The Week of Living Normally

The view from our apartment window.

The view from our apartment window.

The plan was simple. Go to Paris for two weeks so you can spend the first week doing all the irresistible tourist stuff you can’t not do no matter how many times you come here. (And yes it takes a full week just to do the minimum.) Normally my husband and I hit all the sights and museums and then drag ourselves exhausted and bleary-eyed back onto the airplane when the week’s up to head back to our daily round and life back home.

Not this time baby.

This time I was smart.IMG_6271
I booked us—for the first time since our honeymoon 25 years ago—two weeks in Paris. Yesterday we finished the first week of walking everywhere in town. (Fitbit claims we averaged 13K steps a day. If only exercise was so effortless back home!) We’ve hit every chocolate shop, stuffed down pain au chocolat at every boulangerie on every corner–even when we weren’t hungry—(what’s hunger got to do with it?) and made lunch a bigger deal than Henry VIII in his great hall.

On literally every street corner...

On literally every street corner…

We went back to the old haunts so we could reminisce (“Oh! Remember when John Patrick was little and he fed the sparrows here in front of Notre Dame?”) and to visit favorite restaurants and neighborhoods for that sense of familiarity and—in the case of Paris—awe.

So now we’re ready to be normal.

Except I’m not sure, after three years of the kind of work schedule both my husband and I’ve had, if we know what that means. My first inclination is to say, “Let’s look it up on Google! I’ll type in normal and see what we get.” That got us nowhere. (Although I’m glad to report we’re nowhere near normal.)

Le Roi du Pot au Feu! And trust me, they don't lie.

Le Roi du Pot au Feu! And trust me, they don’t lie.

But one thing I knew was that waking up at ten every morning and eating flaky pastries two hours before a gargantuan lunch was not normal. For the last seven days I’ve told myself that a year of tuna salad sandwiches and yoghurt cups await me back home so eating pot au feu TWICE in four days was okay. (Honestly, I still don’t see the problem with it.)

But being normal for this last week in Paris is important to me. While not the reason for the trip (that’s to research my current novel) it is the whole point of coming for two weeks. The second week is the part where we stop feeling like tourists and start feeling like we live here! And eating big heavy lunches every day and a pound of artisan chocolate doesn’t fulfill that—even for a Parisian.

So today I’ll get up early, work for a couple of hours in the morning then wander about the neighborhood just to wander. I’ll go hang out at a café and people watch, and not see a single thing all day that’s famous or is featured on a postcard. I’ll take pictures (covertly) of the every day things that will remind me of this week-as-a-Parisian (because after all I do know my time here is finite and the Florida suburbs await me). I’ll eat when I’m hungry and stay my hand on all the amazing and omnipresent sweets—just like I’d do “normally.”IMG_6322

Instead of endlessly revisiting Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower, I’ll memorize the bones of the beautiful Haussmann apartment buildings that line almost every avenue in every neighborhood I walk through and I’ll watch the faces of the Parisians hurrying by. I’ll concentrate on the fragrance of the coffee in the cafés, the rolling burrs of the natives speaking all around me, and I won’t look at my blasted smart phone once.

Well. Just to get the GPS coordinates to find my way back to the apartment of course. I mean getting lost is fun with you’re twenty years old but I’m wearing very fashionable ankle boots with two-inch heels on cobblestones here. (A lot of things may have changed in Paris since you were here last but trust me on this, Parisian women are not running around Paris in sneakers.)

So wish me luck on being “normal” in Paris this week. I’ll report back as to my success. Who knows? If I can manage it here, I might try it back home too. I mean, that’s the perspective shift we all get from going on vacation, right? The way we can see our lives back home so much more clearly? And then make the changes to fix the things you didn’t even know needed fixing?

What could be more Parisian than a perfect scoop of ice cream on a cold day?

What could be more Parisian than a perfect scoop of ice cream on a cold day?

Or maybe I’ll just focus on café-sitting and people watching.

That would be good, too.

And of course, it wouldn’t be truly Parisian if I were to eschew all chocolate…

 

But what have you done lately?

The above headline is one of the industry jokes shared among the inmates of the profession of advertising when I was in the biz. It wasn’t really very funny and it basically addressed the fact that regardless of how many CLIO awards you’d won or whatever glowing peer recognition you’d tallied up for being brilliant, you were really only as good as your last ad campaign. The rest of it—regardless of how good your TV and print ads looked in your portfolio—was irrelevant compared to what you had done lately. Maybe a lot of professions are like that. I’ve been away from the business for several years now but I was reminded of this attitude the other day when I visited my mother at her house.

I walked in on her in the middle of the day and found her elbow-deep in clipped out magazine recipes and open cookbooks at the dining room table. When I asked her what she was doing, she sighed and said: “Still trying to find my signature dish.”

I sat down with a thump and laughed until I cried. We both did.

My mother will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a few weeks.

What's YOUR signature dish?

What’s YOUR signature dish?

So it’s officially true. You never stop looking for that one thing that sets you apart, that one gift that will have people remembering you and immortalizing you. My mother was a gifted painter in her day and she was gorgeous to boot: thick auburn hair, ivory skin, hazel eyes, willowy slim. Like many people who’ve lived a long time, she’s done a lot in her life: raised kids, been adored by a special man, (thankfully for us kids it was our father), and travelled the world.

Seeing her at the dining room table looking for the dish that might be the lynchpin of her reputation as a cook was great to see because it reminded me that while I and the rest of my family are in awe (and fear) of her advancing age, that’s not how she sees things.

She sees that she’s not done yet and that reputations can still be made.

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it's "too cheesy" can it really be what I'm known for?

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it’s “too cheesy” can it really be what I’m known for?

I love that about her. In no small part since it helped me to see the world in more cheerful colors, because I’m also still searching for my “signature dish.” I don’t think my mother’s intention was so much in search of a legacy  after she’s gone but to fulfill a reputation right now. She’s looking for the thing her family will think of her today, beyond all her other accomplishments in life.

What about you? Are you still looking for your “signature dish?” The thing that sets you apart and that people will think of when they think of you? Would love to hear!

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I think this is a great line for those of us obsessed with trying to control our creative products  as we steer our way through life. The perfect is the enemy of the good. How could trying for perfection end up creating imperfection? I think the line is really a warning against going to extremes. Obviously, perfection is pretty extreme. I mean, it’s perfection! Some would say perfection is so extreme as to be unobtainable. I’m not talking about formatting issues or typos in your epub doc (although surely one might strive for perfection in that case?) but I get it. Trying to make things perfect can keep you from moving on and doing other things as important or even more important.

It’s easy to see this principle in play when I’m in the process of obsessively tweaking or twiddling with a paragraph in a book I’m writing. If I believe that book sales lie not in social media prowess (as I do) but rather in having available a fat inventory of awesome books, then making  any paragraph “perfect” is a barrier to what I say I want: mega book sales. Because I don’t write literary PD-James-type fiction, a belabored but beautifully descriptive paragraph of a country lane that brings tears to your eyes is not going to get me where I want to go—writing my kind of books, women’s lit and thrillers, quickly. But I’m a writer so I can get sidetracked into the aforementioned paragraph tweaking until my afternoon is gone and the day’s word count not even touched.

Okay, so I believe that less is more in the writing  department but I definitely believe that more available books are more in the book sales department. By that I mean it makes more sense for me as a genre writer to knock out a great fast-paced book and move on to the next one than it does to try to get any book I’m writing “perfect,” which I don’t believe I can do anyway. Once you accept that basic tenet, it’s just a quick step to applying it to our trickiest project of all which is knowing when your book marketing efforts are taking up too much of your time because trust me that is one endeavor you will never get perfect no matter how many books you read about it or how many hours in your day you dedicate to it. As with writing, you need to know when to step away from the keyboard and let it go for the day.

Like anything in life, I think it comes down to asking yourself the question: what do I want out of all this? Do I want to write literature or tell a good story? Do I want to sell lots of books to average-Joe readers or do I want a write-up in the New York Review of Books that I can frame? Do I want 10,000 Twitter pals or ten emails from people who have read my book?

Personally, I don’t have to be JK Rowling famous. I just need enough readers who like my kind of books to allow me to make a living doing what I love.

Now that doesn’t seem too extreme, does it?

The One Thing You Need to Know to Have a Great Life

Like a lot of people, I get much of the philosophy by which I manage my life from popular movies. (Hey, those scriptwriters are wise people.) The problem with our culture today, as illustrated by that brilliant scene in “The Hurt Locker” where Jeremy Renner plays a character who has nerves of Titanium yet is literally stunned into inertia by the mind-numbing plethora of toothpaste choices at his local grocery story, is that we have too many options.

Gone are the days when you knew you only had your folks’ farm or the garment-sewing factory to look forward to. Nowadays it’s been drilled into us relentlessly since our very first Disney movie that we can do and be anything we want. Screw the Ford factory assembly line! You could be President! Or a famous director on Broadway. It could happen. Things have changed since our parents’ parents’ generation, oh they of the Few Options. Because so many more people are able to get  college degrees than a couple generations ago they have more options. With more doors to choose from, there is more consternation about choosing the right door. After all, writers create short stories about people who choose the wrong door and then their lives go totally to hell.

So, if I can get you to accept that we have more choices and more options than ever before then I can get down to the point I’d like to make which is, there are more wrong roads we can take now too—and not because someone (or poverty) pushed us down that road but because we chose it for ourselves.

Since having a great life is within our power—if we make a series of right choices—then there is a lot of pressure on us to make those right choices. Which brings me to one of my favorite philosophic movies of all time, City Slickers with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. While the premise of the movie was that Billy’s character had lost his oomph with life, his wife, his dull kids, and definitely his job, it was the line by Palance’s character, Curly Washburn, that lit up the screen for me in a way that would have me remember the moment ever after.

When Billy was whining about how he wasn’t fulfulled and maybe he didn’t have the job he really should have, Curly told him that the secret to life was “one thing.” He held up that big gnarly gloved finger in Billy’s face and I remember clutching for the next words out of his mouth that would tell me—and every lucky person who was watching this movie—what the one thing was that we should all heed. Imagine! In the ten seconds or so that the director milked the line for, I really did mirror the look on Billy’s face: this old grizzled cowboy who lived basically and in the present had the secret to a happy life and was going to tell me! Then all I had to do was plop it into a simple formula that related, somehow, to my own life, and finally, I would be on my way amid the tsunami of choices and wrong exits that pocked my life.

Why is it we love the simple and the streamlined? There’s an argument that nothing really important can be sorted out by a simple formula. True, complicated issues sometimes are solved by very simple answers, but I’m thinking rarely. Mostly, if the conundrum is a complex one, you can bet it’s not a simple matter of: eat more roughage and add ten minutes to your evening walk.

Like a lot of people, though, I’m a sucker for any self-help book that starts out: “The only THREE things you need to know to reduce debt (lose weight, make better grades).” And I should know better. I’m an advertising copywriter. I write this crap for a living!

Okay, so after much milking of the time between the promise and the delivery, Jack Palance finally coughed up the “one thing,” which was different for everyone.

Huh? Turns out, you had to go and find the $#@!! “one thing” that was YOUR “one thing.” Bloody hell! Yeah, Billy looked pretty disgusted, too.

But once the easy answer and free lunch was mourned and gotten over, the “one thing” concept did start to roll around in my brain parts a bit. And while it wasn’t as soon as I walked out of the movie theatre, it was within the year: I began to form in my mind the “one thing” that mattered to me and that would help me walk in the direction of making my life worthwhile.

And once you know it, it’s true: it turns out you really can spend your whole life’s journey working to achieve it. That’s something else I discovered: (I think it was in the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously”) the steps in the journey are even more important than the destination which, let’s face it, could just as easily be a nursing home (or worse) than that beautiful Craftsman-style home in the better neighborhood you have your eye on.

Step by step, day in day out.

So. What’s your “one thing?” Do you know it? Are you still figuring it out? Love to hear from you!

Organize Your Life Like You Would Your Closet

Your perfect closet.

I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you something about yourself that you probably already know: You can’t do your best work, your best thinking, your best anything if your world is a cluttered, chaotic shambles. I know it makes a good story to say that you are the kind of person who can create brilliance out of a maelstrom, but, frankly my dear…

…pull the other one.

I don’t care what it is you’re doing: baking a cake, writing a chapter, digging a flower bed or compiling data in a spreadsheet, you need a tidy, everything-in-it’s-place platform from which to work, or the result will not—repeating here—will NOT be the best it could be. I am as bad as anyone for dining out on how I used to do flash cards with my five-year old, write a scintillating inciting incident for my mystery series and roll out the dough for a cherry pie all at the same time. Today? I can only imagine how good that chapter would’ve been if I’d just had TEN DAMN MINUTES TO MYSELF. Oops, didn’t mean to yell.

The five-year old is now sorting through college offers so he no longer serves as any kind of excuse for not doing my best work. But the point I’m trying to make is that an organized mind, an uncluttered desktop, and a quiet work environment really do make a difference to your end result.

It is worth the extra fifteen minutes it takes to pick up the dirty clothes, tuck the breakfast cups in the dishwasher, sweep up the kitty kibble and put all your (metaphorically) sharpened pencils in their  cup before you tackle whatever work you have on your schedule. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s directly related to your real work you, the sensation of an organized world will prompt an ordered clarity in your thinking that can only enhance whatever it is you’re trying to do.

I once read an article that said people who tidy up after themselves and put away their tools when they’re finished are actually more relaxed and chill than the Oscar Madisons of the world. Let’s face it. It’s one less thing to worry about if you already know where that overdue gas bill is or if you can fling open the front door to an unexpected visit from the minister’s wife without embarrassment. These kinds of people are much more serene than the slovenly of the world. I don’t care how much someone brags about being a slob, when they walk into their apartment and it’s a disaster, they die a little bit. If nothing else, just the thought of not knowing  where the remote control is would make anyone churlish.

You might want to check out Maria Menounos’ very stylish and not-a-bit anal “The Every Girl’s Guide to Life.” Ignore the dorky name, it’s really got lots of great tips in it, like:

  1. Keep only what you need (now that’s a concept we could all use)
  2. Buy only what you need
  3. Make sure everything in your closet has its own place
  4. Get a toolbox. Stock it. Return tools to it.
  5. Get a label maker. Label scissors, tape dispensers etc with “Return to kitchen” or “Return to Susan’s office”
  6. Skip one major vacation and have a hot tub installed instead. Then enjoy mini-rejuvenations and spa experience on a daily basis!
  7. Do the laundry before it’s overflowing
  8. Tape inventories to pantry doors so you know what you have
  9. Do all errands and grocery shopping on ONE day each week (this cuts down on grocery bills big time)
  10. Keep all your favorite cleaning supplies (what?! You don’t HAVE any favorites?) all in one place, in a handy bucket

Before you know it,  these habits will have gelled into a tidy house, a straightened desk and an orderly mind. All of which are absolutely essential to creating magic every day—whether that’s mothering, writing or anything else you do that defines who you are.

Step one to an awesome life?

Pick up your clothes.

Anybody else got any tips on how to straighten and tidy your life fast and effectively? Love to hear ’em…!

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.