What a happy person looks like

As a kid, my sister Kim fell into a cactus terrarium we kept on the windowsill (don’t ask why we kept cactus terrarium on the windowsill), and spent hours in the ER where they pulled out one needle at a time. She got a Cocoa Puff up her nose while pretending to eat her cereal like a dog, and it was so far up there she had to, yup, go to the hospital so they could pluck it out of her upper nasal passage, the closest anyone’s breakfast cereal ever got to their brain.

Another time she stepped right through a glass picture frame by accident. Stepping through it wasn’t so bad—the worst of it happened when she pulled it back out. I remember seeing her do it, standing there with glass at her feet, that moment when you’re not sure what just happened.

One summer we were about head to Sesame Place again, a family-themed amusement park in Langhorne, PA, one of our favorite summertime destinations. We were most excited about a huge pit filled with balls that you could flop around in. It smelled like feet. We were piling into the station wagon and Kim ran back inside to retrieve something, tripped, and broke her arm. No ball pit for her. I thought about how fate was a cruel mistress as we lurched onto the highway without her.  

While vacationing in the Poconos, Kim came down with the very worst case of poison ivy anyone I know has ever seen. She doesn’t even recall where she got it—a whisper of a leaf against her ankle, perhaps she then pushed a hair out of her face. It wasn’t the typical biological response (a rash, raised welts). When she woke up that next morning, she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see, and walked into the bathroom and gasped out loud—her eyes had been swallowed by her swollen face. We took pictures and called her Rocky Dennis for the rest of the week.

Kim coughed her way into a hernia at one point, which was odd because our youngest sister Lori had had one too not long before. They had both crouped so hard that their intestines had punched a hole in their guts. It was a nauseating, terrifying idea, as I was so sure I was next and so I spent every morning that year in the shower fake-coughing with my hand on my groin, just to be sure.

During Christmas break her junior year, Kim’s house burned down. She was already home for the holiday when she got the call: Her roommates had finished their last exam, gone Christmas shopping, and returned home to find the house in flames.

I went there to inspect the damage myself (a faulty surge protector and dried out Christmas tree were to blame), and couldn’t believe how a space could be transfigured like that, blackened and ashen, a negative image of what it had been, dark in all the bright places. It looked like some kind of burned out abandoned crack house, not a cheerful college girls’ home that not a week before had been filled with people and blinking with Christmas lights.

I had Kim on the phone so I wouldn’t have to walk through alone.

“How bad is it,” she said. And I burst into tears.

It helps that Kim has the highest happiness set-point of anyone I know, and floats relentlessly upward like a balloon. The rest of us earthbound family and friends gaze up at her with a mix of admiration, and annoyance.

If you happen to glance at her Facebook feed, you might be tempted to believe she must be hiding something, must be secretly miserable. No one can be that happy that often, look that good, or have that much fun. On a Wednesday. But since I happen to be close enough to the source, I can tell you, it’s all quite real. She’s heavy on the Snapchat filters, but still, I can tell you that even up close, there isn’t a false note to be found.

What you may not know about are the long, sobbing years when her kids were babies, and she was lonely and exhausted and could barely face the day. Or when her son Mason turned two, then three and didn’t speak. And when he wouldn’t eat solid food, or really any food at all, except for milk and a couple dry handfuls of Cheerios, for months on end. Mason was diagnosed on the spectrum, and when the gastroenterologist wanted to insert a feeding tube, her husband Joe said No fucking way. This is not how this will go down. Then, one day, when he was almost four, after 10 weeks of no eating, he pointed to a loaf of bread, and Kim broke down in great, heaving sobs.

Then, just two years ago, Kim texted her old high school boyfriend on his 39th birthday. They were still quite close, and had just spoken days ago, traded barbs, talked about their kids. And instead of his usual snarky reply, she got a text from his wife: Justin had died in his sleep.

“Are you fucking with me?” she wrote back.

“I’m so sorry, Kim. No, this is not a joke.”

It’s like watching a building collapse in slow motion around you—you know it’s falling, you know there’s no stopping it, and there’s no getting out of its way. But you flail anyway, thinking if you move fast enough you can rewind, go back to a place before it happens, when everything was fine and exactly where it should be.

I picked up her call as I was headed down Broadway, eyeing yoga pants in the window of Lululemon. I couldn’t even understand at first what she was saying, and it certainly didn’t sound like her. But it was the sound of my sweet sister’s heart breaking, not in tiny, quiet cracks but in chaos and panic and gushing fury, the way a heart would really break if it could. It was the first and earliest loss, and so it took her breath away. As it does, any time it happens. Every time.

So you know what she does? She throws a huge blowout for her 40th, complete with ballroom and DJ and disco lights and everyone in sequins. Why? Because Kim loves nothing more than a good party and a crowded dance floor, the music lifting us off our feet, the lights bouncing off everyone’s dresses, filling the room with stars. A kind of heaven, right there on earth.

Things you think you can’t do

Freshman year, I joined an after-school writer’s club, and even had a poem published in the school literary magazine. It wasn’t bad. But I told my mother, that year and many to follow, that yes I liked to write, but “I’m not a ‘real’ writer.”

My best friend, on the other hand, now she was a real writer. She wrote short stories and essays and went to Governor’s school for writers in the summer. I worked behind the snack bar at the town pool, perfecting the art of the grilled cheese.

In fact, I spent so many years telling myself this, that for Valentine’s Day one year my mother bought me a t-shirt at the mall that said “Yes, I am a writer” in pink sparkles, which of course I never ever wore. Because I didn’t think a real writer would (and I still stand by that). My sister’s shirt said, “Entering the PMS Zone.”

I started taking dance class late, in high school, and continued on in college, where I performed and choreographed, and senior year, was elected director of the dance ensemble. But I wasn’t a “real” dancer though, because I wasn’t in toe shoes from age 5.

The litany of things I claimed not to do is at once astonishing and boring: I’m not a sports person. Or a numbers person. Or a boat person. I’m not “outdoorsy.” I don’t “camp.” I’m not a runner. Or a risk taker. Can’t do shots or wear skinny jeans or strapless dresses or heels or anything yellow. I don’t drink tequila. Don’t gamble. I could never have a one-night stand.

But then, at some point, I must have run out of things I couldn’t do, and what was left was, well, to do them. And once I got through the thicket of my 20s, I started to do things I didn’t think I would, just because I ran out of reasons not to.

I started running, and even entered a road race or two. I posed in a nude photo shoot for an artsy photographer. Made out with a woman who looked like a young Lindsay Wagner.  Went rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest where I learned to find toe holds and scale a rock face, then belay back down like an action figure. I went white-water rafting.

I was over 35 when I joined a touch football league with some friends, having never played a day in my life and it turns out I’m a pretty good receiver (they now call me Touchdown Terri, not kidding). I went on a camping trip near Lake Hopatcong, in which I not only pitched but and slept in a tent, then spent the whole next day on a pontoon. I date men far too young for me.

Turns out, I like tequila. And black jack. Ideally at the same time.

I was over 40 when I started doing stand-up, and have performed all over the city, made it to the quarter finals in a comedy festival. Even had one of my jokes flat-out stolen by a popular TV show host (not kidding).

And if we’re being honest, I’ve had more one-night stands than I can count on one (maybe two?) hands.

Basically, I’ve proven myself to be either a poor predictor of my own potential or future desires, or I’m a big fat liar. Maybe both.  

My mom gave me a paperweight when I was 22, a big hunk of granite I kept on my desk at work for years. It said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”   

How to deal with your ex (Day 14)

In just about every episode of The Golden Girls, someone rings the doorbell.

What’s on the other side of the door looks like the opening line of a joke: There may be a priest, a rabbi, a girl scout, a cross-dressing baseball player, a police officer, a stripper dressed as a police officer, someone who’s been lured to the house by an ad in the newspaper, or Rose’s date (who happens to be a little person, except no one mentioned that—and hilarity ensues).

But every fourth or fifth time, it’s Stanley Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband—sometimes wearing a toupee, sometimes not, sometimes down on his luck, sometimes enjoying a short-lived high. He’s there to ask for help, to ask for money, to share a business opportunity. And every time the door swings open and Stan is standing there, the first thing out of his mouth is, “Hi, it’s me, Stan”—and the response ranges from, “Oh no,” to “Who cares,” to “Call the police.”

Stan is a two-timing, unreliable, shallow-minded, overgrown manboy in a leisure suit who sells fake vomit for a living, dates women half his age, and will never, ever get over Dorothy—and she knows it. She has been with him since he got her pregnant in high school. She is his mother figure; he is her cowardly lion. 

In the series’ finale, Dorothy is on her way to the church to marry Lucas when her limo driver takes a detour.

“Driver? Driver! Stop! I said stop! Who the hell do you think you are?” she shouts. The driver stops, turns around, and removes his hat.

It’s Stan.

She worries he’s kidnapping her; he’s not. He says he’s there to say goodbye, and to chauffeur her to the church in style.

He points to a single hair on his forehead. “See this hair, Dorothy? It’s the only one on my forehead. The other cowards retreated years ago, but this proud and loyal sprout clings desperately. It is unrelenting. It is true.”

Dorothy looks at him suspiciously. What about it, she says.

“Don’t you see? I am that hair, and you are my big crazy bald skull.”

“Alright Stanley, the truth,” she says. “As Freud said, our beds are crowded. When I sleep with Lucas I’m not alone. There’s this phantom of you there. I can’t pretend you’re not a part of me.”

“I love you Dorothy. I’ll always love you.”

“And I love you, Stanley.” Then she yanks the hair out of his forehead. “Now drive.”

This is one of my very favorite scenes in all of television.

It’s funny and surprising and heartfelt, and happens, as some of the most meaningful conversations do, at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

As I’m writing this, it’s Valentine’s Day, a time when, whether or not you’re in a significant romantic relationship, you’re probably recalling the other people with whom you’ve spent this holiday, for good or ill. It’s a kind of a bookmark, isn’t it, for the loves of your life. The last time I was in a relationship, it ended exactly one day after Valentine’s Day. Because that’s when you know the fanfare is over. Sometimes it’s clear as day.

A few years ago, I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxStLouisWomen about how I believe it’s time to rethink our approach to romantic relationships. Why? Because the way we think about them now is that they either last, or they fail. It either was a good idea, or a bad idea. Talk about a zero sum game. It occurs to me that the only real condition for a truly “successful” relationship in our culture is that you die while you’re still in it. That’s it.

The fact that women can live longer, fuller, more varied and more independent lives now means that as a woman you really can do anything you want—you can decide to partner or not, and you can decide to move on if something really isn’t working. You can survive, even thrive, on your own if you choose.

And there’s a good chance that even if a relationship is fantastic and fulfilling for a while, maybe a long while, you very well might outlive it.

If you decide that anything that doesn’t last was a mistake, well, that means the future is just a disaster waiting to happen. I don’t choose to look at life or love that way. Do you?

Learning to really know and love another person is never a waste; it’s that effort that defines us as people, and shapes the landscape of our lives.

You can choose to live in a world where love is suspect and dangerous and the precursor to regret—or you can decide to spend it all, every time.

Yes, our beds are crowded. We aren’t just who we’re with today, but who we’ve loved along the way. The thing that all your past relationships have in common: They had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And chances are, you learned something about yourself that you couldn’t have learned any other way.

Dorothy doesn’t have to hate her ex in order to move on. She moves on knowing that love persists in surprising ways, and that there’s more life and love ahead of her, too. Same goes for you. Maybe your ex won’t pick you up on a limo on your way to your wedding. But wherever you go, all the love you have shared is along for the ride.  

Watch my TEDx talk on rethinking happily ever after. 

Don’t go cheap on your face (Day 13)

When I turned 13, my mother bought me a set of makeup from Clinique: a bottle of flesh-colored foundation; blush that came in a green marbled compact with a tiny brush; a mirrored box that slid out to reveal a tray of neutral eyeshadows in varying shades of brown; a subtle semi-gloss lipstick in a ribbed silver case called Mauve Crystal.

While most of my friends were buying cheap candy-colored nail polish and Wet ‘N Wild lipstick at CVS, I had the beauty regimen of a 30-year-old.

“You don’t go cheap on your face,” my mother said.

For a while now she had been pulling me into her bathroom to scrub blush onto my cheeks before school (“You look wan,” she said). I was the only one in junior high who had a dermatologist-issued moisturizer, a fragrance-free souffle in a jar that I had to tote with me wherever I went, even to the pool.

The message was clear: Your face is important, and you don’t muck it up with crap you bought for $4. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

I credit this early training with my expensive Sephora habit, my avoidance of drugstore cosmetics, and my unquenchable demand for nothing short of the good stuff. I’ll reuse the same teabag 5 times in a day, but I’ll go all in for a good gloss in just the right shade of coral.

My sisters are aficionados of the face. They know exactly what MAC pencil has the right amount of glide, which mascara provides the most lift and reach. The perfect shimmery base, the most believable bronze. Their cheekbones are pronounced and their lashes are like jazz hands.

I like the stuff, but in my family I’m a chronic underuser. “Are you even wearing makeup?” my sister Kim leans in, peering at me through her ample lashes like two glossy fronds. The day she went into labor with her first child, Kim applied two waterproof coats of “Better Than Sex” mascara before grabbing her overnight bag and heading out the door.

I feel like I am wearing a lot of makeup. But it’s never enough. She sits back. “You could use a touch more.”

My youngest sister Lori applies her face with a professional hand—she can create a dramatic, Asian eye, or a sophisticated daytime glow. She has even done weddings, on occasion. She looks different every time I see her. I look precisely the same. “A little more liner would help,” she says. “You have to really define the eye.”

Every Christmas, Lori picks out one or two new items for me to work into my regimen in the new year. It’s like a long apprenticeship. “This is liquid eyeliner,” “This is a lash curler,” “This is a cool palette. You should really save the warm for summer,” and “I know this looks bright, but you can totally carry this blue. Trust me.”

In their defense, they never once made me feel I wasn’t pretty enough, or that I needed extra help. It really wasn’t about that. Nor did I ever get the impression that they were compensating for something else, or thinking that I should. They have the very best approach to it I’ve seen—your face is a big party, so why not liven up the joint? Why not show off what you’ve got.

And despite my light hand, I have become a bit of a makeup snob myself, fully adopting their cosmetic worldview. We were at a fundraiser and saw a woman around our age, maybe younger, who had showed up in a hot pink dress and not a stitch of makeup. Her face looked as if she’d just scrubbed it clean, thrown on the dress, and walked out. She wasn’t young, exactly, but she also was too old to not make a smidge of effort. Especially when you went to the expense of buying an outfit and putting on heels.

“What is she thinking?” Kim said. “It looks like she’s trying the dress on.” I had to agree. Why bother with any of it if you’re not going to commit to the illusion. My mother would have pulled that girl aside and insisted on just a little blush, for chrissakes.

In truth, I actually really enjoy the ritual, the brushes, the applicators, the wands—a fitting term, after all, when we are working a bit of magic. There’s something to watching your face spring to life. Every stroke or shadow doesn’t hide, but highlights, acknowledges what’s there and says, this is worth seeing. When I’m particularly proud of my handiwork, I’ll send a selfie to my sisters and get a thumbs up emoji in return, perhaps a gif of Beyonce swinging her hips in canary yellow dress, wielding a bat into a windshield.

I’m crushing it, clearly.

 

How to sell yourself on something you don’t like (Day 12)

I always loved a good side hustle—even before it was a thing. Having something on the side always made you feel you had stuff going on, especially when you had nothing else going on.

For a while I took whatever popped up and was happy to: a job with Captain Morgan that involved dressing up like a wench and slinging shots down by the pier; pouring samplers of Sam Adams while dressed as a revolutionary in a tricorne hat (and taking Polaroids with anyone who asked); handing out granola bars at the subway station. Once I had to dress as one of the Charmin bears, in a full bear suit that I could barely see out of, and stumble around Revere Beach in 90-degree weather to promote their new wet wipes. I almost passed out.

I was part of the launch team for Febreze. Before it became a household name, I stood in CVS to demonstrate how it worked: One container with smoke-treated cloth, and another container with a cloth that had been treated with Febreze. It was the 90s, and you could smoke in bars, and so you couldn’t leave one without smelling like a house on fire. I took great pleasure in the theatrics of opening one jar and watching them recoil at the scent, and then their eyes widening at the other, which had been treated with Febreze. Then I’d show them how to spray their clothes in long, sweeping strokes. Just watch how this magical fairy dust spray actually attaches to foul-smelling particles and lifts them off your good blazer on a million tiny chemical wings.

But one of the sweetest gigs I got was during the Christmas season, standing in the meat department of the Stop & Shop, sampling fancy cheese for $30 an hour (which was an unspeakably good rate). The irony was that I hated cheese. I passed on pizza, lasagna, mozzarella sticks. I took no pride in this, by the way. I would have loved nothing more than to pile onto a plate of deep-fried apps or draw a stringy slice from the box with obvious delight. I believed it would have made me more fun and cool and likable. I worried that I might seem like a bore or a weirdo, or just profoundly unAmerican.

Liking cheese was not a job requirement, though; a perky, positive attitude was. You just had to stand there with an apron on over your shirt, khakis and sensible shoes, and offer people little bits of triple creme and herb-infused brie. Turns out, this was the easiest job in the world. I didn’t have to convince anyone; they steered their shopping carts toward me as if drawn by an industrial-size magnet (“free cheese?!”) and daintily picked up the little paper cups as if they’d never seen anything like it.

They all stood there—the toad-like woman in an oversized coat; a bedraggled mother with a kid hanging from her sleeve, a tall, rangy man whose hair looked as if it hadn’t gotten over the shock of waking up. We stood together in a strange collective cheese-eating tableau, as they moaned and rolled their eyes at the sheer pleasure of it—picking up a wedge of it to peruse the label (“What is this stuff?”) as if it had been imported on the backs of virgins straight from Normandy for the very first time. “And one for the road,” snatching another sample as they rolled away toward the chip aisle. Some were sold, tossing a few wedges in their cart—“Perfect for my holiday party”—as if they needed an excuse, or as if I did—while I suspected they would unwrap it alone in front of the TV later that night, without sharing it with anyone at all.

It was hard enough to endure the smell of the stuff wafting up in waves from the table, but what was curious was that I was compelled to agree with them, regardless of what I thought. They complimented it and me, as if I were a cheesemonger who’d gone to great lengths to select it, and not a 24-year-old who watched Friends while eating sardines out of a can.

But something happens when you keep telling other people, and yourself, how good something is, what fine quality, what a perfect complement to your meal. For hours and hours. How creamy and rich—And have you tried the mushroom one? You can’t help but start to believe it must be true. With the right motivation, you could talk yourself into anything.

During a slow period, I put a sample in my mouth—and was surprised at the way it took over your tongue, unfurled its buttery breadth like a picnic blanket. You didn’t just taste cheese; you experienced it, the stunning arrival and the lingering, creamy finish.

It was a successful day. I moved a table’s worth of brie, and I’d learned that in very small doses, I could stomach it at room-temperature. My feet were starting to ache, and I thought about how I liked the job, but only because I knew it would end. I wanted nothing more than to crawl onto my couch and spend the evening watching reruns of Forensic Files, to find out what other girl vanished without a trace, so that I could make certain it wouldn’t happen to me. At 5 o’clock, I removed my apron and picked up a wedge of the mushroom triple creme, and headed toward checkout.

 

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Watch your tone (Day 11)

“If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to me, you wouldn’t have any friends.”

My mother is washing and drying the Corningware, sliding it back into its drawer, the lids  making that rattling Corningware sound (a sound unmistakable from any other). The counters are wiped down, and a half empty box of Lucky Charms sits like an idiot out on the table. Breakfast cereal is ridiculous, I think. Doesn’t it know how ridiculous it is?

Fact is, I wouldn’t talk to my friends the way I talk to my mother, because my friends don’t ask me dumb questions like “What does Kelly’s mom think?” or “Aren’t you going to be tired if you go on a school night?”

Besides. What I say to my mother in the kitchen has nothing to do with my friends. Also, I am not my mother. I’m 17, and I know everything.

“Why can’t you just answer a question without rolling your eyes?” And that in itself triggers an eye roll, though I am trying hard not to do it; it’s like trying to avoid a dead animal in the middle of the street, while keeping the car steady, steady.

But I can’t. I turn away so I can roll my eyes in peace, that full, satisfying upward yawn of the eyes that says, You just don’t get it and the world agrees with me.

Since I got my driver’s license, I have a low tolerance for everything. I also have free and singular access to my dad’s ‘86 Nissan, the model that talks to you, Knight Rider style, when you “leave a door ajar,” or when “fuel level is low.” Once you have the option to turn the key and just go, it’s hard to stay put. It makes sense that you get your license at 17, because it’s about when you were thinking about leaving, anyway. And you do, you practice at it, leaving just a little, every day.

I try not to think about that, actually. The creeping realization that I’m going away next year is like a slow paralysis; my entire body seizes up around the idea, and parts of me have stopped working—namely, the parts that are easy and relatable and connect me to things. It’s like the ligaments have gone stiff, and I drive my sister, now a freshman, to school every morning without turning my head or saying a word. I don’t realize I’m doing it, but my sister certainly does, and will years later chide me about it—“the year Terri stopped speaking”—when I was so terrified about leaving my family that I acted as if I wasn’t there at all.

My behavior though is largely unassailable: Good grades, good behavior, good friends; I don’t drink or cut class or stay out late. I got in early acceptance to Boston College, where I’ve already decided I want to go. Everything is ticking along and going according to plan, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

It’s almost 8:00am, the evergreens outside the window are thick and bristled and still. The kitchen was redone a few years earlier—all blonde formica and blown-out flowers, six wide, slouchy leather chairs on wheels that look like the seats on a Tilt-A-Whirl. (“I hate regular kitchen chairs,” my mother said. “Why shouldn’t we be comfortable?”)

I push one of them with my toe so that it slides back into place.

“I didn’t say anything wrong,” I say, my arms crossed.

“It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it,” she says. “Watch your tone. I don’t like it.”

My tone. I say it’s just how I sound. She’s not buying it. She knows I’d never allow the edge of it into a conversation with Liz or Mary. There is a tone you reserve for your mother, and sometimes it’s the only way to say what you really mean, without saying it at all.

We like to think that words stand on their own merit. But that isn’t true. Tone is slippery, evasive, works around the edge of a word, all the while with its hands up, denying its existence altogether, leaving an undeniable scent.

Years later, in my 30s, I’ll snap at my boyfriend in the middle of Whole Foods. We’ll be standing by the stacks of sparkling water and racks of truffled popcorn, and whatever he says will strike an old familiar nerve, setting my old habit in motion: the audible sigh, the roll of the eye, the barked order to “Just stand there, will you? I’ll go get it.”

It was so automatic that I almost missed it, a passing thought like a tail slipping through, unnoticed.

And it wasn’t until after we’d made dinner and eaten it that my boyfriend said, “I didn’t like how you talked to me today.”

I kicked back a knee-jerk defense— “What did I say? I didn’t say anything. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” And then, “Look, you’re bad at food shopping. I knew what we needed and it was just easier if I got it.”

But as soon as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. My insides squirmed, a mollusk of self loathing twisting in its shell.

He said, “I think it would be hard for me to be with someone who talks to me like that.”

And that’s when I apologized, a real apology, and promptly burst into tears. Not because he was so hurt, but because of how often I’d wielded my tone about loosely, like a rifle with the safety off, my mother at the business end of it. And yet, she let me off scot free, time and again, with little more than a warning. This wasn’t just about her, but about who I was and could become, if I wasn’t careful. And also, because while her love might be unconditional, most arrangements were not.

Everything was ok now. He kissed me and we got up to scrape our plates into the trash. I offered to wash them, and it felt good and right, the hot water rushing over my hands, the steady effort it takes to work and work at making something clean again.

 

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How to defend yourself (Day 10)

There are two good reasons to sign up for self defense: Because you’ve had your boundaries crossed before, or because you’re afraid they’re about to be. Chances are, both things are true. I have never been mugged on a dark street corner or raped or beaten. I had been kissed and pushed and pressed. I’d had a homecoming date who wouldn’t leave my room, so I slept in another bed. I wouldn’t have seen myself as the victim of assault, but then again, I couldn’t really see myself at all.

But there’s always a first time, and I figured I’d better be ready. I like to plan ahead. You think that sounds like a real downer, but in fact, Model Mugging self defense, in the basement of Temple Beth-El in Brookline is one of the most positive places you might hope to find yourself.

A sparse room that smelled like dust and rubber, with a few gymnastics mats thrown in the middle of the room. We were a room full of women, some who’d suffered more than others, and some who were just more afraid. But it was a room full of fighters, whether they knew it yet or not. They were all there because they decided enough was enough, and they wanted no more trouble. They wanted to ward it off, like a stray hungry dog coming down the street toward you.

Back then, in the late 90s, the course cost a couple hundred bucks, a fee my father gladly paid, as he’d pay any amount to reduce the worry you live with when you have three daughters in their 20s roaming around a major metropolitan area. I chose this particular course because of a book I read when I was recovering from shoulder surgery, The Gift of Fear, written by a man who made a career sniffing out trouble the way a shark sensing a single drop of blood in several metric tons of water.

In it, he told a gut wrenching story about a woman who accepted help carrying her groceries, in her door, up the stairs, and by then it was too late, and the man had dispensed with the groceries and all but threatened to murder her. He blasted music so no one would here, but she got free, and followed him like a shadow down the hall. When he hung a right to the kitchen to retrieve a knife, she slipped out the door, stark naked, to freedom. What would that be like, I thought, to sprint out of your home, free of anything, anything at all.

That story haunted me — still does — and I thought, no one is ever carrying my groceries but me. The author talked about intuition and gut checks and how to smell a storm coming, the way squirrels and goats and deer will turn tail at a moment’s notice and head for higher ground.

In the class, male volunteers, perhaps working out some issues of their own, get fully armed in five-inch padding, head to toe and stand in for the evil in the world accepting physical punishment on its behalf.

I had for a few summers between semesters taken up Tae Kwon Do, but a lotta good that did. You can’t take someone down with a roundhouse kick and I really dare you to try. It’s a martial art form, not a street-wise survival tactic. And unless someone came at me with a thin plank of wood that I could split in half with one hand (which I could and had, by the way), I was going to be in big trouble.

My two younger sisters and I took tae kwon do together, and went out with Roy, one of the younger instructors, for frozen yogurt every week. Except one week I went alone, and after Roy bought me a chocolate vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles, he told me I was pretty and leaned in to kiss me with his big cold lips in the front seat of his car. I stayed very still, like prey, ready to dart as soon as I could. This man was a blackbelt. A lot of good a roundhouse kick would do me then.

I finished six weeks of training with Model Mugging, having fought off multiple assailants on made-up street corners, even used learned to throw an attacker off me with a simple thrust of the hips in another scenario called “Bedroom at night.” During the graduation, you showed off all your skills in one shining hour, where one by one, a small tense audience watched their daughters and sisters and wives kick and punch a series of dirty-talking assailants, creepy stalkers, full-on rapists in a string of made-up scenarios where we all emerged the winners and the attackers laid on their backs, life less. It’s a fantasy come true—you take one bad guy out after another, you take back your power, and you learn to scream at the top your lungs, a battle cry, without feeling one bit ashamed.

There was an awkward moment where my mother and sisters had to watch as an instructor dressed like a duct-taped gumby ordered me onto all fours, and I bided my time until I saw my opening—(Wait, wait, my coach said, whispering to me like an angel from the side. Look for the targets. Ignore everything else.) Then—NOW!—in one swift maneuver, I flipped onto one side, drew my leg up and released it like an arrow straight to his head, knocking him senseless.

And as the timid audience got used to watching their loved ones pursued and attacked, they became fighters themselves, and what started as a well-behaved self defense demonstration turned into a fight club, with everyone stamping and shouting from the sidelines, feeding a collective need to let it out, let it out, let it out.

They say after you graduate Model Mugging, you’ll probably never need to use what you learned. And in truth, I haven’t. Not in midtown at night, not on a narrow street in the East Village, a homeless man asleep under a sheaf of cardboard. I look around, searching faces for a sign of threat.  I dare you. There’s a way you carry yourself when you learn to fight, land a punch, use your voice, that has a way of warding off trouble, like a spell. The world is a different place when you can hold your body like a bow, drawn and poised and ready.

Learn more about the 21-day challenge here

The Real Reason You Don’t Feel Fulfilled

If you’re like many women, you pride yourself on setting other people at ease. On making clients, colleagues, partners, friends, children feel comfortable, making them feel heard, smoothing over any awkward bits or hiccups of tension.

But when you prioritize everyone’s comfort a lot of other work doesn’t get done. Namely, yours.

If there’s one reason why your life is perhaps not as fulfilling as you would like it to be, it may because of this very belief: That your job is to make other people more comfortable.

In her very famous book, If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland says,

“In fact, this is why the lives most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for  themselves.” We are led to believe that this, and this alone, is what makes us great—that we are self-sacrificing, above all.”

Yet, this, she says, is at odds with what we feel inside, not to mention our greater purpose:

“But inwardly women know that something is wrong. They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all.

For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise…you have to be something yourself. And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.”

Know when she wrote that? 1938.

You might think, oh well, that was long before women were fully independent and had their own mortgages and careers and Instagram accounts.

Really? You sure about that?

How comfortable are you with not making other people comfortable?

And I don’t mean by being thoughtless or difficult or downright rude. I’m talking about your willingness to put your own stuff first, and worry less about how comfy someone else is with it, or what they think.

And the second part of that question: How much time are you devoting to menial work, rather than the work that really matters?

Granted, in 1938, you might have been doing a hell of a lot more housework. Your life would look very different indeed. Today, menial work might not mean ironing your husband’s shirts day in, day out—but it may mean accepting invitations for coffee or to events even when you don’t really want to go. It may look like spending oodles of time responding to FB posts and writing out long email responses and unruffling feathers.

The most valuable, expensive, fleeting thing you have is your attention.

You have a finite amount of it each day, and it’s continually being eroded and nibbled at by a thousand things that don’t actually matter. Every time you do something for the sole purpose of making someone else feel better, you have a little less for yourself.

I say this as someone who values her relationships tremendously and sees great value in tending to them daily. But. I also know that the work I really want to do, no one can do for me, and I can only do it with the precious little attention I have, so I guard it. Sometimes not even strictly enough.

There’s a reason we “spend” time; it’s just like money. Except it’s irreplaceable; you never get it back. You have a budget of attention each day. Say it’s $100 bucks. Sure, I can give it away willy-nilly and make lots of people happy—$10 here, $20 there. But I’m soon left with little to invest in the things that matter, the projects I really care about.

If you don’t spend it, someone else will.

To regain control of your time and attention is not just a matter of being productive, but of being willing to back off the urge to comfort, to tend to. This requires a major mindset shift, because you need to see yourself not as someone who does a lot of things for a lot of people, but as someone who excels.

It’s not easy. A good chunk of my work is client-based, and so there are lots of people who expect and need to hear from me. But I have learned that by acting as a bell-hop in my business is inefficient and unproductive. Far better to control my time and expectations by giving clients my undivided attention when they need it most, and not spoonfuls of attentions scattered here and there.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says that to gain clarity in your life, your work, your purpose, you need to go from “non-essentialist” approach (“I can do it all”) to the “essentialist.” He writes, “Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything.”

Creating work that matters means saying no—a lot more than you currently do.

It means deferring on coffee when there’s no clear goal or mutual interest. It means passing on events rather than accepting simply because you’re grateful someone invited you. It means recognizing that the world does not deserve access to every last room in your house of attention.

Keeping some of those doors locked and off limits is the only way to create the kind of work that matters.

I’m not talking about being “selfish,” by the way. This is about giving in a bigger way, instead of parsing out your precious time like free handfuls of candy to anyone who comes knocking.

Does that mean some people will be put off? Left a bit uncomfortable or miffed? Maybe. Chances are, though, they’ll respect you. And they’ll value you the time they give you more, as well.

The creation of your very best work can be done by no one but you.

It cannot be delegated or automated. It can’t be done while you’re also doing ten other things.

The things you really want to do, make, or achieve require what Seth Godin calls ‘emotional labor’; it isn’t easy, and you will be a little uncomfortable doing it. The less consumed you are by tending to the yips and whines of the world, the more capable you’ll be to do the kind of work that changes it.

Let me see your scar (Day 9)

When I was 32 years old I got sick. It wasn’t flu sick, and it wasn’t cancer sick; it was the kind of sick that strikes like lightning and nearly kills you on the spot with no advance warning whatsoever.

I was on a business trip to a conference in Baltimore, and had become increasingly aware of a deep ache in my abdomen that worsened over the course of a few hours. I was at a company dinner, and all I wanted to do was climb into a hot bath.

Which I did, later that evening, but that didn’t do squat. I woke up the next morning, hours later than intended, feeling sicker than I’d ever felt, and things had gotten worse. The pain was no longer a tiny, aching seed, but full grown. It had stood up inside me and assumed full height.

So I did what any sensible person would: I called my doctor and asked her to phone in a prescription.

“You are sick, have a fever, and abdominal pain that’s gotten worse? Get to the ER. Stat.”

I almost went back to bed, and instead I called a cab (which ultimately saved my life). “Where would you take your daughter if she was sick?” I asked. And the driver dropped me off at the entrance to University of Maryland Medical Center.

I spent the requisite half day in the ER before being admitted. I’d rather not drag either of us through the battery of tests in the eternal flourescent daytime that is a hospital. A series of nurses and doctors came to my bedside to put me through a gentle interrogation, asking me the same questions, so much so that I wondered if being sick was a crime I had committed. As if they were waiting for me to break and finally come out with the truth.

Fact is, they just didn’t know what it was. They canceled out one diagnoses after another: pelvic inflammatory disorder, appendicitis, syphilis. And in the middle of the night, my blood pressure dropped to something like 60/40, which is like an entire river slowing to a stop.

They rushed me into surgery and I was relieved to leave the scene, to pass into that dark sub-celestial waiting room while they did what they had to do, the doctor telling me later he was sure I was on my way out for good. He unzipped me stem to stern, took out each of my internal organs and turned them over in his hands like fruit, looking for the bruised spot. There was nothing to see. Whomever had perpetrated this mess had vacated. It was, as my mother said, a case of “who did it and ran.” 

I had sepsis—gone “septic,” as it were, which is when something gets in and turns your whole body against you. The antibiotics are what saved me, drew me back to shore on a chemical tide like a red rescue boat. I came to in the ICU, fully intubated and disoriented, as if I’d woken up inside of someone else.

My mother was there, hand on my forehead, whispering to me that I was ok, even though she wasn’t sure I was. I squinted against the relentless daylight of those shadowless flourescents, before falling back asleep.

I was there for a week.

It wasn’t the sepsis that I spent weeks recovering from, but the surgery itself—I had a nine-inch scar that started right in the middle of me, hung a left around my navel, and then continued straight down. A fresh road cut through a field, laddered with staples like railroad ties. A door that had been forced open and just as quickly shut. I couldn’t sit up or lie down or do anything on my own, pinned at the center like a butterfly.

I made a full recovery, but the scar is mine to keep. It’s gotten both tougher and softer with time, the way anyone does. It’s no longer red and angry looking; it’s blended into and yet defines the landscape. I’m not ashamed of it. I often forget it’s even there, except for when a new lover runs a curious thumb along the edge. And during yoga, when I’m hovering above the mat and arc into a long, yawning stretch—I can feel the hem of it tightening, a single stitch pulling toward the earth.

 

Learn more about the 21-day challenge here