On Happiness

Yesterday evening, I was sitting with a dear friend at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Café Degas. It’s a little french restaurant with killer french onion soup and a great bartender. Uncle Nick makes the best Sazerac in town, and gracious lords over a bar of just four stools — and it may be my favorite bar in town.

Chez Degas, as we call this little corner of Faubourg St. John, is host to the best character study in New Orleans. I have sat there many a night, whether with friends or alone, and met the most incredible residents and visitors and exchanged stories and always learned something. The first night I visited it was almost at closing: I had my first sazerac ever (and after many, many more, I stand by my prior endorsement) and met a horse trainer who makes his living at the track nearby and the Commodore of the Southern Yacht Club. I have sat in one of those few stools discussing crime in New Orleans with a staff photographer of the Times-Picayune, and the joys of dining alone with an art director in the burgeoning local film industry.

But last night, I sat with an old friend and a new friend, and we met Mohsen. A slight man, with wire-framed glasses that are always a little tinted, Mohsen has a palpable accent despite immigrating here from Iran 33 years ago. He came to the U.S. alone at the age of 17, and has created his own life, which now involves working seven days a week at a coffeeshop he owns, that I happen to love.

Mohsed overheard us talking to Uncle Nick about the recent catastrophe in Norway. We all hypothesized on why someone would kill 80 (or 90+, from varying reports) innocent young people — regardless of your political beliefs. The rumor is that he was afraid of an Islamic takeover of Europe.  It was at this point Mohsed made an ironic comment about “those muslims – never trust them” – which is clearly a joke – and that set us out on a conversation about how many people are killed every day, every year, in every country in the world.  He referred to hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, I thought about Sudan and a missing generation.

He made an apt point: at least 16,000 are killed in the U.S. every year.  He feels safer walking the streets of Tehran than the streets of New Orleans.  He may be right.  His underlying message – we all live in danger, and killing happens everywhere.  We are not told about all of the fear-making things because they aren’t always good news (as in, news that interests people – not new that is good) – so it’s easy to have a skewed perspective on our own reality, let alone foreign reality.

My friend Erica changed the subject to Mohsed’s life – in the typical way I think that U.S.-born Americans are fascinated with the American Dream we have never really had to pursue.  He is impressive – building his own business out of nothing, and now about to close for a month and travel to see family all over the country.

Erica asked the question: “Are you happy?”

Mohsed, without hesitation: “What is happiness?”  It seemed a useless question to him, unnecessary. “Define Happiness.  Tell me what this ‘happiness’ is?”

This has been a constant challenge for me, especially of late.  How much happiness is about fulfillment?  How much happiness comes from a decision to be happy?  Is it about being content with what we have, and striving towards a Buddhist idea of non-attachment?  Does our capitalist-commericialist society constantly telling us (via advertising) that we are missing something, do not have enough, and are not enough set us all up for constant discontent?

Is that discontent the secret to happiness?  Is working to overcome challenges the secret to being happy?

Or, as Mohsed went on to imply, is Happiness a figment? Is it some imaginary concept we have all been promised to give us something to do?

There’s a lot of philosophy written about this, and I don’t pretend to be well read in all of it.  But it is something we all constantly mull over, I believe.

As someone who manages her depression, this is a particularly fascinating question to me.  I’ve talked some about my depression publicly, and would like to talk more about it.  I am especially fascinated by the growing proportion of people who are diagnosed with some variety of mood disorder (depression, anxiety, and so forth) – and with the suggested reasons why.

Part of my depression comes from a feeling of paralysis about how to be happy.  And that being happy is the “correct” state — so when one is unhappy, one is incorrect.  Where did this come from?  When did this start?

There is no easy way to wrap up this thought.  I am thankful for Mohsed, for asking this question: “What is this ‘happiness’?”

Sickness: Reality Check

I have been sick.  Like, actually sick.  For four days.  And it’s killing me.

Well, it’s not actually killing me.  That is the point of this post.

After having a vague sore throat for a few days, it hit me in the middle of a work day.  That “I have to go lay down RIGHT NOW,” feeling.  This may be my body’s way of telling me that I’m sick, because I’ve felt it before.  So at 3pm on a Thursday, I went home and got into bed, and basically stayed prone for the next 48 hours. I’ve had visits from terrific friends to bring me breakfasts and dinners and movies and well wishes.

This morning a marathon ran past my house.  It felt sort of like pouring salt into a wound.  There I was, watching hundreds of people run thousands of (cumulative) miles, and I am tired after standing up for 30 minutes.

A good and wise friend told me “the exhaustion is so hard to deal with when you are used to being on the go.”  She is quite right.

This makes me realize how spoiled I really am.  Every time I’m sick, I think of people who live with this level of exhaustion on a daily basis.  I think about those chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia, or chemo or… anything.  Exhaustion is a major symptom of so many illnesses, and so often we judge those suffering – claiming it’s “all in their head.”  We have developed a bias in our society towards people who don’t need to sleep and can work 20 hour days and be superhuman, that we begin to think that’s real.  Or even possible.  So someone who isn’t able to do those things is somehow not just deficient, but delinquent.

So here I am, laying on my sofa, blogging (first world problems, anyone?), feeling sorry for myself because my house isn’t as clean as it should be and I have to go back to work tomorrow after not having a “real” weekend.  And disappointed because I wasn’t out running 13 or 26 miles this morning.  When did it become ok to feel that being sick makes me deficient?  As opposed to simply human. Mortal.

When is our hubris going to catch up with us, as a society?  When is my hubris going to catch up with me, as a sane human being?



What I Learned About Life… from Weight Watchers

I don’t talk about it all that much anymore.  My history as a “fat girl” stays pretty hidden – I may even be a little embarrassed, or possibly even ashamed, of it.

So for the fun of it, I’ll out myself once and for all: I am a fat girl.  I was 9’8″ when I was born, and I looked like the Michelin baby when I was 6 months old.  I always thought I was a fat kid growing up (I wasn’t, ironically – but that’s one of the lessons, so hang tight).  I started dieting in high school, and I lost some weight, but by the time I graduated I was 215.  I’m 5’6″.  It was not pretty.  I was muffin topping out of my size 18s.  Not. Pretty.

I went off to college, and thought about it a lot, and was conflicted about it, as many young women are about their weight – regardless of reality.  I lost the Freshman 15 – mostly because I lived in a 4th floor walkup and dorm food is lousy.  But 5 years later, when I came back to New Orleans, I was still in the same place.  Fat.

It was then, thanks in part to a very dear friend and soulmate, I went to Weight Watchers.  We went together.  We were both heavy, we both wanted to do something about it.  I lost 40 pounds, she lost 50.  She still had more to lose, and that was about when she lost track. But I became “lifetime” in 2005, and I have maintained at least 25# of that loss ever since.  I changed how I ate.  I started running, and changed how I thought of myself — instead of being a “theatre kid,” I realized I had some athleticism.  Katrina threw a wrench in a lot of it, and I’ve had some weights better than others.

Full disclosure: I am not at my goal weight currently.  I could stand to lose 20 pounds.  And so that leads to lesson #1…

1. It’s all about the journey.  When you’re “losing” on program, it’s easy to stay motivated.  When you have a destination in mind, when you have something to work towards, there’s tons of reinforcement.  When you arrive, it’s incredibly exciting.  And pretty quickly, it gets boring.  Contrary to what you thought, you STILL have to work just as hard (if not harder, on occasion) to “stay at goal.”  It’s like running to stand still.  Initially, that’s demoralizing.  Until you have your first taste of regaining, and then you realize: it’s about setting new goals. It’s about ALWAYS working to better, always striving towards something.  Our goals change in life, but you must always have a next step – a higher height. After I hit goal, I started running.  I’ve run 4 half-marathons.  I think part of the reason I haven’t run a full marathon is because then I’ll have to set a new goal.

2. Feedback, not failure.  Weight Watchers teaches some of the best positive thinking around.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s easy to beat yourself up when you have a setback.  A job interview doesn’t go how you want.  That perfect first date never calls you for a second. When you’re working really hard at something and it doesn’t work out (whether because of luck or just imperfect behavior) – its easy to give up.  It is human nature to allow your brain to go down that negative path, into the “spin cycle” of self-defeat.  And very quickly you realize you’re on a completely separate track going somewhere you don’t want to go.  When something doesn’t go your way, take a step back.  Stop asking and dwelling on what you did wrong, and ask instead “How could I have done that differently?”  This is also about always looking forward instead of looking back.  Feedback, not failure.

3. If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  This is a phrase borrowed, of course, and one that I recently got in a fortune cookie.  A very similar one, that I also love, is the Einstein quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If you don’t like the results, change what you’re doing.  Period.

4. Don’t ever assume anything about another person’s journey.  In a Weight Watchers center, when a “thin” woman walks in, there is often a vague feeling of disdain that is almost palpable. “What is she doing here? She doesn’t need to be here.”  It’s amazing how quickly we judge someone by how they appear.  It only takes once or twice for that “thin” woman to stand up in a meeting and say she lost 80+ pounds that you start to get it.  In many ways, you need meetings more once you hit goal weight.  You must constantly remotivate yourself.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  And just because a woman is thin, doesn’t mean she wasn’t once fat.

5. Finally, just because a woman looks “thin” doesn’t mean she’s happy with her weight or her appearance or her clothes fit.  I alluded to this above, and I suspect it will fascinate me my whole life.  I am relatively happy at my current weight, ironically.  I can shop in “normal” stores, I still think I’m attractive and sexy, and it seems men do too.  My physical self-esteem is tied far more to how I treat my body (sleeping enough, exercising enough, eating right) than how it looks.  And I have known women who are perfect size 6s who are far more troubled about their weight than I ever was.  So the last lesson: It’s all in your head.

This is common self-help speak.  You can change your reality if you can change how you think.  It’s that last part that I don’t even have an inkling about how to do.  Suggestions welcome.

Five Years

nb: Yes, this is the obligatory K+5 post. Deal with it.

5 years ago today, at this moment, I was watching CNN on 2 hours of sleep after a 17 hour evacuate drive to Houston.  I got in at 5 am, and couldn’t sleep past 7 — I couldn’t stop listening to the news or hearing what was happening.  I watched in horror as the 17th Street canal breached.

My whole life, in every movie, at this moment – the critical moment – something came in and saved the day!  We watched it on the TV, and surely these enormous sandbags dropped by helicopter would close the breach and all would be well again.

I think I grew up in that moment.  In that moment that I felt betrayed, devastated, and in shock.  It wasn’t just betrayal by the Corps, who we know now built faulty levees.  It wasn’t just betrayal of the federal government response (or lack thereof) in the coming weeks.  It wasn’t only the devastation of seeing photo after photo, and video feeds of people stranded, radio interviews of my fellow citizens searching for their loved ones.  It’s not just the shock of watching a flawed local administration founder over how to manage this scale of disaster.

I felt betrayed because every other time in my life I had seen something horrible like this, it had a happy ending.  The Germans lost, and Hitler killed himself in the most shameful way possible.  Slavery was ended.  Keanu Reeves found a way to make the bus stop before it killed all the people on it.  But in New Orleans, nothing happened.  No super hero saved the day.  And in that moment, I watched horrified with the entire nation as my city filled with water and my people were left for dead on rooftops.  It was so senseless.  This is not how it’s supposed to go.

Four years ago, I honestly don’t remember what I was doing.  I was still working at my pre-K job, which I was grateful to have.  I had just bought a house, so I was probably painting or tearing out termite damage or tiling the kitchen.  The whole year after Katrina is pretty much a blur.  I attribute this to low-level PTSD and a whole lot of alcohol.

Three years ago, I had just left my safe job at the CAC to start a dream job at Broadway South.  I believed we could remake this city.  I was enamored with the idea of creating a theatre destination in a city that had never had real theatre.  After five weeks, my boss was an evil lunatic and I knew better than to go anywhere with him.

One year ago, we had finished the YLC Gala and closed the most successful season of YLC Wednesday at the Square to date.  Things had begun to be hopeful.  The city was changing.  FEMA and federal recovery money had changed from its trickle to a real flow.  Every major thoroughfare of New Orleans seemed to be under construction.  Ray Nagin was still mayor and had gone the way of so many other Louisiana politicians — if you didn’t laugh about him, you’d have to cry.

And now, today.  My dad told me right after Katrina, as he was leaving the city, that it takes ten years for a city to fully recover from this kind of disaster.  My stepmother had lived through that in Mexico City after the earthquake of 1983.  My dad has lived 76 years on the earth, so I think he knows some stuff.

I look back on the last five years, and am filled with hope.  Because we are only halfway there. In the first half, I became a homeowner.  I found an amazingly fulfilling job.  New Orleans got a new mayor, with a new team that seems to being doing something.  The Saints won the Superbowl.  And now, I have a new job, at Greater New Orleans, Inc. and I genuinely believe that we can change the economic landscape of this city and bring her to her full potential.  With a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  And help.

But even with the blasted Oil Disaster, and economic crisis, and all the cards stacked against us: I am hopeful.  None of this is worse than Katrina.  And look at where we have come since Katrina?

Five years ago today, I grew up.  I learned there is no super hero.  I learned that I had been lied to all these years about some deus ex machina that comes to save the day.  Over the last five years, I realized: the only person who saves the day is me. We. And we are saving New Orleans, one day at a time.

The Craziest Day in WhoDatVille

I managed to sleep in this morning, thanks to a certain sweet someone. But we started watching the pregame coverage, and my anxiety level began to grow. I wasn’t alone.

I went home, changed, and got some Ritz crackers (ht: Nabisco for sponsoring SB44) to make “white trash hors d’eouvres,” and went to my best friend’s house. Where I watch every game. Or at least, where I’ve watched every game that the Saints have WON this year.

The level of irrationality among otherwise very sane and reasonable people has been unreal. I am not a superstitious person. I owned a black cat. I’ve broken mirrors, walked under ladders. I don’t throw salt. But today, here I am in the same place I’ve watched every other winning game — not just for the gator chili — but because what if I didn’t come here and they lost? My best friend’s husband Jamie has already made the same s’mores confection that made us sick from nervous eating two weeks ago. Because, what if he didn’t and they lost? I’m wearing the same shirt I wore the last two wins, because what if I didn’t and they lost?

I know it’s all totally irrational. Between the four of us in this house, we easily have a combined IQ of over 500 (that includes the 3 yearold) — and yet, we are all COMPLETELY INSANE about this game. We’re anxious. We’re nervous eating. We’re doing anything to distract ourselves.

This morning at the coffeeshop, the man next to me ordered four shots of espresso in a small cup. He said he was a nervous wreck – so much so that he had woken up in a panic at 1am. He couldn’t sleep. “It’s been like this for days.”

Jamie admitted he had a nightmare that Drew Brees was injured, and they had replaced him with someone completely inept. He was heckling the stand-in, asking about McDaniel, when the player started chasing him. Their three yearold came into the bedroom this morning, half-asleep, saying “Hey mamma, guess what? Black and gold to the super bowl. Who dat.”

The city is electric today. We have a new mayor, but that’s not what anyone is talking about. Random chants of “WHODAT” chime through the streets.

When Jamie went to the grocery today to get usual Super Bowl grub, he was greeted with that chant. “This is why I love New Orleans,” he said. “As I left the store, the last ‘Whodat!’ I got was from a 300-pound black tranny in sequined fleur di lis.”

No matter what anybody has said about us before today, or will say about us after – today has been one of the most anxious, exhilarating, scary, exciting, craziest, best days in WhoDatVille.

Being That Person

As I find myself surrounded by people I think are really cool, I want to be like them.  So I’ve started doing the things they do because I secretly hope it might make me cool too.  Ergo: eponymous website.

I also applied to speak at a little web search conference-y thing through IgniteNOLA.  And it went ok.  People like me.  That’s always nice.

Video is coming.  So they tell me.  In the meanwhile, my slides are here:

Twitter and Democracy

I was explaining twitter to some non-tweeting friends over dinner the other day, as I often do of late.  (Anyone else ever puzzled how not everyone is as technically savvy as you are?)  There are a number of metaphors I enjoy, and I started the conversation with them that way.

Twitter is like your neighbor’s barbeque.  I like this metaphor.  You don’t say anything on Twitter you wouldn’t want near-strangers to hear.  Some of us will say too much at a barbeque.

Twitter is like a cocktail party.  A friend invites you to a cocktail party – everybody has a cocktail in hand.  This adds the “freedom” element that happens online when you can just say what you think and not be faced with the people you’re saying it to. (Again, this poses problems online as well as in real life – but that too is about the user, not the medium).

So there you are, at this cocktail party, sipping your gin and tonic, and chatting with your friend.  Then one of their colleagues walks up, and listens for a sec.  Before you know it, they’re talking too.  You may overhear an interesting conversation when someone mentions a thing you’re passionate about.  We all have those “keywords”, when overheard at a party, that our little ears perk up, and we need to go put in our two cents.  Well, I do at least.  That cocktail party – that is Twitter.  Except Twitter is better: if someone has had too much to drink at the cocktail party, or that creepy guy is hitting on you over and over, or the close talker corners you with some strange discussion of guacamole, you can’t remove them from the party.  On Twitter, you just hit “unfollow.”  Better yet, you can “block” the creepy guy.

I offset common fears:

Twitter is not… Facebook updates.
… too much information.
… invasive,  annoying, or “too public.”

People give too much information. People are nosy, annoying, voyeuristic and exhibitionistic.

As I was explaining this to my friends, I realized the reason I liked Twitter so much was related to this.  People come out as they “really are” on the internet.  And better than your Facebook profile, better than “I’m so much cooler online:” Twitter is too small, too short, too brief to be fake. It’s too hard to lie over and over again in 140 characters, unless you’re a liar in real life too.

Here’s the other thing I like about Twitter: everybody starts out even.  My tweet has no inherent higher value that your tweet.  Everybody’s equal.  It’s democratic.

And when I say democratic, I mean it in the true sense of the word. It’s not a meritocracy nor is it a plutocracy nor an oligarchy. True democracy gives every citizen a voice.  Practical democracy means that some voices are louder than others.  If you’ve got more followers than I do, your tweets have more value.  If you have a preëxisting brand, they mean more than mine too. But if your provide information that your audience isn’t getting from any other source – you’re going to get promoted and word will spread like wildfire – even if before that you were a lowly college student at a previously unheard of university in Tehran. That word spreads far faster than in a modern democracy. Ah, the magic of the internet.

Perhaps in our day and age, electronic media immediately take on the characteristics of the society.  The ol’ US of A is not a true democracy, although she’s got her bright spots.  Perhaps Twitter is this way too.  The good news: no elected twitterers, no term limits, no campaign spending.  And you can turn someone off whenever you want to.  Maybe that’s what IRL democracy needs: a “Block” button.