Work & Play

Saying No Never Gets Old

It never gets old because I am so bad at it.

Recently, I read this blog post by Rohan that reminded me that one of the reasons I am not present in my life, or TO and IN my life, is that I have such a hard time saying no.

I say yes when I don’t want to (or even when I want to say yes, but know — deep down — that saying no is better for me).

You will do for the love of others what you would not be willing to do for yourself
— Cheri Huber

This takes me out of the present moment. If not immediately, then it definitely pulls me out of the present moment when the yes I agreed to comes “due,” so to speak.

I am — humans are — notoriously bad at imagining what our future self wants and needs. We think everything will be exactly as it is in this moment.

But I am overwhelmed in this moment, too.

There’s the rub.

Will I ever learn?

I am starting to.

Now I keep a list of the things I’ve said no to. So I can remind myself — prove to myself — that I can, in fact, do it and am getting better at it.

NYC gig -- February 25, 2019 -- 7pm @ Rockwood Music Hall

Back at my fav spot …

Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3
>> entrance to Stage 3 is on 185 Orchard Street <<

Monday, February 25, 2019
Doors @ 6:30pm
Downbeat @ 7pm
Show is over @ 8pm … it’s a school night, right?

Get your TIX HERE. $15 bucks.

Intimate listening room vibes!

And, as always, an attempt to answer some fundamental questions of metaphysics through song.




Reading in swarms

I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.

The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.

I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”

I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.

Is it “curiosity”?

Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.

Is it mania?

Maybe. But a benign mania.

I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.


I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.

I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.

For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.

Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.

Perhaps. That’s more like it.

A swarm of books about the Arctic


In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)

That’s more like it: hunger.

What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.

While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)

A fraction of the swarm of books I’ve read about death

And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.

Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.

I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.

New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).

Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.

I think I understand.

Don't stop at 20

If you are struggling with something, say coming up with a title for a book or a blog post or a song, don’t do the minimum amount.

Don’t come up with one title and think you’re done. You’re not. You’ve not even started.

Come up with 20 titles.

And if 20 is hard, do 30.


To come up with 30 ideas you won’t self-edit. You won’t have time to. You need to get to 30 so that the ideas flow.

And that’s the point: find the killer word or phrase that would’ve never been found if you’d stopped at 1 or 5 or 20 or 25.

Make a list of everything you've said yes to doing

Write a quick and dirty list of everything you’ve said yes to doing.

The list’ll include things you’re already doing, things you’ve said you’d do but you haven’t started yet, things you started long ago but haven’t finished yet (unclosed loops), etc.

Try to get it all down. Even if the categories are broad and overwhelming. Like category “Dad.”

He’s an entry on my list. I do need to show up for him. I’ve said yes to being a loving daughter so that means I show up more than I don’t show up.

What happens when you see your list?

Does it tell you something about why your life looks and feels the way it does?

Yeah. I know.

Now — what can you cross off, punt, say no to, get rid of, decide you’re not going to do now or ever?


It is hard, I know. But buried in all of that is the one or two things you really want to focus on, the one or two things that would really make a difference for you.

What would be possible if you created more space for that one thing to flourish?

Are you willing to find out?

“It is much easier to put a laundry list together of all the possible things you need to get done each day than it is to actually choose your one most important task” and then work on mastering it. — Organize Tomorrow Today by Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow

Quotes on being brief

  • “It was a delightful visit;—perfect in being much too short.” —Jane Austen

  • “My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

  • “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” —Thomas Jefferson

  • “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” —Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, 1657, (translated from the French)

  • “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche

  • “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” ―George Burns

  • “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do —not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit." —Stephen King, On Writing 

  • “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.” —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Blog posts and habit math

I’ve been attempting to write a post a day for about two weeks now.

I’ve missed a few days.

What have I learned from making the commitment? And — more or less — sticking to it?

I’ve fallen in love with the math of compounding, of watching tiny habits practice day after day build up a level of success and confidence.

As author James Clear points out in the opening to his book Atomic Habits:

“improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable— sometimes it isn’t even noticeable— but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”

I’m staying focused and concentrating on my process, not my outcome.

Staying with the process and not becoming fixated on the result is the heart of habit and, ultimately, identity change. Clear puts it this way:

“It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”

That’s what I am doing — staying fixated on my trajectory.


When I miss a day, I’ll get back at it the day after that. I’ll not let two days go without a writing a post.

In this way, I learn — bit by bit, day by day — to make change and trust the person I want to be: a notice-er, a thinker, a compassionate witness-er, a person who makes time for public (and private, too) writing and teaching and learning.