When Do We Become Ourselves?

About a decade ago (when I was 14) I found the...
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A friend recently sent me a fifth-grade photo of himself, wondering if I could guess who he was.

It was pretty clear.

In my second-grade class photo, maybe third, I’m surrounded by a sea of perfectly composed little girls, their braids neat, hands folded on their laps, gleaming patent-leather Mary Janes, skirts, tight, bright smiles.

There I am, a happy mess — hair that desperately needs brushing, my front tooth missing, well-worn sneakers.

Except for the gap teeth, I’d say that’s still me. I’ve always been someone who — as early photos reveal — is often less worried about appearing perfect than having fun and being comfortable, the sort of kid whose worst tantrums erupted if my clothes felt constricting or I had to wear shoes I couldn’t run in.

In an early photo, taken in a London park, I’m wearing a lovely wool coat, holding a paper bag and looking a little anxious. It’s not clear if I am holding a cookie or about to feed some birds. But I recognize the mix of style (boiled wool double-breasted coat with nice sleeve details), anxiety, food.

These three themes, including feeling antsy if I can’t travel overseas every year or so, have remained consistent for me. I love great food and enjoy cooking and entertaining. I’m a worrier — my sweetie’s nickname for me is N-squared (for Nervous Nellie). And I do passionately love elegance and beauty.

I had my photo taken this week for an article about me in the local newspaper. What an agony of self-consciousness! What to wear? What decisions will people make about me when they see it? Will it make them want to buy my new book — or avoid it because of something in my demeanor, clothing, smile?

I was so fretful about how I would appear, not so much from vanity as…not sure. Fear of disdain? Of losing readers? (Surely my choice of clothing that day, a black blazer and softly draped cowlneck blouse, would also gain me some!)

I was badly bullied by a small gang of boys for three long years in high school, and have ever since felt terribly self-conscious about how I look, even though I know objectively I’m attractive and can dress stylishly, even on a budget.

It’s hard to shed that teenage persona, of fearfulness and judgment.

When did you realize who you were — and are you still OK with being that person today?

Did a photo reveal it to you?

You Can’t Quantify Kindness: Our Statistical Obsession

Chicago graph clim
Like this....but with feelings! Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in The New York Times by Alina Tugend about our growing — and misguided — obsession with measuring everything in our lives:

Numbers and rankings are everywhere. And I’m not just talking about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. In the journalism world, there’s how many people “like” an article or blog. How many retweeted or e-mailed it? I’ll know, for example, if this column made the “most e-mailed” of the business section. Or of the entire paper. And however briefly, it will matter to me.

Offline, too, we are turning more and more to numbers and rankings. We use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and students. The polling companies have already begun to tell us who’s up and who’s down in the 2012 presidential election. Companies have credit ratings. We have credit scores.

And although most people acknowledge that there are a million different ways to judge colleges and universities, the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report of institutions of higher education have gained almost biblical importance.

As the author of a newly released book about working retail I haven’t once (honest!) checked my amazon ranking number.

Seriously, what good can it possibly do?

Will my hips suddenly shrink or my bank balance double? I wish!

My thesis about why retail associates are so horribly paid is linked to this data obsession: you can’t measure kindness!

Think about the very best salesperson you ever met — (or hotel employee or waiter or nurse or teacher).

The EQ — or emotional intelligence — the skills that really left the strongest impression on you, are probably not their technical mastery of that new Mac or their grasp of the essentials of calculus, but how they helped you: with patience, humor, calm, grace.

All of these are essential qualities we simply cannot put on a graph.

And that which we cannot measure, we do not value.

I was in the hospital in March 2007 for three terrifying days, on a IV with pneumonia, from overwork and exhaustion. (Don’t ever get pneumonia — it makes you cough so hard, for hours at a time, you can break a rib.)

I finally begged the nurse to swaddle me tight in a cotton sheet, like an infant, to ease my aching muscles. She never raised an eyebrow at my weird request, but did it at once, with a compassion that I will never forget.

That healing quality of care, invisible, unmeasured and therefore too often undervalued, is not inscribed anywhere in my medical records.

It should be.

Want To Write A Book? You Sure?

  As the pushpushpushpushpush of book promotion and marketing for “Malled’ My Unintentional Career in Retail” continues — today offering interviews with two Canadian newspapers, a photo for my local newspaper and a radio interview — time for a reality check on the reality of book-writing.

Yes, this photo is of me, summer 2010 — mid-revisions!

Writing a book, for me, is a tremendous joy. I love having months to think long and hard about what I am trying to say and how. I love doing interviews for background and a better understanding of my subject, and reading entire books — ten for this one, on low-wage labor, retail and management — to make sure my individual impressions aren’t overly personal and limited.

But, having just attended the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in Manhattan, I also appreciated listening to the comfort and wisdom of more experienced friends who have published five or six or eight books.

They all know the giddy excitement of signing that contract with your publisher, getting the manuscript in and accepted, publication date — and the anxiety over reviews. Will you get any? How will you handle the savage ones?

Writing and promoting your book(s) is an extraordinary process. It can also be an emotional roller-coaster.

At a dinner table after the conference, four of us — who had never before met — brainstormed how one of us, a fellow Canadian, might best introduce his non-fiction book, The Erotic Engine, into the American market.

Three of us: a education specialist from Vermont, a home decor writer from Florida and I all gave it our best efforts, all while eating some great Italian food.

I love and live for this sort of generosity and camaraderie. At the conference, when I went up to panelist Kathleen Flinn, whose memoir of attending cooking school in Paris, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” was one of my favorites, she was excited to meet me. (!) She’d heard about Malled, as had many people at the conference.

Becoming a published author and climbing the many necessary steps along the way: finding an agent, writing a proposal, finding a publisher, writing, revising and then tirelessly marketing and promoting it, is a little like joining the military.

Really want to write and sell your book? Drop and give me twenty, soldier!

Whatever branch of service — cookbooks, YA, memoir, biography, history — we earn those stripes! We all experience many of the same issues and challenges and — like veterans of battle — know that we all know intimately what others only fantasize about.

Writing books means joining a long ladder of success, with many rungs.

Some books become huge best-sellers, leaving the rest of us gnashing our teeth in envy. Others become films or television series. Many find their own niche, buzzing along through social media and word of mouth.

Some just…die.

Do you hope to write a book? What do you hope to do with it?

What steps are you taking to get there?