#33. Purging

No, not the gross kind. That’d hardly be a change for the better. Unless…would it? No! Would it? NO! That would be wrong. Seriously, how have I digressed this far in the first paragraph? I think that must be a record-setter. There’s no graceful way to return to the actual topic at hand after that off-color sidestep, so I’ll just dive right in: the purging I’m referring to for this week’s change is about STUFF! Getting rid of stuff! I’ve noted here before that sometimes the universe cooperates in amazing ways and this week was a case in point. After a visit to my basement store room revealed that items have apparently been mating and multiplying, I was already contemplating a change along these lines. Then, a friend started a little Facebook project called “2,010 Challenge: 30 Day, 30 Items.” The idea was this: if they could find 67 people to pledge to get rid of one item a day for 30 days, it’d be 2,010 things gone. Donated! Recycled! Trashed! Released into the ether! (By the way, as of my writing this, they had recruited 156 members and it's not too late to join!)

I feel like the last few week’s changes have been exhausting, but I could really get behind this one. Readers might recall that I’ve mused a bit before about my penchant for stuff, so I won’t repeat myself here musing about how much I love things. I did succeed in my previous change to get through seven days without acquiring new things.

But this felt bigger. Purging seven things wouldn’t be that much of challenge, but a seven-day kick off to a month-long pledge felt BIG. Revolutionary.

Whether it’s yet another byproduct of this past year of change, or just the fact that I’ve been watching Hoarders and hoping to God that’s not me, I feel more ready than ever to let go of things. Don’t get me wrong. I still love things. It’s just that, as I alluded to before, I want to love the things I have. Not just have a bunch of pointless things or, as turned out to be the case, a ton of things I didn’t even realize I still had.

Now that I’ve been doing this for a few days, I've decided that I think it’s a brave thing to let go – especially if, like me, you have attachments to things as memories, substitutions for people or feelings or longings. To trust that you can get rid of those things and know that you’ll be okay may sound obvious, but for a sentimentalist like yours truly, it’s a Big Deal.

Another big discovery I made this week – and by “big discovery” I mean “thing I sort of already knew but was ignoring” – was that in addition to storing my past, I’ve been storing my future. I have countless piles of things I stored away for “maybe one day,” things I bought thinking I would make something with them or frame something in them or paint them or find a place for them in some forever house I hope to have one day down the road. So much of my clutter is about stuff that isn’t real, doesn’t reflect my actual existence.

In the past, I simply couldn’t let go of those possibilities. I will learn to spin bunny hair into fine yarn! I may still use that stained glass and learn how to solder! I might find a corner for that lamp! I suppose I felt like letting go of them was to compromise myself somehow or admit defeat. Limiting my future in some way, robbing myself of something.

I think, if I may be philosophical for a moment, that hanging on to the maybes is far more important if you don’t like the actualities. That is, a lot of this stuff was acquired at times in my life where I didn’t know where I was headed or what I wanted to be. Times when I wasn’t content with my present. Now, I still don’t know where I’m headed or what I want to be – but I am content with my present. I’m fine exactly where I am. I don’t need all these props to represent options. I’m okay letting them go.

And so I did. Here are the things I got rid of my first seven days – and the things they made me think about.

Day 1: A stack of old knitting books

Part of this was just being pragmatic: paring down books that basically repeated information I have in other, more frequently used books. Some had patterns I once thought I’d make but no longer fancied – and, in some cases, couldn’t imagine why on earth I thought that was a good look in the first place. Others had patterns I still thought I might one day make if I met someone who could perhaps kind of get away with wearing that sweater.

But if it hadn’t happened in five or ten years, I think I can accept that it probably wasn’t going to happen. So if you’ve been holding your breath, waiting for the color block cardigan with removable zippered sleeves, I’m sorry.

I also realized that I acquired a number of these books at a time when there weren’t so many knitting websites around. Now I can get a lot of these patterns – or similar ones – online. Or I can check the books out of the library. In other words, let the public library and the internet house the clutter. It’s outta here!

Day 2: Our old TV

Just a few weeks ago, Chris and I bought our first new television set in well over a decade. It was time. The volume didn’t work great, it weighed a thousand pounds. It was a square screen in a landscape world. It didn't even have some of the inputs we needed for our DVR. Like the mature adults we occasionally pretend to be, we replaced it with a nice, light flat panel dealio that we had saved up enough cash for! Cash!

When Chris asked what he should do with the old set, I told him to put in the basement. (For the record, it never made it that far. It’s been sitting in the dining room for two weeks, either waiting for someone to help Chris carry it downstairs or maybe waiting for it just to vaporize.) Let me be clear about this: there is absolutely no reason to put that old, outdated set in the basement. Except for my irrational fear that we might need it one day. We might need a back up TV. For what? For why? I’m a person who doesn’t have bottled water in case of a weather emergency, but I need a back up TV?

As soon as I heard myself saying the words, “It’s perfectly good. We can’t just get rid of it,” I saw the mirage of the Hoarders camera crew in my basement, shoveling the carcasses of mummified house pets out from below the old TV set. Fine. Let it go. If I ever get my 15 minutes of fame, it is not going to be on that show.

Day 3: Ikea mirrors

Oh, this one embarrassed me because it really spoke to my flair for excess, my lack of impulse control, the countless unfilled promises. In my basement I found a stack of no fewer than 15 of these little square mirrors I bought at Ikea. About seven years ago. I got ‘em back when we lived in St. Louis and made a road trip to Chicago and visited the Ikea. I shopped like it was the last time I’d ever be inside the store. (I know live 20 minutes from one and, uh, they still have these same mirrors. Hundreds of 'em. Same price. Turns out there as NO DANGER of ever being without them.)

But, readers! I had a million ideas for these mirrors, all of them about 700 craft and design ideas ago. They were going to get painted and grouped above the couch. Or mosaic-ed and given as gifts. Or collaged…or…something.

They didn’t. They aren’t. They’re gone.

Day 4: Creepy snow babies

Believe it or not, this one was harder than I anticipated. Not because I love these creepy snow baby statuettes, but because my husband bought them for me when he was on a business trip. He saw them at some flea market and knew I would find them both hideous and hilarious. And I did! I do!

Thus, they make me feel warm and fuzzy, knowing that my husband knows me so well, that he sees crazy stuff and thinks of me when he’s on the road. Clearly it’s not the snow babies that make me want to hang onto them – it’s the sentiment.

But then I looked at them. I mean, really looked at them. And they freaked the shit out of me. GONE!

Day 5: Trio of purses

For part of this week, I just wandered from closet to closet, opening each door, staring wordlessly at the content inside, considering. Then I’d close the door, nothing in hand, and move to another closet. In the closet in my office, I came face to face with a pile of purses I hadn’t even thought of in years.

I took a deep breath and pulled them down: five in total. Only one I’d used in the past year, but I kept two of them anyway. The sensible choice, of course, was my travel purse, the one with the zillion little pockets, an unquestionably wise “keep.” I got the sense that this was what one was meant to do: hang onto stuff that they actually used. Hmmm…innnnnnteresting.

However, the other keeper was a purse I’ve never used. It’s an impractically small and totally pristine handmade Italian leather purse my mother brought back from a trip many years ago. It’s an exquisite little thing, even if I’ve never managed to pare down my belongings enough to press it into service. More than anything, though, it’s a concrete example of something my late mother thought of for me. We didn’t always have the easiest relationship and, simply put, this brings me comfort. I suppose part of this process is also admitting when you’re not ready to let things go and not have it mean defeat.

On the other hand, there was a mod-ish color block purse, which had belonged to my mother at some point. When we were going through her things, shortly after her death, this purse was among a few things of hers I claimed – and I’m not sure why. I think perhaps because I thought I might use it. I was wrong about that. It simply isn’t me. And, in truth, it isn’t her. That is, I don’t have any particular memories of her using it. It doesn’t mean her to me. I have other things that do. So while it wasn’t easy to decide to let it go, I know someone will appreciate it and that makes more sense than hanging onto it.

The second purse to go? A gift nearly ten years ago. Pretty. Green. Never used. After the catharsis I'd been through with the other purses, this one felt like a no-brainer.

The third purse was a tote bag I’d sewn myself, my first really complicated piece. It was the first one I was really proud of, the quality of materials, the things I learned, the workmanship. But it turned out to be a little too small to be impractical, not heavily enough interfaced to be durable. And the fabric I’d picked on a whim didn’t suit me in the end. Still. It was tough to let it go. But I’m not using it. Sometimes a decision needs to be boiled down to that essence.

Day 6: Sparkly red halter top

Much like the purse of my mom’s and the fabric of the tote I’d sewn, some things I stumbled upon reminded me of how impulsive I can be and how little I know my own tastes at times. Whether it’s that I think I’m something I’m not or I just want to be something else, there’s nothing like a rock-bottom clearance price to make me snatch up something that makes no sense whatsoever.

Nothing illustrates this point more than a sparkly red halter top I found stuffed in the back of the closet. I honestly have no idea where or when I bought this, but I know I did. Leaving aside the fact that it was a few sizes ago, I can’t imagine what circumstances I thought I would wear such a thing. But clearly I did. Only…I didn’t. So there you have it. Someone with a flashier bent is about to have a great treat at Goodwill.

Day 7: Sparkly candle holders

Speaking of flash, I have an insane affinity for this pair of pretty candle holders. I don’t know why. Yes, I do – and it’s a problem I’ll encounter with a number of items in my basement going forward. It’s not the item I value, but the person who gave them to me. They were a gift from a lovely relative, someone who’s very caring and thoughtful in her selection of presents.

And those are sometimes the hardest things to get rid of, the things that guilt dictates I hang onto. The things I know would hurt feelings if the giver knew I discarded them. But I need another set of candle holders like I need a hole in the head. They had a spot in my living room for a few years, then they just didn’t fit anymore. I always think I’m going to find a place to put them, but I don’t.

God, the waffling is painful! This, I think, is where the bravery steps in. This is where I close my eyes, grit my teeth and put them on the Goodwill pile, even if it hurts my people-pleasing bones to do so. This is where I hope the giver doesn’t read this week’s blog entry. Or if she does, that she forgets she gave them to me. Or if she remembers, that she forgives me for letting them go.

After all, this is the same relative who says, on every occasion that arises, “Don’t buy me anything! I’m trying to get rid of stuff, not acquire it!” I guess, maybe in this way, my letting go of the sparkly candle holders could be considered an homage! A tribute! A legacy!


#32. Being relentlessly social

I should clarify that I am not currently, as compared with other points in my life, entirely socially inept. I know how to be social. I’m not uncomfortable being social, for the most part, as I once was. In my twenties, life depended on going out, being seen, hanging out, getting invited, showing up – all as it should be, I suppose. However, somewhere along the line I seem to have become more of a hermit than a social butterfly. I suspect this is what’s supposed to happen with age, but it really hit home to me after a cold held me hostage, house-bound, for more than a week. Cut off from society, I felt a strong need to make up for lost time.

In all honesty, what I was really feeling was fear. Fear because I’m increasingly fine going days without talking to another person. I mean, I don’t know if I’m mentally or emotionally fine, but I don’t mind it. It doesn’t bother me that much. I get used to it. Then I quite like it. I start talking to the cats and I start to believe the people on the TV are my friends. And in the 10 or 15 minutes a day he’s not working, I always have my husband for company.

In other words, I didn’t really want to be social. I didn’t want to hang out with people. Some part of me realized that probably isn’t a good thing. I’m never quite sure where the balance is between me-time and isolation. (Side note: why does the word “balance” keep popping up on this blog?)

It turned out to be the perfect time, as my cold abated, to instigate a change. The start of a new “change week” coincided with the reunion of a fellowship my husband had four years ago – a professional fellowship that also forged some of our deepest friendships. It would bring together a group of friends we love, some of whom we hadn’t seen in years! Presto changeo! Instant socializing opportunity! As if the universe knew my plan! The stage was set.

Ready? Set? BE SOCIAL!

And…fail. What? That’s right. On the first night out of the gate, the plans were in place for a large, rowdy gathering of pals – and I flaked. Not flaked, exactly. I was still feeling trampled by the world’s longest-lasting cold, and I did weigh the merits of going out despite it or staying in. The latter won, considering I knew the upcoming weekend held many more opportunities and required me to be well to do some actual work, and I sent Chris out to be social in my stead.

As much as it dinged my ego to fail on the first day – although, really, you’d think I’d be used to it by now – it turned out to be the right idea, echoing last week’s non-blog-posting decision to take care of myself first. So score one for, uh, last week.

Resting that evening gave me just enough energy to head into a weekend that was a combination of professional and personal social obligations, during which I noted a distinct difference in attitude on my part between the two.

Day two involved attending a lecture in my official capacity as an editor for the fellowship’s journal. The lecture was given by our good friends, for whom I would have shown up anyway. My attitude was confused: should I be resentful because I’m secretly a teenager and I balk at anything smacking of Professional Obligation? Or should I be thrilled to see two people I adore, here from halfway around the world, giving ‘em hell (in lecture form)? Answer: somewhere in between.

Following the lecture, there was much mingling, again split between professional obligations and personal desires and my inner scientist (who is wildly undisciplined, by the way), noted once again that I find the former painful and, for the most part, the latter easy.

Again, it’s not that I can’t mingle professionally. It’s just that I hate it. I don’t like going up to strangers and introducing myself, name, rank and serial number. I don’t particularly like making small talk and feigning interest in other people’s jobs. An observation, though: I don’t mind nearly as much when said small talk is about non-professional things, like family and location and travel, etc.

What’s that about? Not sure, except I’ve become increasingly aware that my mindset vis-a-vis Work doesn’t fit well with the American go-go-go paradigm. As an over-arching concept, I’m bored with people talking about what they DO and what goes on their business card. I’m willing to consider that perhaps this is all a grand diversion from the fact that I feel professionally inadequate, but I think that was much truer a few years ago than it is now.

I think what’s really happening is that I’m simply more interested in and fulfilled by the non-professional areas of my life. We can’t all be cut out for valuing and identifying ourselves on work-based output and productivity. Turns out it doesn’t mean much to me. I’m much more interested in the quieter, less obvious corners of my life. I get much more out of relationships and non-professional accomplishments.

It’s tough to feel at ease with that mindset in a society where “What do you do?” is often the first line of questioning from a new acquaintance. (Travel outside the US and you’ll discover you can engage in a conversation with many Europeans for hours without queries about profession even coming up.) It feels like I’m carrying a dirty little secret. Perhaps it’s that “secret” that makes me feel defensive and at odds when socializing professionally. I feel like a phony: “Nice to meet you, professional lady. I am pretending to be an ambitious worker bee, but really I have a scarf I’d rather be knitting.”

Over the course of our three-day weekend, I found myself constantly answering the question: “What are you working on these days?” The real revelation for me is that while that used to send me into a tailspin of inadequacy, in my dotage I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the truth, which is: a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

But I’ve digressed. Again. In between the mandatory professional socializing was a lot of personal time with friends, usually in groups. And while I had a good time, it also gave me the chance to note that I prefer intimate gatherings, socializing in smaller arrangements where I feel I can really talk to people. I’m not a party girl. What a shocker. Also, a side note: I’m too old to stay out until 2.

By day four, I’ll confess, I was ready for a bit of a break. My inner hermit was screaming for some lounge time in stretch pants. I compromised: meeting the bare bone requirements of the week’s change by having one friend over to catch up. We chatted for hours and it was lovely. But here’s something you may already know: being social – in any permutation – is exhausting! It takes a lot of effort to talk, to engage. Who knew?

The rest of the week came and went quickly. If this were a movie, Julia Roberts would be dancing through a montage to Brown Eyed Girl. Curling up with pals in beautiful autumn sunshine on the deck, sipping tea. Huddling on the back deck at the Jolly Pumpkin, sharing pizzas. Laughter! Hugs! Kisses!

Then it was all over. Our friends departed. My social calendar cleared as quickly as it had filled. I felt relieved – and I missed my people. It’s tough to change gears so quickly. There were parts of having that full social calendar that I really, really liked – but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.

I guess there’s a balance to be found between being a hermit and a socialite, but balance ain’t exactly my thing. So for now, I’ll be holed away in my office, tapping at the key board. I’ve a weekend that stretches ahead of me without a single social obligation. I’ve scheduled plenty of time for resting and hermiting, watching TV and maybe a movie or two. I’m okay with hanging in that extreme. For now.

#31. Not writing a blog entry

I know, it seems like such a cop-out, doesn’t it? Plus, clearly I am writing a blog entry since you’re reading it now. How meta! How ironic! And even if we did buy that this constitutes a change, how on earth does it constitute a change for the better? Well, I’ll tell you – and if my argument seems weak, it’s because I am. I’ve been sick as a dog this week. Exhausted. Thus, the change I originally chose didn’t happen, because it wasn’t “lie on the couch, sneezing and moaning.”

And I agonized, I tell ya, over not sticking with my plan. I felt guilty and anxious until at some point I was just too sick and tired to feel guilty and anxious any more. I decided just to let it go. Just to accept that this week it wasn’t going to happen. I decided that my energy was better spent trying to get, well, better and not exerting ego worrying what people would think about my skipping a week. (She’s lazy! She’s a loser!)

So there you have it. I chose to take care of myself instead, and maybe that’s a change for the better. But I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.

Until next week…

#30. Not being sarcastic

Wow. That was great. This week’s change was a blast. I really think I got something out of it. Learned so much about myself. I’m totally transformed and I think you’re going to be transfixed reading about how fascinating it was. I just wish it wasn’t over! Okay. That was a bit predictable. See what I did there? I wrote sarcastically about how I spent seven days trying not to be sarcastic. No one’s even paying me to be this clever. I do it for free. Actually, what I’m really doing is stalling. And babbling. Partly because I just don’t feel much like writing anything lately, and partly because I don’t want to write about this week’s change, specifically.

Why? Well, it turns out it’s just not that interesting – which, looking back, I should have seen coming. For some reason I now cannot fathom, I thought – erroneously, it turned out – that it would be exciting to see if I could go a week without being sarcastic. Oh, the pitfalls I imagined! Oh, the zany missteps and mishaps I could relay to my readers! Oh, the people who know me who will fall over themselves wondering what strange spell has been cast on me!

Nah. Really, I could sum it up in a sentence: I pretty much succeeded at not being sarcastic for a week, and it wasn’t all that hard. The end.

As has been the case with previous ill-conceived changes, this one was predicated on a faulty premise: the idea that I am still the ruthlessly sarcastic young adult I once was, virtually incapable of sincere, direct communication. The real surprise, for me, was discovering that I’m not nearly as sarcastic as I was back in the day. Those who know me today should take a moment to let that settle in before trying to conceive how I must have been before.

A little background, perhaps? I was raised in house full of highly intelligent, highly verbal sorts who relished being able to zing and wither using just words as our weapons. Naturally, sarcasm was a relished tool and while I did not excel at much, I excelled at this. I took to it like a fish to water, like white to rice, like a Tea Party-er to idiocy.

In retrospect, I find that sarcasm is what some teenagers substitute for humor and maturity. When you’re insecure or otherwise unequipped to traffic in direct communication, sarcasm is a handy tool for getting in your jabs in a way that makes you appear clever and momentarily more sophisticated than you are. The teenage blend of know-it-all-ness and the drive for social superiority makes for a ripe ground in which sarcasm can bloom. So it went for me. I had friends and what we did for fun was get together and say sarcastic things to one another, then laugh at how witty we were. Such good times!

In college, I learned that some people were raised in nice, literal households and had absolutely no understanding of sarcasm. I loved, loved, loved that sarcasm could allow me to have a totally separate conversation with people than the one they thought we were having. It was fascinating and manipulative and entertaining, all at the same time. It became synonymous with me: Julia = sarcastic. And I was proud as hell. I’d arrived!

But sarcasm – at least as a primary mode of communication – is both flawed and tiresome. As everyone knows, so much of it is tone, and back in the day I was all tone. (One of my favorite Kids in the Hall sketches is the one where Dave Foley plays a guy whose tone is sarcastic, even when he’s trying not to be.) I’m still a lot of tone to handle, which can be a tricky thing in our digital age, when tone is lost in emails, texts and tweets. One runs the risk of being completely misunderstood and/or looking like an idiot. There’s no sarcasm font, no punctuation to denote your intention. (Although I did read that some Ethiopian languages have a specific exclamation mark to denote sarcasm. Way to go, Ethiopians!)

But back to me, right? I do love sarcasm. I respond to sarcasm. And I’m tired of sarcasm. Or, it turns out, what I’m tired of is thinking of myself as an excessively sarcastic person. So I tried to go seven days without it. And? And I think I did. Mostly. I mean, sort of. I mean, I think so. In other words: when I remembered I was supposed to not be being sarcastic, it turned out that I didn’t have any inclination to do. I was like a hunter waiting for a buck that never showed. And if I was sarcastic without realizing it then, uh, oops...

I’m going to guess then that if there’s something for me to take away from this week’s “change,” it’s that I don’t always need to change as much as I think I do. In some areas, it seems the change that needs to happen is in the gap in perception between how I see myself and how I really am. I don’t think our old ideas of ourselves leave easily or quietly.  In other words – and feel free to disagree – I may not be as big of an ass as I used to be.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want a life without sarcasm. That doesn’t seem a change for the better by any stretch of the imagination. What I don’t want is to be defined by my sarcasm anymore – or at least, not above any other trait. I’m heading for 40 and it’s no longer admirable or desirable to have that be one’s “thing.”  Unless I’m in complete denial, it turns out that it’s not my “thing” anymore.

And if I am just in denial then, by all means, please tell me because I’d just love to spend more time writing about this topic.

#29. Being informed

You’d think that a person with as many opinions as I have would be better informed. I’m not. Really. On balance, I know almost nothing about what’s going on in the world, except what I pick up skimming headlines throughout the day or what seeps into my brain from having NPR on in the background while I cook dinner or drive from hither to yon. This seems wrong to me. I consider myself a moderately intelligent person, a citizen of the world, if you will. And, as that great philosopher GI Joe said, “Knowledge is power.” I concur, Mr. Joe! And why wouldn’t I? I grew up in a household with parents who listened to NPR in the morning, pored over the New York Times on the weekend, religiously watched the evening news at night.

So what happened to me?

In my current life, I’m surrounded by journalists. I’m married to one. Some of my best friends are journalists. No, really! My family-tree-in-law is lousy with journalists. So it’s particularly embarrassing that I seem to only know the bare bones of what’s going on in the world. Unless, of course, you have questions about TV shows and celebrity gossip, in which case I am so well informed, I’m surprised I’m not called on to be an expert. Or a pundit. I could be a sitcom pundit. Is there such a thing? There should be.

In fairness – to myself, that is – I’m not woefully uninformed. I do know people who are more ignorant than I am, and if that statement isn’t a pathetic reach for validity, I don’t know what is. I know the basics about current events. Major disasters do not escape my notice.

I have my own morning routine of information gathering, which will clearly demonstrate where my priorities lie. First, I check Facebook to see what my friends are up to and, more importantly, what they think of what I’m up to. This is about all my brain can handle first thing in the morning.

After that, I check my Google home page, which allows me to skim the headlines of the big hitters: BBC, NPR, NYT, CNN, MSNBC and other jumbles of letters. I click through to CNN and read the headlines there, maybe following through on a few stories that seem important. And it all feels like a chore to me, I have to say. An obligation. Must. Be. Informed.

Then? My reward: I get to head over to my RSS aggregator and read up on all my blogs. This is where I dive in with relish. Design sites, celebrity gossip, crafting sites, cooking, etc. etc. My brain gets filled with pretty, lascivious things. There’s only so much room. Pretty soon it’s: yeah, yeah, Chilean mine disaster and all, but look at this beautiful bathroom remodel!

So. How to start a week spent dedicated to being better informed? I could plead that it’s tricky considering I live, somewhat embarrassingly, in one of the biggest metropolitan areas that no longer has a daily newspaper. We also don’t have our own local TV stations. But I think I’m probably on the right track with my current approach. It’s just that it’s entirely superficial, skimming the icing on the proverbial cake. The information I feel I “need” is there. I just need to dig a little deeper.

Rather than changing up my whole routine, I determined to actually read the stories on the websites of the BBC and CNN, rather than skimming the handy bullet points made just for “busy” (read: bored) people like me. Well. Maybe not all of them, but some of them. The important ones. The ones, I guess, with the biggest pictures.

What else? How about shaking it up a little? A lot of people get their news from the television, right? I mean, they watch CNN and MSNBC and, God forbid, FOX News. I could do that. I could sit myself down and watch that box for something other than Law & Order reruns while I wait for the new TV season to start.

Done and did.

For seven days, I immersed myself as I haven’t in years. I read more news stories from a variety of different sources. I watched hours and hours of droning TV coverage of this and that. And the result? Did I feel more informed? More sophisticated, more worldly?

Not particularly.

In fact, I felt mostly overwhelmed and confused. The more news I read or heard, the more I become aware of the fact that I really don’t know anything. I found myself frequently stuck: “Who is that person they’re talking about? Is that the name of a real country? Wait. That’s still happening?” The news, in short, is not good for my self esteem.

It is not good for my mood, either, for the most part. I feel things deeply. I don’t meant to imply what a sensitive soul I am (and, by implication, that you’re not). I mean to say that I stupidly take on stuff to an inadvisably deep level. I feel an inexplicable level of personal responsibility for terrible things that happen. I find myself immovable on the couch because surely I could have done something about those Chilean miners. Why didn’t I see it coming?!? And Pakistan? My God! How am I supposed to fix dinner when all those people are dead?

I can’t shake some of this stuff. I do not need to be reminded that the housing market is the worst in a million jillion years. I am reminded of this every time I write a mortgage check on the house we still can’t sell in St. Louis. Is there any comfort to be had in knowing my poor fortune is part of a national trend? Maybe. But comfort ain’t payin’ the bills, friends.

The other thing I finally noticed, once I set my ego and confusion aside, is that watching and reading more news doesn’t necessarily provide me with much more information than I had before this experiment started. That’s to say, there isn’t a lot of news is some of the news. It often didn’t help explain to me the background of the situation at hand. For example, a CNN.com article didn’t even bother to say how the Chilean mine disaster happened in the first place. That seems important.

And the TV news? Forget it. It’s intolerable. A bunch of slimy fancy heads just talking, talking, talking with such conviction and volume that it takes you literally hours to figure out that they’re not actually saying anything. I mean it. I’m not sure I learned a single new thing. I’m not sure my understanding of any situation was enhanced or enriched in any way. I just know that the things I was outraged about, I became more outraged about because people were yelling at me about them! And I’m not sure I need to have my reactions intensified. I’m already pretty effing dramatic.

So what’s the take away on a week of ramped up information-seeking? Hard to say. To announce that it was exhausting and annoying seems pat and, frankly, makes me sound like an idiot. Maybe it’s just that it confirmed something I knew: it’s hard to be informed in a way that doesn’t feel useless or leave me feeling manipulated.

Also, and this will shock some of my news-gathering friends, it turns out that I’m not that discontented with my current level of informed-ness. I haven’t missed a major news story – or most minor ones – and, when I need clarification, it usually comes from dinner discussions with my husband or other friends. I get far more from talking about current events and hearing other people’s opinions than I do from numbing my brain with the same ol’ same ol’ from major news sources.

Most of all – and, boy, is this a tough one to announce, knowing my in-laws read this –I’m just not much of a news junkie. My husband, I think, would keel over if he were not radically over-informed about anything and everything going on in the world. For many people in my orbit, it’s a source of pride to have an informed opinion on every single topic. I’m sheepishly discovering I’m just not one of those people.

There’s a balance to be had, between ignorance and obsession. I like to know what’s going on, often in the vaguest sense, and if something moves me or is of particular interest to me, then it seems effortless to find out more. Forcing myself to KNOW THINGS just breeds annoyance and, honestly, I’m not sure it’s making me a better person. I’m certain that others would beg to differ but, the weird thing is, I’m okay with that.

This is one of those changes that I realized I was doing because I felt I was supposed to, not because I really wanted to. Because I like the idea of being “better informed” – whatever that means – much more than I like doing what it takes to qualify. Those changes never seem to stick with me. They never feel good and they never feel right. And maybe, of all the facts that I crammed into my brain this week, that’s the one that I need to hang onto.

#28. Not second-guessing myself (HA!)

One of the benefits/drawbacks of being a loudmouth is that people often mistake volume for confidence. As with many people, there is often a sizable gap between my outer bluster and my inner assurance. Which is fine, for the most part. I benefit at times from acting “as if” and soldiering through a difficult situation. But this inner conflict can also make things a bit confusing, for no one more so than me. See, it feels like I second-guess myself on everything: my choice of snack, the shirt I’m wearing, that thing I said when you asked what I thought. I spend an alarming proportion of my day playing “what if” or “should I have.” It is, as you can probably imagine, exhausting.

Now, obviously, I can’t actually be second-guessing myself on everything. I’d be catatonic. But it’s close. It’s close.

I have a few people in my life who seem immune to any sort of second-guessing. I don’t mean to imply they don’t have a conscience – just that they have a raging case of self-confidence. Or maybe just an annoying ability to accept things as they are. Whatever. I mean, I admire these people tremendously, but I have no illusions I’ll become one of them. I’m too far into this whole life experiment to expect to change my spots that much.

I also have people in my life who second-guess themselves as much as me, if not more. And while it’s comforting to know I’m not alone, it’s also a little disturbing to realize how rampant this sort of self-doubt is. How few people seem to be truly at peace with the choices they’ve made. And perhaps that’s partly because our lives are cushy enough that we have the luxury to navel-gaze about the most trivial, self-focused matters.

I highly doubt many of the Pakistan flood victims are sitting around wondering if they should have held their tongue the day before because maybe that one guy’s mad at them. They’re probably a tad too focused on, you know, surviving. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be a Pakistani or two, my other-side-of-the-world twins, who aren’t getting anything productive done, so busy are they thinking about what would have happened if they’d just MOVED before the floods. It’s a shame. It’s a waste. It is, at times, my life.

Thus, for one week, I decided to stop second-guessing myself. Now, this is precisely the sort of dumb thing a person would attempt to do only if she truly had no idea the extent to which she indulges in such behavior. (Sometimes ignorance is adorable and, let’s face it, without it, this blog probably would never have been conceived.) I mean, people, it’s insane. I’ll spare you the mundane details of most of it, but it was for days an embarrassing whirlwind of noticing my own inner insanity: “I dunno. Maybe I should have had yogurt instead of cereal?” and “I should have worked out five minutes longer” and “WHY DID I SAY THAT?????”

Clearly, this sort of thing is programmed deep into my brain and it was foolish to think that in a week I could cavalierly tackle it. Instead, what I wound up doing was engaging in even more self-indulgent chatter. To wit, a play in one act:

Me: “Why did I even say that to her? She must think I’m awful.”

Tryin’ to change Me: “Oh, stop. She probably didn’t think twice about it.”

M: “No, really. She thinks I’m insane. And terrible.”

T2CM: “Hmmmm.”

M: “I’m an idiot.”

T2CM: “Well, you might have a point… Hey, yeah. You do! You ARE an idiot.”

Then, because the universe has a wicked sense of humor, something happened to me smack in the middle of my week o’ change that exposed this delicate nerve of mine for all it’s worth. I won’t go into too much detail, because it would bore even me, but I was in a meeting where someone misread my body language – I was feelin’ all allergy-ridden, scowly, and arm-crossed-y – and proceeded to judge and berate me in front of the group.

Now, said person was not of sound mind. I could tell that from the moment she opened her mouth. I understood that she was in a place of pain and, at the time, my compassion and intellectual assessment of the situation combined forces in such a way that I took what happened at face value. Yes, it was uncomfortable, but this was a loony duck engaging in loony behavior. She didn’t know me. It wasn’t actually about me and even though I could have tried to correct her or challenge her, I knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. It wasn’t worth it. The people at the table with us who know me knew she was wrong. Enough said. Let’s move on.

End of story?

Yes…until the next day.

Because, see,  my second-guessing doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes it sneaks up on me in the most cruel and unexpected ways, just when I think it’s safe to go back into the water. Thus, the day after said encounter took place, I woke feeling “off” and “cranky.” As I poured my cereal that morning I didn’t even have time to think about whether or not that was the right choice, as some other, darker thoughts had crept in of their own volition. Thoughts about that woman and what she said.

Throughout the day, my anger, shame and embarrassment were ratcheted up to 11 as I went over and over what happened in my head. Logic was nowhere to be found. That calm acceptance of the day before, about the truth in the circumstances, was nowhere to be found. Instead, they were replaced by the shame of being called out in front of people I like and admire. Anger at this woman’s misreading of me as someone hostile and unhelpful. Fear that maybe she was right about me. Resentment that no one in the group stepped in to “save” me. Resentment that I didn’t speak up for myself at the time.

Oh, it was gross. I mean, there’s simply no other word for the way in which my self-indulgent analysis of this situation overtook the next 24 hours of my life. I ran through it again and again, even as I tried to remind myself of this week’s change, even as I tried to accept the situation at face value and move on. I knew I was supposed to, specifically, not do that this week. But it felt like I didn’t have a choice. I was just watching myself drown.

Only, then something happened. I'm not sure what, but I think I exhausted myself with my obsession, or maybe I got bored and had other stuff to do. Almost as quickly as it had come in, the second-guessing of the situation left the building. I returned to the place that I had been originally: understanding events at face value, not taking it personally. (And, to my own credit, it is supremely difficult not to take it personally when someone is, specifically, attacking you personally.)

In the end, I was left feeling a little sheepish and shell-shocked, vulnerable at the recognition of how deeply this sort of behavior is ingrained in me and, perhaps most frightening, how powerless I feel to stop it.

I’d like to think that this was exactly what I needed to happen this week: a Big Lesson that would wear me out to the point that I’d change my behavior out of sheer fatigue. Because that’s often what it takes for me to make a change: a lot of pain, a lot of weariness. I play with negative behavior until I’m simply too hurt and tired to keep at it any longer. As the saying goes, I’m a slow learner and a quick forgetter.

I suppose I’d like to think that I’ve changed as a result of that encounter, but the truth is I’m cringing while I write this. As I contemplate posting this and putting it out there, I’m filled with fear and self-doubt. That I’m exposing way too much of my soul here. That you’ll all finally know what a freak I really am, how unstable and imbalanced. That you’ll never want anything to do with me again, never want to read another word that I wrote.

But, then, some part of me also knows that I’ll be posting this entry today despite my fears. And maybe that’s not change, exactly, but it’s something. Perseverance, maybe? Spunk? Insanity? I dunno. I just know I better wrap this up before I second-guess myself right out of following through. It happens sometimes.

#27. Meeting new people

As the Year o’ Change rolls on, sometimes I get stuck for ideas. Or, rather, get stuck for ideas for changes I would actually undertake. Fortunately, my readers are quick to make suggestions. They generally do so with a little gleam in their eye, as though they were the organ grinder and…well, we know what that makes me. It can be a little unsettling. I’ve also found that, when coming up with changes for me, readers sometimes either forget – or take a great deal of poetic license with – the part about “change for the better.” They’ll say, “Why don’t you have sex every day for a week?” Or, “Why don’t you try to go a week without talking?” What? It’s not “I will make a change for the better of my husband.” Sheesh.

But a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine -- let’s call him Nick, since that’s his name – suggested that I try meeting someone new every day. Generally, I’m most enthusiastic about changes that require very little effort on my part and, especially, those that don’t interfere with my eating or TV watching. This fit the bill. It sounded like a piece of cake. Haven’t I been doing this long enough to know that if it sounds like a piece of cake, it’s not?

Oh, my friends, how I underestimated the naivety/evil genius of Nick’s suggestion.

In a word: it blew. It turns out, I hate, hate, hate meeting new people. I’m not a hermit or xenophobic. I’m happy to shake hands with and chat up a new friend I’m introduced to. But make no mistake: actually going out there to seek people to meet is deeply uncomfortable to me. It also, for lack of a more sophisticated phrase (see: “it blew,” above), made me feel like a freak.

Bear in mind that I work from home, so the opportunities to meet someone new in the course of any given day are beyond limited. It meant I would have to leave the house in order to make this happen. And I don’t like to leave my house. (Maybe I should revisit the “I’m no hermit” claim above.) But the spirit of this exercise is change, and in good faith, I forced myself out and about to see who I could meet.

Hold on, though. The question arose very quickly: what does it mean to meet someone? Need I introduce myself? Must names be exchanged? Meaningful conversation ensue? I wasn’t entirely sure what the parameters would be.

On the first day, I went to my orthodontist’s office, where I am the only patient over the age of 12, it seems. As I sat in the waiting room with the parents, I glanced around, trying to make eye contact. The woman next to me was so intent on pretending to read Redbook, you’d have thought I was trying to mind-melt her. Clearly, meeting new people isn’t part of the waiting room culture, and understandably so.

But then, my name was called…by a new dental assistant I’d never met before. We shook hands, briefly. We exchanged names. And then she put her fists in my mouth. Surely, I thought, if anything qualifies as meeting someone new, that does.

By day two, though, I was doing a lot of waffling about the previous day’s encounter. It felt less like Meeting Someone and a bit more like Victimization. I suspected that this change demanded a little more of me. Surely, in the natural course of my day, it couldn’t be that hard to just introduce myself to someone new. Meaningful conversation was off the table. Expectations were clear and set.

Thank goodness for dinner parties, eh? That evening, I went to dinner at a friend’s house where there was precisely one person I hadn’t met at the table. There was no question that this encounter qualified: hands were shaken, small talk was made, mutual areas of interest sort of half-heartedly explored. I mean, no one said I had to make new friends, right?

The next day, emboldened by the ease of the previous evening’s encounter, I headed to the gym. The gym is full of people. People joined in a common goal. People grunting away on machines in close proximity to one another. People, it seems, who Do Not Want To Acknowledge One Another. Perhaps I’ve never noticed how self-focused people are at the gym because, well, when I’m there, I’m usually too self-focused to think about others.

However, as I scanned the room from the vantage point of my elliptical machine, it was clear that all these people were sharing the same space, yet existing within their own bubble. How strange. People sweating right next to one another with their eyes fixed straight ahead. I glanced around the cardio room: surely somebody here was open to meeting someone new. What about the nice older lady hobbling along on the treadmill? Or wait. What about that young lady on the bicycle? She has a friendly face.

Oh, God. It was all so creepy. I was starting to suspect this is what it feels like to be a pedophile/serial killer scoping out her next victim. I suspect the only people gym-goers want to meet are hot, available potential sex partners. In other words: not I.

Back home, seeing how worried I was that I’d failed in that day’s requirement to meet someone, my darling husband suggested I get a massage. On him. Genius! I could meet a new massage therapist! And so I did. I met a nice Nordic man with piercing blue eyes. Hands were shaken, names exchanged, but as I lay there, realizing no conversation was going to happen, I felt a little sheepish about the whole thing. My husband, essentially, was buying me a friend. It was all a little pathetic and slutty. Not in a good way, either.

The next day – day four – one of the first things that popped into my mind upon waking was dread at the notion of having to meet someone. What the hell? This week was torturous. Was my being filled with anxiety and dread truly a change for the better? Whose crazy idea was this? Nick, that’s who. I decided to go right back to the source. I sent him a whiny email, demanding to know his logic, why he thought for a minute that this effort would lead to self improvement.

He responded:

Oh, well, it IS a positive experience for ME when YOU meet other people, then write about it in a funny way because you hate meeting other people so, so much. So it works out. See? The circle is closed, no?

Then, a follow up:

Ok. More seriously. When you meet new people you expand your circle of experiences and you become more empathetic. You are already very empathetic, so your response might be "why should I give a flying fleep, Nick, about empathy?" I would then reply "Why Julia, empathy is like a flower, you must nurture it so it will grow and blossom into a OUCH!" That is when you punch me in the face. Sorry. I tried to be serious because I know how important my input is for your writing.

Now, Nick is a fancy professor at a fancy institute of higher learning. Therefore, his reasoning must be flawless, right? Entertaining and flawless. Fine. He’d made his case. I would see it through. And see it through I did. For the remaining three days, I met no less – and no more – than one person each day.

Thus, to Walter, the nice young man in line at Sweetwaters coffee shop, I apologize. I’m sorry if I freaked you out by interrupting your latte anticipation to manically thrust my hand in your direction and ask you your name. I’m sorry I forced you to make awkward conversation with a stranger, but I so appreciate your kindness in doing so. I’m sorry if you worried that I was a cougar and you were my prey. Kudos for being game.

To the baffled – and baffling – young Korean man who got more than he bargained for when he knocked on my front door to ask if there were any Korean people living inside, I thank you. I hope I did not set you up for a false expectation of what generally happens when someone in our culture opens the door to a stranger.

And to the teenage gym employee I tried to force into a conversation about the towels, you needn’t avert your eyes every time I come in from here on out. The ship has sailed, my friend. The week is over. People were met. Discomfort was thoroughly explored and, to a certain extent – the extent requiring the least effort possible, that is – change was pursued.

Whether or not I have emerged, as my friend theorized, more empathetic probably remains to be seen. Except in one area: I’m much more empathetic towards people who are trying to meet someone, anyone new. To them, I have only this nugget of advice to share, hard-earned from the past week’s endeavor: don’t do it. Stay home. Be friends with your TV. Hang out with your cats. Pathetic, sure. But easier. Much, much easier.

#26. Counting calories. Or tracking nutrition. Or...something.

On weeks like this, I feel like I should issue a disclaimer. It would go something like this: “This is not one of those funny blog entries. It’s one of those difficult changes that inspires much introspection on my part, most (if not all) of which I’m unsure is remotely interesting to anyone else. Please consider yourself forewarned.” In other words, please consider yourself forewarned. I should probably also issue a disclaimer to myself. It would go something like this: “Think very carefully before you make this next change, because it’s going to be a tough one and it touches on a lot of nerves and insecurities and when you sit down to write the blog entry you’re going to feel both boring and exposed.” But I didn’t issue that disclaimer to myself. So here we are.

Why all the stalling and nervousness? Because this week is about food. I know what you’re thinking: Again? Didn’t she write about eating before? Not eating meat? Not eating out? Not eating sugar? And you’re right. I’ve written about it before, but since food is consistently one of the bigger areas of frustration in my life, it stands to reason that it’s also one of the areas in which I have to keep trying to make changes.

See, food is tricky for me. Not in theory. I get the idea: eat stuff for fuel, go about your business. But for me – and I think for many of us – it’s far more complicated. There are emotions involved. There is history of struggle, which I say with a straight face, as though it's on par with the Civil Rights movement. There is a deep and abiding love of food. And there is a strong attraction to – maybe even obsession for – the very foods and approaches to eating that are consistently my undoing, in more ways than one.

Let me back up a bit and regale you with lifelong tales of weight, woe and illness. I have a long and storied history with dieting. I don’t remember a time when eating and food haven’t been an issue in my life. Around the age of 12, my childhood plumpness started to balloon into full-fledged obesity. At the time, my well-meaning parents put me on the Scarsdale Diet -- which only people 40 and over will know anything about -- and it was just the first of many torturous and futile attempts that dragged my self-esteem even lower than it had been to begin with.

Like so many of us, over the years I’ve tried just about everything to lose weight. Once, I even succeeded on a massive scale. I lost a whole lotta weight in a relatively short period of time. How? What’s the magic secret? Why, folks, it’s this: insane obsession. Going from eating everything in sight to the other end of the spectrum: eating as little as possible. For months, I never consumed more than 1300 calories a day and I exercised so compulsively, I practically blew my right knee out at the ripe old age of 27.

I know you’ll be surprised to find out that, in the long run, this approach didn’t take. I probably did a pretty big number on my metabolism. I certainly didn’t developed any new coping skills, didn't deal with anything in a real and honest way. And one day, I suppose, I saw a particularly shiny donut and I was off to the races again. Back to all my old habits with full force. The weight crept back on. The damage that particular “failure” did to my ego was incalculable. Over the years that have followed, I’ve tried this and that to lose weight, succeeding a bit here, backsliding a tad there.

Then, about two years ago, after successfully dropping about 20 pounds thanks to good ol' sensible eating and moderate exercise, I suddenly put on a large amount of weight. Thirty pounds in a matter of months. Worse yet, I couldn’t seem to drop any of it using my previously-relied-upon methods.  I struggled with this on my own for a bit, by which I mean I mostly berated myself and felt deep, searing shame about my weight gain. Then a host of other symptoms began to emerge, and I saw my doctor. Connecting the dots on some lifelong symptoms, I was diagnosed with a condition that has metabolic syndrome as a component.

Metabolic syndrome basically means exactly what was happening to me: you gain a bunch of weight and can’t drop it. In fact, I’ve probably had it for years, complicating my every effort – I just didn’t know it.  This fell squarely into the “it’s not fair” category and, armed with this new knowledge, I adopted a super sane attitude: SCREW THIS NOISE. I’m gonna eat whatever I want since it doesn’t make a difference anyway.

So for a while now I’ve just been eating what I wanted, and I've been driving myself to an eating disorders therapist to discuss the fact that I don't wanna have to compromise, dammit!  I stayed in that place for a couple of years.

Only, as I’ve noted on this blog, I’ve also been feeling like complete crap for a while now, physically-speaking. Weight issues aside, when you have a condition like fibromyalgia, there’s not much you can do to control it other than exercise and watch what you eat. I hadn’t been doing either. I decided something had to give. I needed to reign in my eating, assert some guidelines and control, aim for fuel and nutrition instead of the self-destructive feeding of my insecurities and inner toddler. I needed accountability.

I decided to spend a week making an effort to eat properly. To eat within a certain caloric limit. To track the nutrients I was taking in. To try to figure out what I always think other people know simply by instinct – how to eat a balanced, healthy diet. In other words: to eat as I’m probably supposed to.

It is an idea that – given my history of diets and battles – scares the hell out of me. I worry about keeping perspective: can I remember that the point of this is health, and not necessarily weight loss? When I say that, am I fooling myself and does my inner dieter secretly hope I’ll lose huge amounts of weight in record time? Can I manage my expectations about results? Maintain a positive attitude about making changes for me, as opposed to having limits put on me?

Well, yes and no. To everything. I spent the week meticulously tracking my calories using the free My Plate tool on the Livestrong website. (I reviewed a few of them and liked that this one allowed me to track sugar, which is an important element for me to keep under control as I have insulin resistance.) The act of counting the calories turned out to be the easy part. In fact, watching what I ate wasn’t as hard as I thought. In some ways, it felt almost like a relief, as though I'd been waiting all this time for someone to come along and take control of the situation and make me behave like a sensible person. I just didn't realize that someone was supposed to be me.

I quickly found, to my great delight, that a lot has changed since my early dieting days. I don't have the shame and guilt and pressure clouding my perspective, foiling my attempts. It turns out, I have a genuine desire to eat well, and taking responsibility for what I put in my gullet provides me with a sense of control in the face of a situation – my metabolism – where I don’t really have any.

The hard part was keeping the crazy part of my brain in check. It was an exhausting process to continuously check in with myself, to make sure that I wasn’t obsessing or starving myself or beating myself up for not eating enough, to make sure I was bearing in mind that this is a process and I’ll figure things out and there would be successes and failures and give and take and balance and I AM NOT A BAD PERSON EVEN IF I’M WONDERING WHY I DID THIS FOR 7 DAYS AND I’M STILL NOT THIN!

If I can get my mind to shut the hell up for about two minutes, what I realize is this: I feel really good about this change. I’m proud of my commitment to it. I’m proud that I had a day when I broke the bank, but that  I didn’t wig out about it. (Okay, I didn't wig out about it too much.) I’m proud that I’m giving myself room to figure out what a balanced diet is gonna look like for me and accepting that I’m going to misstep. I like feeling as though what’s really driving me is a desire to feel better, and not so much a pant size. And I like that I have to forgive the fact that obsession with the latter is sort of ingrained in me too. That’s not going to go away overnight.

So I did it. Tracked it all for seven days -- every bite, every swill of a drink. It was, I think, a bona fide success story -- which, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to being the most interesting blog entry. But it’s been more than a week now, and I’m still tracking. Still being mindful. Still thinking in terms of balance and consequence. And if the goal of this whole thing is  to explore the positive effect of at least trying to change, then – regardless of how long I keep this up – BOOM, BABY! Mission accomplished.

#25. Breathing

Last week, when I was musing about what counts as necessary consumption, I went off on a tangent, as I am wont to do. I mentioned that if we were listing the things a person actually needed to survive for seven days, food doesn’t even make the cut. It made me wonder what was necessary to stay on the right side of the dirt for a week. Turns out that, barring any acts of God, freezing temperatures, unrelenting sun exposure or abandonment in a cool body of water, there are two things one truly needs: oxygen and water. And this got me thinkin’, which is usually the first sign of trouble. I’m not particularly good at drinking water. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I get most of mine through Diet Coke and I don’t think that’s what nature intended. I need to hydrate more.

I read that the human body is 60% water. If I had to guess, I’d say mine’s probably about 20% water. (That leaves 70% fat, 2% brain cells and 8% undigested bubble gum from childhood.) So I decided to commit myself to drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day. However, that didn’t seem like it would make for the most fascinating blog post, especially considering that for the following seven days, I mostly forgot about it.

I have an excuse though. I was too busy breathing. That’s right. I chose to focus instead on the other of those two necessary items. Because in addition to not being particularly good at drinking water, I’ve also come to the somewhat disturbing realization that I’m not particularly good at breathing, either.

A little perspective: I’m not terrible at it. Obviously. I clearly do it enough to get by. But considering it’s likely the first thing I did at birth and I’ve been doing it quite a while, one would think I’d be better at it. It begs the question: how can a person be bad at breathing, barring some horrible respiratory condition? It’s supposed to be automatic, right? You’re supposed to do it without thinking, right?

So then how come lately I’ve been noticing throughout the day that I’m holding my breath? I mean, I’m not breathing. I’m just sitting there. And I have no idea how long I’ve been doing it. Probably less than three minutes, or else I’d have passed out. In fact, it’s probably not more than ten seconds at a stretch. Still. I’m no medical expert – as I’ve proven repeatedly on this site with my various cockamamie theories – but I’m pretty sure the brain needs oxygen to work. I heard that once. Also, possibly other organs need it too. Again, no expert.

A conundrum, though: how do you make sure you’re breathing when you’re generally not aware that you’ve stopped breathing? This seems like Ninja-level stuff, requiring a higher level of awareness than I’m equipped with. Clearly. I can’t even breathe on my own!!! For the purposes of this experiment, as with many others, it seemed a little mindfulness would be a good start. And if regular readers know anything, they know I am fully committed to the good start. The good ending – or any ending at all? That’s another story.

I decided to try to pay more attention to my breathing and, when I noticed I was holding my breath, to counter it by taking several deep breaths. This is all highly scientific. I don’t even know if you can “catch up” on oxygen intake, but that’s basically what I was going for.

For the first couple of days, I was kind of alarmed by just how often I noticed I wasn’t breathing. I started to wonder if, in fact, I breathe at all. Maybe I’m some sort of super-human creature who doesn’t need oxygen to survive. It’s more likely, however, that I’m just an idiot. So I breathed. In and out. Remembering a little bit of yogic breathing, I filled my diaphragm, exhaled. Repeated.

I’ve no idea how many times I did this because, invariably, I got distracted. This may be because I wasn’t exactly giving deep breathing my full focus. I was deep breathing while typing emails. Deep breathing while engaged in animated conversations. Deep breathing while doing cartwheels. (One of those examples is not true, but I won’t tell you which one.)

Plus, let’s face it: when an effort to change is boring me while I’m doing it, the odds of it putting my readers to sleep are pretty high. And if you’ve been struggling to get your z’s lately, may I just say: “You’re welcome.”

I figured there had to be some other breathing exercises out there. Maybe some sort of fancy breathing, like the kind celebrities might do. I think that if you want to find the best approach on any subject, you just Google a few pseudo-relevant words, then link to the first thing that comes up and does exactly what it tells you. This might explain a lot about me. (I should note that I have NO idea what I typed in during that first search, since I haven’t been able to replicate the results. Not once. I’m guessing I put in “dubious breathing exercises” or “breathing for idiots.”)

The first site I went to was WikiHow. Now, if that name alone doesn’t scream legitimacy, I don’t know what does. It’s a wiki – meaning random folk can share their made-up wisdom – and it tells you “how.” Say no more! I’m in! The first exercise provided was basic breathing. It goes something like this: breathe in, then breathe out. That sounded suspiciously like what I’d been trying all along, but it was on the interweb, so that made it more official.

Then came belly breathing, which only served to inspire someone like me – that is, someone with the attention span of a gnat – to fantasize about whether maybe the reason I wasn’t lung breathing was because I’ve been breathing through my belly button all this time. But, it will surprise you to learn, belly breathing is not about that. It’s basically just a way of breathing which makes your gut stick out. Like I need any help there.

After a few rounds of belly breathing, I figured I was ready for some “alternate nostril breathing.” The instructions said to inhale through the ida – which, as everyone knows, is your left nostril. Naturally, you’ll be holding your pingala shut while you do this. (Oh, get your minds out of the gutter! It’s your right nostril.) You’re supposed to inhale the air until your abdominal cavity is full. That part’s fine. I got that. But then the next step is to “Retain air (kumbak) by bringing it up to the third eye – 4 counts for every 1 count of inhalation.”

Oh, sure. I’ll get right on that. Because a person knows how to bring air to their third eye. So I sucked in my tummy and tried to, uh, flex my lungs (?) in order to get the air to go up to my, uh, third eye. Or either one of my two main eyes. Seemed like that would be an acceptable start. Instead, the effort just made me feel like vomiting, never mind the math part – four counts of one of what the hell? I exhaled through my pingala (tee hee), pretty sure that wasn’t remotely relaxing.

If that wasn’t enough to make me question the insanity of it all, the website offers up this gem in the “warning” section: “May cause one to become calmer and more centered.” Or it may cause one to become confused, nauseous and slightly resentful.

Yeah, I’m willing to accept that this may all be user error. That maybe deep breathing just isn’t meant for people with bad attitudes. Perhaps that’s as it should be – a self-selection of sorts. Those of us with poor concentration skills and a lack of willingness to give something a real try run out of oxygen and croak. Leaving the rest of the world filled with patient, loving individuals. It makes sense on a theoretical level, but I have to say, anecdotally speaking, it doesn’t bear out. Take a look around you.

There’s no way for me to quantify the impact a week’s worth of middling effort at breathing more had, although I think the scientific term might be: not much. That said, I do have a tad more awareness, but mostly that I’m not breathing much more often than I thought of that. And, frankly, that makes me wonder how on earth I’m still alive. Which could inspire a better person to feel grateful for her ability to survive on what I conservatively estimate is three or four breaths per day. But I’m me. So I think I’ll panic about it for a while, until I lose sleep and then eventually find something else to panic about and forget about breathing entirely. In other words, I’ll return to normal.

#24. Curbing unnecessary spending

I could spend a lot of time (yours and mine) trying to convince you how un-materialistic I am. What a spiritual giant I am. But the truth is: I enjoy money way too much to qualify. More specifically, I enjoy using money to buy things. Mostly things that are pretty and that I think will change my life (although they invariably don’t). And I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. It is not a matter of spending beyond my means, like some sort of Real Housewife of Something or Other. I rarely pay full price for anything. But therein lies the rub: I have a little trigger inside me that gets pulled whenever I see a GREAT DEAL. I start to panic. I become convinced that I can’t not buy it, that passing on the deal would be tantamount to losing money. My faulty logic and ushers me from a state of wanting things to needing them. And I blame the internet more than anything for making it so easy to spend, spend, spend.

To wit, recently I have been shopping a lot of on-line sample sales. Part of the appeal is that, not only do I think I’m getting a bargain, but I also think I’m getting something exclusive. Secret. Mysterious! That’s how I ended up with not one but two round melamine trays designed by Thomas Paul, one of my favorite textile and graphic designers. Granted, they were a steal at $10 each (normally $30!!!!) but the collection of trays languishing atop my refrigerator would argue that I don’t need one tray, let alone two.

Note, also, the set of four gorgeous bamboo cutting boards. Beautiful! Functional! Only $40! And while I was paying for shipping anyway, it only made sense to toss in the set of matching bamboo utensils I absolutely did not need. They were just $10! I could totally see how my life would be significantly altered – less meaningful, somehow; less full – if I didn’t snap them up. I’d lie awake at night, tossing and turning, filled with regret.

In this vein, over the past few months, I have acquired a set of entirely pointless candles, two glass water carafes, six mini ramekins and a large orange plastic tub I have no idea what to do with – all from the Crate & Barrel clearance page. I ordered two v-neck tees at rock-bottom prices, never mind that they don’t fit properly and I’m not wild about the colors. But do I pay about half of what they cost me in return shipping? No! That would be silly!

I ordered two beautiful screen-printed tote bags, even though I don’t really even like tote bags. But they were pretty! And deeply discounted! So I tell myself that they’ll make great gifts. For someone. For something. I could not possibly be more vague about my intentions here. I’m not even fooling me.

The issue here, as I’ve said, is not that I’m spending my way into the poor house. It’s that I don’t like the idea of all this unnecessary spending. Again – as with so many of these changes – it demonstrates something I don’t like to look at: the discrepancy between the way I want to think of myself and the way I actually am. I don’t want to be a person attached to things. It’s not very admirable. I’d prefer to be a person who needs nothing material, who lives in a straw hut, with no creature comforts other than, you know, six Crate & Barrel candles, two Thomas Paul trays and a stack of tote bags.

Well, not really. I think we all know I’d last about five minutes in a straw hut before I used my laptop to steal someone’s Wi-Fi and start ordering a discount mattress, a memory-foam topper, a pretty throw, a…one of everything. Sigh.

What I really want, as always, is some sense of balance. Not to feel quite so controlled by my impulses and desires, not to be so swayed by pretty objects and my need to acquire them. It seemed like a good start to spend a week without buying anything unnecessary. It sounded easy enough, if no fun whatsoever.

Only…once again, I found myself taxed with molding this broad idea into something suitable for practice. What did I mean by unnecessary? I’m completely untrustworthy when it comes to honing these definitions – I’d either give myself too wide a berth or enough rope to hang myself. I mean, technically, for seven days, even food isn’t necessary. So do I skip grocery shopping? Eating out? ICE CREAM FROM WASHTENAW DAIRY? There’s no way.

So I turned to the far more grounded member of our household, my saintly husband Chris, and asked his thoughts. He was, as usual, able to help me get to the heart of what I was trying to avoid: acquiring unnecessary things – not ruling out all consumption. Any man who defines parameters that leave sweet treats and the occasional latte in the mix is a man after my own heart.

A smart person would have made some ground rules for the seven days. No surfing favorite shopping sites, perhaps. No tempting myself by reading emails of sales announcements. But we all know I’m not that person. Thus, every day I went to my favorite websites. I checked out the online sales, feeling the panic rise when I saw a good bargain and knew that it would end within 24 hours and I would MISS OUT.

In other words, I tortured myself. I lamented my “inability” to stock up on half price SIGG water bottles. (Never mind that I already own three – it felt environmentally irresponsible to pass on the purchase.) One of my favorite clothing retailers had a sale on stuff I didn’t need anyway, but managed to pine for. I passed on two yards of absolutely gorgeous cotton fabric that I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with anyway, other than stick on the pile with the last yardage I acquired on a whim.

The funny thing was that I also managed to feel sorry for myself for missing out on stuff that I wouldn’t have purchased anyway. I went back three times to look at some sale Thomas Paul throw pillows, sighing and mewling as though a starving child outside a bakery. In reality? At $40 a pop, there’s no way I’d have actually bought them. Ditto a pricey designer purse I wouldn’t even have considered except for the fact that taking it off the table as a possibility made it more desirable.

The conclusions I drew from this week? Well, there’s the obvious one: that I’m driven by a ridiculous desire to acquire things, probably because I attach some value to stuff that goes well beyond its price. On the plus side, though, I spent a lot of time wondering why I was moved to purchase the specific things I coveted. And while low price was always a factor, the real truth is that I covet beautiful things at a low price. I value lovely aesthetics and good design and am really attracted to the idea that it can be affordable. As much as it pains me to admit it, I like to be surrounded by pretty things. I take a tremendous amount of pleasure from them, even as I have to admit I need to be more discriminating in my choices.

Because I always feel like I’m under pressure to quantify the success of each change, I’d like to be able to put a price tag on my savings this week. The truth, though, is that I don’t know how much of the stuff would actually have made it from my shopping basket to the cash register. I like to look at stuff, fantasize about it, consider it but the vast majority of it never makes it into my home.

Even among the things I had previously chastised myself for buying, very few do I actually regret. I love, love my Thomas Paul trays and would happily get rid of a couple of older ones as a trade-off. And the bamboo cutting boards I’ve used constantly since their arrival. These things are lovely and useful. I value them.

Now, the plastic orange tub, the six ramekins and the two ill-fitting V-necks? Yeah, they were missteps. But they were missteps to the tune of $40 total. I still think I’ll use the ramekins eventually and the V-necks are going to be guinea pigs for trying out a friend’s serger for hemming knits. I’ll give you the tub, though. No, I mean that literally: I will give you the tub.

I also discovered that my husband counts himself among the fortunate, to have a wife he thinks brings beautiful things into our home at bargain prices. The amount I spend on ten items is that same some women would drop on a purse without thinking twice about it. I have to keep that thinking in check, though.  While it’s important I don’t feel worse about my spending than the situation merits, I also have to work towards that elusive sense of balance and keep my powers of rationalization in check so I can be level-headed moving forward. Otherwise, we’re in danger. Because those useless plastic orange tubs are still on sale at Crate & Barrel. And the price is dropping. Dropping!

Not doin' it

Do you want the good news first or the bad news? Too bad. The bad news – if you can call it that – is that I didn’t change anything this week. The good news is that means you can stop reading right now and go back to your regularly scheduled life. Think of it as a gift. Of time. From me. To you. You’re welcome.

What? You’re still here. Okay. Sigh. You’re probably due a little explanation. Sadly, there isn’t much of one. I was sorely tempted to spin this into some sort of change-by-not-changing intentional, purposeful effort, but that strikes me as mildly disingenuous at best and flat-out-misleading at worst. (Plus, I kind of already played that hand, didn’t I?)

There was no philosophical, uh, philosophy behind it. I just didn’t feel like it. I was sick and tired of making changes. I couldn’t think of anything I honestly had the energy to undertake. I felt drained and none-too-well on the fibromyalgia front and I simply didn’t have the brain space or the oomph to tackle some sort of transformation.

As I write this, it occurs to me that there’s a case to be made for the fact that I actually listened to what my body – sore and frustrated – had to say and I made a decision to take care of it first and foremost. That I tried not to worry about “letting down” readers and let my people pleasing make decisions I’d ultimately pay for later. I suppose one could say that’s unusual for me. A change, even. But I’m not sure I’ve earned that pass.

So there you have it. I took the week off. You can call it slacking or you can call it a vacation. Either way, it is what it is. Now go back to doing whatever it is you do! I'll see you here next week, dazzlingly transformed by my next change. If, you know, I feel like it.

#23. Not bein' such a fraidy cat

Some of my earliest memories are, if not of being afraid, of worrying – specifically, worrying about bad things happening. To me, to those I love. Long before I had any notion of what the saying meant, I was wandering the globe, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Trying to discern which part is worry and which part is fear feels a bit like semantics to me. Especially considering the real issue at hand, which is this: I have not evolved much in this area. Actually, that might be inaccurate. I think I did evolve in that area. In my early twenties, I was so filled with anxiety, I suffered near-crippling panic attacks that seemed to strike at the most inopportune times. Interestingly, when I gave up the booze and set myself on the so-called straight and narrow, the fear and panic ebbed.

I suffered a rather significant regression in this area following the sudden death of my mother seven years ago. Suddenly, I felt vulnerable and exposed in a whole new way. The bad things I’d feared as a child were no longer just hypothetical – they were happening. To me. To us. To our family.

Since that time, I’ve waged an ongoing battle with my anxiety and fear and, although I can’t really figure out why, it seems that it’s been at a bit of a high point lately. To be sure, it’s been a year when health concerns have threatened the wellbeing of a number of family members and I suppose that alone is enough to ratchet up the fear level.

But I’m tired of it, frankly. I’m tired of having a brain that leaps to a worst-case-scenario whenever my husband doesn’t check in as promised or when I can’t get a hold of my sister. I know not everyone operates this way. I know that other people possess the ability to be rational about matters, particularly when there is no evidence suggesting the need to be anything but.

This is not how my brain works.

So I set out this past week just to try – to apply actual, conscious effort – not to let my fear rule the land. Just seven days where I tried not to give into worry and anxiety, but tried to behave like a normal person.

This is a particularly uncomfortable subject matter for me. I don’t like thinking about it, much less writing about it. I worry that revealing the extent of my anxiety will finally, once and for all, reveal what a superfreak I am and that no one will want to know me, let alone read another word I write. See? That’s the distinct thud of the other shoe dropping.

A lot of this week’s experiment simply doesn’t lend itself to interesting writing. There was a lot of embarrassing observation in which I noted, for the umpteenth time, how quickly my brain leaped to a tragic outcome. How sometimes I’m so sure that something’s wrong, I could feel it in my bones. That sort of prescience would be impressive were it, well, you know… prescient.

But it’s not.

The feelings I have don’t presage anything. In fact, overwhelmingly, they’re 100% wrong. Everything’s fine, not falling apart. My husband will walk through the door again, my family will return home safely from vacation. But that distance between fact and feeling sometimes seems insurmountable to me.

I realize pretty quickly into this week that I’m not even sure what it means to try not to be afraid. Because that worry seems so automatic to me. I don’t seem to have any control over the fact that when my sister doesn’t return my text message in a timely manner, it means they’ve never arrived safely at their destination and everything we know has been horribly altered.

If I can’t control that, then, the best I can seem to do is to make a very real, very conscious effort to talk myself out of it. To apply rationale to the situation. To basically pretend that I’m not feeling what I’m feeling until the fear subsides. Much to my surprise, this approach actually works to a certain extent. It calms me long enough until my attention’s drawn to something else. So that by the time I hear from my sister the next day, I’m not surprised to learn that her phone battery died the day before.

I’m also struck by the sheer insanity of some of my fear. Sunday is the Fourth of July. That means, shortly after the fireworks start going off, when a police car races down the street outside my house, I try to quiet the immediate panic. My panic is so far outside the realm of possibility. It isn’t just that I’m afraid someone’s hurt; I’m afraid, specifically, that my nieces have been hurt in a horrible fireworks accident. Even when I know they’re miles away. It makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s embarrassing how concretely I have to have this talk with myself: it makes no sense whatsoever. Everything is fine. Everything is okay.

As the week wore on, there were countless small moments like that. I wish I could say it was revelatory and transformative, but in truth it was painful and difficult. It was exhausting. I felt sheepish about facing just how crazy my thinking can be sometimes and powerless to do much about it. I decided I’d feel more positive about the week if I did at least one thing that felt more proactive, something that felt less like waiting to talk myself down off the ledge and more like facing a fear head-on.

A few months ago, I sent a draft of my novel to an agent of some repute, someone I have a tenuous connection with. He wrote back after a week or so with a kindly worded note saying he was halfway through the novel, but was finding it to be slow going. He asked for my thoughts. I told him I concurred, that I realized it was an early draft and what I thought I might need at this stage was an editor more than an agent, someone to help me shape the thing into something publishable. I asked said agent, outright, if he thought it was worth working on or if I should just throw in the towel.

I never heard back from him. The doomsday part of me – which by now you realize is sizable – is tempted to think that sometimes no answer is the answer. The smaller, more positive part of me (and, yes, there is one) is also tempted to think that’s not true in this case. Either way, it’s been causing me a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. What if I spent nearly two years of my life (off and on, granted) writing a novel that blows? What if it’s terrible and he’s just afraid to tell me? Or (perhaps even worse), what if it’s so boring it’s not worth a response?

Either way, I’ve known the onus for follow up is on me. I’ve just been too afraid to do it. So a few days ago I wrote the email, something (hopefully) witty and self-deprecating, just seeking some sort of response. I wrote it AND I sent it. Sure, now I’m terrified of what the answer is and what it means. I’m terrified that this person thinks it sucks and I should give up the ghost. I’m also terrified that this person thinks it’s worth working on, because that means EFFORT and WORK and I don’t like those things.

But I may be reaching the point where I am more afraid of stagnancy than either success or failure. Maybe.

I still haven’t heard anything back from the agent, but I’ve been doing a remarkably good job of keeping my brain in check about it. After all, there’s a big difference between avoidance and knowing you’ve done your part. I know that’s not applicable to all the situations that fill me with fear and anxiety, but maybe part of this experiment is to help me figure out which is which. The things, as they say, that I can change, versus those I can’t.

One of the things I can’t change may be the very fact, as my therapist keeps kindly suggesting, that I’m just a particularly anxious person. I suspect that she, in her infinite wisdom, is probably correct about this. I just don’t really wanna accept that idea, though. I want to think it’s something that can be fixed or avoided. That said, honestly, after this week, I’m too worn out to worry about it any more.

#22. Cleaning up my potty mouth

Readers, do you remember a few weeks ago? When I tried to give up caffeine for a week? And I pronounced the experiment a failure because I fell off the wagon once or twice? Oh, what I would give for that success rate now. Because, by any measure, this week was a bona fide failure. This change was, without question, the hardest one I have attempted to date. It eluded me at every turn. It challenged my nature to the very fiber of my being. It frustrated me and taunted me. “What was it?,” you ask. Did I attempt to run a marathon? Save one small child per day from a burning building? Single-handedly mop up the oil from the BP spill using only a sponge and a roll of Bounty?

Oh, no. It was much bigger than that. For seven days in a row, I tried not to swear.

I realize that, for many of you, this wouldn’t be much of a challenge. I also discovered that many people I spoke to this week didn’t realize it would be a challenge for me. Which means that either they don’t know me that well … or maybe I don’t curse nearly as much as I think I do. Either way, that was the obstacle I set before me.

Writing this at week’s end I am, once again, wondering why I thought to undertake this change in the first place. Because the truth is, I love to curse. I love profanity. I like the force of it, the sound of it, the sheer flexibility and prurient pleasure of it. Yes, I’m grown up enough to recognize that not everyone digs it and I can curtail my potty mouth out of respect for others, but as a general proposition I just find it – particularly the F bomb – so salty and so useful.

I like to tell people that the reason I curse so much is because I spent the first ten years of my life in Scotland, where swearing isn’t just commonplace – it’s taken to a whole new level. (The Australians and Irish I know often take deep offense at this, claiming their own nations far superior in the wielding of profanity than the Scots. I don’t know how one does the metrics for the definitive answer. Perhaps we declare a tie.) Let’s just say the fact that some Scots like to pepper speech with the “c” word as a gerund (“That c***ing driver is out of his c***ing mind!”) suggest a really strong commitment to the sport.

It may just be my perception, but it seems the Americans have a pretty puritanical and classist opinion about swearing: those who swear are considered uneducated and uncouth. In Britain, however, being a posh genius is no barrier to getting’ down with the F word. I suspect even the Queen is known to swear a blue streak when, say, her grandson decides a Nazi uniform would make a stellar Halloween costume.

I was raised by an arts administrator/opera director and a school teacher in a household where intelligence, grammar and good manners reigned supreme. Perhaps it seems incongruent that there was also a very generous amount of swearing among my folks and their artistic peers. Of course, as a child, I greatly appreciated this. My siblings and I were no strangers to a wide vocabulary of foul language. Yet at the same time, we understood that not everyone felt it was appropriate and that certain words were for adults to use. But we sure enjoyed the hell out of it.

When we moved to the US, it became apparent that the American colleagues my father brought home for dinner were a lot less comfy with or prone to cursing than our British compatriots had been. Thus, we developed a little bit of shock-value family performance art reserved for when guests came over for the first time. At the dinner table, in the midst of polite and often spirited conversation, my adorable six-year-old brother would sweetly pipe up, “Mummy, would you pass the fucking peas?”

Inevitably, a stunned silence would fall across the table, our guests squirming uncomfortably, and my father, stony-faced, would glare at my brother and ask, “What did you say to your mother?”

And David, in his wee Scottish accent would say, “I’m sorry. Mummy, would you pass the fucking peas, please?”

My father would release an exaggerated sigh with relief. “That’s much better!” And we’d laugh and laugh and laugh, our guests eventually joining in when they got over the shock and realized it was all a big joke for their benefit. Oh, the fun we had!

So while this may all explain why I have such a tremendous affinity – and, I like to think, skill – for cursing, it doesn’t explain why I decided it would be a good idea to give it up for a week. I suppose because it’s hard not to be influenced by the American ideal that it’s fine for kids to watch movies where people get their heads blown off but not okay for them to hear the word “shit.”

Also, as someone who fancies herself an amateur wordsmith, I do appreciate the argument that relying on cursing can be lazy, a verbal cop out. I’ve heard people say it’s evidence of a small vocabulary. But I have a sizeable vocabulary and I love to swear. I don’t think knowing 80,000 other words makes saying “fuck” less fun.

But I tried. And by “tried,” I mean “failed.” I didn’t even make it to 11 a.m. on the first day of this experiment before I caught myself dropping the F bomb. The next day, I think I got to dinner time and it is, apparently, so deeply ingrained in me to curse that I didn’t realize I’d been doing it until my husband kindly pointed it out. Day after day, for seven days in a row, I failed. No matter how much I tried to remind myself not to do it, the salty language just came tumbling out.

It was starting to feel like I’d told myself I wasn’t going to speak English for a week. It was that natural for me. What this says about me, I don’t much care to examine. I just know that all that repeated failure was supremely frustrating and, frankly, a tad demoralizing. I’ve never been so goddamned relieved for a week to end.

I realized when the seven days were up that I’d been trying to conform to some external standard of propriety, some outside ideal that feels a tad too prudish for my liking. I have to remind myself – again –  that this is supposed to be about changing for the better and, at least by my (admittedly questionable) standards, I’m not actually sure that stopping cursing is a change for the better. You might think it is. Your grandma might. But I really don’t give a fuck.

#21. Gettin' back to it

I feel the need to defend myself after last week’s blog entry. Bear with me. I’m hoping this comes across as charming and endearing, rather than pathetic and grating. But, you see, I’m afraid I may have given the wrong impression. Like, that I’m an indiscriminate gossip. That I’m not trustworthy. That I can’t keep a secret. That I just flap my gums all day long about anything and everything, to anyone who will listen. Perhaps it’s my own dramatic license coming to bite me in the ass. And perhaps it’s just coincidence that an inordinate number of my emails went unreturned this week. But I have it in my head that everyone hates me now, that they think I’m an awful person. You know what they say about that: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Anyway, I need to say this: I can be a vault! I can be Fort Knox! Secrets have come in and stayed in. I’ve had a week to think about all of this and I can say that, yes, I do like to gossip – but I like to think it’s harmless gossip. Of course, I also like to think I’m big-boned, so you should probably take all of that with a grain of salt.

Moving on...to this week’s blog entry. A blog entry that would have gone up far earlier if I hadn’t completely forgotten about writing it, what with being so busy worrying about myself, what I think of me and what other people think of me. It can be exhausting, you know. Damn! I digressed again! Will I ever get this written?

Another attempt: my lambs, I feel I have gone astray. I had so many great intentions when this project first began and in the midst of life and subsequent changes, so many things have fallen through the cracks. I like many of the changes. I had high hopes that they’d stay in place. But my wagon has been derailed. I’m off the tracks. Now I’m out of metaphors. But you get the idea.

So instead of picking one change for the next seven days, it seemed indicated to choose the overarching theme of “gettin' back to it” (that sounds folksy, don't it?) and focus on one area each day. A little jump-start, if you will. A gentle nudge in the right direction. There have been so many good changes to come out of this project for me and I want to keep many of them. (But not all of them: no caffeine? No thanks.)

Thus, this week, I got back to it. What it? Which it? Read on!

1. Bed-making

    It’s interesting to me – and, I’m willing to accept, not necessarily anyone else – to note that this was not just my first change, but it was the change I probably kept up with most consistently. Until recently. I dunno what happened. One day I was running late, I supposed. Or running lazy. Either way, the bed didn’t get made. And that led into another day, which…well, you know how that goes.

    I am reminded that the greatest journey begins with one day of bedmaking. Or something like that. So I got back to it, making the bed. It’s not a big thing. It doesn’t take long. I don’t know what my deal is with resisting this. Except, perhaps, it’s the repetitiveness of it. And the futility. If I’m in a bed-half-empty mode, all I can think about is how this is a task that just needs done again and again. There’s shades of Atlas to it, minus the globe. And the hill. But you understand me, don’t you?

    I just found that I really had to focus on the positive in this task: in particular, how nice the bed looks, versus how tedious the task feels. And, fingers crossed, it’s sticking again. So far.

      2. Working out

      I hadn’t seen the inside of the gym since before our trip to Scotland which, for those keeping track, was more than a month ago. Certainly, I haven’t felt very good since I’ve been back, but it’s that same ol’ catch 22 that trips me up every time: I feel like crap, so I don’t work out; I don’t work out, blah blah blah.

      So I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took EVERY BIT OF STRENGTH I COULD POSSIBLY MUSTER to make it back to the gym. And that it VERY NEARLY KILLED ME. Yes, maybe I was the only one crying on the elliptical machine, but I suited up and showed up. Then I did it again later in the week. Twice. Don’t worry. It won’t last. It never does.

      3. Riding Orangey

        I had this idea that as soon as the weather warmed up, I would be out on my bike (the cleverly named “Orangey”) every day, quickly building up strength and stamina to whip around town effortlessly. Turns out that all takes work. A lot of it. And there’s no “quickly” about it where I’m concerned. And work is not my strong suit.

        Yet the day after my triumphant return to the gym, I experienced a slight uptick in energy – the two, I am sure, are not related – and I got on my bike. It had been a while but it was just like, well, riding a bike: hot and hard work. Like so many things, I really like the idea of being a bike rider more than I like the reality of riding a bike. I tend to get discouraged by how much my legs hurt, how five minutes of biking feels like 50 and four miles feels like forty.

        But, in the strictest sense, I did what I set out to do: I got back to it. Then it got way too hot and I haven’t gotten back on again. The end. (Not a very inspirational tale, but it’s 100% true.)

        4. Working

          The other thing that happened this week is that I found myself with an unusual amount of work and I had to reach deep down to remember if I owned a work ethic and where on earth I put it. I don’t generally sit around eating bon-bons all day long, but it’s one thing to write for myself or work with the open-ended deadlines of the work I do for Chris and a couple of other clients.

          Everyone I know thinks it would be so awesome to be a freelancer, but it’s sort of akin to saying that it would be amazing to be poor. It’s tough, it’s not glamorous and there’s often nothing in the coffer. The nature of the biz, as we pros call it, is that there are long droughts, then when it rains, it pours.

          And pour it did. With work. With deadlines! It’s a little embarrassing to admit the lengths I had to go to in order to force myself to sit down and just DO THE WORK. Be my own inner parent. Act like a grown up.

          In the end, everything that needed to get done got done. On time, no less. It felt good to accomplish something. It felt good to remember that I’m good at something. I mean, not good enough that I’d want to do it every day, but you get the point.

          5. Knitting

            At some point in the past couple of months, I forgot to knit. This is really unusual for me and I can’t quite explain why or how it happened. There was a time that I was so obsessive about knitting, I’d actually jones for it after a couple of hours removed.

            Somewhere recently I seem to have forgotten what it was like, what I liked about it. More than that, I forgot how important it was to me, how much it calms me. That it speaks to some part of me I can’t quite name, a part that feels soothed and capable and skilled. I forgot that it converts a night in front of the boob tube to a productive event.

            So I dug into my basket and picked up the last project I’d been working on, a preemie blanket I’m knitting for a friend’s charity project. It’s no bigger than a napkin for these tiny little creatures. It felt good to move the needles expertly, to feel the yarn slide through my fingers, to see the rows pile up  and remember the great pleasure to be had in creating something simple with your own two hands.

            6. Making my food

              I may have gone a little nuts when last week’s moratorium on eating out ended. What can I say? I was worried about the local economy, about the restaurants that were no doubt suffering without my business. And I also realized I’m getting a little taxed by my farm share. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a great thing. It’s just that there’s so much of it and it all requires…work.

              One thing this project is doing for me is helping me figure out what changes I want to have in my life and which I think I should. Eating in and eating better actually fits both those criteria, but I sometimes ignore that in favor of ease and convenience. I had to stop and remind myself that this way of eating – simpler, better foods, prepared with mindfulness at home – is what I want my life to look like. Duly chastised, I buckled down, planned some menus and forced myself to eat in again. Maybe at some point I’ll remember that I actually like it without having to force myself.

              7. Sleeping

                It’s not rocket science, people. Yet I’m still tired all the time. I don’t sleep enough. I don’t get to sleep at the right hours, don’t get up at the right hours. I’m not sensible enough to listen to my body and go to bed when it’s wise. Instead, I fight the exhaustion through “just one more” row of knitting or episode of True Blood and then I’m riding a second wind into the wee hours of the morning.

                It’s not good. Getting back to it, however, would imply that I’ve ever been wise about my sleep. I’m not sure that’s true. So I just figured I’d get back to trying. It’s hard for me, though, to remember that “trying” doesn’t mean “constantly chastising myself” for making the wrong choices. It has to mean something more positive, like trying to listen to my body.

                So I did the strangest thing this week, one day when I was tired and cranky. I took a nap. A far longer one than medical experts advise, I’m certain, and probably far later in the day than was sensible. But I was surprised at how much good it did me not to argue about whether or not I should be tired or whether or not I’d “earned” a nap and just do it. I felt much better. Refreshed. Almost as if sleep was something my body needed to function properly. Huh.

                #20. Not gossiping

                Russian WW2 poster: "Keep your mouth shut!"

                Or, if you’re me, not talking. I guess what I’m trying to say – somewhat sheepishly, although I don’t see any way around a confession – I’m a gossip. I love to gossip. I love to talk. I love to share news. I love to compare notes. I love crappy magazines filled with gossip about famous people I’ve never met and should, frankly, have absolutely zero interest in.

                Thus, it came to my attention – after feeling guilty about a particularly gossip-heavy week – that I should probably try to nip it in the bud. My first reaction? I don’t wanna. Which is usually a sign that I need to. Sigh. Another week’s change decided for me by the universe and my own reluctance.

                It was easy enough to make the decision not to gossip. After all, I can make a decision about anything. I make 800 decisions a day. It’s the follow-through that poses the real problem for me. Not gossiping begged for some parameters, though. The first question I had was: what’s gossip?

                At first glance, it seems an obvious question, but I found myself troubled by the nuances of the issue. At a dinner with friends, I threw the question out to the table and discovered that the reason a concrete definition of gossip is hard to settle on is because everyone has a different idea about what it means.

                One friend insisted that any time you discuss a third party who isn’t present, it’s gossip.

                “So,” I asked, “if I see you and ask how our mutual friend Maggie’s doing and you say she’s fine, that’s gossip?”

                “Yes,” he said. I wasted no time telling him he was wrong, although I couldn’t exactly say why he was wrong. It just didn’t feel like gossip to me.

                “Why do we even need to talk about people who aren’t present?” he asked. “Why can’t we just talk about you and me, or whoever’s present at the time.”

                The women in the group stared at him. Who was this strange creature with his nutty ideas? I told him that, besides the brutally honest but none-too-admirable reason that it’s fun, mutual friends and acquaintances are part of our shared experience, our shared community. We ask each other all that time, “How’s your family?” and “Have you talked to Percival lately? Not since Wimbledon? How is the dear creature?”

                Some at the table balked at our friend’s definition. They thought that everything boiled down to intent – that gossip is malicious or makes the gossiper feel better and more powerful for doing it. Another person thought intent didn’t matter at all – content did. It was fine to talk about other people if the information was factual and a matter of public record. Anything else – including rumor or sharing private news –  was gossip.

                Someone whipped out their PDA and looked online for a dictionary definition of gossip, but it (from Wikipedia) didn’t exactly clarify matters:

                Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.

                I don’t even know where to start with that definition. First of all, how are you defining idle? Because if you love to gossip, you could certainly argue that it’s not idle, it’s absolutely necessary! And trivial? My god! What else is there in this world? “As opposed to normal conversation?” What if this is your normal conversation?

                I posited at the time that rumor was always gossip but the reverse wasn’t necessarily true. And what if you were spreading a rumor about yourself? Didn’t we decide gossip was always a third-party affair? This could get confusing! I found the harder I tried to define gossip, the less certain I was of what I was trying to avoid that week. I decided to eschew definitions and just go with my gut instinct: I know gossip when I see it. Or, more likely, when I’m doing it.

                However, I asked my friends, what if I was just a witness to gossip? What if others were gossiping in front of me and I listened? Did that make me an accessory to gossip? Some at the table said no, I’d be a passive consumer. Others said yes. After all, if a murder was committed in my presence and I did nothing to stop it, I’d be legally accountable. Stretching the point a tad, a bit, but there it was. So perplexing!

                Then, a horrible thought dawned on me. If witnessing or merely absorbing gossip made me culpable, then did that also mean giving up another weakness for the weekness – gossip blogs and celebrity mags? My biggest guilty pleasure! My bath-time fodder! No People magazine? No The Superficial? No Gawker? Was Go Fug Yourself okay?

                A friend at the table, who’s in recovery, said, “Well, my sponsor says that drinking near beer isn’t really that different from drinking beer. You’re still going through the motions.” (The worst part of that exchange – I’m her sponsor! I knew the crap I spew would come back to haunt me.) Curses!

                My mind was reeling. What if I accidentally absorb some gossip second-hand? What if it’s on CNN or MSNBC, then is it news? What distinguishes journalism from gossip? If it’s a celebrity, is it gossip? So then it’s the subject that defines it? People versus events? If my head didn’t hurt before all this started, it sure did by the time I was through.

                It turned out that, for the most part, defining gossip and thinking about what it meant was more complicated than just not doing it. Like I said, for the most part. But on Sunday, I fell off the wagon. The alcoholics and drug addicts I know who have relapsed often say they didn’t plan on using, that they don’t remember the exact moment they decided to use. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people and SHAZAM! They were out again.

                That’s what happened to me, over donuts in Ypsilanti. I could blame the sugar, the exhaustion, the large cup of coffee. But I suspect the real culprit is just habit. I was with a friend with whom I have many other friends in common. At first, we stuck to the program and just talked about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, we’re interesting people. Fascinating. But that only lasted so long.

                Then she said, “Well, how about if I tell you something? You can just hear gossip, right?” I felt my stomach drop. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was a slippery slope and yet I grabbed my toboggan and rode it. “Go for it,” I declared, surprised at how excited I was to be in the presence of gossip.

                I received the information she had to share about our mutual friend. I noticed that it wasn’t particularly scandalous, that it was borne out of real concern for someone going through a rough time. I paid attention to the fact that – and I truly believe this – that the motives of the friend sharing the news were pure. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone or puff herself up. She wanted me to know that a mutual friend was going through a rough time. She knew that I’d want to know. And we both knew that said mutual friend wouldn’t have objected to her sharing the news.

                But, people, I have to tell you, it was like a switch had been flipped. Like a seal had been broken. The gossip starter pistol had been fired. I couldn’t help myself and before I knew it, I was on a full gossip binge. I was sharing info right and left, even as I was aware that some of it was out of genuine concern and other bits were just to puff me up, make me seem in-the-know.

                I would like to say that, after all was said and done, I felt terrible for what had happened. I would like to say I was filled with remorse and shame. But that would be a lie. And I may be a gossiper, but I’m not a liar. What did I feel, then? I felt exhilarated. I felt like I was back in the saddle, that I was no longer shut off from the world. Because, friends, that’s how not gossiping felt to me: like being cut off. Isolated.

                Turns out there may be a valid reason for that. Turns out, even science is kinda on my side on this one. Gossip, apparently, serves an ancient and valid purpose in communities. It also turns out that researchers are fascinated by gossip, too, and have trouble defining it clearly. However, according to an article in the October 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind:

                Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present and that this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about.

                Okay. Gulp. I don’t love that part about moral judgments, but in the interest of full disclosure, I agree it’s probably true. I prefer to focus on the part about it being entertaining! The article continues:

                The aspect of gossip that is most troubling is that in its rawest form it is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others. This nasty side of gossip usually overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions in society. After all, sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust because you are clearly signaling that you believe that this person will not use this sensitive information in a way that will have negative consequences for you; shared secrets also have a way of bonding people together.

                Yes! I’m not gossiping! I’m trusting people! I'm bonding! Go on, article:

                There is ample evidence that when it is controlled, gossip can indeed be a positive force in the life of a group. In a review of the literature published in 2004, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and his colleagues concluded that gossip can be a way of learning the unwritten rules of social groups and cultures by resolving ambiguity about group norms. Gossip is also an efficient way of reminding group members about the importance of the group’s norms and values; it can be a deterrent to deviance and a tool for punishing those who transgress.

                Oh, bless you, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University! Gossip is positive! You read it here first! I have irrefutable scientific permission to continue gossiping. And not that it really pertains to what I’ve been talking about here, but I found this bit interesting too – especially since most of the men I know claim they NEVER gossip:

                We have also found that an interest in the affairs of same-sex others is especially strong among females and that women have somewhat different patterns of sharing gossip than men do. For example, our studies reveal that males report being far more likely to share gossip with their romantic partners than with anyone else, but females report that they would be just as likely to share gossip with their same-sex friends as with their romantic partners. And although males are usually more interested in news about other males, females are virtually obsessed with news about other females.

                You could look at this like women are less discriminating than men. I prefer to think we’re just more generous with our information. And, finally:

                Thus, gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we think. When gossip is discussed seriously, the goal usually is to suppress the frequency with which it occurs in an attempt to avoid the undeniably harmful effects it often has in work groups and other social networks. This tendency, however, overlooks that gossip is part of who we are and an essential part of what makes groups function as well as they do. Perhaps it may become more productive to think of gossip as a social skill rather than as a character flaw, because it is only when we do not do it well that we get into trouble. Adopting the role of the self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip at work or in other areas of your social life ultimately will be self-defeating. It will turn out to be nothing more than a ticket to social isolation. On the other hand, becoming that person who indiscriminately blabs everything you hear to anyone who will listen will quickly get you a reputation as an untrustworthy busybody. Successful gossiping is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut.

                It’s a social skill! It turns out I’m just really skilled!

                Okay, I’m not really naïve enough to think that this article – or any of the other research out there – actually validates my tendency to gossip. But it has given me food for thought. I think the real issue here, for me, is not so much that I need to stop gossiping -- I mean, I certainly don't want to -- but that I need to focus on what the article quoted above calls “successful gossiping.”

                The day I fell off the wagon, I was perfectly aware, as I said, of when the gossiping was self-serving and when it was to share actual concern about mutual friends. I believe there’s a distinction, and it was with that belief in place that I went forward with the rest of my week. A week in which I successfully avoided gossiping.

                For the most part. Mostly. Nearly. Much of the time.


                #19. Eating in

                By my estimate, Chris and I eat out about 400 times a week. This costs us, on average, approximately $8,000 a month. That’s too much. Even if my math may not be very sound, the point remains the same: we are lazy, busy people without children to feed and we default to dining out way too much. It means we eat poorly much of the time and that we spend far more money than we need to. It’s conceivable that if we could knock it off, we’d be rail thin and filthy rich. Unlikely, but conceivable.

                Still, it was the impetus for this week’s change – no eating out for seven days in a row. I write this somewhat sheepishly, realizing that, for many people, that wouldn’t exactly be a struggle. Both Chris and I can cook a handful of dishes, but it’d be a stretch to say that either one of us really enjoys it that much. And, truthfully, the real hurdle for us isn’t the cooking but the planning. Figuring out what we’ll eat, picking up the supplies, prepping it.

                To help jump-start our eating in, I timed this change to coincide with the first day of our community supported agriculture farm share from Tantré Farm. For those who don’t know, the deal’s this: we pay handsomely in a lump sum earlier in the year, then for a few months during the summer, we get a weekly box of produce from the farm.

                It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a couple of years, but frankly I was a tad intimidated. It’s not cheap and it seemed like a lot of produce to commit to. But commit I did. It seemed like it tied in perfectly with our goal of eating at home more. This way, since neither of us likes to plan or decide on meals, here at least part of the decision’s been made for us. We get a box of green junk and we pretty much have a time-frame in which we have to try to use it all before it goes bad – or before the week’s up and you get another whole box to deal with.

                I was pretty game for the challenge and I’m surprised to report that it was actually more fun than I anticipated. It turns out that I can get excited about food that isn’t handed to me through a window. I liked sorting through the produce and figuring out what I needed to use first and how I was going to use it. Some of it was a breeze to figure out – at this time of year, there’s tons of spinach and lettuce, both of which I like.

                However, then there were things with which I was less familiar. I consider myself a somewhat worldly gal, a bit of a culinary sophisticate. But garlic scapes and tatsoi? I didn’t know what they were, really, let alone what I would do with them. Thank goodness for the info-webs. Just a little research and the former was whipped into a pesto with walnuts and the latter combined with the fresh asparagus and some other goodies for an awesomely delicious soba noodle dish.

                It helped, too, that all of this was going down not long after I had downloaded a couple of new photo apps for my iPhone – ShakeItPhoto and Hipstamatic, which let me take arty-farty cool photos with little or no effort. I found myself chronicling the week’s food in photograph form as I went – some of which you see here – and that added an extra bit of fun to the proceedings.

                I can honestly say that, by and large, I didn’t miss eating out the first few days. I was too busy playing with the bright and shiny things our CSA had provided. But by the time the weekend rolled around, I started to feel a little burned out. I was jonesing for the ease of a carry-out meal. That night, dinner was a scrounge-for-yourself affair, Chris eating some leftovers and me dining on cheese and crackers. It didn’t, as a good friend likes to say, blow my skirt up ... but it was fine.

                Actually, the only time this past week I felt like I really missed eating out was when I had to skip a regular Saturday lunch date with some of my favorite women friends. (I could have gone along with them and not eaten, but that felt too much like going to a bar and not drinking.)  It made me realize, though, that there are times when the eating out is not about the food or the convenience as much as it is about the social element and connecting with people. Going forward, I’m hoping I’ll think harder about why I’m eating out and when it actually means something to me.

                On the whole, though, eating in this week meant eating well – and I felt good and virtuous doing it. Especially with the abundance of leafy greens and fresh foods. I felt connected to and invested in the food that I ate, which is how I imagine Michael Pollan wants me to feel. Not that I’ve actually finished any of his books, seeing as I feel too guilty to continue, but I think he’d be on board.

                I’m pretty sure that this is how Yoga Jules would eat all the time. But then, Yoga Jules wouldn’t know the immense pleasure of an awesome, hot slice of greasy pizza. Surely there’s a compromise in there somewhere? Surely there’s a balance of eating out occasionally and mindfully, but being also of being a grown up and realizing that feeding myself is a responsibility that takes effort and planning? Oh, it just sounds so boring when I put it that way!

                Then I remember last night’s salad – fresh spinach with Michigan strawberries and walnuts in a lemon-agave dressing – which was anything but boring. And I think perhaps I can keep it all in check for another week. Maybe two. After all, I’ve got a brand new box of produce with my name on it.

                #18. Getting organized

                A friend watching me knit once said to me, “I wish I knew how to knit.” I told her I’d be happy to teach her. She said, “Oh, no. I don’t want to learn how to knit. I just want to know how to knit.” This is how I feel about most things in life, perhaps none more so than Being Organized. I want to be an organized person; I like it when things are orderly. I just don’t wanna do any organizing. Which is why I find myself unable to put off any longer a week’s change I’ve been mulling for ages: getting organized. Returning from my recent, brief overseas jaunt left me feeling untethered and craving a little order. It seemed important to seize that moment, to harness that rare, magical energy and channel it into a little organizational frenzy. Otherwise, I would have taken a seat on my couch and not gotten up for seven days and nothing—I mean, nothing—would have been done.

                Of course, the task of getting one’s life organized is a hefty undertaking. So hefty that a person might be tempted to declare it completely untenable. But part of this process of change, I’m discovering, is figuring out ways to make change manageable. So the rules for this week were simple: a single organizing project a day for seven days. Some bigger, some smaller.

                By week’s end, by my estimate, my life would be a bastion of order and goodness. I would be a person transformed. I might even be a little taller. You just never know with these things.

                Day One: The Bills

                Bills. Nothing stresses me out more than forgetting to pay a bill or failing to record a payment in Quicken. I’m already genetically predisposed to worry constantly about money, so to say I don’t like financial surprises is an understatement. Thus, the first thing I did the morning after returning from Europe was sit down at my computer and roll up my proverbial sleeves (purely imaginary since it was friggin’ H-O-T), and set to town on our bills.

                Chris gets paid monthly and I get paid, well, whenever the dribs and drabs that my half-assed career merit trickle in. So I like to make sure the piper’s paid right up front, everything accounted for. No surprises. Did I mention no surprises? For some people, this means just recording and scheduling everything on their computer program. For some, it means keeping a manual log of bills. For me, it means both. And things somehow still fall through the cracks.

                But not this month. No, siree. I sat down and inside of an hour, I had all our bills paid or scheduled for payment. I had checks written, envelopes addressed. I had the account reconciled. I also had next to no money left and a near panic-attack, but no one said getting your bills in order was going to feel good, did they?

                Day Two: Filing

                Blech. Were it up to me, no one would ever have to file anything. Ever. Sure, you wouldn’t be able to find anything, either, but the beauty part is that nobody would. We’d all be equally lost. And isn’t much of the pressure of being organized just trying to keep up with the Joneses? Or maybe that’s just me.

                Next to my desk is a sizeable pile of paperwork that has been waiting quite some time to be filed. How long, you ask? Well, let’s just say that at the bottom of the mix of receipts, clippings, pay stubs, invoices and magazines was the owner’s manual to my bike. Which I put there after I got it for my birthday. Last November.

                Yes, I’m no math whiz but I’m pretty sure that means I’ve been avoiding filing for seven months. You can nearly gestate a human being in that time, but I can’t walk two feet to the filing cabinet and tuck something away. Feeling pretty good about that.

                However, now everything is tucked away. Things I don’t need to keep have been discarded. Important documents have been filed in places where there’s a good chance I might not forget them. And, best of all, there’s a nice, clean space next to my desk…just waiting for new stuff to pile up. Sing it with me: it’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiife….

                Day Three: Bathroom closet

                One of my favorite things about the house we currently rent is the bathroom closet. It’s huge, which is unusual for a house this old. There are deep shelves of real estate going up to the ceiling. And they are packed. With crap. Much of it old, useless crap. We have lived in this house nearly four years, and this is the first time I attempted this feat.

                My brave husband actually volunteered to help me with this task even though, at generous estimate, he is responsible for only about 10% of the stuff in there. I am the bathroom hoarder: beauty samples, travel size toiletries grabbed from hotel rooms, 85 different hair products, 1,000 bottles of bubble bath and gel, lotions I bought on sale and promptly forgot about, enough spare toothbrushes to supply a small orphanage.

                So this was how we spent a romantic weekend evening together – raking our way through the bathroom closet and the medicine cabinet. We pulled everything off the shelves, scrutinized it, pared down, dispatched – and even cleaned the shelves themselves. (That rhymes!) Since the bathroom closet’s also the linen closet, that even meant folding and organizing the sheets and towels.

                After a couple of hours of diligent work, I had a trash can full of stuff to toss, plus a bag full of unused goodies to take to the homeless shelter down the street. And after all that work, the shelves of my bathroom closet looked…pretty much the same. I mean, really? How can a person work that hard and have so little to show for it? Maybe because that person still thinks she needs three kinds of dry shampoo. Maybe that demands a change that’s a little bigger than organizing a simple closet.

                Day Four: Desktop, Virtual

                Remember the good old days when all we had to worry about was organizing our actual spaces? As though it isn’t enough of a struggle for me to keep my real desktop organized and free of clutter  -- I’m looking at nail polish, ear plugs, a travel case, three hoop earrings and several perfume samples as I type this – there’s my computer desktop to worry about, too. And, believe it or not, it’s the bigger problem for me.

                I have a tendency, as some people do, to save crap to my desktop when I can’t be bothered figuring out where it goes, or if I’m in a rush. Some might argue that that’s what it’s there for. But then I wind up with rows and rows of strange documents and folders, with odd names, poking at me, mocking me every time I start up my computer. They demand to be dealt with. Only I don’t. Why? Mostly because…I can’t for the life of me remember what they are.

                There are photos, executable files, html documents. Folders with word documents that might be backups of something else, but might be…completely useless. One by one, I waded my way through this stuff. I put documents and photos I needed in the right folders. I trashed downloaded files I didn’t need any more. I removed desktop icons for applications I rarely, if ever use.

                When all was said and done, I had a wide open virtual desktop space and I felt … meh. Very little. Turns out, at least for me, organizing virtual stuff is akin to organizing imaginary things. It doesn’t feel like you’ve done very much at all, and you’ve a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t make the least bit of difference.

                Day Five: The Pantry

                How long does ground cinnamon last? Well, more specifically, is it more or less than nine years? Because I found an untouched jar of it we got as part of wedding present and I figured it probably needed to go.

                God, cleaning out the pantry was a thankless task. I mean, they’re all thankless tasks. But this one was particularly heinous. Why? Perhaps because the pantry’s so damn big. Perhaps because there are so many bits and pieces that need pulled out and rearranged. Or perhaps it’s because there are possible even more opportunities for general ickiness in a pantry than in a bathroom closet. But most likely? It’s just that I’m a whiner.

                There are no stunning surprises from this particular organizational effort, unless you consider two containers of soy milk that expired in early 2009 stunning. Sure, there were a few things I can’t conceive of buying and, therefore, can’t quite figure out how they got into my cupboard, including a multi-pack of jerky and a heinous-looking styrofoam cup of instant shrimp soup. (Instant shrimp!)

                Now, the shelves have been removed and washed clean of spills of olive oil, agave syrup and God knows what else. The spice jars are alphabetized and lined up like good little soldiers. The solid brick of brown sugar has been discarded, ditto the inexplicably large number of baking powder canisters I unearthed. And if the end times come, and you need to know where you can find a bigger stock of canned black beans than any two humans should be allowed to possess, well, you’ll know right where to come.

                Day Six: The Refrigerator

                Why? Because cleaning out the pantry wasn’t disgusting enough. Actually, for the first time in recorded history, I was a little bit excited about cleaning out the fridge. This time, I had incentive: a brand new refrigerator on its way. There was no way a two-year-old jar of black bean sauce was going to sully the shelves of my new fridge. Not a chance.

                Cleaning out one’s fridge is a curious statement on one’s life. Forensic scientists would be able to tell a lot about me from the contents of my refrigerator. For example, that I am a person who sometimes eats sugar free jam, and sometimes does not. Complicated! Also, that I seem to be a person who acquires large quantities of goat cheese … then promptly forgets about it. Not to mention that I seem to be starting an unintentional caper collection. (Not madcap capers, either. Just the regular salty kind, in the jar.)

                But then there are the confusing items: like two full bottles of blue cheese dressing. Considering no one in this house likes blue cheese, that’s a head-scratcher. The fact that they both expired a year or so ago doesn’t help solve the mystery. Did you break into my house and leave some dressing? If so, it’s gone. Kaput. Outta here.

                I have to say my very favorite thing about this version of emptying out the refrigerator was this: knowing I didn’t have to clean all the slop and gunk off the shelves. Nope. Not anymore. Because I’m getting a brand new fridge. And I’ll never, ever have to clean it. Ever. Wait. What?

                Day Seven: Yarn

                Okay. I realize this doesn’t happen to most people. Maybe to most knitters, but not to most people. You wake up, and your life seems to have been completely overrun with yarn. Balls, skeins, tangled piles. Cotton, wool, linen. All colors, all styles. And there’s just too much of it. Some of it you’ve had for years and, despite waiting, it’s not going to knit itself into a sweater.

                That means it’s time to do something a crafter (read: hoarder) hates to do most: pare down. Sort. Make piles of similar materials. Or similar colors. Decide which kinds have enough to make something other than a small doll’s beret. Figure out which stuff you’ll really ever, actually use.

                The problem with this project, as opposed to, say, the fridge or the pantry is that it has the opposite effect on me. Instead of being revolted and wanting to get rid of tons of bizarre stuff, instead I revel in rediscovering new pretty and soft and shiny things and become newly convinced that I can’t possibly part with any of it. Any of it!

                Then I remind myself, as only a world-class rationalizer can, that no one said I had to get rid of anything. The goal here was, if I’m not mistaken, getting organized. So that means it’s okay to hang on to all of this stuff, as long as it’s organized. And so I did. I went to town on my yarn stash, sorting it and dividing it, putting some on shelves and other bits in baggies. I filled a tote with the stuff I use less often and moved to the forefront the supplies I have an actual idea for.

                And, reader, it looked so pretty. All the beautiful colors, nicely organized, so that – should I need it – I can find exactly what I want, when I want it. Of course, I know that I won’t. I know that I’ll promptly forget about most of it and then when and if the organizing buzz hits me next, it’ll all be one big surprise all over again. But that’s part of the fun of getting organized, isn’t it? Wait ... did I say fun? Because I meant to say hell.

                #17. Taking care, travel edition

                This week’s change is special, because it was suggested by an actual, live healthcare professional. That’s right, I wrote a check to someone, as I do weekly in return for their patient absorption of all my angst, and they gently suggested the course of the past week for me. And I think that when one’s therapist makes a gentle suggestion of a change for an upcoming blog entry, one should listen. Otherwise, it’s like throwing your money away. Right? Right.

                This week’s change emerged before my recent trip to Scotland and Finland, as I was regaling my therapist with my anxieties about the upcoming journey. There’s my fear of flying, which ebbs and flows in direct proportion to a number of highly complex and sophisticated factors including, but not limited to, amount of sleep, caffeine consumption and whether or not the pilot is kind enough to fly smoothly. Circling around all of this – and it’s hard to tell if it’s chicken-or-egg – is the fact that I generally feel pretty lousy when I’m traveling. That’s the part I was striving to avoid this past week.

                Part of this whole “not feeling good business” is, of course, my fibromyalgia. (If you’re tired of hearing me go on about it, I’m sorry, but I’m pretty tired of having it, too, and I don’t know how to write about my life without talking about it.) The baseline from which I operate is Tired ‘n Sore, so you can only imagine how travel compounds this. Particularly that pesky international travel, with its hours spent cramped in a torturous airplane seat, tons of lugging luggage around, walking miles from one gate to another, waiting for weeks for your connection.

                Plus let’s not forget the additional complicating factors of jet lag, odd time zones, strange beds, unsupportive pillows. It is all compounded, as I told Nice Therapist Lady, by the fact that I tend to use travel as an excuse to eat even more poorly than usual – easy, fast crap! snacks! tons of caffeine! sugar! more sugar! Huh. Maybe it’s not a surprise I don’t feel good.

                On top of that, there’s the guilt. You see, reader, I feel really, really bad about feeling bad. I hate the business of trying to explain to people that I’m sore and exhausted, let alone why. You try telling your 92-year-old Grandma why she can walk further than you can. Or telling your kind hosts that you’d love to see everything they love about their place in the world, but not as much as you’d love to just stay still, feet up, ice pack on your neck. And let’s not forget the traveler’s guilt at having spent All This Money to come All This Way only to miss out on The One Chance to See Everything.

                It’s a lot of pressure. Most, if not all, of it coming entirely from me.

                So my therapist suggested that maybe while I travel this time, I try for one week to make some different choices than I have in the past. She suggested that I try to figure out what it means to take care of myself, to pursue good health, to set some boundaries while on the road – all with the goal of feeling better during my journey. It was an interesting theory. Perhaps worth a shot.

                I gave it a shot, creating a few key areas of focus: getting sleep, eating well and setting boundaries. Then I sallied forth, summarized my efforts at week’s end, eventually awarding myself a grade for my efforts. Let’s just say I won’t be getting into a good graduate school with these marks.

                1. Getting good sleep

                This one’s a doozy. I don’t, as you may recall from earlier weeks, sleep well under the best of circumstances: my own bed, my own pillows, ear plugs, ice pack on my neck. So imagine what it’s like in a strange place. Add to that the fact that our flight over to Britain (Detroit to London, followed by London to Glasgow) is an overnight flight – and that I can’t sleep on a plane, or any other form of transportation. If I wanted to stay up all night and feel like crap, I’d never have quit drinking.

                In other words, I start out my trip minus one night’s sleep and exhausted, which always, always means more pain. And it means feeling weird. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that: just … weird. And that means I drink a lot of coffee to try and stay awake. Which only really makes me sleepy and shaky with an upset stomach. Lather, rinse, repeat.

                Normally, by the time we catch our London connection to Glasgow and get to where we’re staying, we can’t resist a short nap, even though we know my relatives are chomping at the bit to see us. It’s not that we’re very exciting; it’s just that TV isn’t that great over there and they’re bored. On this trip, with the aim of trying to establish a regular sleeping patter, Chris and I eschewed the nap and soldiered through the requisite first visits with family, so tired it was like we were floating up and down the streets. Not in a cool way, either. Then we got to bed at a decent hour, left ourselves room for a good night’s sleep and waited to Feel Great.

                It didn’t happen. Not during the entire trip. Now, in fairness, when traveling east, they say to allow yourself one day of adjustment for each time zone you travel through. At that rate, we could have expected to feel recovered and normal by the last day of our time in Scotland. Which was about right, all thing’s considered. Not until the day before we left did I start to feel like my sleep was accomplishing something. Just in time to fly to Helsinki, through another body-adjusting time zone. Sweet.

                So how’d I do? I’d probably give myself a B for trying to get a decent amount of sleep each night. I didn’t stay up inadvisably late watching bad British TV programs even once. But even though that looks good on paper, it still doesn’t mean I listened to my body and gave it rest when it wanted it. I slept when I thought I was supposed to, not when I needed it. For that, I award myself a big, fat D.

                Final grade: C

                2. Eating better than usual

                Notice I didn’t name this one Eating Well? Visiting Glasgow is like a tour through the culinary delights of my childhood and I tend to spend most of the trip shoveling one chocolate-laden memory into my mouth, washing it down with a bag of vinegar-drenched chips and a giant cup o’ Irn Bru. (Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel well?) And even though I hadn’t been to Helsinki before, I’m generally guilty of experiencing new places through their sweet treats and local flavors. I am a gut tourist.

                This trip, I tried to set some goals for eating better. I reminded myself that the idea was to feel better, not to deprive myself of anything I really, really wanted. I should note that it helps that now, unlike in former years, I can get most of my favorite British sweets here in the states, so I don’t have the invented “urgency” to sample everything I can get my hands on BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

                I felt very Zen accepting that there would be crap, but deciding that I should augment the crap with some real, actual food. You know, fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Something with actual nutritional value.

                I wish I had an explanation for why this, for the most part, didn’t happen. I failed pretty consistently, on a meal-by-meal, snack-by-snack basis. I’d like to blame the fact that we ate on the go most of the time and healthy food is not so quick and affordable in Glasgow. But I think that’s pretty much bullshit and that I just ate what I wanted.

                That’s not to say there weren’t small moments of triumph. I did make a point on a few occasions to shovel some salad into my gullet. In fact, I think that – compared with previous trips – I ate less overall. It’s just that I prioritized eating a lot of carb-heavy stuff that dragged down my energy and it didn’t leave a lot of room for Actual Food. Based on my highly scientific knowledge, I’d estimate I got only about 17% of any of my vitamins the entire five day period, but feel it’s worth nothing that a lot of Scottish desserts went uneaten, too.

                Final grade: D

                3. Setting boundaries for myself

                Another person might refer to this as “honoring my fibromyalgia and its limitations,” but that might make me want to punch that person in their face. Still, it’s hard to escape that’s essentially what I mean. On the flight over, when not gripping the arm rests, I established some lofty and great intentions not to apologize to anyone for the way I feel. I decided I wasn’t going to worry, for once, about whether or not other people understood or believed the way I was feeling. I decided I didn’t have to explain myself and I wasn’t going to allow my concerns of what other people thought about me make decisions for me.

                Oh, sigh.

                I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong on this one. I think maybe the problem was that I forgot to have my codependence chip removed before I went, and it tripped me up at every turn. Well, at almost every turn. I did have a few little triumphs here and there. For example, when I landed in Glasgow that first day, I let my family members know that I was only feeling up to brief visits and I did adhere to that. I trotted home at a decent hour and, as I stated previously, got to bed like a good girl. But that was sort of the end of that.

                For me, one of the biggest challenges of having conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic pain is that they’re invisible. If you look like a relatively healthy person on the outside, it’s easy for other people to forget that there’s something wrong with you. Especially if you do a bang-up job of pretending like you’re fine most of the time, because you don’t want anyone else to feel bad.

                And say that, on top of all that, you’d experienced environments where you were often challenged or invalidated about how you feel. (“I’m depressed.” “No, you’re not.” “Oh, okay…”) You could see how a person might have some serious issues with, at the very least, raging self-doubt and, at the most, a nearly pathological fear of expressing to other people just how bad she feels most of the time.

                Compound that with the fact that the relatives you’re visiting are your 92-year-old Grandma, who’s two months off a heart attack, and your 54-year-old uncle, who’s recovering from a hellish throat cancer that required all his teeth to be removed. Bear in mind that all the players involved are imbued with the famous Scottish stoicism that practically requires the downplaying of any medical condition. In other words, it’s complicated. Who thinks they have a right to claim stakes to the title of Sick One in that bunch?

                Given all the particulars, I suppose I did an okay job of setting some boundaries for myself. Progress is represented by the fact that I set any boundaries at all, made any decisions that involved resting or cutting short outings. It helped that none of my Glasgow folks are night owls, so being finished with everything by late evening usually wasn’t a problem. But I still let guilt make a lot of decisions for me, in terms of where I needed to be and why – and even if I didn’t let others dictate my schedule that much, I still felt bad about it. I don’t think that’s the idea.

                In Helsinki, visiting good friends, I think I walked a middling line of self-care. I was absolutely knackered, as the Brits say, by the time we arrived but we had only two short days to catch up with our pals and get a fair feel for the city. I think I did a pretty good job speaking up about how I felt – and how much I felt I could do. But I also pushed myself beyond what was comfortable, fueled once again by that Fear of Missing Out.

                Final grade: C-

                Waking up at 4 o’clock on the morning we left Helsinki, my head rattling against the window pane on the bus ride to the airport, I had some serious misgivings about how I’d taken care of myself while we were gone and the choices I made. There’s a real temptation to rub the salts of regret and guilt in the proverbial wound of failure.

                But now that I’m back home, with a two nights’ rest in my own bed, some actual food in my belly and a nearly endless supply of ice for my neck, I’m not sure there’s room for either regret or guilt. Because, in hindsight, I don't know if I'd really have done anything that differently. I still probably would've had the chips. I'd have pushed myself to walk a little further with my Grandma, aware as I am that opportunities like this are a lot more precious than feeling good is. I likely would've stayed up a bit later than I needed to, catching up with good friends and watching the light begin to fade on a Helsinki cathedral at 11 at night.

                I guess, in modern therapeutic parlance, I “own” the poor choices I made and, in turn, I have to “own” feeling crappy as a result. I suppose if I can raise my grades to C+’s next time, across the board, that’ll do.

                #16. Gratitude listing (listing gratitude?)

                This one doesn’t require much explanation. Suffice it to say that I have a lot to be grateful for – yet I haven’t been feeling particularly grateful lately. It’s my experience that being grateful isn't so much a decision as it is a state of being that requires constant effort. When my tank needs topped off, I frequently make the decision to make gratitude lists. And that usually lasts about two days. Not this time. Gratitude lists, seven days in a row. Ten items per day, no repeats.

                I'll get some goddamn gratitude even if it KILLS me!

                Day One

                (Quick question: is it ironic or just entertaining that on the first day of being grateful, I wake up feeling sick?)

                1. My husband’s willingness to cater to his whiny wife.
                2. Ice packs on my neck, without which there would be no comfort.
                3. Ibuprofen in my gullet.
                4. Cadbury’s chocolate, also deposited in said gullet.
                5. Knit sportswear; specifically, sweats. I think we should all spend more time being more grateful for comfort clothing.
                6. DVR. Isn’t it just amazing? I can watch all kinds of crap – commercial free!
                7. Crap magazines, to be read exclusively in conjunction with #8.
                8. Bubble baths. I could probably add this every day, noting a different type of bath product. But I shan’t.
                9. Colin Hay’s “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin.”
                10. Hot cups of tea, made even better with aid of my fabulous electric kettle.

                Day Two

                1. Ron Currie Jr. I’m enjoying reading his Everything Matters so, so much.
                2. Fresh blooms in the yard. The lilacs may be gone, but the day lilies are working their way up out of the ground and my lavender plant seems to have survived the winter. Maybe it’ll even bloom this year?
                3. Yarn and knitting. I’d be embarrassed to try to explain how much joy these things bring to my life.
                4. A husband who has as much of a capacity for mind-numbing television as I do.
                5. Lindt chocolate. It’s important that all chocolate not get lumped together. That would just be unfair.
                6. My cats. Except when they’re waking me up in the middle of the night. Or relieving themselves. Or puking.
                7. Modern medicine, in general. Alka Seltzer Cold & Flu medicine, in particular.
                8. That one fluffy purple blanket my mother-in-law got me for Christmas years ago. I am a fan of comfort.
                9. Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.
                10. Having a washer and dryer. As much as I hate, hate, hate doing laundry, I have to remind myself how much worse it was when there was a Laundromat involved.

                Day Three

                1. The women in my life. Seriously. You have no idea how much strength I gain from them.
                2. A husband who takes my pre-travel planning and attendant anxiousness in stride.
                3. My orange bike. I haven’t ridden it in a week or so, but just looking at it in my mud room makes me happy.
                4. A roof over my head! How did this one not make the list before Day Three?
                5. Hummus and pita chips. I mean, really. So good.
                6. New socks. So fresh. So good.
                7. All the cool people who make neat stuff, take pictures of it and put it on the web so that I can surf craft and design sites for hours on end, ooh-ing and aah-ing about it all.
                8. Strawberries. Is there too much food on this list?
                9. Do-overs.
                10. The Weepies’ “Citywide Rodeo.”

                Day Four

                1. Good, trustworthy friends who are willing to come and stay at our house and take care of our cats while we’re gone.
                2. The privilege of international travel – or so I try to convince myself as we leave on the overnight journey to Glasgow.
                3. Having tools other than liquor for dealing with turbulence. (See #s 4-10)
                4. Rilo Kiley’s “Portions for Foxes.”
                5. Genius pain reliever sticks and fistfuls of ibuprofen, without which I couldn’t make these trips.
                6. Seat-back entertainment systems on flights. Even if they don’t work half the effing time.
                7. A husband who understands that Travel Me is always a little nervous, often exhausted and highly impatient, but still insists he loves traveling with me anyway.
                8. Books, magazines, games and music on my iPhone – anything to distract my mind while flying.
                9. Travel snacks!
                10. A sense of humor. This, by about four hours into the flight, is purely theoretical.

                Day Five

                1. Restraint of pen and tongue so that when, after a night of no sleep, when I ask the sassy flight attendant if I can have some coffee and he says, “I don’t know. Can you?” I don’t punch him in the face.
                2. Safe landings.
                3. The short passport line (for me) when entering the UK.
                4. Progress in regards to my constant anxiety about money while traveling. That way, when the tickets from Heathrow to Gatwick cost twice as much as I’m expecting, I don’t freak out.
                5. Black London taxi cabs. Even if it’s just a quick glimpse of them outside the airport on the way to catch a bus, it’s indisputable proof I’m somewhere else.
                6. The patience of the pilot sitting near us on the bumpy London-Glasgow flight when I keep leaning over him and asking, “Are you sure we’re not going to die?”
                7. Vending machines that sell Cadbury’s chocolate. I think I need one for my house.
                8. A lovely, bright and airy flat in Glasgow’s West End, our home for the next five days.
                9. Family who, despite their excitement to see you, completely understand the fact that you can barely stay awake long enough to catch up on the first day.
                10. That moment, when you’ve been up for more than 24 hours, when you crawl into bed and it finally feels like you’ve stopped moving.

                Day Six

                1. The fact that while there are new shops here and there, Glasgow doesn’t really ever change.
                2. Cups of hot, sweet, milky tea and a plate of biscuits.
                3. Hooking arms with my 92-year-old Gran and making our way through the streets on a few aimless errands.
                4. A husband who embraces my past as much as I do.
                5. My husband’s truly terrible but insistent Scottish accent.
                6. Compact umbrellas.
                7. The Brit’s love of black currant-flavored everything. Do we even have black currents in the states? And if not, why not?
                8. The Brits’ sensible insistence on having proper bath tubs.
                9. My life in America.
                10. Sleep.

                Day Seven

                1. British tabloids. Fantastic! I have no idea who any of these people are or what the hell they’re talking about, but it’s all very seedy and awesome.
                2. Living a life, if only temporarily, where we get everywhere by foot or public transport. Feels rather virtuous.
                3. A husband whose capacity for inhaling the sweets and treats of my childhood far surpasses my own.
                4. Sitting at the same tables in the same café where my father brought my mother on their first dates together 50 years ago.
                5. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. As beautiful on the outside as on the inside. And it’s free. Free!
                6. Band-Aids. My toes are feelin’ the hoofin’ around town.
                7. Architectural details – a painted tile, stained glass accent, crown molding, curling ironwork, a cut-out in a balcony stairwell. Glasgow’s full of ‘em.
                8. Being old enough and, at least occasionally, wise enough to ignore the sense that you should be out enjoying foreign night life when what you really want is a quiet night in
                9. Fizzy lemonade!
                10. The privilege of international travel. (I know this is a repeat, but I mean it this time!)

                #15. De-sugarifying

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                The world is filled with sweets. It is dipped in candy-coated sprinkles, covered in a dusting of icing sugar, studded through with chocolate chips and Reese’s Pieces. It is high-fat, it is high-calorie. It is tempting and torturous. It is, all too often, my undoing.

                But not this past week, my friends. No, for seven days in a row I returned to a land I once lived in: the world without added sugar. It is a dark world, to be sure. Flowers sag, birds weep, trees drop their leaves under the weight of the absence of joy. But it is also a world with more energy, less pain, better sleep. Or so I had remembered it, anyway. Otherwise, why would a person choose to visit such a place?

                I’ll tell you why: because the person in question is CRAZY.

                Remember Yoga Jules? From as far back as last week? That same fictional version of me doesn’t eat sugar or flour. She feels great all the time. Pounds melt off her. And, like Yoga Jules, she was a reality for a period of time somewhere back in my ancient history. Then something happened. You know how it goes. Maybe it was a warm chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven. Or maybe it was a slice of Zingerman’s hummingbird cake with the ridiculously decadent cream cheese frosting. Or maybe a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Or some Cadbury’s chocolate.

                The possibilities are endless. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter, because the outcome is the same: I fell off the sugar/flour wagon. And I have tried, repeatedly, time and time again, to claw my way back onto the wagon. Sometimes I try because I want to drop pounds. Sometimes I try because I want to sleep better. Sometimes I try to reduce my pain. These are all proven outcomes of this change. But then I see something tall and iced and my resolve melts. I find myself face down in a pile of sugar, feeling both high and defeated.

                My relationship with sugar is not a casual one. We have a rich and storied history. Sugar is that bad boyfriend, the one I can’t stay away from. The one who looks awesome but treats me like shit. I roll around with it for a while until I can’t take it anymore. Then I leave for ten minutes, but all I can remember are the good times. I keep trying to break up with sugar, but then it flexes its biceps and I swoon. What. Is. The. Matter. With. Me?

                I have health reasons to cut way down on sugar – I am hypoglycemic, for example – but cutting down does not seem to be in my vocabulary. My life would look very different if I were capable of even a modicum of moderation. As it happens, I am not. Otherwise, believe me, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Because I would be so incredibly successful in all things I imagine that I wouldn’t have time for such trifling frivolities. Yeah. I have a rich inner fantasy life.

                So the one thing I had counted on this week was feeling better after a couple of days. Usually, it takes about 48 hours to get through the cravings and the headaches and then I have a noticeable uptick in energy. However, I’m a bad scientist. I started this experiment the day before I went away to my sister’s house in Indianapolis for the weekend.

                That meant a five-hour drive, sleeping in a strange bed, disrupted sleeping patterns as I stayed up way too late chatting to my sister. In other words, there were enough factors to make me feel like crap – increased pain, jacked-up exhaustion – that I wasn’t feeling any love from my body for removing sugar. And if there’s no perceived benefit to a change, then it just feels like punishment. And deprivation. And that leads to brooding. And tantrums.

                Fortunately for you, there isn’t enough excitement in this change to warrant a day-by-day, blow-by-blow accounting. There are just some conclusions and observations, after which you’ll be back on your merry way. Perhaps the most important thing I realized was that I have a much more difficult time making changes that involve removing something from my life. I struggled with the sugar the same way I did with my failed attempt to give up caffeine.

                I think that struggle speaks to my mindset: if I frame a change as bringing something to my life (meditation, yoga, prayer), it feels much more positive. It’s easier for me to remember, for the most part, that this is something I’m doing for me. When I bar myself from something, it feels very negative and that sense ratchets up some toddler in me who will be damned if she is deprived of anything.

                It also has me questioning the philosophy behind choosing my change each week, which I confess may be a little fast-dancing to distract from the part of my brain screaming “I don’t wanna!”  I have a strong resistance to the changes I’m making because I think I “should” versus those I make because I want to. In writing that last sentence, it all seems painfully obvious, but it’s an important distinction for me.

                That’s not to say that I don’t believe my life would be better if I consumed less caffeine and less sugar. Just, maybe, that I need to wait until I’m at a place where I want to make those changes, not just a place where I think I should.

                The bottom line is this: I spent seven days eyeing every donut, cookie and Hershey kiss that crossed my path with a sense of deep martyrdom and longing. I counted down the days. I knew that the minute the clock ended on the week, I’d be digging into a box of Girl Scout cookies. And if that’s all I’m doing with a change, biding time until it’s over, then it’s really not in keeping with the spirit of this whole experiment, is it? I shrug at this. I have no idea. My brain’s buzzing so high on sugar again I don’t know what to think .