december in january

10 in 2010: Ch’i, inside and out

close shot of hands of people doing tai chi

So far, and 48+ years is pretty far, I’ve not been able to sit still long enough to meditate.

I’ve read about, listened to and met actual benefactors of its benefits, but if you sit me down for more than five minutes at a time without something to do (besides the not-doing of meditation), I start itching all over.

I get that I’m not alone in this; I also get that one of the points to having a practice is practicing, which eventually leads to getting better at it. But I can’t, or won’t let myself, get over that hump.

Similarly, while I’m equally aware of the benefits of regular, old physical exercise, I’ve had real problems creating a routine around it. My genius plan of renting a mailbox a little over a mile from my apartment worked for a while, until it didn’t. (Did you know you can also drive your car both ways in about half the time? I know!) Besides, while walking clears the mind and even provides a bit of cardio work, provided you do it briskly enough, it doesn’t do a whole lot in the way of enhancing flexibility or building strength.

Enter Nei Kung, an internal form of qigong, which itself is a type of slow and precise moving meditation that gets the chi, or energy, flowing. According to my instructor, Jim Borrelli, Nei Kung is way more obscure, at least, compared to other kinds of qigong, and was developed to give martial artists extra reservoirs of strength to use in fighting. I’m disinclined to fight, but who wouldn’t want extra strength, especially when it came bundled with better energy, focus, flexibility, and peace of mind come. The obscure part, on the other hand, was obvious: you see qigong or tai chi being practiced on grassy mountaintops in every other montage commercial promoting wellness or yogurt, but who the hell has heard of Nei Kung?

I have now, obviously, and have been doing it regularly, almost every day, which is unheard of for me, for nine weeks now. I know this because every week, I cut a big, fat check for the privilege of one-on-one training, which, unless you’re in New York City and can score some kind of class situation with Master C.K. Chu (who taught my teacher, who is one of the smallest handful of people Chu has so deputized), or maybe if you’re plugged into some arcane Chinese martial arts circuit, it ain’t gonna happen. Believe me, I’m frugal enough to self-identify as outright cheap, and there’s no way I’d pay for this if it wasn’t necessary. Or worth it.

So far, it is, and that’s been true since Day One. My Internet friend, Alan, had a similar experience with Nei Kung: maybe we both have Nei Kung-friendly bodies*; maybe we were both martial artists in a former, Chinese life. Whatever the cause, each of us seems to have taken to it like a duck to water, and for my part, I can tell you it’s a relief: after beating myself up over not liking running, cycling, weight training or yoga, to do something I’m good at that makes me feel good is an extraordinary gift, especially 48+ years into the game. (Which reminds me, hate all games, too.)

My commitment is to practice Nei Kung for 25 minutes every morning, session dates excepted (I get a mammoth dose of it then). For the winter, I’ve shifted my practice to sit between reading and breakfast, since the half-hour or so of reading gives the heater a chance to kick in. Exceptions will most likely be made to accommodate travel and the insane bloody heat that seizes the E-Z-Bake Ovenâ„¢ around August.

As far as the outside chi goes, Item #4 is to feng shui the place bagua by bagua, starting with the Skills & Knowledge sector. As author Karen Rauch Carter (wisely) says in her book and my feng shui bible, no matter what you’re looking for, money, health, success, you’ll have a hell of an easier time of it if you buff out the gray matter.

But more on that later…


*Mine is compact and slight, with short legs and a long torso; I can’t speak for Alan’s.

Image by Diana Bella via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Too much, too little, and loving what is (A story about goals)

google mindmap on ginormous whiteboard

After numerous setbacks, some regular-usuals that I now know to plan for (hello, holidays!), some spontaneous combustibles that required urgent but unscheduled attention, I wrapped up my goal planning for 2010.

Yes, five weeks or roughly 10% of the way into the year I’m supposed to be living, I’m done planning for it.*

It is an easy, easy slide into self-loathing, just taking in that last sentence. It feels like a sentence, when I start to take it in fully: this is your life, loser, and no one to blame but yourself for it. Little Miss Overachiever. Little Miss Fancypants, with your ridiculous notions of time and how many things you can fill it with, or, if you want to dip into that bucket o’ truth you claim such fondness for, how much shit you can cram into it.

So, you see how I talk to myself when you’re not around?** Not nice. Not even helpful. But this is the voice that runs through my head most of the time, or one of them, and it is this voice, or rather, what this voice is doing to me, that I’m choosing to address this year.

Because two very interesting and highly unusual things happened this year during the penultimate phase of goal-planning. They’re embarrassing enough that I’d ordinarily leave them out, but illuminating enough, at least, I hope they are, that they’re staying in.

For those of you unfamiliar with the values-centered goal-planning system outlined in Jinny Ditzler’s Your Best Year Yet, it starts with an inventory and ends with a map, with a whole lot of excavation, grading and other survey-ish/cartographic folderol in between. The inventory is a look back at the previous year’s happenings, divided into accomplishments and disappointments, the better to get a handle on what’s working (so you can feel good about yourself!) and what’s not, so you can beat yourself with a cudgel crafted from your own sodden, misshapen failures. Kidding! Only, well, there’s a reason Ditzler has you list your accomplishments first. It can be mighty dispiriting to look at that list of disappointments. She is fairly adamant that accomplishments be viewed with pride and the disappointments taken as learning, but right there, that’s suspect to self-loathers: wherefore such inequities of discernment? That’s just bad science, lady!

Interestingly enough, in the five years I’ve been doing Best Year Yet, I’ve never once had a problem coming up with staggeringly long lists of accomplishments that even the meanest stranger would affirm as such, while my list of disappointments has been proportionately far smaller. Of course, they’re big honkers, those disappointments, stuff like “only completed 4 out of 10 goals from last year”; worse, they tend to recur. This may not be a big deal when you’re 20 or even 30, but when you’re staring 50 in the droopy, gray-haired sac, you start to worry. Time is, as they say, at a premium. How much more of it can you count on? How much more can you waste on an outright-destructive or even “benign” insalubrious habit? Is there even such a thing after 45? (I’m really asking: is there?)

My own goal-planning process ground to a depressing halt in December not only because the year had worn me down and the holidays weren’t going to let up, but because when I finished up my list of disappointments, I noted that 11 of them, that’s 11 out of 18, were recurring. And big ones, too, like “didn’t write book…again,” where “again” meant “for the third year in a row.” After completing those two lists, I went on to answer the next couple of questions, but really, I knew I was fucked. The only way around this problem was through it, and that was going to require a lot more time than the week I had set aside. And resources, too, in the form of outside help.

Which brings us to the penultimate session I mentioned about 40 minutes ago in this piece.

Up until this year, I’ve mostly done my BYY plan alone. I ran last year’s by my business coach, but only the final plan, and only the business-related aspects of it***. While it makes me cringe with shame now, I realize that I was doing a lot of obfuscating and tap dancing, more plainly called “hiding” when one is not given to obfuscating and tap dancing. If I was going to change my pattern, someone else was going to have to be given root access to the plan, to help keep me honest about what was going on. One of my friends from Success Team (my weekly mastermind-like group) agreed that it might be helpful from an unsticking perspective to collaborate, so we scheduled a work session for this past weekend.

I was prepared for almost anything. A lot of stuff bubbles up during the BYY excavation and mapping process, and for me, that inevitably brings a lot of crying and pain, especially around the Dreaded Chapter Four, where you look at your limiting paradigms. (Trust me, unless you’re Jesus, you’ve got at least one.)

What I was not prepared for was bursting into tears when I looked at my list of accomplishments, which is just what I did when it was my time to go over them. I’d thought, “Oh, I’ll just read the topline from this embarrassingly long list to save us time.” Instead, something told me to read it in its entirety, all 47 items, and when I the last one, I collapsed in a heap of sobs: all of this stuff I’d accomplished, and still I felt like shit? What would it take? What would ever be enough? If accomplishing all of these 47 remarkable things, and my friend assured me that individually, many were remarkable, but taken together, they were REMARKABLE, if doing all that did not fill the black hole inside me and make me feel loved or safe or worthwhile, what would?

The answer, that nothing would, that no external thing would ever be enough, stared back at me, plain as you like. Hence, sobbing. A lot of it. Fortunately, I have loving and patient friends. Who somehow, when I am feeling like it’s anything but possible, can assure me in a way that I actually can hear and almost believe, that I am enough: that I might be lovable just because of who I am, and not because of any list of things I do.

It seems so simple, but trust me, it can take a long time to “get”, even if you know it. Even if you’ve paid your shrink thousands of dollars and wept your way through boxes of her Kleenex to learn the same thing. Learning is not necessarily “getting”; if you’re lucky, I think, you “get” it with enough time before you die to know some kind of peace. I felt one huge shift like this in the past 10 years, when I had my hospital bed epiphany. I had a second one this past weekend, looking at that long list and bursting into tears. I have a little more peace, but I’d also like to get a little more of this music out of me before I die, you know?

The other Very Interesting and Unusual Thing that happened revolved around money and happiness. It also involved a goodly amount of sobbing, and is involved (and possibly significant) enough to cover in depth another day.

For now, know this: next year when I sit down to do my Best Year Yet plan, I expect the list of accomplishments will be far shorter, while the list of disappointments will likely be about the same length as it’s been in previous years, only with a much, much higher percentage of new things I’m disappointed about.

And that, my friends, is an accomplishment in and of itself…


*Hopefully. Because I finished the wrapping-up yesterday, late in the day, and am feeling rickety about it. Plus, you know, shit happens, Q.E.D.

**Obviously, you’re very much around, as you’re reading this. What I mean, which you probably already gathered, is this is the dim chatter that forms one layer of my soundtrack. This is the stuff that goes on that I generally don’t write, or if I do, that I erase before publishing.

***Your Best Year Yet is a whole-life planning system, based on the idea that achieving balance is largely responsible for achieving happiness, and possibly for achieving goals themselves, at least in the “life well-lived” sense. Also, it’s worth noting here that even my coach said my plan was probably overly ambitious. I made changes to it based on her feedback and those changes did work: the four out of ten goals were largely accomplished because of those tweaks.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Image by jurvetson via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. For maximum enjoyment, view in original, huge size.

December in January: Adding good habits

guy brushing teeth

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, “December in January,” where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

My Nei Kung instructor and I have been talking a lot about the process of change, one of my favorite topics.

And to be clear, when I say “favorite,” I mean something I spend a great deal of time thinking about, not necessarily something that I enjoy engaging in. I hear the change junkies talk about how all-fire fantastic it is, and remain skeptical, unless by “fantastic,” they mean “other worldly and outsize,” in which case I’m in 100% agreement.


I was late to the idea that the most efficient way of eliminating a bad habit is by replacing it with a good one, or at the very least tying it to a positive, values-based motivator. Why? I’m an idiot! Okay, I’m not an idiot, or at least, not completely. But my tendency toward impatience made me move sometimes rather more quickly than I might have prudently, and to act like an idiot. That test in the eighth grade that’s 479 questions long, and whose first command, read all the way through to the end of the test before starting to answer the individual questions, is critical to the successful completion of the test? I failed that test. Leap first, look later. I’m the world’s best im-patient.

Reading and working through Your Best Year Yet several years ago helped start the shift. It’s so dense and chewy, you can’t skip steps, so I didn’t. It took me a full week-ish to slog through it, but by the end, I had a much better handle on myself, and my first taste of what life felt like when you took time to actually look at it.*

Working through the Great Hypnotherapy Project with my friend, Greg, gave me my next taste of swapping out bad for good as methodology rather than just brutalizing the bad out of yourself. The type of hypno that Greg practices involves coming up with lots of positive replacements for the habit you want to let go; before we did the session to help get me back on my Crohn’s diet, we spent a long time going over the requirements of the diet, what was allowed and of that, what I liked best, and where I was getting stuck. While I was listening to the tape regularly, I felt almost no cravings for the stuff that was disallowed.

Jim, my Nei Kung instructor, who is also a licensed therapeutic hypnotherapist, confirmed that the replacement of “bad” with “good” is a straighter route than just dumping the bad. Trying to stop something is much, much harder than replacing it with something else. I think it has something to do with, to paraphrase Marshall Rosenberg in his a-ma-zing book, Nonviolent Communication**, us bucking at having choices removed, even when it’s in our best interest and it’s us doing the removing.

So I’m looking at framing all of my goals as additive (per Greg and Jim), as well as awesome (per Naomi, who oughta know because boy, is she ever!) Full and final list (fingers and toes crossed) next week, in time for Groundhog’s Day, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Read 52 books. No-brainer additive thing. If you were watching a lot of TV and wanted to stop (as I did, a few years ago), you might want to look at this as an additive replacement. I hope to read many more than 52 books, but this is a start.
  • Practice Nei Kung 30 minutes daily. Additive thing to replace “stop being someone who is a brain without a body.” Kidding, but not far off. Nei Kung is gentle but fairly easy for me to do, as I apparently am both built and wired for it. FINALLY. Because that running thing totally didn’t work out, plus who knows when I’ll have good enough health insurance again to replace my knees.
  • Feng shui my place. Additive thing to replace “declutter,” which I love and has helped me, but which is starting to feel a little brutal, especially as we get down to the bone. Okay, closer to it. OKAY, through the first layer of the epidermis. It’s a teensy cheat, since part of feng shui-ing means removing clutter, but it’s way more fun to make it a game with all the doodads of feng shui. Plus, you know, built-in feature for the blog!
  • Eat SCD-compliant six days per week. Additive thing to replace “Get off Crohn’s meds,” plus my way of easing myself into something good for me by leaving myself some wiggle room. I don’t get to go off the meds until I’ve been back on SCD sans flares for a minimum of one year, possibly two. But I’m not going to worry about that now.

I have a few other ideas I’m still working on, some of which will probably remain private, but others that I may be able to share once I survey the full schmear. “Music” is still floating around, and I’d like to do something that has me caring for my friendships a little more consistently than I have in the past. Never know when you’ll need those darned things.

I’m still looking for additive ways to switch up some of my more destructive habits, especially procrastination and web surfery. I have a feeling that the way-in is connecting more deeply to the things I do want to do, which is going to mean yet more of this messy and painful opening-up-and-letting-go stuff.

I am, however, very open to suggestions right now…


*Other than the five months I spent recovering from my Crohn’s onset, but that was less a choice than something thrust upon me.

**In a year of outstanding books, this is the current front-runner. I cannot thank Havi Brooks enough for tipping me over into finally reading it. (THANK YOU, HAVI.) Look for a review soon, but feel free to buy it immediately. If you have to talk to anyone, yourself included, it will make the experience better and might just save your bacon. Oh, and I’ve already read/loved the How to Talk So Kids Will Listen book (thank you, my shrink), so I’m guessing that third one on the page is killer, too.

Image by skippyjon via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

December in January: Using constraints to free yourself

houdini graphic stenciled on public structure

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, “December in January,” where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

I realize that logically, there must be as many people who excel at true blue-sky thinking as there are people who can only function within very narrow constraints, although I imagine it’s terrifying to run across either.*

Like most people who enjoy thinking of themselves as Very Special Snowflakes, I really fall in the vast, lumpen middle: yes, I’m creative (so are you, whether you like it or not) and no, I don’t do too well when that creativity is not applied to certain tasks.

On the other hand, I flourish within constraints! There are few things I enjoy more than figuring out how to maximize in a box**, whether it’s moving furniture and doodads around a living space to get my feng shui’d (thank you, Karen Rauch Carter) or bending Robert’s Rules of Order right up to the breaking point (a.k.a., how a nutjob-wacko-freak learned to love Toastmasters.) Rules and processes can be very soothing to the scrambled, easily stimulated brain; for the afflicted, the quickest route to making one’s world a little bigger is often to make it a little smaller.

The catch, of course, is getting the mix of free-swim to drills just right, or in the ballpark. I tend towards all or nothing thinking, which is most likely rooted in some early training (and which doubtless saved my ass on more than one occasion), but which, as an adult with true autonomy, is now more of an artifact than a useful modus operandi. To paraphrase a former acting teacher , if the choices are “all” and “nothing,” the answer will most often be “nothing.”***

I’ve written a lot about the structures I’ve adopted to wrangle my chaos into some kind of order so I won’t go over them again here, other than to say they range from simple things like calendaring writing time to multiple sources of accountability (because I yam a slippery devil!) to simply throwing out tons of crap. As I move forward, I’m looking to employ more strategies like these to free up mental and physical energy for what’s feeling more and more like an intense period of creative work around the corner. Here’s what I’m looking at doing:

1. Creating more structure for the blog.

When I first started blogging, I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, and mimicked whomever I was enamored of. Go back and enjoy the schizo qualities of communicatrix, circa late 2004: it will make you feel oh-so-much better about your own chances for success! I can’t tell you the relief I feel these days knowing that Poetry Thursday is right around the corner, or that I have a Referral Friday feature to fall back on. I may never lock myself into a rigid floorplan, but like Gretchen, Havi, Chris and any number of friends who do this regularly, I finally see the value in some kind of publishing “schedule.” They’re just smarter, since they saw it way before I did (even though they all started blogging after I did, which doesn’t make me feel any better about my stubborn face, but there it is.)

2. Pirahnimals.

This is the term Dave Seah, my partner in the Google Wave with Dave™ project, came up with when I said I was considering an adult version of Garanimals to help streamline my wardrobe. For years, I’ve resisted uniforms of any kind, probably because of the eight years (1967 – 1975!) that I chafed in one. My favorite dressing style has been “costumes,” by which I mean dressing for the day’s physical and/or emotional needs, not “gardener” or “slutty nurse.” It was fun for a long, long time because it fed my needs for change and expression, and also my love of rag-picking (i.e., thrift/sale shopping). These days I have plenty of room to express myself via writing and speaking and performing and no end of material, I want to allocate more resources toward the creation of art than the fabrication of frame. Frames are important, L.A. Eyeworks built an iconic ad campaign around this simple, brilliant idea a couple of decades ago, and I’m expending a goodly portion of thought about suitable ones for my needs. More on that as I have it.

3. Streamlining “external” communication.

There are only so many hours in a day, and I’m finally accepting that I need to spend a certain number of them on stuff like eating, sleeping and relaxing if I want to have the life I say I want to have. I’ve already dramatically pulled back on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, I rarely talk on the phone and I try to restrict commenting on other blogs to conversations where I can really add value or situations where it’s appropriate to show appreciation. (There should always be time to be nice, but I’m going to have to learn to be pithier about it.) I’m hoping that creating some structure around the types of things I write about here on the blog will allow me to continue writing here as often as I do (and maintain the newsletter and actors’ column), but I’m (reluctantly) open to the idea that I may need to cut back if I want to write books, too. And yes, I want to write books, and yes, one of them is a collection of poetry. God help us all.

Other things I’m thinking about are:

  • Creating a budget (something I’ve never done in my lifetime!). This is about dragging monsters into the light, to get a good look at them. Hard to start, usually not as awful as I think it’s going to be once I see it.
  • Moving to an even smaller/cheaper place to conserve money (and energy, it takes a long time to clean a 1BR apartment in a filthy town like L.A.).
  • Taking a “real” job. This is the weirdest of all: I haven’t had a job-job since I quit my Stupid Day Job (which was really a great job, and thank you, Uncle Dennis!) back in 1999. I have a lot of pride mixed up in this decision, so it’s hard to see it clearly right now. The more time I spend away from consulting, the happier I am: it’s exhausting work, as I performed it, and not sustainable, and definitely not compatible with my desire to write even more (writing is exhausting, too, but in a very different way). I have no idea if I’m even employable any more, or what for; I’m in the musing stages about this right now.

I’m still in a very open place about all of these things right now, weighing ideas, possibilities and (nice, informed, positively-phrased) suggestions. My multiple nodes of collaboration have also shown me how much stuff there is to me that I can’t see: you are in a position to hold a (kind, helpful, positively-angled) mirror up to me, or pluck a stray hair from my jacket, that I cannot.

I’m specifically curious (yes, again) as to why you read the blog, assuming you read it with any regularity. I threw this question out a couple of years ago and received so many generous, helpful answers it was deeply moving. In the interest of giving something back as I did then, I’ll donate a dollar to the relief efforts going on in Haiti for each reply (up to $500.), via comments or email, that offers some thought, feedback, illumination or idea to move me forward on any of the six areas above.

These could be anything from exercises for “writing shorter” (without adding more work) to great hacks for streamlining process to the best post you read in 2009 about x. It might be better if you shared stuff that’s really helped you rather than guessing at what might help me; experiences related honestly and kindly (and with humor, if one can muster it) are my preferred method of learning. I love biography; I consider “self-help” a necessary evil when there’s not a readily available biography illuminating the topic. But hey, as long as you comment with good intentions, I say “yay!” and Haiti gets another of my rapidly dwindling pool of dollars.

Thank you for providing this tremendous outlet for growth and change, for helping me feel less greedy about it by allowing me to kick in some (more) dough for a worthy cause, and for helping me take it to the next level.

Whatever the hell that is…


*For me, spending time with fully unbridled creative thinkers is exhilarating and exhausting; doing the same with people who have nothing but rules is, well, okay, usually just exhausting, but kind of fascinating, too, like observing an alien species.

**The Chief Atheist has a great phrase for this exercise as applied to excursions which he calls “going to the Museum”: anytime you have to go somewhere you might otherwise find tedious, off-putting or overwhelming, go as an anthropologist collecting data. Guaranteed to turn even the most moribund gathering into a series of excellent adventures, and helps keep you from jumping out of your skin during the occasional stumble down rabbit holes into alien worlds.

***Eight years later, I note there’s no small irony in my having left his tutelage after being presented with exactly those two choices.

Image by Daquella manera via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

December in January: A goal is something you want to hit

a soccer goal net

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, “December in January,” where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

My friend, Naomi, wrote a post about making unstupid goals whose central thesis has been ringing in my head for the week since I read it:

A goal is something you want to hit.

I’m paraphrasing, as is my wont, but I think it’s a fair translation of Naomi’s philosophy and so let’s work with my version, and do some of that unpacking we spoke of yesterday:

  1. A goal is something YOU want to hit. It’s about the thing you want, not that your mother, the IRS, or your cardiologist wants for you.
  2. A goal is something you WANT to hit. It’s not something you feel obligated to do; you want it, and in the way that makes your heart beat faster with joy and anticipation and promise.

As Naomi admits, there are also things you should do to keep a roof over your kid’s head and yourself out of the emergency room. I’ll add that there are things you might seriously want to think about doing because you will end up alone and despised without them. These are not goals, they’re responsibilities. They fall under the rubric of being a grownup, and to be a grownup, you put on your Big-Girl Pants and TCB.

Jinny Ditzler, author of my beloved and cursed Your Best Year Yet, agrees that goals should be motivating. As she says, when you’re done with the process, the long and often arduous process, of corralling your data and drawing your goals from it, you should look down at that list of 10 things and want to do cartwheels. (I’m paraphrasing again, of course, but I think Jinny would approve.) You should be so fired up about these things that you can’t wait to get started. Doesn’t mean they won’t be every bit as hard to accomplish as the responsibilities are sometimes to bear (or the #@$!( process itself is to get through), but they should be challenging in the good way.

I’d say I didn’t know how I missed that these last two years that I’ve been carving out my goals, but I do: I ignored the obvious. I’m really good at ignoring the obvious, as it turns out; I can do it for two years (and change) and still look like a high-functioning, can-do dynamo of…something-or-other. Like anyone else, I get invested in outcome, attached to comfort and all of a sudden, another two years have gone by and I’m still in the same place.

I am still not 100% sure what My Best Groundhog Year Yet is going to look like exactly. I have a lot of time in airports and on planes and in hotel rooms over the next couple of weeks to think about it. There’s a really good chance that certain things on my dining room table are going to make it onto the final list, though, because I am really excited about them.

I’m excited about reading 52 books. I am loving reading, period, I’d forgotten how much I missed an uninterrupted half-hour or hour daily to read. And while some days I get anxious before picking up my book, thinking about all the things I have to do, and how late I just slept in, and how I could really use that half-hour or hour to do some of them, thus far I’ve been able to gently (for the most part) set that anxiety to the side and just read. (It helps that I’m reading really good books so far!)

I’m excited about continuing to study Nei Kung. It’s only been six weeks so far, but already, I’m so much better at it than any other physical activity I’ve tried. I wanted to be a runner and a bicyclist and a yogini, but I’m just not built for them. Apparently, I’m built like a Chinese martial arts enthusiast. Go figger.

I’m (still) excited about writing on my blog. So you can either rejoice or curse, but I’m not going anywhere. I may change the way I approach the blog, most likely, I will have to, if I want to write anything else, but write, I will.

Other things are more up in the air right now. I have several project ideas starting to shape up; they’ll have to finish baking before I can decide which ones I want to roll with. I also have several concepts I’ve been mulling over, trying to suss out what their corresponding real-world actions are. Is the answer to “piano?” really “piano!” or is is some other manifestation of “music.” I tried and abandoned the 10-minutes-of-guitar-per-day experiment just two months into ’09; while part of me wants to JUST TRY IT AGAIN, another part of me feels that I’m really responding to the cheesy symmetry of 10 in ’10. Once an adhole, always an adhole.

I am curious to hear how other people handle the Exciting Goal vs. Big-Girl-Pants Obligation divide. Which is in each column for you, and how many of each? And how are you carving them up? Part of the reason the 52 books/year jumped to the head of the line was because of Julien’s genius-simple 40pp/day rule. Are there others of these I’m missing?

Whaddya got for me?


Image by ewiemann via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

December in January: Halfway home

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence December in January, where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

I was born in September of 1961, which means that I started the first grade at the tail end of eligibility, back in 1967, which means that while I won’t be turning 50 for another year and a half, I’ll be watching many, many friends do it between now and September of 2011.

While I stopped taking numbers quite so seriously somewhere around 41, when my intestines decided to go south for the winter (they still vacation there from time to time), 50 is so round and so firm and so halfway-to-100 that it’s hard not to sit up and take notice of it. Maybe we feel that way about every rounded-to-ten number (I’ll let you know when and if I do hit 100), but the only way I can describe thinking about 50 is that it has a way of thinking right back at you. It’s objectively impressive in a way that we in our rule-obsessed culture have subjectively made 18 and 21. It’s just there. FIFTY. FIFTY. FIFTY.*

I am taking careful note of what my ever-so-slightly-elders are doing during these 18 or so months rolling up to my own, personal Main Event, because that’s what most of us humans do, I think: we look to each other for cues. Thankfully, I’ve chosen well enough that my friends aren’t doing idiotic, bucket-list things like shooting themselves out of cannons or idiotic, Masters-of-the-Universe-type stuff like scheduling face lifts or destination luaus. No, mostly they’re hitching up their big-boy pants and getting down to business. My friend, Kevin, took a wide view of his life via an interesting collaborative project involving the most meaningful people from his life. Other friends are putting the finishing touches on their families (because who wants to be 60 chasing babies, even if it’s medically possible) or making appointments with the hypnotherapist about that little smoking thing (so hot when you’re 20, so not when you’re 50).

Most of them, of us, are looking at how we want to spend our time on the back nine, and where.

Will we be healthy? Nature and circumstance leave us less and less margin for error, so we step it up a bit, but not in that insane, hell-or-high-water way of our youth. We drop a bad habit, or better yet, quietly replace it with a good one, and keep our fingers crossed, just in case. I cannot work the hours I used to, nor eat the things I did, nor drink the way I did, so I make minor adjustments, then more, then more. To an outsider, my new life may look like nothing much; for me, it is nothing short of revolutionary, this sleeping for eight hours, or reading for one, or almost holding still for half of one.

This, then, is what goal-setting looks like now: not the crazy, brash, bold and hopeful lists of youth, but deep and ruthlessly non-sexy shifts: read more. Sleep more. Eat better. Slow down.

Make room.

Halfway through this December-in-January I’ve conjured up for myself, with “MORE ROOM” as my mantra, I have let go of an astonishing amount of stuff. More than you know, or that anyone will know, and maybe that’s as it should be. The point is no more to die with the fewest toys than the most, and the point is definitely not to advertise it on a bumper sticker. The point seems to be, what do I need to really and truly live every day of my life?

Halfway through December-in-January, things are still messier and dirtier than I’d hoped they’d be at the beginning of it. You will notice that this is not a post filled with items, as was last Monday’s; this is a painstaking and slightly painful admission that while I have been working assiduously at certain things, mostly, the removal of extraneous ones, and the processing of attendant grief, I don’t have a big, shiny plan yet. Halfway through the month. Yet.

Instead, there is a growing field of index cards on my dining room table. The cards say things like “Read 52 books” and “Practice Nei Kung 30 min/daily.” They also say things like “PIANO?” (underlined) and “DRAWING?” (not); they are messy and sprawling and not ready for personal commitment, much less public consumption. Believe me, I wish we were locked and loaded, but we’re not. Change is messy, and frequently painful.**

My Nei Kung instructor, who has much finer motor control and strength and all the other things that practicing a martial art for 20 years will give you, plus the probable advantage of not being in the midst of painful change, gave me a great image at last week’s session: “When one door closes, another one opens, but it’s hell in the hallway.” This is a thing, according to Google, but was new to me.

Halfway home, things may or may not be comfortable. But pretending they are anything other than what they are is even more foolish than it might be a quarter or a third of the way through.



Image by qfamily via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*And if you ladies aren’t impressed enough by FIFTY, there’s always The Change ready to lend a hand. That is, if you haven’t had things changed for you by nature or surgery already. Change happens around your ovaries and your middle and your brain and everything else your hormones have a hand in, which is just about everything. Those hormones, they are nature’s overachievers, boy howdy.

**I will say that real change, while painful and messy, also makes you feel very, very alive. Not good, but alive.

December in January: Backwards to go forwards

retro sign reading "stressed is desserts spelled backwards"

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, December in January, where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

Of all the things I’ve learned about creating meaningful goals, ones that I’m passionate about and that will prove the most useful to me in achieving life goals, by far the most important has been the year-in-review exercise.

Reading Jinny Ditzler’s excellent book on values-centered goal planning, Your Best Year Yet, finally turned me around on the benefits of looking backwards to go forward. It seems so obvious in hindsight (ha!) that to plan for the future without surveying the past is at best wasteful and at worst, downright foolhardy: how can I know where I’m going if I don’t know where I am, and why would I give up any intelligence that helped get me here?

I’ll tell you why, it hurts like crazy. Or does for me, anyway. I’m sure there are reasonable and balanced souls out there who could look objectively and even kindly on their successes and failures of the past 12 months, but for a competitive, perfectionist workaholic, it’s a day-long (minimum) exercise in high-level masochism. All the inevitable broken promises, brought on by overambition, hubris and a plain, old faulty lens. Autistic people can’t parse social situations properly; I can’t see time. Cannot cannot cannot, no matter how hard I try. And remember, I’m a perfectionist Virgo, so not only is there trying, there is assisted trying, paid and free, as well as all kinds of experiments in different ways of trying. Oh, the trying! It’s a trial, I tell you.

The trying, the effortful, effortful trying, was a huge factor in my settling on EASE as a watchword or modus operandi. Or rather, the realization that I work my ass off for and at pretty much everything made it an obvious choice to say “yes” to once it bubbled up to the surface.

But whence the bubbling, right? Because that’s what you’re here for and really, as Dan put it in his scarily incisive comment of last week, this is what I’ve chosen to do here for the past few years, sort of unofficially, as well as what I did with intention from the outset with the Great Year-Long Experiment in Marketing, a.k.a. The Virgo Guide: to carefully and honestly look at the process, and as best I can, to set up metrics so I can see how well things work and where I’m really spending my time.

As best as I can tell, these are the activities that laid the groundwork for making the radical (for me) shift of “December in January” (i.e., choosing to delay my 12-month planning by one month), and the three-month sabbatical from for-hire work in the new year (to be reviewed and renegotiated at the end of March):

  1. Decluttering. I’ve been on this path for a while now, but my big Clearing my (psychic) clutter push in the fall of 2009 really shifted things, with a huge leap when I encountered the work of Brooks Palmer. His book and workshop were a huge influence on me, and our ongoing calls have been a great assist, too. (More on that in a moment.)
  2. Nei Kung. I’d stumbled on James Borrelli’s site a long time ago, and was intrigued by the idea of a practice even more internal than t’ai chi or qigong (which my old acupuncturist, to her credit, kept gently pushing me towards). I’ve been doing Nei Kung practice daily for the past five weeks and the shifts, while not always happy, have already been surprisingly significant. Whether it’s the Nei Kung, all the emotional groundwork done before, committing to a daily physical practice or some combination (most likely, I’m guessing), it’s a definite keeper. Big major shoutout to fellow blogger and Nei Kung enthusiast Alan Furth, who gave me the final nudge to try it. Because it ain’t cheap and I usually am.
  3. Daily walks. I’ve been doing these since The BF first adopted Arnie, roughly two years ago. I can now recognize the sluggishness I get when I miss a day or two. I remember a similar thing happening when I first started walking during my convalescence from the Crohn’s onset in 2002. Again, part of it is the physical, part is probably just the regularity of it.
  4. Monthly shrinkage. Ongoing since 2001. I went weekly for a few years (oh, the good insurance days!), took a break for a bit, and came back for monthly tuneup/checkins. Again, not cheap, but the value of having a sane person to check in with when the compass you shipped with is a wonky one can’t be calculated.
  5. Success Team, EstroFest, Google Wave with Dave and assorted other collaborative ventures. If you don’t have ongoing accountability and support, get it. No one does this alone, no one. It’s good to have friends, too, with their kind, Kleenex-upholstered shoulders (and even as touchstones), but committed, ongoing peer support makes it happen.
  6. Money. I’ve made less and less money each year since I quit acting. (I know, hilarious, right?) Which makes me even happier that I had a fat nest egg to start with. I had a goodly windfall of the bittersweet kind (father dying), but I also had a considerable amount put aside of my own. I have been a squirreler-of-funds since I had nickel #2 to rub together with nickel #1, and have invested in all kinds of crazy people-fueled ventures as well as an IRA and stocks just so I know there’s always something growing, somewhere. (I’m not in a position to invest now, obviously, so don’t bother asking.) Having this cushion gives me the freedom to follow my path. I cannot emphasize that enough!

The above are what I’d characterize as the “positives” that fueled this decision. There were also some negatives, and they’re important, too:

  1. Overcommitting in 2009. My default solution to any problem is to throw more me at it. Unfortunately, there’s less me to go around as I get older (even as there’s more me in certain places), so I’m having to reexamine my methodology. I was extremely burned out by the beginning of December; I could not get enough rest, it felt like. Plus I had such a crowded schedule from a combination of saying “yes” to things, wanting to try things and my natural tendency towards workaholism that there was never any time to step back and reflect. Nothing like being on a hamster wheel of your own creation. I know, I know, they’re ALL of our own creation. Still. Not like I had two kids and a spouse and a boss and a mortgage. A self-employed single person in a rent-controlled apartment? Please.
  2. Dissatisfaction with consulting business model. I love aspects of consulting, but the wear and tear on me is phenomenal. In addition, I know I did a bad job both of managing expectations and establishing boundaries. I had no way of knowing how much I’d suck at certain aspects of this until I tried it (nor of how much I’d enjoy others), so I’m glad I did. If/when I pick it up again, my way of doing it will be very, very different: more clearly defined, better managed and most likely, more expensive. (I’m open to any interesting ideas about this, by the way.)
  3. Unsatisfied yearnings. While I did enjoy running the Biznik meetups, doing the consulting work, co-hosting Presentation Camp, etc., I found the greatest satisfaction in writing, meeting people I really clicked with and spending time with them (most of whom I found via writing and reading) and the little bit of reading I did. I also loved doing so much speaking, but the exhilaration I felt doing the Ignite presentation vs. the business-related presentations. I’m not sure what that means yet in terms of what to do moving forward, but it bears further examination.
  4. Ill health. Fortunately, I had only one major health issue this year, back in the spring, when I pushed myself too hard and strayed too far off my diet. And even more fortunately, I was able to pull myself back without resorting to steroids, as I’ve usually done. Still, this scared the crap out of me, both literally and figuratively. (Ah, Crohn’s! What a delight you are, my little barometer!) I really want to get off of the meds I’m on, and that can’t happen until I’ve implemented much better self-care habits.

There were other indicators that I was drifting into the red zone: alcohol usage creep; laziness/anxiety-fueled poor eating habits; increased nail and cuticle biting; poor sleep; off-the-charts web surfing and viewing of comfort films. I know way too much about the habits of a certain fameball and the people who watch her, and if my copy of Play Misty for Me was an LP, it would be worn smooth. Thank whomever I gave up cable, at least.

Modesty prohibits me making an exhaustive list of what I’d consider to be my successes of the past year, but I did list them, and if I may be immodest for just the one minute, I produced a crapload of work last year, and made many, many breakthroughs. I’m most pleased with the quantity, and quality, of the writing I committed to; that it was the one goal I actually followed through on is rather telling. I fell one post short of my goal of 260, and did not miss a month of my acting column or newsletter, nor a week of posting at the Virgo Guide.

You’d think I’d look at all this and come up with the simple answer to just write my ass off, and to hell with the rest. Alas, the sum total of money I made from writing last year wouldn’t keep me in expenses for more than a month. My savings, while ample enough for now, can’t fund this experiment indefinitely, so I’ll have to figure out how to make money writing, or to make money doing something else with a low mental load so I can reserve strength for writing. The ideal scenario workwise seems to be Gladwellian: a 90/10 or 95/5 ratio of writing to speaking, and always on what interests me. I don’t need nearly the cash our boy Malcolm makes, but I need that ratio.

Is it realistic? Not in year one, and maybe never. At least I have a picture in my head of what the best future looks like, and a start with some role models…


Image by rick via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.