It happened.

I swore it wouldn’t, but it did.  I got sucked in to reality TV. 

Until just a few minutes ago, it was a normal day.  I worked.  I went to Toastmasters.  I came home and watched my General Hospital.  Then I sat down to do a few things online and thought I’d multi-task by watching my recordings of The Good Wife from last week and this week.  It turns out last week’s recording of The Good Wife was an episode of NCIS, and there was no episode tonight.  With no other recorded shows to watch, I had to resort to “live” TV and happened on The Voice.  Oh my word.

Four singing coaches  – Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton – sit with their backs to the stage.  A contestant comes out and sings.  The coaches can hear the contestant but cannot see him or her.  If a coach likes the sound and wants to work with the contestant, then the coach pushes a button, indicating to the contestant, “I want you on my team.”  If more than one coach pushes the button, then the contestant gets to choose between the coaches.  I am hooked. 

What I love is the absence of negativity.  Everyone does his best.  No one is embarrassed.  Almost no one is criticized.   Almost no one is negative.  I say “almost” because Christina does tend to jab at the other judges a bit, especially Adam.  I wish she would stop that, but at least she isn’t jabbing at the contestants. 

I am hopeful the show will remain positive.  I may even be inspired to sing and dance around my living room, which is saying a lot because I am scarred by an incident of my youth. Back in 1987, when Tiffany was a big deal, I sat in my childhood bedroom, behind closed doors, singing “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  I sang happily to myself until I heard laughter on the other side of my bedroom door.  These days, I barely sing in church because every time I open my mouth, I hear that laughter.

But right now, fresh off The Voice, I’m feeling inspired.  And Bread and Butter don’t laugh.  So here goes:

“Children behave.  That’s what they say when we’re together.  And watch how you play.  They don’t understand and so we’re running just as fast as we can.  Holding onto one another’s hand.  Trying to get away into the night and then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say: I think we’re alone now…”

I (heart) David Sedaris.

If you don’t know who David Sedaris is, go to your nearest bookshop or library and get your hands on a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day. I’m not usually one to bark orders at anyone.  But do it now.  And after you are done reading Me Talk Pretty One Day, tell me one part of that book that made you laugh so hard that you cried and had to call your best friend so you could read portions of it aloud to her.  The part that made me laugh and dial was the essay entitled, “The Learning Curve,” which is about his first experience teaching writing.  I had to call Ginger.  I recall laughing so hard trying to read it to her that it took me a while to get the words out.

David Sedaris packed the Long Center last night.  For about ninety minutes, the audience hung on his every story, essay, and joke.  I hung on every last word.  I love his language, his humor, his irreverence, and the honesty with which he tells stories. I love that he can make me think, laugh, cringe and ache all at the same time.  I love that he has insights on everything ranging from feces — or “turd,” as he liked to call it — to the deepest desires we all have for the approval of our parents.  Perhaps most of all, I love that, as part of each show, he recommends a book written by someone else.  Last night, in recommending Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief, he said something very close to, “I like the person I am when I finish a Tobias Wolff book.” 

Oh, Mr. Sedaris, I love the writer you are.  I hope one day to have the chance to sit down with you to get to know the person you are. (Yes, I know it sounds nuts to think that I might have that chance.  But these days, I’m into dreaming big.) 

Messages From the Past.

I am blown away in this moment.  Completely blown away.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin touches on the Blank Books she filled as a kid.  I, too, loved blank books.  Reading her experience sent me to dig up a blank book that was given to me by my dear friend and roommate from the Joseph Baldwin Academy.  I used the book beginning in 1991, to record quotes, poems, song lyrics, movie lines and anything that spoke to me.  Reading through it tonight, I feel like the kid I was is loving on the adult I am now.

Here is some of what I found in that book.

  • To be yourself in a world that is doing its best to make you something you are not, is to fight the hardest battle any human can fight. 
  • Why can’t we get all the people together that we really like and stay together?  Someone would leave, someone always leaves, and then we have to say goodbye.  I hate goodbyes.  I know what I need.  I need more hellos. (Snoopy)
  • A friend is one who comes in when the whole world has gone out. 
  • Life is more than a vision.  The sweetest part is acting after making a decision.  (Indigo Girls)
  • If I don’t take what I read or what I am told and weigh it against my own experiences, then of what value am I to myself?
  • Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself.  (Herman Hesse, Demian)
  • I am not capable of standing so naked and alone. I, too, am a poor weak creature who needs warmth and food and occasionally the comfort of human companionship.  (Herman Hesse, Demian)
  • I wanted only to try and live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self.  Why was that so very difficult?  (Herman Hesse, Demian)
  • Every now and then I fall apart.  (Bonnie Tyler)
  • I will never give in until the day I die.  Get myself some independence.  Carve out a future with my two bare hands.  (The Alarm)
  • When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.  (Milan Kundera)
  • “Stay” is a charming word in a friend’s vocabulary.  (Amos Bronson Alcott)
  • A true friend laughs at your stories even when they’re not so good and sympathizes with your troubles even when they’re not so bad.
  • Even though my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there will always be two teacups at my table.
  • We lie loudest when we lie to ourself.  (Eric Hoffer)
  • This is me.  I’m not proud of it.  In fact, I’m a little embarrassed by it, but this is who I am.  (Bill Hybels)
  • I don’t mind struggling if that’s what it takes to do what I love. (Richard Bach)
  • I want to believe there is someone else in the world who is just as alone as I am.  I want to believe that we’re going to find each other and love each other and never be alone again. (Richard Bach)
  • I often find myself waiting for someone else to give me permission to pursue the things I desire. (Dobie theater preshow)
  • You need a clean slate as much as I do.  (the movie Heathers)
  • I always seek the good that is in people and leave the bad to Him who made mankind and knows how to round off the corners. (Goethe)
  • The poor man is not he who is without a cent but he who is without a dream.  (Kemp)

I realize this is a long list.  I fought hard to resist the urge to reproduce every quote, poem, song lyric and movie line here.  It amazes me how much these words and all – literally all – of the words in my once blank book still resonate with me.  I do value friendship.  I do want to be true to myself.  I don’t care to judge or be judged. I do struggle with who I am and being lonely far more than I would like. 

Reading through this book, I feel like the kid who recorded these words nearly twenty years ago is reaching out to encourage me today.  I am so thankful that she took the time to compile these messages.  Through them, she is both challenging me and giving me permission to pursue and be…me.

Do you have a similar book tucked away somewhere? What does it say?

The Happiness Project – Overview.

I first came across Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, last summer at Powell’s Books in Portland.  I loved the title.  I loved the bookstore.  I loved being in Portland.  I expected to love reading the book as much as I enjoyed the experience of finding the book.  But as life sometimes does, it got in the way, and the book sat on my shelf until just last night.

A friend’s Facebook post about her own Happiness Project sent me hunting for this book.  Ah – the power of Facebook.  Anyway, I found it on a shelf in my kitchen (because every room in my house is devoted in part to being a library).  I read the preface “Getting Started” last night and knew instantly that I would be a fan of the book.

First of all, the writing is conversational  and easy to read.  Nothing turns me off of a book more quickly than having to re-read something to make sense of it.  I can tell from the first few paragraphs that I will not have that problem with this book.  Second, I learned in the fourth paragraph that Gretchen Rubin is a lawyer-turned-writer.  That gives her instant credibility – instant pedestal status – in my mind.  Third, this woman talks about a methodical way of tackling different aspect of her life to make it happier.  That struck me because most people don’t associate to-do lists and projects as the path towards a happier life.  But she writes, “I wanted to perfect my character, but, given my nature, that would probably involve charts, deliverables, to-do lists, new vocabulary terms and compulsive note taking.”  My goodness, I have found a woman after my own heart.  Finally, I love her recognition that a happy life can be made better – that by taking on this project, she was not suggesting that life was unhappy.  She was, instead, recognizing that there was room for improvement.  I agree completely.  There always is  room for improvement.

She got my attention with her preface.  I’m in.  I want my own Happiness Project. 

So what’s my plan? 

  1. Read all the way through the book to get a sense for what she tackled in her own life and how.
  2. Develop my own Commandments, though I know I will steal from Gretchen and make the first “Be Taline.”  That is sometimes my greatest challenge.  (For a list of Gretchen’s commandments, see her website.)
  3. Identify ten or twelve aspects of my life that I want to improve.  Again, I’m sure I’ll steal from Gretchen on some of these categories.  Hers were vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, attitude, and happiness. 
  4. Develop the specific tasks towards each of my own categories. 
  5. Get to work on executing the tasks.

Gretchen started on January 1 and spent a year on her project – one month for each category she identified.  My plan is to start on June 1 and to spend six months.  Why?  My birthday is in December, and I want my celebration to include a celebration of having spent the better part of the year developing and implementing ways to make life a little better.

Here are my deadlines:

  1. Finish reading the book by May 1.
  2. Develop commandments by May 7.
  3. Identify the aspects I want to improve by May 14.
  4. Develop the tasks by May 28.
  5. Develop a tracking system/chart by May 31.

I invite anyone who wants to do their own Happiness Project to join me! 

I considered soliciting your thoughts on categories I might want to tackle, but then I remembered Commandment 1. Be Taline.  So I will come up with my own tasks.  See, it’s working already.

The Texas wildfires.

I mentioned yesterday that I travelled to north Texas and witnessed the wildfires.  They weren’t real to me until I saw them.  Now, though I am not in the path of danger, I feel oddly attached to the situation.   

This is a picture I took just north of Strawn.

I thought it was unbelievable, but I’m realizing now that this picture is really nothing compared to the vastness of the problem.  This morning, someone in my office circulated a link to more photos, all of which are far more startling than what I saw driving on the open roads.  The news is reporting more than 1.6 million acres burned and 240 homes destroyed, and they still don’t have the fires contained.  Texas is burning.  It is literally smoking hot and up in flames.

It frightens me that a shift in the winds could mean that the wildfires spread in new directions.  At the same time, I am comforted that a bit of rain could mean they are stalled and perhaps put out.  The situation can change – for better or worse – in an instant.  As I obsess about these fires, I’m realizing that this is true for life in general.  Things can change at any time.  

I recently read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which I lovedDidion writes about the year after her husband’s unexpected death.  He died in their home.  They were doing normal things one moment, and he was gone the next. 

Good can turn painful in no time.  People die.  Marriages fail.  Pregnancies end.  Jobs are lost.  Investments sour. Friendships fizzle.  I can get bogged down in this negativity – this expectation that something bad might happen at any moment.  But the flip side is true also.  Situations can improve in an instant.  The sick are healed.  People find love.  Children are born.  Jobs are found.  Money is made.  Old friends are reunited.   

What happens does not always make sense.  I cannot always wrap my mind around what’s going on in the world or in my world.  I cannot wrap my mind around these wildfires.  But I am comforted knowing that any situation, including the situation in north Texas, can improve in an instant.  I hold firmly to that hope.

A little much needed levity.

I just got home from the northern parts of Texas where fires are devastating the land.  I am trying to process what I saw and how to respond, but my mind is tired and the subject is hard.  It’s too much for me right now. 

Because I need something light and happy, I offer you something light and happy.  Say hello to Bread and Butter.

Aren’t they precious? 

The boiled frog.

I had lunch today with my financial advisor, his wife, and another client of his.  Amit, my advisor, started organizing these lunches about a year ago because he wanted to introduce like-minded clients to one another.  I’m so glad he did.  Each time we get together, I walk away encouraged to pursue the real me.

Today at lunch, I learned the metaphor of the boiling frog.  The tale (or perhaps truth) is that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out.  But if you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog will stay in the water and boil to death.  I had never heard that before.  My curiosity sent me straight to googling “boiling frog,” and I found that there is some controversy about whether a frog really can be boiled to death. Whether the tale is scientifically accurate or not, the metaphor has captivated me.

Is it possible that a particular situation is egregious but I don’t realize it because it got to be that way over time?  Have I slowly developed behaviors that I would have despised ten years ago?  I am afraid so.

One example that comes to mind is my weight.  Though I have not grown an inch taller, I weigh a solid fifteen pounds more than I weighed in high school.  Had you told me then that I would gradually gain fifteen pounds and consider it normal, I would have been horrified.  So why is that state acceptable to me now?  Another example is that I graduated high school wanting to travel the world.  Had someone told me then that at thirty-seven I would not have left North America even once, I would have agonized at that thought.  But here I am – untraveled at thirty-seven.  This state of non-adventure should not be okay with me. Yet another example is that, in the last few years,  I have allowed a few precious relationships to fall into disrepair.  There was a time that I could not have fathomed the thought of being without those people, and here I am today, not having spoken to them in years. 

These examples are just a few that come to mind when I consider the metaphor going backwards in time.  I also can consider the metaphor looking forwards.  I can identify things, behaviors, beliefs and people that I value today and would be horrified to give up.  I don’t want to allow myself to be resigned to a way of life five, ten or twenty years from now that I would not choose today.  I want to love and have a family.  I want to travel and write.  I want to inhale books.  I want to be connected with my family and friends on a regular basis and in a meaningful way.  I cannot let myself get so busy with the day-to-day demands and distractions that I get numb to those desires and adapt to living without them.  I cannot let myself get so self-centered and prideful that I allow people I love to walk away and perhaps feel that they were dispensable.  I fear I am slowly allowing these things to happen.

I had lots of dreams at eighteen about who I could be, the relationships I wanted, and the life I could have.  I think thirty-seven-year-old me needs to have regular chats with eighteen-year-old me so that we can come to some agreement about the things that are – and must remain – non-negotiable for my life.  If the water is boiling or starting to get warm, I want to know.

Does this metaphor resonate with anyone else?  Can you think of a boiling frog example in your own life?  Maybe if we help one another identify the warm water hazards, we all can avoid being the boiled frog.

Story Department.

Once a month, the Austin Bat Cave hosts a Story Department.  It’s an evening of storytelling along a particular theme.  Past themes include Family Dinner, Gifts, Resolutions, Foolish Love and Luck.  Last night, the theme was In-laws.  As is often the case, I was tired upon arriving to Story Department.  As is always the case, I was rejuvenated after.

For about ninety minutes, a handful of people – writers, artists, a lawyer,  a financial planner – told stories about their families.  As you might expect, most of the stories surrounded the lunacy of the in-laws, but still they were heartfelt.  For about ninety minutes, these storytellers let us into their most personal worlds.  Whether talking about the fear that an in-law would find a dildo or the sadness of being cutoff by an in-law shortly after a marriage, each person spoke genuinely about their real and personal challenges of creating a family in the midst of two existing ones.  By the end of the night, there seemed to be a sense of intimacy among the speakers who, though they didn’t know one another beforehand, comfortably referred to one another in their storytelling, all with the consistent message of, “I so relate to what you said.”

The connection – the understanding – that was communicated among storytellers and even between the audience and the storytellers is what makes me love books, stories, live readings, and evenings like Story Department.  Though there are times where life feels like what Herman Hesse described in Demian as “a cruelly lonely experience,” evenings like last night remind me that people do want to connect with one another in the most personal ways and that if we take the time to share our stories, those connections happen.

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To be locked in a library.

I’ve been reading When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years by Stanley Meisler.  It recounts a great deal of history, but the piece that struck me most given where I am right now deals with former Peace Corps director Carol Bellamy.  According to this book, she fell asleep studying in her college library and awoke to find herself locked in overnight.  While she was passing time, waiting to be freed from the stacks, she stumbled on a brochure for the newly forming Peace Corps.  “By the time the librarians arrived to open the doors that morning, she had resolved to apply.”  That was in 1962. She did apply and was assigned to serve in Guatemala in 1963.  Thirty years later, she became the director of the Peace Corps.  Her entire life didn’t revolve around the Peace Corps, but that accident – being locked in – affected her future dramatically. 

I’m floundering a bit right now and need a library experience.  I don’t know what Ms. Bellamy’s world view is, but I take her experience as a direct sign from a higher power.  I fear this sounds a little crazy, but I need God to lock me in a room and show me very clearly what I am to do.  I know it’s not the Peace Corps.  I’ve never considered myself compassionate enough to travel to other countries and see their difficulties.  But there has to be something that I am on this planet to do.  Thirty-seven years into my life, and I don’t know what that is.  I want to know. 

God, lock me away for a night or however long it takes and show me a sign that I cannot miss.