mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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on whiteness, on blackness, on sitting in the inbetweens

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When I was small my friends told me not to worry, that I could pass. Their assurances were accompanied by a dramatic fingering of my hair, which was a mess of coarse curls, the kind of hair my mother labored over in the bathroom, tried to tame it with baby oil and Vaseline. It made no difference that I grew up in Borough Park, steps away from the elevated train on New Utrecht. It didn’t matter that we purchased the same chicken legs wrapped in brown paper from the bodega or swam in the same pool in Sunset Park or pinched loosies (single cigarettes) when we could–what mattered was my hair. Because where I came from being white was a liability. Being white got you jumped. Being white made you an outsider. You were lesser than because if you had the privilege of that skin, and you lived where you lived, you were considered a joke. It was as if you had a lottery ticket you were too dumb to cash in. But my mother wore Pumas, was ferocious, waitressed at a diner, played her soul records and knew all the right people. So mostly, they left us alone.

Years later I would walk into a junior high school and be ridiculed for my hair, the very thing that had saved me in my childhood, because it betrayed an otherness. White people didn’t have this hair. White people didn’t speak with a Spanish lilt to their voice. White people didn’t grow up on soul when there was rock and roll (which, by the way, my mother listened to, too). And I remember a group of Spanish girls in my junior high school who took me in, asked where I was from, and the next day no one made comments about my hair. The cheerleaders in their green pleated skirts, the girls named Lea, Ryan and Michelle, didn’t say anything at all. They were frightened and in that fear came the silences. I shook my head, and wanted to say that my last name was Sullivan! That I was Italian and Irish! But while I thought all of these things were truths, I knew they were also somehow untrue. Because I didn’t see anything wrong with being black or Spanish, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I didn’t feel white but I didn’t feel black, either. How do you explain to thirteen-year-olds who live on binary terms that you are possibly grey? When you’re small you don’t understand the gradations of color, the in-betweens. When you are that young, you still believe you have to color in the lines. To the Leas and Ryans of my small world, black men were ball-players, rappers, men who robbed your house. Wait, what? I couldn’t see any of that. Sure, men in my old neighborhood tossed rhymes on stoops, drank 40s out of brown paper bags, but they were also kind, always had your back, and worked from dark to dark. Rhyming, drinking and dreaming were some of the things they did to pass the time, to make their lives easier to bear.

I have a memory, but it comes and goes in fragments, like swallows, and I just remember the glare of a television in a dark bedroom and I’m lying on the floor watching it. I am small and my mother is in bed with a man named Keith. He is black, striking in his beauty, his man-ness, and they are talking in the way that couples do after they’ve just been intimate. They exist in the space of the after, when conversations are easy, slow, and you talk about the things you wouldn’t normally discuss in the morning. That’s all I’m able to remember, and now I think: was that him? Was that man my biological father?

Another memory: Another man, another state. We are in Pennsylvania and my mother (a mistress now) travels with her abusive boyfriend to visit his ex-wife and children. I never understood why we traveled to a place where we were not welcome, but we made the trip and the children, sisters, made snide comments about from where we’d come, about how I wasn’t one of them, white. The mother’s name was Virginia and I never saw my mother so afraid when she was in that house.

Years later I receive a long message on Facebook. It’s from one of the sisters in Pennsylvania. She’d read my memoir, found god, and couldn’t I possibly forgive Father for all that he had done as she had? Reading the note I paled down to bone, and I remember being in an office and someone coming over to my desk and asking me about a plan we were supposed to write. And I glanced at the message on Facebook and nodded at my direct report, and felt paralyzed in the space between the two. Although I will do everything possible in my adult life to not be my mother’s daughter, some of her will always remain. Why I have a hard time letting people in, crying in front of others, or being vulnerable–these are aspects of her that have left their indelible mark on me, parts of me I’m desperate to lose.

I think back to those girls in junior high school, and my nearly all-white high school, and how everyone believed that black men were to be feared. But no. I shook my head no, because in my experience white men weren’t to be trusted. They hid behind the privilege of their skin. And then I got all confused because had I become one of those people coloring in the lines? Not understanding that the content of one’s character isn’t married to the pigment of their skin?

The summer before college, I worked at Pizza Hut and I started dating one of my coworkers who drove a nice car and lived in Queens. We bonded over our affection for A Tribe Called Quest, and I remember over the course of our date how he kept playing “The Low End Theory” in this car. He came to my door and met my family, and I remember how my father, Gus, shook his hand and smiled because Gus is the kind of man who will shake your hand and mean it, but my mother, my mother, cowered in the background and scowled. She took me aside and told me she hadn’t known that my date was black, and didn’t I know that his color would cause trouble? Because we were no longer in Brooklyn. And I shook away from her because I knew that I was going to college and college meant freedom, and who was she to talk to me about blackness when there was Keith and all the men who had come before? And, oh by the way, I didn’t choose my date because he was black, I chose to go out with him because he was cool. I said as much and walked out of the house. In the car my date made a comment about my mother being something and I said, she sure is. Something.

That was our only date. While we spent the rest of the summer making personal pan pizzas, something was off, wasn’t the same. We were still friends. We still joked but we were changed, and I can’t help but think it had to do with the fact that I was white (but not really) and he wasn’t, and I was angry because it didn’t matter when someone loves “The Low End Theory” just as much as you do. When someone can turn the task of dumping frozen pepperoni on a pizza into a game, into something fun.

I set out today to write something different, to make something and share it with you, but then I read this. At 6:30 in the morning I cried in my apartment. I’m 30% black and have I been hiding behind the privilege of my skin, technology that has the ability to make my hair smooth?

A few weeks ago I’m on the phone with my best friend of nearly 20 years, and she’s the only person with whom I’ve spoken about my DNA results. She asks me how I feel and I tell her I don’t know what I feel. No, that’s not true. I feel relief to have knowledge, facts, the maths, even if it is 38 years too late. I tell her that I’ve felt that all this time I’ve been passing…for white. I tell her that I don’t feel white or black but something in the middle, and I blurt out all the appropriate and inappropriate questions. Do I have the right to say I’m part black at 38 (yes, I do, logically, but…)? Can I own blackness? Do I have the right to? Do I keep on as I’ve been living? What changes? Does anything change? Do I owe a debt? To whom?

I don’t yet have answers to any of these questions, and I imagine it will take some time and introspection, but my friend told me that it’s okay to be in the in-betweens. That I should be proud of whatever I am, that I’m not defined by my chemistry.

my results from my ancestry.com DNA kit are in…and…whoa

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I realize I am the last of my kind. The last Sullivan to carry this name in this life, and over the years I’ve come to terms with this. I’ve no interest in having children–I prefer to fawn over my friend’s progeny–and I’m an only child, with the exception of a teenaged half-sister, and please don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t, and I can’t imagine I ever will. But this girl doesn’t have my name or my history–we have only our mother in common, a mother whom, in some respects, is a better storyteller than me. Masterful, maybe.

The origins of my real father change depending upon her mood or appetite for melodrama; it was a scalpel she’d deliberately wield, and her words always felt like cuts inside my cheek. Incisions. When we spoke some years ago, the first time in 14 years, and she told me I could her ask her anything, nothing was off-limits, I said plainly, Tell me about my real father. And as I read these test results, I can’t help but laugh over her taste for fiction. I am indeed my mother’s daughter, except the stories I tell find their way into books, not used as ammunition to wound and maim.

So when my friend Amber told me about this DNA test, I was curious. I remember sitting in her kitchen and she talked about how the results confirmed what she already knew–she was a European Jew–but it told her things she didn’t. And all I had to do was spit in a cup, send it to a lab and wait for the email.

I woke today to the email and the results.

My last name is Sullivan, but I’m not even Irish. Not even close. I’m Italian, Greek, Spanish, Finnish (???) and African (specifically, Nigerian). I always knew I wasn’t completely white, I can’t explain it; it’s just something you feel. And while I have no issues with the results (they’re exciting in the sense that I’m this rich melange of beautiful continents), because it quietly confirmed what I already knew, however, part of me is just really angry that my lineage has been hidden from me for 38 years. All this time I’ve been part black, but do I even claim it? Can I? Do I have the right to step into these new shoes? Do I have the right to own blackness? Part me says, yes, of course, of course, this is who you are, but this isn’t what I’ve been for 38 years.

This is all raw and new and confusing, and I think I need to sit with this for a while. Privately. Offline. To see what I can do, what I do feel, what this new truth reveals, alters, creates.

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sophie + felix

sophie is so over me
Yesterday morning it occurred to me that this month marks the anniversary of my Sophie’s passing. It’s been a year since my relapse, since the whole of my world was shrouded in darkness. I don’t deal with loss well, and I didn’t anticipate just how devastated I’d be when she died. I couldn’t find the right words to describe the enormity of my grief. When I held her as she was being put to sleep, I didn’t feel the rush of heartbreak that I would inevitably feel weeks and months after. On that rainy day in late July, I was numb, sick and bewildered. I felt nothing. Hmm, that’s not true. I felt the heaviness of her departure, this unbearable disquiet.

I loved Sophie. Really loved her. She was prickly, prone to paw swats and over-excited hisses, but she was mine. She curled up next to me while I read, and slept beside me when I was sick. Even now, even as I type this, and page through images of her, I start to cry. Hers is a loss that I’ve come to learn how to bear. My god, she was so fluffy! So insouciant! So RUBENESQUE at her 14-pound height. I mean, look at that diamond belly! Nothing compares to you, as Sinead O’Connor so sagely crooned.

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Yesterday morning I ran errands, fixed up my apartment, and while I was taking dishes out of the dishwasher Felix meowed. It’s rare to find him on the shelf where a photo of Sophie and I, and her remains, lie, but he was there. Crying. I set the dishes down and turned around and watched him touch the tin that holds her remains, and I broke down and sobbed. I didn’t tell him to get down, I didn’t advance. Rather I stood there and watched and realized that there is a possibility that he could feel a whisper of my grief. A grief that has gone cold and quiet, yet lingers.

I can never thank my dearest friend Angie enough for driving me to the shelter to pick up Felix. I was hungover, grief-stricken, and probably incoherent, yet she was calm, comforting, and moved me from cage to cage until I spotted my little man. The sweet boy who would make me realize that there is indeed space in my heart for more love.

Sometimes I find myself comparing Felix to Sophie, which I suppose is inevitable, however, they are nothing alike. He prefers his belly rubbed, and he follows me from room to room. I joke that he’s a dog in a cat outfit. We play and I spoil him rotten. I love him beyond measure, but it’s a different love than what I felt for Sophie, not a lesser than, but different. Felix is easy and Sophie was well-earned.

I don’t know what to say about all this other than I’m grateful for my life and all the beautiful people in it. I’m grateful to have had Sophie for those seven years, and I’m grateful for having fallen madly in love with Felix, my special guy.

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on perception, and the delicate dance of masks

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I had dinner with a new friend the other night–someone whom I’ve admired for a while–and she told me that she was delighted that I turned out to be warm, funny and accessible in person, because while she loved reading my blog and found me intelligent, she’d gotten the impression that I was intimidating and aloof. What a wonderful surprise, she thought, because normally she’d encountered just the opposite; she’d fall in like with someone who possessed an effusive online persona to only discover, in real life, the person was a raging asshole. We laughed and traded stories about relationships we’ve cultivated by being online, and…

WAIT. HOLD THE PHONE. I’m ALOOF? {sniff}

Truth be told, I’ve heard this before. From former coworkers who’ve become close friends to acquaintances who appear relieved that I don’t quote sonnets over pasta {brief digression: I’m barely surviving my second week without pasta}, people have expressed their glee over the fact that I’m not as esoteric and intimidating in person. My response is normally one of a fierce twitching. On a scale of 1-10, my discomfort registers at about 40 {HOW AM I INTIMIDATING?}. But here’s the thing — if you immediately balk at constructive criticism or observations that give you discomfort, part of what you’re receiving is probably true, and getting defensive only serves as a mere distraction from that truth. On my way home from dinner, I gave my friend’s words serious thought. I thought about the masks we wear and how and when we switch them, as if we’re performing some sort of elaborate, delicate dance.

For most of my life I wore the just fine mask. The I’m okay, don’t worry, I can handle it mask. To an outsider, I was a successful, prolific overachiever–I was my finest photograph. Yet as soon as I came home and the door closed behind me, I fell into dark. The world behind me receded, and I felt crushed by the weight of having a double. All I wanted for people to know was that I was the complete opposite of not okay, but the risk of that vulnerability and the perception of weakness was unimaginable. Coupled with the fact that I published a memoir about very personal aspects of my life {some of which I regret writing, in retrospect}, I felt caught between tectonic plates. I was revealing the things that I didn’t want to share, but at the same time hiding the things that I wish would come to light. As a result, I spent the better part of a decade reconciling this, mostly in private, and when I resurfaced, I created rules for this space. Perhaps not realizing I’d created another mask. Oh, the irony.

I read somewhere that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

For me, this space is about art. I conduct minor experiments with language and merging image and type, and I’m also trying to find the art in talking about food in a different way. The dozens of drafts of posts {the rewriting and rethinking of lines and ideas}, and the hundreds of images I take, are examples of the mess in this art. Yet in the end what you see is the edited version of things. You see a representation of myself that is one aspect of who I am but not the whole of me, if that makes any sense.

For me, this isn’t artifice. Part of me constantly calls to references in art and literature because I’ve been reading and creating since I was a toddler. Words help me make sense of the world, and when I call to an artist it reminds me that I’m less alone. If I think about all of this in terms of geography, this blog is my living room while Twitter is me at the bar–acerbic, wry, passionate, outspoken. Instagram is my playground and bedroom, as I can show you photographs of things closest to my heart without actually talking about them. Pinterest is me dreaming. LinkedIn is me working and not sharing pictures of my cat. In real life I’m a mix of all of these rooms, and perhaps a bathroom thrown in for good measure because I’m not always on, sometimes I tire of the performance, and I just want to laze on my floor and reveal parts of myself that aren’t necessarily pretty or well-kempt. I feel privileged to have friends with whom I can share comfortable silences. These are people who love me even if my jokes fall flat or if I’ve stolen cookies off their plate.

Part of me is starting to wonder how I can bring all of these rooms into one house, because much like I’ve realized that fragmenting my career is ridiculous, fragmenting aspects of my character is exhausting and perhaps misleading. As this space evolves, I want to be conscious of sharing all of these rooms on all of the places I play online. I want people I care about to know that I’m not aloof; I’m tremendously shy, extremely bookish, and when I write these posts I’m in my prefered state: home, alone, settling into quiet. Because that’s when the magic happens. That’s when I’m able to be still enough to create. I want people to know that every post is the moment before the storm.

Obligatory shot of my FELIX. Isn’t he a MOVIE STAR?

this week.

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I don’t even know where to begin because every time I open my mouth to make a sound, nothing comes out. Years ago, I pounded away on a keyboard in an office on 53rd Street when a woman, a stranger, called me to say that my father was in the hospital. He’d taken a fall, and I remember leaving the office with only my wallet. I’d been in a middle of an email, about to make a phone call, and I abandoned everything to go to Penn Station. During the hour-long train ride I imagined the unimaginable, and when I finally saw my father, when he was finally home from getting stitches in his head, we had the biggest fight we’d ever had, and I left in tears. I remember shouting that he could’ve prevented this. I remembered saying the words, I’m done.

We didn’t speak for four years. Or three? I can’t really remember. Time is getting lost on me these days.

We made our way back to one another slowly: a few texts here and there, a phone call. During the time we didn’t speak, during the holidays we spent apart, I promised myself that I wouldn’t mother him again. I wouldn’t smother or suffocate; I wouldn’t solve. My father is an adult capable of making his own decisions and he’d need to bear the consequences of them. When we first saw one another for a casual lunch he talked about a pain in his leg and I fought the urge to tell him to go to a doctor. Everything in me stopped myself from dialing numbers and making appointments because it isn’t my job to fix everything.

Without going into too much detail, those words said in passing, I’ve got a pain in my leg, morphed into something tremendous. And here I am, years later, back to where I started. A conversation with my father’s boss sent me into a maelstrom of emails, texts, and phone calls, and I’m utterly depleted. I’ve started a new project this week and all I can think about is my father. The stress is all-consuming, and I don’t think he realizes how his actions affect those around him.

Why is he so fucking stubborn? Why can’t he just fix this?

We had a terrible fight this morning. I’m back here again. Didn’t I learn the first go-around? While I’m aware of the severity of the situation, I’m also acutely attuned to the fact that we may have an argument from which we won’t recover. But maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I’m being presumptuous and should have more faith. Right now, all I know is that I’m tired.

I scrolled through my Flickr feed this morning and saw these books. And all I want right now is to get lost in this stack and remain there.

Thank you for your lovely comments and notes–I appreciate them more than you know. Please understand that I just don’t have it in me to respond to them right now.

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the road ahead was supposed to be clear + filled with light {long read}

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In the midway of this our mortal life,/I found me in a gloomy wood, astray/Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,/It were no easy task, how savage wild/That forest, how robust and rough its growth,/Which to remember only, my dismay/Renews, in bitterness not far from death. ― Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

We find ourselves in a tangled, savage forest. The sky is obscured by a copse of trees, and the ground below is cold and damp, like a grave. We cry out for our Virgil because we’ve lost our way. We’ve traveled from uncertain shores and our eyes our heavy and our knees ache for the cold quiet and rest. We consider all that we’ve abandoned and all that lay before us, the weight of it, the mess of it, and we feel trapped in the space between the two. We are our indecision. And because of this, we are here, but we’re not here, and you know how it is.

We were children born out of the wreckage of war and subterfuge, the looming spectre of a great bomb hanging invisible over the dark night, and a belief that every moment was the eve before the end — I had not thought death had undone so many, wrote Eliot, said me — and we felt the aftershocks of this constant fear: the foiled-wrapped salisbury steaks, television shows where the husband and wife slept in twin beds, and a life spread out over the pages of photo albums. We were the children born to a generation who clung to their photographed youth.

We were told that we needed to be smarter, better than what had come before. Our parents played cards with the deeds to their houses in their hands. {It occurs to me now that actors in silent movies — a kind of like life — were called players.} The script we were handed was a repeat of an old theme with minor variations: go to college, work hard, marry, create a life, build a home, believe in a god, and die knowing you did everything you were supposed to. From the womb, we were preached from this guidebook, it left its indelible mark — and we took these words, this outline for a life, as sermon.

Until we grew up and realized that our mothers slipped coins under our beds in exchange for our rotting teeth, and we asked, out loud, How is it possible for Santa to visit every house, slip down every chimney? Until we regarded this outline for a life to be an incomplete story, a narrative in parts, designed by parents who tethered themselves to disquiet. How did we think they knew any better? Because they were older? Because they felt the horror of loss and the banality of life? Or did we, as dutiful children, want to play out their hand?

Once we begin to feel our years, once we get a glimpse of the next generation scratching at our feet, do we realize this: the road isn’t linear. A great life isn’t assured. The maps we were given were drawn by parents who were lost. And we watch this new generation {millennial, Y} subvert every rule we had been taught, and we spit out words such as: entitlement, lazy, impatient, and part of us envies their perceived sense of freedom. They’re writing their own story while we’re fleshing out the outline of our parent’s story. Of course they’re impatient! We only have this one life.

I have a friend who did everything by the script. He went to Harvard + Harvard Law. He worked his way up in a prestigious firm and made this great money, had this great partner, lived this great life, but there was an ache, an emptiness that needed filling for he craved purpose. He craved a life that intermingled his love of law and his passion for writing. I tell him that there is little difference between us since lawyers and writers are consumed by the dissection of a paragraph, a vivisection of the written word. Last year he made the very difficult decision to be a defender of human rights {less money, an uncertain career path}. Now he advocates on behalf of people who don’t have a voice, and he’s nearly done with a novel that was a five-year Odyssey. Now he has time. He wakes with purpose in his heart.

I have another friend, Summer, who’s a prolific artist. I met her twelve years ago when she was strumming a guitar and writing her own songs and bits of poetry. Over a decade I watched her oscillate from story writing, illustrating, painting, and singing — but still the one pure purpose hadn’t revealed itself to her until this past year. A confluence of events, starting with her incredible book being pulled out of print, allowed her to explore what it is she’s meant to do rather than what it is that she should be doing. Did I also mention she’s an incredible mother, devoted wife and extraordinary baker of pies?

It took me 38 years to realize that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I’m meant to do that something. I refuse to inherit the previous generation’s disquiet. I refuse to make fear-based decisions that are only pragmatic and devoid of wonder.

Summer has combined two art forms to create comics filled with difficult stories. The visual nature of comics is accessible, and the fact that she can overlay painful prose is pretty brilliant. When I last saw Summer, I felt the glow of her and told her that she, as Woolf once wrote, has found her vision. Summer will be 41.

Right now, many of us are in that black forest, that trembling wood, and we are lost. For most of our lives we followed that outline and realized that script allowed for only one path — no deviation, no veer in the wood — and much like our Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, it took us this long to realize that what the script was missing was life. That we may wake one day and realize our jobs are killing us and we no longer want to be anesthetized. We may wake and look over at our lover and wonder: Could anyone else love me more? We may wake and realize that this life isn’t what we wanted.

What then? We’re in our 30s and suddenly we’re authors and architects, designing a life on the fly. But we don’t have the tools, and is there a store that we can go to buy this life? A book that will tell us what tools we need to use and how to use them? We were instructed to not deviate, but we’ve deviated and what then? Many of us talk about how we can’t fathom the idea of relaxing because we have to work. We were born to.

Over the past year I’ve been playing the hand as it lays — terrifying for someone who is methodical and lives her life so deliberately. I like knowing what’s behind Curtain #2. I prefer the familiar command of the stage and the circus that is the daily workplace performance. I’ve experienced heartache, and professional setbacks that left me confused and questioning my purpose {reading this and this gave me some solace} — until it struck me that I was playing out the very definition of insanity. I was searching for that one, linear path {because for 38 years that’s all I knew}, that constant, the ah! that’s the answer!, when what’s clearly in front of me is non-linear.

One of the many reasons I left my job last year was that I wanted a life where marketing, writing, and food were given equal time on the proverbial playing field — that none of them were to be relegated to the status of changeling. The portfolio career? Possibly. And for the past year I’ve pursued all of these in a very binary fashion. I have my marketing friends, my artist friends, my food friends, and it was only until I saw what Summer did with her life did it make me realize that maybe there is a fusion between these three roles I play that creates a title role, and the rest are merely supporting cast.

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Ask yourself? What is it that you really love? What do you want to spend your days doing? Don’t think about money {as that tends to change the answer into what we should be doing}. For me, it’s writing. It’s writing in different forms. I love novel writing, I love merging image and type in this space through the lens, for the most part, of food. I look at the marketing work I do very simply: How do I tell better stories?

And then I think about prioritization against pragmatic need because I’ve rent, monthly obligations, and credit card/student loan debt. I know that marketing pays my rent and allows me to write and travel, so that gets 40% of my time {I structure most of my major consulting projects where I work 25 hours/week, and take on smaller projects that ensure I don’t mess with this overall mix, but still pay my bills}. Novel writing is a passion (I’m nearly done with my second book) and that gets 30% of my time. And the remaining 30% goes to the ephemeral — all sorts of projects and experiments {travel, food, interviews with people like myself who’ve made a leap over a meal we cook together} that help me constantly hone in on my art but allowing me to be agile enough to keep refining my title role and supporting cast. Because maybe that remaining 30% will allow for something beautiful and magical and unforseen to emerge.

Amidst this forest, having strayed from the path to find my way into dark, I’ve created a structured, unstructured life that allows me to find my way out of the dark by creating my own light.

the things we carry: rape + late-life feminism

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But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

When I was college, I knew two women who had been raped. One Sunday morning we woke to news cameras on campus and tears. A girl I’d known only slightly had been followed home, brutally beaten and assaulted in the basement of the building in which she lived, while her passed out roommates and neighbors lie sleeping. She was coming from a night out with a friend, and her friend watched her walk home for as long as she could, for as long as she could see, and as soon as the woman disappeared a man approached her. He made small talk, and I remembered hearing this woman had been kind. Later, after the woman woke from her coma not realizing what had happened, couldn’t remember the rape, she did recall the man, being scared, and talking in the hope that he might walk away.

But he didn’t.

I remember hearing this story during the second semester of our senior year, and the first thing my roommates and I said — safe in the on-campus apartment complex, guarded by a lone man who often read the paper and waved by drunken college kids flashing their IDs — was thank god we didn’t go through with off-campus housing. The severity with which this woman had been attacked was unimaginable, so much so that we couldn’t say her name without lowering our voices to a whisper. Shuttering our eyes. Maybe thinking, Thank god it wasn’t me. But it could have been me. How many times have I… When the woman returned triumphantly to campus {my god, how did I not tell her then just how fucking brave she was}, the only thing I could say was that I was so sorry. Why is that I waited until this kind woman was raped to talk to her? And even then — a pithy I’m so sorry? Seriously, Felicia? The woman wanted to go with her life, drink with the rest of us during Spring Weekend and be sized for her cap and gown, and I remember a lot of us feeling horrible for what had happened but for some reason we couldn’t separate the woman from the rape. We held her at a remove, and sometimes I think about this — seventeen years later — and wish we weren’t cowards.

We’re told, for as long as we can remember, Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t attract attention. We’re told to travel in groups, to look out for one another, to call one another when we made it home to ensure we arrived in-tact, in one piece. We’re given rape whistles, emergency numbers to call, and in the 90s we purchased mace and pepper spray in record numbers. We’re told to hold our keys, look around, don’t walk down dark streets, take alternate routes, calculate the time from the subway to our home and also time the alternate routes. I thought of Tim O’Brien today because, in a way, it feels as if we are constantly strategizing; we are the victims of an endless, unseen and unspoken war, a war in which we know we’ll never be the victor. Instead, we cast our armor, we plot, we devise, we take self-defense classes and vary our routine — we live our lives in perpetual fear and constant defense.

You may shake your head as you’re reading this, you might even say that this is dramatic, that this is an extreme, but I ask you: How many times have you said, without thinking, Get home safe. It only occured to me last night that I say this all the time. It’s an accepted phrase, commonplace, and there’s nothing alarmist about the behavior until we pause for a moment and consider: Safe from what? From whom?

The second rape was tricky. During our freshman year my good friend told me about a rough night she’d had with her boyfriend. They’d be drinking and he forced himself on her. She told me she had said, stop. She told me she had said, No. And I remember shaking. I remember telling her that this was rape. There was no grey area {is there even a grey area? No.}. No confusion. No misunderstanding. She was raped by her boyfriend, and all our other friends told me to shut up.

Because this man was her boyfriend and boyfriends don’t rape their girlfriends.

I ignored them and became vigilant. I confronted him, drunk {not my finest hour}, in public, and called him a date rapist. He played the role of the victim beautifully, so much so that my friends {WOMEN} snapped at me, told me that I was making a fucking scene, and if my friend didn’t think it was an issue who was I, boyfriend-less, virgin Felicia, to “stir up the pot?”

How dare I?

Women shamed me into silence and I was a coward for caving. A semester later, my friend returned to the country from which she’d come, and the man found a girlfriend. It was as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I wish I would have been braver, said something, reported it, shouted louder.

Feminism came late for me. For three years I was one of the very few women working in an investment bank, and amidst the sea of boys and commonplace sexual harassment, women were relegated to two roles: whore and one of the boys. I was slated in the latter, subjected to their just kidding, wink, wink jokes and late nights at strip clubs and bosses who asked me whether I was a virgin, and if I was currently sleeping with anyone. I tacitly accepted this because I was the only woman. Why should I make a scene? How could I raise my voice? For years I worked for, and was mentored by, men {many of whom were great and brilliant and kind}, and I played into the misogyny, rolled my eyes and talked about crazy, dramatic women, and wouldn’t it be easier if I had worked with only men. So much less drama, you know.

I’m not going to talk about the confluence of events that attributed to my awakening, or subject matter with which I’ve found closure in my memoir, but here I am, 38, a loud and unapologetic feminist. A woman who has to endure an endless tirade of concerns after I booked a trip to India {You can’t go to India, they joked. You’ll get raped!}, to which I respond, quite plainly, Do you honestly believe I’m any safer here? A woman who knows a lot of insanely brilliant and beautiful women who DM me on Twitter because they’re afraid of being outspoken, they’re frightened {sadly, and rightly, so} of the consequences they’d face, personally and professionally, if they speak out against everyday sexism. If they talk about their everyday assaults. If they report their rapes. A woman who knows other women who won’t even touch these issues with a ten-foot pole because they have a fancy job in New York, they’re surrounded by great guys, and might even have an amazing, loving boyfriend, so how do these issues affect me again?

Make no mistake, we are not equal.

There’s that distance, that remove, that illusion of equality. I am a woman who actually told a bunch of appalled friends that a former boss who sometimes unbuttoned his shirt in front of me to tuck in his pants, didn’t mean anything by it. I am a woman amongst a sea of senior men who was forced to get a career coach because I had to “harden up,” and not be so emotional {read: compassionate and empathetic} in business. I am a woman who has to mentor other women because they need strong, feminist role models to believe in their self-worth, to speak out against injustice, to know that I’ve got their back. I am a woman who has to constantly think of escape routes, alternate routes, etc, when I walk home alone at night. That’s a lot, A LOT, to carry.

I don’t know what the end of the story is, or how I even arrived at this place, but I do know, and wish for for, this: a day when I can walk through this thicket, alone, without fear. It would be nice to go through it instead of photographing it.

Some recent, incredible reads: A Drop in the Ocean: #YesAllWomen Have Stories Like Mine, You Are Not Defined By Your Tragedy, and To Men Who Ask “What Can *I* Do to Fight Sexism and Misogyny?

the weight we carry

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I live in a city where women are impossibly thin and they can’t see it. They juice-fast, book back-to-back spin and bootcamp classes, and traipse around Manhattan in expensive gear. They are disheveled, deceptively so, with their hair a bit mused {falling out of that pony or bun} and a bead of sweat gathered at the brow. They are in the business of reduction, and the hunger for smallness is a constant, exhausting state. They say, You look great! Did you lose weight? They say, after they overhear a girl complain about the lack of double-0 petites, I don’t touch bread baskets. They say, covering their stomach with their hands, I’m on this new diet that I found on Refinery. They say, in a voice sonnet-small, How can I get small, small, small?

Mother of fuck. We can build magnificent things with the amount of effort we devote to reducing the size of our bodies.

I used to be that girl in the changing room whinging about the lack of negative integers. I was also someone who subsisted on 1200 calories a day and worked out seven days a week. I was also someone with a drug and alcohol problem, but it didn’t matter because people often complimented my tiny waist, my unwavering discipline. Looking at old photographs, it’s hard to not want to return to that country, a time when all the small sizes fit and my hip to chest ratio was the focus of other’s envy — but I remind myself of who I was then: a frightened girl, hardly a woman, who could only exert control over her body while the rest of her life fell asunder.

After a midday workout class, my friend and I fall into the elevator and I wonder aloud why we were the only women sweating. My friend says, You realize we were the fat kids in gym class. We talk about body shifts in our 30s, and tacitly agree that we aren’t who we used to be.

I read a post where a woman sees a rendering of herself and compliments the artist on the fact that she made her so skinny. The artist responds that she drew the woman as she saw her. I look at the drawing and the woman and understand wholly and completely why it’s hard for her to reconcile the two. Why is that skinny is the highest compliment many women think they can pay? I then flip through images of me from a decade past and wish I’d love myself more. I wish I knew that the body I had been given was enough — I didn’t need to go a decade-long remodeling project. I didn’t need to ruin what was already beautiful.

I still struggle with this. Every hour of every day. Age gives you perspective and knowledge, but it doesn’t make realizations, or any subsequent regret, any easier to bear. I talk about being strong, but then I find myself staring at the size of women’s thighs on the subway. This past weekend I see a friend and immediately cry out about how wonderful she looks. Did you lose weight? And as soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to pull them back. I want to rewind and delete. I say, fuck, no, you know what I mean, and she nods and I stutter, and I feel awful for not being more vigilant. For not believing in what I want to believe every hour of every day. For not buying into the line I’ve been feeding myself for the past two years. I believe but it’s hard.

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All of this puts me to thinking of India. I think about the juxtaposition of women covered in full-length burkas and women who walk with their flawed {at least from the perspective of an American} bodies on full display. They’re proud of their beauty, unapologetic even, and I look at the women with their midsections all out for the world to see, and how we constantly, unconsciously, pull at our shirts to cover and hide, and this breaks my heart. I live amidst abundance, but those who are abundant are also desperate for the minimal, the elimination, the whisper of a body rather than the shout of it. I envied the women in India, and wished for their confidence. I think about my childhood in Brooklyn and how Puerto Rican and Dominican women strutted proud in their plumage while my mother was constantly covering me up. If I was so healthy, as my mother kept telling me, why was she covering my body as if it were a thing worth being ashamed of?

This is a horror to which I’ve returned, and I can’t quite reconcile it. I’m back in New York, back to my fitness classes and brunch dates, and India is still a specter. The dichotomy of it, the largeness of it, and here I am, assaulted by one constant word, and that word being small.

real talk: bloggers, quit complaining, get a thicker skin + choose your words wisely

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Over the years a woman has grown tired. Her life has shifted, and along the way she loses her verve and she knows it. Her blog has devolved into an orchid she has to tend to because it’s her sole source of income and she needs this money. How did she get to this place, she thinks. She takes on partnerships — some of which leave her readers shaking their heads and doing a double take — because the money’s good and she’s got the traffic, and one day her readers start to leave comments about this shift, about a voice that has fallen to a whisper, and a blog that no longer inspires. Long-time readers leave lengthy comments lamenting the fall of a blog that was once so great, and then something else happens — a slew of other women attack the detractors, call them haters (Ignore the haters! You’re awesome! I <3 you! Read my blog! Your hair's so shiny! Where did you get that shirt?) and bullies (Stop being a mean girl!). Those who cared enough to leave a thoughtful comment recede; the curtain quietly falls and the motley lot remove the blog from their Google readers. The blogger responds in a series of exclamation points that she’s trying! her! best! OK!

A sister duo pen epic posts defending their expensive finery. So much so that these posts, their heated defenses and endless rationales, become a weekly occurrence, and readers start to express their exasperation. They call out the shameless shills and posts, which feel forced by the hand of a marketer’s enviable budget. Readers remember what the blog used to be — creative, fun, a place where one could find the unfindable — and are heartbroken that the energy that once drew them to this space has dovetailed to SEO tactics and ad banners. The comments section is the equivalent of a high school cafeteria where a host of women shout, “girl on girl crime” as if they have Tourette’s. Apparently, any form of feedback or dissension is immediately dismissed as unfounded hate and cruelty, detracting from a “positive, supportive community.” The bloggers get upset, stomp their well-heeled feet. No one understands what they’re trying to do!

PLEASE STOP THIS BULLSHIT RIGHT NOW. RIGHT THIS SECOND.

Bully. Hate. Girl on Girl Crime. These words and phrases are potent; they have the power to hurt and maim. They’re weapons that should be examined with care. “Slut shaming,” posting nude photos or images that disparage a woman’s character or body, rallying a group of people for the sole purpose of humiliation and torture, stalking through social media, threats, consistent, systematic abuse — these are but a few actions that fall under the auspice of bullying, hate, and girl on girl crime. Leaving constructive feedback about the evolution (or devolution) of someone’s blog, unequivocally, does not. Telling a blogger that her site has become a haven for shills is not girl on girl crime, it’s real truth.

Three years ago I started collaborating with the president of the agency in which I worked. Although I technically didn’t report to him (as a partner, I reported into the CEO, who was not a deft manager), the president stepped in and assumed the role of mentor. For three years, he consistently pulled me into his office and gave me feedback. He called me out on my bad behavior and bullshit, and then showed me how I could have handled the situation in a different way. He gave alternatives, suggestions, and solutions. At first I was annoyed. Even though I endured nearly fourteen years of performance reviews, I felt offended and singled out. In the heat of the moment I mentioned as such — I stomped my little feet and did the offline equivalent of calling him a hater, who didn’t understand the CLEAR GENIUS THAT WAS FELICIA SULLIVAN, to which he responded: I’m investing in you. This is my time, my asset, and I’m using it to help you be a better leader. Would you rather I not invest in you? Is your ego that great? Because I can take my time and use it on someone else.

You guys. That was some real truth.

You better believe I shut the fuck up. Since that conversation, I proactively asked him how I could have handled every meeting, conference call and pitch, better. During performance reviews, I nodded my head impatiently through the praise and asked, How can I do better? It was only when I took a measured stepped back and objectively evaluated my actions, it was only when I set aside my ego and fear, did I become receptive to constructive criticism and feedback. I sought it out and used what made sense for me in order to be a better leader. In three years I grew a thicker skin than I had cultivated in fourteen. Now, this man is my dear friend and mentor, even after we both resigned from our respective positions.

A few weeks ago I listened to Grace Bonney’s podcast on “Choosing Your Words Wisely,” and it reminded me of our immediate, visceral tendency to defend ourselves when confronted with words that challenge or call out our actions. Instead of listening to what others have to say, we wait for our turn to speak. We immediately negate, dismiss, eliminate, instead of taking a breath and trying to understand someone else’s perspective. This weekend I read my friend Alex’s post, on a bunch of men who left negative reviews of an establishment (“In what can only be described as a coordinated attack on a small business, a group of 15 primarily white privileged males left a number of negative reviews citing discrimination on the basis of Google Glass. I’m forced to assume they have little actual understanding of the word, discrimination”). Alex also wrote about another community that labeled a loving father who took nude, playful photos of his child, a pornographer. Pornographer, discriminator — these words are real, powerful and bear consequences. Think about the words you say and how you use them.

Time is a precious commodity, and if someone uses their time to help make you a better blogger, professional, or business owner, consider their feedback the equivalent of a performance review, an investment in you, and don’t you owe it to them, to yourself, to pay attention? Hearing less than complimentary things about oneself is hard, but does that mean we close our eyes to it? Does it mean that we only let in the light and flee the dark? Does it mean we misuse the harshest words to silence our best critics?

Words are powerful, don’t abuse them. If your readers, consumers, bosses, peers, and prospects take the time and effort to give you constructive feedback, listen to it. REALLY LISTEN TO IT. Examine yourself objectively. Ask yourself how their words can help you be a better person or deliver a better product, and discard what is useless and irrelevant.

Constant light is beautiful at first, but its glare is deceptive and ultimately blinding. Think about that. Think about the permeance of blindness, of living a life of imbalance.

on karma + cultivating real relationships {some advice. long read}

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Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge. ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Omega Point

It’s rare you hear me talk shop in these parts, as I’ve been pretty deliberate with how I’ve managed to compartmentalize certain aspects of my life. Longtime readers of this space know that I have an uncanny affection for business and the artistic and creative, and I’m able to move through these spheres fairly seamlessly. While I’m methodical, strategic and decisive in a professional environment, when it comes down to me crafting prose and architecting sentences, I become something of a wavering fakir; I’m forever changing my mind, forever revising a single image to unpack it, restructure and rewire it, so that the thing that I’m describing takes on a new form, reinvents itself. It’s rare that what I do to make a living {digital marketing strategy and management consulting} intersects with my more personal and creative pursuits, until I started to allow more people to fill in the frame. As soon as I opened the door, albeit a peep, a rush of people flew in, and suddenly it occurs to me, to quote the venerable French philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for everything that rises must converge. I’m hyper-aware of the fact that the success of my work is predicated by the kind of people with whom I surround myself. People aren’t fractions or compartments; people can’t be so neatly stacked onto shelves, and suddenly my world is converging. The walls between my personal and professional pursuits are crumbling, and what rises from the rubble are the people who held my hand through the journey.

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If you know me, you know how I abhor the term “networking.” I hate working a room, collecting business cards and making small talk. I’m painfully shy in large groups of people {social or otherwise}, and I tend to leave events quickly, if I even attend them at all. People have often mistaken that for snobbery, but I’m just really uncomfortable with the act of trading a card as a means of connection, and when I hear of people who name-drop and social-climb to be connected with a certain kind of person as if that connection will grant stardom by osmosis, as if we’ll bask in the proverbial glow simply by association — I cringe. Admittedly, all of this makes me an extremist {one of my great flaws}, and the accumulation of people into my world has been painfully slow. While the means may not be valiant, the ends have allowed me to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships with people, and have also afforded me a means of making smarter connections between people. People have often called me a “connector,” because I’m always thinking of brilliant matches, because I’m always thinking about how to make the people in my life richer in life and heart.

From food blogging to marketing and fiction writing, I’ve adopted a few rules for myself that have made my path to cultivating relationships an easier one.

1. Excise the barnacles: Have you ever suffered through a coffee, the kind of get-together that makes you bleary-eyed, and you come home to only fall flat into bed? I used to accept every repeat meal/coffee invite from people who drained the life out of me. These are people who repeatedly take without consciously giving, and when they do give the gifts tend to be material. These are people who are forever asking you to connect them with Person X, do you know anyone at Company Y?, and their dramas are on the level of a telenovela. You see that blood draining from my face? That’s you. So now I only meet people who add texture and energy to my life; I leave these catch-ups invigorated and inspired to create, to do, and the others I see very sparingly. Doing this hasn’t made me “popular,” but it has created a quality to my life that I won’t give up. Surround yourself with people who complement and add, not subtract and deplete. Be surgical about this.

2. Give without expecting the world in return: Trust me on this one. Once you’ve gotten rid of the barnacles, offer help without expecting anything in return. Karma will pay you back, I really believe this. Whenever my good friends or old colleagues and I meet up, I’m always crafting ways in which I can help, people I can connect them to who can take them where they need to go. You may not get repaid now or ever, but your kindness and selflessness builds character, and people always want to be associated with people of great character.

3. Try not to be an asshole. No, really: You’d be surprised how and when people may resurface in your life. Recently, an old client of mine applied for a job at a company where I was consulting. I remember the client, and how she was fair, smart and kind, and I was in a position to help her resume rise above the pack. She now has a job at this company, and on her first day she joked and said, I’m glad we had a good relationship. Everyone has bad days, weeks or months, but word-of-mouth is powerful, and although I’ve had my difficult moments I try really hard to be fair and kind to everyone, and that has helped me. Another person who I vouched for a senior marketing position in the company {he didn’t get it} recently called me about working on a project with him. In short, do well by people, which sort of leads me to my next point.

4. Your C network is a rich terrain. Harvest it: This week, a work colleague and I gave a talk about “networking” and cultivating relationships, and I drew three large concentric circles on a piece of paper. Think of them as orbits. Your A orbit represents your crew {close friends and tight-knit colleagues}. These folks you see quite often and you tend to have similar networks and information. Your B/C networks extend farther out, with a great deal of your C network being composed of colleagues, vendors and new friends with whom you’ve worked on congenial terms, but there weren’t any deep and meaningful relationship {this is okay!}. These folks have a network of folks you won’t come into contact with every day, and I’ve found that I’ve garnered more leads and projects from folks out of my “orbit” than my closest friends. It’s also easier, professionally, as business between friends can be prickly.

5. Cultivate real relationships: This should be captain obvious, but in practice it clearly isn’t. I honestly don’t care how “big” a blogger you are, how well you’re “connected,” rather I care about whether or not I can share a meal with you, which, essentially, goes back to my first point. I don’t go into relationships expecting anything from people — I honestly just want to meet people who add light to my life. That may sound trite, but I don’t care, and it’s allowed me to attract a group of folks I see often, help often, love always. I rarely ask for favors, and if I do, it comes without strings. My requests are brief and are always reciprocated {whether it be now or another point in time}, and I only befriend people, professional or otherwise, with whom I can share a meal.

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addiction never goes away, it just lies dormant {real talk}

black hair on the green grass

Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.Seth Mnookin

Oh, do I know this all too well. There was a time when it was rare to find me photographed without a drink in my hand. An evening would start one way and end differently. I’d walk into therapy a bottle of wine in, and my therapist would tap her pen and ask that we reschedule our session because I wasn’t fit to carry a conversation. I was always in control until I wasn’t, and then I’d cower and hide and wake to an ocean of shame and regret. For over a decade I cleaved to the drink, sought it out as a confidant, best friend, sister, mother and refuge. It was the one constant, the one who would never leave, and I was faithful to my lover, kept it warm, tended to it as one would tend to a child or a beloved. I was disciplined; I had a set of rules to which I followed like scripture: light drinking during the week (with minor exceptions), all work must been done well and perfectly, and as a result the weekend would be my reward. Friday would start with one drink and I’d wake Sunday morning wondering how it is that I got this lost. Would I ever find my way back home?

Home is a tricky word for me, because as a child my family was nomadic. We moved frequently, and it was such that home became a place where mail was forwarded. Home was not a refuge, but a prison, with the shades pulled down and the windows whitewashed shut. For most of my life, I was surrounded by addicts — an aunt, a local congenial junkie we called Uncle Sam, my mother, her husband (my step-father, the man she married before she met the man whom I would for the rest of my life call my father) and scores of people that wove in and out of our lives like spools of thread, taking tokes, bumps, hits, sips, until they themselves were lost.

I took my first drink when I was a small child — all in an effort to get my mother’s attention at a party. Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been an effort to get my mother’s attention. She’s that great specter who will always linger, whether or not I want her to. And although I’ve closure with the fact that it’s impossible for me to love her, it’s impossible for us to have any sort of relationship (she in Long Island with her daughter and partner, me here), this first and forever hurt lies dormant. I’m writing a novel now and I can’t seem to write a relationship between a mother and daughter that is healthy. Fathers are forever absent or weak, feeble. Mothers are the queen of the kingdom, the source of pain and heartbreak.

Even now. Even still.

It would be foolish to blame a decade-long binge on my mother. She was certainly a trigger, my inability to mourn losing her didn’t help, but I take responsibility for what I’ve done as an adult, and how I’ve allowed her to impact my life. I remember being a child and putting my face in her hair, wanting to forever get lost in the thicket of it, and I sometimes dream of it, of her, and wanting so much for our world to be different.

But it isn’t, and that’s just reality. And so I deal with that. I cope with not having any form of relationship with her because I can’t, because she’s a real trigger. Because her mere presence, her voice, threatens my health and wellbeing as I know it. A few years ago, when we had attempted a reconciliation, which invariably failed for many reasons that I won’t recount here, she laughed and asked that I write a book about her, a book about her life. In response, I deadpanned that every single word I’ve ever written has been about her. She spoke of our mutual addictions as a badge of honor, went as so far to romanticize it, and I paused and said that there’s nothing beautiful about the dark. It’s cold, lonely, and a disease that has a way of killing everything in its wake. While I’m absolutely not ashamed of my addiction — hence the reason why I write about it so publicly, talk about it so openly, because there should be no shame or stigma, for it’s a disease — I sure as hell am not going to make it a fucking sonnet.

When I heard the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I cried. Clearly I don’t know the actor (save for a few emails traded years ago with his assistant, as I learned he admired a literary journal I published), but I not only mourned the loss of a great light, I was momentarily terrified over his span of sobriety and his swift relapse. Up until this year, I had been nearly seven years sober. This photo you see here was taken a year into my sobriety and I felt triumphant. As the years passed, it became easier to not drink. It was simply a choice I made. You either live your life or you let the drink live your life. I endured a lot of stress and change, but did not drink. I endured the emergence of my mother after a fourteen-year absence, but did not drink. I thought I was home free, as it were.

Then I lost Sophie. And I told myself {god, in hindsight I have to laugh at the logic!} that I was diagnosed as a binge drinker, not an alcoholic, and that I can drink! It was possible! I just have to be aware of the circumstances!

Perhaps starting up again after a loss may not have been my finest moment. It should be said that I don’t cope with loss well. I don’t like a leaving.

And then I started to notice changes, a behavior that wasn’t there seven years ago. Very clear signs of alcoholism. My very close circle grew quiet, yet supportive when I announced I was drinking again. I know part of them must have been terrified but they didn’t show it. They were cautious, perhaps hopeful, because they believed like I did, that I knew the life I’d left behind, and why would I ever voluntarily return to that dark country?

Umm, because I have a disease, and it took a two-month relapse this summer to realize that. It took a relapse for me to realize that I can never be the person who has a glass of wine after work. I can never drink casually. I can never drink. Six months later, I’m finally okay with this fact, and I’m finally finding tools to deal with loss.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing reminds me that addiction is a real disease; it’s a lover who refuses to leave. It lies dormant, sessile, innocuous, and resurfaces when it gets the scent of weakness, of doubt, of I can have one drink, hit, toke, sniff, hit. His passing makes me realize that it’s important for us to live our best life. It’s important that we chose life every single damn day.

If I can offer you any truth it’s this: don’t be afraid to talk about your addiction. Don’t hide it. Don’t be ashamed of it. The more you say its name, the more power you have over it, and the more you can lean on others to support you through it.