The Cabin on the Cliff

Here’s a blast from my past that I have to share.

I watched Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” with guest Alanis Morissette this morning. At the end of the episode (which was excellent, by the way) Oprah’s voice over said Alanis wrote a song about the place that most inspires her, and they showed images that I instantly recognized as Hwy 1, followed by a shot of a cabin on a cliffside. I had a life-changing romance in that cabin 20 years ago.

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I don’t know about you, but sometimes my memories become snapshots that are precious and distant and mine alone so they seem like make believe. This cabin is one of those memories. So when the voice over teased the upcoming video over the shot of this cabin, I squinted at the screen and thought, that looks like my cabin, and then I heard the words to “Big Sur.” That is my cabin. My private snapshot right there on my TV screen.

The stories I could tell from my time in that cabin are rich and juicy. We had no phones or TV. I didn’t even have a radio in my Wrangler for the long drives down from San Francisco. My only entertainment those weekends was my thoughts and him.

He was 28 and recently divorced. He’d relocated to San Francisco from the midwest and was sharing a flat on Alamo Square with his friends from college. One of my best friends from college worked with one of his friends and we all met up one night at a bar after they got off work. I was beat down from working with a bunch of sexist bullies as well as being recently dumped by my first real love. I was reluctantly out on the town and just looking to get a buzz and be distracted. He and I were introduced and he sat on the barstool next to mine. He was so out of my league, tall, dark and gorgeous, that it didn’t even occur to me to flirt. We hit it off instantly, fearlessly diving deep into real life shit and laughing at how absurd and helpless we both felt. He got angry about the jerks at my work, telling me exactly how screwed up it all was and how I deserved much better. We talked about books and discovered we had the same taste in music, both loving the same local Jazz Funk band. After a couple hours of swapping stories a Prince song came on and he said, “Oh, we have to dance to this.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor, and I’d never seen a man dance that sexy in real life. I swear to God. My friend was dancing with her work friends and when she saw us her jaw dropped and she threw me two thumbs up.

Not long into our romance he moved down to Big Sur to work the gift shop and front desk of the historic lodge that sat above the cabin. I don’t know the exact details of the arrangement, except that he’d live in the cabin while he restored it. I helped him move so I was with him the first time he walked through. The cabin was a broken mess … but look at that view! The sun was setting so we sat outside on the grass watching the coastline and listening to the waves. We cried. I cried because it was beautiful, and I told him I could see him being happy here. He told me he felt the same way. We held hands. He said he hoped I’d visit him. And of course I did.

We shared a relationship that would shape me with some of my greatest lessons about my body, my voice, my endurance, my desires, and my limits. Maybe it’s time to write a story about it.

The Monster Who Dated

"It's Alive" - Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein
“It’s Alive!” – Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein

No, this isn’t the title of my funny new children’s book. This is the real-life story of how I came to believe that I’m a monster … who also wanted a date.

I have an image of myself that’s unkind. When I walk through a room I envision the lumbering steps of a two-ton beast; remember Jurassic Park when the T-Rex is nearby and the whole ground shakes — yeah, that. I imagine the features of my face have been swallowed by fat, my limbs are unwieldy clubs, and my stomach and butt are explosions of jiggly flab. I see rolls of puckered flesh resting on rolls resting on rolls.

This next part will be shocking given what I just revealed, but I don’t tolerate negative self-talk. I’m constantly lifting myself up and cutting myself slack. I’m confident and I work hard on self-acceptance. As a matter of fact, the name of my blog, Not Bad for a Fat Girl, comes via my hard fought self-acceptance. I am a fat girl. I don’t say that to be demeaning. I say that because if our society happened to be sorting women into two categories, like fat and thin (imagine!), I’d land in the fat category 100% of the time. Even at my most healthy, by societal standards I’m still a fat girl. The earth is round, gravity exists, and I’m a fat girl. I own it.

So how the hell did this monster sneak into my closet and slip into my shoes?

During an exercise in The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels I was asked to visualize myself standing in front of an audience of people who I feel judge me. That’s easy: heterosexual men. For most of my life I’ve felt a complete dismissal of my worth by the opposite sex. Of course gay men and women judge just as unfairly and even as cruelly, but there’s something clinical and absolute about the way dudes and bros measure a woman’s value solely on how her appearance arouses him that eviscerates me. And as a single woman, I have no respite.

I imagined myself on stage looking out at an audience full of men and I felt so much anxiety that I stopped the exercise. I was overwhelmed. I texted my friend who had recommended The Tools that I’d be hiding under my bed if he needed me. A week later I tried again, getting to the second step where I look at myself standing in front of this audience. And guess who was standing on the stage? Me, the monster. That’s when I realized this monster wasn’t who I thought I was, she was who I imagined others saw when they looked at me.

THE SHADOW

“The Shadow is everything we don’t want to be but fear we are, represented in a single image. It follows us wherever we go.” – The Tools

Son of a bitch! I’d left a gaping hole in my confidence that my self-acceptance wasn’t going to fill. According to The Tools, “No matter who you are, when you crave the approval of others, you give them power over you.” And even though I tried my best not to care what others thought of me, I had done exactly what The Tools described: “Everyone wants to feel that as an individual we have value. But when we look inside ourselves, we see the Shadow, and we’re ashamed. Our immediate reaction is to turn away — to look outside ourselves for some evidence of our worth. This takes the form of looking to others for approval and validation.” It’s a relentless cycle.

I’ve been loved and I’ve been in love. I’ve broken a couple of hearts and had my heart broken. One man I fell in love with suffered from severe depression and I wasn’t equipped to understand or support him, so when he’d retreat, I’d lock the door behind him on his way out. We were on and off for a couple of years – it was awful. During that time I started working with a life coach and with her guidance I finally let myself be vulnerable, sharing my wants and feelings with him. His response was that he wasn’t attracted to me, AKA, my nightmare come to life. A trapdoor may as well have swallowed me whole because I pretty much dropped out of the love game after that. I dated a few more guys, but I didn’t let myself get serious. Two years of that and I decided I wasn’t going to make ANY effort in the love department and instead I’d live my life to its fullest. If romantic love was part of my destiny, then it would come find me because I’d just be right over here living an awesome life.

Fast forward through several years of an incredible life sans romantic love: I traveled the world, was successful in my high-profile job, went to amazing exclusive events, met incredible people. No romantic love. OK, I thought, maybe there’s a bigger picture and love would only distract me from achieving my dreams. Who knows? I trusted that I was where I was supposed to be. Fast forward a few more years: more events, more travel, more cool people, and I leave my successful high-salaried job to pursue my dream. Still no romantic love and I’m suspicious.

One summer day at my best friend’s backyard BBQ a married friend of hers and I were chatting over baked beans when he leaned in and said, “I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with you, why you’re single. Are you a total bitch or something?” Lovely. But somewhere along the way, I started wondering the same thing. What was wrong with me? Aside from the realities of dating after you’re 30 (like that it’s impossible to meet available men in my everyday social circle), I wasn’t getting any action in the produce section, at the gas pump, even at the gym. So I start telling myself a story about why. Isn’t it obvious? I’m an ugly, obese, sloppy, smelly monster.

Instead of trusting that my love life has its own timeline (if any), I start telling myself this story about why I don’t deserve it. And this story created a monster. Not just in the arena of romance, but at this point I show up as my monster everywhere I go: little league games, holiday dinners, getting my hair done. “Insecurity destroys people’s ability to connect with one another. Over time, insecurity makes you dull and uninteresting to other people, and, paradoxically, it makes you ungiving. Insecure people are so obsessed with how others perceive them that they give almost nothing of themselves. As a result, they feel even more alienated.”

Hellllllooooo! Even though I’ve never considered myself an insecure person, I quack exactly like that duck, which makes me a duck. And we all do it. We crave approval so we “hide” the undesirable things about ourselves that’ll get us rejected and that creates our Shadow, which we’re ultimately ashamed of. And in my case I buried my inner self under rolls and rolls of puckered flesh, both real and imaginary. My Shadow is also loud, bossy, clumsy and slow. But here’s the thing. That monster, my Shadow, is the only way to be wholly myself.

“It may seem like the worst part of us, but really, it’s the doorway to the inner self. Only when that doorway is open can we truly express ourselves.” – The Tools

So what can a monster/girl do? Here are the two steps of the “Inner authority” tool (read: entire excerpt):

  1. Imagine again that you’re standing in front of your audience. See an image of your Shadow off to one side, facing you. Ignore the audience completely and focus all of your attention on the Shadow. Try to feel an unbreakable bond between the two of you — as a unit you’re fearless.
  2. Together, you and the Shadow forcefully turn toward the audience and silently command them to “LISTEN!” Feel the authority that comes when you and your Shadow speak with one voice.

The advice from the book is to start out slow and build up to the toughest situations. For me that means using the Inner Authority tool before I write, while I’m hanging out with my friends, and when I’m spending time with my family. Now I’ve joined an online dating site and I use the tool when I log on and respond to the men who’ve contacted me. I’m at the point where I’m being asked on dates and I am FREAKING OUT. 99% of me says I’m not ready, my monster doesn’t have the right dress, I need to lose 50lbs, I need to get my hair done, oh my god what will we talk about, what if he is mean to me, what if I’m bored??? 1% of me says I need to start before I’m ready, dive in, work out this tool, make some mistakes, not take this whole thing so seriously. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to go with the 1%. Damnit.

I truly believe I can live a full and meaningful life without romantic love. I just don’t want to avoid it because I’m afraid and insecure.

Holy Crap! The Best Advice Ever

goethe quoteI have the best advice for you.

Begin before you’re ready.

I’m going to credit Steven Pressfield, author of War of Art, with this golden nugget. I couldn’t tell you when or where I heard or read this advice for the first time. I only know that my soul finally heard it from Pressfield two days ago. In his book Do the Work he lays this out as the crucial first step: Start before you’re ready.

Is your mind blown yet? No? That’s because I haven’t really explained it. Here goes. BEGIN BEFORE YOU ARE READY. Before you’re ready, go ahead and start. Start before you have all the answers.

The perfectionist in me, my greatest saboteur, begs to disagree. I need to be prepared. I need to know what my end game is. I need to think through all the steps in between … and THEN I can begin. Actually, I should probably have all of the necessary equipment and the proper wardrobe, not to mention the budget for anything unexpected. And it wouldn’t hurt to know if I’ll lose sleep, disappoint anyone, miss a TV show or get my feelings hurt … and THEN I can begin.

But that’s all a lie. And the crazy thing is that I know better!

I know that I learn by doing. It isn’t a comfortable route, but it’s the quickest. Make a mistake, solve it, move forward. In my former career I’d throw myself into the deep end on projects that I had no idea how to accomplish. And we’re talking about high stakes projects with massive audiences. I knew I’d figure it out. I’d hit all the possible and impossible obstacles but I’d discover a way over, under or around. I’d find the right people to help. I’d make choices with confidence – confidence that if it was the wrong decision we’d learn and recover. I was successful. Don’t get me wrong, this way of working had flaws; I was under intense pressure and I didn’t have a healthy way to manage the stress. But I was pushing my corner of the universe forward with my own will.

An old friend from my theater days recently reminded me of advice I gave him 25 years ago. He’s a chronic worrier and apparently I told him there were plenty of things I worried that I couldn’t do … until I was actually doing them. For example, my character would need to have an emotional breakdown in the second act and I’d worry “there is no way that I’ll be able to cry on demand.” Then I’d be on stage in the middle of the scene, one thing had lead to another, I’d feel it, and BAM I’d cry.

The only way to know if you can do something difficult is to do it. Your ego isn’t going to make it easy for you to begin and risk failure so don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for anything.

“If you’re working on something important, then you’ll never feel ready,” says James Clear after meeting billionaire Richard Branson, whose strategy for success is to start something before he’s ready. “You’re bound to feel uncertain, unprepared, and unqualified. But let me assure you of this: what you have right now is enough.”

“Good things happen when we start before we’re ready,” advises Pressfield. “Not only do we open ourselves to the blessings of happy serendipity, but we steal a march on the forces of procrastination, perfectionism, over-preparation, fear and self-doubt.”

So the next time you find yourself feeling that you’re not ready, proceed at full speed. You’ll hit a wall, fall on your ass, and be in over your head more than once. But just imagine how great it’s gonna feel to get those lessons behind you.

Rejected by Hannah Horvath

"Free Snacks" Girls
“Free Snacks” Girls, Season 3

Last night’s dream picked up where last night’s episode of Girls (“Free Snacks”) left off.  Except I was one of the Girls, so naturally I was hanging out and being Special. They were all younger than I was, but they knew my story (jumping the career ship to live the dream) and they were all my besties. Lena Dunham was herself (writer, actor, producer, director) instead of the character Hannah; I know this because the conversations in my dream were way more interesting than they are on the show.

Suddenly my age comes up and I’m a little thrown because I’m sure they’ve all known. I mean we’ve talked about it a million times. It’s an important part of my story. And then they erupt. Lena is mortified. OMG! She can’t hang out with someone as old as I am. She literally pushes me out of her apartment, an apartment that we share. She’s grossed out, appalled, embarrassed. I have cooties. Can age be contagious? I don’t get it. Not only am I surprised that they are surprised but I don’t understand what the big deal is. “I’m only 32!” I am shouting at the door over and over and then muttering to myself as I pout my way down the sidewalk to find comfort with my friend Ryan. “I’m only 32.”

I wake up and the first thing I do is giggle. I am 43. I am only 43. Ouch.

In last night’s episode of Girls Hannah has her first successful day as a sell-out. At first she’s energized by the compliments and the free snacks and being talent adjacent — she’s in the advertorial writing group at GQ. Hannah falls through the trap door, hitting the dungeon floor with a THUD that shakes off the fog of security, making her realize that this place is going to suck the Special right out of her.

Me? Instead of falling through a trap door, I took a leisurely and scenic ride on an escalator with excellent companions. I wanted to make a living doing something that was interesting. I must have figured that my path would reveal itself, my opportunities to CREATE would appear. And they did! Those opportunities did appear. And I did create. And I had a great ride on that escalator. Every once in a while I would be in a situation, though, where I’d be in the presence of a storyteller (a TV writer, a filmmaker, an actor) and the daydreamer in me would scream:  THAT SHOULD BE ME. And maybe I would be motivated for a second. Maybe I’d dust off one of my books on writing. Maybe I would start a story. And maybe I’d even stay with that story for weeks or months. But I would always drift away again, back into the routines of living, which were deadline-driven and time-consuming. But the nagging only got louder as I descended farther away from my dream, and I finally had to call my own bluff: Go all in or Let it go.

Obviously that episode of Girls set something off in me. Shame for wasting so much time? That exists. But my unconscious did me a favor with the “32”. I just turned 32 when I started working at MTV News, and although I did feel “old” already because many of the folks I worked with were younger, I had such a good time working there, I learned a lot, and I made good friends. That was my life and I enjoyed it. Maybe the part of my dream that is more significant is that I was shoved out of this group of 20-somethings.  I’ve already lived that. I don’t get a do-over. Create from where I am now.

Because here I am now with an entire day, week, month, year in front of me to write. My gift to me. And I’m only 43.