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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State Of The Ego Update

2013 October 5

“So, where are you heading after this?”

“To my shrink’s,” I reply with a laugh.

My business associate asks me to confirm he heard correctly and then starts laughing, too. And then he tells me about his own experience with therapy after he went bankrupt a few years ago.

For a long time, the longest time in fact, I thought that the value I brought to relationships was my steadfast unflappability. If you were friends with me, I’m sure it was like having McGyver (with better hair) on speed dial. And then, one day, I couldn’t do that anymore. I looked around at all the feelings and facets of my life I’d been neglecting and I realized that my dogged devotion to helping other people fix their stuff (whether they asked me to or not) meant that most of mine remained broken.

As I told someone yesterday, the last six months of my life have been incredibly humbling. For a person who has always believed her core value lies in her strength, admitting to being vulnerable is hard. It’s possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Asking for help, for compassion, for forgiveness, for support is an ongoing struggle. Being able to acknowledge my needs and present them to someone else in the timid hope that they might be met is like climbing Mount Everest to me – right down to the lightheadedness and lack of oxygen.

So, why am I doing this? Why am I asking for things I know I won’t get and going away with my head bowed? Why am I fighting panic to meet strangers for coffee or telling my pride to STFU and reaching out to a friend for reassurance that I’m doing okay? Why am I  reviving my book proposal and considering stand-up comedy and blogging acutely personal details that would make the me of a year ago wince? Because none of those things will kill me. For every risk I force myself to take, I get a little stronger and a little wiser and the tears dry a little faster. I might not get what I want, but I do get the knowledge that I won’t die from not having it and then, when I need to do something similar in the future, I call upon that memory and it bolsters me. I’m very tired of being scared and the quickest way to stop being scared is to do the scary thing and then live to tell about it in technicolor detail. So, here we go.

And there is a relief in this new way of being, in the ability to shrug off the mantle of perfect composure to admit incompetence and fear and confusion, to acknowledge that not only do you not know best, sometimes, you really don’t know anything at all. I am a mess. We all are. Now, I strive to be gracious when others offer compassion and kindness and generosity in the face of the weakness or need I show them. Of course, I worry about losing my place in their lives if I’m no longer the unflappable fixer, but I remind myself that even if that were to happen, I am building the capacity to deal with it via every risk I push myself to take and every weakness I steel myself to show. And then I just continue not dying from it.

 

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