Friday, January 19, 2007

Change is scary (even when it’s just furniture)!

My apartment, myself

My apartment is an enduring metaphor for my mental state. It’s large (for New York), has good bones, is darker than I wish, is nonetheless the subject of much envy, and is filled with stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff. After 12 years, so much stuff. Oy.

This is one aspect of adulthood that I had no inkling of as a child. That as you grow older, you accumulate, and not in a good way.

One way childhood was easier than adulthood

I was not burdened much by expectations as a kid. I was excited about the future because, well, there seemed to be lots of exciting things out there. I wasn’t sure how far away from me they were, but I knew that they would be cool.

Perhaps as a result, I was quite the doer. I got a paper route, went to debate camp, played the piano, listened to language tapes in my sleep, tried out for the school musical, got a job at a donut shop. Basically, I set goals and went after them, without quite thinking of things in those terms. Of course, these energies also yielded some semi-disastrous results—water polo comes to mind—but once I was out of them I barely gave them a second thought.

So imagine my surprise that as an adult I find myself spending so much time reflecting, looking back, comparing, and in general evaluating my present and future in terms of my past. We’re talking baggage here. Am I off the mark in saying that one of the biggest challenges of adulthood is being fresh?

It’s hard to ignore what we have experienced, or the emotions to which we’ve become habituated. Changing my life is like rearranging my apartment—I have some ideas but it’s so easy to get bogged down in the stuff.

My life as seen through bookshelves

A couple of years ago, I hired someone named Maxwell Gillingham Ryan, who runs , to come and do a consultation. It was super-interesting (this is where I got the phrase “good bones”). Among other things, he noted that my apartment’s waistline was inconsistent mostly due to two towering bookcases in our living room. These bookcases I originally purchased from Gothic Custom Craft, a sort of cheapo furniture chain here in New York. I painstakingly assembled them myself. Shortly thereafter I decided I hated them. One of them is pictured above. It looks innocent, but don't be fooled.

Two years later, I have finally taken up Mr. Gillingham-Ryan’s suggestion that we install a lower, wall-length bookshelf instead—one at proper room waistline level. Aiding in my effort is Mr. Luis Calvo, the brilliant handyman and furniture constructor who is the father of a student I helped with her college applications several years ago. It turns out that spending part of each morning at Starbucks in December 2001 helping Sulay with her 13 college applications was a fine investment on my part.

Feelings about furniture

I was prepared to be all excited but what I am experiencing is anxiety. Anxiety about whether it will look good, anxiety about how we are going to get rid of these behemoth bookshelves, anxiety about whether our dogs are feeling anxious about hammering sounds, anxiety about the fact that whenever you lift up a board in our 1928 building or punch a hole in the wall you realize that the entire building is basically filled with rubble

But basically, my anxiety comes from change itself. I’m taking a step to making my life different. But it’s kind of messy and I don’t have any certainty what it will be what I want. As a kid, I didn’t have an overstuffed albeit glamorous apartment, so it was easy to move forward. But now I do. So change is more complex. It requires me to get rid of my stuff, which is hard. And if I am so weirded out just by furniture and dusty books, no wonder bigger goals can be daunting to achieve. While one is undergoing a change process, it doesn’t always look or feel so good.

I’m moving forward, though. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Everyone Can Be a New Yorker in 2007!

Will the real New Yorker please stand up?

On the morning of New Years Eve as I was waiting in line at a Starbucks in midtown, I saw a fit, middle-aged woman with puffy red hair carefully unwrap her long coat to reveal an ensemble consisting of knee-length black boots, a brown long-sleeved top and pumpkin-colored walking shorts. And it looked good!

“Love the shorts,” I told her. “They work!”

“D’you think so?” she asked, in a friendly British accent. Her interracial family beamed in the background. “I just gawt them today. I felt that this is what New York City on New Year’s Eve is all about!”

“It is what New York is all about,” I concurred. “Sometimes the best New Yorkers are the ones from somewhere else!”

I, myself, am a born New Yorker, even though I didn’t get here until I was 31. You see, New York-ism is a state of mind that anyone can adopt. You just gotta have the attitude to make it all happen! If you live out in Kent, or Scottsdale, or Anaheim, or Charlotte or Skokie or Dallas or wherever, you might actually be in your core a glamorous New Yorker.

A core New Yorker skill: healthy skepticism

One New Yorker skill is having the attitude to make it all happen. Another is having just the right type of skepticism.

My partner, the famous professor Jason Mazzone, is a bit of a skeptic. Toss some interesting trivia his way, say about how South Bronx is the hot new property market or how you might have prostate cancer because you pee a lot, and you are likely to get a “hmmm,” kind of response. Prof. Mazzone doesn’t automatically believe everything he hears. Though from Tasmania, he is also a born New Yorker.

Unleashing your inner skeptic can be good for you. It's your best resource against the cavalcade of self-doubting, depressive, cranky, whiny thoughts that form much of our inner lives. Even here in glamorous New York.

A breakthrough at Bikram

Recently, I was taking a Bikram Yoga class, as part of a revisiting of various physical fitness regiments I’ve tried over the years. (Long-time Michael Melcher observers will recall that my Bikram period stretched from 2000 to approximately 2003.) Anyhow, I was in the hot Bikram class, wearing my bathing suit staring at myself in the mirror (in Bikram you are instructed to stare into the mirror for the entire class), and I thought, “Oh my God. Look at that bloated, pasty person . . . who happens to be ME.” My bathing suit looked not edgy, but dodgy. My bod looked not studly but stuffed-ly. My hair was a mess. The dark clouds of self-loathing gathered round me.

And then, for no particular reason, I heard myself say to myself, “No, that’s not true.” I listened, entranced, as the voice went on.

“You don’t look like shit," it said. "You look fine. And, hello? The whole reason you’re here is because you are acting in a proactive, positive way. If you did this every day of your life you’d be worthy of the cover of Men’s Health. Take some credit. So, Inner Critic, just shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

My Inner Skeptic had emerged from unknown parts to take out my Inner Critic. And I felt great!

What your Inner Skeptic can do for you

Since that breakthrough moment, I’ve tried calling on my Inner Skeptic at frequent intervals. Whenever I feel kind of .... disturbed, I'll ask Inner Skeptic what he thinks.

Inner Skeptic favors phrases like, “that’s not really true.” And, “that sounds like a big generalization.” And, “that person is not really credible.” Inner Skeptic sounds very convincing when raising these quite reasonable objections.

It turns out that Inner Skeptic is useful not just for promoting positive body image, but also for dealing with the cranky pessimism that’s become our normal mode of discourse. You know, the kind of "the world is awful blah blah blah" that's not actually accompanied by any useful action. Inner Skeptic doesn't think that things are always peachy (he's a skeptic, after all)--but he's not impressed by ill-formed generalizations.

So when you feel down, or put-upon, or self-loathing, or when the conversation around you seems inordinately negative, invite your Inner Skeptic to intercede on your behalf. Be a New Yorker and love it!