“you know our beautiful new couch? yeah. totally toxic.”

strawberries

To say that my skin has endured a Brooklyn-style beat-down would be an understatement. I don’t know whether it’s Los Angeles, growing older, or the fact that my skin is becoming sensitive to everything (cue visuals of Julianne Moore in Safe prattling on about her totally toxic couch), but the past few months have taken a toll on me. During my Great Depression, a time when I ate a whole baguette slathered with butter, frozen “organic” enchiladas and halloumi cheese by the pound, I started to feel sick and then I noticed whiteheads setting up shop all over my forehead. One night I woke to burning raised hives, which covered 80% of my body, and I thought, fuck, not again. I went to a dermatologist who gave me a cortisone shot and prescriptions for steroid creams. The steroid cream triggered my second folliculitis outbreak, and I’ve been on antibiotics for weeks. Finally, the bumps have finally started to recede. And let’s not even discuss allergies so severe it sometimes became difficult for me to breathe.

All because my body reacted to what I was putting in it. Lately, I’ve become hyper-aware of the air I breathe, the food I eat, and the products I put on my skin and use in my home.

I loathe drugs. I only like taking medication if it serves to progress, rather than impede, function. And yes I know that the Felicia of 2001 would find that hilarious, and that’s okay because that Felicia used to subsist on Lean Cuisine and Starbucks and we’ve come a long way, baby. Now I take antidepressants because they’re necessary for me to focus and function. I take birth control pills because I’d rather not lock myself in a bathroom for three days every month. I used to take anti-anxiety medication because I have a crippling fear of flying (I’ve screamed during turbulence more times than I’d like to admit). Only recently did I stop taking Xanax because pills really don’t work when the plane starts shaking mid-flight. Nothing works, really, other than me curling in a ball, doing my deep breathing, and telling myself that turbulence is normal. Even when it feels like it’s anything but. Now I only take medication if it’s completely necessary.

farmer's market

Monsanto, aka Satan, does exist and it’s ubiquitous. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed not to find food tainted by Roundup or any of the litany of chemicals plaguing our soil in the name of greed and profit (here’s looking at you Koch brothers and shady politicians on both sides of the aisle). I work in marketing and I often joke that my profession boils down to throwing glitter over shit, and that statement couldn’t be more accurate when we’re talking about Big Food. Everyone lies. We know that the term “natural” is obtuse and meaningless, but it makes us feel good much like the cool sensation from toothpaste or the suds from shampoo–both giving the impression of cleanliness when they’re actually just marketing ploys satisfying human behavior. Years ago, I sat in on a case study on Fabreeze, a product that, when launched, was initially a complete failure. Only when marketers conducted at-home focus groups did they learn that people gained a certain level of satisfaction from using the product after they’ve cleaned their space–the product functioning as a kind of digestif. We’re learning that Big Organic is just as shady as conventional, and every day we’re greeted with the news that some food may or may not kill us. Fear drives traffic and lies sell products, so it’s no doubt that we sometimes walk into a supermarket, restaurant or farmer’s market either completely ignorant or violently skeptical.

I don’t even trust Whole Foods anymore, but what can I do? Move to my own private Walden and grow my own food? Drink water from my own well? Sure, if I had Angelina Jolie money, but I live in reality and in this world, I have a budget and a life that is filled with little compromises. Even then I’m acutely aware of my privilege–the fact that I’m now able to afford vegetables and farmer’s market meat, which are often considered frivolous expenditures in homes where people are barely making ends meet, and this financial fragility isn’t getting better anytime soon. And I don’t foresee the lies and big business surrounding food, GMOs, and farmer equities getting better in my lifetime. Until then, I try to buy as much locally-produced food as I could. I try to educate myself on what’s going on with labels and faulty manufacturers.

I would talk about how cutting out gluten and dairy again from my diet have eliminated my allergies and the hives on my skin, but that topic is polarizing. People levy this discussion with that of dieting or food restrictions and let me be the first to tell you that if I could return to a life of eating Sidecar huckleberry donuts, you damn well know I would. If I could put cheese on my fucking bean pasta you know I would. This isn’t about dieting, it’s about my body having an adverse reaction to certain foods. And even that argument is countered with “food sensitivity doesn’t exist” to which I respond, ten years ago doctors were prescribing women antidepressants when they described symptoms that eventually surfaced as celiac disease. In short, I don’t believe long-term scientific studies have caught up with the pace in which our diet, the environment, and our food supply have changed. But let’s not talk about gluten and dairy and say we did.

Living a healthy life is expensive and exhausting.

For the past six months, a few of my friends who are beauty writers were kind enough to supply me with everything from deodorant to toothpaste to facial cleanser because that stuff adds up. You walk into any target and CVS and you could easily spend $50 on items that keep you clean. The irony in this is that these products don’t really serve you regardless of the luxury packaging, the celebrity endorsements or the commercials with English or French voice-overs. Many of these prestige products (ah, the promise of increased efficacy) are manufactured using similar formulas and factories as the “cheap” products. And when I start reading the multi-syllabic list of ingredients, each product listing water as the first and most concentrated ingredient, it reminded me of the time I read an ice cream label and asked, what is guar gum? 

What is this shite I’m putting in and on my body? But then again, we live in an age where people are comfortable injecting their faces with botulism. So there’s that.

natural beauty products

With each paycheck, I’m slowly making product swap-outs. I’m buying products whose ingredients resemble words in the English language and they’re working. Some of them are shown in the snap above, although some of the products (Caudalie) are mass manufactured–they’re holders from my friends’ extreme generosity, for which I’m grateful. I’m stocking up on more vinegar because that will get out cat vomit in carpet far quicker than some newfangled $10.99 bleach cleaner.

This post started one way and ended differently. I don’t have the answers to the long, meandering post I’m sharing with you, but I’m doing the work of being more thoughtful about what I put on and in my body, what I use in my home, and the environment in which I surround myself. It’s expensive and exhausting to live a healthy life, to cut through the confusing and conflicting news articles. It’s hard finding out what’s true and what’s marketing copy. It’s hard not having the food you crave and want and having to deal with people who sometimes respond to health issues with swallowed laughter and sarcasm. It’s hard knowing things and not having the ability (or the knowledge) of what to do. What do you do when you can afford farmer’s market pork and then you read an article about people who know McDonald’s is unhealthy but what are their options? What do you do when politicians don’t really talk about food or climate change because there’s a host of other ills in our country, but all the way Big Food does little to benefit the economically disadvantaged. What are the small things you can do that allow you to use your privilege to benefit others?

I welcome your insight.

Advertisements

my captain obvious moment as a freelancer: play nice with all aspects of yourself in the sandbox

Death_to_stock_photography_Wake_Up_2

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

When I started my career in finance, I learned about the power and peril of diversification. Creating a diversified portfolio carries with it an element of calculated risk–too much and you lose focus and expertise, too little rendered you a specialist tattooed with an expiration date. Your work lies in cultivating balance in the extreme so that in the event the ground opens up and gives way, your fall won’t be precipitous, bottomless. A strategic, well-rounded portfolio is the hedge you need to weather industry downturns and personal catastrophe. When I started my career in digital marketing in 2001, many of my peers were recalcitrant–they considered online commerce a blip, a fad that would inevitably fade and their marketing prowess, experience, and education would prevail. They resisted social networks and failed to learn the language of a seismic behavioral and cultural shift that would become omnipresent, ubiquitous. A Darwinian marketplace rallied against them, rendering smart, albeit stubborn marketers, obsolete because they didn’t diversify–they failed to keep up. On the flipside, you’ve seen what happens when one company or person tries to be all things to all people: they end up being nothing to no one. They end up broken, a whole that would never equate to the sum of its parts. They’re reduced to a spin-off, a division excised from the whole, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For much of my career, I drew a fine line between work and art. Never have the two played peacefully in the sandbox because one was always kicking sand in the other’s face. Work colleagues were hardly aware that I wrote lyrical, dark books and writer friends were always shocked when I used words like “brand positioning” and “customer segmentation”. One part of me made money and the other derived purpose from writing the small stories that rarely registered on the cultural radar. One part of me paid for the other; for much of my own career, I served as my own patron. I had become my own benefactor. For a while, this strange symphony worked. I wrote my first book and published a successful literary magazine while working in marketing at Time Warner Cable and HarperCollins. I started (and subsequently sold) my second book while juggling brand strategy and digital marketing projects as a consultant. But money sometimes gets tricky and soon I regarded my “work” with mounting annoyance. I was beholden to marketing in order to create the kind of stories that bolted me out of bed in the morning instead of looking at it for what it was: another vehicle that allowed for storytelling.

To use an anti-feminist, subjugating turn-of-phrase: I had become my own bitch. And I didn’t like it.

This week my therapist and I talked about how I fell so hard, so fast when I moved to Los Angeles. Part of it was prolonged grief from not adequating mourning the death of my mother (sound familiar?), for sure, but, more importantly, I had spent the year prior to my move in a state of persistent acceleration. There was a cross-country move to plan, projects to land and conquer, a book to revise with my agent and sell, and the subways, the frenetic rush of people, the axiom of living in New York: do it faster! and it was only after I unpacked all the boxes did I realize I had been running on empty. I’d been forced to settle in quiet and I didn’t exactly like what I saw. I told my therapist that I wanted physical and geographic space, to which he responded: from what, your friends? I laughed, shook my head no, then shook my head yes and then said I don’t know. Maybe all of it? Maybe I’d built my life defined as one thing, stuck in that thing, and moving offered the promise of not being the thing people knew, or expected you, to be. I arrived and wrote a good book in two months and then fell apart.

During the journey back, I created a portfolio–you know, your resume in narrative form with pretty pictures and colorful slide dividers because everyone craves the elevated, derivative state. We want our stories beautifully told. We want our personal brands to be luminous, yet accessible, yet aspirational, but still inspiring and achievable. Yet in creating the outline which would morph into the final presentation, I found it difficult to tell the story of me without including the whole side of my life devoted to storytelling. Suddenly, it felt strange to not talk about the dual nature of my life and the value that it brings to bear. I took on a small project for a successful blogger (and dear friend) where I helped her tell her story in professional form. Gone are the media kits and capes decks–I wanted to create something that started the conversation but wasn’t the whole of it, and I found tremendous joy in using my two loves: marketing and lyrical storytelling and profiting from those lives lived without needing to take a long shower.

Today I had a wonderful chat with an acquaintance who served as my editor on a short essay I’d written about going to Ireland with my pop. I’d be referred to her by a friend and she was curious about my background. Could I edit books? Could I develop projects with authors? Could I help authors structure their books and tell their stories in a compelling way?

Of course, I can.

I started talking about all the work that wasn’t on my resume. Editing at Scholastic, working closely with editors in book publishing, editing and publishing a literary journal, butchering my friend’s novels and helping them create structure and refine their voice in their work. I even trotted out the Columbia MFA, although I’m fairly ambivalent about the degree now, and regret the debt that accrued as a result of it. I’ll be paying for my writing to the grave and so on.

As a freelancer coming out of a long hiatus and finally back in the proverbial saddle, I realized that I’d been myopic about consulting. I failed to create a portfolio that spanned my strengths: marketing, digital, social, editing, brand architecture, organizational design/process, writing, editing, brand development, project management and development. I hadn’t mined a network that would account for my diverse skill set. I hadn’t positioned myself as someone who could create, distribute, analyze and refine. It was only this morning did I see the need to have all the kids playing nice in the sandbox because right now I need all the kids to rally.

Now I position myself as a creator, someone who builds things and tells stories, and what distinguishes me is my range, breadth, and depth. What sets me apart is the fact that I color outside the lines and I also create new books in which to color.

This is why I want to remain here. I want to feel the new, uninhabited and unconquered. I want the space to be able to see.

why I will never shop at j.crew again (or a lesson in brand loyalty) — a rant

IMG_0055IMG1231A
Let me tell you a story about a lifelong love affair…with a brand. We met in the most unlikely of places–a college mailroom, where the object of my affection was shoved into hundreds of mailboxes, eager to find me amidst the lunchtime rush. This was a time when people still wrote letters, affixed stamps onto envelopes (there was no fancy adhesive so we just did the thing that others who had come before us did, we licked), and pored over catalogs. We’d been dating for over a year, and much like a faithful, long-distance girlfriend, I wore his barn coat ($98), wool rollneck sweater in oatmeal ($48; this was before the advent of more fanciful colors like puce and heather river) and wool henleys in an act of devotion. I’d fallen in love with someone who possibly lived in the Ozarks or Colorado or somewhere in the bucolic U.S.. During lunch, I scanned the pages, painted scenery of weather-beaten rocks and cabin homes lodged beyond a great, vast forest.

This was a time when people began to use summer and winter as verbs. One could arguably say that these were the best of times and the worst, because how could we know the future that lay ahead of us with our gadgets that serve as extensions of our limbs and a small box of a machine that would become our Wonderland. Just call us Alice and watch us tumble into the deep. But not yet, not yet. Right now few people used email (DOS, anyone?) much less understood it, and we purchased our clothing from department stores, boutiques or mail-order catalogs.

Can I tell you that the object of my affection was different from the rest? Sure, I had affairs with L.L. Bean (their snow/rain boots are! the! best!) and Victoria’s Secret (back when we thought it cool to order bras from catalogs, the irony of which you’ll read about soon enough), but I was committed to J.Crew. J.Crew, know that Sinead O’Connor crooned “Nothing Compares to You” after she slipped on your barn coat in burgundy and wool sweater in charcoal grey.

I don’t talk about my work on this space simply because I don’t want to. I spend much of my days playing the role of a professional, and there are some spaces where the introduction of this costume would serve as a cruel intrusion–namely, this space. However, last week I found myself so enraged, so disappointed, that I have to talk about it. The intersection of how I think and what I love came to bear. For the past 17 years, I’ve been working in one capacity or another in marketing. For most of my career, I worked in consumer marketing–a role that required me to know how to sell products or ideas to consumers, how to tell stories. However, in the past two years, I’ve focused on brand marketing. The brand side has become challenging in a way that consumer marketing, and its social and digital antecedents, have begun to bore me. How do you architect a brand? What are its pillars? How do you position it? How do you craft benefit language for the consumer in a way that’s compelling? What’s their “Reason to Believe”? For the past two years, I’ve been taking the discipline of branding and brand definition and using it in brand building and transformation projects. How do you change perception? How do establish yourself and your identity in a sea of competitors who clamour for consumer dollars? The work is heady, more strategic than the consumer marketing tactics I’d deployed previously, but it felt like how an advanced yoga student would return to a basics class to relearn the poses and become reaquainted with the foundation.

Before I could market products to customers, I had to deeply understand, for each of my projects, why a consumer would love a particular brand’s product and how they, in turn, would fall in love with the brand. I’m not going to get into the details of this because I can tell you that I’m already bored writing about it, but I was reminded of my 18+ year commitment to J.Crew, and how, in one year, the brand fucked it all up.

First, let’s talk about the quality of the goods, shall we? If you think J.Crew has exceptional cashmere, you have never owned exceptional cashmere. I’m going to pull a “remember when” and you’re just going to have to deal with it. REMEMBER WHEN J. Crew sold thick, double-ply cashmere that didn’t pill after a single use and get ratty after a year, making you regret the MILLION DOLLARS YOU SPENT ON THAT VIOLET SWEATER THAT WASN’T CALLED VIOLET, BUT LABELED SOME OBSCURE HUE? Remember when J. Crew sold wool that wasn’t cut with cheap acrylic? Remember when they didn’t hock acrylic sweaters for $118 a pop? I DO. You can give me the song and dance marketing story, replete with elevated fonts and pictures of Italian factories and fields, but nothing can replace sense memory. My clothes used to last longer, feel better, and no amount of bullshit marketing tactics, gleeful Jenna-loving bloggers and resplendent photoshoots are going to change that.

J.Crew, your clothes have gone to the crazies, and I know, deep in your heart, you know this. And don’t even get me started on Madewell, your insouciant younger sister, because the acrylic sweaters I once purchased on sale? I wear them AROUND THE HOUSE.

As a result of the poor quality, and some questionable designs, I haven’t shopped at J.Crew for nearly two years (save the Minnie pant and the Tippi sweater, both purchases put me to thinking that I’ve been trapped in some 1960s film where everything has shrunk and every woman’s name ends in an “i”). I turned to Madewell, to only realize that their clothes are the antithesis of their name (a cruel tease when expensive clothes fall apart after a single season).

Can I interrupt here? Can I tell you that I loved (and patroned) J. Crew for three reasons:
1. I hate shopping. I hate stores. I hate fitting rooms. I hate people. And J. Crew made my life simple. They sold quality classics online and in catalogs, both from which I could order from the privacy of my own home.

2. I aspired to their simplified, whitewashed version of a life. For years, before the fashionable Jenna-inspired “edits” and cool girls looking drunk in catalogs, the J.Crew lifestyle was simple, cozy, aspirational, yet accessible, and all I wanted to do come winter was swathe myself in one of their sweater-blankets, light a faux-fire and sip cocoa with organic, non-GMO puffed marshmallows. While my life, and racial identity, was this constant specter that hovered, J. Crew offered escapism and free shipping.

3. I naively thought that J.Crew was a brand that loved their customers. Oh friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Setting aside the questionable quality for the insane prices (I was patient though; I would wait for Crew’s triumphant autumn return), let’s dive a little into brand love, which sent this whole rage blackout on its course.

You should know that I don’t share my personal identifiable information with just anyone. I have Inbox Zero. I don’t subscribe to many newsletters. I’ve gone to great lengths to have my name and address removed from scores of mailing lists. I had a rage blackout when the TREE THAT WAS THE RESTORATION HARDWARE CATALOG landed on my doorstep. You’ll often find me on the phone with some customer service representative telling them that no, I do not want their catalog, and no, I would never shop at Fingerhut. I don’t want a complicated life, and because of this, I buy clothes from a handful of brands I trust.

AND THEN I RECEIVED THE VICTORIA’S SECRET CATALOG. I have a long, contentious history with VS, which I won’t document here, but suffice it to say I am not their customer. I do not want to be on any of their lists, etc, etc. So when I received their catalog for the third time, I decided to deploy a friendly inquisition. After speaking with multiple customer service representatives and two supervisors, I learned that Victoria’s Secret purchased my information from J.Crew.

You may think my reaction was dramatic, but who cares? I felt BETRAYED. I immediately called J.Crew and launched into a tirade about how I was “disappointed,” how I checked off that I never wanted my information to be shared, sold or communicated to any other company–I don’t even give my email at checkout! I was assured by my rather flummoxed and just-as-shocked-as-you representative that it’s against J.Crew’s policy to share/sell customer information. The representative promised to look into the matter and call me back.

No one ever called me back.

Perhaps because she was made aware of the fact that J.Crew does share customer information. I learned this because after speaking to a few more ill-informed representatives (did anyone get a CSR manual from J. Crew on their policies and procedures, because the clue phone has been ringing off the hook and no one is picking up on their end) and sending emails to their 24/7 email line, I received this note as part of a longer email thread:

While we do occasionally share addresses with third party companies, those companies are only allowed to send one piece of mail and are unable to add the customer to their mailing list. We are able to turn this sharing “off” upon request which the associate you spoke with should have been aware of and offered to you.

Interesting. So when I opted to not have my information shared, my information was shared anyway. In marketing, we like to call this erosion of brand trust. Or, a violation of CAN-SPAM if you want to get legal about it. Another call to their customer service line, a request to have my information removed from their database, was met with this terse reply: If you can’t tell me your phone number or email, how can I possibly remove you from our database? To which I calmly responded, I don’t know. My address? My catalog ID #? She put me on hold for ten minutes and then I got disconnected. Classy.

This post has gotten so long that I’m not going to even go into J.Crew’s lack of floor service in their Flatiron and Soho locations. When I’m routinely asked, Did someone assist you with your purchase today? I’m often left to respond, no, no one helped me with my purchase today.

A lot of rookie marketers will conceive of grand campaigns to lure customers from one consideration set to another. They will transform their site and social channels into “content machines” where your feed is flooded with “information you can use” delivered by a “human voice.” Self-appointed gurus will prattle on about how content is king, but let me break it down real slow:

CONSUMERS DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR CONTENT IF YOU’RE FAILING THEM AS A BRAND.

Do I give a shit about J.Crew’s newsletters and 24/7 stylists when half their customer service staff doesn’t even understand their policies on how a customer’s information can be shared/marketed? Do I give a shit about their Cyber Monday sale when I’m spending more money than I used to for a subpar product? Marketers, me being one of them, are used to dousing glitter over shit and calling it glitter, but customers aren’t stupid. If a brand can’t get the basics right: product, product value and proposition, and service, they will never care about the glitter. Stupid people care about glitter. Informed, discerning customers, who value their money and service, care about a good product and a brand that’s honest.

When I wrote J.Crew a long, heartfelt letter telling them why they lost me as a customer, much of their response was: “We’ll forward your information to the appropriate department.”

Yeah. I think it’s about time we see other people. Cuyuna, Everlane, Banana Republic with your comeback cashmere and sweaters, Rag & Bone–meet your new customer.

In case you’re wondering, I’m wearing a few new favorites: Banana Republic lovely cashmere open cardi, wool crew sweater and the softest wool coat.
IMG_0046IMG1231A

real talk: bloggers, quit complaining, get a thicker skin + choose your words wisely

IMG_5749IMG1231

Over the years a woman has grown tired. Her life has shifted, and along the way she loses her verve and she knows it. Her blog has devolved into an orchid she has to tend to because it’s her sole source of income and she needs this money. How did she get to this place, she thinks. She takes on partnerships — some of which leave her readers shaking their heads and doing a double take — because the money’s good and she’s got the traffic, and one day her readers start to leave comments about this shift, about a voice that has fallen to a whisper, and a blog that no longer inspires. Long-time readers leave lengthy comments lamenting the fall of a blog that was once so great, and then something else happens — a slew of other women attack the detractors, call them haters (Ignore the haters! You’re awesome! I ❤ you! Read my blog! Your hair's so shiny! Where did you get that shirt?) and bullies (Stop being a mean girl!). Those who cared enough to leave a thoughtful comment recede; the curtain quietly falls and the motley lot remove the blog from their Google readers. The blogger responds in a series of exclamation points that she’s trying! her! best! OK!

A sister duo pen epic posts defending their expensive finery. So much so that these posts, their heated defenses and endless rationales, become a weekly occurrence, and readers start to express their exasperation. They call out the shameless shills and posts, which feel forced by the hand of a marketer’s enviable budget. Readers remember what the blog used to be — creative, fun, a place where one could find the unfindable — and are heartbroken that the energy that once drew them to this space has dovetailed to SEO tactics and ad banners. The comments section is the equivalent of a high school cafeteria where a host of women shout, “girl on girl crime” as if they have Tourette’s. Apparently, any form of feedback or dissension is immediately dismissed as unfounded hate and cruelty, detracting from a “positive, supportive community.” The bloggers get upset, stomp their well-heeled feet. No one understands what they’re trying to do!

PLEASE STOP THIS BULLSHIT RIGHT NOW. RIGHT THIS SECOND.

Bully. Hate. Girl on Girl Crime. These words and phrases are potent; they have the power to hurt and maim. They’re weapons that should be examined with care. “Slut shaming,” posting nude photos or images that disparage a woman’s character or body, rallying a group of people for the sole purpose of humiliation and torture, stalking through social media, threats, consistent, systematic abuse — these are but a few actions that fall under the auspice of bullying, hate, and girl on girl crime. Leaving constructive feedback about the evolution (or devolution) of someone’s blog, unequivocally, does not. Telling a blogger that her site has become a haven for shills is not girl on girl crime, it’s real truth.

Three years ago I started collaborating with the president of the agency in which I worked. Although I technically didn’t report to him (as a partner, I reported into the CEO, who was not a deft manager), the president stepped in and assumed the role of mentor. For three years, he consistently pulled me into his office and gave me feedback. He called me out on my bad behavior and bullshit, and then showed me how I could have handled the situation in a different way. He gave alternatives, suggestions, and solutions. At first I was annoyed. Even though I endured nearly fourteen years of performance reviews, I felt offended and singled out. In the heat of the moment I mentioned as such — I stomped my little feet and did the offline equivalent of calling him a hater, who didn’t understand the CLEAR GENIUS THAT WAS FELICIA SULLIVAN, to which he responded: I’m investing in you. This is my time, my asset, and I’m using it to help you be a better leader. Would you rather I not invest in you? Is your ego that great? Because I can take my time and use it on someone else.

You guys. That was some real truth.

You better believe I shut the fuck up. Since that conversation, I proactively asked him how I could have handled every meeting, conference call and pitch, better. During performance reviews, I nodded my head impatiently through the praise and asked, How can I do better? It was only when I took a measured stepped back and objectively evaluated my actions, it was only when I set aside my ego and fear, did I become receptive to constructive criticism and feedback. I sought it out and used what made sense for me in order to be a better leader. In three years I grew a thicker skin than I had cultivated in fourteen. Now, this man is my dear friend and mentor, even after we both resigned from our respective positions.

A few weeks ago I listened to Grace Bonney’s podcast on “Choosing Your Words Wisely,” and it reminded me of our immediate, visceral tendency to defend ourselves when confronted with words that challenge or call out our actions. Instead of listening to what others have to say, we wait for our turn to speak. We immediately negate, dismiss, eliminate, instead of taking a breath and trying to understand someone else’s perspective. This weekend I read my friend Alex’s post, on a bunch of men who left negative reviews of an establishment (“In what can only be described as a coordinated attack on a small business, a group of 15 primarily white privileged males left a number of negative reviews citing discrimination on the basis of Google Glass. I’m forced to assume they have little actual understanding of the word, discrimination”). Alex also wrote about another community that labeled a loving father who took nude, playful photos of his child, a pornographer. Pornographer, discriminator — these words are real, powerful and bear consequences. Think about the words you say and how you use them.

Time is a precious commodity, and if someone uses their time to help make you a better blogger, professional, or business owner, consider their feedback the equivalent of a performance review, an investment in you, and don’t you owe it to them, to yourself, to pay attention? Hearing less than complimentary things about oneself is hard, but does that mean we close our eyes to it? Does it mean that we only let in the light and flee the dark? Does it mean we misuse the harshest words to silence our best critics?

Words are powerful, don’t abuse them. If your readers, consumers, bosses, peers, and prospects take the time and effort to give you constructive feedback, listen to it. REALLY LISTEN TO IT. Examine yourself objectively. Ask yourself how their words can help you be a better person or deliver a better product, and discard what is useless and irrelevant.

Constant light is beautiful at first, but its glare is deceptive and ultimately blinding. Think about that. Think about the permeance of blindness, of living a life of imbalance.

white soda bread scones + this business of bloggers and “original content”

IMG_5741IMG1231

Truth be told, I’m starting to hate the word “content.” It’s one of those words bandied about so much that it starts to lose its flavor. The assembly of words and the composition of a photograph have suddenly been reduced to a term that feels clinical, sterile, soulless. Rarely do I use this space to talk about the more professional side of my life, but permit me this brief trespass because I think the world is overcomplicating things a bit.

Years ago, I got my masters in fine arts {MFA} at Columbia. Having majored in finance and marketing in college and coming out of a stint at Morgan Stanley, I was hardly the sort of candidate who would attend such a program. Yet, I’d been architecting sentences and crafting stories ever since I learned how to hold a pen. My first poem was a haiku about my mother, where I likened her voice to thunder. I was seven. I wrote the sort of stories that frightened people. Routinely, I was called out of class to the guidance counselor’s office, where a young woman would hold a story I’d written and ask me if anything was wrong at home. I wanted to laugh because everything was wrong, but what did that have to do with the story about a girl who hung herself from a tree? So when the writer Judy Budnitz called me and told me I had been admitted into the program I asked if this was a practical joke. She assured me it wasn’t.

I reconcile the world, and find my way through it, in my writing. It’s always been this way, yet I never had my work discussed, nor did I understand the mechanics of writing. The bones, if you will. And this is the reason why I paid a great sum of money for this program — to have the time and space to take the thing I’ve always been doing, seriously.

My second year in the program I was surrounded by what folks call “line writers.” These are of the Ben Marcus variety. They care less about the movement of plot and development of character, rather the architecture of a sentence is tantamount. The cadence of the line rises above the din. These line writers composed the sort of pieces that read beautifully but made no sense. I always walked away feeling stupid for not getting it. How is that I could understand epic poetry and its dizzying array of allusions, yet I can’t decipher a paragraph in a short story? What I remember most is one of these writers regarding my work as if it were a sullied tissue. Family stories have been done to death, she said, rolling her eyes. There’s nothing new here. After the shock wore off and I subsequently cried in my apartment later than evening, I had a thought.

EVERY FUCKING STORY HAS BEEN TOLD. A MILLION TIMES OVER.

Heartbreak, loss, love, anger, death, sorrow, guilt, pain, envy, faith etc, etc, etc — writers have been trying to make sense of the world and the way they see it through prose. From Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare to Beckett, Woolf, and Eliot to all of the great post-modernists, there is no new terrain to cover, the only difference is the perspective. The themes never change but the voices do, and that’s what makes us unique.

Inspired by Emily’s post, and some of my own thinking as of late, I’ve noticed a dizzying proliferation of blogs that have the same look, feel, fanciful collages, and SEO-centric plugins, and while there are the motley lot who serve to be bland photocopies of others, there are scores of other voices who bring something different.

And that difference is their voice. The power of it, the sweep of it, the depth of it.

Take this post. I’ve baked a soda bread in the form of scones, and the recipe comes from a terrific cookbook author, Rachel Allen. There’s certainly nothing new about a scone recipe, why, there are thousands of them on the internet, but what’s new is how I marry image and type. How I take a recipe and somehow connect it to what’s going on in my life. It’s my voice that hopefully makes this space unique, not the mechanics of the “content.”

I’ll put on my marketing hat {a hat I’ve worn for the better part of fifteen years}. Marketing is about storytelling, plain and simple. You take a cup of coffee and you tell me why I need this coffee. How this coffee will resolve a problem I have or make me feel better. A deft marketer connects with their intended target {consumer}, understands their needs and pain points, and then cultivates stories that speak to that need and anticipated need. The tactics are the same, the content may be similar, but it’s the voice, the way we arrange the words, the way we connect them with pictures, is new. So if we translate that to blogging and this space, stop agonizing over developing that NEW recipe or sourcing that NEVER-SEEN-BEFORE interview. Focus on understanding your audience, what they love, and how you can create beautiful things every day to deliver against that love. Have the integrity to bring beauty every single day and your audience will follow and endure.

Write your family stories, adapt your recipes {and give proper credit}, make your collages, but let them be your voice, not someone else’s. That’s what makes your virtual postmark of a space original.

Other Choice Reads on the Topic: What Should Food Bloggers Write About? | Finding Your Voice Through Social Media | Handling Change Offline + Online {great podcast}

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Rachel Allen’s Bake.
450g {4 cups} unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp caster sugar {superfine, however, I used cane and the scones turned out fine}
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda {baking soda}
1 tsp salt
12 to 15 ounces (1 1/2 cups to 2 cups) buttermilk or sour milk

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Sift the flour, sugar, bicarbonate of soda, and salt into a large bowl, and make a well in the center. Pour in most of the buttermilk, leaving about 2 ounces in the measuring cup. Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding more buttermilk, if necessary. Do not knead the mixture or it will become heavy. The dough should be soft, but not too wet and sticky.

When the dough comes together, turn it out onto a floured work surface, and bring it together a little more. Flatten the dough into a round approximately 2 1/2 1-inch deep. Cut into scones, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Turn out to a wire rack to cool.

Variations on Seasoning
White Soda Bread or Scones with Herbs: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of freshly chopped herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, parsley or lemon balm, to the dry ingredients, and make as above.

Spotted Dog: Add 3 1/2 ounces sultanas (golden raisins), raisins or currants, or a mixture of all three, to the dry ingredients, and make as above.

IMG_5745IMG1231

the state of blogging: authenticity as an aesthetic, sponsored storytelling, rampant shills, and the business of cash money

Pintxos&Blogs VI - ¡Queremos saber!
A stylish mom who lives in a well-draped home snaps photographs of her children using products that sponsor her posts. A well-known photographer calls her writing “reportage” and “travel diaries” when her jet-set lifestyle is bought and paid for by luxury brands, and as a result, she’s devolved into a shell of the talented woman she used to be, preened and pretty, and always posing in front of the camera. A whimsical creative films a five-year-old’s birthday party, whose products and experiences are then used for a car commercial. A succession of posts on a blogger’s site always conclude with the following: This post brought to you by Brand X. Thank you for supporting the brands that make this {blog} possible!

It’s become such that blogs are no longer the place to forge meaningful connections, they’re the portal in which we transact, where the ultimate objective is conversion. When the bottom line is a sale. I’ve witnessed prolific, passionate storytellers and artists swathe themselves in banner ads, sponsored posts, SEO monetization tactics, and pricey finery to the point where they’re unrecognizable, and their writing is robotic, rote, and devoid of the passion which once drew the masses.

A few weeks ago Jane wrote a post on aesthetics, which lingered with me for days after I read it. She goes on to say:

I’ve been wondering a lot lately why authenticity has been confused with an aesthetic. And if the perpetrators even think about the language they’re using, the dissonance they’re creating, or if they’re just capitalizing on this economic moment, packaging a product with a deep and visceral need (a spiritual one, even).

While it’s true that our online manifestations are edited, they present a specific view of our lives, I wonder if our blogs are too myopic, too architected, where we’re summoned to create elaborate fictions because we know the business of I’m just like you, but only slightly better is a lucrative one. The true jetset are too unattainable, too aspirational, but these bloggers, women with children and jobs, feel familiar. We cleave to that which is familiar, yet seek a level of escapism and aspiration that exists a level above the ground beneath our feet. The bloggers who told us stories, took us into their homes when we would’ve never had trespass otherwise — we feel we know these strangers in some way. But we don’t. We never truly know them, because while the blog is something like an x-ray and we’re given access beneath the surface as it were, we’re never a surgeon’s hands going in. We never hear the sounds after the laptop closes and cools. We only know the life we’ve been presented.

In marketing, you learn about the sales funnel. It’s a simplistic linear diagram that takes a brand through the varying stages of a consumer’s interaction with it. First, “prospects” need to become aware that a brand exists, they have to “consider it” {i.e. weigh this newly introduced brand against a competing similar product}, and the brand’s USP or unique selling proposition balanced with some kind of carrot dangled, drives the next stage: acquisition. After the consumer has bought a product, a brand wants them to engage and form a deeper relationship beyond the singular transaction: engagement. Finally, they’ve come to depend on this brand, they adore the brand and have transformed into a human megaphone, an advocate. While we can pontificate if the funnel is now a loop or a square or some sort of exotic geometric shape, the core journey remains mostly unchanged. As I think blogging it occurs to me that the stories people once told, the publications and outlets that had shuttered them, how their online voices were a deviation from tradition — suddenly, these voices have morphed into the shape they once rallied against. Their online space has devolved into a simple graphic taught in basic level marketing classes.

They are what they sell.

Remember authenticity? Remember I’m just like you, but slightly better, thinner, more organized and own white furniture? Now it’s an aesthetic. It’s a positioning statement, a marketing vehicle, a way in which one garners trust in order to drive transaction. Remember when your favorite bloggers told stories? Long ones? Remember when their sites were free of the planted, awkward sponsored content that tried to architect something familiar against a backdrop of BIG BRAND? Remember when the blogs you loved didn’t publish post after post of affiliate links and sales drivers? Remember when bloggers weren’t hosting online classes on blog monetization? These round-ups with affiliate links do not make you a unique snowflake. Ten bloggers writing about their couple dating experiences, brought to you by a well-known dating site, within a span of a week are mind-numbing. In the end, these bloggers feel like photocopies of one another, down to the photoshopped collages and link-baiting, in hopes of currying the favor of the “top bloggers” and “premiere brands.”

Remember when people simply wrote? I do.

Admittedly, as someone who both works with brands and agencies in a certain capacity and blogs, I’m faced with a conundrum. While this seismic shift in the blogging space benefits brands {native advertising, anyone?}, how does this benefit readers? How does this benefit children who are constantly prodded to promote products in front of a DSLR camera, whose developmental moments are used as advertising? I don’t fault bloggers for wanting to make money, I don’t, but I wonder about the means to the end and the tactics employed for that end. I’m all for books, business and product lines and transparent advertising, but the story shills are grating and ubiquitous {this tender familial moment, this very personal break-up story has been brought to you courtesy of Brand Y!} This fawning adoration of experiences feels very much like I’m watching a commercial on a loop.

Granted, I don’t have a solution. How does one post stop a train hurtling a hundred miles an hour? But this is what I know: the blogs I used to secretly read and aspire to be are largely crafted fictions. Yesterday, my friend Summer posed an interesting question, Ask yourself: what are you consuming on these blogs? Why do you visit them? What void are they filling? These bloggers are people, just like the rest of us, and their success and aesthetic don’t account for our life, our real, waking life, and how we live it. Success for them may not be attainable for us, or even equate to what we think success is. I know to become suspicious of a blog that has shifted from stories to products and placements. I’ve learned to take everything with a grain of salt. I’ve trained myself to read less. I deploy steadfast rules for this space and hold myself accountable to them.

I quietly mourn the evolution of the blog from an online diary to a branded, curated, edited, aspirational, inspiration, fictitious, business.

Photo credit.

who do you inspire + how do you handle it? seriously, i’d like to know

donotreblog

photo

Yesterday, I received a lovely card that put me on pause. An old friend and fellow Columbia alumn apologized for our constant misconnections, relaying that, though often from afar, I have always admired your determination and thoughtful bravery. You inspire me! I set the card down alongside the ambitious and wonderful literary journal she’d started and I supported, and I felt…uncomfortable. A few weeks ago, I’d invited a friend, someone whom I respect + adore, to contribute a small piece of writing for my blog. After weeks of emails {translation: my stalking}, she acquiesced, but said, with trepidation, that the thought of having her work alongside mine gave her anxiety. Shocked, I turned it all into a joke. Recently, someone told me that I was intense, that sometimes the way I shine has the propensity to glare and blind others. Someone else relayed that I often can get away with saying things others couldn’t in meetings + presentations because of the way I am.

Note: this is not a humblebrag. This is more of a, How am I? This is: I’m legitimately fucking confused. This is I’m not a Pulitzer-prize winner. This is a I haven’t written anything for four years until now. This is a I’m nearly three months sober after a bad two-month bender. This is a I’m always trying to figure shit out. This is an are you serious?

I’ve never been good with compliments. I’ve gotten better, but I’m still rotten at them. For a time I never thought I was particularly great, simply for the fact that there was always someone better. When I was small and started assembling words in strange ways that made teachers give me a second look, made them affix stars on my little haikus, my mother said she was a writer too, but better. When I created stories from albums of stickers, my mother purchased more stickers and her albums were neater, cold, but neater and precise, nonetheless. As an only child, I often skirted around the fringe, never understanding the concept of belonging to a crowd, because I always felt more comfortable in my own company. I always bloomed with very few to witness. As a teenager, I wrote stories that always placed second because I frightened guidance counselors with my tales of young girls who hung themselves from trees. I always placed second chair in clarinet because although I had passion, I lacked precision. I always lacked precision. I always drew around the object that was in front of me instead of coloring in. And this, this strangeness, always alienated me. I wasn’t popular in high school {I was ceremoniously ridiculed for the texture of my hair and the fact that I was that weird girl who wrote those scary stories and read books, and was too honest for my own good}, I was relatively popular {if one could be popular} in college because I did all that I could to be “normal,” and “fit in.” I drank, I wore flannels, and listened to the music that everyone else played.

In my senior year, I quietly submitted a story, a very early story that would eventually find its way into my first book, to the college literary magazine. I remember the editor stopping me on the way to the caf, asking me if I’d really written this. If the girl who wore GAP and baseball hats and drank with the boys {and like a boy} wrote this? I said, yeah, and shock registered across his face in a way that I’d never seen, and I grew numb and cold and ran away. The story was published, and some of that crowd secretly congratulated me, but never publicly, because my crowd didn’t really mix with theirs. They saw me as I’d seen my high school peers, someone who was normal.

Years later, I surrounded myself with writerly friends. I was in my twenties, and still trying to untangle myself from the mask I’d so fastidiously worked to create. Although we read the same books and understood the same references, the only way that I could relate to any of these people was when I was drunk. I felt very much an outsider amongst the very small and insular New York literary set. At the time, I had ruffled feathers with one of its matriarchs, and to this day, I know people who read my blog, follow me on Twitter, and write me these private notes, but never acknowledged me publicly, and it’s fucking weird. These people tell me they admire me, and I wonder, for what? And why not say it out loud? As I’ve told off Kinfolk out loud.

My best friend at the time told me that she had a hard time being around me. That I always seem to get exactly what I wanted — that everything always seemed so easy for me — and I grew furious with her because she knew me, she knew how hard I struggled for everything, for the ability to put one foot in front of the other, and I shook and said, How could you even say that? This friend and I are no longer friends, for reasons I may never really understand. However, the loss will always be palpable.

Years later, I played the corporate game, yet was an outsider in that too, because while I tried jargon on for size, it was always an ill-fit. Yet, a client tells me that she was nervous for a meeting with her client, not because of her client, but because she had to present in front of me.

I guess I struggle with the fact that I don’t fit in neatly anywhere, so when people say these things, I’m legitimately confused and often feel awkward. I guess part of it is that I surround myself with so many incredibly brilliant and kind people, that I’m always in awe of how they shine, I don’t tend to think of myself as someone who glares. That’s not to say that I’m not blind enough to know that I can put a sentence together better than some, but we all have our gifts. We all have the ways in which we can individually shine.

I guess I’m also trying to come to terms with the fact that I have to be okay with not fitting in neatly anywhere. That, to a certain extent, I’ll always be an outsider. I’ll never roll with the lit set or marketing set or food set, and I don’t much want to. I just want to roll with people who inspire me, who raise the bar and crack the whip.

I guess I don’t see what some people see in me, and I’m trying to reconcile that, too.

/rambling rant

love. life. eat. of the week

Desktop

Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower | Uniqlo’s Legging Pants | Soba Noodle Dish {delish} | Linen Throw | Andrei Davidoff Ceramics | Acne Scarf | Alice Munro tribute | Domino is back! | O.M.G. Mill Mercantile | Vogue UK‘s Claire Danes feature | Reclaim your sanity | Entrepreneur + digital impresario, Yuli Ziv’s very astute new book, Fashion 2.0: Season of Change: A Forecast of Digital Trends Set to Disrupt the Fashion Industry | Paul Harding’s follow-up to his Pulitzer prize winning novel | Delfina Bada’s lovely interview + home |

And, of course, my special boy.

IMG_3191IMG123

%d bloggers like this: