The last quarter of an inch

The morning of my first and last skydive, someone emailed me a quote: “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” My instructor put it another way: “It doesn’t hurt ‘til that last quarter of an inch.”

It’ll be seven years this October since I jumped, but I can remember each second of it like a dream from which I have just awoken, and my heart pumps in helium fits to my head.

I’m reliving the jump now as I sit in a stranger’s apartment that I will call my home for three months. It is my fifth day of a new life in New York City, and the world – seriously, the whole world – teems outside my window, draining my bank account, taunting me with better writers and prettier apartments, bloodying my feet no matter which shoes I wear. But I showed up. I showed up like I did the morning of my 30th birthday and put my sneakers on the lip of the plane’s open hatch and grinned at the camera and jumped. I was jumping because I had done something terrifying and crazy and brave by breaking up with someone on whom I’d been deeply codependent for three years. I jumped because I needed something bigger than that to happen, even if it was going splat in a field in the middle of Texas.

I jumped because not jumping was unacceptable.

I won’t tell you if you should or shouldn’t skydive. Statistics (and a company’s solid credentials) will almost guarantee you have nothing to lose but a little bit of pee, and it does empower you. It helps you emerge from your murky fears and decide what to wash off and what to keep, it lets you draw the fears you have chosen in patterns on your skin, to make those fears belong to you rather than to belong to them.

Skydiving will teach you what it means to be brave, which looks a lot like being terrified. That’s because you cannot be brave unless you are terrified. It’s the going ahead with it that makes you brave. Bravery isn’t good posture and a placid expression, either. This is something I’m learning even years after the dive. I always thought handling a divorce, cancer, or a loss bravely would look like Katherine Hepburn as the ice queen Tracie Lord in “The Philadelphia Story”, all draping gowns and shoulder pads and set jaw.

But bravery can be clumsy and look like this: the morning of your appointment, you nervously jabber with friends, taking small comfort in the fact that, if someone else is doing it with you, it must not be that nuts of an idea. You wobble your way through the disclaimers and orientation, you try to think about other things while slipping on the jumpsuit, and laugh too loudly when the instructors try to calm you with jokes about duct tape. You flare your eyes at your friends in an expression of “what are we doing?” and your breathing gets faster and makes you light-headed. This is good. Light-headed people don’t make executive decisions like “turn this plane around”. Light-headed people get on the plane and hold their friends’ hands and make squealing noises and put on displays of bravado for the video camera.

If you skydive, make sure you pay extra for the video. You will want to relive this moment when you have become too timid in your life, and a camera makes you feign courage.

At about 10,000 feet, you may be above a few puffy, sheepy clouds. The sky around you is twelve shades of blue. The fields and farmlands below look like miniature models. These ridiculously clement conditions are perfect for imagining that perhaps, yes, gravity will not work this time and you will fly into a child’s tale or a dollhouse. You will reach a tipping point of light-headedness where you feel an impatience, a “let’s get on with this!” because you cannot go back now, could never live out your life knowing you turned back at that crucial moment, and besides, Wonderland may very well be out there, and has anyone lived to tell about this? oh of course they have, but you might be that statistic and this might be your last act in life but you’re crouched at the open door refusing to look over your toes and your cameraman flies off like he’s been shot out of a cannon with a wave and a grin and your instructor is strapped to your back shouting in your ear that he will tap you on the arm and that’s when you arch your back and do something else – what did he say? – god man just get on with it I’m ready to die, ready to see, ready for Wonderland, ready for anything, ready. Ready.

Rock back, rock forward, rock back, and you’re out.

This is what that moment looked like for me:

oh holy shit!













Note the mouth forming the “O” of “Holy shit”.

Your instructor, if he is good, will say Yeah! and Woo! and encourage you to do the same, and will grab your hands and stretch them out like you are Peter Pan, and in doing so will remind you: we are having fun. We are enjoying life.

Also, he has done this about 10,000 times, which makes your left brain feel just comfortable enough to get out of the way for a minute and trust whatever it is your stupid right brain has gotten you into this time.

But this is what I remember most. Fuck it.

That’s what my brain said as we fell at 120 miles per hour, which doesn’t feel like falling at all. It feels like a giant fan is blowing up from the ground and keeping you aloft, so enjoy the view: look out and not down. Looking down is giving in to what you have done and thinking about it. Too late. Fuck it. Look out over the tops of those clouds, to the horizons that you are stretching your hands out to, to the bowl of the sky as it goes from baby blue to deepest marine and back again, thinking to yourself that you are the only one seeing this right now, the only one inhabiting this space in which there is no room for fear or hope or questions or worst-case scenarios. Because you’ve done it and now you have to live with it and so you take your way you have chosen to live – or die – you take it up and you hold it like a proud chief holds a warhammer, chin up, defiant.

Remember the Skateway? Whatever your town called it, it was a dark rink with carpet-padded walls, a DJ booth perched above and a dizzying eddy of rushing skaters. And you, you were so small and uncertain; all knees and hands clutching at that nubby rug railing. Do you remember the moment you plunged into the fast and free center? The breath that you took and held and the way your skates carried you so wonderfully fast and how you coasted and leaned ever so slightly and rounded the corner like a champion and felt the pretzel and Icee-scented air in your hair and like you could do anything? That’s living. That’s what freefalling feels like.

After the chute opens, things slow to a meandering 1,000 ft./min. drop. You have about 5 minutes to feel the straps stressing with your weight, to understand how badly the ground wants you. You grip your instructor’s arms (which he said you could do) and you ask nervous, silly questions:

Have you ever hit a bird?
Has anyone ever peed on you?
How do you turn?
Okay, stop turning this is making me freak out.

But this isn’t the part that counts – not even the landing, although that is a miracle in its own way. The seconds that burn themselves into you happen during that freefall, when you have taken your brain, blood, eyes, mouth, dreams, fingernails, fears, loves, bones, guts, past, present, and future confidently in one direction at their combined maximum velocity.

You have more than blown your trumpet at the gates of dullness; you have announced your will to live.

The consequences? That’s all just the last quarter-inch.

holy mothereffing a!

A Dragon Looks Ahead

Fnert, I need to get my life straight. I was a better adult as a kid than I am as an adult.

Okay, so I still have the lousy work ethic I had as a kid. Must ask someone who wasn’t raised by wolves: is a work ethic born or bred? If bred, then I was cheated out of one and must nail one together somehow.

If born, then I’m off the hook. Procrastinators of the world, unite tomorrow! Sometime in the afternoon or whenever.

I have a good life, but I can’t feel it. I’m too busy with anxietymonster. Quick, do nothing!

I second-guess every decision, and then third, fourth, and fifth-guess it. To blog/tweet/update Facebook status/write essay, short story, novel or not to blog/tweet/update Facebook status/write essay, short story, novel? That is the question. And we all know what happened to Hamlet. Hell, he took the whole family down with him.

I don’t care that, at 35, my finest eggs have likely been laid; I refuse to have a baby until I’m no longer Hamlet. Also, do I want to bring a child into a world where “Toddlers and Tiaras” is perfectly legal but a nipple slip is apocalyptic?

This entry wasn’t supposed to be about my reproductive fence-sitting, but it is about fence-sitting in general. I do nothing because I worry too much, and I worry too much because the worst thing I can do is invite criticism from the likes of me. It’s a nasty business, self-loathing.

Because I cannot seem to write in a diary anymore (I’ll claim the decreasing ability to write longhand as a form of evolution, like a shrinking pinky toe and having no wisdom teeth), I’m here going to state my resolutions for this year, the Year of the Dragon. My year! May my passion, damnably high standards, and fertile mind drive me to riches and not ruin.

1. Pick my battles. I have only so much time and energy. Most of the time, when I start to blow up about something and chase it down the rabbit hole, it’s because I want to avoid the Thing That Shall Not Be Named*.

*: Writing my book

2. Get my old ass back. Not what you think. I used to be a terrific ass. Someone once even called me “braying.” Ten years of theater and improv taught me not to second-guess myself – to throw out jokes even if they don’t work, do voices, make faces, say outrageous things. Even if no one else got me, I used to crack myself up. What a wonderful gift. I’m becoming Captain Bum-Out

3. Get my old ass back. Now it’s what you think. I’ll get in amazing shape and take a bunch of vanity pictures, because it’s all downhill from here.

4. Sing in the car every time. EVERY TIME. Sing in the shower. Sing while cleaning, while cooking. Sing, sing, sing.

5. Stop obsessing over how shitty my memory is getting. Everyone’s memory is shitty. I need to commend myself on my extensive knowledge of ’80s pop culture and relatively firm grip on grammar rules and just relax about not being able to call up my favorite lines of poetry in conversation. Those people are assholes, anyway.

6. Stop hating women who are getting accolades for doing what you think you could be doing better.  It’s not their fault you’re a lazy person with serious mental problems. Also, good for them/us. Start seeing women as sisters, not ghastly phantoms here to torment you for your shortcomings. (Some women honestly do suck huge donkey dicks of mediocrity, but enough about Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler.)

7. Hug more. Not every problem needs to be solved. Arms do what brains cannot.

8. Finish the goddamned memoir. My great-grandma Zelma Swift would have said “You don’t make a pie with your head, dummy.”

9. When it comes to writing and submitting work: Grab snake. Toss.

10. Rely less on meanness to be funny. Tina Fey said in a 2004 interview with Bust magazine that in your teens and 20s you can be mean, but keep it up, and you’ll be a cunt by 40. There’s a wonderful challenge in being funny without being mean. I mean, I’ll still say mean shit of course. Of COURSE. It’s funny to say mean things, especially about real assholes. But I need to put a few more tools in the shed. Photoshop helps.

Alright, Intermess. You’re my witness. Also, look for my t-shirt, soon to come: It’s not oversharing if you never undershare.

Inspiration – (Doubt + Internet Noise) = 2012

Oh my God. I just wrote the most magnificent blog post of all time. And WordPress deleted it right as I published it.

It was about not second guessing myself all the time and resolving to give in to my inspiration.


Hi ho.

The Weekly Nut Probe: Phobia

When I wake up in the middle of the night, my subconscious exposed and naked, I have the same uncontrollable, terrifying fantasy:

Trash, blowing wildly down city streets.

Plastic bag tumbleweeds, rolling paper coffee cups, styrofoam! Styrofoam is the worst: all those little pearls, breaking loose and skittering away like petrolic rats.

In the dead of night, vulnerable, I think of all the places where trash cans are heaped high downtown with garbage, unweighted, waiting for a stiff breeze to come along and loosen their tenuous moors.

And it does!

Wild, uncontrollable winds blow and garbage is unfettered all over Chinatowns from San Francisco to NYC, slipping down gutters and into rivers, bags flattening themselves against chain links fences like escaped lunatics, napkins — the countless zillions of these infernal things I see flying off of outdoor café tables — in a snowy swirl above the ground.

I shake Nat awake, breathlessly rasping, “Trash everywhere, there’s trash everywhere.” This is code for: Hold me and tell me about the future, where there are incinerators on every corner.

The usual things people say when I tell them about my phobia

  • Q: Is it just because of the mess factor? A: Yes, but no. It’s more the fact of the mess being made; the chaos of the trash’s potential energy the moment it meets the kinetic wind. Yikes! Jesus, just saying that freaks me out … I’m taking my laptop in the bathroom and shutting the door.
  • Q: How are you going to survive moving to a place like New York City with a phobia like this? A: It’s true! I will have to cope somehow. Even Austin has a HUGE problem with LITTER BLOWING UNCHECKED down the streets BECAUSE CAP METRO AND CITY OF AUSTIN ARE PARALYZED MORONS who don’t understand that a festival like ACL or SXSW brings TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EXTRA PEOPLE AND THEIR GARBAGE to the city and that, hmmm, let me see, MAYBE MORE TRASH CANS AND MORE FREQUENT EMPTYING IS, gee, what’s that word? OBVIOUS??*

*I actually had this exact breakdown while walking around downtown Austin during SXSW this year. And the year before it.

What causes phobias?

Neuroscientists are finding that biological factors (such as greater blood flow and metabolism in the right brain hemisphere) may be the culprit. Well, a-ha: I am left-handed/right-brained. But then, phobias may also be influenced by cultural factors. Agoraphobia (leaving the house and going out into public) is huge in the United States and Europe, where in Japan, it’s taijin kyofusho (fear of offending others because of one’s own awkward social behavior or an imagined physical defect). Taijin kyofusho is, basically, the usual brand of Japanese modesty and regard for others, but on PCP.

Ha! You’ll never find that problem in the good ole U.S.A… Yee-haw and fuck you!

So is my flying trash phobia a result of engorged right hemisphere plus a cultural tendency towards letting our garbage tour the planet on its own accord? Probably. More likely, it’s because my childhood was chaotic and no one seemed to be in charge, and so a garbage can overturning and blowing its contents unchecked all over the world is the most direct and extreme symbol of the upsetting drama of my young life.

For my little brother, it’s roaches. Like, a chest-tightening, panicky reaction to roaches. Roaches were a huge daily part of our lives as kids, so it makes sense. To him, they symbolize perhaps his helplessness in the way that garbage symbolizes mine. Also, I make sure to point one out to him every time I see one.

True Things I Did In Service Of My Phobia

  1. Called a 311 operator and screamed at her about an overturned garbage can on a busy street. I was running late to work and couldn’t stop to put it all back in, myself. She said she’d put in a work order to have it collected, but that it could take 24 hours. “24 HOURS?!” I yelled, “Do you know WHERE this garbage will be in 24 hours? Forming a thick skin on top of Town Lake, that’s where! It’s thunderstorm weather, for godssake! Do you think this garbage will just sit tight and wait for you to red-tape your way through getting it picked up? CHRIST!”
  2. Offered a homeless dude $20 to clean it up
  3. Woke Nat up several nights leading up to the wedding to make him swear we wouldn’t let anyone bring paper napkins or plastic cups on the boat where we were having our river cruise party. “And NO cocktail napkins at the reception.” (There ended up being plastic cups on the boat and napkins at the reception: surprisingly few people died as a result.)

How I Cured One Phobia

Until 5 years ago, I had a second phobia: bouncing balls. Anyone bouncing a ball anywhere near a street would send me into a full-on freakout. Even the sight of an unused basketball hoop in someone’s driveway would make my palms itch. “Oh, SURE!” I’d rave to the empty street, “Just put that there! Go ahead and let balls just BOUNCE ALL OVER THE STREET as if no one drives there or anything.”

The phobia seemed to dissipate when I moved to Austin and found a little house across a busy street from a tennis court. I watched as a ball did the worst thing it possibly could: it went over the fence, hit a passing car on the windshield, and both car and ball continued on their ways, unfazed. I did not have a meltdown. I felt oddly calm in the face of it — like, hey, I knew this would happen all along, and I feared it, but now that it’s happened, I’m still here, and nothing has changed. The phobia is still in there, I can feel it, but it’s an inert residue that flares up only slightly when I have anxiety about something else.

But flying garbage? That will never be okay.

I’m not saying I’m going to start saving my pee in jars or anything — I’m going to be brave and follow my heart to NYC. Life is too short to spend it victimized.

On blustery days, maybe I’ll just be in the Met.

Tim Ferriss & I Should Go Clean a Cobra Pit

Every now and then,  just when I start to feel an eensy bit okay about myself and my future, the Internet comes along like a raging crosstown and sprays me with rancid Chinatown garbage water until I go back inside and cry under my bed on a pillow of dust and dog hair.

This time, the glaring evidence that I’m a spineless weenie came in the form of this video of a guy cleaning out a cobra pit…with real, live, hissing cobras in it. Lots of cobras. (As if that matters; one cobra would make me pee myself.) Here, look:

There’s something undeniably Zen (and yet thrilling) about the nonchalant way this guy grabs a flared, erect snake and tosses it aside. One after the other! Grab/toss, grab/toss, each one creating a pile of horrible, angry enemies just behind him that he largely ignores.

I want to be like this guy more than anything in the world.

Forget this creepy huckster and his soulless, sociopathically self-serving brand of self-help. If Timothy Ferriss is the juiced-up guru for Patrick Bateman types with an irritating amount of energy and disconcerting lack of virtue, the guy cleaning cobra pits is the real deal. He’s the motivational idol for DIYers with pickling fetishes. Back to basics! What’s Facebook? Grab snake and toss. Grab/toss.

He doesn’t cheat the snakes and win a Chinese Kickboxing Championship by pushing his opponents out of the box, and – as far as the video shows – he doesn’t taunt them or traumatize them. He just wants to clean up their poop and eggs without them being all up in his face. Shut your hole, snake. Toss.

This was an epiphany for me today, as I peer over the lip of depression, as I hunt for jobs and talk myself out of each one, as I become less and less sure of my capabilities, my worth, my ideas. As I stare at the words of my book on the screen and think “I’m going to write a shitty book about my mother’s death and our life together and what loss and trauma are like, so I should just stop now.”

This is now on a Post-It above my computer:

1. Grab snake

2. Toss

If you stop to think, you get scared and freeze. The snake can sense your fear and it will strike. The snake in this metaphor being, for me, self-doubt (or the overwhelming urge to refill the birdfeeder, clean the grout with a toothbrush, or any other number of things that aren’t finding work or writing my book). In that sense, Timothy Ferriss does have a point that’s helpful to a lot of fear-frozen individuals: you might have to be a cocky wanker in the face of all those “Nos” and “Can’ts.”

Or you can simply clean the cobra pit.

See also:

  • This enlightening take on Tim Ferriss from someone who knew him pretty well. In case you just picked up his book and think he’s the Greatest Ever Ever! and haven’t yet digested and fully evacuated from your being the enormous, toxic crapload he’s filled you with.