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!)