Your last challenge for Reverb15 is to write your manifesto for 2016.

 

Here are my resolutions/goals for last year: 2015. I am a big fan of making resolutions. I am so-so about keeping them, though I will say that I did a pretty good job of working towards or achieving nearly everything on my 2015 list (though the PR in question was on my 10k time; was not by any stretch of the imagination impressive to begin with so anything was going to be an improvement; and was a PR by less than a second. Still counts!)

Here’s what I want to do this year (This is really boring stuff, guys):

1) Read More: I read a lot. But pleasure reading has not been on the agenda for years. As the year came to a close, a few one-time quirks put a lot of my usual year-end work in Q3 rather than Q4, and I was able to do some fun reading between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I forgot how much I like to read for enjoyment. It is weird to live a life where you forget the pleasure of a thing that you enjoy so much that it used to define your very existence. I need to make time for this again.

2) Train Smarter: I want to continue to run, and I have had two joint reconstructions in two years. I am medically cleared to run, but in order to avoid further injury, I need to accept that whatever I am doing on my own isn’t going to cut it as I get older and come back after these kinds of setbacks, and I need to hire a coach.

3) Cook More: Paul and I keep having this discussion wherein we say that we want to cook at home; take a cooking course; etc. We are both very competent cooks. I have even purchased a set of dishes and cutlery for Paul’s house.  Cooking sounds like a really fantastic idea, if you don’t think about the fact that I will likely have been in seven or eight different countries by the start of March.

4) Practice Patience: I find myself getting annoyed easily these days. I don’t have a lot of free time. My husband and I live in different countries. I travel a lot. I have a lot of personal and professional obligations. I have found myself taking it personally when people behave the way people will (which is to say, in self-interested, or careless ways). 95-99% of the time, it is not about me. But sometimes, I lose my shit about this nonetheless. I need to learn to be patient; I need to discipline myself into not taking things personally. This includes having patience with myself when I forget to be patient.

5) Dog Training: Roo has been working on some training to achieve a therapy dog certification. He has mastered the basics, and is generally an awesome dog anyway. However, he cannot for the life of him master lay down, and he is still terrible on a leash about 50% of the time. I know that the leash terribleness is due in part to the fact that during a crucial stage in his training when he was a pup, I was hit by a car, and with my arm in a sling, I was sort-of lax about leash discipline. But I am baffled as to why lay down! is not in his repertoire.

6) Addition Not Subtraction: I think the thing is, at this stage of my life, I want to focus on adding things to it, not taking away. I am also trying to enhance my own life by blocking out the noise brought in by other people. I love interacting with people; I love having close relationships; I love entertaining and seeing people and visiting. I genuinely loathe the everyday detritus that comes from our 24 hour-social media-outrage culture. I am trying to learn to add to my life without that kind of stuff taking away from it.

7) Buy Shoes: This is dumb; this is obvious. I just need to buy a proper pair of running shoes to accommodate my changed biomechanics so I don’t get injured again. I’ve grown really frustrated with demos; I’ve narrowed it down to a handful of pairs and brands. I have worn Sauconys for the better part of 20 years, and am finding little in their range to handle my changed body, post-surgeries. (Do not recommend the Kinvara. I have never found a shoe as awkward and uncomfortable as the Kinvaras.)

In sum, I have grown up to be the most boring person in the entire world. But I am living a bold and exciting day-to-day, and I suppose the only thing that makes this kind of life sustainable is a strong foundation. I don’t need to manufacture any drama to make things interesting. I suppose my intention is just to keep working on the basics.

Issue 5 of the beautiful magazine Bella Grace carries a gorgeous illustrated quote from a chap called H. Jackson Brown Jr as follows:  “Watch the sunrise at least once a year, put a lot of marshmallows in your hot chocolate, lie on your back and look at the stars, never buy a coffee table you can’t put your feet on, never pass up a chance to jump on a trampoline, don’t overlook life’s small joys while searching for the big ones.”

What small pleasures gave you moments of intense joy in 2015?  What more could you cultivate in 2016?

Small Pleasures

  1. Seeing the sunrise over the East River from my bedroom window
  2. Really good noise-cancelling headphones
  3. Descending a long staircase and bumping into a friend, unexpectedly, at the bottom
  4. Late drinks in the bar at Claridge’s till the very polite waiter refuses to keep serving
  5. Birkenstocks
  6. Pulling out the annoying bobby pin in a chignon
  7. Puppy breath
  8. Watching your friends achieve the things they’d waited so long for
  9. Observing a child reading on her own for the first time
  10. Getting over it

Tell us about transformation. 

Recently, I saw my high school sweetheart’s show Off-Broadway.

This was a musical called Invisible Thread (formerly, Witness Uganda), by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, and it was previously in development at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, and in October, came to New York and opened off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. (The show closed in late December.)

Invisible Thread is the story of a young man (Griffin) who comes out as gay to his church and is rejected. He then embarks on a sort-of personal discovery/aid-work mission to Uganda circa 2005, and finds himself and much more (this is a gross oversimplification of the plot). The show is largely autobiographical, based mostly on the experience of Matt’s real-life partner, Griffin, but it also draws on the experience of Matt himself, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 2000s in Mauritania.

I had spent a few years following the show’s development – attending staged readings, and even hauling a few friends to Boston one frigid night last March to see a performance at ART’s theatre there. The show had morphed and changed and been renamed, and ultimately had made it off-Broadway, where some major publications had sent their largely white critics to review a show where 95% of the cast was Black, and levied openly-lukewarm, and maybe-covertly-racist reviews by way of adverbs and quotation marks.

I think some of the critics’ attempts to dismiss Matt and Griffin’s work as loud and chaotic, or as a “Western Saviour”-type narrative is a facile and juvenile way for critics to hide their discomfort with the show and its themes. But maybe I am a white woman stating the obvious in saying that.  With this production, Matt and Griffin are showing the Africa they know; showing us their friends as humans, lovers, jerks – ordinary people who thrive and strive and need and want and take. It is not a show about doe-eyed starving children or gun-toting child soldiers and the Westerners who come to save them (which is maybe part of the source of the critics’ discomfort).

This phenomenon – attacking people who don’t fit the accepted narrative – is something that came to mind when I recently read a review of Alice Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. In her review of the book, Jesse Singal writes that Dreger is highlighting and meticulously researching what happens when science and dogma collide – i.e., when someone makes a claim that does not fit The Accepted World View.

I wonder, then, if Invisible Thread was critiqued not simply because Matt and Griffin were writing from the perspective of Black/Jewish Gay Outsiders, but also because they were writing from a perspective outside the New Accepted Liberal Worldview: i.e., that anyone who does aid work in the developing world and talks about it has a white/western saviour complex, and all African peoples are disenfranchised, and how dare anyone portray them as being able to have the same wants and desires and feelings as anyone in the Western world.

My own view is that the Liberal World View undermines the dignity and sovereignty of those who receive aid in developing countries and those work on the ground to provide it. Are there Westerners who seek to tie any aid rendered to forced western values and religion? Sure. Are there organisations that engage in what is essentially poverty porn? Yep. But volunteering in the developing world is not necessarily wrong, and to suggest that folks from two different cultures and economic realities cannot form meaningful, equal relationships is patently ridiculous.

That’s a key point that the critics seem to have missed. Or wanted to miss, at the chance to critique a mostly Black cast, and call their stories chaotic/static/loud/insert code word here, and forget that the show is supposed to be about Griffin’s transformation.

Like Matt and Griffin, I have done volunteer work in the developing world, and Invisible Thread’s purported loudness and messiness, brought me right back to that beautiful place. Other similarly-situated friends who had seen it commented on the show’s authenticity – Matt and Griffin were not offering an idealised or comedy version of what that kind of work looked like; it was a unique and uncomfortable experience to relive it.

Maybe, in the era of Rogers & Hammerstein, we went to see a musical to affirm our whiteness or Americanness and our experience of being The Same. But America isn’t like that anymore. America is Black and white and gay and brown. (In fact, most critics seemed to completely ignore that the main love story in the show is between two men, and the show featured a gay love scene. This was either so ordinary or so horrifying that it escaped mention). And I enjoy a theatrical experience that challenges me; pokes at my own conceptions of What is Right, and What is Good, and How Things Should Be.

For instance, I was the last woman Matt had a serious relationship with. And the love story between the main characters includes a gay sex scene, which is largely understood to represent a man I once loved making love to another man. If I were a different kind of person, I might have recoiled under the weight of my own discomfort. But this is a story about challenging perceptions and finding oneself; it is a statement about repressive regimes and fear and longing.

In other words, this is Art. And when you find someone who can take you on a journey to the scariest places within yourself as you watch the drama unfold on the stage, that is Talent.

We are ready for something bigger and better in the theatre, my friends. Maybe this passion project won’t be the one to break these two through. But Invisible Thread was transformative, and I am ready to watch and be spellbound by whatever comes next.

Can you think of an instance in the past year where you have been successful at making fear useful? What fears do you hold about the year ahead? And how could you use the energy of those fears in a different way?

Believe it or not, there is not too much in this world that frightens me.

For instance, in your lifetime, your odds of being killed in a shark attack are one in nearly four million, so why would you refuse to go in the ocean? (Except for that one time in La Reunion, which is the shark attack capital of the world, and the odds of being killed there are significantly different). (Source: The Economist, The Wildlife Museum). As an American, on American soil, your odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are, approximately one in twenty million. (Source: Washington Post).

You are almost certain to meet your end by heart-disease, stroke, cancer, car accident, or suicide, rather than by any kind of violent inferno. (Except lightning strike…watch out for lightning – your odds of dying by lightning strike are approximately one in about 80,000). (Source: The EconomistCDC).

What I am saying is that we have all spent a lot of time and energy on fear this year, and maybe it was not entirely the right kind of fear directed at the right places.

Here’s another way of looking at this: When I was a college student, I became interested in some media research a professor at UCLA was working on. He was looking at the ways local media influenced public perception, and, to a lesser extent, the underlying economic motivations of news stations. It was only a handful of years after that whole OJ Simpson thing (am I dating myself here?), and the professor was curious as to whether the White Bronco was a chicken or egg phenomenon. He discovered back in the early 1990s, a number of local news stations had purchased helicopters, and had to figure out a way to finance them. Simply performing traffic and weather reports was not bringing in the kind of viewership and revenue to support a news chopper.

(This is a gross oversimplification of a whole body of media research, and several published papers, but I’m trying to do this in 800 words or less, and stay on point, so bear with me.)

So with these pricey birds came the era of the police car chase. The helicopters saddled local stations with burdensome financing and required them to justify their outlays of cash – and reporting on traffic jams only got folks so far. The news helicopter-police car chase was therefore the perfect vehicle (pardon the pun) for delivering the excitement and intrigue to local news viewers, and for making local news relevant again. It also had the (potentially) unintended side-effect of firmly convincing people that crime was rising; car chases were prevalent; and that criminals were on the loose everywhere – when in fact, during that era, crime rates were dropping dramatically and car chases were and continue to be extremely rare.

I had grown up in LA; I had seen the white Bronco on TV; I had remembered being riveted. I had believed just like everyone else that criminals were all around us, and that they were rushing down our freeways with abandon.

That day, in the media lab, I realised how wrong I had been.

Today, all around me, I see people being terrified of people who don’t look like them, when they should probably be significantly more afraid of walking outside in a storm. I see people posting things on social media about how terrified they are to send their children to a suburban school in the middle of nowhere because of the terrorists, and yet think absolutely nothing of the sugar, and Big Macs they feed their kids and themselves.

I am not saying that I haven’t had moments of being afraid. But what I am saying is that I have been trying to think a lot more carefully about what scares me.

What am I afraid of, then? With regard to my own life, I’m afraid of not taking advantage of every opportunity presented to me. I fear I will be too rigid and not balance Taking Care of Myself with Living Life to the Fullest. I am afraid I will miss precious moments with my family and friends because I am far away, or because my life is spread over several geographies.

With regard to the world, there’s other, different stuff that scares me, but that’s a conversation for having over drinks with friends – not strangers over the Internet.

But you can waste your energy and life being afraid of distant bogeymen, where the odds of you winning the Powerball are greater than you encountering one of these horrors the media has convinced you are imminent, or you can choose to live. I’ve peeked behind the curtain. I know the secret of the white Bronco. I’m not afraid.

What stories touched you this year? Which stories of your own are you glad you shared?

I had not anticipated doing a “Greatest Hits of 2015” – my own and others. But the idea appeals to me, because I am a Girl Who Reads.

Stories By Others:

1) The Mixed Up Brothers of Bogota: I am a SUCKER for Twins Separated At Birth stories. I think this is the by-product of the fundamental loneliness of growing up as an Odd Kid. That, or maybe I had a secret twin my parents gave away. Who knows?  Anyway, I recently watched “Twinsters” on Netflix about separated-at-birth Korean twins, and it is a hopeful, heartbreaking, optimistic documentary that I strongly recommend. This NYT Magazine piece is a similar story from Bogota, discovered via Longform, and is also one of Longform’s best picks of 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/magazine/the-mixed-up-brothers-of-bogota.html

2) There Once Was Girl: Katy Waldman’s eating disorder narrative in Slate struck me for obvious reasons, and I particularly appreciated that it was not a recovery story that devolved into a How-To. Waldman also touches on a theme that I have struggled with lately – the Self as an Unreliable Narrator. I really loved this piece.

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/cover_story/2015/12/we_need_to_reject_the_false_narratives_around_anorexia.html

3) The Keys to Enya’s Kingdom: I honestly have no idea why I loved this so much. I found this via Longform, and read it one night in the bath, which is where I typically catch up on my news from the day – 11pm in the bath (if you follow me on Instagram, you know this). My daylight hours are sucked up by reading reams of financial and regulatory news, so I have to get my weird cultural news fix in the bath.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/the-keys-to-enyas-kingdom#.qgPxBAR83

4) Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking: I’m a white woman interested in the ethics of food and cooking, and I need to constantly educate myself and understand how our meals evolve; where food and recipes come from.  In truth, very little of what we call “American” belongs to white folks. This is a beautiful tribute to Edna Lewis, and the forgotten/obscured contributions that black women have made to American cuisine

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/magazine/edna-lewis-and-the-black-roots-of-american-cooking.html

Stories by Me:

1) Monkey Suit: A story about monkeys, marriage, and grief.

2) Rebel without a Clue: A story about scrimshaw, and breaking points.

3) Our Wedding: An Explainer: A story about how people are assholes.

4) Low Bridge: A story about success, failure, becoming a New Yorker, and a mule named Sal.

What radical act of love or non-conformity did you embrace this year?  How did performing this alchemy affect your ancestors and what is the gold waiting to be shared with future relations?

I am going to break the fourth wall here and tell you that these prompts are way outside of my comfort zone. I have been trying to bend/break them to my writing will, but writing about the alchemy affecting my ancestors, and the gold awaiting future relations makes me feel like I am writing about Leprechauns or Rumpelstiltskin.

I understand what this prompt is asking for: We are talking about why/how radical, non-conforming acts of love affect us not only now, but how they will affect us in the future. However, I feel like the Sister Grimm responding to this prompt – spinning Life Lesson flax into gold by branding my own foolishness as some kind of radically cool, non-conforming love-act.

This is not That, by the way. This is a story about beating dead horses.

I am the sort of person who talks too much. Not in the sense that I will talk over you, or blabber on and on and on. But I am the sort of woman to beat a dead horse.

I am not the sort of person who picks fights I cannot win, or makes arguments without facts. Even if an argument is hopelessly stupid, if I feel I have been wronged, I am likely to take up the case if I believe I can prove my side of it. Even if every single bone in my body tells me to shut my damn mouth and let something go, there is some part of me that simply…cannot. Perhaps this is why I became a lawyer. Or perhaps this is a result of being a lawyer. Or maybe that’s a chicken-and-egg sort of thing, and we may never know which came first.

So the other night, I was at a party for the release of my friend’s book. This was a mutual friend I shared with my ex-husband. My ex looms as this odd spectre that haunts my life, and probably always will. We work in the same industry; we share a few very close friends; we live mere blocks apart. But we never see each other; we do not talk. We are not friends on social media. In my mind, my ex plays a certain, specific, sometimes villainous role in my life, as I am sure I do in his – but in reality, he is just a downtown lawyer and an Upper East Side dad.

I walked into this party the other night and instantly saw my ex-husband across the room from me. I hadn’t seen him in…years.

Sidenote: We, as a species, are Unreliable Narrators. We embellish things, and accuse others of exaggerating THEIR stories, believing ourselves immune from doing the same. By way of example, I had been telling One Particular Story a certain way for years, painting myself as the hero/victim, and painting my ex as the aggressor. I have also kept a journal for about 25 years, where I have recorded my Life Events nearly contemporaneously, in efforts to remedy/mitigate the Unreliable Narrator problem. Needless to say, I truly, earnestly believed my version of the One Particular Story I was telling, because over the years, I had accepted my version as Truth, and had never bothered to check my facts because my version of the story rang so true to me – how could I be wrong about that?!

Over Thanksgiving Weekend, I was home, alone, with James Bond movies and a bottle of Hendrick’s. Eventually, this resulted in me re-reading old writing and journals, and I stumbled upon my contemporaneous account of what had happened with That One Story. To my horror, I discovered that my version of events was not what had happened at all. But I had wanted to believe myself so badly that, over the years, my embellishments had accreted into the Generally Accepted Version of the story, in which I was the victim.

What I am trying to say is: I spent 40 minutes talking with my ex-husband the other night. We are much older now than we were when we married. He asked me about my family, and I asked him about his, and I said: How old is your little sister now? And he told me she was 28, and I said, That makes me feel very old because when we first started dating, she wasn’t yet old enough to drive.

He introduced me to some of his university friends he’d been chatting with, who were also friends of our mutual friend. That we had once been together was not relevant to the conversation or introduction. And I realised that night that sometimes, you have to love yourself enough to know that you can be terribly wrong about things; and you can be wrong about yourself even, but that doesn’t mean the story you’ve been telling wasn’t worth getting out there in the first place.

What I am also saying is that, over these many years of story-telling, I have learned and am learning the radical art of shutting my mouth every now and again.

While alchemy is the active process of creating something of value, serendipity is the passive path to finding an unexpected treasure. Looking back through 2015, what did you diligently try to create?  What great thing did you just happen to find?

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parents in California over a hot summer weekend. My father has that asbestos constitution that I do, so he tends never to turn on their air conditioning unless the temperature is well into the triple digits. (Also, he is cheap.) As a result, I recall that weekend I visited being absolutely sweltering both inside the house and out.

At some point during that visit, my mother asked Do you want me to get rid of your old wedding gown? and I told her that I did. She assured me she would take it to the thrift shop the following Monday. But first, I poured myself a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc and went up to the steamy second floor to put the dress on one last time.

I hated that dress.

But I wanted to see it once again before I was rid of it. So I pulled the dress out of the closet and I tried it on. It looked terrible. As I took it off, I saw my mother standing in the doorway. I laughed and took a swig from the sweaty wine glass sitting on the bureau. Here – you try it on, I said.

Oh no, it won’t fit me, she protested.

Yes, it will. This dress is much more your style.

Okay. She began changing. I left the room and went in search of her wedding gown. I found it easily and returned wearing it.

IMG-20110722-00394

Moments later, the doorbell rang, and it was my best friend, Jade, who was coming over to join us for wine and conversation. Take some photos of us, I ordered.

You know, she observed, You two got it wrong. Linnie should have been wearing Meredith’s dress and Meredith should have been in Linnie’s dress. My mother and I looked at each other – Jade was not wrong, really.

Well, if I ever walk down the aisle again, I’ll be sure to wear Linnie’s dress! I promised, and we laughed.

IMG-20110722-00395

Back then, I wasn’t very close to marrying anyone. And it seemed such an absurd, faraway thing that I should wear my mother’s wedding gown. My mother and I have never been particularly close – not in a hostile way – just in the way that there are few mothers and daughters who are as different as we are.

There is a part of me that wants to proclaim: There are two kinds of mothers and daughters in this world – those who get along, and those who do not! But I would be wrong in making that black-and-white pronouncement, because my own mother and I fall into the grey-in-between. Also, it is not that easy to get along with someone you love, particularly when there is so much pressure to have some kind of special relationship. Not every dad goes out and tosses a baseball around with his sons like it’s a 1950s sitcom. Not every mom and daughter sit around braiding hair and talking about crushes and periods. The media glamourises the idyllic or the horrible but there is no role model for the mundane.

I am guessing what my mother and I have is pretty ordinary.  We love each other in spite of our differences. But we are not the sort where I had grown up dreaming of wearing her early 1970s beaded silk jersey wedding gown. And it is easy to feel bad about the relationship you DO have when women’s magazines tell you that you should be having a different one.

That said, I did not forget my promise on that hot, wine-soaked summer night.

So when Paul and I got engaged, I called my mother and asked her to send me her wedding gown. The dress had a big footprint on the back; it had not ever been cleaned. There was a wine stain down the front of it left from 1973. Nonetheless, I found a dressmaker, and asked her to draw up a design.

How do you take the hopes and dreams of a twentysomething marrying for the first and only time in 1973 and combine them with those of a thirtysomething marrying for the second time in 2015 – and distill them into the same dress?  The odds were against it being possible.

Yet a drycleaner managed to get all the stains out of the skirt; the dressmaker worked for nine months on the gown and managed to use all of the original beading and 95% of the original dress. Over those long nine months, my mother dutifully annoyed the hell out of me asking questions about her wedding gown. And I diligently refused to show her any pictures and lied through my teeth about what progress looked like because I didn’t want her opinion. But the process brought us together in a weird way – we finally had something really significant in common like we had never had before.

The dress came out beautifully.

What I realised, after All That, was that my mother and I were not so different after all. Our tastes and preferences for day-to-day things might not be the same, but on the stuff that really mattered, we were trying to get to the same place – maybe in a different way, with a different style – but heading the same direction.

I had wanted to wear her dress initially not because of that silly promise, but because I missed my grandfather so much and had wanted to wear what he’d walked my mother down the aisle in. And now I have to laugh, because wearing my mother’s dress brought me so much closer to my mother, and I am convinced that Bop had planned that for us all along.

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