The Time is Ripe
“Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear.”
Pressing yourself up against absurd deadlines is another way to avoid making real decisions, ones you've thought out, weighed carefully. About a month ago, I wanted to rush through an application for a masters in English with a concentration in writing program, not having taken the GREs yet, or secured letters of reference. I had begun writing the essays and contacting professors, getting myself all wound up, and then realized -- this was just another way I was taking control and giving it to someone/something else, in this case, a rushed and crazy deadline.
Becoming your own authority figure is the hardest thing you have to do in life. I think it's harder than becoming an actual parent. Even then, you can postpone the process of self-actualization indefinitely. When you begin to face it, you start to make enemies. That's something I've spent my whole life trying to avoid. But I feel I am doing that now, becoming so involved in my work that I'm letting people down left and right.
The agent to whom my friend and I sent a query letter for our romance/thriller asked to see the whole manuscript. We sent it Friday. The night before, I met a writer, Lisa Rogak, at a book signing for my friend Mark's sister's book Ripe. Mark is a Dartmouth Grad, a few years older than me. I met him through the alumni network. I think he was the only alumni I called. He helped me get an internship at Senator Kerry's office in Environmental Affairs after I graduated. We hung out a few times that spring--'99--before I moved to New York. Though we reconnected over email in 2004, both campaigning for Kerry, we did not see each other again until a full 10 years later. By that time he'd been married, divorced, donated a kidney to a stranger, joined as a board member to Council for a Liveable World, and done lots of other generous, high-minded stuff.
His sister, Cheryl Sternman Rule, whose food blog I mentioned here a while ago, gave a reading for her new book Ripe at Rizzoli Bookstore on West 57th, you know, one of the few bookstores left anywhere. I expected to duck in and see Mark and his fiance briefly, buy the book, get it signed, drink a glass of wine out of a plastic cup, feel awkward and a bit envious hanging around Rizzoli, and then quietly slip out and be on my way. Mark's entire family was there (along with TONS of other people, huge turnout), and I didn't want to be that clingy, needy, one-off friend when he knew so many others and might be trying to make the rounds. So I was standing by myself, drinking wine and flipping through Cheryl's gorgeous cookbook, when I became involved in a friendly debate with a Devout Christian Democrat over why God would wait until so recently to get on with such an important task (sending his Son, giving the rest of us access to the Kingdom of Heaven because of the crucifixion, the resurrection etc. etc. What about the hundreds of thousands of people who lived before Jesus? Outta luck?) Anyway, it was that discussion with the Devout Christian Democrat from Florida that kept me at the book-signing much longer than I intended. Only because I was still standing there debating God with the Christian Democrat when the crowd thinned out, did a one Lisa Rogak approach me, to comment on my skirt and tell me you can find the best skirts--like mine, she said--in Charleston, South Carolina. (Funny, that town keeps coming up in these random ways, like a Fellini movie or The Usual Suspects. That was the town I couldn't get to for my cousin's Isle of Palms wedding, the destination of that strange tarmacked flight in October 2010.)
This writer, Lisa Rogak, lived in Charleston, South Carolina, collecting skirts and writing books, but she's now in Berkeley. (Grew up in Jersey, and lived in NYC for ten years). More than strangely-patterned skirts, the cookbook Ripe, and writing connected us. The surprising part came out over dinner at Amarone an hour or so later. This generous, incredible woman insisted on taking me out and giving me all sorts of great advice about writing, doing what, she pointed out, no one had done for her. She's been making a living as a freelance writer for 30 years, authored more than 40 books, and apparently drives a hearse (I saw on her website--she didn't strike me as that quirky in person, although quirky enough, like me, spacey, all-over-the-place topic wise, though clearly in command of a razor sharp focus to produce all she has and continues to.) Where we overlapped was not in New York, or making recipes from Ripe, but in towns six hours north of her. She had lived in Lebanon, New Hampshire which is just next to Hanover, New Hampshire where Dartmouth is. She lived there much longer, but we were there at the same time.
So, in addition to talking about writing, relationships, people thinking we're spacey, book packagers, Shel Silverstein, having kids (she has a 29-year-old son), culinary writing (she does a lot of it now, that's how she knows Cheryl, the author whose book signing we both attended), Death of a Salesman (she's going to see it), we talked about all kinds of landmarks of my college years -- Sweet Tomatoes, the Hanover Inn, Baker Library Professor Hebert taking his classes out to the lawn next to Sanborn, films at the Hop, d.b.a.'s, the fun of living in a college town with so many great events in such a small space.
With a Dartmouth grad I met through the alumni network--whose only connection with me was the time we spent in Hanover--serving as the lynchpin, I talked about food and wine in Hanover this woman, Lisa Rogak, at a book signing which she attended because of her shared interest in writing about food and wine with Mark's sister, both of them living in California now, where of course the produce far outshines ours, or even that at the lovely Sweet Tomatoes, in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
I was thrilled the next morning, really disbelieving my luck in meeting this writer who had, for no reason I could ascertain, agreed to help me. I'd met her through another person who, for no real reason, other than niceness, had guided me when I was just out of college.
Really I had only expected to feel impressed and vaguely jealous in Rizzoli Bookstore, and ended up having this great dinner with Lisa. And that came just hours after deciding that I had to turn my energy away from social stuff almost entirely if I was ever going to get anything done.
I have been feeling frustrated lately, realizing that I've spent years--my whole life really--honing and refining conversation skills. I bristle and take note--even inadvertently--at all the little irritating things people do in conversation. Either by not paying attention, or contradicting, or saying "hmm" when more than that is called for, or being too silent, or unenthusiastic, or challenging, or flipping the conversation back to themselves, or saying "Anyway..." in a way that implies the other person was boring you, or not validating, or distracting, or disagreeing when someone just wants support, or advising when someone just wants to vent, or getting their own needs met rather than the other person's. Being attuned to the inner workings of conversations just gets me into trouble, I realized. I want to be blunt. I want to be not understanding. I want to be sharper, more critical, less supportive, less engaging, less flexible. I want to do these things so I'll have more time to work, and less time where I feel "forced" into socializing because I am, as a shrink once referred to me, "an easy mark". ( At the time I protested silently, believing there really was more to the story as to why people demand so much of my time, but, many months and hundreds of free-writing pages later, her “easy mark” comment to describe my social persona has started to seem like nothing short of a bull’s-eye.)
My parents have this neighbor Antoinette--Tony for short--and Tony is always curt and able to cut people off and even just start walking off when she's done with a conversation or wants to be somewhere else. She doesn't feel the need to excuse herself or apologize for being curt. So I have taken to asking myself, "What Would Tony Do?" or WWTD for short to help myself along in, basically, getting my own goals met and not the goal of pleasing everyone with whom I happen to come in contact. That Thursday, before the booksigning, I felt determined to emulate that more, but it's hard, because all those behaviors -- the "my time is more important" behaviors, or just general brusqueness or not-connecting--it's all stuff that makes me absolutely recoil in other people. But this is my task, to learn to imitate behavior I don't really like. The "I have to be outta here by 5:30" rigid declarations, the "Saturday isn't good for me, we like time with just the family" self-centeredness, the "sounds great but I have too much to do" lack of spontaneity. The detached head nod in response to a personal story when so much more than that is called for. It's just not serving me, anymore, being this easy mark. Always trying to do the "right" thing in conversation, always trying to be flexible, responsible.
So I had convinced myself that I needed to be ruder, to get closer to where I wanted to be.
And here was this example, just the total opposite, just hours later, God seeming to be playing a joke on me by delaying me there in Rizzoli with this existence-of-God debate. Delaying me so that I became, in a way, an easy mark for a fabulous thing--the guidance of this author, or even if nothing else comes of it, the really great night out. It was the social aspect that served me, my comfort in talking to strangers basically, that led me not just to meet this author, but presumably, to engage her enough so that she wanted to take me to dinner. It's like, I could send out 100 pitch letters to book packagers and not get as far as I got that one night, because of these little conversations where, I tried to be (as usual) the opposite of rude. (Writing that out doesn't make it sound like all that worthy a goal, certainly not in the realm of Mark's kidney donation, for example. What's your main goal in life? "I try not to be rude.")
And then it was just all this good luck, because all these other book projects are moving along, too. Along with that good news from the agent. That one's just a remote possibility. But those are my favorite kind, I realized, because they're the green light out there on the dock. They're something to hope for, and long for, while you toil away with your smaller work.
Being not rude can help, in some situations. Is the answer, "you have to find a balance"? An almost aggressively cliche thing to say, if usually true. Though balance is important, and not just for juggling too much stuff. That's a circus act, one we should engage in only if we love the spectacle. Balance is important because it implies deliberate action, thoughtful behavior, carefully weighed alternatives. It rejects extreme positions. "I'm not going to be polite anymore. It's too time-consuming" is extreme. So is responding to a fear of being a "fall off the earth all I care about is my tiny nuclear family" mom in such a dramatic way that you over-prioritize everyone but your family. Clinging to extreme positions is yet another way to undermine your decision-making ability, your own judgement. It's yet another way to refuse to be the agent of your own real-life action game.