The act vs. the event.

It's odd. Getting engaged is, in a way, a very immediate action. From one moment to the next, you jump life steps. One minute your finger is bare, the next you're wearing the ring you'll wear for the rest of your life. Obviously lots of conversations and relationship growing and partnership-building has led up to this point in our lives. But the official act of getting engaged pushes us to this new state of being. We're engaged. And that means more than it seems.

The past week has flown by and has revealed our engagement to be a catalyst for much thinking. What does it mean to us to be married? What's important to us about that act, or that day, or the legality behind the action? How do we prepare ourselves to take vows, to look each other in the eyes and make the kind of statement that you hope to only make once in your life?

It's been a struggle to remain focused on the strategy of our marriage, as people inevitably want to quickly move towards the implementation of our marriage. Where will we be married? Where will we have our reception? How many people will be there? And what color will the bridesmaids be wearing?!?

I don't mind these questions; it's natural for people to be curious about the components of our marriage that they'll be a part of. I get it. I've been there. But what I need to do, especially in these first weeks, is stay focused on the act behind the event. 

This afternoon we lounged around a park in DC for a few minutes, soaking up some of the last autumn sun. We talked about what's important to us- that we want to vow words we believe in, that we want to be married by someone who has convictions about what they're officiating, that we want to be surrounded by the community of people who love us and who will help us through the inevitable hard times ahead.

That, to me, is what my wedding has to be about. 

I stare into the intimidating face of marriage, one whose dour statistics challenge my very belief in the institution. I reach back into the years of dating and experience I've had, use them to prop me up and reassure me that this relationship is so very different than anything I've ever had before. The wedding event will be a success if the act behind it is a success. 

I'd be curious to hear what married folks think about this... what did you do to make sure you stayed true to the act and not just the event? 


Semester 1: The Formation and Decline of Memory

The first semester of Project Learn will kick off this coming Monday, November 1 and will last through January 2011. This gives us 13 weeks to explore our unforgettable (ha!) topic at hand, The Formation and Decline of Memory! In that time, we have 2 feature-length films, 2 TED talks, 5 books (1 fiction, 4 non-fiction) and 1 website to get through. There are also 4 assignments (which are obviously pretty specific to me, but if you want to write a personal essay, go for it!).

My plan is to continue blog life as normal, but my assumption is that many of the posts will be memory-related. And if I get through the materials quickly, I think the syllabus is flexible enough that we can consider it a work-in-progress. At the end of the semester, I'll post my best answers to the Questions to Consider. You can take that as my final exam, proof of the learning and motivation to not publicly shame myself by failing my own course. Ha.

I'm going to post the syllabus in the newest section of this website- Project Learn! You can always consult it or keep an eye out for posts tagged with "PL: Memory."

Ok, enough details, what am I, a registrar?! Belong, please find my humble syllabus for an introduction to memory:

Questions to consider:
When does memory begin?
Do men and women remember differently?
Can you erase a memory?
What is Alzheimer's? How can you prevent it?
Can you improve your memory? How?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The riddle of experience vs. memory: a TED talk by Dan Kahneman
How brain science will change computing: a TED Talk by Jeff Hawkins

101 Theory Drive by Terry McDermott
Losing my Mind by Thomas DeBaggio
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss

Other Resources
National Library of Medicine on Memory

Write a personal essay about a memory and submit it for publication.
Make a gift for someone based on memories.
Find out how memory works in a computer. Document it in a really simple way.
Publish a memory post every Friday.

Want to play along? I'm starting with 101 Theory Drive by Terry McDermott. Go grab it at a bookstore this weekend and let's get reading!


Sitting quietly (with gusto)

I never wrote about this, but I saw Dave Eggers at the New Yorker festival this year. He was oddly fidgety, as if he was uncomfortable with the attention. I wanted to say, "Dude! Do you know how brave and awesome you are! Sit quietly!"

Later I stood up to ask the first question. I told him that I really admired all of the projects he's involved in, from McSweeney's to writing books to writing screenplays to running 826 Valencia. Then I quoted an interview he did with the Harvard Advocate about 10 years ago, in which he said "No is for wimps."

"Do you still believe in that?" I asked.

He smiled and said that with two small kids, he's much more able to say no today. But he also said that life is very short and that he thinks a lot about mortality and that, when given the opportunity to do interesting things, he welcomes them.

How do you create those opportunities? I think it's fair to say that they're born out of a careful combination of humility and GUSTO. Yes, gusto.

Gusto is a force that feels simultaneously like riding in a hot air balloon and being rooted deep in the ground by a tall, tall tree. It is the not the ability to dream big; people dream big all the time. Gusto is the ability to dream big knowing that you deserve to dream big. And also knowing that you have it in you to pull those big dreams off.

I did not always have gusto. Maybe I still don't totally. For a long time, I had the urges towards gusto; I felt the tiny seeds, but was not fully-formed enough to own my gusto. Working at Arc90 has helped with that. Never in my life have I felt as good about confrontation with people than since I started working there. I've learned that confrontation doesn't mean problems. It means opportunity for conversation. It means opportunity for better decisions. And I really feel that I have been weathered away to be a good, strong communicator because of confrontation (both at work and outside of work). Confidence feeds gusto, in small and healthy doses.

Maybe this is about turning 30 in a few months. Maybe this is about having some great meetings lately at work. Maybe this is about getting married next year. Maybe this is about sharing my fiction in class and standing behind my characters. Whatever it is, lately I feel gusto in me, the kind that is pulling me towards some really interesting opportunities of my own.


Love is meant to make us glad.

This photo was taken about ten minutes after the man next to me got down on one knee (on a hardwood hotel room floor, no less!) and asked me to marry him. I can't remember what he said exactly, but it started with a very shaky "Jennifer Epting..." and it ended with me also getting down on one knee and crying as I tried to tell him how much he means to me.

There I was, in the best room at the New York Ace Hotel, hugging a dude who has gone from being my co-worker to my very best friend. Surreal! That is really the only word for it. We sipped champagne (thank you, Ace Hotel!!) and talked about the kind of marriage we want to have and what kinds of adventures we have ahead of us. It was an unforgettable night and even now, sitting here after hours (AND HOURS AND HOURS) of phone calls to tell friends and family about the news, it still feels like we took a hard left last night and landed in some alternate universe in which Sundays are for feeling immensely loved and Monday morning celebrations at work cannot get here fast enough.

Totally surreal.

You all know how much we love the Ace Hotels and it was the perfect place for Chris to propose. It also felt really serendipitous that our bathroom mirror had that phrase printed across it. Love is meant to make us glad.

And tonight I am so, so, so glad.


How to Be Alone

I don't do this very often, but I saw this in my RSS feed this morning from Denise's blog and had to post it. I literally sat here and cried as I watched it. How true this is! How amazing it is to be comfortable being alone...

I adore Chris and I love my friends, but I do find that I need my alone time to go out to eat and travel solo and enjoy my own company. I've spent so many hours exploring new places or getting adjusted to new countries or amusing myself while I wait for someone late. Being alone helps me remember how I REALLY feel, deep down, when no one else is in the room.

Hope you enjoy.


The writer and the programmer take to manual work.

It was so beautiful out yesterday that we could not prolong the inevitable any more. Our deck furniture is looking ROUGH. Rough like someone put it through three winters in Brooklyn and a tornado about a month ago. Oh, and hail last week.

Example A:

On Saturday I went to the hardware store and talked through the process with a nice dude at the sand paper counter. "Blah blah sanding, blah blah varnish, blah blah protector, blah blah a lot of patience," he said.

"Ok, great!" I said, and coughed up fifty bucks.

Five hundred splinters later, we have a beautiful varnished table (no protector yet... we're hoping that a little rain this week will not wash the varnish off before we can get to the next step). Here are some highlights from the process. It's looking AWESOME.

Chris' sanding made the wood look a billion times better:

Here we are about halfway done with sanding. See how much crud we sanded off of it?

Sanded and ready to be varnished:

Mr. Handyman varnishing (and attempting not to drip all over the deck):

Mr. Snoozefest, who refused to help:

The best shot of me helping (and that is reaaaaaally saying something... at least there is no ass crack in this one):

Freshly varnished and ready to dry in the sun:

One day later- a beautiful table!

Next up will be that protector layer and then the whole process begins again for the chairs and the lounge chairs and the side table. Perhaps we will have a manual work party and make lunch for our friends in the name of finishing it all this century.


Semester 1: Memory

I made a list of a bunch of topics I'd be interested in learning about last week and, boy, was that list long. It covered things from "Meat" to "Basic Economics" to "Hiking/wilderness survival" to "The American President" to "The Moon."
Photo by mrkvm via Flickr.

So how did I choose? I kept in mind that some of these topics would fare better during a particular time of year (hiking in the spring!) and some of them feel too lofty to start with (Basic Economics or Simple Physics, for example). I wanted to choose something a little fluid for the first topic, something that would allow me some flexibility while Project Learn goes through its initial formation pains.

I had just typed "Neuroscience" on the list when I realized that was too broad. Then it hit me: MEMORY! How amazing is the topic of memory? From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Proust to Alzheimer's to the way technology tries to help us organize our lives so we don't forget to buy milk.

I'm so excited to learn more about this topic.

As part of the syllabus, I'll identify some key questions I'd like to be able to answer after the semester is over. When does memory begin? Do men and women remember differently? And so on.

I have an initial brain dump of sources (films, podcasts, books, etc.) that I could use as material for this semester, but I'd love to hear ideas from all of you. Obviously you could spend 25 years studying this topic (and some neuroscientists do!), but I'd like to cut it down to a manageable list of stuff to absorb in 13 weeks.

So have at it! What sources can you recommend? What novels or short stories make you think about memory? What relevant articles or TED talks or films have you encountered? Any music? Have you ever tried one of those books that help you remember long sets of numbers? What foods are supposed to help you remember better?

I've talked with only 2 or 3 people about the topic so far and they've already given me a bunch of ideas... I can't wait to hear what you would all suggest. Here comes the power of the Internet, a bunch of people whose exposure to topics are cumulatively greater than my own.

So let's do this. All ideas welcome... even if you have no interest in following along!


The Idea.

I've been obsessed with one particular question for about 7 or 8 years now. It's not something I think about every day, but from time to time it rolls off my tongue in a dreamy conversation with fellow dreamers.

If you could teach a class starting next week, what would it be?

One of my favorite answers is this: a class about the top ten books on the NY Times bestseller's list, as it stands on the first day of class. Reading material is those ten books, and we'd discuss each work itself, as well as what it means that each book made the list. How do they appeal to the general public? What's been the marketing behind them? And let's compare the list with one a year earlier, ten years earlier, twenty years earlier.

Fun, right? I like daydreaming about stuff like that. And my answer to this question never has much to do with what I'm qualified to teach. It's mostly a vehicle for figuring out what I'd like to learn about myself... and then explore that via academia with a roomful of other thoughtful minds.

Last night in the subway, I was vaguely thinking about this question and its surrounding implications. What topics have I been interested in lately? How have they overlapped? What events, lectures and opportunities exist in New York City to support those interests?

I think that my learning goes through a natural ebb and flow. While watching John Adams earlier this year, I was listening to History podcasts and reading the Declaration of Independence. On a visit to Boston around that time, I dragged myself along the Freedom Trail and got a kick out of hanging out in the spaces Mr. Adams and crew had been. My interests already follow some sort of logical trail.

But what if I created a syllabus? What if, for periods of 3 months at a time, I dedicated my time to learning about one specific theme? I could make a reading list (after asking you all to suggest must-read titles based on the subject), plan lunches with relevant friends who know about the subject, look up lectures or classes taking place in the city during that time. There's a way to be curious about everything- but maybe it's most productive to take things one at a time!

So here's the plan. On November 1, I'm going to kick off my first semester of Project Learn. In the meantime, I need to decide what the first theme will be, ask you all for recommendations, create a reading list and a syllabus. All along the way, I'll post thoughts as I learn things about the topic, synthesize what I'm reading and learning, plan relevant trips to inform my learnings. Doesn't this sound FUN? And here's where you guys come in!

I'm going to post the syllabus on this blog and if you happen to be interested in the topic too, you can read along! You too can spend 3 months learning about Dreaming or Japan or Ballet or Cheese!

Here are some initial ideas I have for syllabus stuff:
  • required readings
  • relevant events in the city
  • relevant locations to visit (i.e. Boston for American History)
  • relevant volunteer opportunities
  • opportunities to talk with family members about specific themes
  • related films
  • writing assignments (i.e. learn about marriage and submit something to APW)
Is it crazy to make a school for yourself? Maybe. But I'm such a willing student! And I know that you're all out there with me, ready to offer what support and guidance you can. Let's get smarter together, ok?

I have a ton (like... a TON) of ideas for the first Project Learn theme and I'll be announcing it in the next week or so while I'm working on the syllabus. But come November 1, school is in session.

I. Can't. Wait.


The Internet and Me.

What a fantastic week it has been, mulling over life and the Internet and this here blog. How often do we pull the plug on something with lots of forward momentum just to make sure it's right? Barely ever. This brief time away did me so much good because it was done with intention. Rather than simply avoiding posting for a week, this intended break has made me much more thoughtful about it all.

Here's the deal: nothing in this world is black and white. When I really thought about it, I realized that blogs are not evil and they're not perfect. Here's the extreme breakdown:

Blogs are evil because:
  • they are convenient vehicles for self-centeredness
  • their very nature forces a one-way relationship with others (and friends are forced to be mere commenters, if they participate at all)
  • they can force very awkward conversation in person ("Oh... yeah, I read about that on your blog" can leave you with social anxiety about telling the same story 5 times)

Blogs are perfect because:
  • they keep lots of people up to date on your life
  • they can drive motivation to finish projects, complete goals (nothing like a little public humiliation!)
  • like a diary, they are extremely useful at working through what you're going through
  • they keep track of your days and years so your memory doesn't have to
When reviewed alone, both sides are incorrect. You gotta find some middle ground here.

I don't mean to over-simplify the matter. Your public presence, both on and offline, is something worth caring about. But when you're hyper-socially-aware (like I am), sometimes you're too sensitive for your own good. I feel proud of what I write on this blog, I really do. And as a friend pointed out the other day, looking back over years of writing is just this precious resource of where I've been and what I've done. It means a lot to me.

Over drinks with colleagues the other night, Rich asked me why I liked the Internet. Suddenly, it all came pouring out, the fact that I've been reassured countless times that others have feelings like my own, the good ideas that others share, the perspectives from people far different than me. I love that about the Internet. My world is wider because of it.

There's got to be a way to harness the best of that connective power, a balance between bragging about yourself and openly sharing what someone else might take comfort from. Writing on this blog is so much about saying "yes, we're all a little nutty," or "no, you aren't the only one." How many times do I dream up some scheme and think "I have got to get this on the blog"?

This evening Chris and I got in the subway at Grand Central and because there are 4 billion people in NYC, we were separated in the crowd. He stood, reading on his Kindle, across the subway car, and I stood daydreaming on the other side. Suddenly an idea hit me with such force that it nearly knocked me over. I needed to tell someone, but couldn't yell across the car to Chris and was positively bursting by the time we got to our stop. 

"I HAVE SUCH AN IDEA!" I said to him as we pushed through the crowd and I could finally tell him about it. And guys, it is SUCH an idea. It is something that combines the Internet's goodness with my penchant for learning and the advice of everyone who reads this blog. It is making me insanely excited about the fall and the winter and the spring that follows. I can't wait to write about it here!

But tonight, this post deserves to stand on its own. Eight days of reflecting merit their due. I'm leaving comments open on this one because you should chime in if you've ever felt embarrassed about something you wrote online or felt anxious about starting a blog or how you've worked out the boundaries of what you'll share and what you won't. Your voices, not just mine, are part of this world to me, and I would really love to hear what you all have to say.

"The Internet and Me." Go.


Stepping away from the blog

When I first considered starting a blog, I was really reluctant. It wasn't that I didn't think I had things to say or share (particularly because I was about to embark on a year-long M.A. abroad). The pros included the notion of continuing communication with my friends and family in the states; I was moving abroad to live with a boyfriend and neither of us knew how long my stay in France would be. The reality is, having a blog was an easy way to communicate with a significant number of people and it comforted my anxiety about staying in touch.

But on the other hand, I remember being almost... embarrassed. I had only read a handful of blogs up to that point and most of them seemed to be pure bragging. I couldn't put my finger on it back then, but starting a blog stunk of self-centeredness. Again, I comforted myself by that fact that I would be using it to keep in touch, a communication tool. It made me feel better.

I attended Your Brain on the Internet today, an hour-long panel discussion with neuroscientists and Internet gurus. It was so interesting that it ended hours ago and Chris and I have just finished discussing it. And though it was not the main point of the talk, there was one theme that got thrown out in conversation that has stuck with me since: the Internet and self-promotion.

I sit here conflicted. As Chris pointed out, this blog has been a great tool for me to express myself, to get my thoughts down on paper. To some extent it continues to be a tool of communication with friends and family who live far away. But I am having some serious problems with blogging tonight, so much so that I'm considering dismantling the whole operation.

One of the panelists pointed out that studies show that even Facebook users who have 1,000 or 10,000 friends actually have 4-7 close friends in real life. In French, there's an expression that you can only have as many "amies" (close friends) as the fingers on one hand. And I think I've been pushing this boundary, refusing to believe that it's true. Out of all of the amazing people I've met in the world, how do you narrow it down to 4-7?

The truth is that life does that for you. You don't actually have time to be close with more than that number, unless, maybe, your job is making and maintaining close friendships. Four to seven friends are just the amount that should know about how your relationship is going and what happened at the doctor and how your parents are doing. It's really all you can commit to, regardless of how easy it is to "add a friend" on your favorite social media site.

What happens if I don't provide this one-way portal into my life? It forces the people that I know to either write or see me more often... or not. I hate the idea of losing touch. But I also hate the idea of a one-way friendship that exists via social media so that others know what I'm up to.

In the subway on the way home, I admitted to Chris that much of my time spent on the Internet makes me feel terrible about myself. People tweet about what they're doing or who they're with, others post the same stuff on Facebook, bloggers post the adorable outfits they've thrown together. And instead of inspiring me, it really just makes me feel inadequate.

There. I said it.

And maybe this is the nature of the beast, but I suppose I'm really examining whether I want to be part of this beast.

When I imagine the things that I post on my blog or on Facebook or on Twitter, it horrifies me to know that there is some aspect of self-promotion in almost every post. And that's not the kind of person I am! And it's certainly not the best person I can be. There's something to be said for publicly setting goals to hold you to them, but there's also something to be said for holing up and asking yourself what you really want.

The easiest posts to write on this blog have been the informative ones- here are some great books out there or here are some great places to visit in Paris or here's a great tailor in New York. I suppose that's because they provide a specific service to readers; those posts do not promote my ego or what's going on in my head. I think there's a place for those on a blog. I am not sure, though, what else belongs.

So long as I am in this state of discomfort about social media posting (blah blah blah buzz words blah), I'm not going to do it. I may find a new energy or direction for this blog, in which case I'll come back and post more here. I may decide to shift what this blog's focus is, or what it intends to accomplish. Instead of it being about me, it might be about my writing or something more niche. I'm taking a break from Twitter and Facebook too for the same reasons.

Thanks to all of you who have read or kept reading. Every comment or email was appreciated and I'm so happy to have stayed in touch with some of you because of this blog. I hope that, no matter what the fate of this blog, I'm able to remain connected to all of you.