The wild dogs in my heart

A long time ago, probably before you were born, I lived in another city. My apartment and my office were at opposite ends of the same major street, so I took a bus to and from work weekdays. Some evenings I would get off the bus a few blocks before my home stop, to visit the local grocery store. And some others, I would take a different bus – not for the change of scenery, but because it stopped right in front of the library.

I’d jump off the bus and practically run into the library. I love libraries, and this one was great. And I remember, one evening, just as I was leaving, I passed the table of new books and saw one by Jane Goodall. It was about wild dogs in Africa. I don’t remember the title – it was possibly The Innocent Killers, which she wrote with Hugo van Lawick – but the reason I mention it here is that I was stunned that someone would voluntarily go to absolute nowhere and study wild dogs, just because they spoke to her from within her heart.

That concept was foreign to me at the time. In many ways, it still is.

At the time, I was a media director for an advertising agency in a posh suburb. The pay wasn’t great but the title carried a lot of cachet and what I didn’t get in my paycheck was made up in cocktails, 2-hour lunches and tickets to sporting events. I had a great wardrobe and a nice address, even if I didn’t have the luxury car (still taking the bus, remember). And I thought I was happy, but I wasn’t. I was using all of that external shit to numb the pain of not listening to the wild dogs that spoke from my heart.

Now part of the problem was, I could not have heard those dogs, even if they were howling out loud. I grew up in an environment where external things were very important and internal longings were hushed up because they would not get you any attention, and they surely wouldn’t get you an income. This was drilled into me probably from infancy on, so I lived in my ego for decades.

Even after I left the advertising agency, found someone who could love me in spite of myself, and started a new life, I still based my wants and needs on getting attention and getting an income. I made a lot of money and a lot of mistakes. Although my ego kept me alive for so many years, it didn’t keep me happy. Stupid as it sounds, it is only now that I have retired that I so crave hearing those howls from my heart that tell me what I want to do with my life. And I can’t hear too well. I only get little, faraway sounds.

Right now, the sounds say I must write. But I am also hearing other things, other wild dogs that I want to study. The sounds get louder as I focus on listening for them.

So I will continue to write, but I will also listen for the other yips and yaps and pay attention to them. Jane Goodall was right all those years ago. Even buried in the absolute nowhere of Africa, her life has been bigger and better and more important than mine in so many ways. Because she followed the wild dogs in her heart, instead of her ego.

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And Back Again: I Write Anyway

I bring my work forth
Blooming in the hot hard street
Lotus in asphalt

Well, that’s a tad melodramatic, but you get the picture. The reason you haven’t heard from me all summer is that I finished a piece in the spring, had it critiqued, made the changes, was delighted with the results, and sent it to the contests to see how it would do.

It was roundly hated. By everyone. I mean Everyone. Comments ranged from the kind-but-negative, to “good for a first effort” (it is probably my 20th script, and the 30th rewrite of that) to the “don’t enter this contest until you learn how to write a script” snarky meanness.

It’s hard to write anything after that, even a grocery list. It threw me into a phase of “not good enough, never good enough,” and so, over the summer, my blog posts were written, rewritten, edited, redacted and scrapped.

And now I am back to the drawing board. I mean, how can I do better than the best work I’ve ever done? I’ve analyzed the problem from a lot of different angles and come up with several takeaways:

1. I can’t not write. It is part of what I do and who I am. So I will write anyway. But it breaks my heart to know that some of my stories will never be told – not because I didn’t write them, but because no one thinks them worthy of an audience.

2. Take more classes? Wow, not really an option right now, financially. Wish I could.

3. Change genres. Probably a good bet. Recently I read that a writer who sticks to one genre does better (because her practice at that genre makes her more proficient). Therefore I will, in all likelihood, go back to doing the stuff I am better at. Like ending sentences with prepositions.

And that’s it. Be on the lookout for the blogs to return. Know that I will share the writing success (or not) with you, and if I can find out why (or why not) something is successful, I will share that too, so we can all be better writers.

Have you ever had criticism of your work that made you feel like quitting? What did you do?

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She’s Baack!

Reasons why I haven’t written:

I couldn’t find my laptop
My right hand was paralyzed
I went temporarily blind
I was incommunicado in Fiji
I’m lazy as hell

Although the last one is probably closest to the truth, the truth is that the post I want to write was – is – very difficult and so inertia set in.

Fact is, folks, I’m changing my game and so the blog posts from here on will be different. They will be more about writing, and more about how I feel inside and how that translates to the page.

It started off easy because I just came off some successes, a couple of plays that were presented in Santa Fe last week. The talk afterwards was encouraging and any kind of encouragement is a shot in the arm for a writer. Along with that, I’ve been on a binge to (1) finish a couple of projects and (2) send them to places where they can be seen and/or heard. One is a children’s book, and one is the adaptation of a stage play into a screenplay.

It turned hard because I want to re-focus my writing into work that will help heal the world – bring people together instead of dividing them, showing their differences, making them afraid of each other and wedging them apart. I believe in bringing them together, and I’ve discarded several projects recently because they don’t fit this focus. (Geez, it only took me fifty years to discover that it’s about the work, it’s not about me.) Meanwhile, I will back up everything and grab the thumb drive in case the zombies invade.

So I’m gonna march down this road for a while. Who’s with me?

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What’s Past is Prologue (Lifehacking at 50+)

Are we each the product of our individual past, or can we overcome our past to become better people? There’s a lot of buzz every January around resolutions, promises to do better, etc. – and I wrote about this before – but this time I want to take a different slant.
We hear tales every day of people who rose from terrible backgrounds to be successful – plus loving and giving. We also, sadly, hear about those who turned out bad because of the way they were raised/conditions they grew up in.
I read someone the other day who wrote: Embrace your past. It is part of who you are.
Well, that may be. But the person I was, growing up, is way far from the person I want to be now. If I utilize my past at all in my personal growth, it will be as an example of What Not To Do.
So while my past may be part of who I am – to teach me to be the exact opposite now of what I was back then – I will NEVER embrace it, because that girl was not someone I want to be in the same room with.
Either way, know this: THE STIGMA STAYS. Ebenezer Scrooge turned out in the end to be a nice guy (“Scrooge was as good as his word”). But he is nonetheless viewed as a tyrannical miser. To this day, we use his name as a pejorative: That guy is so mean, he’s a real Scrooge.
So even if you do a complete 180, you probably won’t be given credit for it.
Does that matter to you?
Is it worth it anyway?
Is it possible for someone to change that radically?
Or – as the saying goes – do we, the older we get, become more of who we really are?

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Perfeckshun (Lifehacking at 50+)

Paradox #2. This is gonna be short, because I don’t know how to answer the question.

I’m a writer, and writers are always told, “your work must be as perfect as you can get it before you submit it. Other, better writers are submitting too, and you must outshine them to be produced/published.”

But on the other hand, we’re also told, “don’t let the tyranny of perfection get in your way. Endless revision can be the death of your work. Get it out there into the marketplace.”

Which is right? I’ve touched on this before when I talked about When Is Good Enough Good Enough. But Mom always said, any job worth doing is worth doing right, so I’m still looking at it.

And because of Mom, I’ve been a perfectionist all my life. Is it holding me back? I have, on occasion (usually when faced with an emergency deadline), submitted substandard work, only to find I’ve shot myself in the foot – ended up worse off than if I had missed the deadline, or not submitted at all. Because in submitting less-than-perfect work, I’ve ruined my reputation with too many decision-makers by turning in the easy reach, the hastily-put-together, the flat and pedestrian, rather than saying, “I can’t meet your cutoff date.” So I agonize over perfection with each submission, and while I don’t think I tarnish my name much any more, I wonder if I’m obsessing over things like using “and” instead of “but.”

Has being a perfectionist ever held you back? Have you knowingly submitted substandard work, and how did that turn out for you? If it worked, what was the key element that overcame the perfection gaps?

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Acting As If (Lifehacking at 50+)

Paradox Number One. So here’s the deal: I am continually reminded that I am going to get NOWHERE in life if I don’t get some confidence. I’m going to leave out the part about my brutal childhood in a coal factory somewhere in Victorian England, which damaged my self-esteem beyond repair. I’m merely going to reiterate that my self-esteem was damaged beyond repair, and that I have a hard time with the confidence thing.
I’m also going to leave out the part about having my own television show, going to India on my own, working in Los Angeles or buying a house with my IRA. Those things all terrified me and left scars that no one is ever going to see.
No, I’m talking about the simple, day-to-day reminder that I really must grow a backbone, if not some balls, in order to succeed at what it is I want to do. I must be more aggressive, take the lead, step up, put myself out there, and other clichés ad nauseam.
The paradox comes when I screw up. Because, as Joseph Hallinan says in Why We Make Mistakes (Broadway Books, 2009) “…overconfidence is the leading cause of human error.”
In my case, that’s ugly-true.
Every time I start to think I know even a little about something, I commit some kind of huge social faux pas over it, and ruin my chances of getting close to the person I was discussing it with. Or, if I really am an expert at it, I steamroll the conversation and piss off the person I was talking to. Think I know about investing? And lost a fortune in the crash. I’m a good driver? I totaled my car last month. State an opinion on politics? Forget it, I can’t argue coherently. I’m forever giving help where it isn’t needed, advice where it isn’t wanted, or else I’m stuck to the wallpaper like congealed gravy, or swept up like last week’s dried mud.
That leaves me scared to make the phone call, scared to pull onto the freeway, scared to buy anything until I’ve researched it for weeks. Petrified to go to the social function, ask a stranger out for coffee, even Tweet or post on Facebook.
I don’t know where to draw the line. I’ve been told that if there’s something I don’t know or have, and I need to be confident, I should act “as if.” As if I know or have whatever it is that I’m lacking. Act as if I know how to write a novel. Act as if I have several million in the bank. Act as if I know how to direct a tv show (okay, actually, I do know that).
But where do I – or you, or anyone – grab onto something and say, “this is acting as if,” “this is being confident,” and “this is being over confident”?
How do I tell the difference?
A long time ago, in an otherwise-busy intersection, I saw a barricade sign which read:
Except that a graffiti artist – with supreme confidence, no doubt – had crossed out ALTERNATE ROUTE and painted in FALSE BRAVADO.
I’d love to do that – substitute false bravado in every case where the road gets a little shaky. But too many times, that false bravado has let me down.

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Of Michigan J. Frog (Lifehacking at 50+)

It was the weirdest thing. Every other morning at 5:00 – maybe 5:02 – I would be awakened by this wailing noise outside my window. It sounded like a siren gone bad, or maybe some electronic nightmare warble: waah-oooh-waah-oooh-uh-uh-uh-waah…

I thought at first that it might be the start of a shift at the cement plant not too far from us. Maybe their “factory whistle” had gone haywire or something. Then I worried that it might be a tornado siren. But when I got out of bed and stuck my head out the window, it sounded like it came from my own back yard.

I even went out there one morning and narrowed it down to a particular juniper bush, and determined that it must be from the irrigation system watering the bush.

Then I started the horrendous task of trying to get the noise to happen when someone else was listening. Now this is like when I take my car in to a repair person, say “it’s making a funny noise,” and it doesn’t. The mechanic looks at me like I’m high – again.

Or when I take my computer to Vu, Emperor of All Things Cyber, and say “it makes this sound when I…” Vu (who is the best for computers, or I wouldn’t be going to him) patronizes and says, “Uh huh.” Because he can’t hear it.

Because the irrigation system wouldn’t make the sound. Not for my husband, not for the irrigation lady, not for anyone. I was so frustrated, I was nearly in tears. Not to mention sleep-deprived. I was wailing myself – “I am not imagining this!”

Warner Brothers had for years a cartoon character, Michigan J. Frog. Some of you might remember him. He was this very ordinary pond-variety frog, except that when no one else was around but one guy, he would put on a top hat, grab a cane, and sing Vaudeville tunes.

The guy tries to convince others of the singing frog, but when there are other people around, the frog won’t sing.

Standing in the back yard with the irrigation lady, I felt like that one guy, trying to explain about the singing frog. But she’s the very soul of customer service, so she said, “Let’s do this. Let’s re-create the exact conditions of when you hear this. Turn off your dishwasher and tell your husband no toilet flushing for ten minutes. Then let’s run the irrigation system and watch – or rather, listen.”

So we did. And it worked. She actually heard the noise, actually grabbed the piece of pipe that was wailing and made it worse, and then we turned off the water and she fixed the problem. (She is also the best for irrigation systems, or I wouldn’t be using her.)

The moral, I guess, is that you have to believe in yourself – and what you know to be happening – enough to be willing to appear foolish the first few times, until it happens again with an audience.

Has this ever happened to you – that you can’t re-create a problem, or a wonder, in front of others?

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You can’t fire me, I quit (Lifehacking at 50+)

My massage therapist fired me.
She said I didn’t get massages often enough to help the kinks out of my back – That the occasional massage may feel good at the time, but within a day or two the knots return, and if it’s another month (or two!) until the next massage, it’s like she hasn’t done anything at all.
She said coming to her so seldom (read: when I can afford it) is a waste of my time and money.
So we didn’t book the next session, and I guess we won’t.
But I have all these questions. First, is it true that getting a massage – say, quarterly – doesn’t do anything to work the lumps out of the muscles? Surely it must do more – like move the sluggish fluids around (she always said to drink lots of water following a massage) and relaxing the whole bod. It must have some therapeutic value, no?
Second, was she being (a) truthful (b) realistic and (c) looking out for my resources, or was she trying to up-sell a standing appointment of once a week? If that was her goal, it backfired; I can’t afford once a week. Well, maybe I can, but I choose not to.
Or third, was there some other reason she doesn’t want me to come back? I did take a shower, but maybe I still smell like dandruff shampoo; or maybe I didn’t shave my legs close enough. Or she doesn’t want to talk to me while she’s doing bodywork.
I have been fired by hairdressers, cleaning ladies and pedicurists (that last one I can understand – my feet are disgusting). I have fired doctors, dogsitters, and a private investigator, once. But in every instance the reason for the break was clear.
This time it isn’t.
Have you ever been fired by a service person? Told not to bother coming back? How did you handle it?

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A Sense of Zinc (Lifehacking at 50+)

When I was three years old (or so, they tell me), I found some spare change on my dad’s night table and sat down to play with it. As kids will do (and as I did frequently) (they tell me), I put a penny in my mouth. I remember the taste of copper and dirt and – something else, salt or something – and I remember swallowing it.

I also remember knowing that I was going to be in a heap of trouble. And I was.

The doctor, of course, looked at the x-ray and told my mom that the penny would find its way out in a couple of days, and not to worry.

But everyone did worry, because back then, there were still zinc pennies in circulation. Now these were a big deal in 1943 during WWII because the copper was needed for the war effort. But some of them were still floating around when I developed a taste (literally) for money.

And zinc, in large concentrations, can be toxic. So they watched. And waited. And the penny did come out all right, and it was copper, and everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Fast-forward to about ten years ago. I noticed that nothing smells right any more. My nose was out of kilter. The doc (different doc, of course) told me not to worry (they’re very big on that), but that I was losing my sense of smell due to age.

“I’m not that old,” I argued.

“Then it’s probably a lack of zinc in your system,” she said.

So I tried zinc supplements, but they did indeed make me sick if I took them in full strength. I would reach the point of zinc toxicity very quickly, and then back off.

But an interesting thing happened: every day, for about fifteen minutes, I could smell.

So I’ve done some experiments with zinc tabs, and found a dosage that I can tolerate, for the sake of being able to smell for fifteen minutes each day.

Some days it’s terrible: diesel fumes, wet dogs, fermenting garbage. But others – this morning, for example – it’s spring flowers, pine trees, and the lovely, heady perfume of morning rain.

As I write this, I am back to not being able to smell. But I look forward to tomorrow.

If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would you lose?

And what would you sacrifice to have it back, even for fifteen minutes a day?

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When is “Good Enough” good enough? (Lifehacking at 50+)

It seems like these days, we’re caught up in evaluation. No matter what we’ve done, we have to go over it – either by ourselves or with others – to see if we did a good job, and how we can do it better the next time. Sports fans call it Monday Morning Quarterbacking. The military calls it After Action Reviews, or AARs. More and more, I’m calling it a waste of time.

Because I refuse to get into a cycle of evaluating everything, and finding that Nothing Is Ever Good Enough, Everything Could Be Better. This business of constantly saying “You could have done better,” or – even more damaging – “I could have done better” is tearing down a lot of people I know. While I worked in Corporate America, I sat in too many meetings where ham-fisted management tore well-meaning workers (me included) to shreds by way of evaluation. Never Good Enough, and never praise. Only “You could have done better.” (Not going to get into grading systems here, or merit pay, or benchmarks like that. I’m just saying that endless evaluation, this feeling you are Never Good Enough, will kill your motivation quicker than any merit pay grid.) As if anything less than perfect is slacking.

Then people start applying it to their lives, their material things, their entertainment, their circle of friends, their children, their careers. And I’ve actually had people say to me, “Nothing is ever good enough.”

I can’t live in a world where nothing is ever good enough.

In my life now, there is such a thing as Good Enough. If I serve a good meal to my dinner party, but perhaps the mashed potatoes were lumpy, too bad; the mashed potatoes weren’t the point of the effort, so the meal was Good Enough. If everyone had a good time, that’s what counts. If I can’t get the weeds out of my front yard by summer, no matter; I was probably off doing something more worthwhile. I was putting my resources into something that matters more to me. And if I do my best, then, most of the time it is Good Enough.

Oh, once in a while, I will discover – after I’ve done something – that my best wasn’t good enough, and that there would have been a better way to do it. Maybe an evaluation is called for then: will I do this particular thing again? I might. Can I incorporate that better way into it? Maybe.

But even then, sometimes the extra time, muscles and money that I’d have to expend shift it into the category of Not Worth My While = Good Enough The Way It Is.

I guess I bring this up now because I don’t want to get to the end of my life and start The Evaluation, and realize that I just Never Was Good Enough. Or that my efforts were all half-hearted or lacking in some way. I work hard and give it my best where it counts. And on the other stuff? I can live with…Good Enough.

Can you live with Good Enough? Can you settle for less than perfect and be happy?

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