odds & ends

I’ve taken a hiatus from political news and election coverage, because even though I voted early I’m experiencing fatigue. Apparently, we’re all stressed and our connection to the truth is precarious, at best. We’re overwhelmed by the rage, anger and blind hate in this country. We’re tired of turning on our televisions to wonder what will shock us today. What new horror does the day bring? I’m also admittedly tired of being called a cunt on Twitter because I’m a feminist, because I’ve exercised my right to vote, and my choice (Clinton) makes strangers upset enough to spew vitriol in my mentions. As someone who rabidly consumes both liberal and conservative media (one of my oldest friends is a Republican, will likely vote for Trump much to my chagrin, but she did impress upon me the importance of understanding the other side because one can’t make an argument for one’s beliefs in their own bias vacuum), it’s been hard not to react to the headlines on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s been hard to switch away from MSNBC, BBC America, Al Jazeera, and all the other news outlets I consume on a daily basis. But I’m doing it because I want to preserve my sanity as much as possible. We’ll see what happens when we wake the morning of the 9th. I only hope, regardless of the outcome, that our country will move in a direction of healing. I try to have hope.

So, instead, I’m:

Watching: If you loved Stranger Things and Black Mirror, you will love Glitch. Filmed in Australia, the first season centers on six people who have miraculously risen from the dead and the practical and philosophical consequences that ensue. No, this isn’t zombie fare and it’s free of horror, which makes the show that much more powerful. What happens when your wife’s body, ravaged with cancer, gives up to then return two years later to find your husband married to your pregnant best friend? What happens when you were murdered at 19, and the man who everyone thought killed you, didn’t? What happens when someone has to explain television because you never made it to the 20th century. After the disappointing third season of The Fall (Jamie Dornan makes for an excellent serial killer), The Glitch satisfied my escapist craving.

I’m endlessly fascinated by cults. I once read over 30 books on them (and mind control), and it’s hard to find a nuanced cult film without it being camp. The Invitation is that film. It’s so quiet and deeply sinister that I was gripped the entire time–rare these days.

Reading: A few years ago, I asked friends if they knew of great stories told solely from a child’s point-of-view (one of the most difficult things a writer can do, really), and many pointed me to Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I finished in one day.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder, transports us to a different time (19th century, rural Ireland), but the slow-burn horror, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl, is equally as remarkable. A practical English nurse, trained by the famed Florence Nightengale, travels to a small village to bear witness to a girl who hasn’t eaten in four months yet remains alive. Is the child a miracle? Or is there something more nefarious at play? I can usually spot a plot twist early on, but this ending I didn’t anticipate and it truly satisfies. I also devoured my friend Liza Monroy’s hilarious, sardonic essay collection, Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire. Liza has such a gift for storytelling and while I normally shy away from essays that take readers on a relationship-related journey, Liza writes with such honesty and humility, that the essays always rise above the din. If you want a little levity in the darkness, I recommend Liza’s book, wholly.

Speaking of writing, a practical and excellent guide by Benjamin Franklin. And while I normally eschew the ubiquitous “what I’ve learned” lists, Brain Picking’s 10 learnings from 10 years is so on point and remarkable. If you read anything this week, let it be that. This was an elegant, potent read on body, size, and mind. And when a man writes a book with the word girl in the title, you can probably assume she’s dead or close to it. Grace Paley’s “Wants” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I stumbled upon it again last week while I was packing boxes and it chills me twenty years after I first read it. It also occurred to me that my favorite song is “Gimme Shelter” for reasons I won’t describe.

Finally, Mila Kunis: bad-ass. And speaking of awesome women, my friend Hitha is doing great things. Support.

And yes, this is currently my life. Exhibit A:

moving

 

because the cult of busy is probably killing you

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You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize…is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. You will never clear your plate so you can get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing. –From Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

You can’t make a suggestion of sadness. You can no longer whisper or mutter your grief, rather you have to bludgeon your loved ones with it, and then you’ll realize you have their strictest attention. I have a hard time asking for help. Having had to assume the role of adult as soon as I left the womb, I never knew what it was like to be a child; I never had the luxury of screaming tears and being swathed in blankets because I was forever hushing, always wrapping people with the things that comforted them most. In my home vulnerability was considered a weakness, and I spent much of my life telling people I’m fine, even when it was abundantly clear that I was the very opposite of fine. But don’t worry, I’m taking care of it; I’ve got it under control, it’s handled, as the popular protagonist from a nighttime show would say–even when I stared down at my bare hands knowing that I didn’t have the tools for fine. Fine wasn’t a place cartographers had mapped, and I spent much of my adult life with the burden of my grief and sadness, bearing the weight of it. Alone.

Until a few years ago when after my beloved Sophie passed away and I’d left a job that was slowly killing me, and life was dark and uncertain. After seven years of clarity, I drank. A lot. And over the course of two months I’d begun to realize how this relapse was markedly different than all the ones that had become before because I had time. I had the weight of seven years of living a nearly-present life and I finally understand what was at stake, what I could lose. This time was different because I had the gift (or burden) of awareness, and in the midst of all the drinking I knew in my heart this wasn’t right, I had to stop but I couldn’t stop, and I called a friend shaking and said, Angie, can you help me?

Before that morning, that moment, I can’t tell you the last time I said those words out loud.

My friend didn’t flinch or hesitate. She dropped her kids off at school, drove to my home and got me out of the house. We drove around Brooklyn and talked all day, and over the next few weeks she made me adopt Felix. She saved my life. And I knew how busy she was–she had a full-time job as an executive and took care of a husband and two children–but she made time, and that time is something for which I’m forever thankful. Even after a year and seven months of not drinking, when I see her I sometimes remind her that she saved my life.

A few weeks ago I went through another period of darkness. I can’t describe these dark times other than to say that they’re like a storm that’s ferocious and brutal, yet passes swiftly. For a brief time the whole of my world was shrouded in grey and I had a hard time finding my way out, back into the light. Out of habit, I withdrew from friends, receded. Some of them asked what was wrong and in pained replies I said nothing. I said I was fine. But everyone was so goddamn busy, so consumed by the goings-on in their life, to notice the signs. I had become angry over the fact that the people closest to me knew something was wrong and apart from a perfunctory how are you and the answer they knew I’d give, they resumed their state of busy. In some cases, I actually told a few friends what was going on, asked if I could see them, and getting a date on their calendar rivaled admittance into the Pentagon.

Are you fucking kidding me with this, I thought.

It took a status update on Facebook (I’d pared down my friend list to those whom I know and love “in real life”) to remind my closest friends that I am someone who always goes above and beyond, who drops everything and inconveniences herself. Someone who ignores busy, who makes time for her friends when they need her. And wouldn’t it be nice for you to reciprocate? Do I always have to usher in the dramatics and a cry for help for you to make time? Must my needs always be so extreme for you to make time?

Suddenly, everyone magically had time. It no longer takes a gentle prodding to ask for someone’s time or help–it takes an enraged status update on a semi-public social media channel. I don’t begrudge my friends this because they are wonderful, devoted and kind, however, I do worry about the busyness that consumes them. Where mourning the loss of time has become common, a constant bewildered state.

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For a period of nearly four years, I was busy. I missed weddings, baby showers, important moments in friends’ lives–I missed everything. And for what? A title? A six-figure salary? The promise of ownership in a company that I’d become wedded to? Stress and busy wore me down, made me sick, exhausted, and tired, and it took a breakdown and a long conversation with my beloved mentor to convince me to resign. To take my life back because my mentor once told me that when I’m on my deathbed will I have regretted that email I didn’t send, the meeting I didn’t attend or the presentation that could have been tweaked? No, I’ll regret all the weddings and moments in my friends’ lives that I’d missed. I’d regret all the time that I’d squandered, all the people I’d abandoned. It’s been two years since I left that life behind and it’s taken me nearly that long to truly understand the cult of busy and how it can invariably ruin.

I read a lot of articles about the disease that is stress and being busy. As someone who once sent rapidfire emails at six in the morning, I’ve since learned that no one likes to wake to a flood of obligations in their inbox before they have time to wipe the sleep from their eyes. The amount of hours in a day will never change, the to-do list will never be completed to our satisfaction, we can never have all of it because all is nebulous, grey, and holds a different meaning depending upon who holds the weight of its obligation, so why not take control of our time and how we spend it? Contrary to popular belief, busy is a decision we make.

We choose busy. We choose to assume this word as a badge of honor rather than a sickness. We use this word as a measure of endurance–how much of the world could one bear and are we stronger than someone else simply for the fact that we can hold our breath for one more second underwater? Are we better than someone else because we’ve become adept at near-drowning?

For the past two weeks I’ve been immersed in Brigid Schulte’s book on the business of busy, after having read this smart interview. Although it’s primarily targeted to parents, specifically mothers, on how they can find time and balance, much of the book is applicable to everyone that feels the weight of their calendar and to-do list on their shoulders. Schulte’s shares the affects of stress on our brain, that living in a constant state of anxiety actually shrinks our pre-frontal cortex (our intellectual center, arguably the most important part of our brain) and enlarges our anxiety/depression center, all the while shooting cortisol through our bodies. Stress and busy are inextricably bound, and the physical and mental damage it can do will put you on pause. I felt the bulk of what Schulte’s research ascribes–I felt sick, gained weight, no longer felt creative. For a time, exhaustion and anxious were bedfellows.

Much of the book goes to places Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (a book I onced admired, now I question) failed to go. Schulte not only detangles the societal and social mores around women, feminism, work and what it means to be a capable parent in today’s society, she also examines (in stark comparison to other countries) how our society fails to support the family unit. And while I’m not a parent or have any plans to have children, this doesn’t mean I should be blind to how our system fails mothers and fathers–people I know and love–nor does it mean that the impact on the family wouldn’t have any adverse affect on women, particularly single women. We don’t live our lives in silo, and much of the success in other countries as it relates to the ability for people to have leisure time, to not be so tethered to their devices, has to do with a communal mindset. Taking care of yourself while keeping an eye out for your community.

Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives. [Leisure researcher] Ben Hunnicut says, we are doomed to live in a purposeless and banal busyness. “Then we starve the capacity we have to love,” he said. “It creates this ‘unquiet heart,’ as Saint Augustine said, that is ever desperate for fulfillment.” —Overwhelmed

Schulte also deconstructs our insatiable appetite for competition that essentially goes nowhere. We are, at best, productive for nearly six hours a day. And that’s it. At one point our overwork becomes a state of diminished returns and we start to make mistakes we wouldn’t normally make and spend (or waste) time in cleanup mode. While we’re one of the top productive nations, we’re productive when it comes to output, however, we fail at the time it takes to get to the output in comparison to other nations. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of spending time relaxing. We see leisure time as wasteful if it’s not productive (working out, organizing our closets, etc). We don’t understand the art of play and how stretches of time spent doing nothing can actually bring forth our best ideas, our greatest work.

Over the past two years I’ve been privileged in the sense that lots of companies want to hire me. They tell me about an impressive salary and benefits package, about the days of vacation I’ll be promised. The travel! The exposure! In response, I type the same two questions and wait for a response:

1. How many hours do people normally spend working and is flexible time (real flexible scheduling) empowered from the top?
2. Tell me about the hobbies or passions of two of your junior employees

Radio silence.

I made a pile of money (don’t know where that went), I had the exposure and travel and look where it got me: sick, exhausted, burnt-out. I make half as much money as I once did yet I’m richer in every sense of the word. I’ve shown a current client that in three days I can do the work of five because I’m focused. I’ve done some of the best branding and organizational design work for clients than I’ve ever done. I’ve written some of my best work since I’ve resigned from my job. I’ve traveled, discovered new foods, tastes and interests, and I’m present. Fully present for those who need me.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo. Second image, text is my own.

finding joy

carrot cake cupcakes + cream cheese frosting + some thoughts on money

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Recently, one of my friends told me, point blank, that she wants to be filthy rich. When I pressed her on it, she talked about having the ability to pay for her children’s college tuition {which will likely rack up in the hundreds of thousands in twenty years time}, and live the life she wishes to live, in comfort, without fear. I was quiet for a time, and said, that’s not about being filthy rich, that’s about not peering over your shoulder in fear of debt collectors, that’s maybe somewhere down the scale, way down, from rich. Or, I could be completely off the mark.

I’ve been thinking about money lately, and what it can and can’t afford you. Next month marks a year from the time I tacitly made a decision to leave comfort behind in pursuit of something other. I would leave behind a handsome paycheck, equity {although it was doubtful that I’d ever get it}, health benefits and the stability that comes with swiping your keycard in the same office building every day. I would step into the unknown with little savings, credit card and student loan debt, but I knew I had to do this. And I had to be confident that I would always find something. That I wouldn’t be my own undertow.

Nearly a year later, and I’m making enough to get by and that’s okay. I can pay my rent, mail in my student loan and credit card payment checks, and there’s a little bit of money leftover to buy a fancy meal here and there, and that’s okay. While I do have minor panic attacks about when I’ll secure my new project, or god forbid should I get sick since Cobra is a MILLION DOLLARS, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m no longer anxious or broken down or stressed out or snapping at people or angry or crying in a bathroom stall. I’m writing, thinking of new side projects {how I’ll fund this magazine, who knows}, and being present for myself and my loved ones. I am no longer the woman who constantly apologizes for not being there because I’m there.

So while I’m not making a MILLION DOLLARS, I have time on a Thursday to make carrot cake cupcakes. I have time to read articles and books. I have time to think, and I guess that means more to me that a fancy handbag or some lofty title.

My god, how I’m changing. Ask me this three years ago and I would have likely said something completely different…

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INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe
For the cupcakes
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown {or coconut cane} sugar
3/4 cup canola {or safflower} oil
3 tbsp buttermilk {or almond milk}
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 cups tightly packed shredded carrots
1/2 cup of raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

For the cream cheese frosting
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature (left out for at least 4 hours or microwave for 30s)
1/2 cup {1 stick} unsalted butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar

DIRECTIONS
For the cupcakes: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners.

Using a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment (or a handheld mixer), beat together the eggs and brown sugar on medium high for three or four minutes or until mixture is light and thick. (This step will take about 8 to 10 minutes with a handheld mixer). In a small bowl or pitcher, whisk together the oil, buttermilk {or almond milk} and vanilla. On low speed, slowly pour the oil mixture into the egg-sugar mixture. This should take about 30 seconds.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the egg-sugar mixture. When most the of the flour mixture has been incorporated, add the carrots, raisins, and walnuts and continue to fold until the batter is homogeneous. Pour the batter into prepared muffin cups.

Bake the cupcakes for about 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the middle with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pan on wire rack.

For the cream cheese frosting: While the cupcakes are in the oven, start cracking on your frosting. Using your stand mixer {or handheld} Beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth {about 1 minute for the stand mixer, 3-4 minutes with the handheld}. Add the butter and continue to beat for another minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar. Beat for 1 more minute, or until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to firm up enough to spread on your cupcakes. The frosting can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 5 days.

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