A Perfect Mess

I could never live in one of those neighborhoods where all the houses are identical. I could never even live in an area with a homeowner’s association. I’m full of too many quirks and perfect imperfections. That, and I resent authority. Nobody is going to tell me what color to paint my mailbox.

But I must admit that I’ve been fascinated with New Urbanism as a concept ever since I saw the movie The Truman Show, which was filmed in Seaside, Florida. New Urbanism consists of meticulously planned communities that give off this 1950’s vibe of perfection that never actually existed. Spotless, flawless homes with spotless, flawless yards and spotless, flawless streets, restaurants, and shopping areas. Mixed-use buildings with cute little high-end shops and condominiums. A place where all the movies are rated G, and all the neighbors look exactly like you.

I love visiting these places because they are the embodiment of Trump’s idea of what a great America used to look like. It’s like peering into a misguided fantasy. It’s hard to look away.

These places are so immaculate and unblemished that they are disturbing, in the way that robots designed to look like humans are disturbing. You look into their smiling, robotic faces and you know that there’s no “there” there. Beneath the surface, something is extremely not human.

I visited the planned community of Celebration, Florida a few times. It was fun, in a voyeuristic kind of way. I blogged about it and places like it in a post called “Too Perfect.”

When I go to one of these communities, I’m impressed by their beauty, but at the same time I’m constantly on edge. I’m afraid I’ll scuff the sidewalk or something, and these men in white coats will burst from the bushes and carry me away. There’s an underlying tension required to maintain perfection, and that makes it unpleasant.

I can just imagine the neighborly infighting. “The third slat on Mr. Jones’ white picket fence is 1 degree off center. This is not to be borne. We need to report him.”

It’s unsettling to gaze upon perfection and yet be unable to shake the feeling that just below the thin veneer, there’s some kind of moral decay. Or maybe even a physical decay. And so it was that I wasn’t overly shocked to read an article entitled, “Celebration, Florida: How Disney’s ‘Community of Tomorrow’ Became a Total Nightmare”.

It seems that many of the residents of this community have filed a lawsuit, because the place is, in fact, falling apart. Disney sold much of Celebration to a private equity firm in 2004, and ever since then, Celebrationites claim that this firm has been pocketing homeowners dues and not making any repairs whatsoever. There’s so much water and termite damage that some people have had to leave, or put up with swathes of black mold, swaying floors, and unusable stairways. The firm is also threatening to slap the homeowners with fees that are higher than the original price of their residences, all while their property values decline.

It must be awful to think you’re investing in perfection, only to discover that, even in that magical place, human greed and incompetence still rises to the surface to muck everything up. That would be like gazing upon the forbidden fruit, and then realizing that, if not nurtured, it can rot before it’s even harvested, just like all the other produce in the world.

I wish these people good luck with their lawsuit, but I think their dream was inherently flawed in the first place. I’ll take my one of a kind, unregulated home any day.


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Lowering My Expectations

The vast majority of the time when I’m really annoyed, the situation fits into one category. People are not behaving as I feel they should.

I have really high expectations. I think everyone should act with integrity. Everyone should tell the truth. Everyone’s motivations should be pure. Everyone should have everyone else’s best interests at heart. Everyone should be kind and respectful. Everyone should be reliable. Everyone should say what they mean and mean what they say.

“Should” is the most insidious word in the English language. Here’s the question. Where did my notion of perfection come from? Heaven knows I have not seen many examples of this behavior. This rulebook of mine is something I seem to have conjured up in my own mind. In fact, it’s been my experience that a lot of people behave quite abominably (see also: Washington D.C.).

If most of the crows I’ve seen in my life take flight, why would I expect them to suddenly do the breaststroke? If I know it to be true that dogs bark, why would I expect them to start singing showtunes? If your habit is to be a jerk, why would I imagine that you’d behave otherwise?

And yet I follow this pattern consistently. People don’t fit into my arrogant little box of perfection, and it drives me up a wall. It’s just so freaking frustrating!

Do I derive any benefit from my irritation? Does it serve me well? Does it change anything? No, no, and no.

I have no magical power to change people. I’m not the behavior police. The only thing I can do is work on myself.

Logic dictates that I lower my expectations of people. I need to stop measuring them by a yardstick that is clearly not of their choosing. I have got to loosen my grip on the steering wheel of life.

It would be so liberating to be pleasantly surprised when someone does something good rather than be irritated when he or she basically acts like he or she always does. It would be a relief to direct my energies toward those things over which I actually have control. It would be wonderful to just do me. I’d love to be less disappointed by others, not because they’ve straightened up, but because I realize it’s not my place to sit in judgment, and because I’ve come to accept the fact that people, as a general rule, don’t change.

Now, the trick will be to figure out how to lower my expectations without crossing that fine line into the land of no faith in humanity whatsoever.

Pardon my dust. I’m still under construction.


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When the Love Spell is Broken

Love is like a drug. When you’re deep in it, especially in the early stages, it’s hard to see flaws. Red flags just look like a pretty splash of color in your world. You want to bask in the fact that you seem to have found evidence of perfection, and that perfect person, against all odds, thinks that you’re pretty darned amazing, too. Such bliss.

It’s a heady feeling, that perfect love. The problem is, it’s pure fiction. Everyone has flaws. It’s a rare person who doesn’t have the scales fall from dazzled eyes at least once in his or her romantic life. It’s profoundly discouraging to discover that the prince you’ve been kissing has been a frog all along and you’ve just refused to see it.

I think the reason we try to cling to the fantasy for as long as we can is that we’ve been raised to believe that true success means we must be part of a couple. It’s as if those of us who don’t go around two-by-two have somehow failed at life, and should be ashamed. What a steaming pile of horse manure. In modern times, one can do quite well on one’s own.

Yes, it can be lonely. We are social animals. But it’s possible to be social without being joined at the hip. I think it would be easier for many of us if we didn’t have so much societal pressure to take paths in life that we are unable or unwilling to walk down.

But if you insist, know this: True and enduring love is not ignoring someone’s flaws. Neither is it settling for the intolerable. It’s finding someone whose flaws you can see clearly and live with and still maintain a modicum of self-respect as well as respect for the other person. I understand that that picture isn’t quite as pretty, but it’s a heck of a lot more realistic.


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Coming to the Rescue

I just had a long talk with my newest dog, Quagmire. Don’t panic. I’m not Son of Sam. I’m willing to acknowledge that the conversation was rather one-sided. But just by being the dog that he is, he was able to tell me quite a bit.

Before I adopted him, he was found dirty, terrified, and on the street. That’s no place for a little Dachshund. He had no microchip or collar, and although the rescue organization kept him for quite some time before putting him up for adoption, no one came for him. That astounds me, because in the short time I’ve had him in my life, I know that this dog is the pure embodiment of love. How could anyone not move heaven and earth to find him?

I will never know his whole story, but it’s clear that he’s been through a lot. I’m beginning to suspect there are health issues that we’ll have to contend with. And he’s the clingiest dog I’ve ever known. He has to sit in the bathroom when I take a shower, or else he’ll stand outside the door and cry. He sticks to me like glue. When I come home from work, he’s practically hysterical with joy. He likes to bury his little head in that space between my shoulder and my ear, deep under my hair.

I will always take good care of Quagmire. I’ll keep him as healthy as I can, and I will always make sure that he feels safe and loved. My life may not be perfect, but I’m going to make his as perfect as it can possibly be.

That’s one of the many joys of rescuing a pet—exercising the ability to give something the perfection that it deserves. Excellence often eludes us. As my mother loved to remind me, life isn’t fair. But when you take on a pet you have the power to give them heaven on earth. You are creating your pet’s entire world, and you can and should make it wonderful. That’s a heady feeling, and there’s no greater gift. For both of you.

“Get off the computer, mama, and give me some love.”

Too Perfect

If you’ve seen the movie The Truman Show, you have experienced Seaside, Florida in all its creepy perfection. I have never been there myself, but I have been to Celebration, Florida, which is another perfectly planned little hamlet. These places are cool to visit, but they kind of give me the willies.

Seaside, Florida [Image credit: misfitsarchitecture.com]
Seaside, Florida [Image credit: misfitsarchitecture.com]

These communities are regulated in the extreme. Individuality is very discouraged. The houses can only be a certain style and a certain range of colors. Your white picket fence must be of a particular design. And forget about unique landscaping. Seaside and Celebration are the Stepford Wives of communities, even more so than your typical neighborhoods with homeowners associations.

I am thinking of these places because recently I drove through Port Gamble, Washington. Port Gamble was established in 1853, and looks as if it has been frozen in time. The Victorian houses, many of them identical, are in pristine condition, and there’s one continuous white picket fence along the length of the main street. There are also some touristy shops, but we didn’t stop.

The reason we didn’t stop is that I got the shivers just driving through the place. Yes, it’s charming, and each building, if by itself, would be a delight. But as you drive through there, you start to notice that there’s a distinct absence of humans. And all the blinds are drawn. I could easily imagine an FLDS polygamist cult occupying the town, or an extended family of zombies. It’s downright disturbing. I wouldn’t want to be caught there after dark. It felt like an extremely sanitized ghost town.

Port Gamble's perfect little church.
Port Gamble’s perfect little church.
Port Gamble's perfect little picket fence. Taken from the safety of my car. With the window rolled up.
Port Gamble’s perfect little picket fence. Taken from the safety of my car. With the window rolled up.

I genuinely think that there’s such a thing as too much perfection. Humanity lies in the flaws; in the peeling paint and the tacky lawn flamingoes. When people start marching in lockstep, they seem robotic. When they force their surroundings to do the same, it feels otherworldly. I would definitely not thrive in that environment. It’s too much about appearances and what the neighbors think.

I’m Confident You’ll Want to Read This

The other day I saw Katty Kay and Claire Shipman being interviewed on the Colbert Report. They were talking about their new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know. It was a really fascinating discussion, and although I have not read the book yet, I plan to.

They talked about the fact that statistically speaking, women are generally less confident than men, and they said there are several reasons for this. First of all, men are raised to face failure. They are more likely to play sports, and therefore have experienced losses in that realm. They also are usually the ones that ask for dates, and have known the rejection that comes with that. Because they’ve faced failure, they’ve learned that when it happens, the world won’t come to an end, and therefore they’re willing to take more risks than women are. This increases their confidence.

In addition, women tend to be perfectionists, and since perfection is rarely if ever achieved, it tends to wear your confidence down. We are taught to please people. Many of us never feel quite good enough, because we can’t really be responsible for how others feel or react, can we?

They also mentioned the hormonal and genetic aspects of confidence. Testosterone gives one a great deal of confidence, so needless to say that puts women at a disadvantage. There are also several genes (not one specific “confidence gene”, mind you) that play a part. Apparently if you have a certain combination of genes, you’re more apt to be confident. So a portion of confidence is basically the luck of the draw. Either you have it or you don’t.

But there are things you can do to boost your confidence. First of all, there’s a test you can take on their website to determine your confidence level. Check it out here. Even though this test is geared specifically toward women, it can be taken by anyone. It only takes about 5 minutes.

I just took the test myself. I think a lot of people would be surprised at my results, because all my life I’ve been told I was strong and opinionated and intelligent. I’ve always been kind of annoyed when I’m told I’m strong, because honestly, what’s the alternative? Curl up in a fetal position and suck one’s thumb? The bills won’t stop coming just because the world just shat all over you. That’s not strength, really. That’s just survival. I’m assuming that those people who think I’m strong would also think I was confident.

The test revealed what I already knew to be true. I have lower than average confidence. I’ve had so many setbacks in the past few years that my confidence is at rock bottom, even for me. But it’s never been that high to begin with, except in two areas: my intelligence and my writing skills. Those are things that I’ve always been completely secure about. Everything else? I’m a mess.

After you’ve taken the test, it gives several suggestions about ways to improve your confidence. My result suggested that I break tasks into smaller chunks so I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Succeeding at a small part of a project will give you confidence to do the rest of it.

It also stated that “research shows that gratitude is one of the keys to happiness and an optimistic mindset. That mindset encourages confidence.” It mentions being grateful for little things, like when someone lets you merge into traffic. It also said to just say thank you when you receive a compliment. Don’t argue about it or deny it. Just appreciate the sentiment.

Negative Automatic Thoughts were also discussed. You know what that means. That nasty little voice inside your head that tells you those shorts really do make you look fat. Learn to identify those thoughts, counter them with logic and three positive thoughts. Think of things you’d say to a friend. Be a friend to yourself.

And yes, they discussed facing failure. Take risks. Start small.

Know any confident women? You can nominate them to be featured on the Confidence Code website. We can all learn from each other. So take that test and nominate someone today!


I have confidence in me!


Heirloom Tomatoes

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the promised land, and it is good.

For about a year now I’ve been passing heirloom tomatoes in my local store and noting that they are twice the price of any other tomato. “What’s the big deal?” I’d wonder. But I could never really justify the expense in my mind. And then a few days ago I decided to indulge my curiosity.

Let me just say that heirloom tomatoes have ruined me for any other tomato for the rest of my life. I had forgotten what tomatoes tasted like in my childhood, before they became texture-less and soulless and devoid of any passion whatsoever. Heirlooms may not be particularly pretty, but they are tomato nirvana. Once you’ve had heirloom, you never go back.

And that’s a big problem, because I’ll rarely be able to afford them, they’re still not universally available, and quite obviously they’re not used in most restaurants. So here I am, having been to the promised land, faced with the grim knowledge that most of the time I shall be forced to dwell in the tomato equivalent of metropolitan Detroit. Life can be exceedingly cruel.

This leaves me wondering if I might have been better off if I’d never left “Detroit” in the first place. Is it better to live in blissful ignorance, or should you be grateful for the brief shining moment you are allowed to experience true genius with the sure and bittersweet knowledge that witlessness shall once again be yours?

It is the same when you experience the perfection of 500 thread count Egyptian Cotton sheets, five star cuisine, truly dank weed, or phenomenal, mind blowing, out of this world sex. You have been to the top of the mountain, and you prefer the view up there, but in the back of your mind you know you’ll never be able to keep up with the property taxes, so you heave a heavy sigh and trudge back down to the valley and try not to spend the rest of your life gazing longingly skyward.


[image credit: windrosefarm.org]

Don’t Mess with the Plaster

Back when I still owned a house, I got it into my head to completely remodel my bathroom. I mean, I ripped out everything down to the studs and started from scratch. Two words: Never again. But I do try to learn something from every experience, and I learned quite a few things from this one.

First of all, if you are working on a project with your boyfriend, never ever do the bulk of your work out of his sight. I worked 8 hours a day for months on that accursed bathroom, then would go to work at night. But since he didn’t see that, he’d work on the project only on the weekends, and was convinced that we split the work 50/50. Give me strength.

Second, never let a room full of men intimidate you into taking shortcuts that you know are going to come back and bite you in the butt, because the butt that will get bitten will be your own.

Third and most important is a motto that I’ve carried through to many other areas of my life: “Don’t Mess with the Plaster”. I should tattoo that on the inside of my eyelids, because these are truly words to live by.

You see, that house was built in 1925 and had settled over the years, and there wasn’t a 90 degree angle anywhere within it. Because of this, getting the walls to look like you weren’t in some sort of a funhouse took quite a bit of effort. Just putting in drywall sounds like a plan, but since each panel would be slightly askew from its neighbor, you had to do some creative plastering to transition between the two.

Plastering that bathroom became the bane of my existence. I wanted it to be perfect. I’d add thin layers, wet sand, come back a couple hours later, add another layer, modify…then scrape it all off and start over again. I’d wake up out of a sound sleep knowing I’d never get back to dreamland until I worked on it. I had plaster in my hair, under my nails, in my nostrils. I became Plaster Girl. And in the end, after all that stress, frustration, and anxiety, I was probably no better off than I would have been if I just applied a few layers and moved on.

Don’t mess with the plaster. Don’t strive for perfection. Perfection, for the most part, is unachievable. The pursuit of perfection will drive you insane, and you might make things worse. Strive for what works.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was talking to a friend about his long distance relationship. I asked him if he was ever planning to visit his girlfriend. I mean, I would. It’s such a wonderful relationship. Wouldn’t you want it to be perfect? He pointed out to me that they were very happy with things as they are, so why mess with that? He could go see her, yes, but she’s an efficient ICU nurse and he’s a laid back hippie, and he’d probably drive her nuts by leaving dirty socks in the corner. What they have is happiness. Why is it necessary to seek more?

Don’t mess with the plaster, people.


Perfect Moments

Andy Warhol said that we’d all get 15 minutes of fame. To that I say, “Pffft, what’s the point?” If you’re the type that wants fame, having only 15 minutes of it would be cruel at best. Fortunately, fame is not nearly as important to me as experiencing perfect moments in time.

Have you ever experienced one of those fleeting instants in your life when everything seems to come together and you know you’ll hold that memory close at hand for as long as you live? I honestly believe that those are the moments you will see when your life flashes before your eyes. Those brief interludes are when you get to taste pure joy. I have had a few. They always sneak up on me.

One time I was sitting on a lawn chair on a beach in Puerto Rico. The temperature was perfect, and there was a slight breeze. I had no place that I had to be. The surf was rolling onto the shore, and there seemed to be a million stars in the sky. I saw the Southern Cross just above the horizon. And BAM. There I was. In a perfect moment.

Another time I was standing on a rooftop in Istanbul, and all of a sudden all the mosques in the area began the call to prayer as I gazed over the city. It had taken quite a bit to get myself to that city, and yet there I was. Again, a perfect moment.

And then there’s every single solitary time I look at the full moon.

Then there was the time I stepped out my front door and the entire sky was, I swear to God, bright yellow. I have no idea why. And I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. But it was like I was on another planet. Everyone in the park across the street was just standing there, staring skyward. I wanted to take a picture, but that would have meant going inside to find my camera, and I didn’t want to miss a single second of it.

Another time I was swimming in a crystal clear cove in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I have never seen water so pure or a day so fine. Heaven could not be better.

The first perfect moment I remember was as a child in Connecticut. I was sitting on a rocking chair in the living room with all the lights out except those on the Christmas tree. I was in my pajamas and wrapped in a soft blanket. Safe and warm. And I just happened to look over my shoulder just as it started to snow for the first time that winter. Bliss.

The moment I cherish most, perhaps, is the first time I stood at the Craggy Gardens overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I knew, I mean, I KNEW this was where I was supposed to be. This was what home felt like. I could breathe. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since.

Who needs fame? If I get 15 perfect moments in time, I’ll consider myself fortunate indeed.


Way too Freakin’ Perfect

I have a friend who seems flawless. First of all, she’s absolutely gorgeous, and it’s the kind of beauty that will still be stunning in old age. She’s extremely intelligent, has a job that she loves that allows her to travel all over the world, owns a cool house, has an amazing family and a great circle of friends, and she speaks 5 languages fluently. She also lives in a country where there’s universal health care. Not that she’ll ever need it, because she has a perfect body which is in perfect health. She loves her life. Who could ask for more?

Am I jealous? Heck yeah. Absolutely. And I say that with a great deal of chagrin. It took me a long time to admit it out loud, because I truly love her to pieces. When she tells me about one of her achievements, I am genuinely happy for her, really I am. Really. No! Really! But it’s coupled with, dare I say it? A soupçon of resentment. I do not like this about myself.

But here’s the thing. (And as a blogger friend of mine, pouringmyartout likes to say, “there’s always a thing.” Thanks Art, for making me think of THAT every time I say it.) I wouldn’t want her life. As far as I can tell, she hasn’t been in a long term romantic relationship since college. And she says she likes it that way. She lives alone and she has freedom. More power to her. But I think of her sometimes, alone in her wonderful house, looking amazing, and my heart does one of those little squeezy things, because I can’t imagine anything more lonely in the world than having the perfect life but having no one to share it with. I’m glad she’s happy, but I know I wouldn’t be in similar circumstances.

There’s always something, isn’t there?