The Human Condition (BLOG)

The Stuff of Memories

History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

The hurricane [Katrina] flooded me out of a lot of memorabilia, but it can’t flood out the memories. (Tom Dempsey)

I recently embarked on a grand project—okay, a ridiculously optimistic task of overwhelming proportions: Cleaning the attic. When Ed and I bought this house ten years ago, one of its selling points was a walk-up attic, essentially an entire third floor. We were thrilled to have a place to hang out-of-season clothing. A space for additional bookshelves—we are constitutionally incapable of walking past a bookstore. The square footage to house all those odds and ends kids leave behind when they toddle off into the larger world.

But the yin to the yang of so much space is that one tends to fill it. We Homo sapiens abhor a vacuum as much as Mother Nature does. Long story short: Our attic is overflowing with stuff no one has looked at since, well, a long time. In some cases, this tallies in the decades. There is much wisdom in the advice that if you haven’t opened a box since the last time you moved, take that sucker and toss it, no peeking.

And yet, when it comes to memorabilia—photos, letters, journals, ticket stubs—there’s a sense of sacrilege about jettisoning these tangible links to our younger selves. A fear that without them, the hours and days of our existence will vanish, traceless, behind us.   

Dealing with the Deluge

There’s no doubt that we are an acquisitive race. But up until the 20th century, one’s personal memorabilia was likely to be limited to the blue ribbon won at the county fair for jam-making or a prize pig, the fancy bookmark commemorating victory in the 8th grade spelling bee, a homemade lace-edged Valentine from the once-adolescent stringbean boy you married three children ago.

No longer. Beginning with the instantly-popular picture postcard in the 1890s, the industrial revolution brought an endless stream of keepsake possibilities into our lives. Gift shops sprouted in every museum and gallery. The souvenir stands that sold commemorative plates and dish towels at events like the New York World’s Fair became souvenir shops crammed to the rafters with I ♥ NY (I ♥ London, Paris, Singapore…) mugs, magnets, T-shirts, keychains, and a zillion other tchotchkes. Now, virtually every restaurant and bar offers pint glasses and (more) T-shirts to immortalize the beer or taco you enjoyed there. I admit, I’m a sucker for the tees, but it’s hard to wear all the places you’ve been, and impossible to store their number in anything short of a cargo container.  

With the frenzied digital age, the stream has become a raging river, until we now believe we need to own a piece of every experience. Every movie we enjoy, we can keep forever with the purchase of a DVD. The song that recalls that first dance with our honey? The CD is just a click away. And Smartphones have made it possible to photograph every moment of any experience—a dinner with friends, a day at the shore, every frigging flower that blooms in our garden—then post it all on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

We are overwhelmed by the volume and weight of these souvenirs, these material proofs that we have lived, loved, traveled, and yes, eaten.

Opening box after box, I discovered elementary class pictures, report cards, birthday cards, the angsty poetry of my adolescence, photos of college friends, and a ream (or two) of correspondence from a time when people—young people!—actually wrote 6, 8, 10-page letters. Also a hefty number of journals that if read to recapture my life in the past, would rob me of the time to live it in the present.   

Almost as soon as I started to sort through this avalanche, I was rendered catatonic by the decisions I faced, what to keep, who to keep. How much of what from whom to keep. I recycled a stack of particularly vomitous poems written at 13—I fed them to the shredder, actually; not the sort of thing one wants to be remembered for—took an Excedrin and went back to querying agents. It’s an onerous task that would make querying feel preferable by comparison.  

But guilt soon drove me back to the attic, as I pictured family members having the job of sifting this mostly (to them) meaningless muck after my demise, scratching their annoyed heads, saying, “Why the hell did she save all this crap?”

What is a Memory?

Before digital photos—back when you had to buy a roll of film, pay for developing the pictures, and find a physical, real-world place to stash them—an overseas jaunt to Paris might result in 40 pictures total. You standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Your friend/sister/significant other before the Arc de Triomphe. A shot of you both in the Tuileries. Today, it’s more like 400 pics including every croissant you ate and all the patisseries you passed. All of it stored electronically, to be looked at once, twice, never?

I remember a guy with a digital camcorder strolling through the Piazza del Duomo in Florence in 2003, filming everything. I mean, that camera never left his eye, so in the truest sense he wasn’t seeing anything. Even then, I thought He’s never going to sit down and look at 24 hours or 72 hours or two weeks of video. Today, I’m certain of it.

So, what is a memory? Can it be captured for all time by a physical object? When I was a kid, my family took a trip that included Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain. At one of the 5,000 Stuckey’s in that state, my brother bought a souvenir—a man flushing himself down a toilet, the words Good-bye Cruel World chiseled into the base. Granted, it’s hardly a replica of Big Ben or the Taj Mahal, but a souvenir is a tangible item meant to recall an intangible experience. I have no souvenir of that vacation, but I have an enduring memory of crossing the swinging bridge at Lookout Mountain, an 11-year-old kid, high above the earth, feeling capable, feeling powerful, the world in miniature far below.

Some moments we never forget. And maybe, those are the only moments we need to remember.

The Winnowing

From three large cartons, I winnowed my treasures of the past down to one small box. I kept one letter or card—the funniest, the most touching, the one that best captured the sender—from the dozen or so people who, with the clarity of time, turned out to be the ones who really mattered.  

The three passionate letters declaring undying love I received from someone named Christian, I chucked. No idea who he was, but I hope he’s had a good life. He seems like a nice person.  

Gone, too, is the black-and-white roll of film from my two weeks at Camp Shawadasee, shot with my parents’ Brownie box camera at age 10. Twenty little photos so grainy and gray, I can only vaguely make out the camp’s water pump in the sea of blurred faces.

Farewell to the packet of weekly letters I wrote my first-grade classroom parents, apprising them of events and home assignments.

And much, much more.

I did keep a small bundle of photos. My college roomies and me, dressed up as the rock band Kiss for a Halloween kegger. The snap of good friend Teraze and me setting off in my VW Beetle for the wonder and mysteries of a new life on the East Coast. The three-girls-stuffed-in-a-photo-booth pics from freshman year Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale. The face of our young selves is perhaps the most meaningful keepsake, but we don’t need zillions. A pic of our high school BFF, the college roommates with whom we stayed up all night discussing the meaning of life, the friend we backpacked Europe with. One well-chosen photo can evoke an entire relationship.

We Don’t Keep Souvenirs of the Bad Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t save souvenirs of our worst moments, the ones that brought us to our knees, but we remember them anyway:

Kent State 1970. A group of kids in my civics class, crowding around my desk, towering over me, shouting, “This is America. Love it or leave it!” in response to the black armband I wore to mourn the four college kids murdered by Nixon’s National Guard.

The summer afternoon I came home to find my beloved cat Tia’s throat cut by a vicious neighbor’s scythe.

Science tells us that we remember bad or tragic events more clearly than good ones because the heightened emotions they evoke sharpen those moments in our memories. But I don’t know. I have plenty of great memories that are as alive for me today as the hour they occurred:

Jumping on a rope suspended from a branch high above my head and swinging out over a ravine fifty feet below, yelling “Tarzan!,” the wind whipping through my hair, the thrill of the earth dropping away, the utter joy of being nine years old without fear that the limb would break (but wise enough not to tell my parents).

The night I arrived at my new apartment in Boston, having driven from the Michigan of my childhood, through Canada, upstate New York, and all of Massachusetts. Eleven p.m., one-hundred degrees outside. I dug out a glass from a box and poured myself an Irish whiskey. I was making my dreams happen.

What You Can’t Forget

Sometimes mementos are too fresh to sift easily, too significant to toss lightly, but I’ve found ways to downsize the horde. The 62 VHS tapes of my kids are now a slim 2-volume DVD set. From the stack of restaurant cards, exhibit programs, and theatre tix amassed during our 2014 trip to London, I cut up bits of my favorites and découpaged them onto a small box for Ed. The artsy postcards from our 2012 Paris jaunt have been reduced to a representative sample and framed for our guestroom.

The two-dozen family photo albums and box of homemade Mother’s Day cards (I confess, I’m a sentimental old mommy), I leave to my kids—hopefully, in about a hundred years—to sort through what they wish to keep of their childhood.  

For now, I’ve stored the pared-down box—the little packet of letters, the envelope of photos—in the attic once more, where it takes up a tenth the space it used to. Perhaps I’ll revisit these culled remnants of my youth someday down the line and then let all that stuff go. Really, the stuff is unnecessary. You don’t need to remember everything. You can’t remember everything. But you will never forget the moments and the people that have shaped your life.

You Can’t Do It All*

*But you can do some of it.

Clusters of dust drift across my floor like tumbleweed as I write this. Cheeze-it crumbs dapple my keyboard and a pile of dead electronics awaits a Staples recycling run. In such moments, it helps to laser-focus my gaze on the words I’m typing. Isn’t that why they blindered horses on busy urban thoroughfares back in the day—so they could navigate whatever the distractions? I’m on a mission here.

I google total number of books on how to get organized. I google this several ways, expecting to get a number like 29,836, but all I find are other people’s lists of the best how-to tomes. Lifehack touts “35 Books on Productivity and Organizational Skills for an Effective Life,” aggregated by a Carmen Sakurai who bills herself as a “Mental Declutter, Stress Management & Burnout Prevention Coach.” Try fitting that into the little space provided for “occupation” on your 1040 tax form.

Matthew Kwong

Scrolling through the list, I find “life-changing”, “surprisingly simple”, “stress-free” methods for decluttering my home, achieving financial success, turning trials to triumphs, increasing my state of flow, and mastering work-life balance. All, apparently, achievable in less time than I spend not doing them now.

I laugh out loud when I get to #22: One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good  (Regina Leeds). Now, I’m sure Ms. Leeds is a fine person and has a place for everything/everything in its place, but in my experience for good, like forever, is a promise best made very sparingly and only after much soul-searching.

On the next site I jump to—“15 Best Organization Books (including minimalism, and decluttering books)”—one of the recommended tomes promises Organize yourself in 24 hours! Gee, Ms. Leeds gave me an entire year.   

Jeremy Beadle

More interesting, though somewhat alarming, is the ad at the bottom of the post for something called the Blinkist app. I give you its sales spiel verbatim:

Blinkist summarized over 2,000 of the bestselling books and put them into condensed 7 to 15 minute reads (or “blinks”).  The idea here is to give you the key insights and important lessons — without wasting your time on pointless information.

Blinkist book summaries are perfect for anyone who wants to maximize those random moments when you have to kill time. Like when you want to kill time before an appointment or you’re standing on a long line at Starbucks.

You can use Blinkist to complete a book daily, learn the valuable lessons, and avoid the fluff that often pad longer books.

Perhaps being a writer, I’m a tad biased, but what do they mean by “wasting your time on pointless information”? In the reference to ‘fluff’ to be avoided, are we talking the research, the interviews, the historical grounding, the sifting of facts and opinions that the author spent years aggregating? Are books something we “do” in random moments when we want to kill time??! What next? War and Peace as flash fiction?


Sorry, I got sidetracked there, something the completely-organized person would never do. But I like getting sidetracked every now and then, or even frequently. Sidetracks are where all the interesting stuff happens, where new ideas reveal themselves, where we evolve. Charles Darwin happened on his theory of evolution precisely because he let himself get sidetracked while investigating the geology of the Galápagos.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the quality of time spent rather than the quantity of stuff done in it.

Rules For a Fulfilled Life: Who Makes Them?

There are lots of ways to live your life. You can reside in a yurt on a mountaintop and raise goats. You can be a nomadic traveler and work your way around the globe with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for people. You can teach yoga in the middle of New York City or tutor kids to improve their literacy skills in Appalachia. In any of these, you can live out of a suitcase, choose your clothing from the piles scattered about the floor, select outfits from your clutter-free, color-coded walk-in closet with built-in storage. You can have a dirt floor, walk softly among the dustballs, or Swiffer away every speck of grime. In any of these scenarios, you may find your life fulfilling, or not so.  

This mantra of the highly-organized life as the one true path to fulfillment is predicated on several assumptions: 1) our home is a showplace above all else; 2) anything worth doing is worth doing as quickly/efficiently as (in)humanly possible; 3) organizing every aspect of our lives leads inevitably to peace of mind and worldly success.

The highly-organized life also has a LOT of rules. Group like with like. One-in-one-out. Keep your to-do list current. Label everything. But overarching these is the mother of all rules: A highly-organized person is one who gets everything done, and done to perfection. In life-organization land, dusting is no less important than writing Pride and Prejudice, or reading it for that matter. No less valuable than taking your child to the park for an afternoon of kite-flying. If the end goal is to arrange your life so that you can accomplish everything, then nothing has any particular significance. Slotting in 2.5 hours weekly for “quality time with children” on your Google Calendar becomes one more item to tick (though in my experience, children aren’t much into organization and tend to be very “unslottable”).

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say right now: You cannot do it all, no matter how many time-management books you read, or motivational tapes and Ted Talks your earbuds soak up. More to the point: Why should you even try? Who made “doing it all” the sine qua non of modern life?

Weirdly enough, I think one of the early cheerleaders for hyper-organization was women’s magazines. Although the beginning of the 20th century witnessed a craze for time and motion studies, spearheaded by industrial engineer Frederick W. Taylor, the mania for organization in every facet of life only went viral after World War II—when it became a priority to get those Rosie-the-Riveters out of the workplace and back to the hearth. But the little lady needed something to do there. She could only listen to (and later, watch) so many soap operas a day before she reached for the mega bottle of Valium (and many housewives did). Solution? Get her hooked on the wonders of organization.

In a Machiavellian way, it’s a brilliant distraction because the totally-organized life is an endless process, its own raison d’ être. Group little Johnny’s socks by color and sort them into compartmentalized containers. Roll and store your magazines in a decorative wine rack. Arrange the spice cabinet alphabetically. Arrange your days by task: Dusting and vacuuming on Mondays, laundry and mending on Tuesdays, give the bathroom a good scrub on Wednesdays (don’t overlook the grit between the floor tiles!). Thursdays … Over and over, week in and week out, down through the months, the years.

Please pass the Valium. And maybe the Prozac.

Though today’s time-crazed working women (and men) no longer have the hours to devote to house and yard chores in a hands-on way, getting organized is still a prime focus. In fact, it’s bigger than ever, as the explosion of how-to books I cited earlier shows. For one thing, we all have much more STUFF to be organized. And a full calendar of activities for every member of the family. Spin-cycling classes, gymnastics, summer camps, pottery workshops.

Who Profits From The Organized You?

You’ll notice in all this frenzy, that there’s a lot of product. That’s because marketing folks, and the companies they shill for, have big money to gain from helping you get organized. Shelving, bins, car-trunk organizers, magnetic meal-planning pads, even a woven elastic organizer because, as the plug says, “without it, all your things will just swim around loosely in your bag.” In fact, offers “100 Home Organization Products You Need in 2019” (More Valium, please!) with this come-on: CHANNEL YOUR INNER MARIE KONDO WITH THESE GENIUS HOME-ORGANIZATION PRODUCTS. Streamline the chaos, once and for all! We may be in the midst of a tidying renaissance [the ad copy runs]. Thanks to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show, cleaning the house and keeping it decluttered has undergone the ultimate rebranding, from a long-neglected chore to an Insta-worthy bragging right!

Please, spare us from thousands of images of color-coded, stacked, folded, bin-slotted stuff.

Profiting, too, are the almost limitless services that promise to deliver total-and-perfect organization right to your doorstep: Meal kit delivery services like Home Chef and Blue Apron, pick-up and drop-off dry cleaning and laundry services like Washio, dog walking and grooming services, house cleaning services, lawn-and garden care services, grocery and pharmaceutical delivery services. With any luck, and a whole lotta $$$, you may never have to waste a moment on household drudge chores again. You may not even need to leave your home.       

But if you do venture outside the house, say, to earn a living, have no fear. Corporate America has got this organization-efficiency thing nailed. CEOs everywhere are highly attuned to what time and motion experts a hundred years ago could only dream: Employee-monitoring software systems, productivity charts, employee competitions, and in-house motivational seminars. Now everyone can churn it out 24/7 at warp speed (while the CEOs tee off at Pine Valley or Cypress Point).

Stop This Merry-Go-Round, I Wanna Get Off

My radical assertion: Being organized ≠ being productive.

Would we have The Starry Night if Van Gogh had been concerned with streamlining his clutter? Would we have Remembrance of Things Past if Proust had been watching the clock, focused solely on the number of words he was generating per minute rather than their quality? I feel pretty certain Beethoven never troubled himself about under-bed storage or shelf doublers.   

Forget charts, pocket organizers, calendar apps. At every moment in life, you can do one of two things: Something that is important to you or something that’s not. And gazing at the stars is a legitimate activity.

If you often get to the end of the day with the feeling that you actually “missed” the day in all the scurry, try this:

Jot down the names of 4-5 people you love. Do you get to spend enough time—or even some time—with these people (and I’m not talking a joint trip to the supermarket where you race up and down separate aisles to get the shopping done in record time)?

Now, do the same for 4-5 things you really enjoy doing. When was the last time you did them, or are they always on the list of stuff you promise yourself you’ll do when everything else gets organized?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in priorities to know what’s important to you.

So, let the dust clouds roll (unless dusting is on your really-love-doing list, in which case we may be talking extensive therapy needs). Let those blue jeans and tee shirts jumble happily together, draped over a chair or nestled on the floor. Rip that damn meal planner from the wall and cook up something you actually feel like eating now. Go write War & Peace, the unabridged version, complete with all the “fluff.”    

There are many ways to live life. One of them is right for you.

Your True Net Worth

In accounting, net worth is defined as assets minus liabilities. Essentially, it is a measure of what an entity is worth. (Jenifer Tuck)

The recent reveal that dozens of uber-rich movie stars and corporate execs paid up to $6.5 million to get their offspring into elite colleges, prompted U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, to remark, “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud.”

I would argue it’s that and something much deeper, this need to outshine everyone else—Look at me, I’m king of the hill, top of the heap!—that is never fulfilled no matter how many $$$ you have in the bank, how many homes you own, the number of private jets you command, or your level of worldly accomplishment.

At root, it’s about a powerful lack of self-worth.

This Behemoth Called Self-Worth

Much has been inked about self-worth. Where does it come from? In what conditions does it thrive or perish? Who’s to blame when it’s lacking?

A not atypical article in Psychology Today points a finger at disapproving authority figures, uninvolved caregivers, and the media’s penchant for airbrushing all flaws (which makes the rest of us feel like so much wrinkled flotsam).

Though some or all of these factors may play into any individual case, I think the issue goes much deeper. After all, there are those of us who suffered the perpetual disapproval of draconian authority figures (call them Mom and Dad) and have survived to tell the tale, self-worth intact. And then there are many others, with seemingly doting families, who never stop feeling the need to impress. I’m betting at least one of the fifty parents charged in the college admissions cheating scandal came from a reasonably supportive home.

Generation to Generation

Lucian J. Truscott IV writes in Salon: “One of the parents in my daughter’s kindergarten class in Los Angeles some years ago was constantly saying, ‘well, you know my daughter Ophelia will be going to Harvard, so…’”

Truscott reports he was shocked by these assertions. “How did any five year old know what college they wanted to attend?” he asks.

I had a similar experience when my daughter was in second grade. At a parent/teacher conference, I was asked, “What do you want most in life for Lauren?” Taken aback—she was just a little kid—and never comfortable with the idea of formulating goals for other people, I murmured, “I want her to be … happy. What else would a parent want?” Her teacher then informed me that other parents wanted Ivy League schools, CEO slots, a career in law, medicine, the major leagues.

I suspect these parents’ efforts to convince the teacher that our child is one of the elite was no more than a mask to hide their insecurity about their own true worth. But what are they teaching their kids? No doubt, the same lesson the parents in the college admissions scandal passed on to their children: You are not enough as you are. Little Susie III is not bound for the Ivy Leagues because it’s clear she’s overflowing with talent, superior in every way. She must be accepted by a Harvard or Princeton because without that big name next to her own, it’s feared she may be found a nothing.

Generation to generation and far as the eye can see. It’s bigger than a fault-finding mom. More powerful than a botox ad that promises to nuke your “imperfections.” I believe when it comes to lack of self-worth, we are talking systemic.  

Drinking the Kool-Aid

As a society, we are goal-directed, not process-focused. Intent on competing rather than developing. So future-oriented that we ignore the only moment we ever actually live: Now. And everything is conditional:

We’ll be happy if

We’ll feel admired when

We’ll have proven our worth if …

Worthy of what? According to whom?

Steeped in these less-than-subtle messages, it’s hard not to drink the Kool-aid. But we pay a high price when we do.

Writer Elad Nehorai describes how he spent 20 years of his life struggling to prove himself worthy. “I saw every failure as a sign that I was worthless. Part of the evidence against my soul. I saw every success as something I had to grab onto, hold onto for dear life for whenever the court case was brought against me.

“This is no way to live, this ‘judgment’. And it’s not just about morality. It’s about reality. Judgment implies a fixed-state of things. It implies no change. It implies lack of growth. But life is the opposite of fixed. Life is a verb. An action. A motion.

“As this realization has oozed its way into my mind, I’ve learned to embrace failure as a part of my ever-evolving attempts to grow into a better person… I’ve learned to stop trying to impress people.”

Striving, Striving—Where Does It End?

The beauty of a transformation like Nehorai’s is that you don’t have to do anything. You just have to let go. Proving to the world that you’re a winner (and what is that?) is exhausting. Even if you are declared “the best” at something (By whom? Who died and made them king?), what you ultimately “win” is a lifetime of looking over your shoulder, tensed, waiting to be dethroned by someone new. A better, fresher “best.” Ask Lance Armstrong.

The youngest U.S. amateur cycling champion of his day, Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. For a competing cyclist, it just doesn’t get more prestigious than that. But Armstrong was stripped of these titles and banned from all sports that follow the World Anti-Doping Code when it was discovered he’d been using performance-enhancing drugs for much of his career.

Did he take drugs because he was afraid that without them he’d never break world records? He’d already won some very notable races before the doping began. Why risk so much when his future looked so bright? The problem with constantly having to prove yourself to others, to dazzle them with your greatness is that there is no “finish line.” It was this insatiable need to keep outdoing everyone else that ended Armstrong’s career.

Actress Felicity Huffman toiled several decades to earn her breakout roles in Desperate Housewives and Transamerica. Now, her guilty plea in the college bribery scandal has cast an uncertain shadow over her future. Vanity Fair reports that Huffman’s new Netflix film Otherhood, set to debut in late April, has been postponed until August 2. This need for a showcase school that screams POWER, WEALTH, SUPERIORITY, was it worth it? Isn’t it a teensy bit possible that her child and the children of the others accused could have done just as well at a less tony institution? Many have.

Neurosurgeon, author, and reporter, Sanjay Gupta graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences.

Billionaire business investor Warren Buffet completed a degree in business administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The incredible Maxine Waters, U.S. Rep for California’s 43rd district, graduated from California State University, Los Angeles with a degree in sociology.

One has only to look at TheRUMP’s body posture in White House videos—angry scowl, arms crossed defensively tight—to realize that multi-million dollar wealth, and the U.S. presidency to boot, are not enough to grant one a true sense of self-worth. “Nobody has ever done so much in the first two years of a presidency as this administration. Nobody!” he repeats to anyone who will listen. Who is he trying to convince? If you’re the greatest, you don’t have to prove it.

Armstrong. Huffman. Trump. Striving, striving. Desperate. Never certain.

Trust me, you don’t want to be these people.

Breaking Out of Junior High

Developmentally, we start measuring ourselves—smarts, talents, looks, class—against each other around age six. You can see it in any first-grade classroom. How we stack up against our peers reaches painful, epic proportions for most of us in early adolescence. I wrote about my own experience with this in a previous post, but suffice it to say I was miserable at age 12, craving to be liked by the “cool kids,” fretting about my hair (wavy in an era of straight), my clothes, my every utterance. After much effort, I was invited to join some of these kids at a football game where I quickly realized how much they bored me. This freed me to be myself and connect with more compatible people. I was lucky to learn this in junior high.     

The tragedy is this: Many people never get out of junior high. They spend their whole lives performing for others.

Recently, I came across this sage observation by psychologist Michael Schreiner: “You put yourself in a precarious position when you feel the constant need to prove yourself because all of a sudden your behavior centers not around furthering your own self-actualization but around living up to the demands and opinions of those around you, demands and opinions that might actually have little to do with your interests and much to do with theirs.”

Self-worth is not a panacea for doubts. Doubts help us to review, to question, to rethink a project, a relationship, the path we’re on. Self-worth is not a bulwark against failure. Failing is part of the process whereby we learn and go on to fail better and better until we maybe succeed. Sometimes it’s a long process. The beauty of self-worth is that all these evaluations and efforts are inner-directed, not outer-directed. It is the confidence to believe only you can judge what’s valuable in your life, where your energies should be directed. Warning: Sometimes other people will dislike you intensely for this. In those moments, it helps to remember that such rebuffs are almost always a comment on the rebuffer’s insecurity about their own true worth, not a reflection of you.

So pursue what you love. Take the rejection of others in stride.

And your true net worth?

You are more than enough. Believe it. And be free.

Lessons of the Road

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to. 
Don’t try to see through the distances. 
That’s not for human beings. 
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move. 

[The Spin: What better time than April, the month of Earth Day, to recycle a post from another April—with several spiffy additions applied like a new coat of (non-toxic) paint?

The Truth: Major time-crunch this past month—final revisions, agent searches, query letters. Every writer knows the drill. I promise to be back next month with a scintillating brand new post. Until then, rejoice. We have survived another winter.]

When I was in my twenties, I imagined that by 40 or so (when I imagined such an advanced age at all), I would have acquired a certain grace at living. Grace implied to me a kind of sanguine wisdom, the possession of which would enable me to transcend all things petty, leaving me unshakably calm. 


More recently, combing through birthday cards for a friend, I came across this gem: “With age comes wisdom.” (Inside) “But sometimes age comes alone.”

We’re getting closer to the truth here.

It’s something of a universal practice to pause on our birthday and consider what (if anything) the years have taught us. To reflect on the hand dealt us, how we’ve played it, and what we might do with the cards we still hold.

 So, with another orbit of the sun completed since my arrival on the planet, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned—and some of the things I still hope to learn but haven’t quite yet got the hang of. It’s not Rumi. It may not even be Kung Fu Panda, but it’s mine own. 

What I’ve Learned

1. When riled to record heights of anger by the insensitive, the stupid, and the just plain nasty, do NOT under any circumstances tell the annoying person what you REALLY think of them.  However eloquent anger may make you, however deeply satisfying it is to take down the offender with your verbal arrows, beware: The gods enjoy messing with us. At some unforeseeable moment in the future, in a setting you cannot now imagine, this person is bound to reappear in your life—as the interviewer for a job you really want, as a member of the critique group you just joined, as your child’s teacher. On that day you will be extremely happy that you kept your mouth shut.

2. When you are the dufus in the room, own it straight out and laugh at yourself. The reality of life is this: People spill drinks. They trip on stairs. Call someone by the wrong name. Trail toilet paper on their shoe. A few even fart.  Look at it this way: Everyone else gets a kick out of your embarrassing moments, so why shouldn’t you?    

3. Trust your intuition. That still, small voice you hear at critical junctures in your life? It’s not just some telemarketer from deep space. It’s the real you telling yourself what you already know at gut level. People put their faith in the stock market, in lottery tickets, in Vegas. How much crazier is it to trust your gut? On the brink of college graduation, utterly broke and armed with only a degree in English, my intuition spoke up one night as I sat listening to a musician friend in a local pizza pub. Right in the middle of “City of New Orleans,” it said: “You’ve got a vagabond heart. Do what you’ve always loved doing. Go be a writer.” I’m grateful everyday that I listened.

4. Ignorance is not bliss; it is a false comfort and a temporary one at best. There are public examples of this: Climate-change denial in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the recent floods that have drowned a host of Midwestern states. Everyone who looked the other way as Hitler rose to power and built the death camps. And personal examples: Ignoring the symptoms of cancer, or the signs that a relationship is becoming abusive. Things ignored do not disappear. More often, they incubate until you have a really nasty mess to deal with. In my experience, it’s best to travel with your eyes wide open.

5. You must play your cards from the hand you hold. Not the hand you wish you’d been dealt. Not the hand you feel life unfairly stole from you. But the cards you actually have. I call this the Yahtzee dilemma. Okay, I’m mixing my games in this metaphor, but stay with me. I know what I’m talking about.

I play a fair amount of online Yahtzee when the long day’s work is over (and sometimes even when it’s not). I play against a character named Bill. Bill likes sixes—Yahtzee’s highest number, for the uninitiated. If he gets three 1s, a 4, and a 6 on his first roll, rather than build on his 1s, he ditches everything but the 6 and tries to get more of those in the remaining two rolls. This often results in Bill getting zippo and losing the 35 bonus points for the top half. I hate to say this, Bill, but that kind of “thinking” is NOT thinking. It’s insisting on a roll of the dice you didn’t get. It’s a stubborn refusal to recognize the 1s as your strength in this case. Okay, maybe not so much glory in 1s, but I beat Bill most of the time. The hand you hold/your roll of the dice is what you have. Use it to your best advantage.

6. Never sell your soul for money. My parents spent their lives accruing money, thinking about money, worrying about money. In exchange, they got the dream house, the country club membership, two luxury cars in the garage. But it never seemed to make them particularly happy. We all need food, shelter, a little fun, but I think the luckiest people are those who grasp the concept of “enough.” They enjoy a freedom that all the money in the world can’t buy. I’ll bet my dodgy 2001 Ford Focus on that. 

7. If you possess the true, abiding love of at least one other person in this world, you can survive anything.

What I’ve Yet to Learn But Hope To

1. Don’t put your life on post-its, at least not the dinky 2” x 2” ones. At any one time, I have 100 or so of these colorful little squares floating over the surface of my desk. A random sampling of their deathless reminders to me include:

The human capacity for deception

A spy? See Condell perfs in Jonson’s play

Given QED

The really important ones are actually taped to the front of my desk where the sun fades them to obscurity over time.

2. When settling in to binge-watch a favorite series, resist the urge to grab a bag of M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Cheetohs (or anything else packing a month’s worth of calories) with the promise that you’ll stop after “a few.” You won’t.  

3. Never shop for clothing when you are at the bottom of your weight range. For the record, I’m not much of a shopper, but the one thing that will propel me to the nearest mall is losing 4-5 pounds. Giddy (from lack of food), I plop down my Visa card and before you know it, I have a couple new pairs of jeans and two or three sleek little tops that look great . . . until I eat my next slice of pizza.  

4. Stop counting the minutes, hours, days. Forty’s in the rearview mirror, and grace, that slippery imp, continues to evade my grasp.  Like the Rumi quote that opened this post, I’m still discovering what it means. Perhaps in another decade or two, I’ll get there and learn to take everything as it comes. 

Given QED

Toward a More Perfect Union

“Let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.” Bob Dylan (All Along the Watchtower)

Perhaps, with the title of this post, I’m setting the bar too high, implying that we are anywhere in the same galaxy, let alone neighborhood, of something approximating a true democracy, a swamp-less America. On the other hand, at this point almost any little uptick in our nation’s health, unprompted by greed or outright corruption, would be a step toward a better, if still far from perfect, union. It’s gotten so that when I hear some pundit put two coherent sentences together, I find myself thinking they could be president.

Well, if any clown can grow up to be president, as TheRUMP proves daily, then I feel it’s only fair that I get my 2¢ in and deliver my own State of the Union address here. Without the hyenas who applauded every syllable, garbled or not, out of the OrangeOne’s mouth. Without their annoying, puerile chant USA, USA, USA!

Actually, my SOTU is not so much about what is (sad, as our twittering POTUS likes to tweet), but more about what could be. Therefore, having established my right to blather on (isn’t that how things are done these days?), I’m delivering my 10-point plan for an America that represents the many rather than the few, a more humane and democratic nation and, by extension, a better world.

1. Number one, front and center, VOTERS RULE, and everyone gets to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be fully restored, Citizens United will be dumped outright, and anyone caught gerrymandering districts or closing polling stations (as happened with Dodge City in the 2018 elections) or “tinkering” with voting machines will find themselves booked on a one-way trip to Deep Space. Byeee! The days when a thug like Brian Kemp could delete  some 800,000 voters from the rolls as Georgia’s Secretary of State, thereby stealing the governorship for himself, are OVER. In my America, Stacey Abrams is the rightful governor of the Peach State.

One person, one vote. No more electoral college (which, hilariously enough, was designed in part to prevent “unqualified” persons, like the one we have now, from becoming president). No more voter suppression: No impossible/ridiculous ID requirements. No lines out the door and around the block at polling stations. No intimidation tactics.

And I want to see a big, clear PAPER trail. No white-out.   

2.  We can achieve #1 because all citizens will be first-class citizens, and everyone will enjoy EQUAL RIGHTS and OPPORTUNITIES. Gay, black, brown, Muslim, female, Jew, atheist, transgender, teacher, garbage collector, unemployed steel worker, 7-11 counter person. We will stop this nonsense about a level playing field, and officially recognize, and legislate for the fact that billionaires and their kids, jetting off from their private helipads to one of their many homes, don’t quite face the same hurdles in life that, say, a single mom working at Mickey D’s and her kids must navigate. We will do everything we can to knock the support props out from under the privileged few and level that damn field for the struggling many.

Equal rights for everyone also means that everyone enjoys EQUAL PROTECTION under the law. The next racist cop who shoots a black teen for looking at his cell phone funny, that cop is going to Sing-Sing for life. Without parole. [I do want to note that I have met many a decent cop, most touchingly, a couple of officers in New York’s Little Italy, who were very protective of and sympathetic to the poverty, addictions, and visible struggles of their peeps. If we want good community policing, we should use them as our model.]

3. FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION for everyone through college or trade school. If we throw up our hands at people so ignorant/uninformed that they continually vote against their own true interests, consider this: We are a country who puts up road blocks to a literate, thinking citizenry at every juncture of education. Underfunded public schools. Overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid teachers. Ridiculous college costs, which leave students staggering under debt for years, and prevent many more from even attending.

And it’s getting worse. The push for charter schools at the expense of public schools by the DeVos wing of TheRUMP regime has closed many of our public schools already, and tends to favor no separation of church and state. At least six states—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia—have pending legislation that would make “Bible literacy classes” part of the public school curriculum.

An uninformed electorate may be easier to control through prejudice and baseless fears, but it doesn’t make for a strong, innovative society, and it doesn’t make for happiness either, if our high rates of depression and substance abuse are anything to go by.

4. We need to stop monkeying around and slap on MASSIVE MANDATORY ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS NOW. Nothing else matters if we don’t do this. Without this, we might as well be ordering donuts for our last cup of coffee.

The Green New Deal outlines broadly how the U.S. should combat climate change over the next decade, but we need specifics today. Here’s a few:

Zero tax breaks for companies who 1) directly pollute our land, water, or air; 2) whose production methods harm the planet (think anything that uses palm oil, which is created by destroying large swaths of rain forest and animal habitats); 3) whose end products pose peril to the earth and its oceans—plastic bags or straws, for example.

All corporations must transition 20% of their total operation each year to green energy and green/sustainable practices, for a 100% transition within five years, or we SHUT THEM DOWN.  No more drilling, fracking, coal production, or factory farms. No more toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of so many products from foods to plastics to cosmetics. We need stuff we can eat, handle, and wear without fearing for our lives.

It’s insane that we’re not already doing these things, considering scientists are saying we have only a decade left to avert the worst climate disasters (our extinction being one of them), and ice at both poles is melting like a DQ snow cone at the height of July.

What gives with these high-pollutin’ fossil fuel billionaire morons, anyway? They could have transitioned to solar and wind power and every other green thing forty years ago. Become leaders in the green-tech field, and still raked in the big $$$. (QED: Being rich does NOT equal being smart.)

But they (and many other corporate entities) seem to be stuck in the 1950s, when steel was “king” and coal was the leading fuel for generating electricity. Stuck in the time-warp of a fabled all-powerful America where (white men) ruled the roost while (white) women fixed their dinners and birthed their babies, and all people of color rode under the bus.

Wake up boys. The heyday of the steel mills that employed 700,000 workers in 1948 is over. Today, those mills are down to 83,000 people. Other countries, less afraid of introducing new, more efficient technology, got the jump years ago. And burning coal, besides being an environmental nightmare, is no longer economically feasible. In mid-February, against TheRUMP’s expressed wishes, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to close a large coal-fired power plant, Paradise #3, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky—a plant made famous by John Prine’s song “Where Paradise Lay.”

We need to be training coal miners and other displaced workers for the clean-energy jobs of the future. A future we must adopt NOW if we don’t want life on the planet to be just a memory tomorrow.

And no whining about how unaffordable it is to retool for a green planet. When Joy Reid asked Senator Ed Markey how the Green New Deal would be paid for, he reminded her that the cost of cleaning up from the rising number and worsening damage of climate-caused disasters will be in the trillions. And that doesn’t include the indefensible cost of lives lost. In short, we can’t afford not to go green.

I also don’t want to hear any lobbyist yammering about free enterprise or government interference in corporate rights. As far as I’m concerned, their rights end where endangering our lives begins. Clean energy. Clean water. Clean air.

5. UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE. I feel like I have been shouting this for 40 years (probably because I have been shouting this for 40 years) but AMERICA IS THE ONLY DEVELOPED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD THAT LACKS UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE.

Everyone else is free to sleep peacefully and go about their day joyfully in these other countries, at least when it comes to knowing that they won’t be dumped by the wayside and left to rot, or completely bankrupted and made homeless if they develop something more serious than, say, a cold.

The U.S. ranks the highest in healthcare spending among the developed nations. Universal healthcare will bring down the cost for everyone. I’m betting the increase in my tax bill wouldn’t begin to equal the increase in my healthcare premiums since TheRUMP’s monkeyed with the ACA.  And I’d rather pay taxes to fund healthcare than the slaughter of children in Yemen or building TheRUMP’s “mini-nukes.”

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why our healthcare is so expensive, I have a little story a friend told me some 20 years ago. He was playing piano in a trio at a dinner bash for insurance company execs, who were merrily washing down their filet mignon with bottle after bottle of cognac—at $750 a pop. I’m guessing with inflation, those bottles now go for a grand-plus. 

So, no more Big Pharma billing us twice what we earn in a month for a drug they sell elsewhere in the world at a fraction of the price (nearly all countries except the U.S. have policies, price controls, and regulations limiting drug company profits). No more pushing drugs on us we don’t need, thus rendering half the country opioid addicts. (The US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes approximately 80 percent of the world’s prescription opioid drugs.)

Our reps and senators enjoy stellar healthcare and we foot the bill for it. The way I see it, what’s good enough for them is good enough for the rest of us.

6.  It’s beyond appalling how many two-faced GOP duffers, themselves the children and grandchildren of immigrants, are railing on about the (bogus) “threat at our southern border,” backing ICE, and denying people their legal right to apply for asylum. Way beyond appalling that thousands and thousands of children were ripped away from their families (with little or no record-keeping or a plan to reunite them). Unconscionable that ICE is dumping people in prison camps hastily erected by, and highly profitable for private company buddies of TheRUMP—an outright crime that has resulted in the deaths of several children.

So, listen up, we are having a total rededication to old Lady Liberty. In the words of Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

As for anyone seeking asylum, if you can make a reasonably compelling statement, whether it’s in English, Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna or Ewokese—say, Because U.S. foreign policy and CIA knavery of the past 60 years have made my country a hellhole—well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re in. Welcome to America. Care to learn the skills for a new green-energy job? We need you.

7. The issue of immigration, as I suggested in #6, brings up the whole question of foreign policy. So listen up, mighty OrangeOne and Blackwater and Exxon: No, you can’t take another country’s oil, topple their elected officials, suppress their protests, or cut off their trade with other countries. You can’t bomb other nations so you can steal their wealth or install your own dictators. After a century of talking up the right of nations to self-determination, we will finally walk the walk, honor self-determination, and keep our hands to ourselves. And our hands will not sell bombs and guns to nations who suppress other nations, commit genocide, or behead journalists.  

8. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Well, begging the trigger-happy NRA’s pardon, the more than 1.5 million Americans who have died a gun-related death since 1968 might wish to differ, if only they could. One-point-five-million. That’s more Americans than have died in all the wars we’ve fought, including World War II.

There were 346 mass shootings in 2017—not 346 deaths, but 346 mass shootings. Another 340 occurred in 2018. Night clubs. Schools. Movie theaters. Concert venues. And then there’s those little domestic scenarios where the toddler shoots her mother, or the brother shoots his baby sister. Or Dad shoots the entire family. So, hear me good: No assault rifles. No handguns. No open carry. No concealed carry. No “stand your ground” laws. NO GUNS. AT ALL.

9. Total government TRANSPARENCY. No one we elect and/or pay the salary of hides from us what they spend our money on, or the findings of special investigations into, say, the corruption of the president, his cabinet cronies, fellow criminally-inclined congresspersons, and their various fixers. We are your constituents. We are your BOSSES. We elected you to represent us and to serve our best interests. We demand to know exactly what’s going on. And if you were appointed rather than elected, you were appointed to serve the interests of the country and uphold the Constitution, NOT to massage TheRUMP’s rump. Got that, William Barr?

One More Thing

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Geeze, Ame, you sound like the Green New Deal on steroids. How many decades and decades of Congressional sessions would it take to write up, introduce, and vote on all these proposals, and would there be anyone left on Earth by the time we got all this done, even if Mitch McConnell only lasts another 200 years?

Good question. Of course, we could knock most of this into a hat if we just adopted my tenth proposal, and went global with it:

10. NO ONE gets more than a million dollars until EVERYONE on the planet has a decent home and full healthcare. Until EVERYONE receives as much education/job training as they care to pursue. Until EVERYONE has clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and plenty of healthy food. Until EVERYONE has some fun money, time for regular vacations, and a secure retirement.

The main reason we are in such a huge mess domestically and globally is because a handful of billionaires are dictating the terms—no taxes for the rich, freedom to pollute the planet to death, low wages for workers, endless war—and choosing who gets into office and how they will vote. I guarantee you that if NO ONE is allowed to have more than a million dollars, our campaign finance problems—the Koch brothers/Shel Adelson/DeVos-family et al.—will be solved. You can’t donate $300 million or even $30 million if you have zero millions.

A couple of stats to underscore my point here:

  • The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the nation.
  • Globally, 42 people have as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest folks. Yes, 42 people have as much wealth as the poorest HALF of the WORLD.

So, I repeat. No one gets more than a million dollars until everyone has what they need. All income over $1 million will be taxed, retroactively, at 99.99%. So sell those extra dozen houses, private jets, helipads, and pay up, you billionaires. There will be no more off-shore accounts. No tax havens. No tax loopholes like the ones that gave Amazon a free pass for federal taxes this year, despite the $11.2 billion in profits the company reaped for 2018.  

The billions and billions and billions that we who work have made for the planet’s richest 42 people? That money comes back to us. Then we won’t have to worry about Social Security or Medicare or public school funding or the cost of infrastructure. The people in the world’s poorest countries will have running water and homes and schools and healthcare—a chance to live their lives rather than merely trying to survive starvation day to day.

Perhaps it is the Green New Deal on steroids. I make no apologies. Instead, I’ll sign off with the words of George Bernard Shaw, tweaked by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

Why not, indeed?