Friday, March 26, 2010


Despite over 30 years of (reluctant) shopping experience, when I buy clothes I find it impossible to predict what I'll actually use.

I end up giving away items I was sure I'd wear all the time: the very comfortable sweater, for example, in a neutral color that would "go with everything". (There is no such thing, by the way.)

On the other hand (and this is the part that perplexes me the most) ever so often I buy something despite suspecting I'll never use it, just because I really like it. And it turns out I use it all the time. Gold shoes (that nearly go with everything.) Denim shorts (I even wear them to the office.) A dress with an unusual pattern. An article in an unlikely color.

(If you're thinking "Aha! What she needs to do is only buy things she really likes without worrying about frequency of use!" I’ve also been known to buy something despite suspecting I’ll never use it just because I really like it and it turns out I don’t use it. But thanks anyway.)

I have come up with a very rough list of rules that sometimes works:

- The less time it takes for me to put an outfit together, the more I turn to it. This is why I wear dresses at least 4 days of the week.

- The shoes have to be comfortable. It's not that I don't adore high heels. It's that I love my feet more.

- I won't use something if it makes me feel like a boy. Pants often do this. And, this is the reason I have given up on most blazers.

- No button down shirts. They always gape. I don't care how well they're cut. And no, I don’t want to try that special brand that doesn’t. I’ve given up on them.

- No turtlenecks or crewnecks. I love how they look on other people. They don't look good on me.

I have the deepest respect and admiration for people who love fashion and have fun with it and always look like getting dressed in the morning was a wonderful mini-adventure. For the rest of us, it's a crap shoot.


Monday, March 15, 2010

What's the best that could happen?

Let me share with you one of my most ingrained habits: I will immediately, unfailingly go to the worst possible case scenario.

It's not that I'm a pessimist. I'm an optimist who concluded long ago that to accurately assess a situation I needed to ask "what's the worst that could happen?" The assumption is that if I have evaluated the worst, I will be ready for anything.

I have discovered that this is flawed reasoning, because:

- It's impossible to prepare for anything, given that the combinations of unfortunate things that can happen are, I'm sorry to say, infinite. So, when something bad does happen, rather than being "ready" I sit there bleary eyed and wild-haired wondering how on Earth I did not see it coming.

- Operating in worst case scenario mode leads me to live in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety. (It's no wonder, since I inhabit a nightmarish kind of place). The lethally ironic blow? The exercise completely dulls my instincts, so that when something happens I cannot read my most trusty tool (my internal compass) because I've dulled it with a flood of possible scenarios that do not take place.

- Ultimately, what I end up without is faith. Because I'm so busy looking ahead at likely disasters that I fail to notice all of the times that what I was expecting did not occur.

So I'm now in the middle of the most difficult exercise: training every day to resist taking my well tread, completely cleared away path that leads to worst case scenarios; and instead choosing to open through dense jungle the trail that no one has ever set foot on of trying to conceive the best that could happen.

Saying this doesn't come naturally to me would be an understatement. It scares me, because it feels like I an setting myself up to be ambushed, hurt or disappointed. But instead of living through the heartbreak of all the catastrophes that have only happened in my (hyperactive) imagination, I hope to live through the joy of a thousand perfect (and equally plausible) outcomes.

This way, when crisis strikes, at least I won't be exhausted.
Photo: Painting by Ken Grant

Friday, March 5, 2010

I turned left in Vietnam

Traffic in Vietnam can only be described as surreal. You have dust and noise (oh, the noise) and cars and rickshaws and bicycles and motorbikes that often carry more than four family members (or, say, a refrigerator, a water buffalo, or 10 wooden crates full of basil and mint leaves.)

If you’re not used to it, riding around in a car can be pretty harrowing. Getting in a cab will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and gripping something.

Which is why it was such an incredible experience to explore Vietnam by bicycle.

For context, let me start by saying that I’m not particularly adroit on a bike. I can balance myself on it and I can pedal, but I’m not one of those people who was ever good enough to yell “Look mom! No hands!” (Or even “look, Mom! One hand!") I never thought I’d be capable – or willing - to ride in the middle of such commotion. To my surprise, it allowed me to experience the rhythm and throb of a country in a way nothing else, not even walking, could have.

On roads, street signals don’t matter. I’m not referring only to stop lights, but even to the sense of highways. There is no such thing as “the wrong way” as people driving in any direction use both sides of the road. Drivers use their horns constantly (hence the intense cacophony), to say “I’m here” rather than to say “get out of my way”.

What you do is ride along, mindful of others, yet completely owning the space you rightfully occupy in the world. You tend to stay towards the right side of the street (leaving the middle part to trucks and cars) and avoid the shoulder if it’s too sandy or has too much gravel. You make sure that there is a pattern to your movement (no swerving, jerking or sudden stopping) so people around you can predict what you’re going to do next. The opposite of chaos, there is an easy flow to it, and once you get the hang of it, it feels like an incredible local secret has been revealed to you, like learning a language.

Now for the best part. What about turning left? This act can only be described as a leap of faith. You stretch your left arm down and wiggle your hand (if you push your arm out you’ll, at best, knock someone over.) Then you go – turning the handle bars against traffic coming from both sides of the street and knowing full well there is a 50/50 chance a big truck could plow right into you.

I rode a bicycle in Vietnam for a full week, took multiple left turns, and every time felt to the center of my being the precise meaning of “on a wing and a prayer”.

Riding a bike in Vietnam feels like you’re a witness to your own fortune-kissed life. If I can, against all odds, turn left in Vietnam and come out of it unscathed, it's safe to assume there is less to be afraid of.

Photo: New York Times Asia