a phoebe + kate update // on playing small

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Everyone wants to be big. Everyone wants that McMansion life. A friend introduces me to someone and says, Felicia started an agency. I recoil in response. I joke about how I’m allergic to certain words: marriage, guru, agency. Another friend asks me about my plans for this non-agency. Do I want to be big? Do I want to go global? And then it occurs to me that I’m allergic to a whole lexicon. I spent two years recovering from working for a sociopath; I’m not booking a return ticket to that life in the near future. I don’t want to be on a magazine’s list. I don’t want photos of my staff in quirky outfits splashed across some fashion blog. I do not want to be big. Big means beholden. Big implies choices I’m not interested in making.

Big ruins everything. Focusing on the size and weight of things was nearly my ruin. It’s important to learn from one’s mistakes.

Months ago, I sat across from my psychiatrist. It hadn’t even been three months since I existed in another space, one in which I wanted to quietly end my life. The medication he prescribed, Wellbutrin, altered me overnight. I went from thinking this is all too much to this is manageable. I can work with this. I borrowed money from friends to continue my therapy until I was able to balance on two feet, and three months in, I found myself talking to him about purpose. 

I remember saying, just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I like doing it. Although I admired and respected the people with whom I worked, I didn’t feel challenged. Days felt rote. In response, my therapist asked me when was the last time I felt joy in my work. It need not be a huge project or a major accomplishment–just tell me this, when were you last challenged? I thought about that, a lot, and I laughed. You’re going to think this is ridiculous… I remember fidgeting on his couch, crossing one leg over the other, uncrossing, and crossing again. I recounted a day I’d spent with a former colleague turned friend turned partner on a project, and we were on my patio styling and taking pictures of beauty products. It was fun because my friend made me laugh the entire day, and part of me knew that what we’re doing was kind of good, but not yet great. Meaning, I had a lot to learn. It’s a feeling of standing in the middle of your life with the recognition that part of you was excited about starting over. And that feeling of wonder, of abandoning a cap and gown and navigating all the firsts (apartment, rent check, job, performance review, etc) was about finding joy in the mystery.   

Can you make something out of that? my therapist asked. I shook my head. I didn’t know.   

The walk from my therapist’s office to my home is about a mile and a half. I like the walk, it’s necessary as it allows me to process the past hour I spent being honest and vulnerable in ways I’m still not accustomed. Even recently, my therapist asked me if I perform in therapy. If I like to put on a show. To which I responded, yes, for the first 15 minutes–I need to warm up. I can’t just walk in here and lay it all out to bear. I need those 15 minutes because it allows me to manage the difficult 45.    

So, I’m walking home and with the passing of each block, I got excited. I’ve built businesses before. I started thinking about value proposition, and offering, and I thought about a company where I would partner with people smarter than me to create and tell stories about the brands we love.     

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Then I thought about all the capability decks I’d created for my previous agency and subsequent clients. I thought about the words I used and how I rolled my eyes while typing them. I didn’t want that bullshit. I didn’t want to be like the rest. I met with a few friends and tried a few different ways of explaining what I wanted to do, and people got excited. But still. I didn’t want the stress of a P&L, of overhead dictating creative decisions. I wanted the fluidity of project work, of having the flexibility in picking my collaborators and partners, without being beholden to a retainer. I didn’t want to work with anyone crazy. I didn’t want to become crazy. And I wanted to work with people smarter, older, and younger than me. 

So I looked at my new novel and I remembered the first novel I really loved, and Phoebe & Kate was born.  

My problem (well, one of many) is that I tire of things quickly. I get hot about something then I lose interest. So I deliberately created a business model that gave me a Houdini-esque escape clause should I want to move on. At first, it was as if I made all the obvious mistakes I spent years undoing. I hired an incompetent bookkeeper, whom I quickly fired. I lamented over LLC vs. S-Corp since the latter has greater tax advantages, yet comes with paperwork that could possibly drive you crazy. A wise friend told me to stick with an LLC for now, and sent me this handy comparison, which made my decision that much more palatable. Even though I just got hit with a California small business tax bill (WTF is it with California and TAXES?! For the love.) And although I told everyone I knew I was doing this non-agency thing, I didn’t put on my Willie Loman suit and pack a briefcase of decks to pitch the world. I wrote an article on Medium, sent a few emails, and hid under my desk.

For a time, I wondered what people would think. I worried about public failure knowing that there are people in this world who wish this for me, or take satisfaction in my undoing. And then I stopped giving a fuck because a few months ago I wanted to end my life and finally, here I was, fighting to create a new one. Fuck everyone, I thought. If this fails, it fails. At least I tried.

Over the past couple of months, I hired a new bookkeeper (Brittany is fucking awesome, please hire her) who is making me realize that although I might have worked in investment banking I know nothing about money. She’s helping me get my financial house in order. I’ve made investments in this business, and I’m still working out processes with freelancers who operate on different schedules or have varying ways in which they work and communicate. 

Then I landed two awesome clients and I fist-pumped the air and thought, holy shit, this might work. 

Last week, I spent two days with a friend, Joanna, who I knew from blogging (we met once or twice IRL, but kept up with one another via text and our blogs), a friend who is an exceptional stylist and thoughtful creative. A friend who has become a trusted collaborator. One who isn’t afraid to impart wisdom while at the same time letting me know when I need to stay in my lane. We took a room in a fancy-pants hotel in Santa Monica, Palihouse, since it resembled a home, complete with airy rooms and a pristine kitchen. I shuttled over thousands of dollars worth of espresso machines, props, and all the photography equipment I’d accumulated and Joanna rolled up with a suitcase of props and her vision. From her, I learned how a real photo shoot was supposed to roll.  

The experience was exhausting and exhilarating. We worked from morning to evening and I wanted to collapse into my bed and have someone fork-feed me pasta. This shoot, which took a dizzying 3 weeks to pull together (from content strategy to brainstorming to shot list creation to prop purchases, styling, shooting, editing, and delivery of selects to the client), but in that brief amount of time I felt I’d learned more than I had in the past three years. I spent months taking online photography classes, downloading tutorials, and although I’ll never be as adept as someone who’s a professional, that’s not what I’m going after. We’re not shooting national ad campaigns–we’re having fun with food and coffee. I don’t need to do more because I’m content with what I have and I’m privileged to have the ability to live out a second act.    

There’s so much I need to learn. How to balance schedules. How to make processes easier and fluid, especially for people living in different states and time zones. How to budget and project revenue and costs. How to get a good working margin. How to know when to grow.

All of this is happening while the specter that is my insane amount of debt looms. I’m focused on paying that down aggressively, which means I have to work longer hours than I should. I take on more than what I’m sometimes able to manage–all with the knowledge that this is temporary. That in a couple of months I’ll be able to hire an assistant who will be able to help me streamline the jobs that come in.

But I’m happy. I haven’t been able to say that in a long, long time. I have a book coming out next year, I’ve got my health (mental and otherwise) back on track, I’m starting to make friends and build a life in Los Angeles, and I’m dealing with my debt, head-on.

So this is 40.   

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the benefits of reciprocal mentorship: be good to the kids, you need them

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There’s a reason for the peonies, I assure you.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was kind of an asshole. It was 2009, and I’d just accepted a role in an agency after a career on the brand side, a career dominated by companies that recycled old ideas and were frightened of progress, so much so that the state of stagnation had become tragically ubiquitous. I wanted velocity and risk after years of being methodic and measured. Up until 2009 it had been rare for me to work with people who were younger than me unless they were interns or assistants. Most of my coworkers were older and their most beloved word was no. As in, no, this can’t be done. As in, no, who else has done it, first? As in, no, we’ve always done it this way, so why try something new? It became such that I wanted to staple things to their heads and bang my head against my desk while pleading for progress.

After a career of being the youngest person in the room, I was excited about being one of the OLDS. I was proud of my tenure and believed I had a thing or two to teach the youngsters who’d taken up residence on my lawn. Little did I know that after a career working for people who believed that one spent decades paying their dues, and junior employees didn’t speak until spoken to, that I would adopt this dangerous way of thinking. I’d come to this new role with a five-piece luggage set of baggage. While I was initially excited to work with kids in their 20s, I quickly became astonished. Are you telling me you want a pay raise and a title change after 2 years while I waited FIVE YEARS to be promoted to manager? How do you not see the benefits of slaving over excel sheets and doing those staid, repetitive tasks because I had to endure daily paper cuts filing papers in cabinets back when one used paper–a time when everyone used a fax machine.

You want purpose, mentorship, and a clear path for advancement? Surely, you jest.

For a time, I grumbled with the OLDS I once admonished. Who do these kids think they are? They’re in diapers and they want to run companies and enjoy their work? My generation never enjoyed their work, rather we were told that work afforded you money for the life you were supposed to have: kids, the car, the house and the fence–all aging remnants, an eyesore from a generation where women swallowed voice and served frozen dinners to the men who came home from the office secretly frightened that the best they could ever be was second-rate. I never wanted that life and here I was clinging to it. Here I was telling people who wanted progress! change! to swallow their voice. To speak unless spoken to.

It took a few years to undo the damage inflicted by my previous generation, and when I left the fancy job it occurred to me that I had much to learn from those who were younger than me. Never would anyone in my generation leave a good job for uncertainty. We would never be consultants. We would never pursue a life of purpose and professional fulfillment. We took what was given and swallowed our medicine with tepid glee, like the good children we were raised to be.

Why not design a life you want to live since we have so few years in this life to live? Why not buck complacency? Why not question that which has always been done? Why not view failure as a means of inevitable success?

Now, the great majority of my friends are under 30. And I’ve so much to learn. When I first left my job years ago and considered going back to full-time, a friend suggested that I stay the course and go out on my own. What’s the worse that can happen? You try and fail? So then you know. A few weeks ago, my friend Jenna gave me a refresher course on the more sophisticated ways one could target consumers on Facebook. She spent an hour of her time on Skype answering all my dumb questions. My other friend Jennifer, an insanely smart and passionate marketer who once reported to me, patiently showed me how to use Snapchat. This may all seem small, insignificant, but I owe much of my success to the fact that I’m humble enough to learn what I do know. I’ve become smart enough to see the value in reciprocal mentorship, the hey, I’ll teach you how to lead teams and grow a business and you’ll explain every nuance of every new technology and how people are shopping today. You’ll inspire me to want more, to question everything and think differently. This is what has kept me fresh and competitive while some of my peers continue to struggle.

I really hate the sound of my own voice. 

For every project I take on, I usually partner with a subcontractor, and it’s rarely a peer. Granted, I’ll punt things with one of my two mentors. I’ll gut-check a strategy or an approach with those who’ve done what I’m trying to do before and have done it successfully. However, I have SO MUCH FUN with smart people who are younger than me. I’m working with my friend Jennifer on a beauty project and we spend a few hours each Friday (or Saturday) brainstorming ideas, staging photo shoots (like the peonies business above), and talking about trends, and I always leave those afternoons smarter and inspired.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years, it’s this: be good to people. Not because you never know if they’ll be your boss, client, or a decision maker, but because you should want to be a good human. Being humble and receptive to learning from the younger set has made me smarter, kind and patient, and nearly all of my projects this year have come as a result of referrals from my millennial friends.

I loathe the word expert because I firmly believe that one is constantly a student and a teacher. We always have more to learn, and the more you open yourself up to alternative sources of knowledge, the more you grow professionally and personally.

And you end up taking really nice snaps of your client’s product for social media. So there’s that.

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old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.

It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?

Soon I mastered the acronyms:

AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal

Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.

When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.

This morning, I read a remarkable post about a woman who’s made hundreds of friends through social media. Ella Risbridger writes:

We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.

1-lon_HLCqSNYm4G93Xun7cwHer words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.

And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.


Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals

a woman in her own private Idaho

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Male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination. —Elena Ferrante

As  a woman, I’ve been told to not kick up a fuss, not make a scene, not be so aggressive because it looks unseemly on you. I’ve been told to be collaborative, warm, kind, supportive, and a team player. I’ve been told to smile and play nice. Dial down the emotion–you care too much! I’ve been told that I won’t be successful with that attitude. I’ve been told to listen and smile when men pay you a compliment. I’ve been told that I’m pretty when I’m thin. You look so good–have you lost weight? I’ve been told, in a voice I’ve grown to hate, you really have opinions. I’ve been told to play the game, to not make waves. Don’t make such a big deal….Felicia. I’ve been told, you’re nearly 40 and you have considered getting a little work done? Not, a lot, mind you, but enough to look like you’re freshened up like a new bottle of milk in the fridge before its expiration date. I’ve been told I think a lot, I drink a lot, I’m a lot. I’ve been told, I like you because you’re pretty, but you sure do talk a lot. I’ve been told that I’m intimidating. I’ve been told to be quiet, shhh. I’ve been told you’re not this, you’re not that, in response to when I tell someone something about myself. I’ve been told that I’m angry when I tweet about rape, black men getting killed simply for the color of their skin, or that we live in a country filled with frightened, angry people who will do anything to hold onto their privilege. Why do you have to be so angry? What’s the point of getting angry because anger doesn’t change things. You tweeting doesn’t change things. You’re a feminazi, an SJW, or some other newfangled noun that seeks to put you in your rightful place.

Sometimes I think they’re right. Sometimes I wonder what’s the point in kicking up a fuss, but then I think of the alternative–doing nothing at all. Keeping mute and silent in all the ways many in this world, for one reason or another, want me to be.

Yesterday, I spent the day away from the internet and its opinions about women, and I felt happy. I deleted my Facebook profile because I couldn’t get it up for people anymore and I didn’t necessarily want to see them getting it up for me, and I missed being an active participant in my friend’s lives. Scrolling and collecting information about the goings-on of people I know felt false, it felt as if I was taking the easy way out in a friendship. That I didn’t necessarily have to put in the work to be present. And akin to this incisive post, the constant feed wasn’t doing much for my well-being. Ironically, people keep asking me if everything’s okay because I’m not on Facebook, and how do I explain that I got off the social network to get okay?

There they were, my glowing posts from Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York City, my tales of adventures in the West Bank and the Baltic Sea, the stories I’d written and magazines I’d edited, my clever commentary on current affairs, all rounded off by likes and comments from people I’d met (or not) at some point in my life — irrevocable proof that I’d once been successful, popular, joyful, happy even. —Kati Krause

I get most of my news and commentary from Twitter (I have a television and cable, but I mostly use my TV to stream movies since TV is exhausting), but I’ve started to notice that it’s making me enraged to a point beyond productivity. I became consumed with the James Deen rape allegations and a world seemingly filled with rape apologists and misogynists. That women have to be a certain kind of woman to be a victim. That a woman has to follow a specific kind of binary protocol in the event that she’s pillaged. A woman always has to be something acceptable while men are forever given free passes and pats on the head. A woman is forever at work to please, conform, and self-correct while a man kicks back in his incredulity. I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be serious), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they were misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as a child. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be honest), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they are misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as children. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

In short, I want to be informed and participate in the world but the world is exhausting me to a point where I log on to the internet and wonder what kind of bullshit I’ll encounter on any particular day.

Not necessarily a healthy or balanced way to live–don’t think I haven’t recognized this.

On the flipside I see (and sometimes participate in) posturing. The refrain of this is my fabulous life! The thing from which I escaped on Facebook follows me on the blogs I read (where everyone tells me that I need to buy this and that because doing so will enable them to buy this and that), to what I experience on a daily basis (wouldn’t it be nice to Instagram that doughnut just to show everyone that I’m! So! Happy! because being blue is so passé and violently uncomfortable). I guess part of my anger comes from my obsession with consumption (and all its good and ills) and resentment that I sometimes play into it.

I’m trying to learn how to get information and opinions while practicing a degree of detachment toward it. Right now, I’m too sensitive and attached. I’m slowly learning to spend less time online and more time being present in the lives of people I know and love. Spending more time reading books that awaken me and films that make me laugh out loud. Spending more time eating donuts and trying to refrain from documenting it. Spending more time being in the world rather than scrolling through it. Spending more time realizing my anger won’t change the world. Spending less time thinking about what people wish for me to be. Work in progress. Work in progress.

on social media: flowers, coffee, a book on the table + a quivering heart

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You should know that it took me a while to find the right fake photo for this post. An image that conveys a mood of a life so messily, yet so beautifully lived–a kind of Kinfolk existence where everyone is preened to dishabille perfection. The kind of life you could live if only you tried harder, if only you purchased that precious mug. The equivalent of a drive-by life, but instead of surveying wreckage we’re marveling over feet in knit socks, gloved hands, the spines of old books, and steam rising up from a mug. It occurs to me that this life is an even more terrifying wreckage because the damages it inflicts are elusive, monstrous. We don’t see the hurt coming.

In 1999, I’d grown uneasy with my career at an investment bank. This was a time when you mailed paper resumes and you never conceived of leaving your industry. I’d meet with recruiters who told me that the only jobs worth applying for were those at merchant and investment bank. Perhaps a foreign bank, they suggested. Perhaps you can work for the Japanese although the amount of women in senior positions is anemic. You can only go so far. At the time, I lived with my father above a barn in Long Island where it would take several hours to download a single file. I had an AOL account and I used the internet for messaging people and purchasing collectibles off eBay. One morning on the train to work I made the connection between an unmet need and a fervent desire–people around the country wanted access to designer goods without the hefty price tag. I lived in New York where samples sales and outlet shopping were the norm for those who could afford it, and I started a business where I purchased goods and re-sold them online. I filed for an LLC, did my own taxes, photographed the goods, wrote pithy descriptions and posted the goods online. My only risks at the time were inventory management (holding products that I couldn’t move) and overseas credit card fraud (of which I once fell prey), but the upside was immeasurable. I carved out experience in an industry where I had none. After a year of managing a successful online business, I got a job at a burgeoning dot.com in 2000. Over the next 16 years, I would take jobs and live much of my adult life being a part of the online space. I was able to move across industries simply because I was one of the rare few who had real business experience but knew how to navigate the Internet.

I built projects online, made friends, published writing–all in this rarefied existence, a marketplace where people told stories, shared ideas and wanted to be heard.

I’ve written a lot about the unseemly aspects of playing online. I’ve read countless click-bait articles about how the web is making us brain dead sociopaths while allowing for meaningful connections and a platform for disenfranchised communities. I’ve read the spectrum. I’ve worked on the brand side and have understood the business side of bridging the gap between consumers and companies. I’ve been on the consumer side where I crave stories and connection. I’ve been in the middle where I’ve seen how social media has shaped and grown careers, how one post could rocket someone to infamy, how a tweet can cause a maelstrom of online chatter on the level of a tsunami. Admittedly I’m indebted to social media because it shaped much of my professional career, it’s educated and informed me on the lives and plights of people of which I wouldn’t ordinally be exposed, and it’s brought me some of my closest friends. Having a postage stamp of virtual real estate has given me the privilege of sharing my thoughts with strangers. But…but…

Maybe I’m feeling particularly sensitive lately but I’m feeling dwarfed by the sheer volume of you. I feel subsumed by the masks we all wear on one channel and how they’re cautiously (or not) removed or switched on another. I de-activated my Facebook account over the weekend because I grew exhausted scrolling through everyone’s projections of their best lives lived, replete with photo-tagging and witticisms. I grew tired of the self-editing, the curating. Then I went to Twitter, a place where I receive much of my world + business news, and I felt subsumed. Syrian refugees, the banal evangelism of “happy” via listicle and newsletter, the rape allegations against James Deen, the terrorist attack on Planned Parenthood, the relentless sales (please stop telling me what you think I need and do not need), and personal brand self-promotion, the deserved rage toward the U.S.–a country far from benign, gun control, the mind-boggling stupidity of Donald Trump, and on it goes. I felt the phoniness of Facebook jutting up against the realness of Twitter and I posted a picture of my cat on Instagram because everyone I know has pretty much tired of me talking about depression. There was a moment when I just didn’t want to see because it (everything) was just too fucking much.

Or maybe I’m just on edge. Who can say? I guess I feel like I’m vacillating between two precarious states–feeling everything (the collective bandaids ripping off all at once) and nothing at all (the cool desensitization that accompanies being numb; the anesthetic). The equivalent of a song played on volume 10 and a room gone silent.

I once had a friend who lived what appeared to be an enviable life. Her blog was serene and beautiful as was she, she traveled the world and took pictures of herself in fanciful hotels. This was a time when there weren’t many blogs online and I remembered feeling like I wanted to dive into her world and feel everything it. Our paths crossed and we became friends and then we stopped being friends because the life she architected online was partly true, but only a single aspect of her character–and there I go believing that this slice was the sum of her parts. I don’t remember why we stopped being friends, I just thought you are not who you say you are. Part of that’s my fault because I was feeding off of this fantasy, that if I had proximity to it the fantasy would rub my sadness away. That never happened and I had to find other ways to build a life that made sense for me, but I get the escapism. I know all these projections on social media aren’t the entire story, but I can’t help but feel sickened by the partials or the nothingness.

Perhaps this is why I love The Leftovers so much–it’s a show that terrifically navigates our desperate need to be awake but also the beauty in our sometimes quiet desire to be asleep. The storyline pushes the extreme (of faith, love and rage), inviting us to feel so that we could understand contrast in a way that we couldn’t before. There are days when it feels right to walk around in white, smoking cigarettes, writing things down in an effort to make people remember versus the constant chatter of those living their half-lives.

I read a few articles that spoke of the paralysis that comes with having unlimited choice. I’m feeling this, acutely. Sometimes it’s nice to have guardrails, confinement, and constraints. Sometimes it’s comforting for the shouts to dull down to a murmur because right now social media feels like me opening a door to an onslaught of primal screaming. I don’t have a solution to any of this, only that I’m trying really hard to carve out the small space in the world where I can know, feel, create without the burden of noise.

Until then I’m going to keep staring at this photo, wondering if I should get off Twitter too. Wondering if my feeling this noise-induced paralysis is related to what’s going on in my life and the fear that surrounds it.

 

freelancer tip: sometimes you shouldn’t fake it (until you make it)

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

In my line of work I deal with a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. They have an iPhone, a blog, and Warby Parker eyewear, and suddenly they’re a “strategist.” Suddenly they’re parroting a thought-leader’s latest blog post–a geyser of words that, when assembled, means nothing. However, the words sound smart enough to alienate those who are not in the know, so for a time people get by riding the wave of jargon–a language that requires a compass, two dictionaries, and a mime to translate. They ration that they’re a consumer, they have a Facebook account, and they’ve seen brand campaigns online, and magically, poof!, they’re brand architects and social media marketers. Because, as you know, marketing is easy.

You can’t possibly begin to understand how much this frustrates me, and how incompetence not only hurts me but the industry as a whole. I’ve run into a lot of clients who’ve been burned and now they’re skeptical. I’ve come across freelancers who are quick to quote the latest social media stat or blurb from Gary Vaynerchuk, but when when their logic or pedagogical approach are challenged (what’s your methodology? rationale?), they go mute. I’ve seen consultants steal decks and someone else’s work only to manipulate it to a point where the ideas are garbled, the methodology flawed and confusing. I’ve spoken to a host of experienced peers who feel they have to compete on price because the cool kid down the block (shiny object syndrome) can undercut them. Easy.

There are times when it’s appropriate to “fake it”–when you have an existing foundation of real (and by real I don’t mean reading Mashable) experience, and you’re challenging yourself by taking it to the next level through self-education, mentorship (direct/indirect), and learning through experience based on the guardrails and guidance provided by your mentors + team. Sometimes you have to dive into the deep end to see if you can make it out to the other side.

When it’s not appropriate to fake it: you have zero experience in the industry, or you inflate/invent your experience. Let me break this down real slow: there’s a difference between confidence and competence.

Last week, my peers delivered sound advice on breaking into freelance. There are so many ways in which you can make your dream happen without deceiving your clients or using them as a means to pay for your sentimental education. Side hustle during your main hustle. Volunteer. Apprentice with someone who knows what they’re doing–or barter your services so you can learn the fundamentals of your industry while providing a service for someone who needs it. Take classes, online and off. Offer to help out on a project in another department in your place of employment. Take a job in a company and listen and learn and leave when you’re ready to move on. Be humble about what you don’t know, listen and learn.

Because having an active Facebook page does not a strategist make.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my career–it’s this: have the confidence to admit that which you don’t know. It’s not about you not knowing, rather it’s about how you go about getting the answers. It’s about how you learn the fundamentals and discipline to make what you’ve learned your own.

on perception, and the delicate dance of masks

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?

the artist as a lifestyle aesthetic: on trying on artist for size {long read}

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Diptyque candle holding a lone peonie {check}, aviators {check}, an Etsy mug filled with coffee + an expensive lens that’s able to capture the rising steam {check}, the gleaming MacBook Air and accompanying iPhone with a glittery case {check}, glasses perched on a head {check} and a lady preened to dishabille perfection {checkmate} — do these images seem familiar to you? Perhaps because you’ve seen it, or a variation of it, on countless blogs, Instagram feeds and on photoshoots profiling small business owners and artists. This look was a magazine photograph we once pored over, a page we ripped from from its binding and posted on our vision-cum-Pinterest boards. We wanted our room of one’s own (as instructed by Virginia Woolf), and we thought if our room was beautiful, the words and magic would invariably come.

We’ve seen this whitewashing of an artist’s life proliferating the online space, so much so that it feels practiced, carefully composed, and overtly stylized — yet devoid of any actual, substantive meaning. I’ve endured countless blog posts featuring bloggers turned authors who dress up, apply lipstick to puckered lips, and don Warby Parker glasses, as if intellectualism was an outfit that they wanted to try on for size. Perhaps they think, this is how an artist at work should look to my readers, and this puts me to thinking of an excellent piece I just read, which speaks of the dual masks we wear — our practiced online personas versus the real lives we lead. Rarely are these masks reconciled, rarely do we see the innards of one’s life, only the representation of parts of it. Never do we bear witness to the whole until we meet this person “in real life” {ever think about that term, “in real life”? As opposed to what? Our “fake ones”?} and then, after a time, we think, Wow, this is you. We curate this enviable life, down to the suns settling into the dark water and our tawny, lithe legs crossed at the ankles during a day at the beach.

Perhaps part of us regresses, thinks, I’m projecting a version of me that’s slightly better than you.

I remember a blogger I used to revere a decade ago. She was blonde, European, artistically inclined and seemed to live this magical life, jettisoning to castles turned hotels and living a life out of an Anthropologie catalog. My god, did I want this life. I wanted out of my sterile cubicle with its foam grey walls and a computer that required constant coddling from an IT specialist. I wanted my organic teas and ginger-encrusted chocolates, and I sought out her friendship because, frankly, I idealized her life and I was a wannabe. We became fast friends, but our friendship soon became a mirror that shattered into pieces, with each broken shard revealing a more nefarious aspect of her personality. She lived, breathed, and believed her own fiction, and I stepped away from that friendship realizing that what I was missing was the beauty in my own life, which I had so assiduously attempted to fill with hers.

We want, we covet, we desire, we need — this is our nature as humans, but sometimes the desire for another’s life becomes a burden that is too overwhelming to bear, and it ultimately threatens the one thing that is real: our life, as we live it.

Last night, my dear friend, Summer and I had a slumber party, and we both woke at 5:30 this morning and spoke for hours about art, words, and the lack of authenticity in the online space. I revealed the reasoning behind changing the title of my novel to Follow Me into the Dark because it’s the most powerful kind of love I could imagine, yet hardly know. A love that puts your heart on pause, and when the object of your affection is threatened, you don’t hesitate, flinch or think about sacrificing the one thing that is truly yours: your life. This is what I imagine most mothers feel for their children. You will follow your beloved into the dark, and attempt to sacrifice yourself as a means of rescue. This is real love, and I hope to one day be privileged to know it.

I offer up this fragment of our conversation because it elucidates something larger — most people are terrified of the dark. So much so that they tether themselves to anything that resembles light, figuratively and literally. Sadness, loss, ugliness, fear — these are countries most don’t want, or know how, to navigate. They’re myopic in terms of the media they consume, and talk about how desperately they need their reality television shows and fluffy books because they need to escape. But I think about this, and if they close their eyes to the dark so wholly, so completely, what is it then that they’re escaping from? Last year I suffered a tremendous loss, my Sophie, and I was SO MOTHERFUCKING ENRAGED by people’s responses to her passing {and the platitudes they’d throw out like wrapped sweets} that it drove me to write about it. Because that was a time when the two masks were reconciled.

My cat died, I relapsed, and things got really fucked up. And many people in my life {online and off} couldn’t handle it.

This is a circuitous way of saying that this practiced life, this projection of light and beauty, can be dangerous. If the online space is a means for us to connect with others, why is it that we create this severe delineation of self? Naturally, there are lines I don’t cross — I don’t speak of my love life, or the lives of my friends and family without their expressed permission — but as an artist I find it impossible to not communicate the light and the dark because we need both to live a real life. As a writer, I NEED both to create. There’s no other way.

Above is a picture of my writing space. It’s cleaner than usual because I had a guest over, but know that it’s normally an atrocity composed of paper, books, magazines and random plates of half-eaten cake. My writing space is messy, unattractive, and you might notice my uncapped bottle of allergy meds, but I don’t think about styling my space to create — I just think about the act of creating in and of itself. Of course there are things I need — a comfortable seat {my sofa}, liquid {so I don’t pass out after hours confined to a single seated position}, and a remote {for those moments when I need to see The Twilight Zone because I can’t write ANOTHER GODDAMN LINE} — but I’m not attractive when I write, and when I’m in the thick of a story the outside world recedes. There is no other world other than the one I’m creating, and that’s the magic. Not the composition of what is perceived to be magic.

Someone once told me that my blog will never be “big” because I wasn’t mass market. I don’t appeal to a wide audience of people because I don’t constantly present pretty and my writing is sticky, messy, dark and strange. At first, I wanted to punch her in the face, but then I realized that she paid me the greatest compliment. I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want the staged photos snapped with a Canon 5D Mark II camera.

I just want my work.

love.life.eat. of the week: on my bookshelf

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Years ago, for a time, I worked in book publishing. I got the job because I’d edited and published a mildly-successful literary journal, was relatively well-read, and had a way of marketing my non-traditional experience to make my fit into the large house, to which I was applying, a seamless fit. It was 2006, and many in the industry were reticent to approach social, or even understood the seismic shift in how consumers wanted to connect with content. The definition of influence was securing a Times book review, and much of my work was misunderstood or marginalized. But I’d started to notice people on the subway reading books on mechanical devices; I saw how meaningful conversations between passionate readers online not only sparked interest for a book, but cultivated a community we’d only known in book clubs. Towards the end of my tenure, the tide had shifted and publishers sought out my counsel on how to place books in a reader’s virtual lap, but by then I’d changed. As someone who was part of a committee that decided which books to acquire, I was exposed to the more unseemly bits of the business. Books were bought not because of the beauty of the work, but for the means the author had in promoting it. Words like platform and newsletter subscribers were bandied about, and all this time my friends, brilliant writers, struggled to get their manuscripts sold. Tension mounted to the point where the idea of reading a book for pleasure made me violently ill.

Revered since my childhood, books had morphed into a grotesque creature, a changeling, and I abandoned my shelves for months. It would take me two years to wash off the sludge, two years until I could take pleasure in holding a book in my hand.

I say this because for the past three years I haven’t read as much as I wanted to and it was killing me. After twelve hours in the office, if it was a choice between sleep and thumbing through a hardcover, sleep was always the victor. And my poor beloveds gathered dust on the shelves and I frequently skirted conversations with my writerly friends because I was so far removed from the gems that made their way online and in-store.

Until now. Once an ardent devotee of American literary fiction, I’ve noticed that my affection for genre has changed. From reading Going Clear to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the scores of cookbooks and food memoirs clamoring for coveted space on my bookshelves, my book collection has evolved in step with the woman I’m becoming, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So this week’s love.life.eat. will focus on books. Books I’m taking with me to Europe come April. Books I love. Your book recommendations… so, spill it!

Collages

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life | Caitlin Moran’s How to be Woman | Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife: Stories | George Bellows | Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go