A Winner Every Game

The floor in front of a ticket game in an arcade with a large pile of tickets coming out of a machine.

I’m good at arcade games. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the cheap tchotchkes you can cash tickets in for. Or those games where you pick up a stuffed animals using a crane. It’s just fun figuring out the timing and there’s that WOOSH of success when you’ve conquered it. The photo above is a pile of tickets from a particularly good day where we went home with a bunch of toys to donate to Toys For Tots and an Amazon Echo from a Cut the Rope game. Not bad.

I’ve always had a knack for these things and I can’t quite tell you why… other than it’s an activity that brings me total joy. I give myself a budget and from there it’s a totally anxiety free experience. It’s something I’m moderately skilled at and I have fun with it. Sure I feel a little silly with this as a “skill” of mine. It’s nothing I’d ever list on a resume.

Fake screenshot of a resume for me with my gaming skills.

If I win, awesome, I get toys and candy and a sense of accomplishment. If I lose, well, I had fun playing and I still probably get a Dumdum lollipop out of the deal. I do well with it because I feel totally confident.

“Well, duh,” you say to yourself, “that’s literally anyone doing a fun thing they like.” But even with my hobbies I still have this pang of unease. When I paint, I worry it will be ugly or that I’ll mess it up. When I read books it snowballs into feeling bad about not reading more and then I’m not reading at all, I’m just thinking about reading while holding a book. Even now as I write this, I feel the pang. Is this worth talking about? Will anyone read it? Does it matter if no one does? How does this contribute to my ~writing career~?

I just wish I could have that feeling of total confidence and control like I do when I’m playing in an arcade. If this were some self-help blog, I’d list five ways to start synergizing my real time career expectations with my hobbies… or something. Throw the word ‘millennial’ in there about a half dozen times. But I don’t have five ways or even one. Hell, I don’t even know what millennial means anymore.

But I do know that I’ve identified the goal. I need to find my way to that place where I’m running around, and nothing feels like work because I’m laughing and having a good time. I need to feel like I can be a winner in every game I play. All I can do is try to be more comfortable and enjoy playing the game, whatever it might be. If I figure out a foolproof way to do that, I’ll let you know.

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Reviews of Self Help Books I’ve Owned For Several Years But Have Still Never Read

Meditation for Dummies, 2nd Edition by Stephan Bodian

There you were at a Borders going out of business sale. You hadn’t been ripped to shreds. You still had your bonus audio CD included. I bought you with Acrylic Painting for Dummies and got a $10 rebate. Someday I will read you and listen to your CD and find true balance and renewed sense of peace. Or you’ll go out into next year’s garage sale. Good job, Lauren!

 

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here by Paula Begoun

I think I already have all the tools to have the Best Skin of My Life: mild depression and a vitamin D deficiency that makes me really sleepy all the time! But I suppose that someday I’ll crack the cover of your book and probably find out I’ve been doing skin care all wrong. I’ll wake up looking like a forgotten block of cheese in the bottom of a fridge drawer. But I’ll never know I’m wrong if I never open the book! Good job, Lauren!

 

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins

First I joined your email list in hopes that I could become motivated with my writing. You talked, much like Stephen King does in On Writing, about just committing to it. Like a job. Like your life depends on it. But here your book sits, untouched and unread. Like 90% of your emails from your mailing list, left to languish in my inbox like a friend you just can’t seem to make lunch plans with. “Ugh, gosh, shoot… Sorry, I just found out I’m working remotely… from Guam. Forever. And they banned lunch there. And reading.” I do like the semi-crumpled paper airplane on the front. I can identify with it. Good job, Lauren?

 

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

A successful artist friend recommended this book to me and I rushed out to buy it, insisting to myself I would read it! I would be motivated! Anything was possible!

Yup. Good job, Lauren.

 

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

My therapist recommended you. You have zebras on the cover, pictures inside too… one picture has a monkey on it. A monkey! Who can say no to a cute little monkey and a book that discusses the management of stress related diseases THAT YOU KNOW YOU SUFFER FROM in an updated and revised edition of this self help classic?!

I can, apparently. GOOD JOB, LAUREN.

Lauren the Math Ruiner

In 5th grade I was chosen to be on a math competition team for my elementary school. As a kid I was in many split grade classes, meaning I would do the classwork of the next highest grade but I never actually skipped grades. This meant I was doing 6th grade math and doing it pretty well, so I made the team. The competition was held at a local high school, which had different timed sessions in different classrooms. I felt like one of the big kids having to keep a schedule and move from class to class at a high school. This brief encounter with a more structured educational environment, along with the free cookies provided at snack break, would become the highlight of my experience.

Now, I was pretty good at math when I was younger. But my anxiety would always get the best of me and I’d sort of… forget everything I knew. This would prove especially disappointing to everyone else on the math team, because the school scores were cumulative. Did I mention the math team was made up of all the really cool 6th graders? And some kids that actually skipped 5th grade? I was sorely outclassed in every way. My math performance was a disaster and I was blamed for the lackluster performance of my elementary school in the district standings.

There was an award ceremony at the end of the competition and I’d considered just calling my parents, going home, and bawling my little eyes out. But our assigned faculty member asked a favor of me. Some kids had won awards for their specific performance overall. Jamie, easily the most popular girl in school, had to leave early. If her name was called, could I walk up and accept it on her behalf? I gladly accepted the responsibility. Surely there was no way I could screw this up! I could help in my own little way! YES! REDEMPTION!

At first all the kids that didn’t win personal performance awards were called up one by one to receive a participation award. Later in my adolescence I would despise these awards for the dry fart they are, but little 10 year old Lauren was very starved for positive interactions. I tightly clutched the printed certificate in my hands and waited.

It was on to the individual performance awards. When Jamie’s name was called out as the winner for something like “Best Score”, I gasped loudly. She had won! How exciting! I ran to the stage as the auditorium clapped. I leaned into the woman handing out the awards, “I’m not Jamie, that’s why I came up earlier when you said Lauren. But I’m accepting this on her behalf because she left early.” Pretty sure the lady just stammered out ‘uh okay’ or something equally brief and dismissive.

BUT YOU SEE, in my excitement I had missed the cries of “no, wait, Lauren, no” from my classmates. During the beginning of the awards, Jamie had run to her parents who were waiting outside, told them they were wrapping up, and come back inside. She was completely available. But she had no idea I was her stand in. I had no idea she’d come in the back. So when Jamie started to walk to the stage, THERE WAS THE SCHOOL MATH RUINER rushing the stage to accept her award. Jamie was upset with me. The kids all hated me. For months afterwords I was picked on, but honestly probably not anymore than I would have been anyway.

For some reason the next year, when I was invited to a science team day, I still accepted. How did that go? As well as you could expect.

Introvert by way of Anxiety

I am an outgoing person. Always have been. I’ve done theatre since I was a kid. Improv shows were my favorite. I like to travel, even going on little vacations by myself on occasion. I put on silly faces, sat at the front of the class, always raised my hand, generally had something to say.

But there’s this terrible juxtaposition I put myself in when I do this. Because I have two narratives going on at once. As an example, I went to a play tonight. The show was One Man, Two Guvnors. Funny show with a fair dose of audience participation. We sat in the front row and when they asked for a volunteer, I was thinking, “OH pick me pick me pick me!”

And at the same I’m thinking, “OH GOD not me not me not me.” Just thinking back on it, I have an ache in my chest.

It’s weird, right? I feel them both, at the same time, at the same intensity. Because I like to play along and have those experiences. I like to be brave and say yes. But it is always so scary.

This is because of how I am wired. I am ruled by anxiety. I can’t even say I’m living with it functionally. The above described is, I think, as far from functional as you can get.

Girl wants to do a thing.

Girl gets excited.

Girl gets to do a thing!

Girl gets worked up and nervous and shakes like a bobblehead doll playing a game of Jenga.

Girl vividly plans for every disaster scenario her brain can imagine for herself (in technicolor!)

Girl does thing totally successfully, not at all a big deal, while onlookers notice she might be “maybe nervous or something”.

This is me. It suuuucks. It drives me to be introverted, which is odd because it’s not my desire. I like the dog and pony show! (Did you hear, there’s a pony!) But my animal reaction in my brain is to do the mental equivalent of pacing back and forth until I wear a ditch down into the earth. AND MOST OF THE TIME THINGS ARE FINE.

I’ve been trying to combat this for years, but I don’t know how I would because there’s not really much of a road map for people like me. I know extroverts and introverts. My introvert friends would rather be at home reading a book. Extroverts want to go to a party and talk about the movie they saw based on the book. I want to read the book, go to a book club to talk about it, but then not make eye contact with anyone until I’ve eaten enough cheddar cheese to get me to a comfortable place where I can explain that the book is really an allegory for man’s struggle to understand himself and did you have a restroom I mean of course you do what a ridiculous question well this has been great but I’m going to the bathroom now I mean unless someone else needs to go I can wait oh god why do I always do this

I know where it comes from. Uncertainty mixed with some good old crummy brain stuff at a formative age. But where can it go? The things I do and try haven’t gotten harder, really. But even after all this time, I am still plagued with self doubt. I want to run outside. I want to say hello. I want to do new things. But if I open the door, how am I going to screw this up?

Sigh.

The doing is the thing.

I’m waiting to hear back from a local writing club to see if they’ll have me as a member. I like to write but understand it is a skill to be developed. That’s part of what this blog was born out of. I can crank out 500ish words or so for these posts or the newspaper articles I write for my college, but to move on to the next level I’m going to need help. I have Stephen King’s “On Writing”. I have a copy of “Bird By Bird” which I think will speak to my anxiety directly. I say ‘think’ because I haven’t cracked the cover. On either book. I have a mental block. I know, it’s crazy. You know what I am reading? A book about everyday economic theories!! YEAH. WHEW, LAUREN, SLOW DOWN, GIRL.

One of the goals I wrote down for that writer group was to read these books. My aversion probably relates back to my lack of confidence and weird newbie shame about my writing, so it’s more about confronting that than the knowledge within. Honestly, accomplishing any sort of writing project is confronting it. To quote Amy Poehler, “You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” So I am doing the thing. Every blog post is a win. I’m chipping away at those negative feelings.

My acceptance in this club will be based on some writing samples I submitted. One was an essay I wrote for college. There was a Splitsider piece I wrote. And then some samples from the newspaper and this blog. Everything I selected was good writing; but more importantly, they were pieces I was proud of. If I can manage to bypass the anxious and the talking and the worrying and the thinking, I think I’ll be able to create more pieces to be proud of. I just need to keep it up and to be brave.

I’ll finish this up by sharing a short piece I’m proud of. I went to a writers conference a few years ago. One workshop included an exercise. We needed to create a short piece of fiction in TEN MINUTES with some key events: You’re in first class on a train. You notice something on the floor. You look out the window. Someone sits down next to you.

The other writers shared their work. It tended to be a bit softer, sort of ‘masterpiece theater’ submissions. Mine was… different. Sort of silly and snarky. I really liked writing it. Maybe I should do more writing prompt exercises. So enjoy, and if you’re feeling frisky, add your submission in the comments below.

Got on the train. Took my seat in first class.

I look to the floor and see a used Kleenex. Gross. It’s nice to know even in first class people still struggle to make mass transit a clean experience.

In walks a slender Gwyneth Paltrow type, clutching her cell phone, designer bag, and the hand of a three year old holding an iPad.

Oh. Awesome.

She looks right past me. I’m not surprised. She’s in her own world. People exist within it to do things for her. And why shouldn’t they? She clearly rushed here straight from yoga.

I turn to the window. The trees roll past. I try to peer through them. Farms out there, best I can tell. Splotches of amber, brown, and lush green. A fence runs along the tracks. It’s a totally different world from the train. Organic, open. The train car seems so unnatural, with the clicking and hums generated by our forward motion.

‘Gwyneth’ has sat down next to me now with her child, engrossed in his shiny gadget. She turns to me.

“Hi. Could you give Jonathan the window seat? Trains make him nauseous.”

Stressfest at Tiffany’s

Illustration by Stephanie Ku

Illustration by Stephanie Ku

This really a story is about my friend Loria. She was a former coworker who was delightfully my opposite. She was tall, classy, charming, calm, and quite sure of herself. I met her in my early 20s… which on it’s face SHOULD explain where I was in my life. I didn’t wear dresses. She was always dressed to the nines. She reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, who is relevant to this story in a couple of different ways. Audrey Hepburn was always my idea of beauty. Simple and approachable, but stunning. Classic.

Loria and I would often chat in the mornings, walking to get a cup of coffee, heading back to sit for a bit in her office. Between work talk I’d tell her stories of my anxiety ridden nerd life, figuring out how to be an adult. She’d tell me about her social adventures, local restaurants she’d been to, wine, and her fiancé and his burgeoning career. We were an odd pair. But we really enjoyed each other’s company and she became an important friend to me in an awkward period in my life.

One day, while discussing work, she mentioned she needed to run by Tiffany’s. In our old office, when senior staff left for greener pastures traditionally their parting gift would be a crystal apple paperweight. She had been tasked with picking one up. Given my impression of Tiffany’s (drawn mostly from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s) I was sort of taken aback at first. A paperweight from TIFFANY’S?! She told me to calm down, it was only $125. I was perplexed… Tiffany’s had insanely expensive things. It was a FANCY PLACE ™. I didn’t think anything from there could cost under a thousands dollars.

“Have you ever even gone there? There’s one in the mall.”
“What? No! Are you kidding? I have no reason to go into that store. I’m like waaaay too poor, too pedestrian. They’d throw me out!”
“Oh come on. You’ve never just LOOKED?”
“I can’t tell you how uncomfortable the very idea of that makes me. I have no business going in there.”

So Loria brought me along with her to pick up the apple. I felt nervous and weird. Here I was, a tiny awkward dork, walking into TIFFANY’S with Loria – an embodiment of elegance who looked like she belonged in there. I looked like I had shown up because I needed to fix their receipt printer.

We walked in and were immediately flanked by a personal shopper. I avoided eye contact and became well acquainted with the texture of their tile floor while Loria explained that we needed to pick up an order. While they were in the back collecting the order, we looked around. She walked over to the displays and I hesitantly followed, using her as a barrier. The cases glowed with beautiful, shiny baubles. Rings, necklaces, glassware… It was all there. I stared. I cooed. Another personal shopper asked if we needed to see anything from the cases. I stammered “uh UH UH no”.

As we drove back to work, apple in tow, reflecting on the experience, Loria said that I really needed to leave behind all these ideas of where I should and shouldn’t go and what I should and shouldn’t do. They don’t know me or what money I did (or didn’t) have. And more importantly – who cares! You’re just looking. I reminded her that I was ruled by anxiety, but it was a valid point and I appreciated the adventure that day.

A year or so later, when Nick and I were married, Loria’s gift was two champagne flutes from Tiffany’s. It was tremendously thoughtful and meaningful and when I opened them I burst into tears. The gift she’d given me was so much more than the champagne flutes.

I reminded Nick about this story when we were at the mall a couple days ago. There we were, in front Tiffany’s, peering inside as the personal shopper near the entrance peered back out as us.

“Should we go in? They have barware.”
“Ehhh, I think I’m okay. What if it turns out the ONLY martini glasses I like are from Tiffany’s? And who knows how much they cost. And we’re not buying anything today anyway.”
“True. We can look online.”

So we looked in the window cases on the outside, much like Audrey Hepburn did… and then we left. But I think had we gone in, it would have been fine. Because really – who cares.