when you don’t know where it is you need to go

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Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life. –John Hodge, from Trainspotting

I don’t know where to go. There, I said it. I had the best laid plans–I’d spend three months in three states and decide where it is I’d make my home–and then life happened, I flew down to Nicaragua and all my plans fell asunder. I’m leaving in a few days and the only thing I know, in my heart, is that I need to leave New York within the next four months. I need to leave a place where people feel their handbags are a testament to their success and character, where instead of owning their possessions they are owned by them. I need to leave a place where people believe enlightenment can be found in the confines of a spin class. I need to leave a place where I’m crammed into a subway car and people are jostling; they live their lives traveling to jobs they don’t hate, but the jobs pay for their finery, boutique fitness classes and the $10 juices that serve as an acceptable form of starvation. I need to leave a place where the weather is a constant conversation piece. I need to leave a place that no longer feels like my home.

But I don’t know where to go.

Part of me entertains flights of fancy–I’d be some sort of digital nomad or travel the world for a year with only $20K to my name. But then I remember I own a cat and I have $1000 in student loan payments a month–real responsibilities–and I can’t just abandon rationality and real life because this isn’t The Secret; I don’t live my life in a petal pink delusion. In real life, I have monthly bills to pay regardless of where I go and I can’t just dump my cat in a friend’s lap–Felix is family and I love him that much.

But I want to go. Somewhere.

Ultimately, I know that I want to end up west but I can’t see myself there yet. Not in June. Possibly the end of the year. Until then I want to be somewhere else outside of the U.S. for 3-5 months even though I just signed up for pricey health insurance (there goes that pragmatic thinking again) and I have the logistics of pet passports and travel to consider. Part of me wants to explore Spanish speaking countries because I’ve an urge to be fluent and the question of quarantine is a non-issue.

I was supposed to come on this trip to figure out the details, draw an outline, but I’m back to where I’ve started. Drawing circles in the sand and walking around what I’ve traced. Balancing memory, need, desire and reality. I was supposed to walk a straight line, write myself from here to there, and even though I always know that what you intend never is what you want it to be I’m surprised (or maybe not), yet again, that I’m at the middle of my life and I haven’t figured anything out. I only know what I don’t want. I don’t want leisure wear, matching luggage and a starter home. I don’t want a life treadmill. I don’t want 7-10pm and scrolling through my email during the four weeks of vacation I fought to have and everyone makes me feel guilty for taking. I don’t want a recruiter selling me on a company that lacks imagination and integrity, but don’t worry because the money is this great. I don’t want unidentifiable food delivered to me. I don’t want to write blog posts like these and have people try to sew up my life for me because what I need right now is not a bandaid or an anesthetic. I don’t want to order a taxi with my phone and not care that the men who run the company hate women. But convenience, Felicia. Convenience. I don’t want to spend an entire day on the internet talking about a fucking dress. I don’t want to debate SoulCycle v. Flywheel. I don’t want to regard my book, this magical thing I’ve created, with bitterness because publishing is an industry of sheep. I don’t want people to tell me: Why bother talking about ISIS because it’s not like my one voice can make a difference. So instead, I talk about two llamas and debate the color of a dress. I don’t want to wake up every morning and think: I don’t want this.

I don’t want what I can bear.

I stand in the middle of a forest, between two boulders and think, I want this. I close my eyes and fall asleep in the middle of a river, surrounded by 365 islands, and think, I want this. I look at my blog, this wonderful space I’ve created for myself, and wonder about a collection of essays I could write. I look at my bank account, about to be depleted come April, and wonder, how can I do any of this?

To be continued…

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sky burial: a town, a life, a heart drowning in ashes

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On the way to the Masaya Volcano, Ricardo tells me a story about an eruption not too long along that covered a small town in ashes. Some foretold a tale of a death that rained, a harbinger of doom, while others clucked their tongues and spoke of the inconvenience, the cost of cleaning up a town covered in grey. Some look at a place drowning in ashes and think of endings, while others, like me, are hopeful–we are in constant want of rebirth, of beginnings.

Nicaragua has 17 active volcanos that dot along the Pacific Coast. Some are massive leaving miles of scorched earth in its wake, while others are dormant, home to vegetation and minor life. Some are lakes that can erupt from below the surface while others spout rocks the size of boulders or small homes. Regardless, the Spanish call them bocadillos del infierno (mouths from hell), and Ricardo tells me about preachers who’ve affixed crucifixes near the crevices and Argentians who sacrificed children and women in hopes that the innocents will sate the evil within. But really they are natural wonders, massive in size and depth with lava the color of wine bearing temperatures upwards of 2200F. I’ve never seen a volcano before and as I stood next the crater, inhaling a cloud of fumes, I pointed above and asked if we’d climb to the volcano, to which Ricardo replied, laughing, you’re standing next to it!

The sky was clear, a wash of cotton white and deep blue, and Ricardo tells me that we are lucky as he hasn’t been able to see so far across and down since December. He tells me that Masaya is actually a volcano within a volcano, and do you see the parakeets dotting in and out of the crevices along the rocks? They lay their eggs there. They live there amidst the smoke and the noxious fumes. I watch the birds get lost in the smoke to then fly up into the sky. I can barely manage a few minutes next to the volcano as the fumes make me nauseous, dizzy, but the birds have adapted, thrived in what some would deem a ruin.

After, we visit another inactive volcano that’s home to greenery, a hole in an earth that in a few thousand years will be a river, like Apoyo, Ricardo tells me, filled with salt, minerals–a water so blue it’s nearly purple. Too bad, I say, we won’t be here to see it. In the car, in the dry heat, Ricardo tells me that he never tires of visiting the volcanos because it reminds him that we are insignificant, small. I nod because this is precisely the journey which I’ve embarked–a trip from the cynical and tired to the awake and wonder. In Spanish I tell him that I want to go back to the wonder and he nods and I think we understands me.

We spend much of the day talking. We talk about politics. He tells me about the government corruption, a president who changed the constitution and sold out his people to the Chinese who will build a canal that will be the country’s ecological ruin. The Chinese will bring their own workers and act as robber barons, scorching earth and sea for profit. All for money, Ricardo tells me. His face flushes and I can tell he’s angry. He points to signs all over Masaya, government propaganda. They throw parties for the young, give them t-shirts and free drinks–but it’s all brainwashing, Ricardo shakes his head. All to divert attention away from what greed continues to do to this country. Nicaraguans survive on tourism, many make $2000 a year while government officials make upwards of $70,000 at the expense of the people. I pluck a nerve when I try to compare this to the corruption in the United States. Ricardo tells me that this is nothing like the U.S. There is no constitution, the opposition works for the party in power, and the people only wait for the president’s death in hopes of change.

In this way, I agree and acknowledge my ignorance and privilege.

Over lunch, I tell him about an America that is deeply divided. I talk about states that might as well be another country and politicians who care more about self-preservation than basic human decency. And for what? To buy more things, build bigger houses, hold fistfulls of bills as if the act of acquisition is a mark of great character, human frailty? Give me honesty, vulnerability, compassion over the appearance of strength and unity any day of the week. I talk about an America that is, in some ways, a terrorist. How we kill black men on the streets and send our young into unnecessary wars. We have ashes covering our country and we’ve blinded ourselves so that we don’t see it. We medicate ourselves on social media, finery, food, drugs, alcohol, sex, our ego, petty entertainment–all so that do not have to see the ashes covering our homes, finding their way down our throats and into our hearts. I tell Ricardo that I live in a country where many people are quick to label anyone a terrorist but recoil in horror when we turn the mirror on our own. I tell Ricardo that I used to love my country so wholly and completely like a child who lays at the feet of its mother to then grow old and realize that our parents are fallible, human, prone to cruelty and violence. I still love my country but I question it, constantly.

We talk about September 11, and how I stood on the corner of 23rd Street and saw a sky covered in smoke. People had taken on the shape of somnambulants and it felt like a horror film being played out on the most serene of days. I had not thought death had undone so many, writes Eliot. I tell Ricardo that my walk to my apartment on Mulberry Street was something out of a dream. Ashes covered the streets. Police officers asked about passport. Passport? What passport? Who carries their passport to work? How I traveled uptown to Spanish Harlem and smoked a little, drank a lot, fiddled with a Nokia phone that didn’t work (busy, busy), and wondered, What the fuck just happened down at World Trade? Who flies planes into buildings? Who does this? Manhattan was a wasteland, the stuff of great fiction because until then I couldn’t have conceived of the magnitude of such a horror or the fact that people exist in constant terror every day. I didn’t realize how many people in the world have hate in their hearts.

Do we live in a kind of walking mortuary? Are we nothing other than an abattoir of ashes? A mausoleum of our own greed and undoing? How is that we’ve done more destruction that large holes in the center of the earth? How is our movement more violent than tectonic plates shifting? How is it that we’ve lost the wonder?

Here’s me, trying to crawl my way back. Inch by inch.

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this is what happens when you listen to the sound of your own breath

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JC holds curled rinds of pork to my mouth and invites me to try, to taste, this is so good you will not believe. At first I recoil having remembered salty chicharrones from my childhood, and how I’d need to hose down my mouth with grape soda to extinguish the taste of fried pork. However, we’re in a market–a stopover because the crew has to pick up fresh tortillas, blood sausage and beef for the carne asadas–and I’m feeling frisky. I break off a small piece, just in case, just to be polite, and I’m shocked by how quickly I become addicted to the flavor. I purchase eight bags of rinds for myself and the crew and we make our way to Apoya. In halting Spanish I ask if anyone wants a bag because I’m copping. They laugh and a woman half my age hands me a warm tortilla and tells me that pork rinds always taste better wrapped in corn. I imagine infants swathed in baby blankets but I don’t say any of this out loud because it’s kind of weird and I forgot the Spanish for blanket.

It’s manta.

New people frighten me. I don’t do well in crowds and I tend to recede in group situations. If given the choice I’d always prefer smaller groups, conversations with one other person, and last night I ate dinner with ten new people and I can’t even begin to explain the level of anxiety I experienced. But I was hungry, starving, since American Airlines doesn’t comprehend gluten-free, and I pushed food around my plate for about an hour while drunk Americans prattled on about how this thing here is unlike the thing they know back home. Always sizing up. Always comparing. Always believing that the thing we know, that which is familiar, is always, inherently, better. After a time I left and spent the better part of the evening chatting with JC, the owner of Hacienda del Puerto de Cielo, and we talk about travel, food, solitude and he understood everything. He told me that the whole of the hacienda will be free of tourists the following day and would I like to accompany him and his staff for a day trip to Apoya? Aside from the water, which has taken on a hue of blueish purple from volcanic eruptions–the color of certain bruises–I could kayak, swim, read, eat and be alone if I wanted to. Or not. Whichever you prefer, he says. I acquiesce, humbled and honored that he would invite a guest into such a private space.

In Nicaragua you can live in a grand house for $8,000. Driver’s licenses (licencias para conducir) cost $100 and a considerable amount of time to obtain, and when you’re working full-time to support your family how is it possible to take off work to learn how to drive? Fresh food is inexpensive and plentiful and to say that people here don’t work hard would be an understatement. JC tells me that the law mandates that employees who work for 12 months must be paid for 14, and after three months of nonstop bookings he thought it smart to treat his team for an outing.

JC is an architect, specifically of yachts for the elite. There are only 50 people in the world who do what he does, and often he competes for lucrative contracts. His work takes him to China, where business is good but not great, and forget Russia because the money isn’t what it used to be. And thank god the Americans have recovered and resume the task of spending their money again. He balances this heady work (he interrupts me while I’m writing this post to tell me that he is traveling to Granada tonight for his favorite pizza covered in chili oil before he leaves on Friday for a three-week rush job that would normally take two months, and do I want to come for pizza? I tell him no, the temptation is too great. I’ve barely survived breakfast without their luscious pancakes) with managing this hacienda, which, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.

For a while, in front of lake painted azure, we talk about work. I tell him about a job that made me sick from the inside out, yet it taught me that there’s no nobility in putting a price on one’s integrity. There is no value in making money simply to show it off (please look at the finery I’m sharing on social media because it tacitly tells you that I’m somehow better off than you because of what I acquire rather than how much of my heart I’m willing to give). There is no meaning in squandering time for someone else’s dream when you can work for your own. Did you know there’s a new term going around? Brown-out? And apparently it’s so much worse than the bulbs in your body flickering and then firing out. I tell him about a man from whom I learned so much (the good and the horrific), and how American companies have devolved into the equivalent of a puppy mill. Let’s churn out these purebreds until they can no longer walk. Until they limp home from the latest show.

JC nods, solemnly, and talks about the importance of rest and rejuvenation. He nurses a beer and I try not to tackle the bag of pork rinds I’ve got hidden under a collection of Chekhov’s early stories. This is what today is about, he offers. Taking care of the people who take care of you. I say that I admire him, wish more people valued respite as much as he did, saw that it only increased productivity, creativity, and loyalty.

As I sit here typing, I listen to young men trade stories. Rested men, men who only a few hours ago sang along to Spanish songs on the radio and traded chips like baseball cards. Men who practice their English while I respond in halting Spanish.

On the ride home, I tell JC about a dish I learned how to make when I was in Granada, Spain. Fried eggplant smothered in molasses (or honey, if you have it), and he invites me into his kitchen to show the very incredible women, women who have made the kind of tostones that would bring you to your knees, how to make this dish. I slice eggplant (berenjena in the Spanish) while Taylor Dayne’s “Tell it to My Heart” blasts on the radio, and, in exchange, the women teach me the words for flour (harina) and onions (cebellas)–all the while showing me how to make salsa. One of the women, the younger of the two, holds up fresh cilantro for me to smell. We agree that this, everything, is beautiful.

On the way back to my casita I looked up and noticed stars blanketing the sky. I paused, turned round and round. I haven’t seen stars in a long time.

This is what happens when you breathe, when you listen to the sound of your own breath.

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can we all just be still for a moment?

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With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off–our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk. –Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness

At some point, we stop breathing; we forget to recognize the sound of our own breath. It’s rhythm and pantomime become lost upon us, and the heart that was once a steady metronome, a slow-beating tick of a clock, now beats so fast, so furious, that all we want to do is flee ourselves. Our desire to crawl out of our skin, which is merely paint on a wall covering a house that is crumbling, is real. We live our days tethered to a color-coded calendar while our ankles are chained to a desk. While we talk about how the desk might be in ensconced in an office or in a workspace cum playground for which we pay vast sums of money to occupy–in the end, it’s all the same, really. We’re all chained to something. We have become masters of routine; we live to a repetition that carries its own symphony. We endure noise and stress simply becomes we’ve become accustomed to it, it’s common.

Notice how the days become photocopies of themselves with minor variations? Notice how we rush so fast through this waking life? And to what or whom are we running? Death? Because that’s the last stop. No chargebacks, no refunds, no going back.

For most of my twenties and early thirties, I was consumed by my own personal velocity. I had to get there, regardless of whether I knew the destination of my location, and I had to get there now. Or preferably yesterday. I overscheduled, I thrived on efficiency, became obsessed with technology, and I lived my life, as my friend Amber would say, in ten-minute increments. There was no time. There was never enough of it. And that’s when I found myself, at 37, worn out, depleted, sick, cynical, angry, and dark.

It’s taken me two years to get myself right again. I think about Humpty Dumpty, the nursery rhyme we knew as children, and I wondered what happens when you fall and you try so desperately to put yourself back together again. What if you’re left with cuts from the shells? You’re broken and you wonder how it is you got here, and how you can stop the breaking. How do you stop what you’ve already started? I took a trip to Europe where I convulsed for the first half of the trip, and it was only when I arrived in Biarritz, a sleepy seaside city in France (during off-season), did I come together again. I spent days by the water, doing nothing. I fixated on the barnacles that covered the undersides of fishing boats and giant rocks. Come evening I read up on the crustaceans and their unhealthy attachments. When the storms came out from the sea painting the waves black, I watched surfers tread further out and I photographed a beach so naked and cold that it awakened something in me. Later, I sat in a hotel room and began what would be my second book, a novel about three generations of a family bent on ruin.

Since, I’ve never read as deeply or as completely. I’ve never enjoyed so fully the space of my own company and the silence surrounding it. I traveled to India, Ireland, Fiji, Australia, Korea, Thailand, Spain, most of France and Italy and felt everything. I spent days in New York completely alone and loved it. It was as if I’d been sleeping through my waking life and I just felt the sting, the jolt, of waking up. This is what life is when you live through it rather than ahead of it. This is the depth of sorrow, pain, joy, love, heartache, and pride.

Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so you can see the world more clearly and see it more completely –Pico Iyer

I’ve finished Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, and I’m still in awe over how a tiny book could have so much impact. From war veterans suffering from PTSD to Leonard Cohen and Buddhist monks, Iyer’s book is a meditation, a sermon that preaches mindfulness and quiet. We are our own cathedral and rarely, if ever, do we pay reverence to ourselves. We don’t allow for slumber or rest–we consider it weak or wasteful to squander time when really we’re just living it, loving it, savoring it.

Over the past few months I’ve started to walk slower; I’ve noticed the shape and space of my own solitude. I’ve slowed down in every way I possibly can. My pauses are pregnant and I’ve turned off my phone to listen to the sounds of my commute.

On my way down to Nicaragua, I boarded two flights. On both, I remained completely still. I didn’t fiddle with a magazine or obsessively check email–I just sat still and stared out at the clouds. You can’t even imagine how difficult this was for me. I like to move, fidget, and read as much as possible. And after five hours of self-imposed stillness, I not only became acutely aware of my own exhaustion from the past few weeks, but I started to have ideas. I had ideas for short stories, projects for this space and places I want to go. I ignored all the pragmatic constraints that plague me constantly (money, money, money) and just listened to the sound of my breath and how much my heart ache to create.

And then I found myself at the ecological reserve–a place quite literally in the middle of nowhere, facing a volcano. There’s no WIFI or television in my room. Very few people are on the property and all I can hear are birds. While much of my week in Central America will be about visiting villages, volcanos and natural beauty, my evenings will be spent in solitude. Reading, thinking, being still.

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than standing still –Pico Iyer

Imagine if you sat still in your bedroom for 15 or 30 minutes. Imagine if you slowed down your walk. Picture an evening spent with someone you love and exchanging fewer words than you normally would. Think about what it would be like to shut off everything, just for one hour, a night. Imagine looking up at the sky without feeling a need to photograph it. Imagine hearing someone speak without a need to quote them in a tweet. Imagine asking yourself, how do I feel right now, right this very moment? Imagine what it would be like to feel joy.

I’m really thrilled for where all of this will take me.

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glitzy chocolate pudding (gluten/dairy-free)

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At the height of my hoarding, I owned 300 cookbooks. I stacked them wherever there was room, wherever I could find space, until last year when I started letting them go, one by one, and I now I’m down to 50. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to no longer be consumed by the things you own, to not be tethered to clutter. Now when think about acquiring something new, I ask myself: Do I need this? Do I love this? Can I live without this? Would I be willing to pay to move this? Life suddenly holds a considerable amount of clarity and my home a lot more space.

Over the past year, I’ve been cooking from a fixed amount of books because I’ve had to relearn how to eat without gluten or dairy. I couldn’t be tempted by the pages of pasta recipes or dishes smothered in cheese, rather I had to force myself to explore new flavors and foods. As a result, I’ve realized that abundance exists when you live within constraints. I’ve lived seven months without gluten and dairy, and with the exception of an occasional pizza and bread basket craving, I’ve managed to do the unthinkable–live without pasta.

Yet, I miss some of my old mainstays. While going through another book edit, I found myself poring over the tomes I used to cook from and love, and I discovered this incredible chocolate pudding recipe from Nigella Lawson. With a few simple adjustments, I managed to make this work for my diet, and I cannot tell you how much you won’t even miss the butter and white flour. I made this dessert for a dear friend last night and it was a success! She didn’t even notice I used vegan butter!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Nigella Express, modified.
For the pudding:
4 oz bittersweet chocolate
½ cup soft vegan butter (I use Earth Balance)
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup gluten-free flour
¼ tsp baking soda
pinch of salt

For the glaze:
5 oz bittersweet chocolate
3 tbsp vegan butter
2 2.1-oz Butterfinger bars, broken shards (I nixed this)

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Break up the chocolate and melt it with the butter in a bowl in the microwave or over a double boiler. Once it’s melted, sit the bowl on a cold surface so that the chocolate cools.

Preferably in a freestanding mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until thick and pale and moussey, then gently fold in the flour, baking soda, and pinch of salt.

Fold in the slightly cooled chocolate and butter mixture and then divide among 8 ramekins or custard cups. Put in the oven to bake for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, get on with the glaze by melting the chocolate and butter in a microwave (or double boiler), then whisk to form a smooth glossy mixture and spoon this over the cooked puddings.

Decorate with Butterfinger rubble: you can just put the bars in a freezer bag, set to with a rolling pin, and strew over the top. I nixed this as I don’t eat processed candy bars, but rock it out if this is your bag. However, you can top this with candied ginger or honeycomb–that would be divine juxtaposed with the bitter chocolate.

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some thoughts on professional etiquette because some of you really need it (part 2).

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I’m just, tryin to stay above water y’know/Just stay busy, stay workin/Puff told me like, the key to this joint/The key to staying, on top of things/is treat everything like it’s your first project, knahmsayin?/Like it’s your first day like back/when you was an intern/Like, that’s how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry — Jay Z’s “The First Song”

Truth be told, I’m still shocked over how many people read, loved, and shared my initial rant on social etiquette. For years, I wrote about clocks. Clocks under floorboards, ticking. Our heart, thumping its way to our last breath. Time has always hovered, been this great specter in my life, and sometimes I feel anxious because I know one more moment lived is a moment moving towards a life no longer lived, and I try, as much as I can, to be present in each moment. To view time as something that should be revered. I’ve lost so many years to the things and people that were not essential to my happiness, so I guess my original post was born out of a need to talk about time and how we can truly connect with other people in a way that has meaning. In a way that makes us feel whole about how we spend our moments here because we’re all on a clock. We’re all walking with expiration dates invisibly imprinted. Morbid, maybe, but I read this extraordinary Oliver Sacks piece, which put me thinking of our collective fragility. And when have you ever known me to follow a straight line? Fuck coloring in the lines; I’ve got my own coloring book over here.

Onward!

6. You’re a Month Late or You Reschedule Our Meeting 35 Times: If I can find a post that lists 300 free resources for entrepreneurs and startups, you can learn how to master Google Calendar. Hypothetical scenario: you send a succinct, specific email to someone you admire, inviting them out for a coffee or a light bite. You arrange the time, you send a calendar invite, and you even pick the meeting point and time (1pm!). The person whom you admire shows up on time, finds a spot and scans the room. Then the text or email arrives, and it reads: So sorry! I’m running 15 minutes late (which means 30 because we always underestimate our arrival time)! My subway stalled! Traffic was horrible (insert additional excuses blaming a third-party).

So let me get this straight. You email me at the time we’re supposed to meet, telling me you’re going to be late. At any point before said time, did you maybe suspect you were going to be late? And yes, subways do stall and sometimes traffic is truly an abomination, but those instances are rare if you plan right.

If you are someone who is chronically late for everything, understand that you’re not simply meeting up with a forgiving friend, who accepts that your lateness is your only flaw because you are, as a whole, this amazing human being. You’re meeting up with someone who knows you, only slightly, and your first meeting will likely form a pivotal first impression. So get right with your life and leave earlier than you normally would. If you start to see traffic en route, text immediately. I’d rather know that there is a chance you might be late than wait around hoping you might arrive before the coffee shop closes.

This may sound crazy, but in real life I’ve few professional pet peeves (although these two posts might likely suggest otherwise) and lateness is one of them. In the twenty years that I’ve been working, I’ve been late a handful of times because I realize that time is valuable commodity and if I’m asking of someone else’s time, time that would take them away from their life, family, friends and paying work, I better make sure I respect that time as much as I possibly can. If anything, I always arrive early for a meeting and will busy myself with emails or window shop nearby. Because someone who is late and chronically late, tells me that you don’t know how to organize your day and you really don’t value my time.

Same with the person who schedules a meeting and reschedules it 35 times. I’ve been guilty of this so I know this is HARD. We are busy, double and triple-booked, bombs explode in our lap at the very last minute, and every meeting carries an opportunity cost. Every moment, we’re making a cost-benefit analysis (value of meeting A vs. meeting B) and we might not even realize we’re doing it. But realize someone rearranged their schedule or took time away from the aforementioned priorities to meet with you. I’ve now employed a 3-strikes rescheduling rule: if you reschedule three times, you no longer get a meeting. I’ll do an email or Skype session or call. If I’m the culprit, I’ll offer to travel to someone’s office or a place that is conveniently located for them with dinner, or I’ll gift them something lovely as an apology.

We’re all human and busy, but try to remember that it’s not just the hour that is allocated to help you, but it’s the commute time, it’s the time that will take them to get back to what they were doing. Sometimes, that’s 2-3 hours of someone’s day just to help you, so respect that as much as you can.

Great resources for organizing your life: Meg Biram’s GSD column (although I wish the profiles were a bit more diverse); Frankie’s Post on Freelancing; Lifehacker; Anything with a Janet Choi byline (thanks, Staci!), Popforms; Laura Vanderkam (thanks, Janet!)

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7. You’ve Developed Amnesia About Your Failures and/or Some Other Random Illness That Prevents You from Remembering Who Helped You Get to Where You Are: Years ago, I published a literary magazine, Small Spiral Notebook. It was a time before online journals were ubiquitous, and after six years of publication and some minor fame, I folded the journal in pursuit of other projects. I was humbled to have published great writers, many of whom went on to publish stories and books and win prizes. I edited and published their first stories–stories before they had found their voice–and I was reminded about grace when Leigh Stein tweeted, with jubilation, that I’d published her when she was 19. Leigh is an acclaimed writer and feminist whom I admire, and I smiled reading that tweet because it told me that she appreciated the whole trajectory of her career, not simply from the time when she had “made it” and onward. Every publication, rejection, feedback, interaction brought her to where she was now, and she understood the power of the big picture and how it shaped her writing and career. Maybe I’m projecting, maybe she wasn’t thinking any of these things, but I see so many people hide or discredit their failures or people they used to know who may not be in the fancy set they run with now.

I read an article a while back about how failure is a must for people to succeed. Failure implies that we stood on the precipice of something other and made the decision to leap. Yet people all too often equate falling with failure, and failure is something to rub out, hide. Often, I talk about my failures (and trust me, there are many of them) and how they’ve lead me to where I am today. For example, I was under so much stress at my last job that I ended up becoming, for a brief time, the leader I would never want to be. I was abrasive, noxious, and I remember how my words brought a team member to tears. I remembered that two years later when I wrote her a note of apology for my failure as a manager and a leader. But I used that failure to step back and evaluate the quality of the life I’d been leading and the example I’d been setting for others. I’m vocal about my failures and proud of all the people I’ve known who have gotten me to this great place where I can write posts like these. Don’t set aside or ignore your old mentors and peers in favor of The Shiny Object Syndrome. Level the playing field, continue to practice kindness, because again, you never know when people you used to know may come back in your life in a different capacity.

Be cognizant, honest, and humble about how you got where you are–it’s that easy.

8. You Got Fancy and Forgot What it Was Like to Be Small: From business to publishing to blogging, I’ve seen all of the places in which I’ve played plagued with the sickness that is arrogance. At one point, you begin to notice an invisible line between the echelon and the plebeians. These stars (whether self-appointed or cultivated by their community) were, at one point in time, small. They didn’t have much traffic, readers or experience, and they worked (or didn’t) to get to a point where they can stand behind an invisible rope and wave to all those clamouring for entry. I’ve seen many cling desperately to their minor fame, becoming suspicious or resentful of anyone that has the potential to threaten that fame. What they fail to see is that we win by allowing others to shine. We’re successful if we’ve played a selfless role in someone else’s success. There’s no nobility in hoarding your success.

Perhaps this is the flipside of the “pick your brain” point-of-view, but I think it’s important that once you’ve achieved some semblance of success, you pay it forward. This can take on a myriad of forms: mentorship (1:1 or broad-based with Twitter chats, site Q&As and videos that answer questions on a broader scale while saving you time), donation of your time or services for pro-bono passion projects, participation in conferences, gratis, where you’re able to give advice to those whom are starting out in their career, or create content that is selfless in nature. I mentor a great deal of people in varying stages of their career, have read manuscripts in nascent stages and have donated hours to give free advice on passion projects.

You may not have all the time at your disposal, but make a point to allocate some of it to those coming up in the ranks, much as like how someone helped you get to where you are today.

9. You Make Excuses Instead of Apologies: There is a certain breed of people who just can’t apologize–even when they know, deep down, they’re wrong. They’ll displace blame, they’ll talk about how they’re sorry you were offended or hurt. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness or frailty–rather, I see as a remarkable sign of strength. Years ago, I snapped at a direct report in a meeting and she approached me after and told me that they way I’d treated her was wrong, that I shouldn’t have been cross with her so publicly. Without hesitation I said she was right, and not only did I apologize, in our next team meeting I apologized to the team for how I’d mistreated that direct report. I relayed that my behavior was not an example that should be followed.

Today I read an incredibly succinct and smart post on why talented employees may be jumping ship. Staci makes many salient points, but at the core of her piece is the concept of responsibility and accountability. How management owns up to how they treat their employees and, quite frankly, themselves. If we were more honest, humble, apologetic when the time calls for it, we’d go further, farther.

First Image Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

tell them stories

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You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will be yours. Ah, Lenu, what happens to us all, we’re like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is. You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to a diagram. I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore. –From Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

You’ll hear sort of a strange sound, the dentist tells me. He says not to worry (I worry), this is what you hear when metal breaks metal. We’re here to excavate, to break things in your mouth and put them back to together again. He shines a white light over my molars and this puts me to thinking of fireflies and I imagine a colony of them fluttering out of my mouth and out the window. This is where my mind goes when two faces are an inch from mine, and the only words exchanged are the names of the various tools entering and leaving my gaped mouth. The word suction is used a lot and I think about how much I loathe the mollusk. After, the dentist starts to talk about the strategy for my teeth because there’s so much decay. Part of the strategy centers around containment. We will drill and plunge metal into the open spaces in your mouth until your jaw shakes because once the decay hits the nerve, we’ve got a whole new strategy, a host of new words and technical procedures to deploy. While I work in marketing and often use words like “strategy” and “tactics,” for some reason, hearing them in the dentist’s office disturbs me.

Half of my face is numb, and beyond the costly nature of these procedures, I keep thinking that my mouth is an abattoir, which could either mean that I’m one who harbors the remains of things (there is constant death in this house. Do you smell it? Do you feel it rise up around you?) or one who’s about to face a series of endings (the house where we extinguish all the lights; last call! last call!).

Smoke came out of my mouth. And bits of metal. The numbness recedes and there is only this dull, persistent ache. The drugs don’t work, I don’t know why I keep taking them–habit, I guess. I nap, send emails, and laugh over the fact that nearly 30,000 people read a post that took me thirty minutes to write but I can’t sell a novel that took two years of my life because it’s too dark, too hard, and didn’t you know, kid, we’re in the business of easy. We’re in the business of from manuscript to bookshelf. We like our corners neat, characters that color in and around the lines.

No one likes sociopaths, characters that create new coloring books instead of dancing for show in the old ones. Readers are puppeteers, they need to pull all the strings and they want their redemption stories. They want to close their books or shut their screens knowing that the story they’ve just read came to its natural conclusion; we’re done with that dirty business now. We can set the story aside knowing that the world has been magically set to rights. Even when we know that people are far from neat–they are untidy, sometimes melancholy or shamelessly cruel–and endings are rarely, if ever, clean and natural.

May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don’t do anything truthfully anymore, Lenu. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly. –Lila, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Two years ago I started a novel about broken children, a brother and sister come undone as a result of two generations of parents who weren’t adept at familial love. I wrote about a complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, one more artfully conceived that the one I portrayed in my non-fiction, because while time takes it all away it also gives you depth and perspective. At the opening of the novel, we learn that the mother dies of terminal cancer, and the daughter flees herself and her surroundings. There are many journeys west because everyone knows that the east has fallen to blight, it’s its own self-contained ruin.

How could I know that fiction would breed fact, and I would learn that my mother is indeed dying in the same space in time where I’ve planned a move out west? How could I have known that I’d write my way here? I will never say or write more than the two lines I’ve just written–I’m choosing to deal with this privately, but right now, right this moment I feel empty.

As the dentist is about to drill I say that I’m a compulsive flosser, and he tells me that there is a hole in my tooth and there are some things I can’t get to. Places that are hollow and empty. And now, I feel the weight of that emptiness, wondering if it’s possible to feel so the burden of loss yet feel nothing all at once? I often return to Joan Didion and her line, we tell stories in order to live, and I believe that, wholly, but what if we don’t yet know the shape of our own story. What if we wrote our way to one place and all we want to do is write our way to another? I wrote a novel I loved, completely, and now I can’t even bear to read it. My agent forwards me long emails from editors quoting lines from my book, talking about the “brilliance of the prose” and whatever, and all I could do is stand in the middle of the street, cold, and say that I want to write another book. Maybe I’ll go to Europe instead of out west. How do I tell him that I feel nothing?

When I was small I had a teacher, Dr. Wasserman, who read all the stories I wrote on sheets of loose-leaf paper and urged me to read them aloud. Tell them stories. Make them listen. Everything they want to hear. Give them animal, mineral, wood, brick and lye. Here is my life. You own it all, it’s yours. And the days climb over one another, clobbering and competing, and memory is ephemeral, fleeting. You remember how a certain wine tasted or how it felt when he laid his chin on your shoulder and left it there. You remember a day spent with a dear friend and two forks diving into a single plate. And you fight hard to keep these images in the frame because soon they’ll be eclipsed by things you don’t want to see, voices you don’t want to hear, words you don’t want to read. How did you keep the light in the picture?

All my friends want to meet for coffee or dinner and want me to tell them my story of moving out west or whatever it is I plan to do. All these editors, who won’t bid on the dark, write they can’t wait for new stories from me, all! that! light!

I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m writing my way around myself, talking in circles, about what will instead of what is. Because right now things are messy, untidy, and dark and people squirm around in that. There is an expiration date for how much disquiet one could write, or this is this expectation that we can exchange grief: here is my sad story and now I’ll hear yours because it’s fair that way. So I give them and everyone what they want to hear, speaking in exclamation points, and use this space, and private spaces, for myself. To tell the stories that are really happening. Stories that are incomplete, of a life not foretold.

I do know this. I’m in the business of leaving, and although I have no idea how I will sort out all the logistics, part of me can’t wait to board a plane to who knows where to do who knows what. I’ll tell those stories then, when they happen. When I’m ready.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

gluten-free chocolate chip cookies

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Truth be told, I gave these cookies a bad rap because nothing compares to a cookie made with creamed salty butter and thickened white flour. Try as you might to convince me otherwise, but as someone whose baked for years, I know nothing beats the original. Over the weekend, I adapted a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks and was a tad disappointed with results as soon as the cookies cooled. They resembled changelings, a deformed flattened disk of sugar, and it wasn’t until I waited a few hours did I really appreciate the simplicity of this gluten-and dairy-free chocolate chip cookie. While the original recipe calls for letting these cool in the fridge for at least an hour, I had these cooling for over 4 hours since I didn’t want them to melt completely into the parchment paper.

If anyone has a stand-out gluten and dairy free cookie recipe, give this woman a shout!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Yellow Table Cookbook, modified. Makes about 3 dozen cookies
1 stick unsalted vegan butter (I use Earth Balance)
1 stick salted vegan butter
1 cup coconut palm sugar, packed
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 16-ounce package dark chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS
Soften the butter in the microwave (or on the stovetop) until nearly melted, about 1 minute. Since I don’t have a microwave, I melted the butters on the stovetop on medium heat. Let cool slightly. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars on high, until blended, 2-3 minutes. The mixture will be pale brown and creamy. Add the egg and the yolk, and mix to combine. Add the vanilla and and mix to combine. In a separate small bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat on low until no flour streaks remain. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Cover the dough with saran wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Drop tablespoonfuls of dough on an ungreased cookie sheet (about 2 inches apart) and place in the oven. Bake for 11 minutes for soft cookies or 13 for crisp ones. The cookies should be slightly brown and puffy. Let the cookies sit on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes to cool before removing to a cooling rack or a plate.

some thoughts on professional etiquette because some of you really need it (part 1).

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People, we need to talk. About your etiquette, or lack thereof. I’ve been in offices for over twenty years, and I went from an intern who filed papers in metal cabinets to an executive who built businesses and lead teams. I graduated arrogant and over time I became humble. At the beginning of my career, Morgan Stanley sent me to “listening classes” and now I’m the sort of person who simply doesn’t listen just to wait for my turn to speak. I went from ferociously networking to becoming more strategic and thoughtful about the kinds of people I wanted in my life. I used to work with the crazies and now I’m too old for the hysterics. Although I started my career in an environment where the internet was a novelty and have since adapted to the rhythm and pace of what people term the “digital age,” there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned etiquette, because technology is not an excuse to disrespect people or waste their time. If anything, we live in an attention-deficit economy, and the more you create value for yourself and others, the more you’ll prosper.

Since I’ve become a consultant, I’ve had to contend with income instability (love that deal flow), expensive health insurance costs, but I also have control over my projects, can run my errands on a Tuesday morning, and can spend time with the people who matter most. This life has made me abundantly present, and as a result I’ve become more aware of wackness. There are many people who are not acting right, and I’m planning a series of brief posts on professional pet peeves and business etiquette.

Also, the cookies I made for the blog post I intended to write for today didn’t turn out that great, so there’s that. Instead of cookies you’re getting gospel.

1. The Very Nebulous Pick Your Brain/Be My Mentor Request: Can I pick your brain for 3 hours and 15 minutes in exchange for a $2.19 cup of coffee? I want to figure out my life! You seem to have it figured out, even though we’ve only met once! Then, can I milk you for all of your LinkedIn contacts? Then, can you mentor me? I can write a whole treatise on the ubiquitous “pick your brain” requests and why so many people are failing miserably. Let me pause here and say that although I’m an introvert who prefers to reside in the confines of my ultra-warm apartment (would you leave in 1F temps?!), I have lunch or coffee with at least one person a week whom I mentor (formally or informally). These are people with whom I have a vested relationship–they’re either former colleagues or people I admire in some way–and I know how they think and work.

My mentor lives by this axiom: Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone. When I receive vague requests or long-winded emails, it tells me you haven’t done your homework and you’re looking to me to fill in the blanks and assemble the pieces. It also tells me that you don’t understand that time is the most valuable commodity we know of. Every request need not be met with hours spent in a coffee shop. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call, a Skype session, or an email connection/gchat. I’ll always help someone when they send a brief email outlining specifically what they want. Don’t underestimate the smallness of a request because specificity will make inroads faster than me issuing a team of private investigators to decode your email.

For example: a friend (and peer) recently made a dramatic career shift, leaving one industry for a not-yet-identified other. The friend sent me an email asking that I connect him with people who might be able to help him. I was happy to do it but I didn’t know who would be of value, so I wrote back and asked for more specificity, and he ended up taking the path of having conversations with a group of smart people across various disciplines. He knew that being around people who loved what they do might inspire him on his path, and then at that point I could offer him a more specific connection.

In short, don’t waste anyone’s time. Offer to reciprocate in some way beyond the coffee (of which I always pay for, especially if the person whom I’m meeting is younger–I’m old-school that way, I suppose). Over the past few years I’ve experienced the value of reverse mentorship, and sometimes I’ll send g-chats or notes to people who were my direct reports asking about the latest technology, changes in Facebook algorithms or to get their POV on a cultural trend. Even if you don’t know how you can help someone, tell them what you’re good at and offer to recip down the road. Even if I don’t take you up on it, I think it’s pretty cool that you want to help me, or someone I know, too.

Also, realize that trying to land the most seasoned professional as a mentor may not be your smartest bet. While I can counsel people on strategy, business, management, leadership, there are a lot of things for which I’m not equipped to mentor. I’ve often forgot about what it’s like to manage a direct report for the first time, or navigate a shady team dynamic, so sometimes it’s better to find someone who’s been where you’ve been in the not so distant past. Someone with 3-5 years your tenure can be more valuable than someone like me, who may have 10-15.

This isn’t Moby Dick. Catching the big fish may not be the soundest strategy.

2. The Blind Intro: Hey, Felicia! Meet my friend, X. She wants to work in marketing and since you work in marketing, I thought you’d hit it off. She’s also looking for a job, FYI. Attached is her resume.

Don’t do this, ever. I mean it. Never do this. Are you listening? I don’t care if you’re my closest friend–I will end you if you send me a blind introduction. It’s the professional equivalent of a group chat ambush because no one is really thinking about the person who’s being asked for a favor, rather, they’re thinking of themselves and their own self interests. Blind intros put people in an uncomfortable position of fulfilling a favor they either don’t have time for or simply don’t want to do. No one wants to appear as if they don’t want to help, and blind intros capitalize on this social tension. Why put someone you respect in an awkward position unless they explicitly say they don’t mind blind intros?

People know that when I email them with an inquiry for an introduction, I’m not wasting their time. They know that I’ve done the legwork to assess how both parties could mutually benefit from the connection. In an email I outline the specific ask, share some details about the recipient of the favor (LinkedIn link, blog, etc), my assessment of the situation and how I think this connection could be valuable–if not now, but in the near future.

If I get a refusal I harbor no hurt feelings because I get it–my email is yet another to-do and sometimes people just don’t have the time. Also, I’m strategic about my requests and how often I make them. Quality > quantity, always.

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3. The Let Me Scan the Crowd for Someone More Connected Than You: Felicia, it’s so great to see you! (whiplash ensues, neck resembles that of an ostrich). I want to hear everything that’s going on in your life (neckbrace now required), but first I have to say hello to X.

Recently, I tried to make an introduction between a good friend of mine and a friendly acquaintance, and the acquaintance had her sights set on a more attractive prey. The introductions were brusque, all eye contact avoided, and my friend, who had considered my acquaintance for a project, in the end decided against it.

There’s a special place in hell for people who are predominantly consumed by those who are “good to know.” People who want to be part of a specific crowd without understanding the appeal of a crowd or “It” person is ephemeral. Playing the long game is tantamount. Befriending people because they have integrity, are kind, smart, and honest should be valued above any perception of equity or popularity. In short, playing the cool kid game makes others feel demonstrably less cool, and how would you feel if you were ignored for the bright shiny object just beyond your reach?

When I was in my 20s, my first mentor was a man named Bob who spent the greater part of his career at AT&T. He was old-school, and was the first person to shape my career. He told me once that I’d better be nice to everybody. Stop and talk to the receptionist, thank the people emptying your bins, and be graceful to your direct reports simply because it’s the right thing to do. Be good to everyone because you never know when you might encounter them again, when the power dynamic might shift against your favor.

I don’t care about your blog’s popularity or if you were on the cover of a magazine or on some ridiculous 30 under 30 list. I don’t care that you spin with that VIP person or you know everyone worth knowing. If I can’t endure a meal with you I don’t want to know you. If you can’t look me in the eye, I don’t want to know you. If you can’t give the people I respect and admire the time of day, I don’t want to know you. If you’re with me and scanning the room, looking to better deal, I don’t want to know you. Because there are plenty of people like me who only want to surround themselves with people they respect, admire and trust, and feel that those feelings are reciprocated.

An extension of this, I’ve learned, is try not to be an asshole to people. I’ve learned this the hard way having burned some bridges earlier in my career and finding people from a previous life suddenly reappear in a present one. We’re all human and prone to bad days and rage-filled outbursts, but apologize for your mistakes, try to be kind, and make reparations when you can.

4. The I Won’t Respond Because Your Request is Beneath Me/I’m Way Too Cool for You: Over the past two years, I’ve received offers to help a startup build their Instagram channel or manage their Facebook page–even though I’ve built brands, businesses, and have been working for nearly 20 years. Do I give attitude or get all huffy? Absolutely not, because at least people have been kind enough to think of me. And if my pipeline is horrifying (this hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood), I’m not beneath anything to pay the bills. Often, people don’t know the extent of your service level or offering, so they’ll just send you whatever sounds like a fit for you. I always graciously thank the person for thinking of me, politely pass with specificity on the kind of projects I’m taking, and an offer to help find someone to take the lead. Not only does this help in terms of me paying it forward to other freelancers, but I’ve helped someone who was generous enough to extend me a potential project. Often I’ve received, as a follow-up, more appropriate offers because of my specificity and humility.

In short, don’t give attitude. Get over yourself. Don’t act like you’re above anything, because you never know when you may need the work and people always remember that one freelancer who had the TITANIC EGO.

5. The Failure to Thank: Nothing, I mean, NOTHING, enrages me more than ingratitude. This year alone I’ve helped two people secure big contracts and neither of them have said a word of thanks for the intro or for the sizeable project they acquired as a result of my connection. Always be graceful, always be thankful. If someone makes an intro, thank them. If someone gets you a project, thank them. Even if you didn’t take on the project, thank them. I don’t need a meal; I don’t need your gratitude tears; I don’t need a % referral–I just want to know that I didn’t recommend an entitled asshole. Send me an email with these five words: Thank you so much, Felicia!

Karma has your direct dial, people. Don’t feel like you’re entitled to connections and projects. Send an email, a handwritten note or a creatively-sourced cat image. I can’t believe I’m even telling people about basic Emily Post please-and-thank-you etiquette, but apparently ingratitude feels more like the norm than abnormal, and that frightens me.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo

mujaddara: spiced lentils + rice with fried onions

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ties the bind, the power of female friendships. For most of my childhood I lived in the confines of my imagination. I devoured books at an unusual pace, and assumed a small role in every story I read. Mostly I immersed myself in a succession of books about blonde girls with credit cards. They drove fast cars, wore silk blouses, and lived in houses with two floors. Panic was breaking curfew. Tragedy was selling the pearls and the minks. Forced to wear cotton and bow out of boarding school, the blondes pressed their hair, frantic, and wondered how they’ll live and whether they’d be found out. But in the end, the stock market never crashed, money mysteriously appeared, and everything had been set to rights. The blonde girls’ lives were a power ballad played on repeat.

I grew up in a place where endings weren’t tidy and happy, rather happiness was simply the fact that could endure the hand dealt to you. Escape was tantamount, and I sought refuge in the seemingly uncomplicated pristine worlds of the affluent and privileged.

Since I was alone a lot, and often teased and picked-on for most of my childhood, books were my companion. On the occasions I had friends, I was clingy, possessive and idolatrous. I was jealous and insecure. Frightened of abandonment, I imagined my friend as a life raft and I was hanging on for dear life. I typically had a single friend, one who rose above the din, and I would fixate all my energy on her. People used to call me intense, ferocious, because nothing existed outside the confines of my friendship. And anyone who threatened that friendship–a new friend, a boy distraction–became objects for me to conquer and ruin. It’s funny–I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and I deeply identified with Elena and her fixation on her fractured, yet brilliant friend, Lila. I always befriended girls who were strong-willed, beautiful, and admired because I thought proximity to people who didn’t only shine, but glared and burned, would somehow rub off on me. That I would be the one who would inevitably burn bright.

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Suffice it to say, I didn’t know how to be a good friend. It wasn’t until S and I parted ways that I finally understood the meaning of unhealthy attachments. That it was perfectly normal to have more than one friend. That it’s okay to grow past the notion of having a “best friend.” That I didn’t need to be a barnacle. That I didn’t need to be surrounded by a crowd, rather it became natural for me to float amongst a few. That I didn’t need for my friends to meet my every need and desire. That I didn’t define the strength of a friendship in relationship to the frequency and intensity of our encounters.

This week I read an article about how women of a certain age get surgical about the people in their life. They crave fewer friends, and work to enrichen the ties that bind them a smaller number of people. I’ve written at length about my desire to have fewer people in my life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become comfortable with solitude–I actually need to spend time by myself because I become drained when surroundeded by people for extended periods of time. I need space and quiet to think, and that, coupled with a considerable amount of professional obligations, doesn’t leave much time for people in my life.

So I had to get surgical. I’m disciplined about the people with whom I surround myself. I’ve a handful of very close friends whom I see pretty regularly, as well as a host of acquaintances whom I see less frequently. However, I’m starting to realize that with my pending move I’ll be separated from the people I love. And while I’m not at all concerned about my beloveds and losing them (friendship, real friendship, extends beyond the confines of a zip code), I’m actually worried about meeting new people.

I’ll be honest–new people exhaust me. I’m an introvert who spent a decade cultivating incredible people in my life, and the very idea of having to rebuild makes me anxious. I keep telling myself that one or two people are all I need to stop me from going bonkers in another state (because even I have limits to how much time I can spend alone), and part of me feels grateful for the online space because it’s allowed me to connect with people I’d otherwise never encounter. So I’m building these friendships slowly, virtually. One or two people at a time, in each state, as that’s all I can manage. In a weird way, I feel part of me has reverted back to my childhood, where I’d fill out pages in “friendship books,” mail them to a pen-pal in hopes that I’d meet a couple of new people.

New people. I’m still anxious.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
1 1/4 cups/250 g green or brown lentils
4 medium onions (1 1/2 lb/700 g before peeling)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
about 1 cup/250 ml sunflower oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 cup/200 g basmati rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups/350 ml water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS
Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.

Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and carefully (it may spit!) add one-third of the sliced onion. Fry for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice golden brown color and turns crispy (adjust the temperature so the onion doesn’t fry too quickly and burn). Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Do the same with the other two batches of onion; add a little extra oil if needed.

Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and put in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes.

Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.

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fluffy blueberry pancakes + some thoughts on losing your best friend

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Time takes it all whether you want it to or not, time takes it all. Time bares it away, and in the end there is only darkness. Sometimes we find others in that darkness, and sometimes we lose them there again. –Stephen King

For seven years there was only S. I met her in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked, the buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. It was if she knew she chewed loudly, brazenly, but asked her if she cared because she didn’t. I remember her being volcanic; she moved swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in tourettic spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and synapses firing. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?

For the rest of our time in Russia I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in The Summer Gardens for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms. Watching S was akin to live wires unwinding. She was in a constant state of unraveling. I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed…free. This was a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him (or the thought of him) and the promise of a life he offered. So I lived in a perpetual state of fear and burial–I could practically crack the gravel with my teeth–and seeing S move was thrilling. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.

When we came home, we casually met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities–an experience that brought on a collective silence and shudder. Over time, S and I would couple off (I guess there’s no other way to put it) and we spoke obsessively about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions, which had us continue the cycle of breaking our parents had started. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother). How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.

For years, the world was only us. We spent every day together. We obsessed over the food we ate, the workouts we did, the books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, noise, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember my friend Angie, years ago, approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close, because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and Angie receded, folded into quiet. But I remember the concern that washed across her face, and when we talk about it now, Angie reminds me that it’s a good thing S and I broke up.

Broke up.

Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I finally got sober and stayed sober. We wrote books, ascended, and obsessively maintained our lean frame to an increasingly disturbing degree. But there was so much love! I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a fancy job at a then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it out loud.

It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a drift. One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was is if we never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I then unfriended her. Just like that. Seven years ended with a click of a mouse. A shift from friend to unfriend.

Our history had been wiped clean.

It took me two years to recover from her loss and we haven’t spoken a word in six. I’ll never know why we broke up, although I suspect it was for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. How do you tell someone that you don’t want to be their friend anymore because you just don’t? Because you weren’t the people you used to be? That needing another half to make you whole isn’t how you get complete–the numbers just don’t foot. Truth be told I probably wouldn’t have understood it back then the way I do now. I’ve reconciled my hurt and have found closure in losing her.

I often think that our breaking was the best thing for both of us because I lived a stunted version of myself, and I was forced to live a life independent of her, regardless of how dysfunctional that life might have been. I don’t want a reconciliation with S; I have my closure and people in my life who have grown in step with me.

Do you know I made these pancakes for breakfast for this morning and thought of her? I remember a day trip we took to Woodbury Commons and she was in my apartment and I made her this grand breakfast. Freshly-squeezed orange juice, strips of bacon coated in maple syrup and pancakes. I don’t recall if she was the pancake type, but she loved mine and she devoured the contents of her plate. I remember feeling satisfied, happy.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Paleo Kitchen Cookbook
3 large eggs
1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons almond or full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon organic honey
1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup coconut flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of fine-grain sea salt
coconut oil, for greasing the skillet
1/2 cup fresh blueberries

DIRECTIONS
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the almond milk, honey, lemon juice, and vanilla and whisk until well blended. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut flour and tapioca flour, then add to the wet ingredients 1/4 cup at a time, while continuously whisking. Then mix in the baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Grease a large skillet and place over medium heat. Once the skillet is warm use a ladle to pour 3-inch pancakes into the skillet. Once bubbles begin to appear in the surface of a pancake, drop a small handful of blueberries into it and flip. The pancake should cook on each side 3-4 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter.

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basmati + wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs

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A few months ago I read an article about what it means to be a good stranger. The author recounts an episode where he might just be walking behind The Slowest Man in the World, and how deeply this rattled him. Why couldn’t this man walk faster? Didn’t he know the inconvenience he caused simply because of the speed in which he moved his limbs? Upon further introspection the author starts to question himself,

It’s telling that I only become interested in the Ethics of Proper Sidewalk-Sharing in moments when I’m being personally inconvenienced. Even though the issue undoubtedly affects millions of people every day, it never seems to be an important topic to think about at any other time. Many or most of our internal moral complaints about others are really just petty reactions to being inconvenienced, and not any kind of meaningful examination of personal ethics or how to run a society. I’m learning to distrust these kinds of thoughts when I have them, but I still have them.

I related to this scene because at different points in my life I was both the annoyed person and the one who couldn’t move fast enough. Whether I’m coming out of the subway or trying to navigate my way home in the cold, I’ve found myself incensed with people who simply couldn’t move. On the other hand, there was a time when I’d injured my knee and was trying to hide a limp, and do you know I felt guilty that I was inconveniencing people because I could bound up the stairs? Couldn’t move, move, move?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been feeling this constant urge to slow down. I’ve been treating my whole life as a race worth conquering, but for what? We know what’s at the finish line, what awaits us six floors down: a box beneath the earth or the cool copper of an urn. What is the reward for our accelerated personal velocity? Death? Seriously? I have this one giant life to live and why would I push through it for the sole purpose of losing it? Do I “win” because I’m the victor over the loss of my own breath? I read this quote from Marcus Aurelius, and it’s chilling because it’s honest, frightening and real (for those of you whom, like me, are frightened of death):

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come. (via)

15853969724_629b8f49c2_oYesterday, over breakfast, I tell my friend Angie about shopping at Whole Foods after work on a Friday evening. It was a perfectly perfunctory day–I leave a work session with my client and walk to the nearest grocery store to pick up some food for the weekend. It’s Friday, it’s Chelsea, and everyone has somewhere to people. As soon as I walk through the door of the market I’m immediately shoved, pushed and nearly run over by a grocery cart. Someone behind me in produce sighs audibly when I linger in front the blueberries too long. I love food shopping. I love thinking about all the meals I could possibly make, and instead of enjoying this bit of luxury, I have to be aware, dexterous, efficient and FAST. I simply cannot linger. God forbid I contemplate. And after navigating lines, subways and sidewalks, I come home, depleted.

I’ve lived in New York my whole life and my god, people move so fast. How is it that I’ve only noticed this? How is it that it’s taken 39 years for me to be bothered by this?

All I want to do is slow down. I want to hear exhalations of breath. I want to cook rice for 40 minutes without having an anxiety attack. Maybe this is one of the many reasons why I plan on leaving New York this year–this desire to not squander or race through time.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook.
½ cup wild rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup basmati rice (to be candid, this was A LOT of rice for me. I ended up using 1/2 and storing the rest)
1 ½ cups boiling hot water
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp curry powder
1 ½ cups (or 15oz can) of cooked and drained chickpeas
4 tbsp canola or sunflower oil for frying
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ tsp of gluten-free flour
2/3 cup dried currants
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tbsp cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS
Place the wild rice in a small saucepan and cover with plenty of water. Bring the water to a boil and then leave it to simmer for 40-45 minutes until the wild rice is cooked but still firm. Drain and set aside.

While the wild rice is cooking cook the basmati rice: In a medium saucepan that has a tight fitting lid warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Once the oil is heated add the rice and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir to warm up the rice. Carefully, add the boiling water, and decrease the heat to low. Cover the pan with the lid and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave the rice covered for 5 minutes.

While the basmati rice is cooking prepare the chickpeas: In a small saucepan heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and curry powder and wait for a few seconds till the seeds start sputtering and you get the aroma of the spices. Add the cooked chickpeas and ¼ teaspoon salt. Do all this quickly, so that the spices do not burn. Mix everything well together (1-2 minutes) until the chickpeas are heated through. Remove the chickpeas and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Wipe the same saucepan clean, add the canola or sunflower oil over high heat. While the oil is heating toss the onions with the gf flour. When the oil is hot, pan-fry the onions in batches until they are golden brown. Do not let them burn. Place the cooked onions on a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb the excess oil.

Add both types of cooked rice to the chickpeas. Add the currants, herbs and fried onion. Mix everyone together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Center Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.