Saturday, November 5, 2011

Found Wisdom and Ferris Wheels

Ever say something accidentally profound? Maybe you were just being goofy or funny or random, but as soon as they were out of your mouth, you knew you were on to something? That's found wisdom, and it is one of the great gifts of the universe, as far as I'm concerned.

So the other day, I had something bad happen to me. Not horrible, not emotionally crippling, just bad. The details might be TMI,* though you're welcome to highlight the text below if you really must know.

In a cruel confluence of allergies and hormones, I sneezed hard enough to shift my tampon. Which was tremendously unpleasant, not to mention panic-inducing.

Moving on: After I bleated out my pain, the Songwriter said: "Could be worse. You could be on a Ferris wheel." And we laughed, because, well, yeah.

And over the next couple of days, anytime something went wrong, we responded to it with "Could be worse. It could be happening on a Ferris wheel." Which was still funny, because we're goofballs. But it was also still true. How bad we feel about a given moment or situation is so much about perception. And we're in control of our perspective.

My perspective? Most day-to-day bad things that happen to me would, indeed, be worse on a Ferris wheel. Some of them, MUCH worse. So I am grateful that, whatever else is wrong, I am not trying to deal with it in a swaying bucket, 50 ft in the air. Days when I remember that are happier all around.

The next time a piece of found wisdom falls from your lips, write it down somewhere - on a post-it, in your Twitter feed, wherever. Just the act of doing that will help you remember it, help you use it to make life a little funnier and maybe a little less painful.

*How have I had a blog this long and only JUST NOW needed a TMI tag?! I have been supremely disciplined up to now. Thank god that's over!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lucky Bastard: John Scalzi Edition

I have a not-so-secret affinity for John Scalzi, author of science fiction, procurer of sinister black velvet paintings, and a source of much amusement on the internet.

Firstly, we share a birthday, and we used to freelance for the same newspaper. Secondly, I enjoy the hell out of his books and his company, in person and online. And thirdly, he moved from SoCal to Southwest Ohio, while I did the reverse. Frankly, Ohio got the better end of that trade. California just got me and about fifty of writers-to-be-named later.

Also: cats.

Relevant to interests around these parts, he's doing 30 days of gratitude for the month of November. From his always-entertaining blog:
I’m a lucky bastard, and sometimes it annoys me when people don’t acknowledge that fact. ... What is luck? At the end of the day, it’s the good things that happen to you that you simply don’t or can’t control. Stepping away from a curb the second before a car you didn’t see barrels right over where you just were. Finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. Stepping into a restaurant for a bite to eat and seeing an old friend you lost contact with years ago just before she steps out the door.
He goes on to lay out all the tiny occurrences that had to line up just so in order for him to have the (admittedly pretty awesome) life he has now. The chain of happenstance that led his first novel, Old Man's War, getting published is pretty crazy. But even more jaw-dropping is the unlikely sequence of chance moments that ended with him meeting his wife, Krissy. There a bonus link to the first song they danced to (spoilers: awww!).

I often reflect on how damn lucky I have been. The child of an unwed teenage mother, raised in violence and poverty, a high school dropout from the sweaty backside of the rust belt. And here I stand, a happily married, college graduate, pursuing my career of choice in a city I used to think was a pipe dream. Sure, I worked hard. But I have also been incredibly fucking lucky. And one doesn't take anything away from the other.

Putting in the work is noble and needed. It allows us to hold our heads up and sleep soundly at night. But luck plays a part in all our lives, and it's good to step back, look at how unlikely it all is, and say. "Wow. I'm really grateful things turned out this way." When you look at it that way, we're all lucky bastards.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 3: Luck [Whatever]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Saints. All Souls.

Death may seem like a strange topic for a light little better-living blog, but yesterday was Dia de los Muertos, as well as All Saints' Day, and today is All Souls' Day. And if there are two things I'm drawn to, it's rituals and seasonal observances. (Guess who was raised Catholic. Yeah, you can take the girl out of the Church, etc. etc.)

[Check out This Side of Typical's Dia de los Muertos post. Beautiful. Just like the altars she builds every year.]

Today I reflect on those souls that I love and miss, and give thanks for their time in my life.

This is my grandmother, Helen. 

Her daughter, my aunt Mary Lou.

And Twyla, the best mother-in-law a girl could ask for.

More than anyone else, three women are responsible for helping me shape my life into something I could be proud of. They're all gone now, but every good act, every charitable thought, every small kindness that I do is a direct extension of their care for me. I am their legacy, and damn proud of it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Try Something New. Then Try It Again

We went to an art show in a hair salon, because,
well, why not. And discovered this little guy.
Photo by Steven Gullett, art by Kelsey Dyer.
My friend Kylee's Facebook bio reads, in part: "I try everything twice, just to make sure I really hated it the first time."

Smart lady.

Life holds a whole lot of options. Thousands, millions. It makes your head hurt if you think about it too long. We burn a ton of energy trying to parse them out, separate the signal from the noise. We try something once, declare it "not for us" and go on about our day.

But as we get older,we become set in what we know we do and don't like. Or rather, what we think we know. We let our capacity for novelty slip away, we take fewer and fewer risks, and our sense of wonder and joy begins to atrophy.

Some things in life, you know right away that once was more than enough - like getting cancer, or taking a group vacation, or watching an internet video featuring twice as many girls as cups.

Novelty is good for us. Trying new things causes our brain to build new neural connections. Couples who try new experiences together report greater long-term satisfaction with their relationships.

But too often, we  carry around ideas about who we are and what makes us happy based on a single experience that happened decades ago. When, if you're like most people, you were a completely different person. One who didn't like broccoli, but also one who thought acid washed jeans were awesome. You were wrong about the latter; maybe it's time to revisit the former.

Today, try one new thing. Or, try one old thing you thought you didn't like. Could be black and white movies. Could be cranberry juice. Could be performing stand-up comedy or doing yoga.

Maybe you still don't like it. Once a year, the Songwriter confirms all over again that mushrooms are an invention of Satan himself. But maybe you'll discover something new about yourself or your friends or the the world, and either way, that's good enough for today.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Destructive Myth of Effortlessness

No matter how down on myself I have gotten in my life (and there have been some pretty black-dog days. And weeks. And months. And etc.), the feeling has always been tempered with another idea: That I am awesome.

Or rather, that I SHOULD be awesome. And not only awesome, but effortlessly so. 

I should be able to do everything, and make it look easy. As an employee, I should be the rock, the most well-oiled cog, so reliable you don't even have to think about what I'm doing. Oh, and creative, innovative, supportive, and all the other -ives they want you to have on your resume these days, without looking like I'm trying too hard.

As a friend, I should always remember your birthday, always get you the exact right thing, know when you're down and what to do about it. If you come to my home, I should know exactly how to set you at ease, without appearing to try to, because then you would know I was trying and that might make you uncomfortable, which would make me try harder, and from there it just gets meta and messy.

As a woman, I should be able to stay fit without appearing to diet or be seen working out (don't even get me started about body hair). As a wife, I should be able to keep the house so well as to be invisible, as if elves put out clean towels and take out the trash.

Basically, I think I'm mostly a smart, competent person. So I should be able to do everything that is asked of me, with grace and good humor, and not the slightest sign of struggle.

The magic of a great dancer is that they make intense discipline look like weightless ease. What's wrong with applying that model to my own life? Plenty. And before you suggest this is merely Superwoman syndrome run amok, this same problem nearly cost one of my dearest male friends his identity and his sanity. 

This idea that we, that I, should be effortlessly awesome, at all times and in all contexts, leaves me wracked with guilt and shame when I fall short. And I frequently fall short. 

It makes me struggle, stubbornly and stupidly, alone and in silence instead of asking for help. It makes me push everything to the brink of crisis, and sometimes over it, before I say "I think I have a problem here."

The other nasty little surprise in the myth of effortless is this: If you make it look easy, people will assume it is. And this leads them to take your achievements for granted. And this leads you to anger, resentment, and generally hating their guts.

I've seen it with moms who want to know why no one appreciates all they do, but don't want to seem too invested in "doing it all." And I've seen it in bands when one person shoulders all the not-fun-bits (booking shows, making flyers/t-shirts/website, PR -- basically anything that is not playing music and drinking). The other guys don't see it happen, they just get a call that there's a show. I've seen it in myself, and I'm here to tell you, that WILL boil over, and it won't be pretty.

But I've had an epiphany. I was watching So You Think You Can Dance this summer (I know, but I love it. Don't judge!). After a moving performance, judge Lil' C told the dancer, "Don't be ashamed of your struggle." And that about broke me. Because I recognized myself in that, recognized how I felt like effort, or struggle, having to try, made me a failure before I'd even begun. 

And that is less than a myth. That is a damn lie. And I am not going to let it stand a single day more.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Back In The Saddle

Hello, poppets!

As you can probably tell from the cobwebs and dust around here, I've been insanely busy in other parts of my life. Which is good, because it means our little family business has been booking work and keeping the kitties in high-end organic treats, now with extra calming compounds. Manuscript got formatted. Books got edited. Websites got built. Rock shows were attended and Zombie Radio went to Vegas.
WZMB LIVE, NOT UNDEAD: Craig Sabin, Barri Willerford, moi, and James Mathers
I love this picture, except for the way my eyes and lips disappear. Seriously, I need to remember to wear makeup more often. Oh well.

At any rate, I've missed the blog, and I've missed all of you, and I've been thinking about TONS of things to post about. So I am happy to report that regular posting will hereby resume. In the meantime, have a 2-minute rock song.

The Henry Clay People - The Honey Love He Sells from Jam in the Van on Vimeo.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What Are We Waiting For?

I believe way too many of us live our lives in the conditional mood. This is another one of my core principles. To illustrate what I mean, I want to talk about computer programming. No, I know, but it'll make sense. Sorta. I promise.

Back when I was a wee little tot, they brought a bunch of Commodore PET computers into my tiny Catholic school. We were the first class in the history of Corpus Christi to be learn computer programming, the wave of the future!(TM)

Once a week, we learned to do simple problems and animations in BASIC (we saved our work to cassette tapes, that's how old school I am - none of your fancy floppy diskettes here!), and to be honest I only remember two things. Every line of code must begin with a multiple of 10, and how to construct an "if/then" statement.
Life before USB
photo by Toni Saarikko

Simply put, you told the computer that "if" the result of a certain line of code was X, "then" the computer should do Y. Like, "if" the answer to a math problem was input correctly, "then" the screen should display my crudely animated fireworks. Hey, math was not my strong suit, so every right answer was cause for celebration.

So. What do DOS computers and their antiquated programming languages have do with better living? Simple. Too many of us (including me way more often than I'd like) go through life shackled to "If/Then" thinking.

  • If I get a promotion, then I'll be able to work on that project/issue/area I really care about.
    If you care so much, why don't you try to work on that project/issue/area now, promotion be damned? Seriously, you're going to spend AT LEAST 25% of your entire time on this planet engaged in "work." And if you drop dead of work or stress related ailments, that number only goes up. Maybe you should think about how you could be happier there, rather than dreading it.

  • If I make $X-thousand a year, then I'll think about having kids.
     I know kids are expensive. I really do get it. And I would never in a million years want to raise a kid the way I was, in poverty and worse. But life is crazy. And uncertain. And no time is the right time, no reason is the right reason. If you want something as demanding and fulfilling as children in your life, and you feel like you're psychologically and emotionally as ready as you can be, just freaking do it. The money, the house, the vacations - that stuff will come or it won't, but you'll always have your kids and you'll always be their parent. Trying to put a financial metric on jumping off a cliff is crazy-talk.

  • If I could just get a chunk of time off, then I could write that book I've always talked about.
    This one is particularly debilitating, and really, fill in the fulfilling pursuit of your choice: painting, acting, learning Japanese, building custom hot rods. It's one of those lies that feels true. I know, because I clung to it for a long time. Too long. Life is short. We all have to make choices about what to do with our time. Choose your choice. If what you're doing is more important than what you say you want to do, great. Awesome. Own that and stop arguing with reality. But if the other thing, the thing you keep putting off, if that is really what you want to be in the world, then for the love of all that's holy, do it. And not when someone hands you the time; when you TAKE the time with your bare hands, like some sort of creative Viking marauder. You'll feel better, you'll live better, and you'll love better. Trust me on this.

  • If I get married, then I'll think about where I want to live and in what kind of home.
    I know that this may sound skewed towards women, but I have known a number of men who used the same logic to live in miserable squalor. Contrary to stereotypes, they didn't revel in it, either - it dragged them down, body and soul. But I've also known women who put off seeking their highest ambitions because quote-I don't know where my husband's job might take us-unquote. Some of these women were married. Some of them weren't even seeing anyone. The mind, it boggles. This life, this is the one you have. The only one. Planning is good. I love to plan. But planning will only take you so far. Sometimes, you have to plunge or you risk being carried away on someone else's current. Create the life you want now, and when change comes, you won't have to mourn that you never had it.
Creative Vikings Unite!

You can see how destructive this kind of thinking is. But it's so a part of us, so crucial to the ways we justify putting off our own happiness, that most of the time we shy away from it, like a horse wearing blinders.

The second half of each of those statements is a thing you could actually have, if you just stopped fiddle-farting around and got out of your own way. The first half? Sure, those would all be nice. But what do they all have in common? They are things that, to one degree or another, are NOT within your control. So what you've done is ceded your heart's desire to outside circumstances. And when you don't get the promotion, or the time off, or meet the perfect partner tomorrow, you haven't just lost out on one life-enriching thing; you've lost part of your deepest dream. And that, my friends, is corrosive. It eats away at all the good things in your life. You know that spiel about a dream deferred? Turns out he wasn't kidding.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thought For the Day

"One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion."
- Simone de Beauvoir

Today's quote comes courtesy of Project Angel Food, whose mission is to deliver free and nutritious food to people facing devastating illness. It is one less way they have to face it alone.

The shared grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
Cimetierie du Montparnasse, Paris 

Photo by Angelle Haney Gullett, March 2009

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Asking For Favors

So as some of you may have heard, the Songwriter has a new solo album, Secular Jukebox, coming out this summer.

Speaking of the record, you can listen and comment here, 
or sample and buy your very own copy from Amazon, iTunes, or CD Baby
It is an amazing album. And every purchase helps keep the kitties in food. 
Don't buy it because I said so. Buy it because my cats are cute
Or, you know, because you love good music. That's nice too.

It won't make us rich, but we try to break even so we can keep making more art. It's like a little cottage industry, really. He writes, plays and records the thing. We both pitch in to do promo work. And then he plays the gigs and hawks the record there, too. Here in the House of DIY, we do it all. And what we can't do, we have to ask for as a favor.

Now, I'm not so awesome at asking for help. This is because I secretly believe I am a missing X-Man whose mutant superpower is being able to do every single solitary thing that crosses my path and do it perfectly or nearly so, without a smidgen of help from anyone ever. I help them, you see, not the other way around.

This belief has not been so beneficial to me, as you might imagine.

So I have had to try and teach myself to ask for favors, and I've come up with some internal guidelines that might be useful to other folks, possibly those afflicted with similar X-Men style delusions.

  1. Be relaxed and cultivate an atmosphere where it is okay for your friend to say no. Better to get a 'no' and stay friends and move on than to get a 'yes' that colors your relationship with resentment and obligation.
  2. When someone does say yes, experience and express sincere gratitude. This is good for both of you.
  3. Never ask somebody to do for free what they do for a living unless its a very good cause, it also benefits them in some way, or they owe you one.

You've probably noticed that these are all about drawing boundaries. There's a reason for that. Boundaries help. I'm not saying boundaries are always awesome and made of ice cream and butterscotch and should never be challenged. But they should always be clear, so if you are going to break them, you have a pretty strong idea why. They make everybody more secure and more comfortable. Good fences, good neighbors, etc. And good friends and neighbors are the kind that might be willing to do you a favor.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Eating Cake for Science

From a party at The Red Carpet for my Pop & Stepmom & their friend Mike. 
Eating cake in a bar is pretty much my idea of heaven.

Deborah MacInnis is a researcher and business professor at USC. And she and her colleagues have found some super interesting data on the effects of shame and guilt vs. pride on people's behavior around temptation. In this case, an inordinately large slice of chocolate cake.

Participants were told they could eat as much cake as they wanted. But first, they had to indulge in a little mental exercise. One group was told to focus on the pride they would feel if they did not eat the cake. The second group thought about the shame they would feel if they ate the cake. And the control group was told to cake it up to their heart's content.

Guess which group ate the least cake?
We discovered that the study subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake consumed far less than those who focused on the shame of succumbing. They also ate less than the control group. In other words, when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption.
Pretty cool, no? Feeling good about yourself is stronger than feeling bad!

But the part I find the most compelling is this:
Our research also indicated that not all bad feelings are equal when it comes to undermining self-control. For example, when we asked subjects to anticipate guilt instead of shame, it made them eat more cake. Guilt, it turns out, carries a triple whammy: It concentrates thoughts on the temptation rather than on self-control; it makes you generally feel bad, weakening resistance; and it heightens the expected pleasure from being bad, which makes the temptation more tempting.
What MacInnis found, and the thing that bears more looking into, is that the most effective way to do what you want (in this case, to not eat too much cake) is to focus on yourself - your strengths, your potential to feel good, rather than something outside of yourself that you don't have any control over, like the deliciousness of chocolate cake.

Also, I mean, come on: Cake! For Science!

Human behavior: To resist temptation, forget guilt or shame and think positive (L.A. Times)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

For Example ...

What's it look like, to live Using the Good Soap? Let me illustrate with a recent story...

One day, not long after we had moved from the Little City to the Big City, the Songwriter got into a car accident. He wasn't hurt, but our trusty little $1600 Nissan was crunched beyond repair.

Now, thanks to Big City amenities, this wasn't a total tragedy. We could both take public transit to work, we had a grocery and a coffee place and a Jamba Juice within walking distance, not to mention the fine SoCal weather to make it all practical.

So we did the unthinkable in L.A. We lived without a car.

If we wanted to go to the desert or Ikea, we rented a car for the weekend (thank you, ASCAP discount!)

We talked about getting a car. We talked about whether we even wanted a car (most days, not really). We talked about seeing just how long we could go, like it was some sort of sustainable living Survivor challenge. And eventually, the days when we really did wish we had a car started to stack up.

But it was kind of miserable, scouring Craigslist, day after freaking day, trying to find something in our price range that a) wasn't on its last wheels or b) didn't smell like decomposing socks or c) need some major mechanical system replaced (Dear CL sellers: There is no such thing as "just a new transmission").

Also, it would be nice if it looked cool. Or at least not embarrassing.

At last, our patience was rewarded. The Songwriter found something. Something special.

Meet Nic.

He's a 1984 Cadillac Seville with 32K original miles. I admit I was a little skeptical at first, largely because of this:

Nic* is what is commonly called a "slantback" which always sounds like some sort of inappropriate ethnic slur to me. (As opposed to all those appropriate ones?) I wasn't a big fan of this design feature.

But as the Songwriter pointed out, this car looked like something. It had style. My grandfather always loved Cadillacs, and he had a '59 this exact color. What can I say? I melted.

This car gets us places, which is its utilitarian function. But it also makes us smile when we look at it, and feel good when we're inside it (tufted. leather. seats. Seriously.) We tinker, fixing up this or cleaning that. It brings us joy, in addition to bringing us groceries.

And that is the way I want to live.

*I originally named* the car for the Dogs D'Amour song "Lady Nicotine," because it is the warm color of a white guitar that has been in too many smoky bars. The Songwriter liked this in concept, but pointed to the great hulk of steel and said, "Look at it! That is NO lady!" I had to agree.  So now he's just Nic.

*What do you mean you don't name your cars?! You're weird.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Part II - Self Denial DNE Self Sacrifice

In the last entry, I wrote about not being able to deny your way to happiness. This is an idea that's been lingering around the edges of my conscious thoughts for a while, but it wasn't until I started writing about these things that it crystallized for me. (As another important mentor, Dr. Cynthia King, told me, "If you want to know what you think about it, WRITE about it!" She was dead-on, as usual.)

At the end of that post, I touched on the idea that there is a difference between self-denial and self sacrifice.

Self-denial is giving up chocolate for Lent. At best, it's a test of our wills, to see what we can do when we really put our minds to it. People who report strong positive feelings after a period of fasting or a juice cleanse are getting the psychological boost that comes from meeting a personal commitment and achieving something through sheer force of will.

But at its worst, self-denial can degenerate into martyrdom and exhibitionism, a desperate performance that says, "Hey, look at me, see how GOOD I'm being by not allowing myself to have/do this thing?" This might be followed by "Don't you feel SORRY for me?" or "Aren't you IMPRESSED?" or, most usually, "Doesn't that make you LOVE me more?"

These aren't said out loud (usually). But we've all gotten the message, loud and clear.

And after all that, you feel needy and (possibly) pathetic, as well as grumpy that you didn't have any chocolate or bacon or whatever. And everybody feels awkward and put-upon and (possibly) uncomfortable around you. They stop returning your e-mails. They avoid your calls. And you end up even less happy than when you started.

So, if that's self-denial, what's self-sacrifice? I define the difference this way. Self-denial is for its own sake. There's no reason to do other than the act of denial. Self-sacrifice involves giving up something we want or that matters to us in service of a higher good.

And the highest good in the human experience is the well-being of others. And it doesn't matter if it's big or small. I give up eating the last of the Thin Mints so the Songwriter can have them at the end of a bad day. My grandfather gives up his every waking hour (seriously, three jobs) to put his six girls through private school. Millions of everyday people give their time, money, and sometimes their lives to create better communities or a safer world.

We recognize self-sacrifice and we respond to it. That's why it's so popular in movies and fiction. It moves us.

It's when we give up something that matters, to us, or someone else, or preferably both, that we create meaning. We're humans. We like meaning. We're wired for it. We search for it. And if we can't find any, we'll try and make something up, to get us through the night.

Look, I'm not saying we all need to be Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. Just that we should quit pretending that self-denial is about anything other than ourselves and our own egos. That isn't going to make us feel any better. But thinking about meaningful ways to give something to others, instead of giving something up, just might.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You Can't Deny Your Way to Happiness

These are all actual thoughts that I have actually had. I have combined and condensed where applicable:

  • It's too much trouble to cook just for me.
  • These PJs are worn out/ill-fitting/uncomfortable, but it's okay; it's not like anybody important sees them.
  • This tool/appliance/software doesn't do a very good job at what I bought it for, but it would be wasteful/self-indulgent/selfish to spend the money to replace it.
  • I love the way I look in this dress, but all the other girls at the bar will probably be in jeans. I don't want to feel out of place. (N.B. - this is an interchangeable dilemma; if I choose jeans, the other girls will all be rockabilly dolls, etc.)
  • I have always wanted to go to New York (or L.A., or Berlin, or Ankor Wat) but it seems like a pipe dream. I should be more realistic.
  • I would love to learn to speak Japanese (or Russian or play the cello or snowboard or write code) but I don't really have a good reason to learn it. It would just be a waste of time and money.
What I realize, when I lay them all out like this, is that the underlying message of every blessed one of them is, "I don't deserve any better."

If you've ever had thoughts like these, you know it's true.

So. We all know that, no matter how much it might goose the economy, you can't actually buy your way to happiness. Everyone from the Bible to the Beatles has been pounding THAT message into us.

But what they don't tell you, what maybe they don't even know, is that you can't deny your way to happiness, either.

Take a second with that. Let it sink in.

An brilliant friend and mentor of mine, Annette Oxindine, introduced me to the Victorian concept of the Angel in the House, or rather, Virginia Woolf's spoof of it:
She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it ...
Seriously. Does she sound happy?

[A feminist aside, of which I have many: If you think we've progressed in the intervening century or so, if we've come so far, if we've left the Angel in the House so far behind, what is Superwoman Syndrome? What sets us up for The Mommy Wars?]

But I think our girl Ginny got it wrong on one of her particulars above. (Please don't hurt me, Annette!)

There is a fundamental difference between self-DENIAL and self-SACRIFICE. That, however, is a whole 'nother post ... 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gratitude, courtesy of Louis CK

That thing I was talking about, how we live in unprecedented prosperity and don't appreciate it?

Yeah. I'm not the only one who's noticed.

Louie CK on Conan: Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

Love and props to the Songwriter for sending me this!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Core Principles: Gratitude, Self-Worth, Pleasure, & Generosity

Some more thoughts on what I mean when I talk about "good" and maybe a stab at the core principles of what I'm yammering on about.

On the face of it, I can see how this whole endeavor might look like rampant materialism. Everything you've been perfectly happy with up until now is shit, I seem to be saying. You must immediately discard it all to make way for "good" shit.

Maybe you chalk this up to the object lust of a poor kid longing for the better, more expensive things that life has largely denied her. It could seem like I'm using the same tactics (fear of inadequacy, manufactured dissatisfaction) that Madison Avenue has already honed and deployed to great effect.

This isn't true. Well, I do still suffer from the poor kid thing, but I'm working on that.

I'm advocating a way of being, not of buying.

Anyway, I thought I would lay out what I actually believe about all this stuff, some core principles, if you will.

Use The Good Soap is all about:
  1. Gratitude. We live in a time of unprecedented abundance. I am not kidding. Un-fucking-precendented. Someday, historians will prove that the average high school girl in 2011 owned more dresses than Cleopatra. And while this isn't always a universal good, the truth is that most of us have a whole hell of a lot, relative to most of humankind throughout most of history. We are the lucky ones. It does us good to stop and reflect on that. It can put a little bit of shine back into our lives.

  2. Self-Worth. Oh, guilt. Where would Western Judeo-Christian civilization be without your self-hating embrace? More generous and kind, maybe? More at peace, perhaps? Nah. Surely not. But, lemme ask you: Why don't we think more critically about the way we approach ur lives and the stuff we surround ourselves with? Because many of us (fellow recovering Catholics, I'm looking at you) have been reared and socialized to feel guilty when we think of our own needs, guilty when we ask for what we want, guilty when we want to steer our lives in a direction contrary to those around us. Guilt is a feeling of being unclean and unworthy. Self-worth and joy are its opposites and its antidotes.

  3. Pleasure. If the guilt industrial complex has cornered the market on self-loathing, it has ordered a hit on pleasure. Pleasure is forbidden, which can make everything sweeter, from the taste of hot fudge as you lick it off your lips to the sensation of warm sand against your skin (or someone else's!). But pleasure is more than just being "bad." Pleasure is important, in all kinds of ways and for a plethora of reasons. It reconnects us to our own bodies and helps us be fully present in the moment. An expanded definition of pleasure and its enthusiastic embrace is something I'm gonna talk about a lot.

  4. Generosity. Growing up in violence and poverty put a chip on my shoulder and sent me out into the world with a heightened sense of my own difference. No matter how nice people were to me, I found it hard to shake the feeling that I had my nose pressed against the glass of life's better restaurants, and that everyone else had it easier, not to mention was having more fun. When I started practicing generosity, mainly of the emotional/spiritual kind, everything changed. The imaginary window that separated me just dissolved and not only did I get to eat the food and enjoy the company, I got to invite other people to join the fun.
Yeah, I think these are the big ones.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Because I Promised

I am embarrassed by the lack of photos on the blog so far, but until I figure out what to do about it, and because I did promise ... cats!

This is Cleo aka Slinky Kitty.

For reasons that seem obvious. The Songwriter rescued him when he was a wee spastic kitten and brought him home to me one night after band practice.

He has grown into a wee spastic cat. But he's 14, and I love him to bits when he lets me.

And this is his little, er, well, younger brother and housemate: Vincent aka Fat Cat.

The open file folder is for scale. Seriously, he has these short little legs and this cute little head that looks like a baseball perched on a furry bowling ball.

He is 7, and we also call him out PBS: Puppy-Baby-Substitute. He will lick your hand (and face, if you let him) like a dog, and will also flop back into the crook of your arm to be cradled like--you guessed it--a baby. He is like no cat either of us have ever owned, and we adore him for it.

So that's it, those are the furry residents of our little home. Warning: I am likely to post pics of them when I can't think of anything good to write.*

*amongst sci-fi/fantasy writers of my acquaintance, this process of wasting time on meaningless things when one should be writing is known as "catwaxing." Hence the tag.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Define Good

So what do I mean by "good," anyway?

Good freakin' question.

I guess my conception of it goes back to being a kid. Then, the rules seemed pretty clear. "Everyday" was for the family. "Good" was reserved for company. This division encompassed everything from dishes to hand towels to furniture. For example, company got to experience Great Aunt Charlotte's living room with the plastic covers OFF.

So I've got some of that rattling around in my head. But that's not what I mean, by "good," not exactly. Let me riff for a bit.

I have a friend named Mary Ellen. She is an awesome woman, who has raised two of the nicest, most decent and grounded adults I know. She taught home ec in the same small town school where her husband taught English, and when she retired from teaching, she started making wedding dresses and costumes for ballroom dancers out of her home.

Mary Ellen is funny and smart, and the very picture of Midwestern Protestant pragmatism. But one day, she confessed to me that she had a vice. Huh? I had known her for years, and had never seen her touch anything stronger than orange juice.

Her vice, she told me, was good bread.

What made it good? The taste, the texture, even the way the loaf looked - like it had emerged from a pair of hands, each imperfection like a finger print. It was good because it gave her pleasure on multiple levels. That's an easy, intuitive thing I think we all understand.

So why the hell was it a vice? Because it costs more? The marginal increase was less than a glass of soda from TGI Fridays and the benefit infinitely greater. Because, I don't know, refined carbs are the enemy? I agree we choose many foods that feed without nourishing us, but I defy you to say that handmade bread is one of them. Because women (and increasingly men) are bombarded with crap like this every day of their lives?

My guess on the vice angle is because it was for her pleasure alone. If she could say she was buying it for her family, or to support a local sustainable bakery, it would have been seen as a virtuous act. But because she wants it for no other reason than it gives her pleasure, it's bad. A vice.

I get this, because I get caught in this thinking trap, too. Do you? Or is it just me and Mary Ellen? What "vice" is really something you enjoy but feel too guilty to cop to deserving?

This is screwed up. This is what I want to change.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dreams Do Come True: Sweet Demotion by Lonn Friend

When I was a little girl, I thought I was going to be a rock star.

And then somewhere along the way, I thought that, not only would I BE a rock star, I would also MARRY a rock star. And maybe be an actress. And live happily ever after in sunny Los Angeles. (There is a woman who DID get that life. And I wouldn't trade mine for hers under any circumstances.)

The man who helped feed that dream was Lonn Friend.

While I was growing up in Ohio, he was travelling the world chronicling rock n' roll excess in RIP Magazine. And every month, I made a pilgrimage to the 7-Eleven by my grandma's house to buy the new issue.

In those pages, I would read about new bands that were making waves on the Sunset Strip, what it was like to be the first hard rock act in the Eastern Bloc, and what Lita Ford's mom thought kids should do about their problems.

Lonn Friend made that world real to me, from 2000 miles away.

Fast-foward to now: I do in fact live in Los Angeles. I am married to the Songwriter. I am not a rock star, but I'm a writer and that's better for all concerned.

Through happenstance and the Songwriter's Facebook, we meet Lonn Friend for breakfast. I am trying to be cool, but inside, I am screaming "THIS IS LONN FUCKING FRIEND!!" He tells us great rock stories and we buy a platinum album to hang on our wall (look to your right and you'll see it in my profile pic).

He mentions he's working on a new book. I mention I'm a writer and an editor.

We talk about kismet, and the cosmos, and synchronicity, and what it feels like to try and redefine yourself along spiritual lines when you've lost the things you thought were all-important. He tells me he's still looking for angels in this city, and maybe he's found another one. He asks if I'd like to read his new book, maybe take an editorial pass at it.

Are you fucking kidding me? Uh, yeah!

So I did. And I am here to tell you, it is a righteous piece of writing.

As of this month, Sweet Demotion: How an Almost Famous Rock Journalist Lost Everything and Found Himself (Almost) lives and breathes. You can buy it here, among other places. And I feel so ridiculously lucky to have been even a small part of it.

Rock on, Mr. Friend. Rock on.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Untangling the Knot

My husband, the Songwriter, thinks I'm crazy.

Not in a trope-ish, generalized "Chicks are just nuts, amiright, fellas?" kind of way.

More like a concrete, "Your behavior contradicts both what you say you want and your own best interests. Repeatedly."

He has a bit of a thing for crazy women, which both explains how we got together and makes him something of an expert in this arena. (To his ex-girlfriends: When I say crazy, I don't mean you. You were obviously the exception.)

I would like to argue with him about this, and not just because I'm good at it. But he has that pesky empirical evidence to back him up. To wit:
  • I will blithely pay $10 for a single cocktail, but balk at paying $20 for a pair of shoes.

  • I express the pain that a family member has caused me and then immediately feel guilty, because other people have actual narcissists/psychopaths/Republicans in their families, and I could have it so much worse, ergo I don't have any business complaining about it.

  • I hoarded every book I ever came in contact with (this became several thousand; regardless of whether I liked it, regardless whether I had the room) in case I suddenly become dirt poor again. Because under those conditions, obviously not being able to buy BOOKS would be my biggest worry.

  • I apologize. Compulsively. In almost every situation. I apologize for eating the last of the sour cream. I apologize for standing in the grocery aisle if someone else even looks like they want to come through. And of course, I apologize for apologizing too much.

  • I didn't wear sleeveless shirts in my 20s, on the theory that my upper arms were too ugly to force other people to look at, but they somehow might be BETTER when I was older.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

I'm not crazy. But I am wound and bound in a knot of mixed messages and muddled values, with a candy coating of conflicting desires and poorly-understood impulses. All this is complicated by an upbringing that taught me not only is it sinful/wasteful/bad to HAVE nice things, it is equally evil just to WANT them.

The thing is, I think this is fixable. I believe that with reflection and honesty and probably some trips to Out of the Closet to get rid of the crap that clogs my life, I can make this stuff better. I can make over my mind into a quieter, happier place in which to dwell.

I know I'm lucky. I have the Songwriter to help me, gently and with lots of humor, take a stab at the knot that has my life so tangled. And I'm doubly lucky, because I also have awesome friends, and this blog, and all of you.

And part of me feels kinda guilty about that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Good Links: Regret Less

I like to think I have a pretty good relationship with death. I come from a sprawling, multi-generational family, which means someone is always dying or being born, sometimes on the same day.

For three years, I wrote an obituary column for the Dayton Daily News called "A Life Well Lived", and it was one of the greatest experiences of my professional life. There is nothing like sitting down with a grieving family and saying "I know your loved one had a story. A great story. Now tell it to me, and don't leave out a thing." The catharsis that precipitates is amazing and powerful. More on that another time.

As part of the above-mentioned family, I've spent time with a lot of people at the end of their lives. Though not nearly as many as Bronnie Ware.

Bronnie has collected the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, based on her years of experience in palliative care. If you don't know, palliative care seeks to make the end of our lives as comfortable and full of dignity as they possibly can be. It is the awesome, kind work done by hospice nurses and home health care aides around the country.

You should go over and read them all, but I'll give you a hint: It seems that when our lives are drawing to a close, we do not wish we had worked more or bought more stuff.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Midsummer's Eve

Am I wrong for resenting the fact that the feminine "hygiene" industry has hijacked that term from Shakespeare? NO, I don't think I am.

What am I doing on this, the second-longest day of the year? I'm waiting. Waiting for a client, who is now a week late in getting me what I need to get started on their project. And if that doesn't sound like a big deal, reflect on the fact that the end date, the deadline, isn't moving out accordingly.

One of my old bosses at a book packaging firm used to say, "When I die, you know how I'll know I went to heaven? I'll be the client!" Yeah. Like that.

In a past life (by which I mean a month and a half ago), this situation would have me grinding my teeth, worrying over the time that was slipping away and the work that I wasn't doing. This, as the Songwriter is fond of pointing out, is massively unproductive. Not to mention just a teensy bit insane.

So, rather than let the things I can't do get me obsessively tangled in ulcer-inducing stress and rage, I am going to do the things I can do.
  • stop trying to live in the future, when the work will be here
  • be present - right here, right now
  • take a shower
  • send a (friendly) email to the client, reminding them I'm ready when they are
  • head to my favorite coffee shop to work on my screenplay
This isn't a delay or a roadblock. It's a gift, a surprise package of time.

I'll sip my coffee and remember how lucky I am to be able to do this on a Monday. And I will try to stop grinding my teeth.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tweaking Comment Settings

A blog-keeping note: A few of you had trouble commenting, so I've switched anonymous commenting back on. We'll see how good the spam filters on this jalopy really are!

That said, if you don't want to log in, consider signing your nom or nom de plume. It makes the conversation easier.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Body Butter - An Origin Story

It all started with the body butter.

Well, it started a long time before that, with my mother and her sisters, and probably my grandmother and HER sisters, and on and on, back into the mists of time.

But it was the incident with the body butter that finally clarified things for me.

It was winter. I had been out of work for nearly a year. My husband, the Songwriter, hadn't worked steadily in even longer. Every global economic indicator was trending down, and we were barely scraping by in one of the most expensive cities in America.

We had moved to Los Angeles from Dayton, Ohio three years earlier with great fanfare and high hopes. We had both had good jobs in interesting fields and all the sunshine we could eat. We paid off all our debt and started planning for a bright future. Now all that seemed to be over.

That winter afternoon, I was struggling against a nagging, low-grade depression, heavy as wet movers' felt as I got out of the shower. It all seemed so futile - the showering, the dressing. After all, where did I have to go? I couldn't remember the last time I'd brushed my teeth, much less put on makeup.

And so it was, wet and morose, that I regarded my bathroom counter that day, full of contact solution and deodorant and half-used hair products. That's when I saw it, under two pots of pomade and a thick layer of dust (housekeeping had joined personal grooming in the are-you-kidding-me-what's-the-point-of-it-all? bin)

A dish of vanilla sugar-scented body butter.

When had I last used the stuff? I couldn't recall. Had I EVER used it? Surely I must've. Where had it come from? I distantly remembered a dear friends giving it to me in a gift basket at my bridal shower.

I looked at my wedding rings, sitting next to the sink. I had been married at that point for six and a half years. That meant I had kept this tub of lotion almost as long as my tax returns, without opening the damn stuff! I had moved it 2,000+ miles, only to let it sit and gather dust. Seriously? What the hell was wrong with me?!

I wiped the grime off on my towel. If I opened it now, what would I find? Mold? A cracked clay desert? It had been sitting an awfully long time. Miraculously, it was none the worse for time. And it smelled . . . ohmigod. I have a terrible and well-documented weakness for things that smell of sweets. God help my marriage if they ever mass-market a men's cologne that smells like brownies.

The stuff looked luscious, like frosting or a soft, creamy brie. I wanted to stick my fingers in, hell, my whole hand. But I didn't. I hesitated. And then I looked behind me, to make sure the bathroom door was closed.


Because I felt guilty.

This body butter was so rich and so nice, it was TOO nice. Too nice for a Wednesday, too nice for just sitting around the house afterwards, too nice for unemployment, too nice for ME.

Looks crazy, doesn't it, all spelled out like that?

I thought so too.

In that moment, damp, naked and alone in my bathroom with my guilt, I resolved that this was no way to live. No fucking way at all. I dug three fingers in and slathered myself head to foot in the glorious goo.

I emerged from the bathroom that day smelling like a giant snickerdoodle and determined to challenge the way I approached my stuff, my body and my life.

Use the Good Soap was born.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Stand up, and tell us a little about yourself

Hello everyone - my name is Angelle (Hi, Angelle!) and I am a . . . well, a lot of things, many of them not very pretty in the light of day. A book-aholic. An information junkie. A serial apologizer. An outrage addict. A recovering Catholic. I have admitted that I am powerless over shiny new boots and turned my credit cards over to a higher power.

My friend Val says it's passe to riff on 12-step programs and she's probably right. But it's also a useful cultural shorthand to indicate a project of personal recovery and growth. Which is what this is meant to be. So forgive my use of it here, just this one time. I promise not to do it again. Much.

Welcome to the Good Soap blog!

I started Use the Good Soap to help me think/work through a lot of the ideas I have about guilt, self-worth, and why even if we CAN have nice things, we often feel too shitty to enjoy them.

This little corner of the internet is my laboratory, a place for me to throw lots of ideas at the Web, and see what sticks. If you happen by, I hope you'll stick around and join the discussion. The concept is shamelessly borrowed from Chris Anderson and his Long Tail blog, because I believe in always stealing from people smarter than I am.

My plan is to talk about about big ideas and nitty-gritty specifics, with personal anecdotes and probably some content on books and music and movies thrown in because, well, it's my blog and those are things that matter to me.

Oh, and pictures of my cats. Because if there's one thing the internet needs, it's more cats.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's, Pt. 2: The Day

I have an aunt who won't do the dishes on New Year's Day, because she doesn't want to spend her year in drudgery. Given the state of her kitchen, that little piece of magic seems to be working.

But I wondered if I could turn that same energy into a force for good? I mean, somebody's gotta do the dishes. But what if I could make every New Year's Day an idealized miniversion of the year to come?

It's not a terribly original idea. Whether it's legumes, greens, or chocolate coins, most cultures invoke riches on New Year's Day as a way of laying out to the Universe, clearly and succinctly, what they'd like to have happen in the next cycle around the sun, thankyouverymuch.

So far, it seems to be working for me too.

Think about it. What would you like to have the next year? Not in terms of stuff or money, but in terms of you? What do you want to spend the next year of your life doing?

Do it today.

All of it, even if it’s just little, symbolic pieces. It’s a way for you to tell yourself, your family, and whatever higher power you believe is listening, “Hey! This! This is what matters to me.”

My to-do list for New Year's Day, 2011:

I will eat good food. Some of it rich, some of it very fresh, all of it designed to make me feel good about myself and happy in my body.

I will read some fiction. It doesn’t have to be new, maybe it’ll be a short story, or a passage from a book I know like an old friend. Just a reminder of the power and truth in story.

I will write something. I work on a script or a story, to strengthen my connection to the value of my work. This can be hard when, to the casual observer, your heart’s labor looks suspiciously similar to commenting on I Can Has Cheezburger?

I will be affectionate with my husband. Because hey, I like my marriage a lot. I want to nurture it and appreciate it. I want it to last not just this next year but for the rest of my life.

I will drink, but not too much. A glass of wine or an aperitif reminds me that there are more levels consciousness than just the alpha-achiever mode. However, I do NOT want to spend the next year with a headache, so moderation is in order.

I will meditate. I’m really good at going. Not so good at stopping. Developing a meditation practice has been on my list for a while, and a little NYD stillness lets me keep the faith.

I will exercise. Newsflash: I am not Mila Jovovich. And that’s okay. But this body is the only body I’m going to get. I need to make it feel good, keep it strong and capable. So exercise, but from a place of pleasure, not punishment.

I will call or write an old friend. Relationships sustain me, even when I’m being a grouchy hermit. People I love were incredibly supportive when I moved 2,000 miles away, and I want to nurture them, too.

Crazy list, I know. A full day, to create a full year, strung one after another to create a full life. That’s the goal, and I’m going to fail at some of it, but not failing means you aren’t trying anything worthwhile.

So. What are you going to do today?