay put. It allowed me to do nothing without feeling too awfully bad about it. Drinking gave me permission to fritter away hour after hour, and it provided the illusion of being engaged in an activity while it dampened my will to do anything else.

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A common sight: drinking wine whilst on the phone.

Eight years ago I was out drinking with a group of co-workers. I had noticed around that time that my body chemistry was changing, and I could no longer predict how quickly I might go from tipsy to trashed. That night the switch flipped fast (I was only on my third beer!), and a friend took my car keys away from me. By the time I arrived home in a cab it was late, and my sleeping husband could not hear me banging on the front door. I hadn’t called to ask him to leave the door unlocked because I was in a blackout on the metro ride home and wasn’t fully aware I didn’t have my keys until I got to the parking garage.

I wonder sometimes if I would have driven my car home from the train station that night if my keys hadn’t been confiscated. Would I have had the presence of mind to take a cab if the option to drive was available? I prefer to assert that I would not have gotten behind the wheel, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.

Back at my house, I ended up using a tall ladder that was in the backyard to climb onto our high deck (there were no stairs on that stupid deck for some reason). Then, I had to throw pieces of used charcoal from the grill up against the bedroom window to wake up my husband. When he finally came to the sliding glass door to let me in, looking half asleep and exasperated, I felt small and pathetic. The next morning I had the honor of cleaning up the charcoal scattered all over the deck and then calling the most likely suspect to ascertain if she had my keys. I’ve only felt that crappy a handful of other times, and I’m pretty sure they all involve drinking.

So, I guess I lied earlier because right there is an embarrassing event that affected my drinking and might have been the first major milepost on my path to sobriety. Starting in 2010, not long after that incident, I cut back my alcohol intake significantly, and I set a limit of two drinks for when I was out and solely responsible for getting myself home (the only drinking rule I ever set and actually kept). My reduced consumption was probably still considerable to a non-drinker, and it did creep up again over subsequent years–though never back to my highest level. Just enough to keep me treading water.

In 2014, I read Ann Dowsett Johnston’s “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” and for the first time I began contemplating that quitting entirely might be in my future. I’m not talking about the thoughts that go through your head during a particularly hellacious hangover, but a real dawning that giving up drinking could be a positive, proactive choice. Maybe I didn’t need to hit rock bottom in order to take action on behalf of my life.

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How many hours were lost getting over a hangover? Also, I miss my cat.

Earlier this year, my husband and I were looking at our photos on the computer. Suddenly I was staring at an image of myself curled up on the kitchen floor late one night. For a while we had been in the habit of drinking, talking, and listening to music in the kitchen for hours after dinner. He must have snapped this shot on his cell, and it went into the cloud without me knowing.

Seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t know was taken is so weird: It can feel disorienting and invasive. But most of all, I realized that I didn’t want to be the woman passed out on the kitchen floor anymore.

Right around the same time, a Facebook friend shared Laura McKowen’s blog post “Am I an Alcoholic?” Reading it, I felt a stirring in my core: Wake up! This was meant for you!

In quick succession I discovered the HOME Podcast, Holly Whitaker’s Hip Sobriety, Kristi Coulter’s “Enjoli” piece, and so many more recovery blogs, websites, and podcasts. I listened to episodes of HOME, Since Right Now, and Recovery Elevator in the car during my commute and on my headphones as I went to sleep.

“This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace delivered the final shove. On May 12, just six days after buying the book, I started what is now my longest run of non-drinking since the age of 16.

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I don’t have to be drunk to jump on a hotel bed, but alcohol certainly was involved that night.

Right before I quit, in an attempt to establish a solid foundation, I decided to treat this effort like a work project. First, I set a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve, and then I spelled out my strategy for getting there. The goal itself is simple: Don’t get drunk. Period. At this point in my life, the return on investment of getting plastered is pretty nil. The motivation, the rationale has evaporated.

The tactics at hand to achieve this goal basically are limited to either removing the risk entirely or trying to moderate a deeply embedded habit. If you’ve ever tried it, policing your drinking can be exhausting. You start out imagining a civilized montage that includes the occasional glass of wine at a nice restaurant, a beer or two on a camping trip, a festive cocktail on vacation with your sweetie. But those earnest intentions usually end up right back on the kitchen floor.

Instead, I decided I would eliminate the ability to overindulge altogether. No opportunity, no worries. Surprisingly, it seems to suit me. I feel clearheaded and calm, awake and relieved, as if a long haze has lifted.

During the last 15 weeks, I’ve stood up to some minor temptations. But bigger ones are up ahead. If I do cave in (maybe even incite that final ugly event to seal the deal), I will forgive myself and get back to business. I know what’s on the other side now, and it’s so much better for my state of mind, not to mention my body and soul. After decades of telling myself I deserve a drink, I can say at last: I deserve sobriety.

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Ending on a positive note with a sober shot. One of my favorites taken by my husband.

Next time: Why did I start drinking? What kept me coming back? What are the advantages of sobriety? What might cause me to abandon the dry life?

And then: It’s not just about me! Drinking as a feminist issue.

Sources of Inspiration…

Books:

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol – by Ann Dowsett Johnston

Drinking: A Love Story – by Caroline Knapp (a classic)

This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol: Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life -by Annie Grace (Warning: This book might irk you if you aren’t already close to quitting, and it might ruffle your feathers even if you ARE! Despite some of its odd tactics, this book worked wonders on me.)

Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety – by Sacha Z. Scoblic

Blogs and websites:

Kristi Coulter

Hip Sobriety

Klen&Sobr

Laura McKowen

Podcasts:

Editing Our Drinking and Our Lives

HOME Podcast

Recover Girl

Recovery Elevator

Since Right Now

The Unruffled Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My original bad habit

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Playing on my phone when I can’t sleep is just part of the problem.

The television in my childhood home rarely went dark. We had a TV that sat on a stand with wheels so we could swivel it around from the living room to face the dining table during meals and then back again.

As I got ready for school, we turned on Channel 13’s morning show, and I would often stop to watch Ernie Lee play the guitar and sing “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile” or “I wish I was a Teddy Bear.”  In the afternoons, I logged countless hours watching The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Merv Griffin Show, and Guiding Light.

After dinner, you could find my family viewing Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Welcome Back Kotter, the movie of the week…the list goes on. Sunday evenings meant The Wonderful World of Disney, The Lawrence Welk Show, or possibly 60 Minutes. I started watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live at a young age, often staying up late by myself.

My love affair with television burned long and strong for decades. Once, in my early 30s, I tried a “summer without TV”–but certain exceptions had to be made for Grand Slam tennis tournaments and other “special” events, and the whole thing fell apart rather quickly.

My husband and I first discovered binge watching way back in 2002 when we consumed the entire first season of 24 on DVD in about four days. Cable, VCRs, TiVo, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime–these have all been both a blessing and a curse to my kind.

As I started to write this piece, I asked myself: What is it about TV that has so captivated me over the years? As a writer, I appreciate great storytelling and compelling characters. The aesthetically inclined side of me confesses to being seduced by well-composed shots, the artful use of music, and gorgeous settings, clothes, and people.

But, the great Marshall McLuhan might suggest that I look deeper than the content, that I examine my habit and its impact on my life because “the medium is the message.”

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Fireworks on Lake Linganore, Md.

In January of this year, I attempted to go a month without television. Giving up my morning dose of The Today Show would be easy: After decades of dedication, I had been hate watching the show for several years (at least), so it wasn’t much of a loss. Fortunately I had already scaled back on mindless channel surfing–you know, the kind that results in watching the Home Shopping Network, marathons of Tiny House Hunters, or old Match Games.

All my “primetime shows” (oh, what a quaint term) did not have to be viewed in real time, so I could get back to them starting in February if I so desired. On the other hand, just saying no to The Daily Show before falling to sleep was going to be more difficult.

The objective of this experiment was to open up time to write and read and work on other more productive projects. I had recently heard more than one successful blogger-turned-author reveal on a podcast that they simply had to give up TV to make any progress toward their goals. As a bonus, I was also hoping to sleep better without any screen time before bed.

Social media was not exempt from this exercise. I decided to limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day. I would set the timer on my phone before jumping on Facebook or Instagram, and I had to stop when the alarm went off. Unless I was in the middle of reading a particularly enlightening article (yes, my life is full of loopholes).

Most likely, my experiment would be deemed a failure by any reputable scientist. I did not last very long before allowing myself to watch one hour of television in the evening with my husband. I did not write very much. I did not post on this blog at all between Dec. 31 and May 1. My one accomplishment was to give up TV in the mornings completely and permanently.

Maybe I’m selling the month short. I did learn a lot about myself, particularly through the social media restriction, which I am proud to say I maintained for all 31 days. With limited time for Facebooking, I tried to make the most of those minutes, which included refusing to take part in pointless political arguments. And I tried not to go on Instagram unless I had something to share that I thought people would genuinely like.

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Picking berries by Lake Linganore, Md.

So, what did I learn during my January experiment and the months since?

Well, I’m battling against years of conditioning. I watch TV out of habit and often without much thought. Patterns have been set through decades of practice, deep grooves worn in my brain.

The idea that I won’t watch at least some television every single day seems downright unnatural. And why shouldn’t I grab my phone a hundred times a day to check, um, whatever?

My brain hungrily awaits stimulation. It wants to be fed. I have trained my mind to be passive, cluttered, and consumptive. Even while researching this piece I found myself watching the “pivot” couch scene from Friends–a scene I have seen close to a million times.  The internet is a dangerous place for people like me!

It’s going to be an ongoing project to whittle down my media diet. As it went with smoking, I won’t be able to go cold turkey. I will need lots of time to ease myself into no longer being a TV addict.

When I reach a plateau, I must press on. Morning TV and channel surfing are gone. Reality TV, except for a few respectable hold-outs, is a thing of the past. Weekend TV and sports have been mostly excised. Next for uprooting is watching late night shows in bed. And then the big challenge, my evening fix of well-crafted dramas and the increasingly rare comedy.

I can’t say for sure that I will not make room for any TV in my life. What would life be without shows like Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, or The OA? And what about Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?

Maybe I can get my habit down to five hours a week. Would that be so bad?

My goal is to shape my life into something more varied and creative. If I can find a way to combine TV with the life I want to lead, then good for me. But if I can’t, I know now which one has to go.

Letting Go of Low Self-Esteem

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An ornament hanging in Sugarloaf Mountain Park in Md.

For about four decades I questioned my worth pretty much every day of my life. I grew up in a household that was different than most kids I knew, and I felt lesser because of it. My family didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know my father. He elected not to play a part in my life, and that made me feel like there was a piece missing inside of me.

For most of my childhood I was smaller than the other kids, and I had crazy hair, so I felt weird. I was shy and constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Being laughed at or teased, even if the teasing was meant affectionately, assured me that I was inferior. The only thing worse than being made fun of was being overlooked, which happened a lot.

Even within my own loving family I sensed a hierarchy, with my mother and I stranded several rungs below my uncles and their families.

Insecurity shadowed me for a very long time. I tried to overcome it, and I did an ok job most of the time. But sometimes I couldn’t escape feeling like I was on the verge of collapsing into my self-doubt. Throughout most of my life, I chose counterproductive and temporary ways to push down the doubt.

Many of the stupid things I said and did over the years were based on a suspicion that I didn’t and might not ever measure up. I struck out when I felt challenged. I argued with friends and significant others because being wrong or not being taken seriously felt like a confirmation that I was deficient, insufficient, insignificant. I craved validation but found it difficult to accept when it did come my way.

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From the BASK Mural (by Ales Bask Hostomsky) at Foolish Pride Tattoo Shop in St. Petersburg, Fl.

I knew I was smart and funny but didn’t believe I had enough of either attribute to make up for my faults. The slightest mistake on my part would get blown out of proportion in my mind–another piece of evidence that I was a loser and everyone could see it. The success of others was taken as a sign that I couldn’t possibly have anything to be proud of about myself.

I wanted so desperately to like and respect myself, but I didn’t trust that chick for one second. Did she really deserve my unguarded embrace?

On top of it all, I frequently feared dying in a horrific accident or discovering I was terminally ill. I know now that this dread was a clue that I could not bear the thought of losing control. And it was tightly woven into my lack of confidence issues, making them both feel central to my very being.

Fifteen years ago I started seeing my second therapist, and slowly things started to get better. Gradually, I replaced the rickety rope bridge that was my ego with a stronger, more solid pathway forward.

Over the last few years, I’ve explored additional strategies for making peace with myself. This blog is a record of the more recent steps in this journey. The path isn’t likely to reach a magical destination one day where I can celebrate certain victory over my self-esteem issues. But that’s ok. As long as I stay on the path (mostly–I’m not perfect) and keep passing milestones, I’ll continue making progress. Embracing the journey is necessary and, surprisingly, it’s not the arduous task it might seem at first. And, the process can be just as comforting as the result.

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Trying to be in the moment on a recent kayaking trip on Lake Linganore in Md.

Lately, I’ve found meditating very helpful. If I make time for it every day and take some of the practices into other areas of my life, I can feel the calming effects. It helps me avoid wallowing in my stress; gives me the strength to resist my anger; and encourages me to stop identifying with my negativity. I can still acknowledge those feelings when they arise, and then move on.

Just the other day I got that old panicky feeling that there’s something physically wrong with me, something that could lead to death and the great unknown. I momentarily felt out of control, like a fist was clenching my heart, but I was able to use techniques from meditation to get past it quickly.

Previously I would have been afraid to let go of the fear. Who was I without it? And what if I died suddenly, and I wasn’t properly in terror beforehand? What then, indeed? Releasing my attachment to this pointless distress has been a true gift to myself.

Putting the mindfulness piece together with a few other key pieces is making a real difference in my life. It’s not always visible to others, but I can tell you that the ugly chatter in my mind has subsided considerably. And it only took half a century to get here!

In the coming weeks I’ll write more about the other pieces of the puzzle.

Up next: My somewhat successful experiment with limiting media consumption.

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.

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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?

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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?

Sincerely,

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

Radio Writing Assignment: Still Rock and Roll

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My friends and I went to a lot of concerts; there are many more than these, including that Rolling Stones ticket stub that I can’t find anymore. 

Radio Writing Assignment is a challenge I created to nudge my blog into unexpected territory. The premise is simple: Turn on the radio (or any source that generates music at random), and then write something about the first song that plays. You could write about the song’s literal meaning, a personal memory the song evokes, or some deeper meaning you believe is embedded in the lyrics.

Driving to work recently I turned on the radio, and Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” came on. The song isn’t too complicated to understand (unless there’s something going on under the surface that I’m not picking up). Joel is stating that despite changing trends and a tendency to focus on looks and fashion, good music is good music.

Thinking about the song inspired me to trace the influence of music on my life. I decided to review the different artists and the ever-evolving technologies that have come and gone over the years, while appreciating the common emotions and experiences music can provoke.

My earliest memories of music come from my mother singing me to sleep with songs from the 1950s and 60s. To this day, I can recall many of those songs almost word for word, and I can still hear the soothing tone of my mom’s voice and the exact way she sang each one.

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The Lennon Sisters were big in our house.

When I started listening to records, it was often a collection of Disney tunes from Cinderella, Snow White, The Jungle Book, and other animated movies. We had one of those stereos that was the size of a tall file cabinet turned on its side. You would slide the door on the top open and place the album down onto the turntable and then gently drop the needle on the record. It was almost like a sacred experience.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents, and we regularly watched The Lawrence Welk Show on television, which helped foster my love of music and dancing. We had a collection of albums from The Lennon Sisters, who often performed on the show. They were like the big sisters I always wanted. I can picture the cover of one of their albums so clearly – the photo is taken from overhead, and they are wearing blue pleated skirts that are fanned out on a red background. When I looked this album up online, I was delighted to see that it appears just as it does in my memory.

Another album cover burned into my brain is from Michele Lee, who is mostly known as an actress from the 1980s primetime soap Knot’s Landing, but who was also a singer. On the cover, she’s wearing a black miniskirt, tight turtleneck, and high black boots. At the time, this outfit seemed incredibly risqué to a young girl. Something about it felt naughty yet exciting, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to see it, but there it was in my totally square family’s record collection!

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The provocative Michele Lee album cover.

We also had a lot of soundtracks in our collection, like The King and I and South Pacific. I used to listen to those and dance around the living room to songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Getting to Know You.” The Soundtracks Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music evolved into Grease and Saturday Night Fever, all of which I played over and over. I loved the escape from my sheltered life that soundtracks provided.

We used to go out to eat at Pizza Hut sometimes, back when the chain had actual restaurants that were kind of nice. The one we frequented had a jukebox, and my mom would give me money to play songs while we waited for our food. I was going through a John Denver phase around this time, so we heard a lot of “Take Me Home Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

As I got older, I graduated to listening to records in my bedroom on a portable record player designed to look like it was covered in denim. I also acquired a white portable radio/cassette player the approximate size and shape of an old lunchbox. I could record songs off the radio, and I even remember holding it up to the television to record songs when a band I liked performed on an afternoon talk show. Hence, my obsession with mix tapes was born.

I soon discovered The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, still two of my favorite bands. For many of us, rock music serves as a guide to help usher us from childhood into adolescence. Suddenly music is all about desire and betrayal and jealousy and sex (and you realize that a lot of the songs you listened to as kids were about those themes, too).

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My friend Sally and I got t-shirts made at the mall to demonstrate our love of The Rolling Stones. They say “Shattered” on the back. I think we’re about 13 years old. 

In your teens, the music you listen to can make you feel cool, edgy, adult, dangerous. Music is also an invitation to start touching and exploring each other. I was a late bloomer, so I mostly sat on the sidelines watching everyone slow dance at our school dances. I wasn’t part of the action, but I can still hear the songs that were the most popular slow dance songs, like “Dust in the Wind” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

Once I started driving, that portable cassette player always came with us, along with my preferred tapes of the moment. As any of my friends can attest, I have always loved playing deejay—sometimes obnoxiously so.

Growing up in a boring small town, going to concerts was an important part of our lives in high school. I can’t possibly list all the bands we saw, but I am not embarrassed to admit that the first two concerts we attended (back when one of our moms had to drive us) were The Village People and The Jackson 5. From there we went on to see Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s, AC/DC, Rush, Van Halen, Bryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and so many more.

Music not only gives you permission to loosen up and get physical, it also allows you to express rage and sadness. Memories from my teens and early 20s are punctuated with the songs my friends and I used to nurse our broken hearts. Yaz’s “Don’t Walk Away from Love” is one I can recall singing loudly and defiantly.

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Mix tapes, I made a few…

By the time I got to college, Walkmans were becoming popular. Suddenly you could take your albums anywhere and have a whole private musical event going on inside your head. At my college in Florida, and everyone “laid out” by the pool in between classes to work on our tans. Freshman year, there we all were individually listening to The Police’s Synchronicity album on our Walkmans in the hot sun.

After going through a number of Walkmans and countless headphones, I was probably one of the last people to convert to a portable CD player—so late that I didn’t have my CD player long before switching to an early model iPod.

The ability to create electronic playlists, first on the computer and then on iTunes, was revolutionary. Early on, my enthusiastic need to create playlists became like a second job, and I had to step away because I was losing the joy of appreciating the actual music.

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So much music to love.

Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed all kinds of music. My friends and I share a love of Reggae, and we spent many a night dancing at clubs to Madonna and Prince. I’m fond of big band classics and singers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I adore Latin music. Anything that makes me want to jump up and down or shake my hips calls my name. I’ll give pretty much anything a try, but I’m mostly drawn to songs that make me smile.

Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to discover new artists that don’t get much radio play, and my husband and I have started a new tradition of listening to Beats 1 music shows on weekend mornings. But my love of soundtracks will no doubt outlive all genres and delivery mechanisms, because there’s nothing quite like an eclectic combination of songs that take you to another place.


In honor of this post I’m sharing a playlist that I just created for the soundtrack of my life. If you love music and enjoy trips down memory lane, I highly recommend building your own soundtrack.

First, I broke my life into eight time periods, and then I typed up lengthy lists of songs, musicians, genres, and movie soundtracks from those periods. This part was loads of fun. I did research on Google, Wikipedia, and Apple Music. I talked to my mom about the songs she used to sing to me, and we reminisced about the music we had in our home.

Once I had an abundance of musical touchstones, I narrowed down the list to a total of 28 songs—a respectable double album size. This part was hard, but the good news is that I can change it anytime I want! Some songs were chosen because they conjure up a specific memory, some because I listened to them so many times, and others because they represented the kind of music I was listening to during that timeframe.

When I have a chance, I plan to create a few expansion playlists, like an all-female influences version, an all get-up-and-dance version and an all rock bands version. I can think of worse ways of spending my time—as long as I don’t get too preoccupied once again.

Hope you have as much fun as I did creating your own soundtrack.

Lisa Bennett’s Musical Journey (through 2016)

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This poster of Andy Gibb hung on my bedroom wall when I was about 12 years old. Yikes!

Early childhood

1. If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake – Eileen Barton

2. Doll on a Music Box / Truly Scrumptious – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Pre-teen

3. Love Will Keep Us Together- Captain & Tennille

4. I Just Want to Be Your Everything – Andy Gibb

5. Summer Nights – Grease

Teens

6. Shattered – The Rolling Stones

7. Promises in the Dark – Pat Benatar

8. How Much More – The Go-Go’s

College

9. True – Spandau Ballet

10. Let the Music Play – Shannon

11. State Farm – Yaz

The NYC Years

12. Summer Wind – Frank Sinatra

13. Head to Toe – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam

14. Boy – Book of Love

15. Johnny Come Home – Fine Young Cannibals

16. Lithium – Nirvana

17. My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) – En Vogue

Welcome to Maryland

18. Gel – Collective Soul

19. Never There – Cake

Single Again

20. On the Bound – Fiona Apple

21. Run On – Moby

22. Turn Off the Light – Nelly Furtado

New Chapter

23. Holiday – Green Day

24. Girl is on My Mind – The Black Keys

25. Take Your Mama – Scissor Sisters

26. Stung + You Belong to Me – Deer Tick

27. Mexican Aftershow Party – Kevin Drew

28. North American Scum – LCD Soundsystem

Bonus Track: Me in Honey – R.E.M. * possibly my all-time favorite song! *

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Here’s that faux denim record player, made by Sears.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Motivation capacity
  • Podcast dream guest appearance

The urge to argue

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Social commentary at the Shady Grove Metro Station in Gaithersburg, Md.

Election season brings out some of humankind’s best and worst qualities. This post is not going to be partisan in nature, I promise. I decided early on that this would not be a blog about political issues. But I do think it’s acceptable to use our current environment as a jumping off point to make larger observations about social behavior.

For example: Do you have trouble walking away from a disagreement when you believe that you are right? Do you often or always try to have the last word? Do you not understand why people don’t change or at least open their minds once they have encountered your perfectly constructed logic? If so, this post is for you!

I’m not talking about writing or other forms of communication that are designed to influence people and are directed at potentially receptive audiences. No, the subject of the moment is bickering with another person or persons when you can clearly see that no progress will be made on either side and the lobbing of insults is likely.

As a lifelong arguer, I find it difficult to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t increase my anxiousness and frustration—particularly in a heated atmosphere where others are also worked up. Despite making some progress in this area over the last decade or so, this year I have found myself on Facebook arguing in comment threads with people I don’t even know.

These debates go nowhere. They achieve nothing, as far as I can tell. But I want to win, dammit! A couple months ago, I made a pledge to myself that I would cease quarreling back and forth with people who are as committed to their positions as I am to mine. Instead, I would write well-thought out posts that might reach a wider range of people. Or, I would encourage myself to go do any kind of activity other than futile social media one-upmanship.

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A friendly doormat in St. Petersburg Beach, Fl.

After a month or so, I couldn’t resist any longer, and I broke my pledge. Immediately thereafter, I bargained with myself and came up with a revised rule: I could post in the comments but only with links to news articles. Or, I could write the responses I wanted to make, but I had to save them in my Notes and not post them. I’m trying to follow this new guideline, but it’s not easy. In fact, a complete break from social media might be in my near future.

I have a long history of arguing with my mother, my closest friends, and with significant others. An old boyfriend probably saw me at my most argumentative; one of our worst fights started because I asked him to estimate how long it would take for an aspirin I just took to start working. He refused to guess, and I was not having it—at all. Just as ridiculous, one of my worst fights with my current husband was over whether or not to replace our well-worn cookie sheets.

One of the main factors that makes stepping back (and not escalating) so challenging is that I allow myself to really lean into my anger. Because I am mad, I want to make the other person feel bad. I want to let the most spiteful, smug part of me loose and push the other person’s buttons. I want to make them feel small, and foolish, and wrong. If you’ve never felt like this, I am truly happy for you. It doesn’t feel good. You might feel satisfied for a bit, but an emptiness follows, and upon reflection you feel petty and unable to check yourself.

Meanwhile, the reasonable side of me wants to win fair and square. The frustrated lawyer inside of me dreams of mounting a persuasive argument—putting together the ideal combination of well-researched facts and moving rhetoric. Who among us arguers doesn’t want to craft that elusive statement that touches hearts and converts the most ardent of opponents?

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Poop emoji to hang on your wall, found at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

In an attempt to talk myself down from self-righteous mountain, I delve into what I believe are the root causes of stubborn, useless arguing. Whether I am lashing out in anger or assembling another set of indisputable facts, I think it goes back to the shared human desires and fears that I wrote about in an earlier post.

When you look at it this way, “wining” an argument is confirmation that you are in control and worthy of respect. If you are slighted—or in the case of some of my worst arguments, the other person seems to be refusing to give you what you are asking for—this agitates the part of you that longs to be heard and validated.

I have found that the trick is to remind myself that the outcome of one argument is not going to change the amount of control I have over my life or affect whether I am a human being of value on this earth. Heck, I can even admit to myself that I do have flaws and I don’t know everything without my entire self-esteem falling apart.

Times like these are tricky for us arguers. We don’t want to silence ourselves or deny our feelings. But we must remember that we will actually feel much better if we disengage and perhaps take some time to consider the other person’s point of view.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment
  • Podcast dream guest appearance

The Four Ps: A framework for balancing your life

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Figurines at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

About a year ago I started building a framework for the ongoing self-development that I was craving. The Four Ps, as I came to call it, focuses on the concepts of productivity, progress, playfulness, and peacefulness. This tool is helping me evaluate the balance of these important qualities in my life, set personal goals, and measure the results.

I’m sharing it here in the hope that it can be helpful to others who may be in search of a structure to make their lives more satisfying, more efficient, less stressful, less stuck. Maybe by sharing The Four Ps, this blog post will inspire you to create your own blueprint—whatever works!

The Four Ps uses simple scales from zero to 10. The goal is NOT to make sure you are a 10 on every scale. The objective is to determine where you are now on each scale and to think about whether or not a change might be in order.

Each person who gives The Four Ps a try will measure their current state and their evolution differently. You can see my scales in the image below. The guidelines are not rigid, and there’s lots of room for your own interpretation. The Four Ps is not a series of step-by-step instructions for success. You still have to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Now, let’s get to it…

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Here are my original goals on the scales of The Four Ps.

Productivity, in shorthand, is what it means to be a grown up. Paying the bills, making sure you have clean clothes to wear, keeping your home relatively tidy, working inside or outside of the home, going to the doctor, caregiving, shopping for groceries, and so on. These are the basics that we all pretty much have to do to keep our lives humming along.

Some people do more of these things than others. A person with two jobs and three kids and a sick parent might score themselves high on this scale. Different people are comfortable with different levels of productivity in their lives. How do you feel about your productivity?

When I first sat down to evaluate where I landed on the scales, I decided that I was about a 7.5 on productivity. I work a full-time job, but it doesn’t infringe on my personal time nearly as much as my prior job. I try to keep the house clean, but by no means sparkling. I cook at home a lot and do most of the meal planning. My mother lives with us, and I take her to multiple doctors on a regular basis. I couldn’t see myself as an eight, but a seven seemed a little weak given all I was doing.

Next, I set a goal—to reduce my productivity from a 7.5 to a 6.5. I didn’t feel like a big adjustment was needed, just enough to open up some time and headspace for the other Ps. In order to reduce my productivity, I handed myself two assignments:

– Give myself permission to ease way back on yardwork. This is what caused my thumb injury, and since we live in a place where pristine lawns are not a thing, I needed to relax already on the state of our yard.

– Give myself permission to have an even less perfectly clean house. Set a baseline of cleanliness and learn to embrace mediocrity in this area.

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Kitchen tools at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

With The Four Ps, you give yourself a set period of time to work on your goals, and then you come back and see how you did. Do you think you moved on the scale as much as you wanted? Maybe more, maybe less? If you achieved your goal, was it enough? Perhaps you put yourself under too much pressure? What next?

I had told myself that I would revisit the scales once I launched my blog and started writing this very piece. So here I am, almost a year after I started.

On productivity, I am happy to say that I met my goal, and I feel pretty darn good about it. I can’t see much more room for tweaking in this category, so on to the next.

Progress involves learning something new, building a skill, nurturing a talent, volunteering, or other actions that could be considered more creation than consumption.

I rated myself pretty low on progress, at a three. I might have gone higher, but some things that I had done recently that might have been considered progress (like learning a new approach to cooking and eating) had turned into being pretty routine (thus moving them into the productivity column).

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Alpaca made from alpaca fiber at the Sugarloaf Alpaca Company in Adamstown, Md.

My goal was to move from a three to a five on the progress scale, and my assignments were:

– Start taking drum lessons

– Launch a blog and post at least once a week on it

– Look for small one-off challenges and take advantage of them regularly

How did I do? Well, the drum lessons fizzled out when my thumb injury flared up again. The blog is live, and I’m pleased with my commitment to it. And I’ve definitely been taking advantage of various challenges, like cooking at the Eggfest and taking a “Coaching for Creatives” e-course.

I’m giving myself a movement of 1.5 on the progress scale, a little shy of my goal of climbing two spots. In order to bring that up a bit more, I am looking for something to fill the drumming slot. Eventually, I would like to score an even higher number on progress, like a six, but it’s baby steps for now.

Playfulness is what it sounds like. It’s having fun with no greater purpose than to entertain yourself, recharge, and spend time with people whose company you enjoy—which are very important activities, after all. Some of us find it difficult to make time for recreation, while others have no problem prioritizing fun and relaxation.

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Foosball table at TBC advertising agency in Baltimore, Md.

I gave myself a seven on playfulness and decided to set a modest goal of reducing it to a six. I wanted to clear out some time on my schedule for progress and peacefulness. Just two simple assignments would help me achieve this goal:

– Watch less TV

– Drink less alcohol

I am happy to report that I have pretty much given up channel surfing—you know, where you end up watching Tiny House Hunters because there’s nothing else on, but you don’t want to get off the couch. I still watch more TV than most people, but I try to make sure it’s something I really want to watch. Otherwise, I get the heck up and do something else.

Drinking less has been an ongoing challenge that I will write much more about in a later blog post, but it’s going well and getting better.

A minus one move on the scale might not have been a big achievement, but I did it. In the future, I may choose to tweak the playfulness scale some more; but for now, I’m happy with where I’ve come to rest.

Peacefulness covers anything you do that helps you reach a state of peace with yourself and the world. It can include meditation, therapy, yoga, group support, getting in touch with nature, practicing mindfulness, sleeping well, and more. For many of us, this might be the most challenging concept, while others are way ahead on this one.

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Roosevelt Island Community Garden in N.Y.

I scored myself low, at a three. To be honest, I could even see going as low as a two, but since we have been going camping more and kayaking, I decided a three wasn’t such a stretch. My goal was to rise to a five, and my assignments were:

– Meditate and practice mindfulness regularly

– Start doing yoga regularly

– Spend more time in nature

I’m sorry to say that I did not do a very good job here. Meditating is an occasional part of my life now, but not at all regular. I got started on the yoga and then faded fast. The one thing I have been doing is taking regular walks outside and making sure to appreciate everything that is around me when I do. I’ve also gotten much better at reminding myself to “be here now” when I get anxious or fail to appreciate the moment.

Thus, I gave myself a movement of one spot up to four. In order to make my goal of stepping up to a five, I will need to get back to my assignments and complete them all this time.

Overall, I feel good. I am proud of and encouraged by the changes I have instituted. I plan to check back with myself in a couple more months and see where I’m at again. At that time, I can decide to make further tweaks, or I can simply work on maintaining a status quo. So long as I’m happy and feeling like I’m functioning at a level that works for me.

If you’ve stuck with this blog post to the bitter end, thanks for hanging in there! I hope it was interesting and you got something out of it. I would love to receive feedback from anyone who uses The Four Ps (or any customized version of it). Or, if you already have your own way of motivating yourself, I’d love to hear about it.

Bonus challenge for word geeks: Think of all the inspiring, positive (there’s one right now!) words that start with P.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment
  • Podcast dream guest appearance

Starting at the same point

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Taken at the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse, Cleveland, Ohio.

From 1995 through 2013, I worked at a non-profit organization that regularly took policy positions that would be considered progressive. During that period, the people of the United States grew more and more politically polarized. Through the lens of my job, I witnessed the birth of Fox News and MSNBC, the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair, the Bush v. Gore decision, the ongoing outbursts of Rush Limbaugh, and many other milestones in the widening divide.

The letters, phone calls, emails, and online comments that we received every day could be brutal. The creepy messages that came from clearly troubled people—like the man who imagined a not-too-distant future where “sons are favored and daughters hated”—were sickening but fairly easy not to take personally.

But I struggled not to feel hostile toward the people who seemed level-headed and relatively polite yet disagreed so vehemently with our mission. Also troubling was the tendency of true believers on either side of the aisle to generalize about and demean the folks on the other side.

Here’s the stereotype I saw emerge of liberals as expressed by conservatives: Snobby, weak, always taking offense, quick to play the race or woman card, think everyone else is racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., want to take away all guns, godless, sexually immoral, baby killers, environmental dupes, want to destroy traditional families, prone to coddling poor people with other people’s tax dollars, eager to perpetuate class war, think big government can solve everything, and completely snowed by their leaders.

And here’s the stereotype that emerged of conservatives as expressed by liberals: Ignorant, naïve, fact-averse, reactive, blindly religious, simplistically patriotic, gun nuts, violent, bullying, judgmental, hypocritical, stubborn, racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., prudes, possibly closeted, insecure, immature, mean and spiteful, anti-science, don’t think poor people deserve help, nostalgic for an idealized/discriminatory past, think capitalism/tax cuts can solve everything, and completely snowed by their leaders.

At least we all have that last one in our column, right?

But seriously, facing the reality of this divide on a daily basis was wearying and downright disheartening. In order not to completely give up, I started trying to focus on the human characteristics that we all share, regardless of political persuasion. I was in search of those common threads that tie us all together.

One way to do this is to ask: What do people truly want? What do they most fear? I believe that these questions are just flip sides of each other. And you have to answer them in the purest way possible. You have to get at the answer behind the answer, behind the answer.

Here’s what I came up with…

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On a street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

All people want to believe that they are in control of nearly every aspect of their lives. Doing something and expecting a certain outcome is pretty much the bread and butter of our existence. Otherwise, life is chaos.

However, we do not have full control over our lives at all times, and that realization can be terrifying, or at minimum pretty friggin’ frustrating. When control is taken away from you in an area where you thought you had things covered, stress and anger are usually the result. Imagine working hard to improve your health only to discover that you have developed an illness that could not have been prevented. Or losing out on a promotion at work despite doing everything “right.” Or installing a security system in your home only to have it broken into the next day.

When these types of things happen, many people look for something or someone to blame. It sucks to admit that the world can be random and senseless. If we ultimately have little to no control, then why even bother? Humans want to bother, for the most part, so we often go looking for excuses as to why something went awry. And it’s through those excuses that we start to part ways.

People also want to be respected. They want to be treated with dignity, which means being seen, heard, and taken seriously. When someone is disrespected, laughed at, or looked down upon, it produces a reaction that can range from mild annoyance to outright rage. And again, it is our varying approaches to dealing with feeling small and insulted that separates us into different camps.

People like to think of themselves as special. Of course, we are all unique. But we are also tiny, fleeting parts of a vast universe. No one wants to think of themselves as a standard-model cog in the machine. We like to think that we all have something singular that we contribute. We want to count, to matter in some small way to others or the world. After all, what is love but evidence that someone finds us exceptional and distinct. I think we all worry at some point in our lives that we are not as smart or talented or strong or whatever as we think we are or hope to be. This is why people often insist that they are right even when that insistence is just making matters worse. Admitting that you are wrong, or just as fallible as everyone else, is scary and people have been known to avoid it at all costs.

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So many cats at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

Lastly, in addition to being special, everyone also wants to belong. Even if you are as non-conformist as they come, I’m willing to bet that at some point you have sought out people with whom you share a preference in movies, or music, or food, or body modification, or historical reenactments, or something.

If an individual were to seek out their tribe, no matter how small it might be, and if that tribe were to reject them…well, I can’t imagine a person who wouldn’t be hurt by that exclusion. Betrayal and abandonment can be seen as strong indicators that perhaps you weren’t worthy of being included in the first place. When this happens, people can strike out at those by whom they feel dismissed.

I believe that all humans share these characteristics, although in varying degrees and with varying strategies and skills for dealing with disappointment.

I try to remember this when I’m arguing with someone who disagrees strongly with me. I try to remember that we both want to feel in control of our lives, that we both want to be respected, and that we both want to feel appreciated for our uniqueness and embraced for our humanity.

We may have each traveled a different path, but we started at the same point.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • The Four Ps
  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment

 

Of eggs, guts, and glory

I’m taking another week off from my planned subjects to dash off a quick update on my “journey” (which is the central topic of this blog, after all). Back to regularly scheduled musings next week. 

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Grilled veggies to go in my olive tapenade/guacamole (guacanade?) mashup.

Every person has at least one thing (usually more) that they find intimidating or difficult. I have plenty such things, though fewer as I grow older.

Driving has haunted me for most of my adult life. Over the past few years I’ve had to drive more than ever, so my fear has subsided considerably. But I used to panic whenever I got lost: One wrong turn, and I would break out in a cold sweat. And forget about merging into traffic on a big highway—I might as well be jumping out of a plane! Most people probably can’t relate to this level of anxiety around driving, while others know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I was a kid, I was very shy. The idea of reading a report in front of class or even ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s freaked me out. When I got to college, I pushed myself to take a speech class. Turns out I really liked it, so I started taking drama classes. By senior year, I was earning a minor in speech and drama and acting in that year’s school play. I don’t think I was a very good, but I enjoyed it, and I was proud of myself for taking on the challenge.

Part of my current journey includes doing more things that scare me—stuff I might normally put off or avoid altogether. I’m in search of a life less comfortable and predictable.

So, when I learned that a festival for fans of the Big Green Egg grill would be happening not far from where we live this month, I decided my husband and I should go and cook at the event. We bought our Big Green Egg at one of these festivals where a friend of ours grilled. At the time, I never imagined that we would eventually want to cook at one ourselves.

To some of you, grilling at a festival alongside other amateur cooks might not sound like a big deal. For me, this challenge was the perfect ratio of “really want to do it” to “kinda terrified of doing it.”

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Lamb kofte kebabs on the grill at the Eggs on the Chesapeake festival in Edgewater, Md.

Not long after we arrived at the “Eggs on the Chesapeake” fest it became obvious that we were the newbies there. The people next to us, who had decorated their booth as if it were a charming little shop, stepped in and helped us with a few things, like taping our tablecloth to the table so it wouldn’t blow away and loaning me disposable gloves for working with raw meat in public.

We ran out of plates, and we really should have brought napkins and forks for the tasters. We were a little awkward sometimes, and ideas for efficiency came to us late in the day. But we brought the perfect amount of food, and people seemed to like what we made. It was sort of like being on an episode of Top Chef, except I’m pretty sure we would’ve been in the bottom three. I don’t think Padma would have kicked us off, though. Our food was good, it was just the presentation that was lacking.

While we did not place among the top three cooks that day, we did get a fair amount of tokens dropped in our bowl from people who appreciated our food. I’m happy to report that it was a great experience: We talked to strangers about our food and shared tips about grilling tools and methods. I even presented a new recipe of my own, which several people asked for.

Yep, we did something new and learned a lot in the process. And I’m pretty sure we’ll do it again. I don’t think we’re ready for one of the larger festivals just yet, but maybe after we get a couple more small ones under our belts.

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Our first token/vote at the Eggs on the Chesapeake festival in Edgewater, Md.

What did I do to get past this and other fears? I think I’ve narrowed it down to two key strategies.

First, don’t delay—just jump in there. If it makes you feel better, allow yourself one short set amount of procrastination time, and that’s it. With the Eggfest, I checked out the event website on a Saturday and saw that there was one slot left to cook. I was nervous and wanted to talk it over with my husband and give him some time to warm up to the idea. So I told myself I would go back to the website Sunday morning, and if the spot was still available, I would sign up immediately. I did, it was, and I did!

Also, for things that are really scaring the bejeesus out of you, try thinking through the worst things that could go wrong and how you would deal with those outcomes. When my husband and I bought our house four years ago, we had a moment of sheer panic about halfway through the process. We still had to sell our townhouse, and what if we couldn’t find a buyer? We sat down and slowly went through some of the worst case scenarios. We decided that as awful as they sounded, they wouldn’t be the end of the world. We could handle them, and having a plan gave us permission to take the risk.

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The Scotch Eggs from Melissa Joulwan’s Well Fed cookbook/blog were a big hit!

An upcoming challenge that I might take on is speaking at a storytelling open mic night. The idea came from the Magic Lessons podcast, and I’m seriously considering it. I’ve already started writing the piece. But when the time comes, will I be able to get up there and read it in front of a crowd? What horrifying things could happen if I did? Well, my mouth might completely dry up, then my throat could close up, and I could have a coughing attack and have to flee the stage. I swear something like this happened once during a rehearsal in a drama class at college.

Or, the audience could be totally indifferent to my piece—they could whisper to each other and stare at their phones. When I’m done, they could applaud politely but with zero enthusiasm.

These results are entirely possible. But if they take place, I will have at least gotten up there and tried my best. And I will survive. In fact, if I pay attention to the other storytellers and the audience reactions, I should be able to learn something that could help me in the future. That is, if I dare to do it once and then again.

Reading Brené Brown is always inspiring when I’m feeling small and afraid, so I plan to turn to her before taking on this next challenge. As Brown says: “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”

Upcoming blog topics: