It’s Not A One Shot World

2014 March 24

Recently, I saw one of my favorite new artists live. Before the show, I busied myself with reading reviews of her latest cd – a pretty radical departure from her debut – to see if my opinion that she’s taken a turn for the Stevie Nicks (a very good thing in my books) was shared by music critics. In the course of clicking around, I stumbled on this snippet (bolding mine) from The Boston Globe:

“The sweet sass of ‘Bible Belt’ has given way to more scorching moments. Birch is not the one to be messed with on “All the Love You Got,” which presumably dresses down a former lover. Birch could have included songs like that on her debut, but she realized that for the sake of consistency, she needed to commit to a cohesive sound and collection of songs. There would be time to make other records. There would be life after ‘Bible Belt’.”


I’ve been struggling with a big new project and there was exactly the perspective I needed in a few lines of a cd review. I had been thinking about this particular opportunity as my one and only shot. If I didn’t cram anything and everything I ever wanted to say into it, I might never get to another chance to share my thinking with the world. Consider it in food terms. Instead of focusing on making the best possible apple pie I was capable of and whetting diners’ appetites for future dishes, I was fretting over trying to pull off a six-course meal because I was worried no one would ever agree to try my food again. I was stressing myself out over self-imposed scarcity.

A friend is working on his PhD dissertation and battling with the same urge to accurately and critically represent all corners of a vast subject area for fear of missing something or not doing the field justice. Instead of a tightly-focused argument, he’s been driving himself crazy thinking about his dissertation as a state of the subject treatise. No wonder trying to wrap up his doctorate is giving him gray hairs.

The truth is no one project – a paper, an album, a resume, a work of art, a dessert – can capture everything you want to say or that you’re capable of thinking, creating or sharing with the world. You can, however, make that entry point to your expertise compelling enough that people will be primed to come back for more. You don’t have to show your audience everything you have inside all at once for fear you’ll never get another kick at the can. Instead, you simply have to deliver something valuable, interesting, enlightening and strong enough that that same audience is excited to experience your next offering in whatever form it may take.

Come for the apple pie. Come back next time for the gnocchi. And the Stevie Nicks homage.

 

 

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16 And A Half Years

2013 December 9

I don’t know how to calculate dog years, but I do know that 16 and a half human years is pretty damn old for a dog. That’s how old the family dog was when my mother texted me yesterday morning to say that Ginger had suffered a stroke in the night and my parents had to haver her put down.

 

I really did think Ginger – a beagle mix adopted from a flea market – would outlive us all. She was more cat than dog, really. She eschewed toys, wouldn’t fetch if her life depended on it, couldn’t swim, hated being petted. She was born old and cantankerous, so it seems odd that we never really got along. She peed on my bed twice during a week-long visit home after college. No one ever knew how she got upstairs.

She mellowed slightly in her last years. She let my parents give her a bath. She tolerated my little sister putting stupid hats on her and taking pictures of it – a biteable offense in bygone days. She would bark at the other (much younger) family dog until that dog would chase her around the house.

Of course, I’ve been thinking of mortality. If a seemingly immortal dog can die, so can and will everyone else I care about. Which, duh, of course they will. TImes like these makes me want to heal every old wound, patch over ancient hurts and grudges, create a figurative (and maybe literal) blanket fort of love and kindness and care and find someone to crawl inside with. Because time is moving. The time you have to start things, finish things, mull things over, create and destroy, embrace and let go is so chest-crushingly finite. Righteousness and pride and someday plans and waitlisted dreams aren’t keeping any of us warm at night. What we make as individuals and with others is all we get and the time we don’t spend making and being and living are days and weeks and months and years we can never call back. And we only receive so many reminders of this truth, most of them painful. Why waste another?

16 and a half years seems like a long time. It isn’t, though. It really, really isn’t.

 

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Another Year Older And Deeper In Fret

2013 November 23

I remember the first time someone accused me of being fretful. It was at a journalism conference in college. I was heading up a committee and my co-leader and I were working late into the night trying to finish some bureaucratic task. I chafed at being told to stop fretting, that everything would be fine. Such a musty, Victorian word, I thought. I wasn’t a handwringing worrier, was I?

Oh, how times have changed.

Yesterday was my birthday. I spent more or less the whole day fretting, as I do every year. I tried to remember a birthday that didn’t involve crying and I realized I’d probably have to go back to my early teen years. As an adult, birthdays have been, as a rule, depressing and unmemorable and it’s not for the reasons you’d think. I don’t particularly care about presents or acknowledgements, or people making a big fuss. A surprise party would likely give me a panic attack. Nope, it’s that my brain fixates on November 22 as the date on which I should take an annual inventory of my life in the most unflinching manner possible. Every year, I come up short. There is no list of achievements, accomplishments or milestones that will satisfy my mind. Some years, I fixate on career success, others, it’s character flaws. This year, it was gnawing loneliness. I feel it acutely and I feel like I can’t get away from it and I certainly haven’t put a dent in it from last year.

Every Nov 22, I vow not to arrive at the next one in the same condition. And while I do make progress on some fronts (have my own company, don’t live with my parents), it never feels like enough and my brain never quite lets me forget what I haven’t accomplished in the last 12 months. It’s not self-pity, it’s self-recrimination. So, now, when the day rolls around, I simply brace myself to be soaked by a steady drizzle of mental discomfort. I try to be gracious about birthday well wishes, but there’s no polite way to tell people you’re trying to ignore the day without sounding as if you’re nursing a high-maintenance martyr complex. Oh, plans? Does sitting in the tub thinking about how I suck at life count? Because it’s kind of an annual tradition. Yes, going out for drinks and cake DOES sound better. Maybe next year.

It’s an unseemly practice that I just can’t seem to shake. Another year older and deeper in fret.

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I Am Too Soft For This City

2013 November 20

That’s what I thought as I waited for the F train. It wasn’t because I saw a rat skitter across the subway tracks or the fact that my rental turned out to be across the street from the projects (the neighborhood was perfectly safe). No, it was the trio of high school kids performing on the platform behind me – one on guitar, another on trumpet and a vocalist. She was what got to me. Easily good enough to be on The Voice or X Factor and, instead, singing in the Delancey St. subway station. As I willed myself not to cry, I realized I was probably too soft for this city. And that I should probably drink more water.

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And, yet, I’m too hard for other cities. I can’t seem to find the right fit. As I told a friend this morning, being friends with me involves weathering periodic freakouts in which I contemplate burning my current life to the ground and starting over somewhere else. Three sublets in eight months and not having owned a bed since 2010, you’d think I’d want some roots of my own by now. And yet, I’m scouring Craigslist for options in Portland, in Chicago. I’ve driven across America and not found a permanent resting spot. I think of cities I feel affection for –  San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh – and wonder if the affection was a product of time, circumstances and never outstaying my welcome.

 

It sounds glamorous or at least intriguing to hear me tell it. I have no idea where I’ll end up next! I’m currently location independent! Everything I own fits in two suitcases! What’s less glamorous is wondering if you’ll ever find a place you look forward to coming back to after a trip or fretting about having to replace a stranger’s kettle when you accidentally burn the bottom out of it. A bed, a sense of belonging, something resembling a home. I watched Frances Ha this week and while I thought it was a pretty weak effort overall, I did identify with the character’s unmoored existence. She’s 27 and bouncing from apartment to apartment, putting a “free” sign on one of her chairs and leaving it on the sidewalk because it won’t fit in her storage unit.

 

As I remarked to another friend, this kind of life gets less charming with age. Eventually, you need commit to a place or commit to a nomadic existence. Either way, you’ve gotta settle at some point, for something.

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One Is The Loneliest Number Or The Truth Entrepreneurs Don’t Tell

2013 November 4

When people ask what it’s like being an entrepreneur, I usually joke how running your own business is like a crash course in handling rejection. There are sales you don’t make, clients you don’t land, proposals that go nowhere, offers that get turned down. If you don’t make the ask, you don’t get the work and if you don’t get the work, you don’t pay your bills. So, you ask and for every yes, there’s a no, or maybe there are ten nos or even a hundred. Eventually, it stops stinging as badly.

What I talk about much less is the loneliness. Even if you’re successful, being self-employed is lonely and if, by nature, being isolated and unmoored brings out the darkest in you, well, buckle up. Once you file those incorporation papers (hint: do it in Delaware), you’re flying solo.

Being a one-person empire encourages a certain kind of nihilism. There is no infrastructure or hierarchy for you to find your place in or define yourself against. You don’t spend eight hours a day rowing in the same direction as dozens or hundreds of other people who all park in the same parking lot, take the same elevators, pass the same mission statement mounted on a wall plaque outside the breakroom. No one is timing your lunch hour. Stretch it until 2 and have a martini and no one will make a peep.

You find yourself weighing freedom against insignificance. Yes, I can go grocery shopping in the middle of the day, but does that have more to do with being my own boss or is it just because I don’t really matter and I’m not needed elsewhere? If you tell me you’ve never wondered that, I’ll tell you you’re a liar. You start to get a sense of how low your stakes are and sometimes that gnaws at your brain while you’re trying to fall asleep. If you screw up, you might lose a client or owe the IRS some money, but your carelessness won’t cripple a Fortune 500 company and be splashed all over The New York Times. The power you gain over your own self-determination is directly offset by the realization that your failure hurts only you and therefore only matters to you. Whether you have a six-figure year or close shop after six months and quietly slink back to being some else’s employee is irrelevant to the rest of the world. It will go on either way.

Sometimes, being your own boss feels amazing and empowering and sometimes, it feels pointless and lonely. You are whatever you say you are, you do whatever you say you do. And that’s both the best and the worst feeling.

 

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