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February 22, 2011

The trite stuff

Thank you for the abundant suggestions and input about both the masthead and the eReader dilemma. As far as the masthead goes, I personally love the mysterious be-knitted brunette. Next time I'm procrastinating on something else I might add in one of her equally minxlike model friends and update the text but overall I think the design is just dippy enough for the important content of cat poo and navel gazing.

The eReader comments were fascinating! Even just a few years ago that conversation would have been about a minute and a half long. I'm impressed with all the early adopters out there and I was happy to hear from the folks who admitted they didn't want to like an eReading device but had fallen in love with one. All of this helped me make an immediate decision to not decide. I already have an iphone that I love (I call it "my Scrabble machine") and a netbook that I adore so I think I can hold off on an ipad until the money fairy arrives. I still want an eReader but when I start to get wrapped up in a decision and stall usually one of two things is happening: I am either trapped in a morass of weird rules I made up for myself (like the cauliflower incident) or I am focusing intently on something I don't really need as a way of avoiding other stuff in my life (eReader paralysis).

In a rare moment of clarity I realized that the answer is not to buy some new gadget, at least not today. I'm not traveling a lot, I don't commute and I have way more time on my hands than money. So I'm going to take some of that time and re-arrange all my books, pulling aside all the unread books -- and there are a LOT of unread books in my collection -- and creating one whole section of the shelves just for unread titles. When I get the urge to go buy something new to read I'm going to check out my own personal bookstore. Ideally there will also be some culling and paring down going on along with the re-arranging.

That is one of the selfhelpiest decisions I have made in a long while. Yay me.

- - -

Self-help has all kinds of relatives. There is its close cousin called The Happiness Movement, led by folks like Dr. Richard Carlson and Dan Buettner (though my favorite is probably Gretchen Rubin, whose book The Happiness Project is fantastic.) There's also the Declutter branch of the self-help family, a movement that started under the vague umbrella of "Simple Living" which has grown into TV shows and newsletters and websites and a whole arm of publishing. My favorite in this area is my friend Erin Doland. Her website Unclutterer is just addictive and her book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, is actually inspiring. I'll have to remember to re-read it when I am going through all my books, a little motivation may be in order.

Self Help's brunette twin sister is the world of sports psychology. Until this morning I hadn't thought about fitness-flavored self help in a LONG time, years probably. Perhaps I've been too busy navel-gazing and recluttering and carrying on. But sporty spice selfhelpyness was once my favorite kind, and it helped keep me sane during the Los Angeles assimilation process.

When I first moved to L.A. I had a job working at the Daily News. There were about five or six other people in the newsroom who were close to my age (I was the youngest, I think) and we all started hanging out together in a sort of misery-loves-company arrangement. The newsroom was brutal, and we formed into a small pack of very well-groomed wolves. During that time my friend Patty got assigned a story about a local athlete who started the Tae Bo fitness craze. She didn't want to go to the Tae Bo class by herself so few of us volunteered to go with her. Since the classes were held in Sherman Oaks (The Billy Blanks World Training Center! Yo!) we all convened in my awesome 500-square-foot Sherman Oaks apartment that literally looked out over the 101 freeway and we carpooled to the gym (a very un-L.A. thing to do, I now realize. But there was NO parking at the Billy Blanks World Training Center and Strip Mall with Dry Cleaners).

That first class completely kicked my butt. It wasn't the exercise as much as the heat. It was an unbearable sweatbox. The workout room of the gym stayed heated like a Bikram yoga class and the sheer amount of people working out in such a small, hot room caused a moist, dense blanket of condensation to hug the walls and drip down the plate-glass windows. I didn't develop my full-blown germaphobia until years later but I hated the heat. It was like working out at noon on a Louisiana summer day.

I didn't die. I did, however, discover that the high I got from surviving class and not actually collapsing and dying of cardiac arrest was amazing.

My friend Patty filed her story and never went back. She and a couple of the other girls made fun of the big, colorful posters that lined every inch of the gym's non-mirrored spaces. The posters were full of the sporty inspirational stuff we used to decorate my sorority dorm with, sayings like "Goals are just dreams with deadlines!" and "Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the prize!" The big posters by the front door said, "There will always be obstacles! They are called learning opportunities!" and "Don't leave your towels on the gym floor!"

At that time I thought the other reporters in the newsroom were much cooler than I was, after all they had lived in L.A. longer and they still made fun of my accent and my deep fear of the freeway. So when they laughed at the selfhelpyness of the gym, I laughed along with them even though secretly I liked the posters. My friend Alicia and I were the only two who kept going to Tae Bo and it wasn't long before I discovered she secretly liked all that sporty-selfhelpy stuff, too. After a few months of Tae Bo we were both in amazing shape. Alicia later left journalism to become a female boxer (!!) and I eventually left to become married and half crazy. Whoops.

I wasn't very introspective back then (and I was incredibly immature) but even in my unenlightened state I understood that physical fitness enthusiasts are almost religious about the mind-body connection. The language of athletes is very much like the language of the self help movement -- there's a lot of focus on positive outcomes, thinking patterns and behavior modification for optimum results. I liked the attitude and the washed-out, calm feeling you got after pushing your body to its limits. Most of all I liked feeling good.

Fast forward fifteen years, one marriage and divorce and about eleventeen different hair colors to this morning. I was outside on a long walk, and I started up a hill in my neighborhood. It was cold this morning and I was pushing hard to get up the hill in long strides. As I got toward the top I had a moment where I felt that little rush you get from exercise, that split second of fully inhabiting your own muscles and skin. I could feel my blood moving and my heart beating.

It was just a split second but it was exquisite.

When I got to the top of the hill I paused to look back and see how far I'd come. That glorious in-my-body feeling reminded me of way back when, back in 1995 when I used to go with Alicia to a cramped, sweaty Tae Bo class every night after work. My life then was not all that great on paper -- I was broke almost all the time, I had no furniture, I was self-conscious about my accent, my education and my writing skills. Oh, and don't forget the tiny apartment on the freeway overpass. But in many ways I was very happy. I was young and relatively ignorant about the logistics of adult life. I just figured things would eventually work out, whatever that meant. I got a lot of pleasure from simple stuff like my kickboxing class and I really liked the platitudes on those posters.

This morning felt like a flashback, the good kind, remembering a version of myself that I haven't been in a while. Back then I didn't have the ability to put words to it but my body knew the spiritual feeling that comes from sheer physical exertion and the calmness that comes when -- for just a moment -- you unplug from your chattering brain and connect fully to your physical self.

I'm not sure when in my life I started to get in my own way. I don't think there's a singular moment when I left my body and started to live totally in my head, it happened gradually, maybe over years. But somewhere along my path I got lost. I suspect this happens to a lot of people. I suspect I am not the only one.

All this time later what is surprising is that the essential stuff is still true: There will always be obstacles, and you will always move forward. Goals are your dreams on a timeline. Keep your eyes on the prize. Walk it off! Push yourself to know yourself.

And it's always a good idea to pick your towels up off the floor.

Posted by laurie at February 22, 2011 12:49 PM