Since Thursday I’ve been slowly making my way back up from the bottom.  It started when I finally realized that sometimes it’s okay to leave your guilt behind and just take care of yourself.  In the same way that your cold won’t go away if you keep going in to work and don’t get the rest you need, you can’t come up out of an emotional funk by continuing to hammer away at the issues that caused it in the first place.  So I got up, grabbed my camera, and left the house.

First stop, comfort food.  I picked up some mozzarella sticks and a passion fruit bubble tea and ate them in my car.  I rolled the windows down for some fresh air and listened to the radio.  It wasn’t solving anything but it felt good.

Next stop, Safeway.  For months I’ve wanted to make a series of tiny Color-Aid collages depicting packed supermarket shelves, and I thought taking some photos would be a good first step.  Low stakes, and no possibility for failure.  The photos themselves weren’t meant for display, just as studies for possible subjects.  I managed to take about 120 pictures before a manager finally kicked me out.  Without having even looked at the photos, I felt like I’d accomplished something.

When I got home and downloaded my pictures, I found two or three that I really loved.  Then I felt even better.  Good enough to write some thank you cards to relatives — a high priority task I didn’t think I’d be able to tackle.

I had started my day trying to write down what I ultimately wanted out of life.  Then I figured I’d brainstorm a plan from there.  It was a total and immediate failure.  In hindsight it was a terrible idea to start with something so huge and existential when I’d just had a nervous breakdown, but it seemed at the time like the only way to “redeem” myself.  In the end, I learned yet another valuable lesson.  When something becomes so stressful that it makes you sick in the head (or in the body), you need to remove yourself from it completely in order to recover.  Only then can you regain the strength you need to actually deal with the situation.

Hindsight is Crazy-Making

I had a complete meltdown yesterday.  I took an all-day seminar at the SBA entitled, “Writing Effective Business Plans” and immediately began to feel that it was a mistake to start my business.  A horrible mistake.  It dawned on me that my job for the next year is going to consist solely of digging myself out of the hole I’m in. By the time our lunch break rolled around I was already having heart palpitations so I went outside for a walk.  In the window of Stacey’s bookstore, a book entitled, Get a Life That Doesn’t Suck caught my eye.  I headed straight for it, telling myself I was doing reconnaissance for my sister, not me.  The chapters had titles like “Start. Do it Now,” “Think Good Thoughts” and “Have Fun! Celebrate Life.”  Useless.  I put it down and went back to class, where I listened to the really smart and successful-sounding comments of my classmates.  One woman named Suzanne told me how lucky she felt that the business plan class was happening just a week after she quit her job to start a business.  She had four or five business ideas she liked, she said, and now she was going to plug in the numbers in order to decide which one was most likely to succeed, and therefore, which one she should start with.  I almost threw up.  Why didn’t I think of that a year ago before I got myself into this mess?

As soon as I got home I began a panicked rant around the living room, starting with a list of all the reasons why I was never going to get rid of my inventory in time, and quickly progressing to the declaration that my entire life is pointless, I contribute nothing to the world, and I am a complete waste of space.  I was seized with the immediate and overwhelming desire to recalibrate my life and develop a new long-term plan — now. It was already 10pm, but how could I sleep that night knowing that in the morning I would have to begin completely changing my life?

Whenever I find myself in a crisis and don’t know how to proceed, my first instinct is to educate myself.  I don’t like to make choices, especially life-changing choices, without feeling fully informed by the “experts” first.  So the place I turned last night was to a well-used copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. GTD is best used as an organizational and time-management system, but I remember reading a chapter (#3, it turns out) about forming plans of action, from small projects (the view from 10,000 feet), to major life goals (the view from 50,000 feet).  The chapter lays out a step-by-step plan for accomplishing a comprehensive life review, which made me feel better about not have a plan myself.  “You’ll notice that a natural organization [emerges],” it told me.  So, after getting a few things out of my head and down on paper, and after committing to also read The Now Habit and The Four-Hour Workweek, I went to bed.

And that’s where I am this morning, standing at the edge of a giant precipice, ready to take the leap.  I’ll let you know what I find at the bottom.

Keeping Stress out of the Bedroom

I realize it’s been an inexcusably long time since I last posted anything. I have probably lost all of you to disappointment and summer, but as busy as I am lately, I will try my best to keep this resource growing, albeit slower than I would like.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m getting married (in exactly six weeks). When my fiancé and I first got engaged a year ago, he swore he wanted to handle half of the planning. He said it was because we should have equal ownership in our wedding, the way we will have equal ownership in our marriage. I thought that made sense and was happy he felt that way. But, as a freelancer, my husb-what can’t predict when his heavier workloads will hit. The latest one hit about six weeks ago and I’ve been on my own in wedding planning ever since.

I had no idea how much work it takes to plan a one-evening event. It takes up all of my time each and every day. I haven’t spent more than an hour or two a WEEK on my business and I’m starting to feel trapped inside post-war gender roles.

Two nights ago I had a nervous breakdown in bed. I suddenly realized that I had wasted over a full month of my life on a wedding that is turning out nothing like the casual family barbecue/picnic we had originally envisioned. In fact, it is looking suspiciously like my mother’s dream wedding — the one she never got to have, and which, I am convinced, she is subtly forcing me to plan via ESP and Jewish guilt. I freaked out so badly I couldn’t sleep until dawn, at which point I dreamed we missed our flight and couldn’t go on our honeymoon.

That night spent hyperventilating in the dark was the third night in a row I didn’t sleep because I was stressed out over the wedding. So I began to try some strategies to help me calm down:

  1. Talking it out: this only works if the person you’re talking to understands what you need when you’re stressed out, and is not too stressed out him- or herself to really focus on you. It helped, but it wasn’t a cure.
  2. Decompression: I tried doing no work after 9pm, then no work after 8pm. No dice. The only night I slept peacefully was when I stopped working in the afternoon, then filled the night with “Ocean’s 13” on DVD and a roll in the hay. Lesson? Stop early and occupy both body and mind until bedtime.
  3. Making lists: Part of what I stress out about is inadvertently overlooking something, so I am a compulsive list-maker. Things would probably be worse if I didn’t have my lists, but they don’t relieve enough anxiety to let me sleep.
  4. Crowding out brain space: During an episode of Radio Lab I heard about a study in which subjects were given various tasks before they went to sleep, to see which ones penetrated their dreams most often. The big winners? Tetris and video game skiing. I thought doing a couple of hours of jigsaw puzzles at night would do the trick but it didn’t, so today we bought a Nintendo Wii.
  5. Drinking warm milk: Yup, I tried this one, too. It’s soothing while you drink it, but milk doesn’t stand a chance against full-blown anxiety.

I have not been testing these strategies scientifically. I have also only had one restful night of sleep this week, so I’m still looking for new ones. If you have any suggestions for leaving stress out of your bedroom, please share them in the comments.

Eradicating the Disease of Slavery

The busier I get, the smaller my world becomes.  Trying to run a business and plan a wedding at the same time (which I do NOT recommend) has recently shrunk my world to little bigger than my apartment.  I forget about friends and family, my neighbors, and my community, because my brain is so consumed by immediate, personal stresses.  Then I hear a lecture on my car stereo and it blows my world wide open again.

Kevin Bales, the President of the organization, Free the Slaves, recently delivered a concise and compelling lecture at the World Affairs Council on the state of world slavery and how to end it.  The problem of slavery, while a very real one, is at its most solvable point in history, according to Mr. Bales.  Slavery accounts for the the smallest percentage of our world’s population ever, despite the fact that in some places, slaves have become so inexpensive that they are practically “disposable.” There is also not a single country or industry that is financially dependent on slavery and every country in the world has laws against it.  Furthermore, the estimated cost to bring the world’s 27 million slaves out of bondage and rehabilitate them to become financially independent is only $10.8 billion dollars — the amount Americans spend on pretzels and potato chips in one year.

The lecture is free to listen to online.  I highly recommend it.  When you’re baffled by the seemingly insurmountable problem of getting your sales up, or figuring out why your books don’t add up properly, it helps to be given some perspective.  If we can eradicate slavery from our planet the way we eradicated smallpox, for the cost of improving Seattle’s light rail system, surely we can figure out what the font should be on the top of our letterhead.

Long Live the Internet!

I love the Internet, and especially the blogosphere. Here’s why: yesterday a gentleman named Mr. Deslauriers submitted a comment to my post about U.S. Customs that was less than complimentary. It’s a little long, but I suggest reading it if you haven’t already.

My first instinct was to go on the defensive, despite the relative politeness with which the criticism was delivered. I briefly considered several routes: deleting the comment, editing the post, and dissecting/justifying every accusation with a well-considered retort. But I soon realized that that’s just e-fascism. Why write a blog if you’re not going to accept certain comments? Plus, on almost every count, the man is right.

Firstly, I didn’t make the distinction between a customs broker and freight forwarder. Mostly this is because for me (and everyone else I know who is a small importer), this is the same person, but it still should have been included. I then publicly insulted the entire profession (also because I and everyone I know who is a small importer has found their broker/forwarder to be somewhat shady). Making sweeping generalizations about any group of people is a mistake, however, and I regret it and apologize for it.

As for the simplistic and somewhat incorrect presentation of my information, such as “A customs broker: this guy gets your stuff off the dock and onto a truck,” I will concede that there are perhaps more accurate phrasings I could have used, but I was using a deliberate teaching tool. The above statement is true if your customs broker is also your freight forwarder, and is mostly true even if they’re not (a customs broker allows your container to leave the port, even if they don’t actually move it onto the truck). In the same way that your high school science teacher started by teaching you Newtonian physics, even though Relativity makes the facts simplistic and somewhat incorrect, I write simplified accounts of my experiences so that complete novices can walk away with a basic understanding of the subject at hand. In other words, I post the information I wish I had received when I was trying to figure out my first steps. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that if my readers decide to be importers themselves, that they will do their own further research before moving forward.

On the whole, Mr. Deslauriers gave me some much needed perspective on a number of fronts. He reminded me that a blog is more helpful when presented as a personal account than it is as a set of prescriptive instructions (especially coming from a beginner like me), that prejudicial generalizations are more counter-productive than clarifying, and that comments that criticize are a much better use of the “social surplus” than those that praise.

I have asked Mr. Deslauriers if he would agree to be interviewed via e-mail so that I can put together some importing information that comes straight from an expert, rather than from the link-trawling of a beginner. Whether he agrees or not, he has made this a better blog by challenging me. I hope more of you will do the same. Thank you, Mr. Deslauriers.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Lately I’ve been feeling like just a reflection of my environment.  All of my new ideas seem to already have been produced by someone in my demographic.  All of my current tastes seem to be shared by absolutely everyone I meet.  It can make a girl feel down sometimes, like I don’t have any original ideas or opinions.  I’ve just been duped by big business and popular culture into thinking that I’ve produced what I’ve only actually consumed.  But if my ideas and values are not my own, then what is?

I understand that this is partially unavoidable.  Shared experience and political/social/biological environments influence people in such a way that inevitably lead to a sort of collective consciousness, and that this in turn leads to cultural movements.  But growing up, I was the only girl I knew who could knit, sew, and reupholster furniture.  Now it seems like everyone I meet was that girl, too.  How is that possible?

So Sad

I was doing a bit of reconnaissance at the Paper Source in lower Pacific Heights today when I was struck by the sight of two rubber stamps.  One said “Sorry” and the other said “So Sorry.”  What kind of person fucks up so often that they need to rubber stamp their apologies?  I can’t help but wonder how many of these they sell.

A New Perspective on Getting Ripped Off

Two weeks ago I did some contract production work at a kids’ toy/book company.  While having lunch in the company kitchen, several employees got into a rollicking discussion about their various techniques for ripping off ideas from trade show exhibitors.  Having just exhibited at my first trade show, this naturally made me very nervous and kind of angry, so I vented to friend about it.

I said, “I knew big companies had no qualms about ripping off small designers, but I didn’t know that it was the sole source of their creative development!”

“So what?” My friend said.

“So that sucks!  I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting off people who try to steal my ideas!”

“So don’t fight them” he said.  “Just move on to the next idea.  By the time they steal it, you’ll probably be bored with it anyway.  Besides, if you’ve only got one idea, you won’t last in business anyway.  Look at it this way: it’s like Apple and Microsoft.  One company makes money by constantly releasing brand new products.  The other makes money by watering down those products and making them more affordable and available to the mainstream.  Does Steve Jobs stomp his feet and sue Microsoft every time they steal an idea?  No.  He doesn’t care, because he’s already got ten more ideas in the works.  Apple may be a smaller company, but it’s better respected and still does extremely well financially.  Which one would you rather be?”

Err on the Side of Entitlement

Last night I was reading the November/December issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine. I have a real love/hate relationship with this publication.  Every issue seems to shout at me: “Hey, Jackass! Look at the dozens of people who used their elite education to achieve something great with their lives! What the hell have you been doing with it?” The BAM always makes me feel simultaneously inspired and ashamed to be associated with my fellow alumni.What struck me about this particular issue, (other than the ad on the back cover to share jets with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) was how the protagonists in the two feature articles seem to have achieved their goals in life mostly with arrogance — to the exclusion of all else.  These are not bad people, mind you.  They are in fact very kind and generous.  Arrogance doesn’t necessarily equal selfishness — just overconfidence.

Take Lauren Zalaznick, for example.  She’s the network president of Bravo, which became famous for its hit show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  When she was made president, she was charged with taking the popularity of Queer Eye and parlaying it into network-wide success.  She did this, quite literally, by taking the five content areas of Queer Eye — fashion, home design, food, personal grooming, and culture — and made a separate reality show for each.  The fashion show, “Project Runway,” was the first to be released, and it bombed.  The company executives wanted it pulled off the air.  Zalaznick refused.  Against all evidence to the contrary, she insisted that the show was a winner, and rather than remove it from the rotation, she re-ran the first three episodes all over the schedule, throughout the entire holiday season.  By the time the fourth episode aired, Project Runway’s ratings had quadrupled.

By forcing the show down people’s throats and completely contradicting her bosses, Zalaznick forced everyone around her to become invested in a show that they initially didn’t care about or really like.  This is successful arrogance at its best.  You insist that something of yours has value until it does — by sheer force and repetition.  There’s a saying we used to throw around at the New York Aquarium when I was a volunteer there: “People will only save what they love, love what they know, and know what you teach them.”  This phrase was obviously used in the context of wildlife conservation, but it seems to work equally well in saving a television show from extinction.

The second story I read is about the last lecture given by a Carnegie Mellon professor named Randy Pausch on how to achieve your childhood dreams. The poor guy has pancreatic cancer, which is nearly always incurable, but he has accomplished more in his forty-something years than most other people accomplish in their entire lives. How?  By always believing that he deserved to have whatever he was striving for, and never taking no for an answer. Here are some examples: after being wait-listed and rejected by the admissions officers at Brown and Carnegie Mellon, respectively, Pausch talked his way into being admitted to both.  A few years later, he met a pretty grad student while visiting the University of North Carolina. She was out of his league and thought he was gay, besides.  But he blew off his UNC hosts and a guest speaker waiting for him back at Carnegie Mellon just to try to have dinner with her. He married her a year later. And what was his excuse to those he ditched? Nothing. He just told them the truth and didn’t care what happened to him.

So what’s the lesson in these stories?  Err on the side of entitlement to make things happen for yourself.  Not in the Paris Hilton way (i.e. “My daddy’s rich, so I deserve to be famous for absolutely no reason”), but in the way that makes others believe in your talents and hard work as fiercely as you do.  This is America, Baby!  Insist on your greatness until it becomes true.