Sometimes when I struggle with making a decision or writing a blog post, I “interview” myself. When I have some time alone, I ask myself probing questions and answer them, often out loud to hear how they sound. Does this make me sound nutty? Don’t answer that.
Recently, I asked myself what I thought was the most influential thing that I’ve done to improve my confidence and peace of mind. If I could recommend one big life-changing step to others, what would it be? This was not a difficult question to tackle, except I kept changing my answer—maybe it was quitting drinking three years ago, or maybe it was quitting smoking 11 years ago, or maybe it was something else.
Picture a long line of dominoes standing on their ends. When you push one it knocks down the next domino and so on until the final domino falls. Which domino would you say is the single most important piece in getting the chain from the beginning to the end point? The first domino gets everything rolling, of course. And the last one completes the action. But every domino in the chain connects the domino before it to the domino after it—each one serves a purpose and keeps the momentum alive.
That’s how it’s been for me this past decade-plus. Each decision I made to improve my life was often impacted by the decision before it and then led to a subsequent positive choice. After I quit smoking, I started exercising more. Feeling better made me want to live in a place where I could get outside more. When my husband and I moved, being around nature made me want to improve my physical and mental health even more. I started meditating and eating mostly Paleo. This led me to quit drinking, which led me to take a writing workshop. Writing more led me to leave my marketing job in search of something more fulfilling.
Each step of this journey played its part, just like each domino plays its part in the chain reaction. When we get stuck on one step, the way a domino occasionally fails to push over the next one, we can miss out on all the other great steps that are waiting on the other side.
So, I can’t really say what is the best life-changing action someone could or should take. But I can say that the most important thing you can do is identify the next critical action—whether it’s finding a form of exercise you actually want to do, leaving a stressful job, getting into therapy, moving on from a bad relationship—and take it, so that the domino effect of your life never stops progressing.
Rag Doll livin’ in a movie, Hot tramp Daddy’s little cutie.
I can hear my friend Tami singing the song “Rag Doll” as if she were standing right in front of me. Her take was deliciously exaggerated—a cross between Mae West and an old-timey announcer. She loved Aerosmith. Lead singer Steven Tyler was high on her list of celebrity dudes she wanted to shag (the list also included John Cusack and Jeff Daniels).
Tami is gone now. She passed away suddenly on Feb. 23 of this year—just eight weeks ago, as I’m preparing to post this. I’ll never again hear her burst into song, which she did frequently, whenever the lyrics suited the occasion. We will never again sing any of the silly songs we both loved – like “Grab It!” and “Cars That Go Boom” by L’Trimm or “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne.
Laid out on my coffee table is an array of pictures of Tami and our close group of friends, taken mostly during our 20s and 30s. They tell the story of a woman who loved cats, often hoisting them high into the air for photos. You see a beautiful woman who looked great in a cowboy hat and once dressed up in a 1960s floor-length pink gown and shiny gold shoes for a small Thanksgiving dinner. A woman who loved going out with her friends. A woman who liked finger puppets, sunglasses, and the beach.
Because of our age, my friends and I made very few videos together—instead I have albums full of old-school Polaroids and pics developed at the drugstore. A couple weeks after Tami’s passing, I was scrolling through the more recent photos on my computer and happened upon a rare video of her from the weekend my husband and I got married.
Tami and I are cooking in the kitchen; my husband is standing outside on the deck, shooting video of us through the window. We are singing and dancing to “Word Up” by Cameo. Unaware that we’re being filmed, we aren’t playing for the camera. Our motions and voices are low-key and natural. Tami does, indeed, wave her hands in the air like she don’t care. At the end, she lightly slaps her hand on her chest, just below her collarbones. I probably saw Tami do that hundreds of times and never really thought about it. But when I saw it on the video, the familiarity of it made me gasp.
If only I had a few more videos of Tami—moving images full of life and sound and the ease we felt with each other.
Cat, hat. In French, chat, chapeau. In Spanish, he’s el gato in a sombrero.
I have no idea how or when Tami and I started saying this. It’s from a song in the 1971 Cat in the Hat TV special. One of us would randomly say, “Cat, hat,” and we would finish the rest in unison.
We had lots of running verbal jokes. In college, we relished torturing our friends with a weird game where we turned the lines of a song, any song, into a series of questions and answers.
“Tami, what is it?” “It’s all right” “When?” “Now!”
After a while, someone, usually Tracy, would ask us to knock it off.
“Hey Tami, ask me if we’re going to knock it off?” “Lisa, are we going to knock it off?” “I’m glad you asked, Tami. No!”
Tami would sit on the floor in the hallway of our dorm, talking to her mom or sister on the pay phone (another throwback!), and I would make it my mission to do a goofy dance for her until she cracked up.
One day when we were broke and bored, we spent hours going through a fashion magazine, making snarky comments about the content of every single page. I cut out a chart from the magazine that explained the different types of hepatitis and stuck it on her refrigerator door—just cuz.
I wonder what she had on her refrigerator in her last months. I hope there was something there that made her smile.
Do you really want to wake up next to Ramone? “Why you jump ze bed so quickly on zis morning? Last night you were like wild beast. You must give yourself again to Ramone.”
This is from a comic strip called “Think Twice!” by cartoonist Lynda Barry. For years, Tami and I would recite it fairly regularly, complete with a corny French accent for Ramone.
We met around the age of 11 or 12. We were both late bloomers. For a few years, we were glorious dorks together. We loved the soap opera The Guiding Light and wrote many poems and spoofs about the characters on the show.
Tami would sketch a boy she named Junior, who was always getting into trouble and calling on his mom to rescue him. During our early high school years, I would beg her to draw new Juniors for me, and his predicaments grew more elaborate over time. After her passing, I unearthed a folder full of Juniors and the other artwork Tami would pass to me in class.
We ended up becoming high school cheerleaders. We left those dorky little girls behind. But we never forgot. Well into our 20s, after a few drinks, we might recollect how miserable it had been to be so far behind all the other girls.
We both majored in creative writing at college. Tami was a Hemingway gal, and I was Team Fitzgerald. We both read and re-read Ann Beattie’s “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” Lorrie Moore’s “Anagrams,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Edible Woman.”
Not long ago I sent her the illustrated book “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh because it reminded me so much of our Lynda Barry fangirl days. I only wish we had gotten the chance to sit down and read our favorite parts to each other.
One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.
Laurie Colwin wrote this in her foreword to “Home Cooking,” a book of cozy essays and recipes. Tami and I both adored “Home Cooking” and its follow up, “More Home Cooking.”
Many of the cookbooks on my shelf were purchased because Tami owned them first. Or because she picked up a yellowed 1970 copy of “The All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook” as a gift for me.
Tami was a whiz at cooking dishes all along the spectrum from simple to fancy. Terre recently reminded me how Tami introduced our group to Supremes de Volaille Printanier (chicken breasts with asparagus and carrots) from page 26 of The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet cookbook.
Her macaroni & cheese was outstanding. And not only did Tami make great meals, but you could always assign her dessert for Thanksgiving or dinner parties, and she would produce something amazing. Her lemon cake—with white icing, not lemon or cream cheese—was one of Stacey’s favorites.
One of her prized skills was being able to tell exactly what size container was needed for any given amount of leftovers. Whenever I’m not sure if I should go with the larger or smaller container, I channel Tami’s supreme confidence in this realm.
Cooking with Tami was always fun. You might even get into a heated argument with her and Fred over whether a squirrel climbed up the side of the building and took a bite out of the chocolate cake that was cooling on the windowsill.
Speaking of squirrels, not so long ago Tami regularly carried a “nut sack” with her so that she could feed the squirrels in the park as she walked to the subway station. She swore some of those squirrels knew her and waited for her.
I don’t doubt it.
How much more can I take, Before I go crazy, oh yeah, Crazy, oh yeah, How much more heartache, Before I go crazy, oh yeah, Crazy, oh yeah
Tami and I were drawn to the Go-Go’s song “How Much More” in our senior year of high school because we were both going through a case of unrequited love. We bonded over how unfair it was that the boys we were infatuated with were unavailable.
To this day, I cannot hear “Total Eclipse of the Heart” without thinking of Tami playing it over and over after a bad break-up during freshman year of college.
For decades, we told each other everything about the crushes, hook-ups, and loves in our lives. We made up ridiculous nicknames for them and offered scathing re-evaluations of those who didn’t recognize what dazzling creatures we were.
In our 40s and early 50s, Tami was in a long-term relationship with my brother-in-law, which meant we got to see each other often, but it also made our penchant for sharing everything a bit awkward.
I feel honored and blessed to have shared so many moments with Tami over the course of four decades. Every decision, every milestone in my life was poured out to her in great detail. She was a best friend, a chosen sister, a steady presence—even when we were physically or emotionally distant.
Sadly, the last time I saw Tami in person was three years before her passing. We didn’t talk much on the phone anymore or text. But she was always in my heart and on my mind.
Looking for something to binge watch during your home quarantine, now that you’ve seen Tiger King and Love is Blind? Well, as some of you may know, I watch a lot of TV. It’s been that way since I was a wee child and our TV sat on a wheeled cart that we swiveled back and forth between the dining room and the living room.
I’ve struggled to tame my media over-consumption for years now, and considerable progress has been made. My eyeballs are no longer glued to the screen unless I’m watching something I consider “must see TV.” But there’s a lot of good stuff out there, folks, and thanks to my husband we have every pay channel and streaming service known to humankind.
So, I am kindly sharing hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of research with you. Due to the sheer volume, my recommendations will be offered in parts—a limited series, if you will. This first part covers my favorite half-hour shows that first premiered during the past decade. Each show listing contains no more than 280 characters—just the basics to help you decide if each show is for you.
Enjoy! Much more to follow during these cloistered times…
Half-Hour Shows (recent-ish—started in 2011 or later):
HBO; 2 seasons so far (2018-?)
From IMDB: “A hit man from the Midwest moves to Los Angeles and gets caught up in the city’s theatre arts scene.”
My opinion: Probably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Brilliant, quirky cast. Moody, wacky, bingeable. Alert: Very violent.
NBC/Hulu; 7 seasons so far (2013-?)
From IMDB: “…an immature but talented N.Y.P.D. detective comes into conflict with his serious and stern new commanding officer.”
My opinion: Gleefully goofy, charming cast, both broad and subtle jokes. Just try not to smile!
Amazon Prime; 4 seasons (2015-2019)
Summary: Rob (from the U.S.) and Sharon (living in London) try to turn a hook up into a committed relationship.
My opinion: Hilarious, raunchy, unexpected, and engaging. If you’ve ever been part of a couple, you can’t help but relate.
Dead to Me
Netflix; 1 season, second one coming soon (2019-?)
From IMDB: “A powerful friendship blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.”
My opinion: Darkly funny, adult, lots of great twists, immensely bingeable. Two fabulous leading women.
Dear White People
Netflix; 3 seasons, fourth coming soon (2017-?)
From IMDB: “At a predominantly white Ivy League college, a group of black students navigate various forms of racial and other types of discrimination.”
My opinion: Funny, compelling, hugely entertaining, winning cast.
HBO/Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2011-2013)
Summary: After a breakdown followed by a spiritual awakening, a woman makes it her mission to enlighten others and reform her workplace.
My opinion: Overlooked gem! Funny, bizarre, suspenseful, awkward. Laura Dern is fearless.
Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2016, 2019)
From IMDB: “…a young woman trying to cope with life in London whilst coming to terms with a recent tragedy.”
My opinion: LOVE! Brilliant, hilarious, saucy, and touching. Second season is darn near perfect. Alert: Fourth-wall breaking.
The Good Place
NBC; 4 seasons total (2016-2020)
Summary: An eclectic group of characters explore what happens after death.
My opinion: Amazing cast, incredible concept, funny, intelligent, big-hearted, and full of interesting twists—what more could you ask for? A+ series finale.
Hulu; 1 season so far (2020-?)
Summary: A record-store owner recounts her worst breakups while talking music w/friends.
My opinion: Zoe Kravitz is utterly cool AND relatable. Fun, hip, engaging, NYC-drenched. Alert: Lots of drinking/substance use, fourth-wall breaking.
Amazon Prime; 1 season, second one coming soon (2018-?)
From IMDB: “Heidi [Julia Roberts] works at Homecoming, a facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life.” Or are they?
My opinion: Intense, creepy, riveting, thought-provoking. A must for conspiracy fans.
The Last Man on Earth
Fox/Hulu; 4 seasons (2015-2018)
From IMDB: “…after a virus wiped out most of the human race, Phil wishes for some company, but soon gets more than he bargained for.”
My opinion: Hilarious, dark AND silly. Perhaps too timely? End of series leaves things hanging.
HBO; 1 season so far (2019-?)
From IMDB: “A single mom whose son moves out for college begins a new life on her own.”
My opinion: Fun, provocative, complicated, and surprisingly tender. Alert: If “unconventionally sexy” gives you pause, maybe skip this one.
Netflix; 1 season so far (2019-?)
Summary: A woman in Manhattan keeps reliving her same birthday party, trying to figure out how to break the time loop.
My opinion: Funny, edgy, mind-blowing, totally binge-worthy, top-notch cast, tight plot. A must for New Yorkers.
Apple TV+; 1 season so far (2019-?)
Summary: A husband tries a unique approach for dealing with a family tragedy while his wife hires a mysterious nanny.
My opinion: Super creepy, gothic, juicy performances, food fixation, keeps you guessing. Alert: Not for weak stomachs.
Hulu; 2 seasons (2019-2020)
Summary: A young woman seeks creative and professional fulfillment and a satisfying relationship.
My opinion: Aidy Bryant rules! The whole cast is incredible. Funny, touching, surprising, inspiring, unapologetically fat-positive. Don’t miss out!
Your feedback is welcome. Did my brief recommendations sufficiently steer you in the right direction? Got any recent half-hour shows you think I should watch?
A couple weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I grabbed my Kindle from the nightstand and opened the book I had started a couple days earlier. I looked in the bottom left corner and saw I was at 24% complete. Ugh, I needed to pick up my pace and read about 20% per day if I wanted to finish the book by the middle of January.
My long-form reading has been pretty unimpressive of late. To be honest, I’ve only read a handful of books each year since the late 1990s.
So, I promised myself that in 2020 I would try to read two books a month. Goals like this bring out my insecurities and compulsive tendencies. There I was, huddled under my covers with the soft glow of the Kindle in front of me, obsessing about my reading progress rather than enjoying the book itself.
Anything you can count or weigh or otherwise quantify has the potential to make me anxious. Last fall I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” (ummm, most of it). In the book, Tharp recommends taking a break for one week from looking at anything that involves numbers, like checking the time or monitoring your bank balance. When I read that, I was aghast—how in the heck would I do that for even half a day let alone a week.
Here are just a few examples of how tracking and measuring infect my daily life:
– If I have to be somewhere at a certain time, I will write out the tasks I have to do before leaving the house, scheduling them down to the minute—I’m talking showering, eating, getting dressed, and so forth. Veering off the timeline makes my jittery.
– I often review my personal growth, recounting the month and year when I quit smoking, the month and year when I started eating healthier, the month and year I originated my blog, and on and on. This might lead me to congratulate myself, but it can also trigger thoughts that I’m not moving fast enough. What exactly have I done for me lately?
– My brain is frequently in the process of making a deal with itself. I may look normal on the outside, but on the inside, I am calculating how many cookies I’m allowed to eat based on whether I had dessert last night. Or assessing my recent expenses and promising to do better. Or thinking about all the chores I need to do and bargaining for some free time with the hard-nosed project manager living in my head.
– I step on the scale every morning. I might weigh myself three or four times until I finally accept the best number. In the app linked with my scale, I often delete numbers I don’t like, so long as the overall trend isn’t compromised. The line chart that displays my weight over the past couple years is a frequent source of consternation.
– When I divide up the lunches that my husband and I make for the week, I weigh each container of food (in grams, of course, because it’s more precise) to make sure they are as close as possible to being equal (his portions weighing more than mine but equal to each other). I’ve gotten better about not doing this, but I haven’t completely abandoned the habit just yet.
This kind of thinking and activity has kept me in an almost constant state of agitation for ages. I set lofty (or even reasonable) goals and then make myself queasy because I’m afraid I’ll come up short. Then I distract myself from the steps necessary to achieve such goals, thus fulfilling my fear of failure.
But…I’m breaking this cycle, which I acknowledge will be a lifelong undertaking. For example: My previous blog post before this one was July of last year. What?! When I realized this fact in December, my heart sank. I should hurry and get a piece posted before the end of 2019, I told myself. When that didn’t happen, I decided I should definitely get a piece posted during the first week of January. All of this negotiating with myself had my stomach in knots.
I took a deep breath and conceded, “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Why set unnecessary deadlines for myself? Life has plenty of time limits that we have little to no control over. Why create more of them?
Balance is key here. On the one hand, I spent many years procrastinating and not following my dreams—it’s good that I’m expanding my horizons and trying new things. On the other hand, I have to be patient with myself and ease up on the internal pressure.
My plan to start a kombucha business is fertile testing ground for promoting this kind of harmony in my life. Recently, I gave myself permission to back off from the original launch date I set for the business. I’m still proceeding with the numerous tasks that need to be checked off to get up and running. But I’m moving at a pace that suits me right now. I’m not going to worry about all the other people who launch businesses in less time or how old I’m getting (aargh, another number!) or any other measurements that suggest I’m not a “winner.”
When I was a kid, my mother was often running late, which meant I was often late to school events, dates with friends, etc. I remember feeling panicked and humiliated at keeping other people waiting or being the last person to walk into a room. This dread followed me into adulthood.
These days, I tell my 80-year-old mom not to hurry. No sense in putting her safety at risk by rushing around. People can wait. Being a little late is not the end of the world.
I’m taking my own advice and finding a way to advance without all the angst. Rather than dashing toward some contrived finish line in my mind, I’m focusing on being calm, living in the moment, and savoring every step.
As Laura McKowen says in the book that I did finish this month at my own speed: “The process has been the gift.”
My unfurling is at its best when I slow down and stop counting.
Have you ever seen a movie that takes place over the course of one long and eventful day? And did you notice that the main character does more in that single day than you typically do in a whole week?
You may have rolled your eyes at movies like this, as I did, scoffing at the likelihood of accomplishing so much in 24 hours or less.
I used to experience “movie days” maybe once a year, proudly completing a ridiculous number of tasks and visiting numerous locations. Now I have them all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but far more frequently.
What kind of Hollywood magic caused this shift to happen?
I gave alcohol the boot. Showed it the door and waved bye-bye.
A Quick Flashback Montage
Two years ago, I quit drinking because I wanted more from my life. And I got it! My life has opened up, expanded, and wandered onto strange new paths. Clearing alcohol out of my life created time, space, and energy I didn’t know I had.
For the record: Starting in the fall of 2017, I took an intensive six-month writing workshop that helped me develop a book proposal and encouraged me to start using my Instagram account as a mini blog. I followed that up with some freelance writing on sobriety for which I got paid.
About a year ago, I left my full-time job and am currently exploring a new chapter in my career, working at a local fitness studio. My husband and I just started our own communications business, and we hope to launch our own kombucha brand in 2020. Over the last two years, I’ve managed several large home improvement projects at our house, with another one just about to start.
Pilates, yoga, and meditation are now regular practices in my life, and I’ve tried all sorts of new activities, including indoor rock climbing, zip lining, flotation therapy, tai chi, and indoor skydiving.
During this “unfurling” (as I like to call it), I’ve accumulated many insights. Two big ones keep reverberating in my head, my heart, and my bones, and I’d like to share them in honor of my second anniversary of sobriety.
One: You don’t have to be on the brink of disaster to quit drinking.
For decades, I drank the way lots of people drink—to unwind, to celebrate, to connect. I loved the warm space that alcohol created inside and around me. It was a place where I felt safe and accepted. Where I knew the terrain.
I turned to alcohol for fun, escape, and relaxation. But it made my life repetitious and hazy. Like driving home from work only to realize that you barely recall the drive because you’ve done it so many times.
Abandoning an action that I knew so well, that I relied on, was going to be difficult. Not because I was physically addicted, but because I was emotionally addicted. Since I was a teen, alcohol had provided me with a go-to set of emotions, like a special box of crayons with colors more vivid and muted at the same time.
All those years my life was pretty darn good: I loved, and I laughed, and I did some awesome stuff. But the drinking, oddly enough, was like a cork on my very essence—keeping my spirit bottled up.
With the cork removed, so much more energy, so much more life flows out. I want to explore and try and dare. I’m doing it, but I’m still fearful sometimes. In sudden moments, my jittery, exposed nerves cry out for the dull plug of alcohol.
I imagine what it would be like to once again sit down in a comfortable bar with good friends and down glass after glass of white wine. To let the minutes and hours slip away. To blur the edges. To collapse into myself.
The urge usually goes away pretty quickly, and I’m left wondering if this feeling will keep popping up out of nowhere for the rest of my life.
If it does, it’s a small price to pay for the life I’m living now.
In our society, people don’t typically quit drinking unless alcohol consumption is really messing with their lives. If your livelihood, health, or life is on the line, it’s acceptable and even expected that you do whatever it takes to sober up.
But we don’t talk much about choosing to give up booze the same way you might decide to join a gym, take vitamins, study a new language, or start traveling more—as a way to get healthier and expand your horizons.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it can be an amazing decision that you make for yourself without having to teeter on the edge first.
But to get the most out of the experience, you do have to “do the work” as they say. Which brings me to the second important lesson I’ve learned…
Two: It’s not really about alcohol.
Since I was a girl, I’ve had a basket full of personal issues. None of them ever exploded into full-blown disorders or addictions or whatever you want to call them. But they all worked together to keep me consistently distracted from the self-doubt and anxiety that haunted me.
When you eliminate alcohol, you’ll likely discover, as I did, that there are lots of other bad habits waiting in the wings ready and willing to take the place of drinking. You must be willing to uncover and interrogate the thoughts and emotions behind these behaviors.
Getting sober is about so much more than gritting your teeth as you pass by the liquor store. It’s an opportunity, and I would argue a privilege, to get to know yourself better. To figure out how to live a different kind of life—a more mindful and intentional life.
I should note that I did not go to Alcoholics Anonymous or any other program (I attended exactly one Refuge Recovery meeting). Each one of us should find the support system that works best for us. I did turn to a number of websites, blogs, podcasts, and books to help me with my journey, and I still read and listen to a number of them. The sober community on Instagram also offers great encouragement.
Here are just a few of the additional obstacles that I’ve been addressing:
Television was my first true love before drinking came along. Someone else’s life was always more funny, glamorous, or admirable than my own. Then the internet, social media, and smartphones came along to gobble up even more of my attention. I’ve made huge strides in this area recently because I’ve finally accepted that if I want to achieve my goals, the screens must fade into the background.
Body image, food, and weight also dominated my mind from an early age. My weight has gone up and down, up and down—and it has the power to bring me to tears. I’ve finally found a way of eating and a form of exercise that together keep me healthy. But I still step on the scale religiously every morning and fret about going over some completely arbitrary number.
Shopping because I’m bored or I need a quick hit of gratification is a deep-rooted habit. Then, after spending too much money, I obsess about the financial ruin I’m certain is right around the corner. This issue requires firm boundaries and tight policing and will probably always be a struggle.
There’s more. So much more. Apparently, I spent the first 50 years of my life accumulating a lengthy list of short-term coping mechanisms and unhealthy attachments. Now, I plan to spend the rest of my years keeping ineffective diversions at bay while focusing on long-term, constructive answers to my angst.
Leading a sober life doesn’t have to be a punishment or an ending. If you see it as a beginning, as just the first step in an amazing journey, so much can unfold.
These days, I’m not just having “movie days.” The overall plot of my life is going through a welcome reboot. Directed by me, not alcohol.
Saturation Point – My first post about sobriety; includes links to lots of great resources
As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came upon a post from a former co-worker I like and admire very much. She was announcing that she had accepted an impressive new job. This was not the first colleague or friend to share similar news within the last several months.
Each time, I was truly happy to learn that someone for whom I have mad respect earned a major promotion, decided to start their own business, or otherwise achieved something extraordinary career-wise.
But I also felt a chilly wind blowing through my chest. Someone else’s success often leads me to panic that I am flailing about in life, and it’s particularly tough when I’m going through an iffy transition period.
Currently, I am making a shift in my career, and I guess you could say I’m playing a long game—though that phrasing would imply that a clear plan is in effect. In reality, there’s no telling how this move will pan out. Given my pessimistic and impatient nature, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve taken such a leap without knowing exactly how or where I’ll land.
The Self-Motivation Spectrum
On a long drive the other day, I did a little self coaching to process my fear of being an underachiever. As I have many times before, I pictured a spectrum that measures a potent mix of ambition, drive, and perseverance.
At one end of this spectrum are people like Oprah who started out their lives with very few advantages yet became wildly successful. These people shine bright in their chosen field, take on daring new projects, and lead the way for others. They are respected and reliable. Inspired and inspiring.
The kind of person who resides at the other end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily unimaginative or lazy, but for whatever reason they are not inclined to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to push ahead.
By my own estimation, I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—maybe a bit above the center marker, or maybe just below (depending on the day, month, or year). Where you fall on the spectrum doesn’t matter so much, as long as you are happy and fulfilled.
For those of us who wish we were a little higher on the spectrum, an important question emerges: Why do folks land at various points along the spectrum? I’ve formed a theory that might help answer that question.
When I am faced with uncharted territory—something new, challenging, different—I typically convert much of the accompanying uncertainty and excitement into stress.
In situations like this, I would define stress as a toxic combination of three tendencies:
1. Catastrophizing: Conjuring up all the things that could go wrong, from the small to the spectacular.
2. Self-doubt: Assuming I will fail because I’m really not that talented, skilled, or industrious.
3. Martyrdom: Reminding myself that I have terrible luck, and life is so unfair.
Once stress takes form, I grab onto it like it’s a life raft in choppy water. But stress is not a lifesaver—its an identity that I cling to out of fear. I’m afraid to let go of that anxious person I’ve always been. It’s a habit as strong and automatic as any addiction.
People like Oprah, I believe, convert the same uncertainty and excitement into positive energy or fuel. They thrive on pushing themselves to reach higher, build new skills, and cross new thresholds. I’m sure they experience stress and doubt, too. But they might end up with 20 percent stress and 80 percent motivation, while I end up with 80 percent stress and 20 percent motivation.
Where Oprah sees opportunity, I see obstacles.
Jessie Graff is one of the top competitors on the show American Ninja Warrior. In the final seconds of an amazing run a couple years ago, Graff fell off the last obstacle, thus eliminating herself from the competition. She was interviewed on the sidelines afterward, and Graff said she was ok with falling—that discovering the limit of her abilities showed her where she needed to do the work. What a fabulous outlook to have!
So…I’ve hypothesized that some of us on the spectrum are stressing ourselves out far more than we should, and that is leading to discomfort and inertia. Now what?
Lately I’ve been listening more closely to the words that come out of my mouth—specifically the off-the-cuff answers I give to unexpected questions.
Just the other day, my mother’s therapist suggested something I could do to help her, and I was full of reasons why it wouldn’t work. As the words left my lips, I could hear the negativity, and I wanted to suck them back in. Too late. As the counselor urged me to focus on the potential positives, I sat there feeling ashamed of my pessimistic mindset.
A recent commenter on this very blog suggested that I “stop being so over critical.” Oh, how I would love to!
But that’s just it—no one can do this but me. Like Graff, my limits are pointing to where I need to do the work. If I want to move up a few notches on the motivation spectrum, I need to convert some of that excess stress to excitement, hope, and optimism.
Here are a few simple strategies I’m employing:
– When I read posts from or about inspiring people, rather than focus on how much I envy them or differ from them, I will try to focus on what I can learn from them.
– Instead of noting all the times I’ve faltered, I will recall the times I’ve succeeded. This will come more naturally if I practice telling myself over and over: You have what it takes!
– I will remind myself that even hugely accomplished people fail at various points in their lives. No one can win all the time, and failure is actually critical to success.
– I have committed that my next three blog posts will be more positive. Period.
Shaking off my longtime stress monkey isn’t going to happen overnight. Years of conditioning have etched unease into my nervous system.
But progress will come, if I embrace this attitude adjustment as a key part of my ongoing journey.
In the meantime, keep those announcements coming, my friends! I’m so proud of you all.
For many years I hid from becoming a writer. Even when I was in hiding, I was still a writer in my heart and soul. But I was not putting myself out there——and now I know why I was so scared.
To back up a minute: I’ve wanted a career in writing since I was about 10 years old. I majored in creative writing at college and did well in my classes. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I had some skills.
After graduating college, I moved to New York City. In a town full of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and ad agencies, I didn’t know what to do with my major. I hadn’t applied myself in school. I didn’t write for the literary magazine or the campus paper. There was nothing to distinguish me from every other person who wanted to write for a living.
I still could have tried to launch a writing career without any credits to my name. But I didn’t.
Flash forward three decades (yes, decades), and I finally decided to do something about my situation. Two years ago, I launched this blog. One year ago, I signed up for a writing program that encouraged me to build my online profile, pitch articles to outlets, and develop a book proposal.
For the first time in decades, I started thinking of myself as a writer with stories and opinions to share with the world, not just a writer inside my own head. I had energy and ideas, and the words started pouring out.
But. (There’s usually a but with me.) Suddenly, I was connected with other writers who seemed so talented and driven. I felt compelled to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And most importantly: Do I like who I am? Can I live with who I am?
A few things I am not:
A sassy writer. I am actually pretty funny in person, but I’m not comfortable being humorous on the page—it feels forced.
A lyrical writer. I am not poetic or “dazzling.” I am not a master of metaphor.
A sophisticated writer. I do not have an impressive reserve of literary references. My style is not bold or experimental.
A few things I am:
A relatable writer. Yeah, I’m basic. Ordinary. In a good way, I believe.
An honest writer. I am willing to spill my guts for my readers. And I’m not afraid to get political.
An idea writer. I live to find the ideas at the core of my writing, the concepts that help illuminate our shared humanity.
A readable writer. I enjoy spending time constructing sentences and paragraphs that are clear and flow well.
Are those two lists a bearable trade-off?
Sometimes I read a beautiful or hilarious sentence by a brilliant writer, and I look up from the page or screen. I sigh and wonder if I should try harder to be a different kind of writer.
I never want to give up on becoming a better writer. Honing my existing skills is a must. But can I teach myself to be more poetic? Can I practice putting my wit into words? Can I bone up on literary stuff?
Or, should I spend my energy learning to appreciate who I am already as a writer and finding ways to make that work for me?
This is why I was scared all those years, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I was hiding from the pain of my own expectations, my self-judgment, the fear of facing my identity as a writer. And, if I have to be totally honest, the fear of facing my identity as a person. I’ve long been afraid that my authentic self is not cool or classy or intellectual enough to reach some to-be-determined level of success that will validate my worth.
These past few years I’ve been figuring out how to accept myself, to love the woman inside while gently nudging her forward. Because I’ve realized that the validation I so desperately crave needs to come from within.
Recently I ventured a wee bit out of my comfort zone on an essay. The two people I showed it to urged me to make substantial edits. My first reaction was defensive—I wanted to dig in my heels because their input felt like a wallop to my ego. Once I got over myself, and made the revisions, they really paid off. Clearly there is room to stretch within my wheelhouse without having to reinvent myself.
My aim is to elevate my craft while playing to my strengths and exploring my passions. My main goal is to reach people with my writing, help them feel not so alone, and shine light onto interesting paths. As long as I work at doing that, I won’t need to hide anymore.
Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.
But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”
How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.
One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.
In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.
Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!
But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.
Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.
A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.
I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.
Things I cannot change:
This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.
Being born into wealth
Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
Looking like a fashion model
Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents
There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.
For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.
The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.
Things I can change:
The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop.
The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
Exuding genuine personal confidence
Being in good physical shape
Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals
I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.
We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.
Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.
Things I may not want to change:
This last category contains items we only think we want.
Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
Frequent travel to faraway places
Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
Being super positive and cheerful all the time
Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions
The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.
This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.
One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.
If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.
When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:
Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!
Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.
Remember your dreams and your skills: Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.
Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.
Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.
My mother fell about a month ago. I was there by her side, but I didn’t have a good grasp of her hand, and suddenly she was falling, and there was nothing I could do.
She hit her head hard, so we called 911, and the paramedics took her to the hospital. Everything checked out okay, but a day later her face looked like she went 12 rounds in a boxing ring.
For the past four weeks now, when we go to one of her doctor’s appointments, I make sure our fingers are intertwined as we walk to and from the car. The intimacy of this hand-holding is almost unbearable—it exposes a vulnerability I’d rather not acknowledge. And it harkens back to childhood and innocence, before our roles were reversed.
Last summer my mom’s kidney doctor began preparing us for the fact that she would need to start dialysis treatments in about six months’ time.
Anyone caring for an aging parent or seriously ill family member knows the feeling that comes with this moment. Life is about to change, and your control over it is precarious.
My entire body clenched, and I was immediately transported back 10 years, to when my mother still lived hundreds of miles away.
“My doctor says I’m going to need dialysis soon,” she told me on the phone in 2008. When she was a young girl, an appendix operation had revealed that one of my mom’s kidneys was not functioning and would need to be removed. I was aware that my mother’s single kidney would eventually wear out, but I was hoping it would be much later in life.
She added: “I’m not going on dialysis. My friend Carol told me terrible things about it, and I won’t do it.”
“So, you’re just going to let yourself die?” I asked. No answer.
I realized that I would need to make a swift and assured transformation from apprehensive daughter to protective parent figure.
I went to visit Mom in Georgia, so we could see her nephrologist together. I had previously tried to communicate with this doctor via phone and email about the status of my mother’s condition, but all I got was an envelope in the mail containing a printed page about kidney disease that I could have Googled myself.
In person, the doctor assured me that dialysis was not yet on the horizon. My mother had misinterpreted or imagined the whole thing. Relieved as I was, I did not see this misunderstanding as an encouraging sign.
I went back to Maryland and tried to put my concerns out of mind. There was no health emergency to speak of, and I hoped that I could continue to monitor the situation long distance.
A year later my mother confessed on a call that she had not left her apartment in over a week, and no one in the senior living facility had noticed. No friends or family in the area had called to check on her. When I was in my teens, my mother had suffered a severe depression, and I feared that she could be on the brink of another major episode.
My husband and I had a long talk that night. I was in my early 40s at the time, which seemed too young to be taking in a not-quite-elderly parent. My husband and I had been married less than two years. We had just bought our first house together, and we were enjoying being homeowners. Together, alone.
I was anxious at the prospect of my physically and emotionally demanding mother coming to live with us. Would it be a disaster from the start? Would I fall apart? Would my spouse slowly grow to resent me over the years?
My husband and I will never know if we made the “right” decision. To this day, eight years later, I occasionally review the pros and cons. And on most days, I conclude that the choice we made makes the most sense. But sometimes, when Mom calls upstairs at midnight to ask if we have an extra roll of toilet paper, I entertain second thoughts.
Acting as my mother’s health advocate, which is akin to a part-time job, is certainly easier with her under our roof. I manage her medications and go with her on all doctor’s appointments, taking detailed notes. Fitting her care into my work schedule is challenging and requires an understanding employer.
My mother has had three long hospital and rehabilitation stays and numerous out-patient procedures since she came to live with us. Both of her knees have been replaced (at the same time!), and a few years later she fell and broke a hip.
My heart goes out to every caregiver who has ever stalked the hospital halls looking for a nurse who has time to listen, who has worried about how many painkillers their parent is taking, or questioned if they should call the doctor’s answering service yet again.
When dealing with a family member with long-term health issues, self-care is critical. Caregivers must be proactive about their own health and well-being.
In addition to making sure I don’t put off my check-ups, I try to exercise, meditate, and spend time outdoors regularly. Writing and other forms of creative expression are real sanity savers. And sometimes, I simply need to be alone, even if it’s just to go shopping by myself.
My husband has been patient, and I am grateful that he is so supportive. But I can’t take his kindness for granted—I must prioritize partner-care alongside self-care. Is our relationship strong enough to weather any condition? We’re about to find out, because the storm is a comin’.
This time my mother’s kidney really is failing, and she has agreed to go on dialysis. Mom and I have attended a class, and she has been through multiple procedures to prepare for the upcoming treatments.
I will soon explore support groups for caregivers, and I have committed to start putting “me time” on the calendar so I remember to relax, reflect, and recharge.
At the top of my list is boundaries. I have never been very good at drawing and patrolling a proper perimeter between the two of us. Much like our hands when we walk to the car, our lives have become unavoidably entangled.
But as every good caregiver should, I will now strive to steady my mom while keeping my own feet firmly on the ground.
Recently a friend shared a clip on Facebook about the secret to living longer. In the TED Talks video, Susan Pinker claims that social integration is the top factor associated with a long life. She describes this practice as “how much you interact with people as you move through your day . . . not just the people you’re really close to who mean a lot to you, but do you talk to the guy who everyday makes you your coffee, do you talk to the postman, do you talk to the woman who walks by your house everyday with her dog…?”
My first thought was, OMG my mom is going to live forever. You see, my mother talks to strangers. All the time. Sometimes this practice is charming, and sometimes it’s not.
Whenever we go to one of our favorite pizza places, mom stops the manager as we are leaving to compliment their hard-working wait staff. Sweet, right?
Then there’s the time we were on a road trip and stopped to use a public restroom. A woman close to my mother’s age was brushing her hair, and as she stepped away from the mirror, my mom said, “You look beautiful.” The woman laughed at the unexpected compliment and said thank you.
If the scene had ended there, it would have been a nice moment between two 70-something women. But as the other woman turned to exit, my mom added, “Now you’re supposed to say the same to me.” Ugh.
Most of us start out adult life confident that we will never turn into our mother or father. Most of us—possibly all of us—are proven wrong eventually. If you are vehemently disagreeing with me right now, let that resistance go.
Maybe you won’t actually become one or both of your parents. But one day you will hear that goofy expression of your dad’s come out of your mouth. Or you will catch yourself doing that thing with the paper towels that your mom always does.
I was close with my mom when I was growing up, a closeness that sometimes felt more like a straightjacket than a hug. There was no dad or significant other to act as a buffer, and her emotional state was loosely knitted together. I loved her, but I was eager to wriggle out of the grasp she had on my life. As soon as I graduated college, I moved a thousand miles away in an effort to build an identity separate from her.
From most angles, it appears that I’ve succeeded. Our lives have been quite different, and our personalities even more so. When my mother first moved in with me and my husband seven years ago, I became assured that I was thoroughly unlike her.
Mom arrived in our state with a driver’s license and Social Security card that had different last names on them. It took us at least five trips to the department of motor vehicles, plus a trip to the Social Security office, before she finally got her new driver’s license. About a month later, mom informed me that she had lost this license. The birth certificate we had to order online was also missing the next time we needed it.
I, on the other hand, work hard to stay organized and feel itchy at the thought of not being able to find something.
Not long ago, my mother was out with a friend shopping and, on impulse, she purchased a mattress and box spring. She did not need them, nor did she have the money for them. She opened a credit card at the store, even though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to apply for any new credit cards. It took me endless calls and tweets to get the order canceled.
Meanwhile, I grow sweaty upon making major purchases and avoid going into debt at all costs.
My mom has been banned from watching football with my husband because she mostly reads magazines and then looks up and asks what just happened—repeatedly.
She talks over doctors and nurses as if she knows what they are going to say. She doesn’t really listen to them, which is why I always go along to take notes.
My mother also has a “creative memory.” In one such case, she has a completely different recollection of the days after my grandmother died—a memory of what might have been rather than what actually happened.
Despite all these differences (and there are many more, I promise you), my husband can attest that I do share a few traits with my mother—like our tendency to tell long stories full of unnecessary details, our inclination to overreact to minor frustrations, and our penchant for commenting on how poorly certain celebrities are aging.
And I hear her in the passive-aggressive way I talk to my stepson sometimes. Suddenly I am transported back to my own childhood, hearing my mom’s frustration with me hidden behind a manipulative question or a sarcastic comment.
However, as the days and years go by, I realize how important it is to focus on the positive, to be grateful for the attributes that I don’t mind sharing with my mom: her love of music and dancing, her fondness for laughter, and her genuine interest in people of all kinds.
Whether we like it or not, aspects of our parents’ personalities—good, bad, and complicated—are bound to show up in our own. Maybe it was always meant to be, that an echo of those who raised us would ultimately reverberate in our own bones.
Perhaps this recognition is an invitation to forgive and accept our mothers and fathers as fellow human beings. Rather than be embarrassed or in denial about the qualities we have in common with our parents, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to embrace them in all their tender messiness. And to love ourselves at the same time.
One day the two of us were walking out of a sandwich shop, and my mother stopped at the table of a young woman who was sitting alone. During lunch mom had noticed that this woman looked sad. So, she went over and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said something encouraging to her. I don’t know what my mother said because I was getting the heck out of there.
In the car, I was about to tell her what a terrible idea it was to physically touch a stranger these days, to presume to intrude on their personal space and pain. But I bit my tongue and said nothing. My mother meant well. And she did something not many people would do—she reached out to someone even though it would have been far easier to just walk by. It won’t be the end of the world if one day I find myself doing the same. Minus the touching, of course.