activism, Choices, Take Action

How Carrying More Weighs Less

girl carrying lunch pail

While little has the power to shock these days, 45’s evisceration of climate change rules still horrifies. Here in America, it’s a matter when-not-if we’ll start donning face masks to walk the dog. Also, when-not-if we’ll look back with something like fondness for such a quaint inconvenience as a face mask. This week marks yet another threshold moment we’ll someday read in history books about humankind’s relationship with its home.

Sweet notion, isn’t it? That we’ll have books? That anyone’s left to write them?

I understand that we need to fight back. Win at least one chamber of Congress. Jail another white supremacist or two, block the next attempt to gut the ACA, block the cops in riot gear with our cameras and bodies.

What I don’t understand is why we still insist on paper plates.

Continue reading “How Carrying More Weighs Less”

Choices, Mindfulness

From To-Do to Done

Eero Saarinen list
Eero Saarinen’s list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954.

Every day I wake up to a checklist panting in my face. Every day for my entire adult life. I never considered questioning it. Bottomless need? Multiplying demands? Expect only this, nothing less, certainly nothing different. Tasks on the to-do list comprise a responsible life.

Wake up and get to work, Smirk.

Oi vey, what a wretched way to start each day.

Continue reading “From To-Do to Done”

Creativity, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Writing Project Blueprint, Phase 1


Assignment #1: Prepare an action plan for reaching a medium-term writing goal. You have seven days to complete and submit plan.

Assignment details:

Write up an overarching SMART goal and then generate a series of intermediate objectives, each with its own subset of deliverables.  The objectives and deliverables will use measurable action words, such as those in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and will themselves include all the elements of SMART goals (most importantly, specificity and timeline).

As the details of the interim requirements resolve into view, they may reveal that the Big Papi goal is itself problematic.  The goal might be too ambitious or your schedule unrealistic. Revise as necessary. The plan will be more effective if it emerges from an adaptive exchange between desired outcome and deliberative process.

Here is an example of my possible Big Papi writing goal:  By May 1, 2017, prepare for submission a working draft of book proposal (with complete outline), introduction, and chapter 1.

Continue reading “Writing Project Blueprint, Phase 1”

Art, body, Creativity

Pleasure Bank

Muffin Bank

The hunger for sensation collapses into craving.  The call seems to rise up from somewhere inside my flesh.  It is deafening.  My mouth obsesses.  Sweets, yes, and the feel of pastry on the skin of my tongue.  Nothing satisfies but the hook is in and pulls me from my desk, my book, my deeper pleasures. Continue reading “Pleasure Bank”

Determination, Fitness, Mindfulness, Things I Can

95. Things I Can Trust: A Room of Want and Plenty

Door Out

I was putting groceries away in the tiny kitchen when I opened a cabinet down below the silverware drawer. Empty. Large, deep, and completely bare. This was six months after I bought my home. For half a year, I had stood in front of this cabinet and chopped vegetables, rolled out pizza dough, stacked plates. I never noticed it.

For a condo dweller, this was gold. Free real estate had edged open new possibilities in my tightly packed world. My joy clanged through the house. I remember laughing as a whooshing sense of openness coursed through me. All that time I was fighting for room, this open place was right here!
Continue reading “95. Things I Can Trust: A Room of Want and Plenty”

Determination, Things I Can

32. Things I Can Eat: This Meal, Exclusively

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

– William James

A quick metabolism and hearty genes provide cover. A person can live for decades with disordered eating, and no one — not even the most intimate partners — may know.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include the following:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Eating even when you’re full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

The word “disorder” is troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to argue with 8 for 8. For me, as for others, the genesis is in earlier chapters, with coping turned habitual. My parents both worked and once my big sister hit adolescence, she wanted nothing to do with her irritating shadow. At 10 years old, I came home to an empty house. This was no tragedy, of course. We had neighbors, bikes, a park with woods, homework, books, a piano, walls full of LPs, a thousand things to do.

Of all the activities within reach, eating was the easiest. It was low effort, quick reward. So, I ate. It kept me company. It occupied my fidgety attention. It was instantly satisfying. I could eat anything in the house without anyone assessing or demanding I share.

Even for a little girl through whom angst flowed like milk, childhood was not a particularly painful time. Even so, whatever wispy loneliness I carried cemented the habit: Food as companion, food to staunch the boredom.

Thirty years later, this is still very much so. Thoughts about food and eating — what’s coming next, what I just ate, measuring, deciding — are background noise and main score all at once.

The company of friends and family shrinks every concern about eating to a faint whine. In any sort of social setting, food is just a pleasant set piece. Eating is manageable. Even overeating in the company of others feels nothing like the lonely binge. Dining out, parties, holidays, lunch meetings, dates — all of these occasions are easy. Light. Companionship engages my attention and fills the hole that seems so bottomless when I’m on my own.

Really, any engaging activity muffles the hunger. I can dance or write, garden or volunteer, wrestle with my son or make art. I can even pay my taxes or dust my blinds. As long as the time is given to lyric, motion, and productivity, the food obsession recedes.

The challenge is the rest of life.

Alone at my desk, plowing through projects. Alone in my house at the end of a soul-sapping Thursday. Alone with my son asleep in the other room, tired myself but itching for some kind of richness, some kind of stimulation.

Alone and circling the unanswered questions about future, finances, my career, my son’s well-being. Alone and lacking any clear direction, with the nagging awareness that I should be giving shape to something more suited to us with this clay, these hands.

So I return to the compulsive, familiar pacifiers.

I know better. We all know better. But knowledge falls short of action. Instead of moving through the moment of craving and finding myself a song or a pen or a friend, I walk to the fridge.

I eat. Eat and read lit mags online, or skim leftover sections of Sunday’s Washington Post, or download podcasts. I eat and wander the house.

Hours go by this way. Eventually I break surface, climbing up from the burrow of bread and fruit. Immediately the bullets from that Mayo clinic list hammer into me. I’m uncomfortable, well past full, feeling disgusted and out of control.

It all seems so very silly, so first-world. Just a blink away are Baltimore and Katmandu, and here I am worrying the extra bowl (or 3) of cereal I just ate? I’ve come through the hell of a divorce and displacement, bought a home and moved forward in a fulfilling career. I raise a child and manage my investments and work out regularly and attend to a lovely intimate relationship with my Mister. All of these things seemed impossible just a few years ago. All of these things require strength I never knew I had. Don’t these experiences provide me with the capacity to tackle this one simple task?

Stop eating so goddamned much all the time.

Except that “stop eating” is not a viable goal.

Every attempt I’ve made in the past three decades to “fix” this “disorder” just puts attention squarely where it shouldn’t be: on the problem. Focusing on the broken part reinforces the bond between that essential brokenness and the gal carrying it around.

It’s also tempting to excavate ancient burial grounds and reckon with sleeping psychological ghosts. I’ve done plenty of that, with little to show for it. The phantoms are resting quite well now, thank you very much.

All of that said, if I want to be effective in this world, I’ve got to disentangle myself from this thicket of numbing, distracting, and ultimately disabling behaviors.

When participating in the 21-Day Financial Fast at the beginning of 2015, I discovered all over again that a specific, short-term objective with clear rules can take me miles further than whips and rebukes. Starting from a similar place of hopeful strength might serve this task well. It’s time to recognize that I am perfectly capable of setting smart, thoughtful goals and taking bold (if tiny) steps towards them.

So here is what I propose:

Eat when I eat.

(A revolutionary concept, right?)

Let’s put it this way: Only eat when I eat.

Applying lessons from mindfulness — another of my woefully undeveloped capacities — is proving useful here. If eating is the only activity when eating, then perhaps my mind will have a chance to notice how much (and how little) bandwidth food takes up. Exclusively eating means setting aside every other pursuit and carving out time to sit with a meal. Exclusively eating also means fully engaging in whatever occupies my hands and senses when meal- or snack-time is over. Without food to keep me company, will I be as likely to troll the internet and play Quiddler on my phone? Or will I notice that the time I’m adrift in low-reward distractions is really not very fulfilling after all?

I’m not sure what I’ll discover, but it’ll be fascinating — and undoubtedly tortuous — to find out. The 21-day financial fast was tough enough, and I went into that a skinflint who takes pride in driving a 15-year-old beater. This project will be bending loose some pretty rusted joints.

Yesterday was Day 1.

May 31 is the finish line.

Buon appetito!

Choices, Purpose, Things I Can

8. Things I Can Calculate: A Gift to Someday

Three weeks makes the difference. Twenty days of walking past the 7-11 with my own coffee has settled me into a habit of ignoring temptation. The devil and angel are no longer battling it out for my attention and my cash.

To consistently stop (or start) doing something for about a month seems to be what it takes to erase the pesky decision point and establish a new routine. This applies well beyond money. Take the stairs, stop playing brainless games on the phone, speak an affirmation, no sweets after 8pm. It’s not necessary to waste brain space considering the alternative. The new way is just The Way.

In two days, the financial fast ends. The exercise has worked wonders in our little family. Friends came for dinner one weekend and for board games another, giving us an excuse to pretty up our home instead of going out. On our quieter evenings, Bug and I read together and made art. The credit card bill has never been so low.

Tonight, with spending tamed for the time being, I dare to tackle the dreaded late winter chore: installing Turbo Tax.

Yep, this is Friday night in our rock-n-roll household.

At two hours past bedtime, Bug is still playing Minecraft on the couch. Meanwhile, the software whirs on my computer, masticating numbers and spitting out financial data with about as much compassion as a bathroom scale. I sip chamomile tea and brace myself for the blow.

Which turns out to be a sweet nothing.

For this odd, impossible moment, we have a clean bill of health.

The numbers have to spin and calculate two or three more times before I believe them. It doesn’t compute. It’s Tee’s year to name our boy both as a dependent and as a child care expense (tax code is a strange tongue for speaking human worth), so he’ll be absent from my return. This should mean I owe big money. I have to cut a sizable check each alternating year even though my salary is already stretched so thin, you can see the writing on the Goodwill tags.

This year, Turbo Tax tells me we may end up with an actual refund. Ten bucks or so, but still.

Event the slowest learners stumble into awareness eventually, so long as they keep plugging away. Five years into this single-parent deal, and I’m starting to figure a few things out.

Apparently, owning a condo means something other than crippling mortgage payments and neighbors reorganizing their anvils at 1:00 in the morning. It comes as a shock to exactly no one but me that mortgage interest is deductible. Sure, the bank makes off like a mob boss with a bag full of interest each month, but enduring the extortion means a smidgen of year-end relief in the form of a small credit back to moi.

Then we’re looking at the retirement account. This year, my income is higher than it’s ever been in my life (which isn’t saying much). I took on a few teaching gigs and an extra set of tasks at work, negotiating a temporary bump in pay. As December rolled around, I remembered it was Tee’s year to claim our boy, so I sent the paperwork to HR to take my entire salary for two pay periods and dumped it into pre-tax retirement. I came home and gritted my teeth as I wrote out a check with too many zeros and put it my traditional IRA.

This shell game wouldn’t have been possible without the few thousand liquid bucks chilling in my checking account. This is where the financial fast — and frugality in general — makes its mark. Forgo a takeout pizza here, a movie ticket there. . . In my non-child-claiming tax years, the spare change adds up and can land with a little weight in my retirement account. Thrift allows me to stockpile not only the upfront dollars but the deferred cash I would have had to pay in taxes on a higher income.

Sure, these scarily big deposits took a bite out of my checking account. But the pain paid off, quite literally. A lower income figure on my W-2 translated into a tax savings of nearly $2000. That’s a couple thousand bucks I don’t have to hand it over to the IRS. Instead, I stash it under my future self’s mattress. She’s breathing a bit easier now.

She even sends me a thank-you note.

With year-end paperwork all around, I slice open the statements for my personal IRA and my employer’s retirement plan. Another tilting moment finds me re-reading the numbers printed three and then four times. Added together, these accounts hold a measure of security that I hadn’t allowed myself to imagine. Not this year, not ever. My future self grins as I blink and turn it over in my hands.

This number — my number — is one that would make your average 41-year-old professional cringe, especially one with looming college costs and no spouse to share the pain. It’s a modest number at best. Hell, it’s not even a fixed number. 2014 was a good year for the stock market, and we all remember 2007 all too well. I won’t be kicking back anytime soon.

That said, now this:


This lovely, round, many-figured number, planted right at the spot I’d tilled with all my anxiety? It is a marvel. If I retire today, I might be able to live about three years on that little plot. But I don’t have to retire today. The number and I, we have time to expand, to compound.

This number didn’t just fall from the sky. It is a nourished by habits. It is miles of walking instead of driving, months of Friday nights at home making pizza with my son, yards of outdated fashion hanging in my closet. This number is planted in rich soil. It drinks intention. I get to keep feeding it with thrift and care, each watering a small gift to the someday me.

She is watching. She welcomes what grows here.

She is what grows here.


Small Act

In the office next door, a co-worker is hammering at the walls. New art is going up. She strolls along the hallway glancing into our offices, gathering ideas. “I just want to do something about this big space,” she says. “It isn’t inviting.”
Another co-worker tells me that she left a plate in the sink last night. Unlike me (or just about anyone I know), her challenge is to become more messy instead of less. She has a tendency to put things like sleep further down the list than, say, dusting her bookcase. “And you know what else?” She smiles. “My husband took his shoes off in the hallway, and I just left them there.”
It is the last day of January. The New Year is well behind us along with most of the resolutions. Tomorrow morning, treadmills around the world will stand in blinking perplexity at their sudden abandonment. Thousands of just-started screenplays will languish on bedside tables. We return to our familiar selves.
Despite this tendency to regress, just about everyone around here is making improvements. Arriving on time, looking up bios of therapists, sending thank-you notes. Marathon training may have fallen off, but one friend actually does bring her own re-usable grocery bags now every day.
Sweeping transformations rarely take. Folks create a little more rightness in their lives one simple step at a time. It is the small act, trained into practice, that becomes the way we are.
I had fun doing a little research on habit formation recently. The piece I wrote on the topic is up on my department’s website here:
Habits in Training: Six Tips for a New Year
Hang a picture, hug a friend. The official start of 2013 is behind us. The real New begins right here.

Creativity, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 7

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, everything was exactly right. Everything, that is, except for one little burr under my saddle.
The cheese grits and cranberry sauce were prepped and ready for morning. Presents were heaped under the tree. Shrek on the TV was babysitting my kid while the grownups sat in a circle around the kitchen table gabbing about things that were of no interest to him. The cousins who happen to be near Bug’s age were off with their other grandmother for the evening. The only other big kid in the house had grown up so much, he was more interested in finishing up Ulysses than in playing cards or hide-and-seek with the resident 6-year-old.
Between the raucous stories in the kitchen and Shrek in the living room, everyone seemed content.
So, why was I feeling like the Grinch?
This Dallas gathering has been a bright cacophony.  We are immersed in family and busy-ness, yet somehow, I am unsatisfied with the familiar chaos. Something is missing. Of course, this is the first time I have had Bug at Christmas since Tee and I broke up. But it is more than just not being with Bug’s dad. It is also the loss of ways we had created together when we became a family. Where are the Christmas carols? The nighttime walks? The outings for ice skating? The group games?
Why won’t anyone here sit down with my kid and play with him?
One thing about Tee that attracted me to him was his tribe.  They have created ways of being together and being in community that expand a person’s spirit. Hell, the first time I met his family, we attended his older sister’s wedding which took place at a YMCA camp. We celebrated her marriage with canoe races and zip lines. Tee’s family’s annual caroling party is a city-wide epic undertaking. Every holiday is an endless string of group sledding adventures and multi-generational board games. These activities are not grafted on; they are woven deeply into the fabric of their family. A person barely has to try. It is all there for the taking.
Of course, I couldn’t stay married just to his family. It’s a package deal. The just-add-water approach of patching a new name onto the end of my own is not an option (and didn’t work, after all).
The holidays are just another reminder that even in the midst of the chattering, loving embrace of my extended family, I do have to grow up and figure out how to cobble the new ways together from whatever I have on hand.
I know that in the coming years, Bug and I will be on our own for the holidays. We can make our own traditions. It’s just that I don’t want to wait. I wish I knew how to break familiar habits, or at least bend them enough now to put into place some of the activities I would like us to nurture in our home. It is so hard to push against the settled ways to create room for these things. It gets tiring to suggest them and to face a wall of derision and resistance. It isn’t just me. I have seen others try before me and eventually give up.
As the movie wound down, I pulled out paper and crayons.
“Sweetie, what are we going to do for Santa?”
Bug scooted off the couch and started re-arranging things in the den. He hung his stocking, clearing the conch shells and driftwood out from the unused brick fireplace so Santa wouldn’t knock them over. He put out the milk and cookies. Then, he sat down and wrote the note.
“What about the sugar?” He asked when he was finished.
“The sugar?”
“Yeah. For the donkey.” He explained that Santa has a donkey who travels with the reindeer and helps fly. Something about keeping Rudolph company up front? It was all very vague, yet Bug was firm in his knowledge. This revelation required us to fill a bowl with white sugar to feed Santa’s donkey. We also put out ten baby carrots for the reindeer. Bug arranged all of these treats in a circle around the note on the coffee table in the den.
“Alright, buddy. Bedtime.”
Bug raced to the back bedroom, leaping onto the bed, bouncing and singing nonsense.
“Dance, Mommy!” He had music in his bones. He shook his rear end in my direction and giggled hysterically.
“Where’s that iPod of mine?” I asked.
We found it and clicked on Bug’s favorite new tune from One Direction, that unavoidable pop number, “That’s What Makes you Beautiful.” Without speakers, the boy-band’s voices came out even tinnier and, well, tinier.
Bug marched around the mattresses on the floor in his jammies, bopping his shoulders and spinning in circles. Then, in a burst of excitement, he threw open the door and raced down the hallway.
“CHRISTMAS EVE DANCE PARTY!” He grabbed my mom from the kitchen. “Come ON, Gramma!” He dragged her into the bedroom. “DANCE!”
Laughing, she swayed her hips. “I can’t even hear it! What are we listening to?”
Bug didn’t stop to respond. He just clicked the iPod to repeat and cruised out the door.  “I’m going to get more people!”
One by one, he dragged every member of the family into the bedroom. First an aunt, then another, then my dad. The big cousin. An uncle. Eventually, even his ancient great-grandmother was balanced on her cane in the doorway looking both confused and delighted.
“Dance, everybody! It’s a Christmas Eve dance party!” Bug called. He leaped and spun and sprang across the floor, weaving between his assembled family members. Everyone swayed and grinned and made embarrassed faces at one another. As the song wound down, they began to disappear.
“Whew, that’s enough for me,” said one aunt.
“Me, too. I’m pooped!” The aunt’s boyfriend followed her back down the hallway.
Chuckling, folks called “Merry Christmas! Good night!”  My mom and one aunt, true troopers, stuck it out to the last chord. Then, pink-cheeked and breathless, everyone said goodnight and I shut the door.
“Let’s get ready for sleep, Buddy, so Santa can come.”
“Okay!” He said, and collapsed onto the bed.
My boy, not realizing that such things are not done, broke the rules and created something new. Santa’s entourage includes a donkey. At Christmas now, this member of the team simply Is and Always Has Been.  Might the same be true for bringing music, dance and play to this place? Perhaps we do not need to wait. Maybe we don’t even need to try. It might be as simple as saying, “This is what we do. Come on! Join us!”


In the Bank

Personal finance gurus say the secret to amassing great wealth is to Pay Yourself First. Before you take care of your auto loan or head to the mall or supermarket, you put a chunk of change where it can earn interest. It helps if you have to jump through some hoops to get your hands on it.
Getting rich may or may not be in the cards for the 99%, but the psychological effects are as compelling as the financial ones. Conceiving of you – your very own self, your well-being, and your future security – as being more important than a restaurant owner or oil executive can do wonders for your momentum. The icing is that at the end of a decade or three, you have a nice little cushion for doing the things you really want, not just having things that slake the fleeting thirst.
When Tee and I were married and living on one income, we managed to siphon into a savings account a bit off the top of every paycheck. We found ways to save (I can make my own baby food! I can also cut hair!) and discovered that our quality of life did not suffer. The small bank balance we cultivated allowed us to split without either of us going into arrears. Even in my currently strained financial circumstances, I have continued to drop one chunk of my meager income into retirement every month, and another into a savings account. Both bits are paltry, but the habit of treating Shannon, Inc. as a creditor has stuck. It helps me breathe easier to know Bug and I have enough in reserve to survive the next disaster transition.
Where do you find these few bucks? I will not insult your intelligence with another collection of tips. You can barely turn around without bumping into another ten-point bullet list for plumping the piggy bank (Turn down the heat! Pack your lunch!) All the advice columns re-package the same simple counsel: Don’t squander the pennies on junk. They add up to real money.
Pay Yourself First!
Piquing my curiosity lately is the notion of what happens when this principle expands beyond the wallet. Maybe money is not the only currency that matters. Every so often, you have to stop and ask yourself, “What is really valuable?” Besides cash, what other resources can you invest in your well-being, to be able to do the things you really want to do in the future? To be the person you really want to be?
I had lunch with a colleague today who just told me she just received a significant promotion. She is moving from supervising one department to overseeing three. It is a new position, and she will be building it as she goes. The exciting opportunity gives her the chance to test the waters in two areas she has not supervised before, forcing her to learn new skills to navigate murky waters. It will give her a giant headache, and it may prove to be a disaster.
She took the promotion for not one cent more in pay. No raise for doing two whole new jobs? Is she crazy?  I asked her if she would have kept her previous position if they had offered her more money to stay. Her immediate answer?
“Not a chance.”
She is too curious, too excited, too ready to see where this might lead.
Open doors? A sense of professional adventure? Challenge and responsibility? These are currency.
Health and fitness?
Family and friends?
Peace and quiet?
All are currency. So is a safe and thriving neighborhood. So is a sense of contributing to a greater good. So is freedom, in all its manifestations. Even (ahem) love.
Your list is going to be different from mine. Only you know what you amass readily and what you waste. What things must you bank, every month or every day, in order to keep the system oiled and moving towards your best self?
For me, and I suspect for many others, the most precious currency is time.
Time is the Crown Jewels in terms of pure value. Like many parents, my most prized commodity – and my most overdrawn account – is the sliver of the week I have to myself. (Of course, the time with my kid is an investment in its own way, but stick with me here. . .) Between the office, the chores, the kiddo, the dog and the errands, these teeny tiny silvery, slippery strands of time drift around me, loose and hard to catch. I fritter them away for a whole host of feeble reasons (I’m tired! I don’t know where to begin!). Far too rarely, I weave these threads together into something moderately substantial, like an afternoon hike or a night making art with friends.
Time, as much as or even more than money, is what I can use to build a nest egg for my own rich life if I Pay Myself First.
Like the Better Homes and Gardens ten-point inventory for saving $2012 in 2012, a gal has to look at where she wastes time in order to sock more of it away. (Facebook, anyone?) I am not talking about idleness. Creative loafing is a noble art, and quiet stretches of unscheduled time nourish the mind and body. I am talking about the noise and clutter, the ways I lose time to activities that sap me while offering nothing in return. Besides the several-times-a-day detour into social media to check status updates that have little to do with things about which I care, I also find that I peruse the Groupon and Living Social deals that appear in my inbox five times a day, and jump every time the phone pings.
Like the financial gurus, I offer the same simple counsel here: Don’t squander the minutes on junk. They add up to real time.
The past few weeks, I have decided to Pay Myself First. Instead of letting those loose moments drift away, I have been practicing tucking them into places that hunger for them. It is turning out to be a fun and fascinating project. In my next post, I will write more on how it is unfolding. For now, though, time’s-a-wasting and the other work calls.