Notice to Quit

Two days ago, I arrived home to find two mis­sives stuck in my front door. The first was a lovely mes­sage from neigh­bors invit­ing me for drinks before a book­store read­ing that night. The sec­ond was not so lovely: I’d been served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage of evic­tion proceedings.

The legal notice wasn’t alto­gether unex­pected –  for var­i­ous (good) rea­sons, I’ve been unwill­ing to sign a lease for the upcom­ing year, and I knew that the own­ers weren’t happy that I’d opted to go month-to-month.

But “not unex­pected” isn’t the same as “totally fine.”  I could feel my whole body clench­ing as I thought about what came next.

By the time we got to the book­store, I’d calmed down a bit, bol­stered by my neigh­bors’ warmth and con­cern, as well as their canapés. Still, I was feel­ing no small dis­tress when I bumped into my writer friend Cathi (on break from her own author tour for her ter­rific new novel Gone).

That’s great for your blog!” was her wry response, after my story spilled out.

The words caught me by sur­prise — and the sur­prise itself sur­prised me. She’d reminded me of some­thing I already knew. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

If you’ve been read­ing this blog, you know that I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to the power of writ­ing to trans­form painful expe­ri­ences. I’ve writ­ten about it here and also here and here. It’s not a goal I set out to achieve but some­thing I’ve sim­ply watched hap­pen. A won­der­ful and mys­te­ri­ous cre­ative alchemy.

But this time, that go-to strat­egy had totally eluded me. I couldn’t help being curi­ous about why that was.

We grow through stretch-not-break chal­lenges. That was one of the first thoughts that came to mind, an idea gleaned some years back in an adult psy­chol­ogy class. Too few chal­lenges? We stag­nate. Too many? We get overwhelmed.

Legal pro­ceed­ings are stress­ful in the best of cir­cum­stances, and for me the push to move tops off a num­ber of other stres­sors. A sick cat. Sick me. An ongo­ing search for work. The more I thought about this, the more things fell into place. That I’d stall out when con­fronted with another big chal­lenge makes total sense.

Accept­ing – mak­ing peace with – this fact feels like a first step for­ward. Stress is hard. Stress takes a toll. That’s a fact of life. Feel­ing unmoored and being slow on the uptake, is sim­ply cause and effect. So that’s what I’m sit­ting with, this sense of how things are. I have no idea what comes next, but this is where it starts.

Metrics to the rescue

My Plan B Nation tool kit holds a col­lec­tion of strate­gies, and choos­ing the right one for the chal­lenge at hand turns out to be really impor­tant. You don’t pick up a ham­mer when you need to cut a piece of wood, and I’m find­ing that my Plan B Nation tools have equally spe­cific uses.

Met­rics are a great exam­ple — and by met­rics I mean clearly estab­lished quan­tifi­able goals. This is how I got two nov­els writ­ten, by hold­ing myself to the writ­ing goal of 500 words a day. Some days I wrote more. Some days I didn’t write at all. But even on the days when work didn’t get done, I knew that the goal was there, and that made all the difference.

Because met­rics have been so use­ful to me over so many years, I’ve tended to rely on them a lot — to my mind, a lit­tle too much. On the upside, met­rics are great (for me) for get­ting things done. On the down­side (for me), they can also lead to a task-focused sort of grim­ness — where the only thing that mat­ters is for­ward motion, not how I feel in the mov­ing. Since I really value light­ness and play, this can be a prob­lem. That’s why I’ve been try­ing out dif­fer­ent tools, espe­cially bread­crumbs.

That said, there are times when met­rics are just the ticket, and now is one of those times. Yes­ter­day I talked about being in a bit of a sum­mer slump. Projects that just days ago filled me with zest now fail to spark my inter­est. Noth­ing really feels worth the effort. Every­thing feels impos­si­bly large, not to men­tion thankless.

It came at me out of the blue, this feel­ing, and I can’t entirely explain it. But regard­less, this is where I am. This is what I have to work with.

Here’s why met­rics are great (for me) at times like this:

1. They take the focus off how I feel and put it on con­crete actions.

2. They encour­age me to break up ambi­tious projects into small pieces, which are far less likely to feel over­whelm­ing. They offer a way in.

3. They tie suc­cess to some­thing within my con­trol — to actions, not outcomes.

Right now, I’m work­ing with two met­rics — you might call them micro and macro.

The first one: 5 things a day.  What this means is that, every day, I take five con­crete steps for­ward (which, as always, I track in my desk diary). Today, one of these is writ­ing this blog post. Another will be get­ting exer­cise — a walk or maybe yoga. The ratio­nale: I know from expe­ri­ence that if I just keep this up things will even­tu­ally shift. For me, this is what faith is — a belief in cause and effect borne out by experience.

The sec­ond: 100 pitches. (In case you didn’t guess, this would be the macro.)  Look­ing for work is really tir­ing, the more so, the longer you do it. Using this met­ric feels like a way to turn it into a game, to imbue it with the qual­i­ties of curios­ity, play, and fun. What is a pitch exactly? That’s up to me. Reach­ing out to a poten­tial client, draft­ing a mag­a­zine query — these are two exam­ples, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

But even as I take up the met­rics tool, I’m also aware of its lim­its. For me, it’s always the means to a goal, not the goal in itself. I think of met­rics as the propul­sive push a plane needs for liftoff. Once you’re air­borne the job is done. Met­rics fall away.

Becoming the sun

Sun and Leaves

A decade or so back, dur­ing a strange and dif­fi­cult time, I paid a visit to a ther­a­pist who came well-recommended by friends. While I remem­ber very lit­tle of the ses­sion a sin­gle line from our con­ver­sa­tion has haunted me for years. “You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun!” His voice car­ried both urgency and what struck me as exas­per­a­tion, and at the time, it left me reel­ing, baf­fled, and not a lit­tle chastened.

You need to be like the sun. What was he talk­ing about? It was all that I could do at the time sim­ply to keep afloat.

I left the office feel­ing over­whelmed. I never went back. Still, the fiercely spo­ken words some­how stayed with me. Over time, they came to serve as a sort of koan in times of dis­tress and doubt. Over time, I began to lis­ten, to ask what they have to teach me.

The moon takes on reflected light. The sun gives out its own. That was the first and most obvi­ous asso­ci­a­tion. Often the image rises up as I pon­der a rela­tion­ship, espe­cially as I make (not always suc­cess­ful) efforts to choose more wisely.  What am I hop­ing to draw from another that I might become the source of? And this becoming-the-source-of, how might, I go about that?

I’ve been in a bit of a slump dur­ing the past week, hard to say exactly why. There are rea­sons — there are always rea­sons  – but some­times they fade to the back­ground, while at oth­ers (now for exam­ple), they take cen­ter stage.  Maybe it’s the heat wave of the past few days. Or com­ing to the end of a big project, with space open­ing up on the other side, yet to be filled. Maybe it’s the fact that I need to move house and have yet to fig­ure out where. Maybe it’s a cer­tain kind of alone­ness that’s been weigh­ing on me lately, cou­pled with a sad­ness around sev­eral friend­ships appar­ently on the wane. Most likely it’s a com­bi­na­tion of these things and likely oth­ers too.

You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun. Yes, it’s about giv­ing off light but also, I find myself think­ing now, about occu­py­ing the cen­ter, not revolv­ing around. I’m at the cen­ter of my own life. The sun is at the center.

Failure is the new success

For me, one of the very best things about blog­ging has been the oppor­tu­nity to con­nect with peo­ple I’ve long admired from afar. One of these is writer Laura Zig­man, author of sev­eral books includ­ing the darkly hilar­i­ous best­seller Ani­mal Hus­bandry.

Like prac­ti­cally every writer I know, Laura has been rid­ing out the ups and downs of a pub­lish­ing world chang­ing so fast that it seems in per­pet­ual free fall. But unlike most writ­ers, she’s man­aged to turn set­backs into mate­r­ial, most recently in a series of bril­liantly witty Xtra­nor­mal videos, includ­ing “Fail­ure Is the New Suc­cess,” which she gra­ciously agreed to share here. (She has a lot more to say about the Xtra­nor­mal series — and the cre­ative process — in this ter­rific inter­view.)

The abil­ity to make cre­ative use of set­backs — to incor­po­rate them into our larger story — is per­haps the most use­ful of all Plan B Nation tal­ents (with added points for black humor). No one does this bet­ter than Laura. I’ve never admired her more.

Laura Zig­man

by Laura Zig­man

Five or six years ago, I wrote 100 pages of a non-fiction book about failure.

And guess what?

It failed to sell to a publisher!

I love that punch-line — now — but at the time, the fail­ure of my fail­ure book made me feel like a total loser. No one was buy­ing fail­ure at the time as a gen­eral topic — even all tarted up with a “pos­i­tive” title like “Fail­ure: A Love Story,” since fail­ure, espe­cially finan­cial, wasn’t as wide­spread as it is now. The fact that my own per­sonal eco­nomic reces­sion started long before every­one else’s — before the actual and legit­i­mate eco­nomic reces­sion — was embar­rass­ing, and alien­at­ing. Back then, fail­ure was fail­ure, plain and sim­ple: a shame­ful lit­tle secret you con­fessed to as few peo­ple as pos­si­ble, not only to pre­serve your own dig­nity but also to spare oth­ers the dis­com­fort of deal­ing with your lack of success.

It’s dif­fer­ent now!

Fail­ure is cool! Fail­ure is hip!

Fail­ure has had a com­plete make-over and rebranding!

Fail­ure has become a com­pet­i­tive sport every­one wants to win at!

If I were pitch­ing my fail­ure story now, I’d boast that I was a fail­ure long before every­one else was. That I was at the “fore­front in the trend of downhill-career-trajectories.” A “trail-blazer in metab­o­liz­ing pro­fes­sional and artis­tic disappointment.”

Fail­ure has become some­thing to brag about and these days; everyone’s out there brag­ging about what a huge fail­ure they were.That lit­tle word — were — is cru­cial, because it’s past tense. It means recov­ery from fail­ure, tri­umph over fail­ure. Fail­ure is the ball and chain of suc­cess and there isn’t any­thing more brag-worthy than shed­ding the ball and chain and liv­ing to tell the tale. Or, liv­ing to boast about the tale. Nothing’s more Amer­i­can than a great come­back story — a story of redemp­tion and rein­ven­tion, a story of sur­vival, and self-reliance, resilience, and will to claw your way back from fail­ure to the shores of suc­cess, even if you’re down on all fours combat-crawling upon your arrival.

This Xtra­nor­mal video is about this new kind of fail­ure: “shame-free fail­ure.” And about the new phe­nom­e­non of brag­ging about fail­ure: the idea that if you suc­ceed at fail­ure long enough you will ulti­mately win at it. I’m not sure that win­ning at fail­ure is the same thing as win­ning in gen­eral — as true suc­cess — but for those of us who are tired of los­ing, we’ll take it!

Note: Guest post revised by the author on 6/22/2012


Wubby’s (sort of) mea culpa: I may not always be an Angel, but I have my reasons.

Angel M Kellogg

I first met Angel M. “Wubby” Kel­logg when I was liv­ing in Cam­bridge some years back and began spend­ing a lot of time with her fam­ily. While our con­ver­sa­tions were few and far between—she is, after all, a dog—we seemed to enjoy a deep unspo­ken bond. Which is why I was all the more shocked last week when she turned sud­denly hos­tile, refus­ing to let me into her house despite exten­sive sweet talk and offer­ings of Boar’s Head cold cuts.

As some of you may recall, Wubby’s behav­ior on this unfor­tu­nate day became the sub­ject of a recent essay that appeared on this blog. In fair­ness, I should have sought Wubby’s approval before going pub­lic with the inci­dent and apol­o­gize for hav­ing failed to do so. (It’s the dog thing that put me off—not an excuse, just an explanation.)

For all these rea­sons, I’m delighted that Wubby has agreed to share her per­spec­tive in the fol­low­ing guest post. I’m also grate­ful to my friend Betsy for assist­ing Wubby in its prepa­ra­tion (espe­cially given the fact that she doesn’t come off so well).

by Angel M. Kel­logg (as tran­scribed by Betsy Munnell)

Dear Amy (and I do mean “Dear,” despite my unfor­tu­nate behav­ior of the other day),

I too have been hav­ing some somatic com­plaints [See “40 ways to appre­ci­ate a kid­ney stone”], and have found my moods dis­torted by same. When last we met I was a tad hos­tile (mea max­ima culpa), as a direct func­tion of a deeply alarm­ing week spent fre­quent­ing the neigh­bor­hood vet. (So you get the pic­ture, this guy has a photo-portrait of him­self exam­in­ing a mis­er­ably fat cat hung on the wall of the recep­tion area. AND, two cats live at the office all the time. Really?)

So the first time, I had 15 teeth removed and parts of me shaved, because I have “bad saliva” and lousy own­ers, who are too lazy to brush my teeth. I came home feel­ing rot­ten, with antibi­otics and pain killers. And the sec­ond time, the day of our mis­ad­ven­ture, my older sis­ter Cather­ine dragged me in so the vet could look at a sus­pi­cious some­thing on my back. Despite all his expe­ri­ence the guy found it nec­es­sary to shave me, again, within an inch of my life so he could see it. Then he sent me home with antibi­otics and pocket Gree­nies (of which you speak above) and the dubi­ous rec­om­men­da­tion that my fam­ily apply hot com­presses three times a day for 15 min­utes at a stretch (REALLY?).

So I was not a happy puppy when you came in the door that day.

And by the way, I went back on Tues­day (even though I started to shake vio­lently when we turned up Mass. Ave en route past Simon’s to the cat-man’s lair) because I pulled a mus­cle and blamed Betsy for it and wouldn’t sleep with her any­more and she’s depressed. Now, thank God, I have the pain killers again and they’re back to feed­ing me human food and I’m feel­ing more frisky and smil­ing more. I am try­ing to let Betsy come around on her own, because she got way into my space over the pulled mus­cle thing—she hates when I cry. So I’ve been cau­tious about drag­ging my butt along the floor and hump­ing ran­dom legs when I have an urge to dominate—to reduce her stress level.

So you think you’ve had a tough week. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I wrote up my own Forty (well, 12) Ways to Appre­ci­ate Going to the Vet

1. It wasn’t something worse

2. I wasn’t out of town—the vets on the Vine­yard are too crunchy, and obsessed with irri­tat­ingly serene black dogs

3. Led me to appre­ci­ate chicken, salmon and steak all the more

4. It gave me another way to reflect on the qual­ity of open­ness that I’ve been mulling; the abil­ity to see out­side expec­ta­tions. In brief, my ini­tial ten­dency was to attribute this to hav­ing eaten some bad chicken, salmon or steak.…. In fact, it was some­thing different

5. I told the doc­tor to stop say­ing “Good Girl” and get a life, which was satisfying

6. I know I should be eat­ing more chicken, salmon and steak

7. Another way to remind my fam­ily how much they can’t live without me

8. Gave my own­ers a chance to see that when life doesn’t go accord­ing to plans their first pri­or­ity should be me

9. I got those pain pills and had dreams about hav­ing not been spayed

10. Got Betsy to get off freak­ing Face­book and Twit­ter long enough to address more mean­ing­ful concerns

11. Got Betsy to spend more time with me and less at that over-rated Simon’s Cof­fee Shop, where every­one knows her name and she wastes money on WiFi with her over-educated Cam­bridge friends all of whom wear head­phones (Really? who pays for WiFi anymore?)

12. Made me appre­ci­ate Mass­a­chu­setts, where health insur­ance is affordable—leaving more cash left over for chicken, salmon and steak

12. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to apol­o­gize for my poor behav­ior, and to offer a believ­able excuse, thereby increas­ing the like­li­hood that when you come again you will still have Evergood’s cheese on hand.

Love and licks from me, Wubby

Author’s Note: In the event you still have doubts about my tri­als and tribu­la­tions, con­sider that the above photo first appeared on Face­book with the fol­low­ing com­men­tary: “Why am I blue? Well, I trot­ted through a freshly poured side­walk on Avon Hill Street. My mas­ter is an idiot. Note the remains of my cement shoes.” Very diplo­matic of me not to have used my master’s name, don’t you think? (By the way, it’s Betsy.)

Editor’s note:  This guest post first appeared as a com­ment on the orig­i­nal post, where it elicited the fol­low­ing response from Canine Canine’s Eddie:

Wubby, my most sin­cere com­mis­er­a­tions for your vet­eri­nary ordeal. Some­thing else to be grate­ful for (#13): you did not have to wear the cone of shame like my pal Remy, who came home with a deep gash on his paw and had to get stitches because some jerk left bro­ken glass on the path at Fresh Pond.”

Finally, big thanks to Eddie’s owner Jan for sug­gest­ing this guest post’s clever title.

30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

There are no large plea­sures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pro­nounced to an impres­sion­able 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflect­ing. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

Well.…” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large plea­sures and that they aren’t, well plea­sur­able. But the qual­ity of our days, and thus our lives, is largely deter­mined by small things.

Mulling over pos­si­ble Life Exper­i­ments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birth­day, this seems espe­cially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongo­ing quest for more play­ful­ness and fun.

Last month’s Life Exper­i­ment involved Doing Less. With­out going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speak­ing, you could count it as a fail­ure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Exper­i­ments as plant­ing seeds. The fruit they bear won’t nec­es­sar­ily be within a pre­dictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy class that starts next week. As reg­u­lar read­ers may recall, my Photo-a-Day exper­i­ment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am return­ing to the ter­rain I staked out then. The seed I planted is tak­ing root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a mas­sage, a din­ner out with friends, new run­ning shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nag­ging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a but­ton that’s been wait­ing to be sewn back on for some­thing like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tol­er­a­tions” and are said to be con­stant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel bet­ter with a shorter list. Mas­sages and restau­rant din­ners are nice, but so is cre­at­ing order. My hypoth­e­sis: Get­ting that but­ton sewn back will make me unrea­son­ably happy.

Life Exper­i­ment #6: Do once small nice thing for your­self each day—which may mean plea­sur­able in the doing but could also mean plea­sur­able in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)