Monday, February 22, 2010

Happiness is hard work

A post on Jezebel today has really got me thinking. Why is happiness such hard work for some of us?

The Jez article cites two books, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I stumbled upon Rubin's site a little over a year ago (just in time to deal with my layoff) and her musings on happiness have been tremendously helpful. Most of her theories are no-brainer stuff: do good things for others, be mindful, exercise consistently, incorporate fun in your day, etc. But what has helped me most is the daily reminder to work on being happy. Because for me -- and I'm guessing millions of others since these books have gotten so much attention -- happiness is something I have to work on every single day.

Here's my daily formula: do some meaningful and productive work, do something enjoyable (take a walk, cook a new recipe, have lunch with a friend), do something nice for someone else (sometimes I just retweet someone or leave a nice comment on their blog or I spend an afternoon volunteering) and remember that I don't have to be perfect. It's that last one that's the killer.

Since I really began "working" on being happy I can say that I'm about 150% happier. (Of course, when I started this I had just come out of a trough of depression, so I had a really long way to go.) I'm curious about other people, though. Are you naturally a happy person? If not, do you work on finding happiness?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

100 things about me, the final installment

Are you as sick of me as I am?
81. My breakfast this morning was Nutella straight from the jar and a glass of milk. Breakfast of champions.
82. I used to eat Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch every morning for breakfast, so the Nutella is an improvement.
83. Royal is gone on a business trip to Orlando for the next three days and I am excited about having the house to myself. Not that I won't miss him terribly, but I can listen to 80s music and watch as much crap on TV without fear of him thinking badly of me.
84. I am going to work out today. I mean it.
85. I do all my own stunts.
86. I never thought that at age 36 I would still be living in the South. I like snow. I like cold weather. I don't like collard greens or fatback or even grits really unless they're baked with copious amounts of cheese. I don't watch football, collegiate or otherwise. I wear a lot of black and am sarcastic. I have always lived in the South (born and raised in Mississippi, moved to Alabama at 25) except for a one year stint in Germany. But besides my accent and my obvious roots here, what makes me a Southern girl? I feel lost here sometimes, as if my tribe moved on without me to a colder climate.
87. But here's what I love about the South: really awesome BBQ, the friendliness of strangers, that we have a grocery store called Piggly Wiggly and everybody calls it The Pig, that girlfriends are considered sacred. Who knows, maybe if we moved I'd be terribly homesick. It's possible I'd feel out of place just about anywhere.
88. I absolutely cannot stand the word "fashionista." Or anything with an -ista on the end, unless it is "Sandinista" and we are discussing the tumultuous regimes of Nicaragua.
89. Don't even get me started on "recessionista." Gag.
90. Almost forgot the most important thing I love about the South: pimento cheese. I could eat it every day. Jim 'N Nick's here has a great burger with pimento cheese on it that makes me almost want to whistle Dixie.
91. Royal and I have talked about living in other places, mainly the west coast. I'm drawn to rainy weather and good food, so Seattle or Portland seemed logical. I could also do Minneapolis or some quiet town in the Northeast.
92. I got married in a red dress and spike heels at the courthouse. Royal was in Army dress.
93. After our wedding, Royal offered to take me to the finest restaurant in town. I told him I was really craving chicken wings, so we had that instead. "You're an awesome wife," he said. I so know it.
94. Royal is an awesome husband, too. He has put up with my weirdo tendencies, depression, fits of rage (once I flung all the food I was grilling into the yard saying, "There, cook it your damn self"), utter silliness and crying jags. He never seems to get frustrated with me, even when I'm going over and over the same crap like I'm bothering a sore tooth. He listens and hugs me and tells me I'm wonderful. What else could I ask for?
95. Music I listen to over and over: "Howl" and "Rabbit Heart" by Florence + The Machine; "Heavy Cross" by Gossip; "Freeway" by Aimee Mann; "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
96. Musical artists I adore: M.I.A., Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gossip, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Santigold, B-52s, The Go Gos, Annie Lennox, Zap Mama, Outkast, Nina Simone, Chaka Khan. Lots more, but these get the most play on my iPod.
97. I love flamboyant people. I am a pretty reserved person, so people who are completely out there and unafraid are my heroes.
98. There are lots of things I don't like about myself. My weight. My fear of rejection. My crankiness. My inability to bake a cake from scratch. I'm working on these things this year.
99. There are also some things I like about myself. My unerring honesty. How I can make my friends laugh. My love for animals. My compassion for people who have very little in life. I need to develop more ways to be a better person this year.
100. If there's one thing I want readers of this blog to take away from this about me, it's this: I am who I am. I don't put on a show for people, or pretend to be what I'm not. I'm not ashamed of my foibles and flaws. It's taken many years, therapy, lots of books and countless hours of overthinking, but I can at last say, "This is me, and I'm OK."
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Unemployed for a year

February 13 had an extra special distinction this year: it marked the one year anniversary of my unemployment. While I was hardly celebrating the date, I couldn't help but dwell a bit on it. A whole year. Without a job. The enormity of that statement is pretty soul crushing.

I still remember that day vividly. We were sending the April issue to the printer, and I had come in early to help Michelle go over the PDFs before we sent them off. I had had a bad feeling all week, and my boss wouldn't answer any of my pointed questions -- as in, "Will we have jobs next week?" -- with a direct answer. So I knew something was looming, I was just trying not to think about it.

At 8 am, she called. From the tone of her voice, I knew what was about to happen. Then she said, "Gather your people and meet me in HR at 8:30." So this was it. I had been fretting over it for months, and it was finally here. To be honest, my first feeling was relief. At least I knew now, and I could move on. No more sleepless nights and trying to stay positive (and failing, mostly) for my staff.

We trundled down the stairs to our doom at exactly 8:30. My boss, the director of HR and the publisher were gathered in the room. After going over the technical details of our severance and what not, we were told we needed to vacate our offices by 5 pm. Back in the relative privacy of our offices, we sent off the issue and packed up as quickly as humanly possible. A little after noon, we were throwing boxes in my car, turning in our badges, and hightailing it to Bottletree to wallow in our collective sorrow and rage. It was a low point for all of us.

For me, at least, it got even lower as the months went by. I was drawing unemployment, which was a lifesaver, but I wasn't even getting nibbles on my resume. Doors I had always assumed open to me closed in my face. I was competing against more and more of my friends as magazine after magazine folded all around us. I became ever more disheartened, and finally I just stopped looking.

Depression sunk its black claws into me again. I slept for fourteen, fifteen hours a day, tired of just existing. I stopped communicating with people, didn't answer emails, didn't go to parties or events that I used to enjoy. Part of me wondered if I would ever work again -- sounds dramatic, I know. But when so much of your self worth is tied up in your job, it's hard to see things realistically.

Fortunately, I got tired of being tired and morose. I forced myself to cold call people for jobs, I put aside as much pride as I could and I asked for help. Slowly, and not so surely, I began to get my footing back. Life didn't seem as hopeless as I had thought. I got a couple of reliable freelance clients, and I went on some promising interviews. I didn't get those jobs, but I felt wanted a bit more.

So here I am a year after that dreadful day, and I still feel like I'm fighting to keep my head above water every single day. When I open my eyes every morning, I have to make a choice to be positive or give in to my natural pessimism. Sometimes pessimism wins. I am not naturally positive and it's hard work for me to remain so. But I do it.

To my fellow unemployed (sorry -- "freelance") friends, you have my unwavering love and support. If there is one important lesson I've learned above all others this year, it's that misery loves company. Just kidding! It's that having friends who understand makes all the difference. It does make it easier to get up in the morning, and to get through an entire year being unemployed. I hope we have no other such anniversaries.

100 things about me, Part 4

61. Finding 100 original things to say about myself is surprisingly difficult.
62. I am a compulsive list maker, so you'd think this would be right up my alley. I have whole notebooks filled with various lists, from grocery lists to "things to do before I die."
63. One of the things I want to do before I die: learn to make my grandmother's chicken and dumplings. I've watched her do it, and can never duplicate it. She rolls out her dumplings, so they are more like big squares of dough. But they are perfect and delicious.
64. I love rainy days and settling in on the couch with a good book or a pile of magazines.
65. I have a cat who licks all the condensation from the windows in my office every morning. He's doing it right now.
66. I have keratosis pilaris, or what is sometimes referred to as "chicken skin." My body produces too much keratin and I have the tiny bumps and redness all over my upper arms. This is why no one I know has ever seen me in a sleeveless shirt. It's a pain in the ass.
67. Royal just told me I need to say that I like to talk over other people's conversations. This is a pet peeve of his.
68. I routinely run into things like the corner of the bed or my dresser and have bruises all over my legs. It's like I'm walking through the house in a fog and bam! There's the bed.
69. My dream job was to be editor of a magazine, then I became editor of a magazine. Not my dream job any more.
70. I can overanalyze a plate of beans.
71. Royal and I spent Valentine's Day playing Super Mario and watching Clone Wars. We are not exactly romantics.
72. I hate romantic comedies. Well, except old ones like The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby. I am getting so sick of seeing beautiful, accomplished women on screen being treated like they are pariahs because they have no man in their life. And why do they suddenly become these shrill harpies when planning the wedding? I don't know any women like this. And I don't enjoy watching women reduced to a stereotype. Hollywood has some serious misogyny issues, and I don't spend my money on making it worse.
73. I don't like Judd Apatow movies either. Seriously overrated.
74. I'm a pretty sensitive person, and looking for a job for the past year has taken a toll on my self-esteem. I'm beginning to feel unwanted.
75. When I got laid off a year ago, I thought I'd find a job quickly. I'm a smart person, and I always get along great with people. Now, I sometimes feel like I'm begging people just for a chance to prove myself. I know I'm not alone in this, but it feels like it.
76. I promise I will try to make the rest of this list more positive. Just feeling down today.
77. I wish I was more talented with the camera. My cats are looking extra cute right now.
78. Sometimes when I'm driving around town running errands, I get an overwhelming urge to get on the interstate and just keep driving until I reach the end of civilization. In Alabama, this doesn't take too long. I kid, I kid!
79. I am a bad joke teller.
80. I will work a little harder on my last 20 things about me. These were a little tired, I'm afraid.

Monday, February 8, 2010

100 things about me, Part 3

41. I can type about 80 wpm.
42. I can barely write legibly any more, but I think this is a pretty common phenomenon among people who work on a keyboard all day. I wrote out a check today and it looked like a ransom note.
43. I watch a lot of old movies. 90% of my favorite films are in black and white. Colorizing black and white films is a mortal sin in my book.
44. I once interviewed the designer Betsey Johnson. Sadly, it was only over the phone. Still, she was as delightful as you'd expect.
45. My favorite colors are red and purple. I try not to wear them at the same time.
46. When I was a kid, I had a guinea pig named Caesar. Also, a raccoon named Rascal.
47. I think I'm getting asthma. The last few times I've gone walking in our neighborhood, I've gone about ten minutes and started to feel like someone was sitting on my chest. It was almost impossible to breathe in or out. Pretty scary. I sometimes get this when I walk or run on the treadmill, but it's not as bad as when I'm outdoors. Pollution? And no, I haven't seen a doctor about it.
48. I keep trying to become a vegetarian, but I can't quite make it stick. But I probably eat meat less than five times a month.
49. The best thing I've ever eaten was tortellini Gorgonzola at a tiny restaurant called Gino's in Neustadt, Germany (at least, I think it was Neustadt. Royal and I can't quite remember the name of the town). The owners were northern Italians and the pasta was freshly made. Wonderful cream sauce flecked with ham and (as the name implies) Gorgonzola cheese. The second best thing I've ever eaten would be the meal we had at another tiny restaurant, this time in San Gimignano, Italy. Lamb chops, local bread, pumpkin ravioli, a chocolate sampler and some local wine. Simple, fresh ingredients beautifully prepared. I was in heaven.
50. If I could live anywhere, it would be southern Germany. Gorgeous landscape, hearty food, proximity to all the awesomest European countries.
51. When I was in fourth grade, my teachers wanted to promote me to 6th grade because I was so far ahead. My parents let me make the decision, and I decided not to because I didn't want to be that nerdy girl. I still was that nerdy girl, just got to be nerdy among people I knew well.
52. I regret that I didn't do a semester abroad. Money was an issue then, but it would have been well worth it. My English major friends lived it up in London and Edinburgh without me.
53. Places I'd like to see: India, China, Morocco, Ireland, Iceland.
54. I'm a terrible procrastinator.
55. I have a recurring dream about this fantastic house in San Francisco that Royal and I are thinking about buying. I've never been to San Francisco, but it looks amazing in the dream.
56. I almost drowned when I was 6.
57. I fear public speaking more than death.
58. I loathe shopping. It makes me tired and cranky and depressed. Even if I go shopping with somebody else's money.
59. Sometimes I fantasize about going into politics, but then remember that a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty gal like myself would never get elected in Alabama. Also, there's that fear of public speaking and all.
60. As of this week, I've been laid off exactly one year. Sigh.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

100 things about me, Part 2

21. I am very nearsighted. Can't drive, watch TV or even read without corrective lenses.
22. The nail on my right index finger is stunted and won't grow past the edge of my nail bed. This has freaked out every nail technician I have ever been to. It's not like I have six fingers on that hand or something!
23. I can't stand Ernest Hemingway. Macho crap.
24. I have a weird fixation on fried popcorn shrimp. I will eat them until I'm almost sick. It doesn't matter if I just had them for lunch, I will eat them again at dinner. And again the next day. We never (almost) buy popcorn shrimp for this reason. Are they breaded in crack or something?
25. My husband and I watch a lot of animated stuff. Spongebob, Jimmy Neutron, Avatar (Last Airbender, not that stupid blue alien stuff), Looney Tunes, Fairly Oddparents, the usual fare. But a few months ago I saw my first Miyazaki anime and was Blown. Away. I have never been so enchanted by a film (it was Howl's Moving Castle). Until I saw Spirited Away. And then Princess Mononoke. And Nausicaa. I have the rest of his films in my Netflix queue. Brilliant filmmaking that is a pleasure to behold.
26. But my favorite film of all time is All About Eve. I can't even remember how many times I've seen this. It's just marvelous writing. Bette Davis is at the peak of her considerable powers and her lines are drenched in acid. Funny, delicious bitchfest.
27. Daniel Craig is my favorite James Bond. Sorry, Connery.
28. I drive a stick, and most of the valets in this city are completely flummoxed by it. This is a source of some pride for me.
29. I am pro-choice.
30. I once made out with a boy who went on to get busted for smoking pot in the Mississippi state capitol building.
31. Royal and I have been married 7 years. We married each other less than three months after we met. My parents knew each other only about that long before they got hitched and they've been married for almost 38 years. I hope I can stand him for that long.
32. Royal and I are child-free by choice.
33. We have four fur children who are more than enough right now, thank you.
34. I am trying to be an optimist this year but it's still a struggle. I am a natural pessimist, and frankly I think I see the world more realistically than all you rainbows and unicorn folk.
35. I am much kinder to others than I am to myself.
36. I am much more tolerant of others than I am of myself.
37. In fact, I would say I irritate myself much more often than others irritate me.
38. I am constantly astounded by the kindness of others, and try to remember to pay it forward.
39. I am a horrible dancer, but I do it anyway.
40. I am a terrible phone person. I just absolutely loathe talking on the phone and will try to avoid it at all costs. This means I currently have several friends who are annoyed with me, but I really wish they would email me instead. Are you reading this, Robin?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

100 things about me, Part 1

I started following a new blog last week, Surf's Up Buttercup, because I also stalk her on Twitter. Also, because she is an interesting person and our interests often intersect. For her blog's first post, Laura listed 100 things about herself (or, actually 76 because she was late for church and also has time management issues). I was intrigued, mainly because I figured if I cut it up into lists of 20 I could get five easy posts out of that idea. And y'all know I'm all about easy. What makes this a little more challenging is that, as an extreme over-sharer, I've probably already used up all my good bits on this blog. I'll try to limit myself to unique things you have not yet read about me here or in my scandalous former magazine.
Fasten your seatbelts, kittens:
1. I don't floss. My dental hygienist loathes me.
2. I've never had a cavity. So there, hygienist.
3. I started wearing a bra when I was 9 after my third-grade teacher pulled me aside and told me I was "developing." At the time I was wearing a shirt that my grandma gave me that said "I never get lost because everyone always tells me where to go." I feel there is a profound, Alice Munro-type story in there somewhere but I haven't yet figured it out.
4. My parents almost named me Heather Nicole. *shudder*
5. I was not in a sorority in college, and I am extremely self-righteous about it.
6. I got married at 19 and divorced at 21, which played a large part of why I was not in a sorority. Seriously, those bowheads would have been scandalized by my Jezebel self. Instead, I had an apartment off campus with another divorcee. Stories for another time, as my Daddy reads this blog...
7. My mother used to babysit a boy a bit younger than me when we were kids and he called me "Teen Teen." How freaking hard is it to say Tina? I mean honestly.
8. I have severe girl crushes on Dita Von Teese, Mariska Hargitay and Michelle Obama.
9. I'm afraid of frogs and toads. Probably not phobia territory, but close. When I was a teenager my brother threw a toad at me and it hit me in the mouth. Unfortunately, it was not a Hypnotoad and I did not engage in Toad Licking.
10. I'm allergic to eggs but often eat them anyway, if it's something like quiche.
11. Last week I cut open my thumb using a winged corkscrew. That sucker cut out a good 1/4" of flesh from my thumb. It wasn't the sharp part that cut me, either, but the little corkscrew wheel. Who does this? And no, I had not been drinking.
12. I can't use chopsticks.
13. If you give me a plant, I will kill it. It doesn't matter what kind of plant, or if I try really hard to keep it alive. It will die.
14. I can't stand those "daily quote" kind of things. Say something original. Tweeters are so bad about this.
15. Do NOT send me an email forward, no matter how knee-slappingly funny you find it. I will delete it, complain about it if it's offensive, and consider blocking your emails from now on. Notice to Daddy: This does not apply to you, of course.
16. I love watching people fall down. Just thinking about it right now is making me laugh. Once, my little sister was over at my townhouse in college and I was coming down the carpeted stairs with a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. My socks slipped on the carpet and I tumbled down the stairs, clothes flying out of the basket and my limbs flailing for purchase. I didn't even see this and I think it's the funniest thing that has ever happened. My sister practically wet the couch.
17. My sister and I used to talk about poo a lot. We don't so much any more, but probably because she has two young sons and is probably sick to death of poo.
18. I love curse words. I refrain from profanity in most situations, but I have a few friends with who I can let my freak flag fly. Swear words are marvels of economy of expression. I don't use too many on this blog because I'm not out to purposely offend anyone, but sometimes, gosh darn it to heck, they just make more sense than tiptoeing around them.
19. I once had my picture taken with LL Cool J. I really wish I could find that pic. We look like a couple, for real. He smelled so good.
20. I'm a feminist. Women deserve equal treatment with men. Full stop.
Check back for part 2 tomorrow!

Six Word Memoir possiblities

Just got a cryptic email from my husband that said, "Can u write 6 word memoir 4 ur blog." (Hmm... What is he up to today?) I don't think I have anything as brilliant as Aimee Mann's Couldn't cope so I wrote songs, but I'll give a few options a spin. Here you go, honey:
I am not making this up.
Maybe I am making this up.
Any minute now, something will happen.
Trying to get to just enough.
I just had the strangest dream.
I don't lie, I just embellish.
I know I can do better.

Read some really good ones at SMITH Magazine.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Another year older but none the wiser

Yesterday I turned 36. Birthdays are a bit of a non-event to me, so this day was not auspicious in any way, except perhaps for the fact that I feel like at this age I should really start to act like an adult. My daily breakfast shouldn't be a glass of milk with four heaping tablespoons of Nestle Quik, for example. It's time for whole grains and serious thinking!

So while playing Lego Star Wars yesterday, Royal and I talked about what we felt was holding us back from attaining true adulthood.
"Laziness," he offered.
"Oh yes," I agreed, "I don't think lazier people exist. I don't even bend down to pick things up off the floor, I just try to pinch them with my toes or just kick them out of the way. That's pretty lazy. The question is, how do you stop being lazy?"
We pondered this question while our Darth Maul and General Grievous characters accidentally killed each other on screen.
"Maybe we also need to do stuff that adults do," I said finally, "like play games less and watch CSPAN or read stock reports." We agreed that, although we do enjoy the occasional CSPAN interlude, we were unlikely to take this course of action.
Royal suggested a walk. It was a glorious day, so while we walked we talked about what exactly was wrong with us. We were always very responsible when it came to work. We both worked hard at our jobs (I do work hard as a freelance writer, I just make it seem effortless) but when we came home all that responsibility and effort came to a screeching halt. Cleaning the house was like getting an invasive medical exam to me, something that needed to be done but avoided until my life might actually be in danger. Royal probably doesn't even know where the cleaning supplies are stored in our house, so he's definitely not taking the lead in this. And it wasn't just housecleaning that we were letting slide, but house repairs and budgeting and saving and planning for the future.
We didn't get everything figured out on our walk, but did come to an agreement that a "just do it" attitude and doing things together would go a long way. In many ways, our shared delight in what might seem like childish things to others -- gaming, junk food eating, 14-hour sleeping binges -- has been a source of keeping us strongly tied to one another. I don't know anyone who I could play World of Warcraft with for 8 hours or watch back to back to back episodes of Spongebob with except my husband. While some may think we bring out the worst tendencies in each other. we like to think that we're helping each other keep that inner child alive and kicking.
And at my advanced age, I need all the childlike wonder I can get.