Author Archive: mjdicker

Must Read: Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, and in Rubin I have found a kindred spirit. I resonated with her writing from the very opening of her book:

I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations.

One day I’d stop twisting my hair, and wearing running shoes all the time, and eating exactly the same food every day. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d learn Photoshop, I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d read Shakespeare. I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I’d be more polite, I’d visit museums more often, I wouldn’t be scared to drive.

Doesn’t that grab you immediately and make you say, “Yes, me too!”, substituting your own particulars for “twisting my hair” and “Shakespeare”?

Over a period of twelve months, Rubin set out to become happier in the key areas of her life, including marriage, work, money, and friendship. She sought out the wisdom of ancient philosophers, the latest scientific research, and the sound advice of her friends. In The Happiness Project, she recounts her experiences, the successes and failures and ways that she changed.

As I’ve exclaimed to Darren more than once, “She is me!” (OK, I know that “She is I” is grammatically correct, but come on.) I read him excerpts like this one, in which she takes the words right out of my mouth:

Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up? Inertia, I suppose. Plus there’s the prebed work of taking out my contact lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face.

She says it more eloquently than I do. I usually wail from the couch, “I hate getting ready for bed!”

Rubin has provided the most motivation yet for me to write the Reschool Yourself memoir. Reading something that I could have written, if only I’d had the right words, makes me feel deeply understood and relieved that I’m not alone. It gives me hope that I can change in the ways I want to, just like she did, equipped with the tools to make that happen. I want to give my own readers the same gift.

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What have you read that makes you feel deeply understood?

Oh, the Inertia

It’s the moving boxes that have never gotten unpacked. It’s the cracked windshield that you keep meaning to replace. It’s the blog post that doesn’t get written…and gets harder to start with each passing day.

It’s inertia, “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest.” And that physical object, oftentimes, is me.

The worst part about inertia, in my experience, is that the more time that passes without change, the guiltier I feel. The inertia gets even stronger, and I know that when I finally just do the thing that I’m putting off, the little surge of relief and pride I get for finally crossing it off my list will be overshadowed by deep self-loathing for not just doing it when I was supposed to. Now who would sign up for that?

It’s helpful when there are outside forces that push inert objects into motion. In our last apartment, Darren and I couldn’t let dirty dishes sit in the sink very long because we had a total of three spoons and three bowls to our names (you can guess that it was a bachelor pad before I moved in). If we didn’t wash them, we’d have to resort to pouring our morning milk and cereal directly into our mouths. Even worse, there are cockroaches in the South that invade even the cleanest of homes, and it’s unwise to tempt fate.

Loved ones and coworkers are also good for nudging, or shoving, you through the inertia. Reminders and deadlines help. So does the exasperation of a partner. I’ve gotten so fed up with a couple of Darren’s old boxes that I’ve just dumped their contents on the living room floor. He has to help me sort through them if he wants to rescue items like his beloved Daredevil action figure from the giveaway pile. (Darren just said to me, “We did save that, right?” Yep, you did!)

For me, the thing that builds the most inertia is this very project, Reschool Yourself. It’s been nearly six months since my last post, and it’s been two and a half years since I finished the RSY experience. The book has been knocking around the inside of my head since then. To gear up for writing it, I’ve read other project-based memoirs like Julie and Julia for inspiration; I’ve gone to creative nonfiction workshops; I’ve written a proposal and bits and pieces of narrative; I’ve made contact with a few great literary agents.

So now it’s time to stop preparing to write the thing and just do it already. I hope it’s published. But even if it’s not, it will free up a lot of bandwidth that’s currently tied up in thinking and fretting and feeling guilty about it. Best of all, once the book is done, whether the big publishing houses love it or not, I can share it with people who have said that they could really use it. One told me, “This book needs to be in the world,” which was just the kind of loving nudge that I needed.

So here’s to blowing the dust off old projects and breathing new life into them. With each breath comes another step forward.

My Other Blog: Eat, Drink and Be Married

If you’re so inclined, check out my other blog, www.eatdrinkandbemarried.com. It’s not only a wedding blog, although I do write about the planning for my wedding next month. It’s about the finer things in life: eating, drinking, and love. It’s also about the work-from-anywhere lifestyle that Darren and I are building for ourselves.

Darren writes for the blog occasionally, to give a dude’s perspective on matters of lifestyle and love. When he told me he was writing a post called “How I Knew I Was Ready,” I was touched; I thought he’d share how he knew I was The One. Instead, he wrote a few practical paragraphs about how our income and small business were finally stable enough for us to start wedding planning. How romantic! I gave him crap about this until he posted a more heartfelt addendum.

Let us know what you think of Eat, Drink and Be Married!

Top 10 Themes of My 2011 Vision Collage

The reason that I look forward to the New Year isn’t champagne, or the national holiday. It’s the chance to make a fresh start with a new vision collage.

Last year Darren, my friend Jamie, and I got together to make collages and presented them to each other. On New Year’s Day this year, we shared our 2010 collages again before explaining our new ones. There’s something about cutting out a picture of what you want to create in your life and gluing it to posterboard that brings you closer to it. I found it fascinating how we’d achieved most of our 2010 goals (see mine here). Jamie found the man she wants to marry, and I got engaged to mine. Darren launched Creative Distillery, our creative agency, and he ate a steak (yes, that was actually one of his goals).

It’s also fun to see how each person’s collage reflects his or her personality. Darren’s was so graphically stylish that it could hang in a modern art museum. Jamie’s was organized and precise. Mine was colorful and filled the entire canvas.

Darren's vision collage is a work of art

Darren's vision collage is a work of art

Here are this year’s Top 10 Themes of my vision collage:

1. Blessings. The words in the center are from “Real Simple,” which asked its readers to name what they were grateful for, then compiled their answers. Glancing at these words remind me to be thankful for blessings like my family, laughter, Friday, and chocolate.

2. Personal strength. I’m committed to taking up more space in a room (figuratively, not physically!). We could all learn something from Oprah. She is a role model who capitalizes on her own power and uses it to help other people become their fullest selves.

3. Pitching and publishing. I’m pitching the “Reschool Yourself” book at the Writer’s Digest conference in New York tomorrow. I’ve decided that 2011 is the year that I make the book happen.

4. Personal finance. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to manage my money. Look at George. He’s happy. I will be happier, too, when I become better friends with him.

5. Healthy lifestyle. This has vastly improved since I moved to Mississippi, but I still could enjoy the outdoors more often, have coffee with my girlfriends, laugh about my kittens’ antics, stretch, sleep, and smile.

6. Explore the South. I often travel outside the state but haven’t explored many nearby destinations. This year I’d like to take scenic drives to Natchez, Oxford, Memphis, and the Gulf Coast.

7. Appearance. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to wear at least one accessory per day, even if I’m working from home. Dressing up a little makes me feel good about myself and more pulled together.

8. Organization. “Declutter Your Life” is another ongoing challenge for me. I’ve invested in Rubbermaid tubs and filing cabinets to clear clutter from surfaces, and I usually abide by my friend Sara’s “touch mail once” rule. Dealing with it right away prevents those dreaded stacks of old mail that stick around for ages.

9. Volunteering. The picture of the little girl represents my desire to volunteer. Those of us who work for nonprofits tend to think that our paid work takes the place of volunteering, but there’s something different about giving one’s time for nothing but the joy of it. I think I’d like to read to children. I miss being around them.

10. Training my brain. With all the distractions I deal with every day, my focus and memory have suffered. I firmly believe that you can get a flabby brain into shape, so I’ve bought new books of crossword puzzles and brain teasers to do just that. I’ll be refreshing my Spanish to help scale up IDEA’s education work in Puerto Rico. There’s nothing like learning a foreign language to exercise one’s mind.

I’m going to hang the collage above my desk, as I did last year, to put me back on track when I lose my way. I’m already looking forward to next year’s collage so I can see what I was able to manifest in my life.

***

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

Have you done a vision collage or a vision board? What was your experience like?

Reschooling in History: My Grandpa Remembers the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

It’s December 7th, and for most of us it’s just another day. But for my grandpa Bill, my mom’s father, it is “a day which will live in infamy.” This is how President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the day on which Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on a quiet Sunday morning in 1941.

Recently, I interviewed my grandpa, whom I call Gung Gung (“Grandpa” in Cantonese), to document his experiences that day and the months that followed. Our conversation was a helpful part of my reschooling: unlike many of my history classes, it was meaningful, story-based, and personally relevant. It also helped me appreciate the value of hard work and security. Here is an excerpt of the piece.

***

These are some things that my grandpa Bill likes: A $1.99 roast beef sandwich at Arby’s. The plastic forks that he keeps in a kitchen drawer, just in case. The cup of coffee at McDonald’s he gets each day with his senior citizen discount. He has always provided well for me and the rest of his family, and at the same time, nothing makes him smile like a good deal.

My mom’s father is a triple threat of thriftiness: he’s a senior citizen, he’s Chinese (a culture known for being frugal) and he came of age in Depression-era Hawaii. It wasn’t until I interviewed him about a major event in his life that I understood the roots of his “waste not, want not” values.

In December 1941, my grandpa was living in Hawaii, seven miles from Pearl Harbor on the morning it was bombed. This is his story.

***

One early Sunday morning after church, Bill was eating breakfast by himself in his family’s modest dining room when he heard loud noises outside. They came sporadically and sounded like cannon fire. He didn’t pay much attention at first, because the military bases nearby would often fire cannons in practice drills called “maneuvers.” Bill, a 17-year-old high school student known for his slick black hair and big smile, kept on eating.

As the thundering sounds continued, it occurred to Bill that they were abnormally loud, and that one came quickly after the other. He realized that the cannons never fired practice rounds that early on a Sunday morning. When the sounds kept coming, he knew that something was wrong. He gobbled down the rest of his food, jumped up, and ran out the front door and down the porch steps to see what was happening.

The date was December 7, 1941. What Bill had heard were bombs that Japanese planes had dropped over Pearl Harbor, and U.S. cannons firing back at them. The attack had taken Hawaii—and the rest of America—completely by surprise.

The cannon fire continued as Bill dashed down his front steps and out into the street to investigate. People were beginning to run out of the open doors of their homes, stepping outside their picket fences to look up at the sky. Some looked half-asleep, having been awakened by loud noises. They seemed more curious than afraid, looking toward the horizon for an explanation. Bill and his neighbors could see black smoke billowing up to the sky from the direction of Pearl Harbor.

Soon, the neighbors who had radios in their homes came outside to share the news with their neighbors: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. They had sunk the USS Arizona, a Navy battleship, and killed an untold number of service members.

“This is not a drill,” the radio announcer said. “This is the Real McCoy. Take cover.”

(more…)

Why I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving

Before undergoing surgery this past Monday, I had to face my own mortality.

The procedure was routine: my OB-GYN would be removing a large cyst from my left ovary. Even though it wasn’t a high-risk surgery, one of the nurses recommended that I fill out an Advance Health-Care Directive anyway. The 10-page document asked me to name one agent and two alternate agents who would be able to make health care decisions for me, should I become incapacitated. The night before surgery, I sat at my desk puzzling over lines like this and deciding what to keep or cross out:

(a) Choice Not to Prolong Life

I do not want my life to be prolonged if (i) I have an incurable and irreversible condition that will result in my death within a relatively short time, (ii) I become unconscious and, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, I will not regain consciousness, or (iii) the likely risks and burdens of treatment would outweigh the expected benefits.

This kind of thing did not help me feel less nervous about the surgery.

My friends who had been through ovarian cyst removal, laparoscopic or otherwise, told me that the procedure was common. The doc told me that, too. But I couldn’t get out of my head a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” in which a young patient slips into a coma after a routine procedure, and her husband has to pull the plug. Damn you, Grey’s.

Thinking about the possibility of dying on the operating table clouded my eyes with tears. I feel as if I have so much more to do on this earth before my time is up.

I also can’t bear the thought of leaving Darren alone. Who would make sure that he eats breakfast and exercises regularly? Who would get him to talk about his feelings? I wanted to tell him, “Please promise that you’ll remarry if anything should happen to me,” but I didn’t think that would do his nerves any favors. He had seen the death-by-routine-surgery episode of Grey’s, too.

Despite all these worrisome thoughts, the upside of staring fate in the eye was the chance to reflect on my life so far. It’s not often that I ask myself big, important questions, like these:

  • To what extent have I done my best here?
  • What do I regret?
  • What will I do differently from this point on?

Fortunately, I do feel good about how I’ve lived so far: putting my gifts to work to improve education, and being a loving friend and partner most of the time. When I’ve made mistakes, I’ve tried to set them right.

While I was drowning in regrets before I started Reschool Yourself, I’ve learned to let them go. I’ve done the best I could with what I’ve had. Every decision I’ve made has led up to the moment I’m in now, and I’m happy to be here.

Going forward, I’m re-committing myself to not sweating the small stuff. That goal alone will keep me busy for a lifetime.

So, with all this going through my head, I talked over the Advance Health-Care Directive form with Darren and signed it, listing him as the primary agent.

The next day, the surgery went smoothly, despite one twist: I had a grapefruit-sized cyst on the right ovary, as well as the left one. In addition, there was a lot of endometriosis on the left side, which can interfere with fertility. The doctor removed everything that didn’t belong and sent me home that evening to recover. I see him in two weeks and hope to find out more then.

Even though I am left with many questions — will the cyst biopsy come back negative, as expected? will the cysts come back? will I be able to have children, and will I need to have them soon? — I feel thankful beyond words. I’m thankful to be alive, to have kept both my ovaries, to be marrying my dream guy, and to have friends and family who have showered me with supportive words and thoughtful gifts while I’m recovering.

Above all, I’m thankful that no matter what hardship I may have to face in the future, I know for certain that I won’t be facing it alone.

Get on That Pig and Hold on Tight

Not too long ago, Darren cheered me up during a stressful morning by showing me this video:

How awesomely ridiculous is that? Singer-songwriter Parry Gripp writes soundtracks to Internet memes and makes up names for them that include “Spaghetti Cat (I Weep for You).”

The Baby Monkey video was pretty much custom made for me. Seriously. Before I saw this video, I told Darren that my favorite animal in the world would be a baby monkey riding on the back of a baby goat. (You can tell that Darren and I get a little silly when we spend all day, every day, in the house by ourselves.) This video is the closest thing I’ve seen to my dream pet.

This morning, knowing I was stressed out, Darren looked me in the eye with a straight face and said, “I’ve been thinking, and I have some advice for you: Get on that pig and hold on tight.”

And this is why I love Darren. He finds a way to make a life lesson out of things like Baby Monkey going backwards on a pig.

The full lyric goes like this:

the world has gone insane
and you don’t know what is right
you got to keep on keepin’ on
get on that pig and hold on tight

Things are all over the place right now, so I could really use a dose of that wisdom.

Exhibit A: Our adopted boy cat that gave birth to kittens.

About a month ago, Darren and I adopted a stray black cat that was living under our porch. Neither of us has had pets before. The vet told me it was a boy, and we named it Benny.

Exactly one week later, I woke up in the morning to find that the cat had delivered three kittens. Into the litter box. How bizarre, right? It was just like an episode of the reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”

(more…)

Unraveling the Anger Ball

It might be the Southern summer heat, or the way it’s kept me cooped up inside, but I’ve been a bit of an anger ball lately. “Anger ball” is a wonderful term from a wonderful movie, “Playing by Heart,” and it perfectly describes the way I’ve been feeling for the past week or so. My general irritability reaches a boiling point quickly, at which point my blood pressure hits the roof.

I’m generally content with the path I’m on in life. But recently I’ve had minimal patience for life’s little hassles, which can instantly trigger some very black moods. Today it happened when I was writing an email to a client of Darren’s and mine and asked for his editing help. This turned out like it did when I used to ask my mom to edit my high school essays, and they came back marked up with red ink. Much scowling ensued.

Me to Darren: Will you take a look at this email before I send it?

Darren: Yeah! (Reading the email) I think that you could emphasize X here instead of Y….

Me: (Giving him the evil eye) Well, why don’t you send it yourself, then? I’m late for yoga. (Storms off)

(more…)

Reschooling Tool #23: Vision Collage

As much as I’ve intended to blog regularly, life has gotten in the way since last November. One of the main obstacles is that I’ve been doing writing and other communications for a living, and I don’t have a lot of energy left for my own writing. Plus, when too much time passes between posts there seems to be too much to say, so I don’t say anything at all. C’est la vie. Here I am now.

The months since December have been so wild for me that I can best explain them in terms of my vision collage. This is an exercise that I like to do around New Year’s, to visualize what I want for my life in the coming 12 months, and to set my intentions accordingly. And guess what? It seems to work.

Here’s what I put in my collage, and how it’s showed up in my life since January.

1. Play. The photo in the upper left corner shows children puddle jumping, with the words “Youth is in your genes. Reactivate it.”

I’m lucky that Darren and I work from home and can be goofy with each other throughout the day. He loves five-year-old potty humor almost as much as I do, which helps.

(more…)