Winter 2012
commit to a change, experience it, and record

I was caught in the haze of addiction, in the red room at the old house, reading the New York Times. Reading the science section always makes for good procrastination, and for a pseudo-intellectual social scientist like me, articles with pre-digested neuroscience make fine concealed weapons.

I should have been studying. Or thinking through the impending changes in my life. My fiancé was going abroad, we had a new puppy and I was stumbling through life in a cloud of pot smoke and emotional avoidance. This is truly the best time to take an interest in brain development.

The article was about habits, good ones and bad ones. It said that you cannot get rid of bad habits. No sir, they are here to stay. The only thing to do is make new ones, make better ones. Trying to quit smoking? Don’t pain yourself over having 3 cigarettes in a day vs. 4, just go for a run! Trying to stop eating fatty foods? Don’t beat yourself up over that piece of fudge, just eat a carrot too. The stubbornness of bad habits makes perfect sense given what we know about the brain’s adaptability. I’m glad, after all, that the marks registered in my gray matter have stayed put. I still know how to tie my shoes, and I still know how to ride a bike although I don’t do it very often. Cherished memories stick around, parts at least. This etching makes for other troubles too. Most people don’t know that the hallmark of PTSD is the intrusion of unwelcome memories, the persistent re-experiencing of a traumatic past.

By a certain age, most of us are decidedly wed to our preferred sources of dopamine. I for one am prone to co-dependency and substance use. Like most humans, especially my peers in the “self-esteem generation,” I also thrive on compliments and positive reinforcement, pats on the habit head. This article’s advice was sincere and I heard it clearly, “All your bad habits are here to stay, accept them, love them. Surround them with good things.” Rats in a bleak cage will self administer cocaine until they die, rats in a stimulating, safe environment will find a comfortable rate of use. Be the good rat.

So, at the threshold of my most difficult semester yet, I bought produce. I developed a complicated exercise routine. I would first walk the new puppy, increasing speed and distance as he aged. Then, yoga for suppleness and limber limbs, followed by weight training and pull ups. I would eat a strict diet: whole grains, sweet potato, grapefruit, tea. Of course I didn’t plan to stop pulling into the Plaid Pantry, munchies raging, and finding the old candy gang I knew and loved. No problem here, folks, nothing to see! I’m developing good habits!

I wouldn’t quit smoking cigarettes, as I’d already read the eulogy on that idea (it was in the Times!). If I could just exert myself with enough force, the old habits would simply be crowded out by the new ones. I was going to completely reinvent myself, totally unconsciously. I would conquer my social awkwardness, not by patiently looking at what caused my sense of alienation, but by forcing myself to go to parties in a grand mal state of tension. I would do it full on. And what to do, if by some chance, I was two years deep into a relationship, engaged, and miserable? Get a dog together, of course.

They were strange and frenzied days, as the girl prepared to leave for a semester abroad. I worked frantically to produce the image of a coherent life, of a self resilient enough to stand on its own. Of all the myths and denials that uphold broken personalities and broken homes, this may be paramount: the notion that we are autonomous from one another. “I’m fine! Stop asking.” This is what the alcoholic father offers to his son as the explanation for his palpable misery. “We’re fine! Stop asking, this is a private matter.” This is the explanation the alcoholic family offers to the rest of world.

And who is it, what enabler, who whispers at night, “If I can just love him hard enough, love him for long enough, be his good habits for him, then he’ll change.”

It doesn’t work like that. My life was not coherent, and bad habits aren’t just bad habits. They don’t come without their reasons, although it’s easy to think of them  as an alien force which descends, with no fathomable motivation, to possess and ruin our too trusting minds. The nail biting, nose picking, junk shooting, and tardiness are easiest to deal with if they are random, accidents of the chaotic universe. They are not. At bottom, somewhere beneath our tangled conditioning, they are the product of repeated attempts to find comfort from suffering, and they stick around, not because they work well, but because they meet some minimum. A cigarette doesn’t soothe anxiety for more than five minutes, and it breeds more worries down the line, but that soothing is enough for that moment. Reason enough to light up. Bad habits are more than they seem, they are the current state of a system doing the best it can to survive. My one time partner was doing the best she could, shucking off to Nepal to get some perspective. I was too, and in the classical form: denial.

This the code by which I was raised. When my dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous, he started apologizing for things. A misplaced anger, a sharply sculpted tone of voice, and then he would say, “I’m sorry about earlier, it was habit energy.” A strip of paper appeared on our fridge and stayed there until we moved, “You become what you practice most.”

These habits we have are often a smokescreen between us and the lives we’re leading. We have daily routines of forgetting and we go about the weeks and months doing the diligent work of avoidance. Exercise and leaves of kale are good for you, they help build a healthy life, and I wasn’t wrong to turn to them. I was a fool, however, to forget that beneath the habits is something scarier. Down there are the true needs and desires.

What if you did stop? When the filter is between your lips and you bring the lighter under your cupped hand to start your first drag, what if you stopped your hand right there. With your grip tense and your thumb primed to spark the flint, what if you waited there? What do you really need?

You Will Not Have Me - Amelia Spinney
“I trust nothing especially myself and slide head first into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation and threaten to push the delete button on my way down, or madly erase each line, pick up the paper and rip it into shreds - and then I realize, it doesn't matter, words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass.”
–Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve got this old cedar chest half-filled with journals. Stacks of tattered Moleskines, 70-page college rule notebooks collaged with old calendar prints, a few gridded Rite in the Rains from that time when I lived outside. I fell in love with a person, a place, an idea, a feeling. I wrote fanatically and desperately, but I wrote to perfect those memories for a future self — I wrote final drafts, caged between the lines on the paper. Lord knows I believed I could immortalize those blinks of time in paper and ink, but even this photographic memory can tell you that it’s not the words that stick around longest.

You know, I burned one of those journals. I ripped the pages from another until I could no longer recognize the words but as fuel to a fire. I danced with the fumes of lighter fluid, filled my nostrils with the sulfurous aftermath of a stricken match. I swept my hands through the hot air and teetered on the threshold of pouring my whole self into those flames. The pages fell apart and the ink and pencil smudged and faded.

I fell out of love with a person, a place, an idea, a feeling and Lord knows I clung to those intentional words I had written. Written. Nearly a year passed and blank page after blank page kept staring. “Fill me up.” How can I fill you when I can’t even fill myself?

Writing had become this ritualistic process that bore a heavy burden of responsibility, until nearly everything that went to paper was so exactingly constructed. You know that bullshitty feeling that can manifest when you skip to some end without acknowledging how you got there in the first place? For the sole purpose of the purpose, to see nothing of what remains? It hurt my hand, and my brain, and mostly my heart because I craved that I could sit and doodle and write nonsense. Or things that actually meant something to me rather than the things I thought should matter. You know? Writing with my glass shards. Numbly bumbling, fumbling for some idea of what I thought or was. I knew it had gotten bad when the guy on the bus asked me if I always looked so serious. I don’t think I smiled back.

I needed to get it back. I needed to get myself back. Breathe when you can’t recognize the person you see in the window reflection anymore, and see if they too inhale.

One day I walked to a coffee shop with a stack of lined paper under my arm and a couple of pens in my back pocket. I sat in a quiet corner and let my legs bounce nervously, making the small table quake uncontrollably. I looked down at my hand and found my fingers twirling one of the pens. I forgot I could do that. And then it started.

I kind of love how things fall out of my pockets when I bend down to pick up my dropped pen or pencil. I kind of love how the texture of the lead, the flow of the ink changes upon being broken. How the texture of time changes upon being broken.

Something started as soon as I stopped taking myself so seriously. I fell in love with the rosemary in my pocket and sleeping with my windows open, the smell of cinnamon-spiced quince on the stove and watching my cursive scrawl take over a page. I noticed the scars on my hands and the way it feels when my eyebrows furrow if the light is too abrasive. I started listening to the creaky floorboards and the shuddering of my door on windy days. Fill me up. And overflow. I write myself back together. I write because the words don’t matter.

Now I crack open new notebooks without thinking too much about it. Fearless. Cathartic. Out of habit. Just writing. I probably won’t look back on the words that form. When the pages are saturated, I’ll file them away. And one day, when the stack gets too high, I’ll burn those too, dancing on the edge of the flames.


From the depths of silence and darkness a soft breeze approached, painting its own reality as it rustled through a field of tall grass and a trickling stream bordered by a stand of trees. Birds began to chirp, and before Spencer opened his eyes, he could almost feel the sun rising. Content with this, he reached above his head to grab his alarm and opened his eyes as he remained reclined in his coffin-sized enclosure of a bed. A heavy curtain on his right kept the space comfy and non-threatening.

He had scrambled the clock the night before, and now, as it continued to trickle and chirp, he spun it around to see the initial configuration of its six sides. Before he could shut off the sonic reminders of a living earth, he would need to solve the Rubik's cube clock. The tired fuzzy feeling faded from the field of his consciousness and he began to methodically slide and clack each metal facade of a cube swiftly to its relative home surrounding the vaguely understood joints and electronics within.

Within a minute it was solved, and now he spun it around to see each side, re-adjusting his vision settings to its six basic colors. He pulled his overhead computer display down, and its voice filled the new silence, recapping his solution on the screen, stopping once to point out a shorter solution. His eyes memorized this new position and his fingers moved through the steps of the new pattern as the computer coached.

"Well done!", the program informed him, displaying a graph of his long term reduction in solve time and predicting the next few weeks' results based on the most recent pattern learned. With the prospect of good things to come, Spencer swept the curtain back and slid out into the real world.


1. Get in the habit of making good habits

I stare at “number one” in my list of personal goals. The first, last, and only goal I’ve been able to come up with so far.

Right. At least it’s a strong start.

I tap my pen against my notebook. I stare out the window. I twirl the pen through my fingers.

I finally focus again after about twenty minutes. And only because I accidentally sent the pen flying across the room and had to go get it.

As I trudge back to the task I’ve set for myself, I wonder. How does one go about making a habit on purpose?

I’ve heard people say “oh, it takes six weeks to make a habit”.

But I find the habits I make on purpose are the easiest for me to break: going to the gym, going on a diet, writing in my journal, taking up running, keeping a food journal, counting calories. These are all things I have made a habit (that is, I did them consciously over an extended period of time); and they are also all habits I have, at one point or another, deliberately decided to break - and in some cases, subsequently reinstate

I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that they’re all related to personal health; or the fact that, in some cases, I was going directly against my own nature (let’s face it, I’m a walker not a runner).

When I think about my habits, the ones that seem to have “stuck” were generally not started on purpose. I keep my fingernails squared off rather than rounded - don’t ask me why, I don’t remember why I started doing it but I like them that way. I read, if not everyday, at least very frequently. If something is really bothering me, chances are I’ll end up writing about it - it’s my way of working through it. I eat mainly (but not completely) vegetarian - it was cheaper in college and I kind of kept with it.

I think of these habits as having sprung from personal preference or necessity and circumstance.

My problem is forming habits when I want to. I can spell out which habits I would like to cultivate (listening to my body so I don’t eat more than I need; moving more during the day rather than sitting and reading for hours). But if I start thinking too much about them I...psych myself out. I set myself up for failure. The only time I have succeeded in a habit I specifically cultivated was when I was somehow able to articulate the habit and then forget about it for about three months (while following it subconsciously).

It’s a convoluted process; and once I figured out my trick, I pretty much ruined it for myself for future use.


1. Get in the habit of making good habits

  1. Learn how to not over-think making a new habit so you actually succeed.

Tap. Tap tap tap. Twirly twirl. Tap. Tap.

  1. Make a list of habits. The hide the list for three months. Revisit at that time and determine successes and failures.

Tap tap tap.

Right … here goes. I open a new document:

“My Habit Time Capsule”

(to be opened in three months)

  1. Eat slowly to enjoy food and give my body to tell me “I’m done”.
  2. Get out of the house at least once a day for a walk.
  3. Limit alcohol intake (to what? As yet to be determined)
  4. Focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet that limits processed foods.
  5. Ask more questions regarding Celiac when dining out.
  6. Write everyday (750words).

As I look over my list, I wonder whether I can trick myself into forming good habits.

I’ll find out in three months.

Charlie stepped out from the tall curb turning his head sideways to look up the street, the sun warm on the back of his green jacket. The jacket and his World Champs Bulls sweatshirt were purchased at a thrift store, the scuffed black boots he would die in taken muddied from beside the welcome mat of a nearby porch.

The shop windows glinted in the sunlight and cars flashed bright as they passed. People began to emerge from the building behind him. Across the street he ripped the adhesive paper from his jacket and tossed it crumpled against the concrete under the window of a barbershop. He marched up the sidewalk with eyes straight ahead.

He slipped into a 7-Eleven and headed to the back with eyes unstraying from the refrigerators there. The attendant followed his steady march up and back. At the counter Charlie’s eyes met the attendant’s as his left hand mashed onto the smooth surface a dollar and coins from his pocket while his right gripped the glass. The attendant gave a nod as he turned, reaching into a pants pocket for a lithe brown bag. He slid the cold bottle inside and turned the bag to hide the black scrawl behind his thick hand.

Now Charles can’t you stay for dinner baby? We worry about you. If you ever need anything, baby. Anything. Let me write down my number again baby.

Outside in the doorway in the breeze of the store he paused squeezing the hard glass cool under the soft paper. Bright cars whizzed by in the street beyond the shade of the gas station. The bottlecap crunched softly as he plucked it off with a twist. The first pull was slow and long and his chest grew as if his lungs too were filling with the gold liquid. He surveyed the cars and customers walking to and from their cars in the parking lot. A dog sat panting under a window advertisement for a deal on a hot dog and a coke. Charlie pulled at his hat and took another slow sip before stepping into the midday sun.

@BillHaslam 1 out of 3 Tennesseans is obese. Why? Let’s dig deeper.

Anyone who has ever gardened knows you can’t pick at the leaves of a dandelion and expect results; you dig to the base and remove its entirety.

From his desk Seamus watched his father digging, just as his father’s father. One clump after another flew from the spade. Seamus hadn’t joined his father since he was a boy. The act of digging felt antiquated somehow. His international contemporaries were moving forward, spreading out. In Ireland, they kept digging down.

Habits are not keepsakes you stow in a box and take out when needed. When people say they want to make or break a habit, what they really want is a change of lifestyle. But instead of digging to that lifestyle change, they pick at the habit and what they don’t want grows back over time.

Habits anchor themselves in lifestyle choices that - once threaded together - form our day-to-day. To change the discreet decisions in our lives we have to dig deeper, understand how the particular habit attaches itself to other parts of our life, and make a conscious decision to change our lifestyle based on positive reinforcement.

Why will starting the habit change things?

Why do you need this change?

And why is that?



how was your holiday? mine was lovely. i gave three or four days of my life to Haruki Marakami's 1Q84 reading all day and doing nothing else. (except meditating and doing yoga and eating chocolate which is apparently all you need to eat to survive)  its 1000 pgs. i haven't gotten sucked into a book like that in ages. totally immersed. i realized though, deep into it, that it was about very lonely people. people who were never loved or touched or held. I think that loneliness in japan is something very different then what we have here. something i do not truly know or understand. there are so many people in this world! each of them with an aching heart! each of them struggling against odds to stay alive, and for what? (something else i took from the book) not for themselves. once we have our basic needs covered, its not enough to live just for ourselves. we want to live for someone or something else. we know how small and meaningless we are, but if we can redirect that powerlessness (a recurring theme in the novel) even if only for ourselves, and tell ourselves we live for someone else, we have a purpose. we need a purpose.

in a universe expanding, constructed of pure randomness and particles of light, wouldn't it be nice if we had a purpose? if there was real meaning?

every single individual is on this journey of discovery. growing up. figuring shit out. gathering scars and palimpsest histories across their skin and in their hearts. why? why do we have to go on learning the same lessons over and over again? why does it always hurt to be disappointed? even when you thought you knew what to expect? what are habits? and what's crazy is that we carry with us not only our own pain and suffering, but that of our ancestors. amalgamations, conglomerations, sedimentary layers of all of the people who came before you, all of THEIR SHIT.

how do we deal with this?

we keep the shit moving. (this is a hypothesis just developing in me, it's not right or wrong). but i have decided that anything that is repressed, can be harmful. it creates a node. it blocks the energetic flow. the stories must be told, passed down, so that they may evolve. continuing to grow and respond to the ever changing environment. not be buried in the mud of our subconscious. anything that is repressed, can be harmful. all emotion must be allowed to flow through the body. acknowledged. not judged. note taken. observing. stress is blockage. anxiety is loss of focus and perspective. we are just creatures. little soft bodied beings. we bring air into our lungs and we give off light. this is our gift. we flow through the tips of our fingers and tongues. we take in the world through our orifices. we are magical beings. we conceive and give birth to beautiful creations.

i don't know what it means. i don't know why. why i have to be this way. why life is about coping. and how everyone who comes into this world is hurt by it. experiences pain. or why those sensations manifest feelings of isolation. how is it that the oldest feelings in the world, the ones that we have been feeling for millennia, still make us feel isolated? because rage and anger and shame and guilt block passageways. they redirect the energy flowing out and create traffic jams in the body and heart and mind. clots. knots. dams.

but we humans are also gifted with the power to control that. it always gets away from us, but we can always reign it back in. start again. no love lost. attentiveness. listening. listening to the body. through discipline. letting the storm swirl and slow to a stop and letting the dust settle...what remains? just you. still here. like you were. a body. sensation. fluttering. aching. pumping. inconsequential. containing the secrets of the universe in your very self. at the razors edge where body meets mind: an open heart. pure joy. simply alive.