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I’m responding to posts out of order, as I find time to respond, and as complete responses come to me, so although today is December 7, this is my response for the December 6 prompt, which is:
From author Gretchen Ruben, Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?
As a nearly compulsive knitter, (I think of knitting as productive fidgeting, and have needles and yarn in my hands whenever they’re not busy with something else.) I am in the process of making something almost all the time, though I’ll admit that I often go for months between finishing my knitting projects. Right now, whenever I watch TV, often when I converse with my roommate or on the phone, and sometimes when I read, I’m making a pair of lacy, cabled socks from a tough, royal purple, wool and nylon blend. When my hands yearn for something simpler, I’m also working on an English/Irish-style flat driving cap, of my own design, knitted from tweedy green wool.
I’d like to sew more—especially to make my own fresh, fuzzy, flannel pajamas before December 28, when I’ll head off for January in Massachusetts, which promises to be the coldest winter I’ve yet experienced—but sewing is harder to fit into my life. Sewing requires space, laying things out, leaving them out, making dedicated time. It can’t be stuffed into a bag and carried on an airplane or bus, like knitting can. It can’t be stuffed into the nooks and crannies of my schedule, like knitting can. Thus, I’ll probably settle for store-bought pajamas, not quite exactly as I want them, not quite mine, but fuzzy and warm enough for January.
Still, I make plenty. I make things all the time—we all do, even (especially!) people who are convinced they aren’t creative. I made a salad last night. I made a cup of milky coffee, just as I like it, this morning. Yesterday, I made lots of web copy for my clients, and I’ll make more today. This weekend, I’d work with a group of actors to make a show to entertain a party. We all make things all the time—what else could we do with our lives?
Once again, I’m writing at bedtime—my bedtime, which is past the time when the day officially ends. December 2 is just coming to a close for me. December 3 will start after one sleep.
December 2’s prompt comes from Leo Babuta: Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing—and can you eliminate it?
My answer is easy to identify and difficult to conquer: Cringing in fear. Most people call it procrastination, and Barbara Sher, one of my favorite authors, calls it resistance, but I know that it’s fear, pure and simple. I’m afraid to write what I most want to write. the more I want it, the more I fear—fear that it can’t possibly be as good on the page or on the screen as it is in my head, and even greater fear that it will be exactly that good, and people will hate me for seeming better than them, or for saying something so strongly.
When I get scared, I do anything I can to avoid writing. The worst offenders are the tasks that accomplish very little, like driving aimlessly, reading every entry on Failbook.com or FML, watching mindless TV. Sometimes I do great, useful things while I’m trying not to write, like going for a run, practicing my guitar, designing a new knitted hat, or calling an old friend, but knowing that I’m doing it for the sake of running away, rather than running towards the good things, steals some of the joy out of the task. And in any case, I become increasingly guilty and stressed out because I haven’t written. If it’s professional work I’m trying not to write, I will get it done by the deadline, but with more stress and less devoted time than I wish I’d had. If it’s personal writing, it often doesn’t get done at all.
Can I eliminate this? Probably not entirely. If I knew how to simply get rid of the fear, I would have done so years ago, and saved a lot of wasted time. So far, the procrastination activities are what I need to do to calm the fear enough to allow myself to write. I will work on finding the best, most efficient ways to get past the fear. I will try to streamline the process. This is my project for the coming year, and probably for the rest of my life.
In an effort to re-start my personal blog, and to focus my mind for the coming year, I’ve joined the #Reverb10 project, in which bloggers write on a prompt for every day of December. I’m posting right before I go to bed at the end of my December 1, even though it’s past midnight and the calendar says December 2. I plan to write every night this month before bed—maybe earlier sometimes, but #Reverb10 is likely to be my bedtime musing most nights.
December first’s #Reverb 10 prompt is: One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
This was a year of trying things out. In 2010, I’d come to see that my plan of living from house sit to house sit, rent-free, living on very low income, had become more a form of hiding than a way of exploring what life had to offer. The fully nomadic, low-money-usage life may have had things to teach me, but it had outlived its purpose. It was time to try something new.
On the other hand, I knew I still didn’t want a conventional life. Near the end of 2009, I turned down a full-time ad-agency proofreading job (at the height of the recession!) because it didn’t offer to teach me anything I needed to learn—but also because, I realized, I really couldn’t imagine working a standard, 9 to 5, office job ever again. I wanted to expand my career(s) and be part of the economy, rather than avoiding needing or using money.
To that end, I spent 2010 trying things out. I found wonderful mentors in two of my major writing clients, and now I’ve learned corporate ghost blogging, taking my freelance writing career in an entirely new, constantly educational, far more lucrative direction.
I tried living in one place, sharing a cabin in Evergreen (a gorgeous small town in Colorado’s foothills) with the boyfriend I met in the second half of 2009. From that, I learned that Evergreen was too far from the hustle and bustle of Denver city life for my taste, and my romantic relationship worked better when we lived in separate homes.
I slowly tested my acting skills in new directions, too. The start of 2010 found me in Chicago auditioning for MFA acting programs . . . to no avail. I learned that my lack of formal theater education, and probably my age, make it extremely unlikely that I’ll ever be accepted into such a program. I’ll have to find other ways to take my acting to a higher level. Back home in Denver, I experimented: I acted in my first scripted stage show in three years. I became a regular in children’s murder mystery shows. (Yes, there are such things. Don’t worry—we murder fictional adults and let the kids solve the cases. No children are murdered.) Most amazingly, I learned how to help train police officers by playing realistic characters in crisis—mentally ill people, the developmentally disabled, and people who were very angry or severely traumatized.
I spent the 2010 trying new things in all kinds of directions, still not sure what was the right path to focus on.
On New Year’s Day, 2011, I’ll already be at Shakespeare & Company, a Shakespeare festival theater company in the Berkshires, working my ass of in their month-long intensive training program for professional actors. I’ve known for three years now that this is what I most want to do with my acting career: perform live, on stage, in the classical and other brilliant plays done by Shakespeare festivals. Giving up on MFAs, I’ve chosen the most direct route I can find: the highly-respected, Shakespeare-specific training of Shakespeare & Company’s 40-year-old Month-Long Intensive program. I still don’t know exactly where my acting will go when I finish this “acting boot camp” and return to my regular life, but I’m confident that what I learn in the Berkshires will help me map my course.
Corporate blogging will continue to be my bread and butter from February on. I’ve already arranged with my best client to pre-write the blogs that will go live while I’m at business further as soon as I’m back home. I also plan to start writing fiction again—once my favorite art form, but one I’ve neglected since college. I haven’t felt I had the concentration to write my own stories these past . . . too many years. It’s time to find my focus again.
As for my home, when I finish my actor training, I will still have a home to come back to. I’ve been renting a room in the house of an old friend from high school, and I love it here. I’ve actually unpacked and set up furniture. I have a home base to help me focus on my next direction . . . or directions.
And my love life? That’s the one area of my life I don’t think I have the power, or good reason, to try to direct.
There are drawbacks to freelancing (financial ups and downs, feast-or-famine schedules, condescending credit card companies), but there are many rewards, as well. Perhaps the greatest of those is being able to choose every project I take on, and sometimes being paid to do things I would love to do whether or not money was involved.
For example, I often do small projects for Sounds True, the spiritual and self-help publisher where I’ve once had the privilege of working full-time. Lately, I’ve been transcribing installments of Sounds True’s weekly podcast, Insights from the Edge, for posting on their web site. In these podcasts, Sounds True Founder and CEO Tami Simon interviews great thinkers who’ve created audio programs (lectures and lessons on CD or downloadable mp3) for Sounds True. Three weeks ago, I was particularly excited to find that Tami had interviewed Vicki Robin, who, with the late Joe Dominguez, co-authored Your Money or Your Life. I was being paid to listen to one of the great heroes whose ideas had informed much of my adult life! Check out the interview here.
Tami’s interview celebrates the release of the updated, 10th anniversary edition of the Your Money or Your Life. I remember when the book first came out, when I was a 20-something, deep in college studies and deep in anxiety, wondering if I would ever figure out how to handle my own finances, live free of family support, and take care of myself. I read the book, began tracking my expenses, and have never looked at a job offer or a price tag in the same way since. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed my life, or more accurately, that it did a great deal to shape my adult life.
Vicki Robin and her coauthor, the late Joe Dominguez, taught me to see money as something I (or someone, such as my parents, who have given me many generous gifts over my lifetime) traded hours of my (or my loved one’s) precious, limited life to gain. They also taught me that credit is a form of indentured servitude—a harsh way to put it, but it is signing up to work for many hours, often hundreds or thousands of hours, to pay off a debt—not free money. And best of all, they taught me that true financial independence—defined not as having mountains of money, but as being wholly in control of one’s own financial life—is possible. Creative lifestyles can be fun and freeing, the “American dream” is not a dream for one, and a sustainable world for all is possible.
I was delighted to trade my life energy for money when it came with a chance to listen to Vicki Robin expanding on the ideas from this life-changing book. The interview is a nice introduction to the Your Money or Your Life philosophy, and an interesting listen (or read, if you prefer—just go to the podcast page and click “Read the Transcript” to see my handiwork). I encourage you to check it out.
I came back from my summer adventures in San Francisco all excited about renewing my commitment to my blog, and then I proceeded to not post for two months. My apologies. I have been busy, and scattered and confused, building up my life again back home in Colorado: finding work, finding more work than I expected and gratefully lapping up every opportunity, reconnecting, bouncing from house sit to house sit and remembering why that made me feel flustered and out of sorts … Mainly, though, I’ve been uncertain about the direction of this blog.
I’ve been reading some fantastic popular blogs of late, from The Comics Curmudgeon and Medium Large, to RedheadWriting and SEOmoz, to the Tim Ferriss’ blog and I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Each blog has a specific focus, an overall message and reason for being. Does mine? So far, I’ve felt unfocused, writing on whatever happens to spark my mind. I wonder whether I should stretch for a gimmick, find a way to promise my readers that I will make them rich (as soon as I figure out how to make myself so) …
But the fact is that I already have a focus for my blog. I have a very strange life. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a mortgage, and I don’t have a lease. More unusual: I don’t want any of these things. I make money, I sleep in safe and comfortable places, and I feel wealthy. I also feel creative, excited, and grateful about my life overall. While my lifestyle is far from unique—in fact, the “joyfully jobless” (as author Barbara Winter calls freelancers and entrepreneurs) are far more common than Americans tend to think. I expect that people in creative housing situations—house sitters, eternal travelers, and those who live in non-house, non-apartment homes like RVs, cabins, mini-houses, and such—are also far more common than we tend to think. Still, there’s far too little talk about the alternatives to the standard American dream of “get a job, work all day Monday through Friday for 50 years, then retire completely; while you’re at it, buy the biggest house you can mortgage, as soon as you can.” As the business world shifts, that dream is becoming increasingly impossible, and I’ll argue that it was always impractical. There are many other ways to live, and many that are not only safe, responsible, and relatively comfortable, but also fulfilling and joyful. Simply blogging about my own life experiments, and those of others I learn about, I’ll never run out of things to say.
There is another reason, though, why I’ve been unsure about this blog: It’s out there for anyone to see. I have a feeling all of the ideas that make me interesting and readable are the kinds of things any proper American should be keeping secret. We’re constantly being told to watch what we write on the interwebs, lest we be unemployable for life. Dates, too, can Google and judge, as can potential roommates, landlords, creditors, anybody. The more unorthodox opinions I share (meaning everything that differentiates me and makes me worth reading), the more I mark myself as a freak. Will I ruin my future chances by expressing myself too widely? Telling people about my odd lifestyle, how I turn down “good” “permanent” jobs, how I hop from home to home and work project to work project, has already started an argument that nearly lost me one of my best friends, and is obviously starting to worry another (more on him next post).
After careful consideration (two months of it!), though, I realize that any job, any business partners, any date or friend or roommate I’d ever really want to be with had best be willing to accept me as I am. I am a responsible, intelligent, hard working, sane, and happy person. I also happen to like exploring unusual ways of making a life. I’m willing to tell the world about that.
One of my favorite web comics put it better:
It’s January 23, and I’ve already accomplished one of my New Year’s Resolutions, the one that I expect to have the greatest impact on my life: I am no longer homeless. I actually rented a room in a pleasant, new-ish townhouse, with a very nice roommate/landlady, a garage for my beloved Chevy Metro (and my bicycle, which has been in my mother’s storage shed for three years!), neighbors and neighbor dogs to meet, and a neighborhood to become part of.
Now I have an answer to the icebreaker question, “Where do you live?” I live in Lafayette, Colorado, a suburb of Boulder, a half-hour’s drive away from Denver. The post office where I’ve been receiving mail for the past three and a half years is a few blocks away. It’s a nice, comfortable spot, centrally located to all of the classes, theatre gigs, and contract jobs I’d like to take on. It’s a good spot to have a home office, to organize my stuff, to get to sleep on a steady schedule.
And, of course, to start with, it completely freaked me out. On first hearing about my lifestyle for these past few years, people comment that it must be hard, moving around all the time, never knowing where I’m going to live next month. To that, I say: It’s amazing what you can get used to. It’s also amazing how frightening normalcy can be once one is used to something else. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this place after two weeks here—I’ve started sleeping through the night, actually unpacked some (not nearly all of my stuff), and stopped trying quite so hard to find reasons to be out of the house when my roommate comes home in the evening. As I’ve said, she’s terribly nice, and smart, and interesting, but I have to admit I was extremely (still am, a bit) nervous around her, and nervous about this whole deal. Once one makes a commitment to live in one place for a long time (three to six months was the agreement here, but that’s a long, long time for me), many fears come up:
• What if my roommate hates me? What if I hate her?
• What if I never get used to the roar of traffic outside? What if I can’t sleep here?
• How am I going to keep paying rent month in and month out?
Ah, that’s the tough one. After not paying rent for years, I actually have a savings account that is just about the size of six months rent here, but I hate to see it shrink. I’ve been hustling harder than ever to find more freelance jobs of all sorts—writing, acting, knitting design, secretarial temp work, anything. Actually, that’s one of the side effects I’d been hoping for when I moved here: I was hoping the anxiety, combined with finally having a place to sit still and get some work done, would jump-start my career. Now I’m in the same boat as most of my more “normal,” once-employed and now laid-off friends: I’m worried about how to pay my rent, and I need to hustle to find a job (or in my case, lots of freelance gigs). Then again, unlike them, I know what will happen if I lose my home. I’ll house sit, or travel, or find some other creative way to make due. It is comforting to have lived on the other side. What if I lose my home? I’ll be back to normal, or what feels normal to me.
And no, I’m not changing my nickname or the name of this blog. I still have a nomadic spirit. However well this home works, I will not be here for any length of time that most people would expect for one’s home. I plan to be here a few months, and then I hope to go away for the summer to study theatre. After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to Colorado and rent another actual home. Maybe I’ll go back to house sitting. In any case, my mind is still in an impermanent place, open to travel, creative housing, new growth and new ideas.
For now, though, I’ve got some unpacking to do.
Last Saturday evening, I played chess in a cafe with the friend I play with on most Saturday evenings. She was telling me about her search for a telephone customer service job, as she has every Saturday since she was laid off in October. She was slowing down out of pure despair—why send out more resumes if nobody answers? Just then, another friend happened by. After exchanging the usual hugs and hellos, I asked how he’d been, as I hadn’t seen him for months.
“Oh, you know,” he said, “Still looking for a job.”
Still? The last time I’d seen him, he’d been very gainfully employed.
“Oh, really?” said my friend. “It has been a while. I got laid off in August.” He went on to explain how jobs were scarce in his field, mechanical engineering, as they are all around. Then he and my chess buddy exchanged creative ideas for paying their mortgages, (She was using expensive early distributions from a 401k, and he, cannibalistically, a home equity line of credit.) and praised the glories of antidepressant drugs.
The next day, I called another friend to ask if he was up for Sunday morning coffee, our weekly ritual. He said he wasn’t, because he, along with his company’s entire sales department, had just been laid off. Being an introvert, he wanted to absorb the shock by avoiding all of humanity for several days.
I started to worry about my friends, and about the state of the world. In addition to the many unemployed, I know homeowners who are stuck in houses they can’t afford but can’t sell, successful self-employed renters who can’t buy homes because mortgage lenders are now too careful, and workers at non-profits who are watching annual budgets shrink, wondering if there will be enough left to pay their salaries. It looked like a dark and scary time, indeed…
…until yesterday and today, when I had more in-depth conversations with those friends. Now another pattern stands out more strongly than fear:
• Over coffee, the “out-of-work” mechanical engineer told me about the inventions he’s come up with in his free time, and his plans to get them to market. He also told me how he’s analyzed his investments (Playing the stock market is one of his many hobbies.) and how excited he was about buying now, at what may be the bottom, before President Obama gets sworn in and his HopeTM drives prices back up again. Then my friend
offered me ideas on how to market the knitting patterns I’m always making up, and encouraged me to look into monetizing my blog.
• I’d been worried about my newly-unemployed introvert friend, so I was relieved to get an email from him. (He still didn’t feel like talking.) He told me he’s spending most of his time in his living room, which doubles as a recording studio. A songwriter and musician, he’d been meaning to work on a new album for months, and now he finally has time. It will surely be colored by his feelings of loss and worries about money—and the fact that he’s now spending all of his non-recording time listening to Joy Division, (I’ve got to keep an eye on that boy!) but in any case, his muse is working overtime. I can’t wait to hear the album.
• Yesterday at noon, I got an out-of-the-blue call from another friend, one of the non-profit workers who’d been wondering whether he would soon be non-salary. He’s still wondering, but he’s largely forgotten about that, as he’s very busy figuring out what would completely different career path he should take next. He’s reached the top of a steep learning curve at his current job, and now he’s wondering whether to go back to school so he can do biological research, and how to fit that in with his family life, his job, and his growing career in experimental jazz. He’d called me, not because I had the faintest idea what he should do, but because I love hearing all of his ideas, and bouncing them off me helps him organize his own mind.
Taking them as a whole, I have to say: Damn! I have cool friends! On top of that, I’m noticing a larger trend here, and it’s an exciting one. Yes, the economy is in the toilet, yes, jobs and loans and charitable donations are hard to come by, but this is, above all, a time of incredible creativity. We’re being forced by economic realities to move in with people we normally wouldn’t meet, take very odd jobs, and create our own side ventures just to keep our heads above water, not to mention our juggling of debts and strange ways of paying them. In addition, laid-off employees finally have time to remember their passions, be they music, woodworking, painting, or communtiy theater. We also finally feel we have time to volunteer to help each other out—nothing puts our misfortunes in perspective like helping someone even less fortunate.
I figured out, nearly four years ago now, that having an ordinary, day-to-day job was not for me, so I’ve been experimenting with other ways to live. Now that the usual way of making a living is hard to come by, more and more people are joining me in the experiment, and I’m seeing some amazing ideas. Yes, the economy is in trouble, but I think we’re also in for a gorgeously creative time. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with.
Note: I once had a blog, now offline, called Anita’s Weekly Column, in which I practiced writing one essay per week. I’m trying for more of a standard blog format now (though I don’t know if I’m any closer to it), but I’d like to occasionally repost some of my favorite essays from the old blog. This is one such essay:
In his blog, Traveling Hypothesis, my friend R.J. Zimmerman has posted an intriguing review of Lewis MacAdams’ book Birth of the Cool. It sounds like a great book, full of fascinating tidbits about the musicians, poets, and visual artists who shaped our world through the avant-garde movement, but I won’t be reading this book anytime soon. One of R.J.’s comments scared me away: “The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.” If this is a book by a name-dropper, for name-droppers, I refuse to read it. I have a great fear of any path by which people try to become cool by studying those who were cool in the past, trying to ride on their cool coattails by claiming an association with them. I’m afraid that to read such a book would remove any chance I have of ever being cool.
Yes, I do believe that I have the potential to be really, truly cool. I know that those of you who’ve met me are laughing right now. You’ve seen the wire-rimmed glasses I insist on wearing almost everywhere, even though I own contact lenses. You know that I wear no makeup at all, except on very special occasions—the occasions when I break out the contacts. You’ve noticed that my fashion choices have gotten a bit sexier since I realized that spandex-infused tight jeans and polo shirts are even comfier than the huge, baggy ones I used to wear, but that’s about as dressy as I usually get. The Converse sneakers I wear everywhere are falling apart again, but I can’t replace them because I don’t know where to find more in bright purple. I have a new haircut because I’ve realized that the all-one-length, long locks I’d had most of my life can’t get nearly as messy as my new, piecey short cut can. I can speak knowingly in the terms of Dungeons and Dragons, and I remember reading The Lord of the Rings more reverently than I remember the Bible. My stuffed animals have stuffed animals, and lately I’ve been knitting totem animals that represent myself and my friends. For fun, I read about mummies, autopsies, and neurological disorders.
It gets worse if you look at my childhood. I wear glasses now because I’m quite used to them; I was four and a half when I got my first pair. (Jerry Maguire would not convince the world that very small children with glasses were cute for another 18 years. In 1978, a four-year-old with glasses was simply a freak.) I didn’t learn to speak at the rate generally considered normal. In kindergarten, I was sent to a speech pathologist who systematically taught me to pronounce “sh” “t” “th” and “s” sounds correctly and at the right places in the language. I continued to see a string of speech therapists through the fourth grade because it took them that long to figure out how to get me to pronounce the “r” sound. In the meantime, I shuddered when people asked me my last name, knowing that they would never understand “Harkess” coming out of my mouth. I learned to avoid speaking at all. By the time I mastered “r”s at the age of nine, I was used to being practically mute, and stayed so well into high school. When I was six, my orthodontist started experimenting with pulling lots of baby teeth to see if this would make my adult teeth grow in straighter than otherwise expected. They didn’t. After my few remaining teeth leaned in, my canines grew in high up on my gums. From age 10 until I got my extremely painful braces at age 12, I avoided smiling so that other kids wouldn’t be scared by my fangs. On top of all of that, I was definitely what psychologist Elaine Aron now calls “a highly sensitive person,” meaning that I was one of those kids who involuntarily burst into tears with the slightest stress. In short, a string of issues beyond my control doomed me to a childhood as an incorrigible dork.
All of this, of course, is the blessing that gives me the potential to be truly cool. In his review, R.J. explains that MacAdams’ book has taught him what cool really is: “the detachment from what seems important to everyone else, mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway.” Learning early on that I could not possibly attain the small details that seem important to everyone else, I learned not to care as much as most people do. I never struggled to fit in, simply because I never had much hope that I could.
I didn’t realize what a marvelous, protective gift my dorkiness was until 2002, when my very cool friend Rachel sent me a copy of the New York Times Magazine article profiling Rosalind Wiseman and her upcoming book for parents, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Wiseman had done a great deal of work with young teenaged girls. Her book, and the article, revealed how truly horrible these outwardly sweet little girls could be to one another. She shocked and worried a nation of parents by showing how the “queen bees” at the top of the most powerful cliques in most American schools can order communal actions that amount to psychological torture. Those at the top can make those on the edge do just about anything, all the way from buying clothes their families can’t afford, to standing for public humiliation, to going way too far with alcohol, drugs, and too-early, promiscuous sex. Yes, the clique system is dangerous and cruel. And what gives the queen bees such incredible power? It’s the desire of the wannabe, that urge everyone has to belong, to be accepted, to be part of a community. The wannabe wants so desperately to fit in that she will do anything to please those in power.
Wiseman’s book goes on to instruct parents on how to communicate with their daughters to help them navigate the clique system and rise ethically to a position of power. Me, I suggest a different solution. You see, I remember the cliques from my junior-high days. I remember the queen bee, her wannabe disciples in tow, following me as I walked home from school each day of seventh grade, yelling something about my hair. (I think it had to do with the color. My hair had recently turned from light blonde, like hers, to the murky midpoint between blonde and brown where it still is today. For some reason, this color, and my refusal to bleach it out or dye over it, is particularly offensive to 12-year-old blondes.) I remember ignoring her, and I remember letting out a friendly laugh as the wannabes quietly came to me at my locker the next day, apologizing for their queen’s behavior. I remember being touched by their respect for me, but I don’t otherwise remember caring much. I definitely don’t remember changing my appearance or my actions to make this stupid girl like me. It’s not that I didn’t want to belong to the group. I just realized that nothing I could do would ever make that possible, so I went on with my dorky little life, saving a lot of time, energy, and money for my own interests. I’m grateful now that I was such a complete outsider. If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to give her such a gift. I’ll spare her the tooth-pulling, and I’ll let her speak correctly if she can, but I am definitely going to buy her the ugliest pair of glasses I can find, then make her wear them, whether she needs them or not.
I do believe in the problem Wiseman describes. Even as a girl, I had an inkling of what it was like to be a wannabe. I felt sorry for the sweet girls who met me at my locker. As early as eighth grade, I heard about drunken parties I could never be invited to, about the boys who prowled them looking for passed-out girls to have sex with, and the class president, who peed in another eighth-grader’s mouth because he was too drunk to enjoy oral sex. In high school, I heard about kids being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I heard about the girl in my senior class who got so drunk that she spent the night spread-eagled on a pool table, having sex with any besotted boy who wandered by. I heard how horrible she felt afterward, and that her parents threatened to sue the school paper for running a classified ad that cryptically mentioned the incident, but that most of the damage was already done. I felt sorry for her, too. I was grateful that I wasn’t invited to that party. My freakishness was my armor. I was saved from the torture of belonging.
This is why I believe that I may someday be cool. I think that we too often mistake being “in” for being cool, when in fact the two states are opposites. The “in” crowd, the fashionable people, those who belong, simply do as they’re told. They work very hard at being just like as many other people as possible. The truly cool do whatever works for them, whether or not anyone else understands it. They focus on their own lives, on causes that matter to them, on art that comes from their souls, and in so doing, they accidentally become unmistakably unique. The “in” are sometimes respectable. The cool are geniuses.
For example, the more I learn about Neil Young, the cooler I think he is. He is, and always has been, a strange-looking guy. His voice is even stranger. He is best known as a guitarist, but his songs are so easy to play that they are often taught to beginning guitar students. In his solos, he doesn’t show off technical prowess or speed; there are plenty of guitarists who play faster and more complicated licks. He just plays what sounds good to him. He even wanders from genre to genre, from the hippie protest songs of Buffalo Springfield, to the pretty folk of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to Crazy Horse’s hard rock—the precursor to grunge—to some beautiful country songs and some so twangy that I wonder if he’s making fun of the genre. When he dabbled in electronica in the early 80s, he was so far outside of expectations that his record label sued him for making “unrepresentative music.” Even now, at 60, (note: This essay was written years ago. Young is now 63.) he has not sunk into the mire of doing only greatest hits albums and “I-need-the-cash” reunion tours, as many older stars do. He’s still writing new songs, still performing, still using his power as a celebrity to propel his favorite social causes, like Farm Aid, Live 8, and his wife’s creation, the Bridge School. In an age when appearing in an iPod or car commercial is considered to be the best way to promote an album, Young is one of the few classic rockers who hasn’t sold any song for any ad. He’s surely a celebrity worth admiring. His real appeal for me, though, is best summed up by Kevin Chong, the self-described geek who wrote the homage book Neil Young Nation: “Young was the embodiment, in his appearance, his singing, his music, of a type of anti-beauty. To an awkward kid, this was appealing. Young sought beauty in frayed edges and worn-out patches. He reveled in bum notes, in buzzing guitar strings.”
Of course, I haven’t read Chong’s book, either. I’ll allow myself to read it in a couple of months. I’m rationing my Neil Young intake now, an album here, a book there. Loyal fan that I am, I am afraid of steeping myself too thoroughly in anyone else’s story. I don’t want to become an imitator, or the sort of rabid fan who is so excited about someone else’s life that she forgets to live her own. That would definitely not be cool.
Anyway, I don’t ever need to know all about Neil Young, as I don’t want to be exactly like him. I just want to be cool like Neil Young—to be an outsider, irreverent, obviously imperfect, a little bit ugly, a little bit odd, and proud of it. Thanks to the gifts I’ve been given, I think I just might have what it takes.
The main branch of the Boulder Public Library—my favorite local library, one with a great variety of interesting books—has a nifty gadget for its book drop. Instead of the usual mailbox-like hole in the wall, all books returned to the Boulder Library (whether or not the library is open) go into a machine embedded on the outside wall of the building, a small metal box with a door in its center, under a sign that says “Book Drop.” When one waves a book (or anything else, really) towards the door, an electric eye notices, and the door opens, revealing a treadmill-like belt. A pleasant voice says, “One item at a time please. The door will close when you are finished.” Books placed on the belt are spirited away to some secret, safe spot inside the building. When the last book is gone, the door stays open and the treadmill running for a full minute, the electric eye making sure no more books are coming, and then the door gently slides shut.
I like the machine. It’s more trouble and more electricity than is strictly necessary, but I find it fun, and it does give me a secure feeling to know that my books are so tidily tucked away. Also, when there is a line of people returning books, one person after another can swoop in and set a book on the treadmill, efficiently stowing away several people’s deliveries before the little door closes. Sometimes I watch, making a game of seeing how many people can get through on one open door.
The game didn’t work today. One woman was at the machine when I arrived. I waited a polite distance away for her first two books, but then I noticed that before every book, she stepped back and waited until the door closed. Then she pressed her thumb on the metal housing that contained the electric eye, leaning hard, as if it were a sticking button. Eventually, the door would open again, the voice would say, “One item at a time, please. The door will close when you are finished,” and she’d reach into her large bag of books and place one on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door to close. Then she’d pound on the electric eye. Then she’d place one book on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door, then pound harder on the eye… At this rate, I would be waiting all morning to spend my two minutes with the machine.
“There is no button,” I said. “It’s motion activated. And you don’t have to wait for the door to close.”
“One item at a time!” the woman shrieked back. “Can’t you hear?!”
“That just means, ‘Place one book on the belt at a time,'” I continued over the electronic voice, which was starting up again. In unison, the voice and I said, “The door will close when you are finished.”
The woman ignored me and continued to pound on the electric eye.
“That’s still not a button,” I said.
She kept pounding, placing one book, pounding again, ignoring me and the machine’s voice. She placed one last book, then looked at me at last. “There! Are you happy?!” She stormed off.
I’m not happy. I’m rather depressed, actually. I’ve been thinking about her all day. This woman will never learn how to use the cute little book drop that so many of us enjoy, and soon she’ll probably break the electronic eye. Worse, she’ll spend the rest of her day, her week, her life, complaining about how difficult everything is, and how rude people everywhere seem to think that she’s an idiot.
She is an idiot. This is not an inborn trait, a mental illness, or a chemical imbalance. It’s just that she works so hard at never understanding what’s really going on. She clings to her first impression so completely that she can never understand anything new, anything that takes more than a single glance to figure out. “One sentence at a time, please. The mind will close when I am finished.” Many people learn slowly or in different ways from the standard school curriculum. I enjoy these people: I’ve met many with “learning disabilities” who are, in fact, highly creative, intelligent individuals who create great things and broaden my view of the world. In a completely different camp, and far more common, I’m afraid, are people like the woman at the library, who work very hard at refusing to learn, refusing to consider anything but the first conclusion they jumped to.
Of course, we all do this to some degree. I am taking my ten minutes with this woman and expanding it to assume that I know how she lives her entire life. I could be wrong. She could be closed-minded and defensive only around fancy library book drops. Still, I am better about this than the average bear, and I’m sure this is the only reason why many people around me think I’m remarkably intelligent. I do score very well on IQ tests, but only because I like puzzles and games and figuring out what answer each game is looking for. My mother (who, at 66, is actually quite good with computers, and much better than she thinks she is) is always impressed when I “fix” her computer problems, even though I only tried one more possible fix than she had. One of my past boyfriends, a tri-lingual, high-tech marketing manager with a degree in physics and a hobby of studying linguistics, called me “the smartest person he knows,” but only because I knew a little more than the average person did about every subject that came up. I usually figure out how the latest thriller film is going to end before the rest of the audience does. I’m curious, I like revelations and plot twists, and I am relatively open to being proved wrong.
I still need to work on this, though. Aggressive stupidity, the refusal to let go of one’s first assumption and find out something new, is still a problem for me, and it’s at the root of most of our world’s problems.
The US economy? Ordinary, working folks came to assume that a mortgage broker wouldn’t give them a loan for more than they could pay, so they let predatory lenders tell them “how much house they could afford.” Investors in mortgage-based securities had always assumed that mortgages were rock-solid investments, so they bought the shaky loans. All up and down the line, most folks didn’t notice that the game had changed until the damage was done.
Workplace misery? The Dilbert-esque “pointy haired boss” still lives in offices, warehouses, worksites: the one who refuses to listen to “underlings” who have more specific knowlege and training, the one who, faced with a problem, leaps to blame the nearest person for it, never finding out what really happened or how to prevent the same thing from happening again. These are the people who use oversized words they don’t understand, and will never learn the meanings of, because they assume that they sound smarter that way. These are the people who make their coworkers miserable and their companies ineffective.
Bigotry, hate crimes, and most wars? We all tend to make snap assumptions about other people, and the more different a person is from us, the less we know about them, the more broad and rigid the assumptions. “All muslims are anti-American terrorists.” “All women are crazy gold-diggers.” “All men are violent jerks.” “All homosexuals are promiscuous, disease-ridden, and rapists, too.” “People with developmental disabilities can’t learn, and have nothing important to say.” “Everyone in Country X despises our country and wants to destroy our way of life.” “All Republicans are heartless.” “All Liberals are mindless, soft-hearted saps.” And on and on. Groups get polarized, wars declared, and huge misunderstandings live on and on until someone finally looks past their first assumption. Peace and acceptance only come when we can finally past a general label and get to know a real person.
I know I need to work on this, myself. Clinging to our first assumption is a bad habit, and a very dangerous one. At least now I have a solid image to remind me to open my mind. Now, when I’m feeling stuck, frustrated, victimized, I can just ask myself, “Is this situation (person, machine, etc.) really impossible, or am I just pounding on an electric eye?”
An old friend wrote me recently to ask for my advice on speech impediments. You see, he knows that I talked like Elmer Fudd until I was 9 years old, despite the best efforts of many speech therapists, and he wants to know how I finally mastered the “r” sound. He has a young son who also has trouble, well, saying “trouble” and “rascaliy rabbit,” and anything else with an “r” in it, and my friend hopes I might have some ideas to help him.
Well, for my friend, his son, and anyone else out there who might find this helpful, this is what little I know:
According to the basic linguistics class I took in college, children usually learn to talk just by hearing people talking around them, then imitating those sounds. Most kids are amazingly good at this, but some of us—quite a few of us, actually—have trouble figuring out how to make certain sounds, or how to hear the difference between them. Common problem sounds in English include “th,” “sh,” “s,” “t” (and knowing the difference between those), and “r.” Some kids learn this late, but eventually figure it out on their own. More often, they’ll either need a speech therapist to teach them specifically how to make each sound, or they will sound strange and be subject to ridicule and misunderstandings for the rest of their lives. I needed help with all of the above sounds, and now I speak, if anything, a little bit too correctly. As a child, I sounded like Elmer Fudd. Now I sound like Frasier Crane. Why? Because, I am firmly convinced, speech therapists rock!
By the time I got to first grade, I still had trouble with “s,” “sh,” “t,” “th,” and “r.” I hadn’t noticed a problem by then, really. My parents and teachers were the ones who pointed out that I was different from other kids, and told me that I had to skip regular class (Aw, darn!) and go see a special teacher, a speech therapist, once a week.
The public school system in our area contracted with independent speech therapists. The district’s therapist came to each school once a week, and, probably due to the complexities of government contracts, our school had a different therapist every year. Sometimes my weekly session was private, and sometimes I met with the therapist and one other kid. During first grade, I was quickly cured of my “s/sh/t/th” confusion. I barely remember my work on those sounds, but the impression I have is that I was always able to pronounce all of those sounds, but I just didn’t know (or perhaps didn’t care) which sound to use when. I’d say “thee” instead of “see,” or “terapish” instead of “therapist.” Once the speech therapist pointed out the differences, then made me practice (every week for a whole school year) saying the right sound at the right time, I was good to go with every sound except “r.”
“R” was a much bigger problem because I never knew how to produce that sound at all. I kept going to my therapy session every week through third grade, every year with a different therapist trying different tactics to get me to understand how to make the sound, but it remained a completely foreign concept to me. As I went through second and third grade, kids started making fun of me, adults started acting pissy when their inability to understand me began to feel less cute and more irritating, and I was bloody well tired of the whole thing. I learned how to arrange my sentences to avoid saying any words with “r” sounds in them. To make this easier, I got into the habit of not speaking at all. Even though I finally mastered “r” in third grade, I stayed nearly mute (speaking only when asked a direct question, and then giving the shortest possible answer) until I was in high school.
In third grade, the way the therapist du jour explained “r” to me finally clicked. It may have been that the therapists before her had made some progress, so that I was primed for my “r” epiphany, but I think it was mostly because her own very practical and physical style worked particularly well for me. When someone finally told me exactly where to place the tip of my tongue (right behind the middle of my front teeth, and back about 1/2 inch up my palate), I was well on my way to the world of Frasier Crane. By the end of third grade, I still had to consciously think about where my tongue was and how to make the sound, but I said “r” every time I needed to. In fourth grade, my only meeting with a speech therapist was a checkup to make sure I was still “rrrrrrrr”ing properly. I passed with flying colors.
Over the years, making “r” sounds became less conscious and more automatic, though “r” is still the first sound that falls apart when I’m struggling with a tongue twister. I’ve been drunk enough to slur my words fewer times than I can count on my fingers (What can I say? I’m a goody two-shoes.) but I’d be willing to bet that when I do drink that much, it’s the “r” sounds that go bad first. On the other hand, I now speak very well. In fact, my speech now sounds fairly stuffy and over-pronounced. When meeting me, people often guess (rightly) that I’m an actress. I do well with Shakespeare. I’ve played British, Southern, Polish, and Irish characters (and once several of those in the same play), and received compliments on my accents. And though I was mute for a long time, and I still prefer writing over speaking, I act in plays and independent films, I competed on the speech and debate team all through high school, I’m a member of Toastmasters International (a club in which people get together and give speeches for fun), and I am sometimes overly chatty with friends. It took them a long time to finish their work, but I am deeply grateful to all of those speech therapists who worked so hard to help me make myself heard.
What I Think Happened, and How to Help Kids Now
While it took them a long, long time to get me speaking properly (and able to pronounce “speaking properly”), I don’t think there was any problem with my therapists’ competence. I think the problem is that, although speech impediments are very common in kids, the exact problem, and its exact cure, varies greatly from kid to kid.
For example, while many of my lessons were private, I often had speech lessons with another Elmer Fudd talkalike, a polite and kind boy named Andy. Andy explained that he’d had a nasty ear infection when he was a toddler, and it left him 80% deaf in his left ear. He had trouble learning to pronounce various sounds, and most of all “r” sounds, because he simply couldn’t hear what he was supposed to imitate. On the other hand, I have always had (and still have) above-average hearing. To this day, I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to speak English properly on my own. I don’t think the therapists ever figured that out, either.
On top of the many possible reasons why any particular kid might have trouble speaking, each kid learns in his or her own unique way, especially when learning something as personal and physical as how to make sounds come out of his or her mouth. A very practical approach (“Put this part of your tongue right here!”) is what finally got through to me, but other kids may do better with feeling vibrations, hearing sounds, or imagining some picture that makes sense to them. Speech therapists have to try many different techniques until they find out what works for each individual kid. I imagine that now, 25 years after my last therapy session, more techniques have been discovered, and there are even more ideas about how to teach “r” and other sounds.
My Advice for My Friend and His Son
Here is what I’d say specifically to my friend, and to anyone else who could use my advice: To master “r” sounds, the best advice I can give is to keep trying, but if what your kid and his therapist have been trying isn’t working, try something different. If one therapist isn’t working, and if you can, try a different therapist. I am convinced that speech therapists, on the whole, are fantastic people and marvelous teachers (because I am so grateful that I can speak and be understood), but like their students, they are individuals, each with a different style and personality. Keep trying until something clicks.
I realize that this can be very frustrating for parents. Trust me: It’s even more frustrating for the kid. If it is possible to find out why your particular kid has trouble producing the sounds, that knowledge could speed the process considerably. Has his hearing been checked? Is the structure of his mouth, throat, and vocal chords normal? If he has a hearing problem or a physical abnormality, this doesn’t mean he’s doomed. Andy got his “r”s down faster than I did. Therapists know how to work with these kinds of problems, and knowing your kid has one can help them find the best way to teach him. If, as with me, they can’t figure out why he has trouble, you’ll be stuck with hit or miss. Be patient, and keep trying.
Some other important things to be sure your kid knows: Pronunciation is not an indicator of intelligence. Not everyone knows this. Some people will get pissy with him, and some will even make fun of him. These people are jerks. They just don’t get it. Tell your son to pity them, and to feel free to ignore them as much as possible. Many of the smartest people I know have admitted to me that they had speech problems as kids, too. My best friend from high school (my old friend, if he’s reading this, will know who she is), who is now a microbiologist and college professor, had the same speech problems I did. Several folks I knew on my debate team had overcome either lisps or problems with “r”s. If a person can’t pronounce certain sounds, all it means is that they can’t pronounce certain sounds. That’s all. If you want to know about their intelligence, how cool they are or aren’t, or anything else, you’ll have to be patient and actually listen to them. This goes for people with speech impediments, people with disabilities, people new to speaking your language, everyone. Be sure the kid knows to give himself a break, and to let his experience teach him to be more patient in listening to other people.
Finally, rest assured that almost everybody does learn how to pronounce every sound in their native language eventually. Think of how many kids you’ve met with lisps or “r” problems. They’re so common that we even see them on TV and in movies. They’re such a regular part of childhood that they are often considered cute. Now try to think of an adult you know who talks like that. I can’t think of one. Can you? I can assure you that there are adults all around you who have conquered speech problems, though. We just don’t talk about it all the time—it’s part of our distant past. The path from a childhood speech impediment to a normal, confident adulthood is long, and it’s frustrating, but your son will make it. Just be patient with him, and encourage him to be patient with himself.