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Let it All Go

13 Sep
Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski


I didn’t know David Foster Wallace. Aside from his insightful commencement speech, This is Water, I didn’t know much about his career, his writing, or his lifelong struggle with depression. Yet, on the seventh anniversary of his death, I found myself mourning him in a way that seemed inexplicably personal given the fact that we were complete strangers.

I chalked it up to having picked up my reserved copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader from the library and started, not at the beginning, but three-quarters of the way through the massive tome with his teaching syllabi. This left me feeling nostalgic because, as a composition instructor who has witnessed the trans-formative power of writing, I knew exactly what had gone into crafting those deeply personal pieces of administrative ephemera.

I nodded as I read his description of English 170R and the various course requirements and grading standards. The best teachers strive to create syllabi that not only provide substantial structure, but also give students the ability to exercise freewill and make mistakes. It’s a tough job because, as a teacher, you also have to anticipate the loopholes and be one step ahead of those students who might try to outwit the system. I burst out laughing when I read Wallace’s footnote warning about what constitutes college-level writing, which states, “Written work with excessive typos, misspellings, or basic errors in usage/grammar will not be accepted for credit. At the very least, you’ll have to redo the work and incur a penalty. If you believe this is just the usual start-of-the-term-saber-rattling, be advised that some of the students in this course have had me as an instructor before—ask them whether I’m serious” (611).

When in doubt, leverage your past history to ensure compliance—especially if you have witnesses.

There’s a tenderness in Wallace’s syllabi; a kind of vulnerability that all of the best teachers offer their students (even when they’re desperately trying to be hard asses). It stems from the fact that all the most creative teachers have a healthy respect for rules and, yet, also take great joy in casting them aside once learned.  These teachers walk the wire and invite students to stroll along with them; safety net at the ready.

As I moved on in the anthology and read more of his work, I was struck by how deeply affected Wallace was by everything around him, and how much researching, learning and thinking he must have done to process all of the information he took in before he turned it into cogent, yet seemingly conflicted analyses of tennis, state fairs, and lobsters. Wallace doesn’t openly label things as good or bad, right or wrong, rather he gently leads the reader toward his thesis until they are uncomfortably unable to look away from the reality of what’s been pulled apart and laid before them (the best example of this is his essay “Consider the Lobster”).

I began considering that maybe a teacher’s love for their students isn’t that different from a writer’s love for their readers–and maybe simply for humanity, in general. I recalled a Wallace quote I’d read (while browsing Maria Popova’s brilliant Brain Pickings website) in which he discussed the desperate need for vulnerability in art:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.”

And suddenly it became clear as to why I was mourning the death of a man I’d never met.

We are currently living in a time in which fear (and loathing) drives a great deal of expression, and those who are truly willing to take risks and make themselves vulnerable—in any arena—are often attacked, ridiculed and written off as naive and/or unrealistic. Yet despite attempts to suppress these voices, those who are intent on finding ways to remind us that we are all deeply connected, refuse to be silenced.

I mourn the death of David Foster Wallace because, as I struggle to create a world that reflects more kindness, understanding, and human connections, his silence is deafening.



Dream Again

28 Aug
Guts Over Fear - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Guts Over Fear – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

A few days ago, my mother confirmed my status as a life-long optimist when she told me that, as a toddler, my standard response to the question “How are you, Mary Alice?” was always an enthusiastic, “I’m too too happy!”

For those who know me, this probably does not come as any big surprise.  I firmly believe that joy comes out of sorrow and that this perspective is a choice. Yet I think that, at times, my optimism has the tendency to be interpreted as naivete or downright Pollyanna-ish.

And I understand why.

In a world where so much pain, suffering, injustice, violence, and hatred occurs on a daily basis, it is incredibly difficult to maintain any kind of optimism or hope that anything can change.  My optimism doesn’t deny or ignore all of this, instead every day, I make the choice to actively seek out and acknowledge the many reasons to feel hopeful about the possibility of change.

This week I read Jorie Ella’s piece “Let’s Keep it Real: The ALS Bucket Challenge is an Embarrassment” and then I read Amy Phillips’ “I Don’t Care if You Think it’s a Gimmick: Please, Please Keep Dumping Ice on Your Heads” — and I felt hopeful.

Whether the challenge is deemed useless or useful is a matter of perspective, but the one thing that has become clear is that the Ice Bucket Challenge is inspiring strong reactions and pushing people to engage in discussions that extend far beyond ALS.

People like my beautiful friend, Courtney, whose strong, brilliant father has been stolen from her by this horrible disease, have said, “It makes me feel like the world is behind me!”

And maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Other people have opposed the challenge because they view it as a shameful waste of water, ALS as a disease that disproportionally affects middle-aged white males, and the social media frenzy surrounding the challenge as a colossal waste of time and is distracting people from the real issues like the war in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, racial and socio-economic injustice in Ferguson, the militarization of police forces in the US, the failure of the US educational system, and countless other issues that deserve attention.  People are being criticized for dumping buckets of water on themselves before donating to ALS research, but those who oppose this waste of water have extended the discussion to include the global need for clean drinking water and conservation efforts, whlie others have found creative ways to participate in the challenge without wasting water.

But here’s the thing…

Everywhere I look, people are engaging in conversations!  Conversations that include links to alternate perspectives, and questioning of ideologies.  Conversations that involve voices from around the globe.  Conversations that often become heated, but attempt to maintain (for the most part) a certain level of respect.

It’s not that I think people should avoid disagreements or that they shouldn’t express their outrage over the ongoing violence and injustice; it’s just that I don’t see how problems are ever going to be solved unless people feel like they’re being heard.  And my experience in classrooms has taught me that once people feel like they matter – like their voice is being heard – anything is possible.

It’s this possibility, and the small, every-day miracles, that propel me forward and keep my optimism alive.

And if my optimism is what makes a difference to even one person, then “I’m too too happy” to be one of the millions who continue to strive to be a small part of the change they want to see in the world.



Break Free

20 Aug
Reflection/Perception - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Reflection/Perception – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.

Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”

I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions!  It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”


Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.

I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.

To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three.  I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.

Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.

As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her.  He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.

As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down).  He apologized, and told me what had been going on.

He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.

Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.

As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.

He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.

I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior.  No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.

I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to.  A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”

She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention.  I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit.  She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.

Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!”  She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.

The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”

Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.

Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that!  But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!”  He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.

As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation.  My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet.  We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.

I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.

In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”

And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.

The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!


There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.


21 Mar
Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

I can’t stop thinking about L’Wren Scott.

I didn’t exactly run in her social circle. I never met her, wore her fashion designs or even followed her career, other than to take note of her name in fashion magazines.  I didn’t even know that she was Mick Jagger’s partner.

What haunts me is that at 49, for reasons unclear to those closest to her, she chose to end her life, and, according to news reports, she did it in a way that reflected her well-mannered reputation – by asking her assistant to drop by in the morning rather than “bothering” or “inconveniencing” anyone.

By all accounts, Ms. Scott had a happy relationship with Mr. Jagger, and her business, though going through the normal ups and downs of all burgeoning businesses, seemed to be heading for success with the signing of a $250,000 contract to collaborate with Banana Republic.  This week her friend, reporter Cathryn Horyn, wrote in a New York Times tribute entitled “Memories of a Friend, a Teacher, and a Fighter” that Scott was under a great deal of pressure to make her clothing line successful, and that in a tense conversation Horyn told Scott she needed to “give herself a time limit to resolve matters or get out. Putting her health in jeopardy because of stress was not worth it…” Scott did not like – or heed – the advice, and continued to strive for success.

It’s this – and more – that makes me grieve for a woman I don’t know.

There’s no way of knowing what was going through her mind at the moment she decided to end her life, but I understand why she might have felt like it was the only solution, and that deeply disturbs me.

It’s scary to be a strong, intelligent, ambitious, aging woman in this society.  So many people depend on you, and if you are successful, it’s usually because your over-achieving perfectionist tendencies have pushed you past your fears to the point where you jump in and make it work – at all costs.  Whether it’s being successful in your education, your career, your health, your marriage, your child rearing, your athletic achievements, or your hobbies and interests, the drive toward excellence can leave even the strongest of women questioning their abilities.

Age makes it even more difficult because at a certain point you start to question all of your choices – past and present.

I say this because at 47, I find myself very far away from what I was educated to do and facing a number of health issues that never even crossed my mind at 27 or even 37.  My salary is far below the level of what I should be making, given my education level (and student loan debt) and abilities, and I’m paying off debts that I accrued for living expenses and health insurance in my past life.  I’ve managed to put my massive student loans in forbearance as I have tried to land jobs with pay that would allow me to afford to pay the $958.00 a month that the loan company is asking for, but those days are soon coming to an end – even if I haven’t landed a job with an adequate salary.  These new health challenges add a whole new level of stress to the money mix, but there’s no way to avoid them because right now they’re not terribly serious but if I ignore them, they’ll cost me much more in the long run, both financially and physically.

And it all reminds me that I’m not getting any younger

Only my family and a few close friends know what’s weighing on me – until now.

I say this, not because I am looking for sympathy or a handout or an excuse, I say this because even though her life is none of my business, I think I understand what might have been going through L’Wren Scott’s mind that night, and I have to wonder if maybe we should be making these thoughts other people’s business.

I understand how wonderful and scary it feels to be someone who other people look to for support and stability.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  I understand the weight of trying to be a cheerful role model and avoid showing how scared and alone you feel because other people are relying on you to be the strong one.  I understand how humiliating and shameful it feels to wonder how your finances, health, [or fill in the blank] have gotten so out of your control, and to be afraid to ask for help because then everyone will definitely know what a failure you really are.  They’ll know you’re a fraud and that everything you’ve accomplished has been nothing but accidental luck.  And I know many, many other women feel like this, as well.

But here’s where Ms. Scott and I differ.

I hear this message, but I don’t buy into it because I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who I can let down my guard with and show all the ugly unlovable parts of myself to.  I’m fortunate that they love me and offer help even when I’m at my absolute most stubborn (because I’m positive that I am a total failure, that everyone else is doing it “right,” and that if I would stop being so damn lazy and just work a little harder I could overcome all the obstacles and manage everything my own big self),  and I’m so very, very fortunate that they step forward and offer it despite my incredibly high walls and fierce defenses.

It makes me deeply sad and unbelievably angry that the world lost yet another generous, loving, kind, intelligent, creative woman this week because in that one brief moment, she didn’t believe she could ask for help, and because no one was able to reach out and offer in time.

In their recent Top 40 pop hit, Pompeii, the British group Bastille asks, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

Here’s how…

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reach out to others and let them know I’m available.  I’m going to pay attention to the people close to me, and I’m going to let them know how much they mean to me on a more regular basis.  I’m going to smile at strangers and offer to help when I can.  In other words, I’m going to try harder to be the change I want to see in the world.

And maybe by helping others, I’ll remind myself that I’m worthy of being helped, too.


17 Jan

For the past few months, I’ve been scared to write on my own blog.

There, I said it.

I’ve been paralyzed by the fact that I have so much to say, and yet I wasn’t sure of how to say it, so I froze.

Instead, I shifted the focus away from myself and my thoughts, and turned them toward people I know who are actively engaged in pursuing their dreams, and I’m not sorry I did. Dan, Laura, Colin, and Kate inspired me, gave me hope and did a mighty fine job of covering for me while I frantically searched for my writer’s courage.

Oh, I didn’t stop writing. For me, that would be akin to not breathing.

I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. But I couldn’t craft a blog entry that I felt I could publish, so I let it go and took a break from blogging.

I taught, I worked a second sales job (in retail) over the holidays, and I read books. Lots and lots and lots of books. But still I didn’t feel like I had anything worthwhile to say.

Last Sunday afternoon, frustrated by my inability to blog, and hungry for information related to a decision I am in the process of making, I traveled to my local library and found Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth during my ritual “wandering of the stacks.” I checked it, and several other books, out and drove home to make dinner.

That night I began reading and kept reading until I my eyelids were too heavy to stay up. The next morning I was up at five, with a steaming cup of coffee, and by nine I was turning the last page as I sipped the ice cold dregs.

As soon as I finished, I emailed J. to tell her what an amazing book it was, and, of course, had to summarize a few parts for her. I told her she had to read it!

When she emailed back a little while later, she laughingly said she’d add it to her list of books and thanked me for the Cliff Notes.

In my excitement, I misunderstood her gratitude as a request and proceeded to type out a synopsis of each chapter. Later we laughed about my overly enthusiastic response to her appreciation, but I was glad that I’d typed up my thoughts while they were still fresh. Rereading them, I realized why I had been having so much trouble finding my blogging voice.

I couldn’t find value in what I had to say.

I was embarrassed about all of the ideas I had. I thought everything I had to say was silly or trivial – and I was ashamed of what I thought.

Knowing Your Value was the key that unlocked – and opened – the door, and showed me that I wasn’t alone.

Brzezinski’s book chronicles her professional missteps as she got back into the television news business a year after she lost her anchor position on CBS Evening News. In it, she explores the ways in which professional women are often overlooked and under compensated, and more importantly, how they themselves contribute to the system that devalues their performance and contributions. Not only did she examine her own missteps, she also asked powerful professional women about theirs – and then reported their candid responses.

Women like Senior Presidential Advisor,Valerie Jarrett, former CEO of Carol Bartz, former Chairperson of the FDIC Sheila Bair and Publisher Tina Brown all expressed the same kinds of experiences – feeling torn between being professional (read: being a “good girl”) and vocally valuing their contributions (read: being a “self-promoter”).

The example that absolutely shocked, and then reassured, me was from Elizabeth Warren. Yes, the Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard Law Professor. The longtime consumer advocate who locked horns with Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. The Elizabeth Warren who has been on Time magazine’s list of the World’s Most Influential People for two years running, and who is now running for the Massachusetts Senate. That Elizabeth Warren.

Warren says that she’s always been the “good girl,” the one who said, “Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop.” What she hadn’t realized was how deep the need to “belong” ran, until the Wall Street Journal called her “self-promoting.” She said that she was transported back to her childhood in Oklahoma, suddenly feeling like the odd girl out, and remembers thinking, “Oh my god, I do so much less press than I’m asked to do, and when I do it, I always try to do it in the service of trying to teach something, trying to advance an idea’…it really stung. You know when someone says, ‘Oh, she’s just plain stupid,’ it doesn’t cut to the quick. It doesn’t undermine me in the same way. It doesn’t even throw me off. But the notion that I’m self-promoting somehow makes me gasp…I think more than once I’ve wondered, ‘Would you say that if I were a man?'” (Brzezinski 106).

I was stunned. If even Elizabeth Warren worries about being seen as a self-promoting know-it-all, then what hope do I have of figuring out how to say what I think?

As women, we are socialized in a way that leads us to doubt ourselves, and allows the opinions of others to silence our own. And because we’re scared of being labeled judgmental, uptight or holier-than-thou, we censor what we really think and feel in order to make others feel more comfortable or less insecure. It’s a horrible cycle that leads many women to give up trying to get their ideas heard, and I shudder to think how many possibilities have been lost as a result.

The problem, Ariana Huffington says, is that, “Too often in our culture, strong women get stereotyped as ball-busters, which is as insulting as it is ludicrous. In my experience, the strongest, most fearless women I know are also the most creative and productive-and the ones who most want to support other women. And honestly, wouldn’t any healthy man really prefer to be involved with a woman-either personally or professionally-who is driven by her true thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires instead of her fears?” (93).

While reading these words, it hit me. All of the women in the book expressed doubt and fear about speaking up and asserting their worth, but they all put on a good game face, developed thicker skin, made mistakes, and kept speaking up.

They didn’t give in to the voice that threatened to silence them.

Even when the voice was their own.

I have a lot to blog about these days. Big changes are on the way, and I’m scared and excited by the prospect of possibly changing careers at this stage in my life (for those of you who have followed my blog, I will tell you for certain that I am not on my way to becoming a rock star – and that I’m sorry if you’re disappointed.).

I don’t know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, all I know is that I have a lot to say about what’s going to happen, and I’m not going to allow my fears to silence me.

Well, not for long, anyway.

Dreamer Profile: Colin McComb

7 Dec

Oathbreaker: The Knight

[Editor’s note: I first met Colin when we were both teaching at the same school – right next door to each other, in fact – and would “threaten” to do something about the noise coming from our respective classrooms. Earlier this year, on my birthday, he supported my dream and wrote, “I wish you New York this year,” and (unbeknownst to him) was one of the people who inspired me to take a chance and visit New York this past June. A few months ago, when I read that he was looking for supporters to help him publish his novel, I did what I could to return the favor, and am absolutely thrilled to be able to feature him in the Dreamer Profile series – and to have the honor of being able to count him as one of my friends.]

NAME: Colin McComb



What is the dream you are pursuing?

  • After years of talking about it, planning it, and plotting it, I’m releasing my first novella, “Oathbreaker: The Knight’s Tale“, the first in a series. The series started off as a single snapshot image of a cocky young wizard who suddenly realizes he’s overmatched as his enemy summons forth a creature from beyond, and with that image burning a hole in my mind, the rest of the pieces began to fall into place. I promised my wife (as part of our wedding vows) that I’d write a book, and hey, ten years later! Here I am.

What inspired you dream about doing this project?

  • I’ve been a fantasist for a long time. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 10, and I’ve been reading fantasy since well before then. I’ve been a professional game designer and writer of one sort of another since 1991—I’ve always had the desire to share my imagination, but I’ve never published any fiction. Putting together a coherent story seems to me another route to do that… and this way, I don’t have to worry about game balance, which always been a concern.

What challenges have you faced in order to pursue on this dream?

  • The biggest challenges have come from inside. Procrastination, fear that my work wasn’t good, or fear that it wasn’t good enough (especially when compared to the great writers), fear that I’d fail, fear that I’d succeed, making something else the priority… lack of focus, in other words, because of an underlying anxiety about finally being responsible for my own fate, with the commensurate penalties for imagined failure.

What has surprised you the most about pursuing this dream?

  • When I launched my Kickstarter project to help pay for my artist and editor, I thought I would get some desultory interest, and I set my pledge bar low. Instead, total strangers to me backed me generously, along with friends and family and fans of my other work, and I met the goal handily. I suppose it was surprising to me to realize that people really do like my work. You’d think that I’d have internalized this long ago, since I’ve had a fairly successful game career, but I’ve always rationalized that as people being interested in the game, or the setting, or the company I was working for.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of pursuing this dream?

  • Pretty much the answer I just gave. That, and finally launching my book. There’s something about seeing it put together and knowing, “I did that. I made this.” Even if it doesn’t sell thousands of copies, I know that I did it. I launched something under my own power.

Is there anything you wish you would have known or done differently?

  • No procrastination! No fear! It’s easy to look back at the end of a project and say, “Man, I shouldn’t have wasted so much time.” I should know! But I wish I could keep the focus I’ve learned in the last few years and apply it retroactively to my life. I just need to remember: When I sit down to a project, I sit down to the project – and I don’t get distracted. Take the time to do it right, because otherwise there’s no point in doing it.

Where do you hope this dream leads?

  • Fame and riches, of course! Mostly the latter, anyway. At the very least, I’d like to maintain enough interest in the series that I can finish it off as a complete story. Chances are good I’ll do that anyway, but it’d be nice to get paid along the way.

Who inspires you to dream?

  • My friends Chris Avellone and Tony DiTerlizzi, who really do embody the work ethic I want. They are both astoundingly creative and prolific, and if I can match even half of their output over the course of my life, I’ll be happy.

(Oathbreaker: The Knight’s Tale Book I can be purchased on

Shifting the Focus!

31 Oct

AC's Garden, Howe, IN - photo by MAG

If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time. –Marcel Proust

For a little more than a year, I’ve been focused on writing an account of my dream of moving to New York City.  This blog has provided me with a way to make (and process) progress on my dream, but lately I’ve felt the need to expand the scope and start exploring and supporting other people’s dreams.

In the past year, I’ve met lots of people who are extremely committed to living their own dreams, and many of them have moved forward and are doing things that they weren’t initially sure they could do. Each and every one of them amazes and inspires me, so I thought perhaps it would be helpful to write about them so others can draw from their experiences and perhaps be inspired by them, as well.

In the coming weeks, I’ll write about the soon-to-be realized dream of a friend who is publishing his first novella, and other friends who have pursued (or who are in the process of pursuing) dreams!

If you have a dream that you’re pursuing, and would like to have it featured in an article on the One Year to Move blog, please leave a comment on this entry and I will contact you to find out more about your dream!

Meanwhile, don’t stop dreaming!!

Saudade Vem

11 Sep

9/11 Lights - photo by DMT

I’ve been feeling saudade lately.

A few years ago, while attempting to make sense of the emotions I was experiencing after a devastating loss, D. introduced me to this 13th century Portuguese term, which describes a longing or yearning for something from the past that no longer exists in the present.

One definition of saudade is a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” and another, stronger definition, is “the love that remains.”  It is a kind of melancholy that leaves one longing for what used to be, but also encompasses a “paradoxical joy derived from acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or substituting what is lost by something that will either fill in the void or provide consolation.”

The feelings brought about by saudade connect both the past and the future to the present, and are not only used to describe the feeling in relationship to people, but also to places [like one’s homeland] and traditions or “the old ways.”  It recognizes that what has happened, can’t be changed – only remembered.

On September 11, 2001, so much was lost by so many that the pain of loss still permeates the fabric of New York City.  It’s not that people haven’t moved forward with their lives, they have, and the evidence of the strength and resilience of New Yorkers rises from every corner, but saudade sneaks through the cracks.

I wasn’t in New York City on 9/11, nor did I lose anyone close to me in the attacks, but the account that D. wrote for me a few years ago [The Rising: 9/11] helped me begin to understand the depth of pain that he, and other New Yorkers, felt as their city was attacked.  The first time I read D.’s account, I remember sitting in front of my computer, openly sobbing. As I read, I felt waves of anger, fear, despair, and pain wash over me, and I wondered how in the world D., and his fellow New Yorkers, had coped with all of this up close and personal.

As I read on, I realized that they dealt with it by being kind to one another, by finding commonalities, and by doing whatever they could to help.  As D. writes, “…people actually looked at each other in the streets and subways. We made eye contact and nodded to each other. There was a feeling that we were all together in the suffering and anger and fear.”  The tragedy that ripped the city apart brought New Yorkers closer together – because they remembered.


This summer, while in New York, the emotions I felt while reading D.’s account came rushing back when he and I were out touring the Financial District.  We had just rounded the corner in front of the World Trade Center when two guys selling commemorative souvenir photo-booklets shoved them in front of us and asked if we’d like to buy one.  Without looking at either man, D. muttered a terse, “No” and kept walking.  Not being used to this daily profit-driven reminder, I was outraged.

I remembered D.’s vivid descriptions, saw the pain these “souvenirs” caused my friend, and I wanted to rip those books out of the hands of those selling them and ask them if they’d stopped to consider how much pain they were causing by hawking their goods. If I’d thought it would have done any good, I probably would have, but I didn’t want to draw attention to something D. had obviously found a way to endure, so I shut my mouth and silently hoped that the warehouse containing the remaining “memorabilia” would burn down while all of the sellers were home for the night – out of harm’s way.

And yet, I also realized that these “sales people” are also a sign of saudade.  New York City experienced a devastating tragedy, mourned the losses, and began to rebuild.  The souvenir sellers make their money by selling memories of the past – albeit not ones that anyone wants to return to – in order to ensure that no one ever forgets what used to be.  I’m not saying they do it for sentimental reasons or because they love New York, I’m saying that they remain in business because people buy the booklets, and those who buy them remember.

And it’s those who remember who are making a difference – both in big and small ways.

There are many people who remember 9/11 and are committed to helping prevent an attack like this from ever happening again.  Many of those people [such as the 9/11 widows who started Beyond the 11th] have become involved in projects designed to put an end to that which causes people to believe that attacks like these are a solution to the problems of poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and religious intolerance.  Only by remembering the past and working toward change in the present can the future be altered.

What does this have to do with saudade?

Saudade is the longing for what has been, the knowledge that it can never be again, and the yearning for what has yet to be.

As the world commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think saudade is a useful term as to describe the feelings many of us are struggling with as we try to make sense of all that was lost on that terrible day, the uncertainty we live with in the present, and the world we hope to create for the future.

May peace – and saudade – be with us all.

Let it Rain

27 Aug

City Hall Park - Photo by DMT

It looks like New York City is about to be hit by Hurricane Irene, and the prediction is that it’s going to be a huge hit on the costal areas.  So far, the subway system has been shut down, and authorities are urging people in low-lying areas to evacuate before the eye of the storm hits New York. Mayor Bloomberg has made it mandatory for those people living in Zone A to move into safer zones.

I’m a little concerned because D. and his family live in Zone A, but if I know my friend, I’m pretty sure that he’s stocked up on the essentials and is probably in a pub in a safe zone, having a beer – or two – while watching the progress on his computer, iPhone and a couple of televisions.  Hopefully he will check in after the worst of the storm has passed, and maybe he will even have some photos of Mother Nature’s Drama to share!

Meanwhile, for those who are interested, here is a link to the Livestream Video of mid-town Manhattan, and Amanda Marshall’s version of “Let it Rain.”

August 28, UPDATE:

It looks like Irene didn’t hit as hard as forecasters predicted she would, but she still managed to pack quite a punch!

Check out readers’ photos on the NY Times site – there are some amazing pictures of before and after the storm.

August 29, UPDATE:

D. checked in and said that although the storm was an inconvenience, he and his family are doing fine and their home and business – and the city – all survived the storm.

While I was concerned, I also had absolute faith in the fact that my friend – and my city – would weather the storm and bounce back with their indomitable spirit intact!

Now, if I just had some pictures…

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