What if…

I’m good at what-iffing the bad stuff. “What if it’s really windy on my wedding day and everyone sees my underpants?” “What if that twinge in my leg is deep vein thrombosis?” “What if I lose my job?”

There’s an illusion that what-iffing bad stuff is helpful. After all, if I’ve imagined the worst possible, then I’m prepared.

This is false. What-iffing bad stuff is mostly just a waste of time and adrenaline.

I’m trying to practice what-iffing the good stuff. It’s harder to do. And good stuff is harder to plan for.

But what if—what if I what-iffed the good stuff? Just as an experiment?

I can’t picture it. So I try harder.

Then I recoil in terror.

It would be terrible! I would just rest on my laurels and achieve nothing! I’d start believing in “manifestation” and probably forget to lock my front door! I’d be one of those terrible people who says that everything happens for a reason! I’d spend all my money on scratchers!

(That’s me what-iffing bad stuff about what-iffing good stuff.)

An alternative story: if I what-iffed the good stuff, I’d probably be a little more present. I’d be a little more open to possibility. I’d be a little more open to surprise. I’d be a little less convinced of the seductive lie that I’m in control of it all.

The thought feels like a small smile, a little breeze, the greenness of a budding tree. 

A few years ago I was talking about what-iffing with some friends. Well, actually we were talking about street parking. But there I was ready to park several blocks away from our destination, because what if there’s no closer spot? There’s a spot right here! Sure, it sucks, but it might be as good as it gets!

They convinced me to keep going. We found a spot right out front.

What if you get a spot right out front?

What if something is coming for you that is so wonderful you wouldn’t even know to ask for it if a wish-granting genie descended upon you?

What if your life is about to blossom?

What if you do get chosen?

What if you choose yourself?

What if you wake up a year from now and you have a great day, and at the end of it you realize with a shock that you haven’t even thought about that thing that used to haunt you all day—that breakup, that regret, or that hatred of how your arms look?

What if it all works out okay?

What if it all works out wonderfully?

August 6, 2013

Some incidents left scars on my body. Once I scratched a spider bite on my left thigh, just above and to the left of the kneecap, so hard and for so long that I permanently destroyed some fundamental layer of the skin. It has no melanin. I am pale enough that for most of the year, when the skin around is also pale, it’s not noticeable. If I get a tan, the rest of my leg will brown up leaving a ragged white scrape of flesh. The sun damage still happens but leaves no trace. 

But there are no physical signs of all the hands that held my head before my neck was strong enough. Adults who loved me, or who barely knew me, who held me because I was small, disproportionate, and helpless. A yearlong stream of the gentle and giving who made sure I thrived, or just that I did not die.

I’m done with being done with being done

It’s annoying, but you can often get somewhere by asking yourself honestly why you do the self-destructive things you do. After all, even if the payoff is atrocious, we don’t tend to do things we don’t get something out of.

Procrastination: what am I getting out of it? Chasing a low-rent version of luxury, yes. And, to be honest, avoiding something I fear. I think I fear being completely free. The longer I procrastinate, the longer I have this kind of comforting monkey on my back of something I should be doing. It’s like a blanket. An itchy one, but it’s something.

Why the fear? There’s this weird sense of emptiness at the thought of being done, with nothing I “have to” or “should” do. I don’t think I’ve been done in years. There’s always something next on the agenda. It’s often as petty as a library book I need to furiously read before it’s due back, or a little project around the house that I just thought of twenty minutes ago but suddenly seems urgent.

What would it be like to have truly empty time, without that itchy blanket lulling me into a procrastination daze?

I had a glimpse of it one morning: work was strangely light (which is disturbing in the same way that a quiet toddler is disturbing). I was taking a walk. When I got back from the walk, I was going to do a bit of writing for fun and prepare for a meeting, but otherwise I anticipated a free afternoon. All my tasks were temporarily in someone else’s court.

I almost felt afraid. How strange. A huge part of me craves nothingness, silence and emptiness, but most of me puts up a huge fight and finds things to do. Anything to avoid what I’m craving. I’m the dog who fears catching the car.

I think this is part of why 3 a.m. is such a difficult time. There’s only one thing on the agenda: unconsciousness. The brain, unused to this kind of nothingness, decides to keep doing what it’s used to: racing.

The only cure is to face it. To lie down on the floor for five or twenty minutes. To stare out the window. To sit on the couch with nothing entering my eyes or ears, like those incredible people who just exist on the plane without a book or a screen or a nap to file down the time. To get my brain used to the idea of just living. To actually do nothing, not this Potemkin nothing that is the procrastination dawdle I’m so familiar with.

At least, this is the idea. I haven’t really gotten there yet. I did lie down on the floor and just rest my limbs and eyes for two minutes today between meetings and I’m calling that a start.

The bottom of the hole

Last time I admitted my struggle with procrastination. I claimed it was suddenly over due to my recent adherence to a certain helpful timer. You may have greeted this announcement with skepticism, and I can’t exactly blame you. Ordinarily, it would be absurd to think that a lifelong bad habit would be fixed with just One Weird Trick. 

But I didn’t tell you the whole truth. No, the real reason I know I’m permanently cured is that I did it: I arrived at the bottom of the procrastination hole. 

You see, what was keeping me hypnotized recently was a rather embarrassing one-two punch of Sex and the City episodes and this game where you slide cupcakes around to merge into more and more extravagant cupcakes. You have to do this carefully because if the board gets too crowded with incompatible, non-mergeable cupcakes, you will lose. For hours I would sit watching Carrie inexplicably pine over the extremely creepy Big while I made the cupcakes swim across the screen.

Did I enjoy these pursuits? Not really! Could I stop? No!

But recently, two things happened: first, I got to the end of the series. Yes, even the movies. I did it. I know everything there is to know about those four ladies trying to find great love and great shoes in Manhattan. Can modern women have it all? Kinda!

And, I made it to the forbidden cupcake. The hardest-to-achieve one. It was amazing. I screenshotted it.

Witness the majesty:

It had taken me weeks of careful cupcake work but I did it. It turns out that the forbidden cupcake has “2017” written on it in frosting, which I think means my cupcake habit is out of date (less so than my choice of TV), but in either case I’m okay, and it’s over, because I got to the end of the cupcakes and I got to the end of Sex and the City, and finally I’m cured. I am a productive, well-rested, self-care machine. I no longer crave numbness or dawdling, and I never ever will again.

the struggle

Lately I’ve been struggling a lot with procrastination. Maybe it’s the late-winter malaise, or the covid anniversary malaise, or maybe she was born with it!, but it’s been a daily struggle. I start with great intentions, but by the time I sit down with my first cup of coffee all of ten minutes after I wake up, I want a treat. I want a break. I want some time to luxuriate in the book I’m reading for fun, or the scroll-machine, before I get started on tasks. (I am very drawn to luxury when it’s time to do a task). But I’m not allowed to have luxury, because it’s time to work, so instead of choosing luxury or tasks I fall into the chasm in between them. I settle for numbness. I sit there letting my eyes grow fuzzy as I play some mindless game or refresh my inbox, watching minutes tick away apace. Then it’s time for a lunch break. And then all of a sudden it’s 4:30 and I panic and do everything.

(If you’re here from where I work: this is fiction and has never actually happened.)

I know part of this is just who I am and have always been. In years past I have received worried calls from long-distance boyfriends with whom I shared a Netflix password, concerned about the amount of episodes I was managing to watch of shows I claimed not to like at bizarre hours of the night. Especially when it got close to law-school midterms time. 

But there’s a whole other part of me that just so wants to do better. I look at Ian, who manages to do the things he is supposed to do, and then he moves on to the things he wants to do. Imagine that! So often, I seem to do neither the things I’m supposed to do nor the things I claim to want to do.

Good news, though: I’ve been experimenting with a Pomodoro timer, which is working so far (four days in). Right now I’m all caught up on tasks I wanted to accomplish, and I’m enjoying a nice little glass of root beer on my terrace. I can extrapolate from this that I am permanently cured of my tendency to procrastinate and I will never again do it. Congratulations to me!

Next time, I’ll admit what has been keeping me stuck in the numb in-between.

Your memories

The cloud follows me like a nosy neighbor. It thinks it knows me from my comings and goings. 

“Your weekend in DC!” it declares when I take a lot of videos of myself atrociously fiddling on the recorder.

“Your trip to Houston!” it grins as it presents me with fourteen photos I took of an already-dented rental car on a work trip. 

It has no finesse. It feeds me my past. 

Your memories. Three years ago.

Your memories. Five years ago.

Your memories. Ten years ago.

It assumes these memories are all good. 

Maybe that’s a fair assumption, based on my behavior. After all, I’ve got a digital garage teeming with these memories. They must mean something to me. 

Or maybe they’re too painful, too overwhelming, to look at long enough to cull.

Maybe both.

What the cloud doesn’t know is that having videos of you is so weird. Weird enough to creep me out, but not so weird that I have to purge them. Pictures are strange enough but videos are even stranger. It’s like you’re still alive in my computer. You’re also alive in the world, as far as I know, but in a very different way than you’re alive in my computer. Yet if I scroll back a certain way, there you are in motion and with sound, from years ago. I can stop you and start you when I like. It’s unnatural.

“Cull Google Photos” is a task on my to-do list. It’s been there for literally years, and it will probably be there until the to-do list itself vanishes when the internet collapses. But who knows? Maybe I’ll get around to it one of these days.

In the meantime, I’ve got memories served up to me daily.

relatable content about relatability

Meme (n): Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another in a comparable way to the transmission of genes.

(Internet, slang) Something, usually humorous, which is copied and circulated online with slight adaptations, including quizzes, basic pictures, video templates, etc.

Memes are inherently reductive. This is their allure. To be relatable and sharable is to be simple and general. If ten people can relate, you have a tiny club. A thousand, you have a tiny meme. A few million, you’ve gone viral. A few billion, and you’ve hit the jackpot.  

“Does anyone else like to breathe oxygen?” So relatable! 

We seem to love being related to. We like to know who we’re like. This is the allure of the typing meme: which Hogwarts house are you? Which Sex and the City character? To make things like this work, you have to reduce each type to one or two dimensions. Charlotte is the prudish one! Samantha is the nympho! Ravenclaws are smart! Slytherins are evil! 

The dark side of relatability, though, is that no one is that simple. This is why everyone thinks they’re a Carrie or a Gryffindor; those are the types that have the most facets. Rare is the person who thinks they’re a Charlotte or a Slytherin, because Charlottes and Slytherins have so little flesh. We’re all full people. Being complex is the most relatable thing of all. 

If you look at Enneagram content on Instagram, as I have been known to do, you will find that most of it is like this: broad strokes, reductive, relatable. Sixes are the anxious ones! Fours are deep! Nines are sleepy!

When I see Enneagram memes about types I am not, I go, wow, that’s so shallow. There’s no way that a bunch of Eights feel that way. They’re people, after all. This is a cartoon! Who could possibly be defined by their rage that way? Or, mightn’t Twos feel a bit tired of the assumption that they’re only interested in helping others? 

But then often, too often, when I see memes about Nines I go OOF! That hits. So maybe I am that simple.

A great reason not to gender toys

All this talk about the gender of the Potato Head family has me thinking about a scarring memory of mine involving the gendering of children’s toys.

It’s probably not what you’re thinking.

Picture this: it was third grade. Our homework was some kind of essay. My essay had something to do with toys. I had to read my essay aloud for some reason. (Did everyone? I don’t remember, because what happened was so scarring that it erased everything else.)

There I was in front of the class, opus in hand.

Now, here’s something you should understand about me: I’m not a good self-editor. In high school when we had to provide a rough and final draft of an essay to show how well we’d understood the lessons about revision, I went ahead and wrote the final draft first—then had the actual hubris to make a worse version of my essay to staple on as the fake rough draft.

My point being, of course I didn’t notice before I was standing up there at the white board, ready to speak, that there was an important point missing from my essay. I needed to clarify (for some reason that is lost to history) that the children’s toys I was talking about in that moment were for boys. The paper in front of me said only “toys,” but—extemporaneously—I had to improve it.

I had to make clear that they were boys’ toys.

When it came time for me to say those words, though, what came out was “boy toys.” The entire classroom erupted in laughter. Raucous, unrelenting, at me. Boy toys! And I had no way of clarifying what I’d meant without making them laugh harder.

That’s how it goes when you’ve already stepped in it.

I had to just get through the essay, flustered as anything, and then sit down.

Honestly, it was somehow worse than the other time that year when I farted so loud that everyone around me turned and looked.

And that’s why I support the un-gendering of the Potato Heads. 

Bliss is a door 2

I said that bliss is a room with a door that closes and people on the other side. It turns out I’m not alone.

There’s a whole YouTube genre of long videos with atmospheric sounds to help one focus or fall asleep. I’ve taken to putting these on one screen while I work on another, a magical way to make a window to anywhere.

Or, speaking of windows, you can try Window Swap and spend some time looking out someone else’s window somewhere in the world. I just journeyed to Geneva at night, Kolkata on a breezy day, Kyoto in the late afternoon.

A sub-genre of these atmospheric videos are of music manipulated to sound as though it’s playing in another room. Songs that are old and comforting. For three hours or eight hours you can listen to songs from the ‘30s sounding like they’re wafting through a closed door while it rains outside, like it’s a sleepy rainy Saturday and someone who loves you is making dinner while you nap, and they have the old wireless on.

Another genre is sounds echoing in large spaces, like old top-40 hits playing in a mall.

There’s something so human about wanting to be alone but not too alone. To be entertained but with the option of resting. To let down your guard. Sometimes we want to step away from the center of the action and sleep.

Do you have any corners of the internet that feel this way to you? Share them!

Insight via Mad Libs

I can’t do [noun] because [proper noun] will think I am [adjective].

Something popped unbidden into your mind for “noun,” “proper noun,” and “adjective,” right?

So let’s get some advice from this mad libs exercise.

What’s the noun? What’s that thing you think you can’t do? Does part of you really really want to do it?

Who is the proper noun? Who lurks in the back of your mind as the person or institution who will judge you when you do the noun? For me, it’s someone random who I’ve rarely ever spoken to—not at all in recent years—and yet somehow my brain elected this person for position of Chief Judge of Me. I don’t like it. Consider whether you have such a person or group of persons sitting scowling at your choices in your imagination.

What’s adjective? What do you imagine “proper noun” will think about you? 

So now you have your therapeutic mad libs. I can’t do [noun] because [proper noun] will think I am [adjective].

Some questions to ask:

Putting everything else aside, what’s one tiny step you could take towards [noun] today? How would that feel to you and you alone?

Would you change lives with [proper noun] if given the chance today? Are you absolutely sure? 

Is [adjective] so bad? Would you rather never have [noun] than risk the possibility of being seen as [adjective]?

I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing often makes me go “OH.”