Belayed Development

Course: Beginning rock climbing

Institution: Planet Granite

Location: San Francisco

It had been on my To Do list ever since I saw Planet Granite convert one of the old Presidio buildings down at the end of Crissy Field into an indoor rock climbing gym: learn to climb.

I decided to take their 4 week beginning climbing course. The first night we learned how to belay. Belaying is when you assist the climber by holding the rope and prevent the climber from hitting the ground in the event of a fall. There is a specific technique to belaying. You have to know how to wear a harness, how to use a belay device (at Planet Granite it’s called a gree), how to manage the rope moving through the device and how to brake the rope with your body.

In a climbing gym the rope is attached to the top of the climbing wall for safety and as such is called top-roping. The climber, meanwhile, ties into the rope directly using two knots – the figure 8 and the fisherman’s knot. Both the belay partner and the climbing partner use some basic lingo to communicate when climbing is okay to begin and when a climber has reached the summit and wants to be helped down.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. We learned how to belay and tie in as a climber in two hours. Our teacher asked that we take our belay tests before the next class. To climb in most indoor climbing gyms you have to take a test where gym management will watch you tie in as a climber and practice belaying to make sure you understand the techniques and are not a safety hazard.

So, ever the eager student, I drove over to the gym on the Friday before my next class and asked to take the test. I knew all the answers to the questions the manager asked and gave him quick answers. I did, in his own words, “everything technically correct.” But he didn’t pass me.

He said, “You looked hesitant.”

“What?” I said, truly dumbfounded. “But you said I did everything correctly.”

“It should look like second nature,” he replied.

My head spun. I realized arguing with him was futile but at the same time I was screaming in my head, “how the heck is it supposed to be second nature when I just learned a few days ago?”

He knew I was in the beginning climbing class and he knew that our teacher had requested we take the test before the next class. So I was thoroughly confused as to what he expected of me. I stepped out of my harness and left.

By the time I got to my car I was fuming and as soon as I shut my door, I was crying. I had failed. I had been prepared, I had done everything technically right and I had still failed. I felt like a loser. I mean who doesn’t pass their belay test?

It didn’t help to find out the following week that everyone else in my class had passed. I had practiced with them and couldn’t figure it out. They had no more skill than I did and they certainly didn’t belay with the ease of second nature. The teacher said she’d wait to start class to give me a chance to take the test again. So I stepped up, confident that I knew what I was doing, but the L word clanged in my head. I failed again.

I was so embarrassed I started to sweat. The class went on like nothing had happened – like my ego wasn’t lying on the floor like a used up chalk bag.

I couldn’t concentrate on what the teacher was saying. All I could think was why? Why did it bother me so much to fail?

The reality is that there are no guarantees. You can work hard, do everything right and still come up short. And I think that’s what was truly bothering me. I couldn’t help but relate my experience in a rock climbing gym to the rock I had being pushing up a mountain lately – my sense of self. My self-worth has been so tied up in accomplishment that without it, I felt like a stranded climber with a dangling rope.

That weekend I joined my family to select a tree for Christmas and related my woes about the belay test. While trying to strap the tree to the top of the car I became tangled in the rope. My sister laughed and said, “Maybe this is why you failed your belay test.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, too. It was a beautiful day outside, I was surrounded by family and all was well. She was right. I was getting tangled up in the outcome.

Still I was determined. I went into the gym later that weekend and asked again to take the belay test. While waiting to take it I told myself, “I will continue to take this test until I get it right. I will take it as many times as it takes. They’ll post a picture of me on the wall because I come back so often to take it.” And then I laughed at the thought of a framed picture of myself in full harness greeting gym members when they entered. Sure enough, I passed.

But the real test was this – learning to fail. Most things don’t work out if you’re doing them to reach a result. It is at the end of the day, like the struggle of Sisyphus, the effort that makes the person.

Toast with Strangers

Course: Toastmasters Drop-in Meeting

Institution: San Francisco Toastmasters

Location: Schwab building, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes before 6pm and took a seat in one of the chairs pushed up against the perimeter of a large conference room. Members were already seated around the table, some with name placards in front of them.

At the front of the room was a podium and a sign announcing the word of the day: Bailiwick (BAY-luh-wik, n). I would learn later that the word originates from the section of the courtroom that a sheriff (the bailiff) controlled.

We started on time. That alone made me sit up and take notice. I do love an event that respects my time. And it was a clue. This was going to be a structured experience.

The welcome was done by a gentleman referred to as the Sgt. at Arms in the one sheet program. I hadn’t heard that term since junior high. He introduced the Toastmaster, an Asian man with a deep voice and warm smile. He detailed the agenda. We would hear from a number of players: the Timer, the Distractions Keeper, the Word Master/Grammarian (about whom I was most excited) and evaluators. Then he outlined the speeches scheduled for the evening. He also introduced the theme of the evening: "Open heart. Open Mind. Open Door."

I didn’t quite catch the motivation behind the theme, but I felt it fit the purpose of my visit. I was there to open myself up to a new experience and specifically, new people. What some may find difficult to believe is that I’m incredibly shy when it comes to groups of people. I do okay one on one, but when I find myself faced with a group, I struggle with how to enter and then how to relate. But, meeting new people is on my list of priorities this year so I’ve decided to try activities that force me to meet folks and get me out of my social comfort zone.

First up were four speakers, all of whom were working through the Toastmasters’ book and focused on a particular skill in their speech like use of visual aids or inspiring an audience. There are apparently 10 speeches one has to complete to reach the first level in Toastmasters.

I listened and chewed gum to ease the onset of hunger. I find the 6 to 7pm hour tough for all activities. I’m always hungry then. I was stuffing a third piece into my mouth when a young woman next to me asked me for a piece. I have to admit this was surprising. It would just never occur to me to ask a total stranger for gum. Unsure how to respond, I handed her a piece. I told myself, if she asks for another one, I’m going to tell her to pound sand.

This would be an example of my anti-social behavior. While I couldn’t strike up conversation with her because a speech was going on, her request didn’t make me interested in speaking to her after. I looked around the room and wondered who I was interested in speaking with. I was holding myself back for some reason – holding back from engaging – going against the very reason I was there in the first place. Clearly, I had more work to do.

After the first four prepared speeches, guests were encouraged to introduce ourselves by saying our names and then telling the group about the “most commendable person I know.”

When the introductions wound their way around the periphery of the room to me, my heart started to beat faster and louder. I could feel the blood leaving my limbs. I moved the backpack that was on my lap to the ground, being sure to tuck away the straps so I wouldn’t trip on them when I stood to introduce myself.

The area clear of any possible road bumps, I jumped to my feet. The whole time I spoke my hands were covering my uterus like soccer players cover their genitals during a penalty kick. What did I think the attendees were going to do to me? Steal my eggs? Though it makes sense why my hands did that. Unconsciously, I was trying to protect myself and therefore my most vulnerable body part – my lady parts, received the attention.

When I sat back down I immediately started analyzing what I had said. Was it too trite? Did my volume peter out at the end, self-consciously? I didn’t even hear what anybody else said. I was too busy criticizing myself.

When the Toastmaster announced a bio break, I immediately moved to exit the room. When I stood I was woozy. My heart was still pumping wildly and the blood had not returned to my appendages. I somehow morphed my way to the restroom.

What is this?, I thought.   Being alive or a terrible affliction? Does public speaking get any easier? Does entering a room of strangers ever get comfortable?

Then it hit me, I was scared because the room was full of strangers. I had distanced myself from them mentally. The only way to feel comfortable with strangers is to see them as humans with whom you have something in common. I needed to recognize my interconnectedness in order to find them less threatening. Which, I’ve discovered, is only possible when I connect to my own humanity or said another way stop judging myself so harshly.

Does that mean I have to talk to that woman who asked me for the gum?, I asked myself.  No, I decided. I only have to admit that if I’d seen another woman with gum I probably would’ve wanted a piece, too.

A Kick in the Butt

Course: K-Stars Track Workouts

Instructor: Andy Chan

Location: Kezar Stadium

K-Stars that’s what they’re called. I showed up at Kezar Stadium on a blustery Thursday evening. It was 6:30pm - really the reason behind my choosing the K-Starts track workout. I wanted to do a track workout to bring my running up to speed, as it were and the 6:30pm start time was perfect. Many of the other workout groups who run programs at Kezar start at 7pm and I find it difficult to plan my eating around that start time.

I wasn’t certain where the group would be meeting. The track was buzzing with various groups and lots of individual runners flitting about the track. Luckily, I found the K-Stars on my first random group approach.

Andy, the coach, told me I was in the right place. He took my money (only $4 a session) and introduced me to the group. Looking around I immediately worried that I was about to majorly embarrass myself.

Everyone looked lean and fast. There were a few women but from the looks of them I knew I would not be running with them. They looked unassuming, but as a former cross country runner I knew what to look for and they had the gams of fast runners. I spied a shy older Asian man on the periphery of the group and figured I’d be running with him.

After some quick stretching and a few striders we went straight to the work-out. Six 800s.

Ugh, I thought. The 800 is two laps around the track as fast as you can. It’s tortuous. What makes it so taxing is that it requires both aerobic endurance and sprinting speed.

We did the first 800 to see where everybody fell out in terms of speed. And of course, I came in dead last. That shy older Asian gentleman who looked like he was pushing 70? He kicked my butt. I was beginning to get a sense of what the K might stand for in K-Stars.

After the first 800 I was put in the second group - the slow group. Then a strange thing happened. I realized that I wasn’t upset. The Alicia of a few years ago would have been mentally kicking herself. The Alicia that showed up though knew she was out of shape, knew she wouldn’t be the fastest. My goal was just to finish the workout. Which I did.

The group was very supportive, calling my name as I brought up the rear every single 800. Normally, this would have irked me to no end. But this time I just smiled and gave a thumbs up.

I realized that beating myself up for being out of shape or being ashamed of my performance was not going to help. Running has taught me that if you don’t run hard you’re going to slow down, and that if you push yourself just a little bit more each time you run, you can improve. Though it does take time. Which, I guess, is just like life.

Knowing I can get better if I put in the work is immensely comforting to me. It makes the course clear. And that course is made easier when I am another type of K with myself – kind.


Course: Figure Drawing

InstructorMichael Markowitz

Location: San Francisco

Price: $500, 22 weeks

How to explain this class?  I doubt Michael would even want me to, but there’s so much in this class for artists that I think it requires at least some exposition.

To start, you have to interview with Michael before you’re admitted to the class. Don’t worry. It’s not a skills assessment. You can be an absolute beginner, like I was.  But more for Michael to communicate his expectations and suss out your commitment. He wants commitment and a three hour class every week for 6 months pretty much demands it.

The space is a cluttered movie set homage to artistry. It looks just like the space you would imagine a mad genius works in – charcoal drawings, pencils, pencil sharpeners, charcoal nubs nestled in crevices, newspaper print paper, track lights and work lights pointing in different directions casting intricate shadows and easels of various sizes and orientations surrounding a small platform for the nude models. The whole scene is covered in a light coating of black charcoal dust.

The class norms are straightforward. Show up on time, buy your newspaper print, gather up the sheets and staple them together on one end, attach them to an easel, bring your own charcoal sticks, sit or stand, and shut up. NO cell phones. Of course.

He starts with a bit of a lecture packed with lots of axioms you will think sound trite until you start drawing and think about what he’s said. Then he brings out the model – male or female, usually nude, introduces them, and then asks them what music they want him to play.

Then in the quiet and cold of the studio, the music creeps along the ceiling and fills the space. The model drops her robe (they’re usually women) and you’re faced with all your concerns, beliefs, and thoughts about nudity and the body. Once you manage that hurdle, you’re brought to the charcoal in your hand and the blank paper and the exhortations of Michael from time to time to draw your experience. Not the body outlines – like a murder victim, but follow your eye. Follow your eye!

You don’t know what to do and that’s the point. We’re primed to avoid the “I don’t know” experience. You will never know what to do. Just do it an integrated way – do it because it feels right.  Act on urge and impulse and see what happens, Michael says.  You’ll follow some urge and it will lead you astray. So what? Don’t copy – your aesthetic can’t be found in copying.  Everyone has an innate ability to be expressive – even you.

It’s difficult, at first, to not be self-conscious. The new place, the nudity, the perceived greatness of the other students in the room. But eventually, you’ve put charcoal to paper and made your marks. After a few minutes, Michael stops the model’s posing and asks you to step back. Look at what you think is good and what isn’t. Not other’s work. But yours.

He asks us and invariably, we hate our drawings.  Why do we hate our drawings?  Michael explains that the drawing becomes something to us – a reflection. And what is it reflecting back to you?  A lack of presence, a willingness to be taken in by your idea of what drawing is. To change, to create something different or more, you have to engage.

Whoa. Not what you’d think a drawing class would involve. Self-actualization? Yep. According to Michael, you may not have technical ability but you do have the capacity for expressive marks. Drawing is not figuring it out – it’s more experiencing something and expressing it.

He goes on to explain that when you hate a drawing there was likely no connection with it from the beginning and lacking connection, you defaulted into a process. That program or process called “knowing how to draw.” If you’re in such a hurry not to look at what you created – what does that mean about your relationship with it? Drawing will get away from you, he tells us, so you have to interact with error. Maybe you can’t un-muddy your drawing. Maybe you un-muddy your drawing by making it more muddy.

That moment you don’t know what to do? Sit with it. You get to that place because you lost creative collaboration – you are no longer feeling – no longer feeling what is pleasing or displeasing. Don’t flip the page and start over. Deal with the problem.

But I want to be better you may lament. Michael says the expectation that you’re going to make a great drawing is naïve. This expectation comes from wanting to be more than you are – be who you are and then grow from there. Be willing to let anything happen. Stop deferring experience. Let it come. Don’t try and avoid it.

And that was just from the first class.  There was more. But when I looked back at the notes I took after class each week, I noticed for the first time that he was teaching us the same thing over and over again – using different approaches – all through the medium of charcoal drawings.

It just takes a long time to realize what he is saying. And by realize I mean incorporate it. It’s one thing to listen and think you’ve learned, it’s another to embody it and that’s what drawing forces you to do. Take it in.

In one exercise, he asks you to partner with a classmate and you take turns watching each other draw. It’s one of the more difficult exercises for many students because you can feel exposed. And that’s the point. Your partner watches you draw for a while and lists the things you do when you draw. For example, do you anchor the page with your left hand? Do you always apply the same pressure? Do you start at the same point on the page in every drawing?

Your partner presents you their list and then you switch partners and observe someone else’s drawing.  After, you immediately think about how you can vary your moves, and if you step back, you realize your patterns apply to other relationships – to an intimate, to work, to the world.

The class connects to your life and your life connects to the class. In fact, it shows up in what you draw. There are no hard lines.  You and your drawing are in a relationship and what you bring to any relationship shows up in this relationship.  That was the big aha moment for me.

This isn’t art therapy. It isn’t learning how to be creative – though helpful in that respect. But as simple and complex as a drawing class. If you trust the experience it reveals a lot about yourself to you. If not, you’re taking a drawing class with a feisty little man named Michael.

If you do submit, however, you will start to see your patterns, your defaults, the ways you avoid, and even the ways you engage. You don’t get better and better. You get better, then worse, then worse some more, then better, then worse – forever. The trick is to not let the first time it gets bad throw you.  It’s like the old adage – falling down is an important part of learning how to walk. And the next time you don’t know what to do, you’ll remember Michael’s words:

“The next time you don’t know what to do, do something bold.”


Course: Hypnotherapy


Location: via phone

Price: hourly

When I’m confused, I tend to turn in rather than out. But I’ve often found that it helps to have guidance when turning in. Sometimes, you don’t know what you know until you start talking. To that end, I turned to hypnotherapy.

I tried hypnotherapy once before at the luxury resort Miraval in Arizona. I had some treatment credits and saw they offered hypnotherapy to deal with cravings. I figured I would try and tackle my sugar compulsion. I thought the session was very relaxing, but it didn’t actually cure my sugar habit. It did make me calm and when I’m calm I’ve noticed I don’t crave sugar. So there’s that.

More recently, I’ve been struggling with my path in life (and to be honest, eating a lot of sugary foods). Where do I want to go? What should I do? How do I get there? A friend mentioned hypnotherapy and even though I wasn’t sure how it would help, I remembered the relaxation I experienced in that Miraval session and asked her to refer me to the hypnotherapist she knew.

The hypnotherapist is a woman named Blaze. It’s not her real name but it fits her personality well. She does hypnotherapy over the phone.

I was excited for it – thinking it would reveal to me some definitive answer about where my life is going, but to my surprise I had difficulty getting into it; relaxing.

Blaze started the session by asking me about the intentions I held. I said I wanted to see what comes up, but my questions were basically what should I be doing with my life and will I find love – my usual angst.

She instructed me to close my eyes and picture a sky. She asked me what I saw in the sky. I described to her a bright blue sky with a plane going across the sky from left to right.

As we talked I found myself yawning several times, my body adjusting to her voice and my heart beat slowing.

She then asked me a series of questions and I had trouble answering them. Thoughts crowded into my consciousness and I wasn’t sure how to answer. What’s worse was that I was sitting on my bed and actual planes kept flying overhead. More planes than I’ve heard in my normally very quiet neighborhood.

She asked me again what I saw in the sky. I told her I saw a plane doing loop de loops.

Eventually, she ended the hypnosis part and we talked about the session. To start, she said that my first description of the sky was what she was actually seeing. She interpreted this as me being so anxious for answers that I put myself in her space. Almost literally.

The loops, she explained, are the two voices in my head: a big yes and a big no. "There’s something you’re saying yes to and something you’re saying no to," she said. "In order to have the entire loop you have to have the yes AND the no."

She asked if one voice was more mine or someone else’s voice. I said they were mine. At least they felt like mine – maybe one more of fear and the other of desire.

She continued by saying that the yes and no is the yearning talking. "What do I do?" I asked. Her conclusion: the "yes and no" has to go on until I embrace being peaceful and alone. "You must become peaceful with your aloneness," she said.

Here it sounds very Chinese fortune cookie-like, but it resonated with me. She went on to advise me to "follow the ideas -the ones that make you laugh, the ones that light you up, that bring you peace."

After our session, I felt a little dizzy, but happy. I’d been struggling with my meditation practice and taking the time to get back in touch with my gut. Blaze helped me sit and take time.

Ultimately, what Blaze does is a lot like guided meditation. She calms you down with her voice and instructions, and then when you’re in a more peaceful place she asks you questions. That’s when your inner self is safe to answer truthfully.

She doesn’t have the answers. You do. But they’re often masked by fear and anxiety and old voices. It’s only when those things are stripped away that the answers reveal themselves and peace is achieved.

Spiritual Healing

A friend gushed about a transformative experience she had with a spiritual healer and of course, I was intrigued. I am consistently attracted to anything that might offer a sneak peek into the mystery that is life or more specifically, my life. So without stopping to consider what exactly a spiritual healer was, I booked an appointment and found myself in the lobby of a yoga studio in San Francisco.

The spiritual healer, Christy, greeted me at the door with an outstretched hand and pursed lips. She looked to be about fifty with well-coiffed short blonde hair and a pile of statement jewelry atop her cashmere sweater set. Frankly, she looked like an investment banker.

I shook her hand and she pointed me to a back room barely large enough to hold a massage table. A floor heater pumped out warm air. She asked me to lie down face up and said “don’t touch yourself with your hands.”

I moved my hands from their protective position on my stomach and thought her instructions, while brusque, clever. Studies show that asking someone to open their body language makes them more receptive. Nevertheless, my skepticism kicked in and I tried to reconcile her manner – was it her personality or was she just in a bad mood?

She positioned a high stool next to the massage table just above my head forcing me to strain to look up at her and forcefully said, “I’m not a psychic. I can’t tell you your future.”  She spit out the words like she’s been trying to disabuse people of this notion for years. Still, I felt admonished.

Then she closed her eyes, and loudly inhaled and exhaled. She did this a few times, explaining she was summoning the spirits. I bit my lip to keep myself from laughing nervously.

She asked about my father. Was he alive? “Yes,” I said.

She said he was a strong energy in the room. That’s interesting, I thought, because he has never been a strong presence in my life.

She asked if I had grandparents. Yes, that’s how I exist actually, I thought sarcastically, but said, “No.”

“Did you know them?” she asked. “No,” I repeated.

“Do you know their names?” she pushed. “No,” I said. I could tell now she was trying to find a connection, not unlike a psychic does.

Finally she said that my grandmother on my mother’s side was trying to say something. I listened hard thinking I could hear, too but gleaned nothing.

Then she let loose with a host of revelations. Not the least of which was that the spirits said I had psychic abilities. I predict, I thought, that I’m going to regret this.

Suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked at me with knitted eyebrows. She said that I struggled with self-worth and she was going to say something that I should repeat. I let out a half-grunt, half-giggle. I was sure she was about to tell me to repeat the Stuart Smalley mantra: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

“So you have it all figured out?” she snapped angrily.

I lifted my head and turned to her, surprised. “You’re going to tell me how I’m worthy.” I said feeling caught.

“That’s not what I’m going to say,” she huffed.

I felt scolded and swallowed back tears. What was going on? Why is she angry? Every urge in my body was to sit up and get the heck out of that claustrophobic, warm petri-dish of a room. But, like someone who can’t tell her hairdresser she doesn’t like her haircut, I stayed.

She closed her eyes and brought in more spirits. As she did, tears slid down my cheeks. I’m not sure if it was from feeling scolded or a letting go – the releasing of my defenses.

Finally, she opened her eyes and said there were angels in the room.

I didn’t look at her. I just stared at the ceiling and felt a deep sadness.

When our time ended, I put my shoes back on and glanced at her sitting slumped on her stool. She seemed broken; her anger in a puddle below her. Had she, in the end, channeled my spirit in order to heal it? I left confused. I didn’t feel healed and wondered why I kept trying these off-beat services. What was I looking for exactly?

A few days later it hit me. Trying different seminars, healing methods, what have you, are my way of experimenting. They are all exposures – experiments in trust.

When you meet someone new and share about yourself, even if you are paying for the privilege, that is an act of trust.

It’s those exposures, those acts of trust that open the heart. While I couldn’t see the spirits she did I could see that trust is a decision. One that often meets resistance and you can only hope to be in a safe situation that helps you push through that resistance. Because once you do you find yourself.


Body Work

Course: Body Work

Instructor: Chris

Location: Oakland

Price: $300

I’m an avid runner, cyclist, weight trainer, dancer, jumper. Basically, I’m a pretty physical person. But as much as I move, I sometimes miss the mind body connection. I usually don’t notice that something is wrong until I feel pain. Tight hamstrings, in fact, sent me to Chris. I didn’t even know the woman who referred me, but something about the description of what Chris does, “body work”, drew me in.

I booked an appointment and after emailing with Chris to reserve a time I learned that “body work” was a three hour Thai massage. I’d never even heard of getting a three hour massage.

Still, I didn’t stop to question what I was doing until I reached the address for Chris in the east bay. It was an apartment building. For a $300 session an apartment was not what I was expecting. I had dark thoughts of a man breaking my neck and calling it a Thai massage. “Thoughts in, thoughts out”, I told myself and looked for parking.

Chris turned out to be a small man with hair that’s almost as long as he is tall. He was waiting outside his apartment building and I followed him up to a unit that looked like a flop house. It was a one bedroom with a kitchen and no furniture save some mats, towels, and wooden rollers for stretching.

In the bedroom, a space heater warmed the room, incense and an iPod dock sat on the floor, and long blue straps hung from an empty closet over a futon mattress on the floor. Everything was clean, but it was a bit unnerving. It looked like essentially what it was an unlicensed massage practice. I was tense and wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into and for three hours when he asked me to fill out a quick form to indicate where I was experiencing pain. I marked my left hamstring and followed him into the bedroom.

He asked me to lie down on my back and began to massage my shoulders. He was very insistent that I breathe. Not the typical breathe in and out of your nose but an exaggerated breath in through my mouth and out my mouth. The first hour he nagged me continually to breathe. Breathing, apparently, forces you to engage. I know that sounds odd – I mean you have to breathe to live, right? In the second hour when I got more comfortable that he wasn’t going to kill me and I started to relax, I actually dozed off. But Chris wasn’t having it. He nudged me and told me to breathe. He wouldn’t let me check out - which is what I typically do during a massage. He explained that breathing would get me into my body and out of my head. I resisted it. My jaw was tight, my yoga-like breaths squeezed out of pursed lips. I pushed out my breath and silently chanted, “I (inhale) hate (exhale), (inhale) you, (exhale).” I thought that loud forced breathing was a hippy pretension. But he kept insisting as he dug deep into the tissues of my right shoulder and eventually I lost the will to fight. I started breathing and then lo and behold I was crying.

Now, I’m pretty familiar with pain. I know how to run through pain. I know how to live through pain. I call it my Safe Mode – like what your computer does when something is wrong with it. It can still operate but with reduced functionality. I didn’t realize how reduced I was until that moment. He was forcing me to reconnect with my body and through it face the pain I’d shoved into the crevices of my shoulders.

When I cried, Chris said nothing but put his hand on my shoulder. It was the most caring thing anyone has done for me in a long while.

If all we are is energy – which I believe we are – is it crazy to think that our energy gets blocked? That we can store trauma and emotions at a muscular level, a cellular one? That is what Chris found – my stored emotional pain, my fear of others hiding under the tightness of my muscles.

Ultimately, going to see Chris was a lesson in trusting myself. Out of that trust I discovered not all people are out to hurt me, that in fact people can be beautiful. That there is someone in the world who feels called to this kind of work and I’m so very grateful for it.

After the massage he offered me organic blueberries and a tall glass of water. He said that he couldn’t fix the tension in my right shoulder completely but thought we had made a good start. Indeed.


How to Improve

Course: Improv - Foundation Level

Institution: BATS

Instructor: Chris Sams

I circled the block a few times. Where was this God-forsaken building? Nothing on the website indicated how complicated it would be to find the entrance. I headed back down the block and a fella was stretching his neck in a similar manner. He saw me walking towards him and asked if I was looking for Improv. Yes, I said. Yes, I am.

We were the last two to arrive. I immediately spotted a woman who was taking a writing class with me. “Oh, you’re on a self-improvement kick, too!” she cried out in front of the semi-circle of students. I brushed her comments off with a waive and thought, “Yes and it really helps for you to yell that in front of everybody.” Slightly embarrassed, and any semblance of cool shot to hell, I took a seat.

The group in total was fourteen strong. It was a pretty even mix of men and women from all walks of life. When we introduced ourselves I learned that most were there to get over performance anxiety or learn to think on their feet better. I was there, as always, to learn something about myself.

To start we did something I had feared about taking an improv class - throwing an imaginary ball. No one looks good throwing an imaginary ball. To my relief, however, we used an actual ball. I thought I was in the clear until the instructor decided to mix it up by introducing "sound ball."

This time we had to make noises as we threw the ball to each other. I found it pure torture. Yet, others, seemed to thoroughly enjoy making the most idiotic noises they could muster to another stranger.

I realized then this class was going to require something much more from me - I was going to have to let my guard down.

Mind you, I know how to get down. I am the same woman who regularly dances in my socks in my sister's dining room for the amusement of my little nephew. But this was something altogether different.

The next exercise hinted at the source of my problem and a way out. Our instructor had everyone walk around the room, go up to each other and yell, “I failed,” and then throw up our arms in exultation. Or, “I totally messed that up” and do a victory dance. The idea is to celebrate that you took a risk.

It instantly relaxed me. I had never allowed myself to say those words with joy and it definitely changed how I began to feel about the class. This was a safe place to fail. There are so few of those they are hard to recognize - even when you’re in one.

I’d like to say that after this exercise I jumped in wholeheartedly, but I can’t. I can take risks in business, but I’ve always found that taking risks with people is a lot more difficult. I can say that I waded in further.

Over the next six weeks we were introduced to many improv principles, like “Yes, and.” This is a way to build on the ideas of others as opposed to shutting them down or in the parlance of improv, “blocking” them, with the dreaded “Yes, but.”

Many of the principles were, of course, good life habits, like “make your partner look good,” “accept your own ideas,” “listen,” “make eye contact,” and “start positive.”

But I took the most away from the various games and exercises he had us do.

One of the last ones we did is called the status game. Everyone selects a card from a deck of playing cards. You don’t look at it but place it on your forehead for others to see. He told us that the higher the card number, the higher status the individual. Then he had us mingle, pretending we were at a party. Afterwards he asked us to line up according to what we thought our status was before revealing the number to ourselves.

Walking around, I thought I was lower status because of how people interacted with me. Turns out I was higher than I realized and the people who gave me quick glances and then looked away, were more often than not, those who thought they were lower status, even if their card number was high.

Many times when I’ve been at a party I’ve tried to connect with a stranger and been completely rebuffed. I had always assumed it was because the other person thought I was not worth their time or that I was lower status. What the game taught me is that people act according to what they think of themselves.

And that's when it hit me. What matters at the end of the day is what I think of myself, and if I'm not judging myself it makes it a lot easier to take risks with people. Being yourself, it turns out, never fails.

Is Crossfit a Fit?

Course: Crossfit Orientation Institution: San Francisco Crossfit

Instructor: Angel O

Location: Behind the Presidio Sports Basement, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes early and surveyed the scene. There was a circle of people in a parking lot tucked behind a retail store heaving weights about. It was quiet with only the intermittent shouts of "time" from a coach who was staring down at her iPhone. I was watching a group class. To be able to join a group class, San Francisco Crossfit requires people to take a two week, 6 session, orientation course.

I was there to get oriented. My orientation class was five people and I was the only gal. The other participants were all very nice fellas who, from the looks of them, were there to bulk up. Our instructor started by asking us to do three pull ups. Then he asked us to do squats with just our body weight. Then he told us how we were doing it all wrong.

The emphasis of the orientation, according to our instructor, was to make sure we learned key movements that Crossfit utilizes, like a proper squat. In the first class, he used the Socratic method or really, a bastardized version of it, to teach. The class participants often looked at each other puzzled because he'd ask a question without any context, like, "How does this work?"

We'd look at him and at each other. Was he talking about the pipe in his hand, the weight on the floor, what? Our instructor was buff, but a teacher he was not.

The second class incorporated an actual work out portion. We learned more moves and weight holds and then did a 15 minute session that was, admittedly, intense. It consisted of box jumps, squats, cleans and burpees.

The subsequent classes increased the work out portion even more until we were conditioned for a whole hour of Crossfit exercises. I thought the workouts were challenging, but the culture is a bit macho (which I don't believe it has to be). The instructor often made comments about “real men” who in his mind were capable of doing things that my cohorts couldn’t.

And the tough guy environment doesn’t lend itself to asking for help. Case in point: one of my fellow orientation classmates was getting tired after 3 sets of 25 box jumps, 25 weight ball tosses and a ¼ mile run (with the goal being 5 sets). To give you a sense, these are high boxes (the platform was above my knees). After the third set, I knew I wasn't going to be able to complete 5 sets of 25 jumps without very likely scraping my shins on the box during a jump, so I switched to a shorter box that I saw nearby.

The guy who was struggling on his sets never received instruction to switch or given the option and so what happened? He injured himself when a jump of his fell short and he hit the box with his shins. He fell to the ground and grabbed his leg in agony. Did our instructor go over to help him? Offer him any words of advice – even a shorter box? Nope.

That brings me to my main criticism of Crossfit: it’s an injury waiting to happen.

While I like the demanding workouts, it's pretty clear that you really have to monitor yourself in these classes. The instructors will push and it is up to you to decide how much your body can handle and make adjustments as necessary. They are simply not qualified (most are not certified trainers and all that’s required for a level 1 Crossfit certification is $1,000 and a weekend) to assess what you’re capable of or to understand limits. The program also isn’t set up to be tailored to individuals.

Further, after watching some group classes, it's clear that after the orientation you're pretty much on your own as far as form and stretching. While I saw one instructor catch a few form mistakes, most instructors I observed were looking at their phones or chatting with other instructors during the workouts.

So is Crossfit a fit? I think it's a good way to get our of your workout comfort zone for those who are experienced with weights, but if you're not and don’t know how to set your own limits, it may not be a fit.

How to Design

Course: An Introduction to Design Thinking

Institution: Stanford University


I was fortunate recently to take a class at Stanford University’s design school, better known as the The class was organized into a group exercise and we were tasked with designing the ideal wallet. We started by each sketching the "ideal" wallet. When we reviewed the results we discovered that when you don’t know who you are designing for, you design for yourself. Which was the point. The is all about user centric design not you-centered design.

So in order to understand what users want we needed to focus on empathy. Our mission was to redesign the wallet experience so that it was “useful and meaningful.”

We started by interviewing a customer, the person next to us. We took four minute turns, twice. The goal was to get the interviewee to tell a story about themselves and then delve deeper by asking lots of Why questions. What we found in the interviewing process was that the interviews became about more than the wallet. They were about finding the meaningful problem, which is a reframing of the design task.

To capture our findings and see this more clearly we were asked to list out needs – what our partner was trying to do (active terms, verbs) and insights – new learnings about our partners’ feelings and views that we could use in our design. This then helped us literally define the problem better.

All we had to do was complete this sentence: [Partner’s name] needs a way to _____. Unexpectedly, in his/her world, ________. This blank was for the insight.

The process really opened my eyes to how much of what we truly desire or need goes unsaid and it’s only when we take the time to listen that we can begin to meet those needs or desires. The process is really a design plan for life.

After we completed our new problem statement – as opposed to “I need a new wallet,” I found that my partner Jayme needed a way to express his creativity and unexpectedly, in his world physical fit drove his behavior. Jayme actually didn’t even like carrying a wallet if it would affect the profile of his jeans.

Next we were asked to ideate – meaning, generate alternatives to test. We sketched three to five “radical” ways to meet our partner’s/user’s needs. I came up with a new pair of jeans for Jayme.

Then I shared my solutions with him and captured his feedback. I listened to what he liked and didn’t like about my ideas and with his help centered on an idea for re-usable, color pockets he could adhere to the jeans pockets of any jeans he uses.

At this point we were about 45 minutes into the exercise. We were then tasked with making our idea. Yes - making it. Scattered around the space were materials to prototype our solution. I gathered up felt, scissors, and duct tape and whipped up some “portable pockets.”

If this all seems lightening fast to you, you’re right. Part of the lesson was just how quickly and cheaply you can get to solutions and working ones at that.

The whole exercise took an hour and it was revelatory. The methodology in general is this:

  • Empathy
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Repeat. When there are disagreements about what design makes the most sense, then it’s important to go back and ask more questions of your users. Also, these words are more buckets than steps per se.

What guides this process are some of the principles: Focus on human values

Show don’t tell

Craft clarity – this is reframing the problem: what is the problem I’m really trying to solve?

Radical collaboration

Embrace experimentation

Bias toward action – which I’m all about!

There have been numerous design successes that have emerged from the and benefited from their approach. Most notably is Embrace – a baby warmer that replaced incubators in Nepal. You can learn more here.

And for more on the approach check out their Bootcamp Bootleg Dschool Bootcamp Bootleg 2010.

In the words of the Founder of the David Kelley:

“We want to try to develop empathy for people, see what they value as humans and try to use that to come up with big ideas, so we call our method human-centered design. There’s a creative act in trying to decide what problem is worth working on in the first place.”

How to Brand Yourself

Course: The Art of Personal Branding

Institution: offices of Goldman Sachs

Instructor: Ellen Looyen

Location: San Francisco

And I don't mean with a branding iron! I was fortunate to be invited by my friend and fan, Beth, to a one hour talk on how to create your personal brand. The class was taught by Ellen Looyen, a six foot woman (literally) who looks much younger than her almost 60 years (she turns 60 in August - interesting that I remember this from her talk). She is a former New Yorker who is energetic, informal and like you might expect from a branding expert, slips in promotional tidbits about her clients or website every few sentences.

Ms. Looyen started her talk by asking the room if anyone had a personal brand, and being the eager student, I raised my hand. I was the only one. Which was exactly Ms. Looyen's point. All the hands in the room should have shot up, because everyone has a brand, whether they know it or not. She set the context with this statement, "in business and in life there is no such thing as objective reality; all that exists is perception." Which is to say, how you are perceived or how people experience you and how people experience themselves in relation to you is your brand.

The good news is that perceptions and therefore your brand can be managed. The first step is to understand what are the attributes for which you want to be known. To get us going she had the room, mainly full of high performing finance women, turn to a neighbor and tell each other three things that are unique and valuable about ourselves.

The assignment gave me pause. As a twin, I sometimes struggle with the notion that I'm unique at all, but admittedly I so want to be! Still, I understood the benefit of the exercise. Like knowing your strengths and weaknesses, understanding your value and point of differentiation helps you to clear away the clutter of "shoulds" and "coulds" and focuses you on exactly where you fit. It makes your path clearer.

Next Ms. Looyen turned to charisma - in her words, the "secret sauce" of branding. She asked the room to name charismatic women leaders. Silence. While it was a fairly reticent group overall, it was interesting to note how difficult it was to think of names. Why is that? We pondered it a bit, but spent more time on what characteristics make up charisma. We came up with sense of humor, confidence, compassion, empathy, connection, and authenticity, to name a few.

Charisma and the characteristics that comprise it all work to create a mood, environment or attitude of doing business with you. And I thought this was one of the most important points of her talk. Most of your personal branding is done without words, as 80% of the impression we leave on others is non-verbal. To wit, you broadcast how you are feeling when you talk with people. So most of the personal branding work has to be done by...drum roll please...looking within - getting to know yourself.

There was, of course, more packed into her talk. In fact, I believe she could have benefited from focusing her talk more. Still, I enjoyed the opportunity to take time out and reflect on the concept of branding. Marketing-speak aside, it's important to understand how you are perceived, figure out how you want to be perceived, and manage any disconnects. At the end of the day, though, successfully branding yourself comes down to just being yourself.

Charting a Course with Edward Tufte

Course: Presenting Data and Information, a one day course Instructor: Edward Tufte

Location: San Francisco

Price: $380.00

Edward Tufte has long been considered the godfather of data visualization. And if his one day class in San Francisco this week is any indication, he knows it. When we checked in we were handed a box full of Tufte’s books and an agenda that assigned us reading while we waited for him to start.

Then when the clock struck 10am, the lights were turned off dramatically, like kindergarten teachers do to get the attention of their wards, and two large screens came alive with a chart. It was undulating bars, lighting and beating colors to the chords of Chopin’s music. It was, Tufte said, “a project management chart for Chopin’s music.”

The crowd laughed and I settled in. Part lecture, part sermon, Tufte espouses certain principles of design and data morality.

“It’s not how quickly we get them but how much we learn from them,” Tufte said, referring to charts, illustrations or other ways of displaying data. He warned us not to specify the method or the data set but instead to do “whatever it takes,” meaning use a diversity of types of data and methods. I began to silently refer to him as the Malcolm X of data visualization – By Any Means Necessary.

Tufte is militant but in a 1950s Karl Malden sort of way although less cuddly and more sarcastic. Sometimes sneeringly so. Something I realized as he walked us through his books.

A few takeaways:

“An arrow is a verb – say what it is! No more generic linking lines!”

“Your metaphor is the map.”

“Detail clarifies!”

“You almost never need boxes – they’re space hogs; when you put boxes around everything you just raise the noise level. When you emphasize everything you emphasize nothing.”

“Everything you do should provide reasons to believe!”

“There’s no such thing as informational overload, just bad design.”

“Clutter is a failure of design. Don’t blame confusion on the audience. Instead of throwing out information, fix the design.”

“Never do lowest common denominator design. Your role is to make people smarter.”

“Powerpoint victimizes statistical data.”

Interestingly, he was very light on design for the web. He seems to be partial to Apple products and incredibly critical of Microsoft. Powerpoint felt like a dirty word, he spit it out with disdain so much. He even advised us to ditch Powerpoint and hand out Word documents (he says they are equivalent to 50 to 250 slides in PowerPoint), leading me to believe he hasn’t been inside a company in a very long time.

He did offer this web advice, “no matter how beautiful your UI, there should be less of it.”

We learned about sparklines, data-intense, design simple word-sized graphics. He praised sports score tables and weather charts. And told us Wavefields would be the future – where every pixel comes with information – like an HD movie in terms of evolution. Other tidbits I picked up included that the Mexican peso character is the largest in the world. Who knew?

His very basic advice for presentations was this 1. 2/3rds of your report will be performance data – use sports or weather tables as your guide 2. You need a super graphic that will help relate your performance data to personal locations 3. Your intellectual model should be the WSJ, New York Times or Nature 4. Be sure to say something about your credibility

His other design principles include 1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences 2. Show causality, mechanism, structure, explanation 3. Show multivariate data 4. Demonstrate credibility 5. Content counts most of all

So how to accomplish all these feats of beauty in data design and at the same time adhere to his principles? He advises, find good examples and copy them. Ala T.S. Elliot, “talent imitates, genius steals.” He views design as a research project problem and pointed us to Google images.

He cited Galileo as one of the best data visualizers – simple. Unfortunately, Tufte himself was not. And that was perhaps the irony of the day – whatever he thinks about Powerpoint it usually forces the presenter to get to the point. Tufte took 5 hours to make his – but at least his charts looked good.

How to be Heard

Course: Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse

Institution: Clayman Institute, Stanford University

Instructor: Katie Orenstein and Lori NishiuraMackenzie

Location: Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

I didn’t understand the email at first – it talked about thought leadership and used way too many buzz words. Academic speak. Consultant talk. “Imperatives.” “Initiatives.” What does that even mean?

And the price was steep. It gave me pause. It seemed like any other conference and I am skeptical of the relative value of most conferences in terms of pure ROI (that’s finance talk for return on investment – will I get enough out of this to justify what I’m spending to be here?). Plus the hours seemed lengthy. I had to wonder, why now? Why me?

I demurred. It didn’t seem like a fit for me. I mean how do you mold a thought leader? Aren’t they just born?

Turns out thought leaders are made, not born. The program teaches women how to see themselves as leaders and how to get their thoughts and ideas heard and known. And really, that’s what makes someone a thought leader – they are willing to share their ideas. Unfortunately, women are pretty hesitant to do this publicly.

As someone new to voicing my thoughts and even more new to doing it publicly, I was intrigued. While I do have this dear blog and 11 loyal readers (and no, most are not my family - which come to think of it, is pretty embarrassing - I digress), I was curious how I could make my ideas more known and frankly, if my ideas had any value.

The program is a collaboration between The OpEd Project, Stanford University, and the Clayman Institute on Gender Research at Stanford. At the center is an effort to get more women voices published in venues with reach and this means national media like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN. What’s one way to do that? Write an OpEd. 84% of all OpEds are written by men. Before your feminist ire is stoked, note that only 1 out of 10 submissions are from women. So, if you think about it, we’re accurately represented. The OpEd Project’s goal is to change this imbalance by teaching and encouraging women to write and submit OpEds.

Truth be told, I had never even read them before and really had never given them much thought, as my head was invariably buried in an US Weekly. I needed to learn their value. But other women had trouble with understanding theirs. Invariably when the idea of writing an OpEd is proposed to women they say, “but I’m not an expert in anything.”

So that’s where the program started – getting us to see that we had interesting things to say and the expertise and credibility to be heard.

The whole program strove to get us to answer the following 5 questions for ourselves:

1. What is your source of credibility and how do you establish it?

2. How do you build an evidence-based, value-drive argument (as opposed to rhetoric)?

3. What is the difference between being “right” and being effective?

4. What is the bigger picture and how do you and your ideas fit into it?

5. Do you understand your knowledge and experience in terms of its value to others?

Each class was meant to address the questions. The first class was about understanding our power and Professor Deborah Gruenfeld from the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) came in and spoke to us about her research on the psychology of power.

The second class was about learning how to write an OpEd and we were mentored by editors like Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Ellison.

The third class was about facing opposition and the negotiating skills required to manage opposition. Professor Maggie Neale also from the GSB came in and gave us a crash course in negotiating skills.

The fourth class we were given an opportunity to hear from leading media outlets like the New York Times and CNN about how to pitch ideas and build relationships with journalists/reporters.

The hours were long but the caliber of women in our pilot group was second to none. The access to resources and expertise, both from the teachers and classmates alike, was amazing. But the real benefit was I left understanding my own power and motivated to share my ideas with others, hopeful that I can have a larger influence. How’s that for ROI?

I highly encourage women to participate in the The OpEd Project

How to Publish an eBook

So I should start by saying the information I provide here applies mainly to those who want to write text dominant ebooks (not illustrated or photo heavy books).  This post also doesn’t apply to people who want to publish books via the traditional route. The first step, of course, is writing the book.  After that, it’s a pretty quick process to publishing it as an ebook (assuming you’ve decided you want to pursue this route).

The ebook market is evolving rapidly and today it’s easier than ever.  There are 3 basic things to consider when setting out to publish an ebook

  1. Getting your ebook formatted correctly in epub and mobi file formats;
  2. Distributing your ebook for sale; and
  3. Marketing your ebook.

Formatting Your eBook

There are several options for formatting your book.  You can use free and paid services that will convert a Microsoft Word doc or PDF into epub and/or mobi file formats.  The epub format is required for publishing on iTunes, PubIt (Barnes & Noble’s ebookstore), and Google eBooks.  The mobi format is required for publishing on Amazon (also called DTP – digital text platform or KDP – Kindle Digital Publishing).  Or you can use paid conversion services that will not only convert your original document into epub or mobi file formats, but also distribute your ebook.

Do-It-Yourself Conversion Options

Do-it-yourself options include

Sigil - free, but definitely a bit more complicated to use (really more for editing an existing epub file)

Calibre - haven’t used but understand it doesn’t make epub files that well

Paid Conversion Services

With these services you’re paying a person or team to do the formatting work for you. They charge a one-time fee that may or may not include cover art work. The amount charged depends on the complexity of converting your file into the ebook formats, how much you want to preserve fonts, art work, etc.

Distributing your eBook

Some service providers do the conversion and distribution of your book for free, but do take a cut of your royalties (the amount your ebook sells for minus what Amazon, for example, charges you for selling them).

Royalty Split Conversion Services

This is what companies like Smashwords and Lulu do. 

Other newer entrants threatening to change the space are Pronoun (formerly Vook)  and Hyperink(formerly Hyperink Press) (though they seem to be publishing their own titles).  

The advantage of services that take a royalty split is they can place your book in multiple ebook stores without you having to manage them all.  The disadvantage is that they take a royalty split.  While most don’t take a large portion, any portion of an already small portion is something.

Here’s a matrix of your options.

Using a Service:

ebook options

That being said, it’s actually quite easy (and in some cases even easier) for an author to place her ebook in a retailer directly.  Below are your options.

Going Direct:

Self publishing ebook options

Earnings are typically paid out in 60 to 90 days.  Amazon pays out every 60 days..

Which channels are responsible for the most ebook sales?  Industry numbers say Amazon has 61%, followed by iTunes and Nook, but anecdotally from other authors I’ve heard 90% of sales they receive are from Amazon.  So this makes using a distribution service seem highly unnecessary.

So should you use a conversion service that also does distribution?  Many authors are opting out of this option.  More and more ebook authors sell through Amazon, iTunes, and B&N direct.  Many have abandoned Kobo.

Finally, ebook authors have generally also given up on Google’s eBookstore.  They take forever to process an epub file and it’s completely confusing to set up actually selling your ebook.

In my humble opinion, I think it makes the most sense to simply start where the most market traction is – Amazon and iTunes/iBookstore. 

If you start there, publishing your own ebook is relatively straight-forward and inexpensive.  Your two biggest expenses will be purchasing an ISBN (if you decide to - you don't need one for Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but do need one for iTunes) and having cover art made.

Marketing Your eBook

The real challenge, as ever, is marketing your ebook.  I’ve found that many use the traditional online methods:

  1. Promote via email and social networks (Facebook/Twitter)
  2. Write a blog post about it
  3. Get someone to review your ebook
  4. Do a promotion where it’s free
  5. Play with the pricing of the ebook

What’s interesting to me is how many companies exist to convert and distribute ebooks but that’s not where the real need is.  Authors need help marketing their books. Some people use sites like Scribd to help authors build buzz about their ebooks.  You can also publish a pdf easily on Scribd itself and even sell through them.  They take a 20% cut of your ebook’s price.  We’ll see who else takes up the marketing tools for authors challenge.

What’s Coming Soon in eBooks

Lastly, the next frontier is making it easier to produce more dynamic, media rich ebooks.  So stay tuned for that.


How to Sing

Course: Ten Week Band Workshop

Institution: Blue Bear School of Music

Instructor: Sean Leahy


I used to sing while vacuuming. My voice and legs would shake if I thought anyone could hear me but underneath the dull hum of the vacuum I sang with ease and confidence. A feeling I lacked most of the time.

So when this summer of self-actualization I asked myself what I wanted to tackle next, I realized I wanted to give voice to my voice.

I signed up for the Blue Bear Music School’s Band workshop. It’s a ten week course that let’s folks sign up for the genre of music they’re interested in and the school then works to make sure each class section has the members it needs to form a band. One of the instruments in the band is played by the workshop teacher and the students do the rest. The class culminates in a live band performance at Café DuNord, a bar in San Francisco.

I chose the Country workshop and was told to meet my band mates at the Lennon Studios. The Studios are surrounded by gates in a more urban section of town. When I arrived, the gates were guarded by a man wearing a Harley vest, aviator glasses and at least a three week old stench. He smiled revealing missing teeth and black gums. Other derelict-looking guys in black were strewn about the parking lot. The whole scene was grungy in the way bars are sticky the next morning, but it didn’t intimidate me. I felt strangely at home. I smiled and walked to the end of a very dark skinny hallway to find our practice room. Room 9.

Inside was a male ginger (a minger?) wearing a page boy cap. He looked like he had washed his face at some point that day so I pegged him for the teacher, Sean. Also present was a tall lanky kid named Nate who I would learn hailed from Wisconsin and a Bay area native with glasses and a pompadour named Michael. I, true to form, looked like a soccer mom in my jeans, running shoes and an orange t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Free to Roam.” The room was the size of a small storage unit and as we introduced ourselves the sound of serious drumming and guttural screaming could be heard from the adjacent rooms.

Sean asked us if we had brought song selections on our iPods. I was hesitantly offering up mine when Adam, a tall thin dude of mysterious ethnic origins, AKA our drummer, waltzed in carrying a 24 pack. He threw it down in the center of the room and said, “I’m Adam, want a beer?”

Well, this is going to be different, I thought and took a beer.

Sean asked the others for their song selections and Nate, a guitarist, turned to me and said, “Well, I expect the lead vocalist to come with choices.”

I gulped and hemmed and hawed about not being sure if my selections made sense for a band, I’ve never sang with a band…the guys turned to tune their instruments and fiddle while Sean rolled his eyes and grabbed my iPod. We started with my selection Top of the World, a ballad by Patty Griffin.

Sean hissed at the guys to turn down the plucking at their instruments and gave it a quick listen. "Okay," he said, “Here’s what it looks like” and then proceeded to chart out the whole song – after one listen. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d later learn he is a Berklee grad, but I knew instantly we had the real deal for a teacher.

So we jumped in and started practicing the song. Eventually it was my turn to turn on my instrument – my voice. I was scared to death. What if they thought I sucked? I plunged in, sang and promptly broke into a sweat. But I didn’t stop singing. It took me weeks though to stop expecting them to greet me at the next practice with the news that I’d been replaced by another vocalist.

Unfortunately, my inner critic was on full display in many practice sessions. Much to my dismay, I noticed myself saying out loud how I have to work on this piece or that piece. The guys chimed in, “your voice sounds great.” Every time. I was annoyed with myself for spitting out these insecurities, like a dog that wants to be patted on the head or given a treat, but I also learned just how supportive a group really focused on the same goal can be.

At first, we all were definitely more worried about our own selves – our own performances instead of looking to and listening to each other. But eventually, we started to turn towards each other and that’s when we began to carry each other, propel each other and let each other shine.

My little light, however, took some time. More than halfway through our practice sessions the band added a new song; a Spanish one. It was probably my bonehead idea. I wasn’t prepared for the mental challenge it would present. The song was picked by Adam. He liked Thalia’s A Quien Le Importa? Loosely translated to Who Cares? or as I was feeling about it one night, Who Gives A Shit!

I was struggling with my entrance on the song. I was supposed to come in on the end of the 2nd beat of the 9th measure. It was funking me all up and I started to get pissed. Which is a good thing because the mood of the song called for it, but a bad thing because it meant I was starting to beat myself up. Why? Because it wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. And once again, I thought I had to be.

I made faces. I cringed. I mouthed “mother f---er.” I rolled my shoulders and balled my fists. I couldn’t get it. Our teacher, Sean, tried talking me down, “C’mon Alicia.”

Every urge inside me wanted to throw the mike down and storm out of the rehearsal room. I was so frustrated. Who knew that learning, which usually comes so easily to me, would be so hard when learning is hard? This doesn’t happen a lot and so I was forced to grow in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

After rehearsal I thanked Sean for talking me off the edge. He said, ”Don’t get down on yourself. It won’t help.”

While I was still a bit nervous about the Thalia song, before I knew it, our allotted hour at Café DuNord was upon us. Before we went on stage, the band circled in the dressing room. Another band, passed around a bottle of Bushmills. Though I understand now why some artists choose to drink, I declined, leaned against a wall, closed my eyes and tried to breathe.

When I got on the stage the lights were so bright I couldn’t see anyone in the audience. I turned to Adam, positioned behind me on stage and gave him an anxious look. He said, “Alicia, it’s going to go by fast.” And it did.

When I finished on stage, I walked out onto the floor and saw my friends standing in a half circle of support. The song they thought I had done the best on? A Quien Le Importa?

The funny thing is it wasn’t until after the show that I finally reflected on some of the lyrics to A Quien Le Importa?:

Mi destino es el que yo decido El que yo eligo para mi

A quien le importa lo que yo haga? A quien le importa lo que yo diga? Yo soy asi, y asi seguiré Nunca cambiaré

English Translation: My destiny is what I decide; What I elect for myself

To whom does it matter what I do? To whom does it matter what I say? I am like this, and like this I will continue I will never change

Since the performance friends have asked, What’s next? What does come next when you conquer a fear like that? I realized, like trying to return a baby to a mother’s womb, there was no putting my essential self back in the box I've been hiding it all this time. I have a voice and that will never change. What I thought was an end point, turns out is actually a beginning.

Loving What Is

Course: Loving What Is

Instructor: Byron Katie

Location: Esalen

Esalen is located about three hours south of San Francisco on a rocky bluff right above the Pacific Ocean. The workshop with Byron Katie, the reason that lured me to Esalen, began at 8:30pm on Friday night.

The workshop was held in a revival-like tent a good ten minute walk away from the main lobby area. I took a seat and immediately wondered as people poured into the tent, What am I doing here? On the seats were packets containing fliers for Katie’s other programs, a snippet from one of her books and a Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet. This is what it looks like:


Without any prelude, she started right in by asking us all to take out our Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet and began answering it.  I couldn’t come up with someone I was angry with so I chose myself. I wrote: “I choose Alicia. She’s pissing me off. I’m frustrated with her. Why can’t she get her act together? Why isn’t she married? More successful? Or why is she so anxious, fearful, vulnerable and stupid?” Then I stopped, Good Lord, I thought – who is this Alicia judging the other one?

As if on cue, Katie (what everyone calls her) quietly spoke into her mike, “there are no new stressful thoughts. We just recycle them. We attach and that’s how it becomes a belief. Anything you believe against your true beauty is what causes stress. It’s rough to believe some of the thoughts we’re believing. We either question what we believe or we live it out.”

Then audience members began to ask questions. Katie runs her workshops in a case study style. She uses the experiences and questions of the audience to demonstrate how her method of challenging painful thoughts works. This method is what is called The Work.

A mother stood up and related that she had overheard her daughter talking with school girlfriends and the daughter told them that her boyfriend had called her a bitch.  So Katie took it on. “Katie, you’re a bitch,” she said. Then she walked through the four questions with the first being, is it true?  She said, “I turn to me and ask myself that. And I think, Oh yeah, I can find some of that. Let me ask what pieces he sees where I’m a bitch because I don’t want to be that way. He’s my friend. I’m open.”

She went on to advise the mother to encourage her daughter to question the painful thought, I’m a bitch. Basically, inquire why the boyfriend was calling her that instead of fighting the statement. The mother sat down visually stunned.

Katie added, “Denial is the pain. What we deny is what we suffer. A true seeker goes to her enemies.”

She continued by saying it’s possible to never experience rejection again. Using the “bitch” example, she explained that you can choose to look at it like they’re not rejecting me – they’re enlightening me. When you feel defensive that’s a clue that you’ve got a wall up – why do you need it? Especially if you believe that person is there to enlighten you and not hurt you. If you think they’re there to hurt you – then you’re just projecting. A defense is the mind’s way of putting up a wall to a powerful wisdom, knowledge.

I agreed with her explanation of defensiveness though it is really tough sometimes not to be. But Katie seems to be truly open. She walks into every room with this thought, “I know everyone here loves and cares about me, they just haven’t realized it, yet.” Her goal is to never meet a stranger or fear another human being. “The only way I can feel alone is to believe something about you that would separate us. The moment you believe your negative thoughts there’s a separation. It drops when I question what I think about you,” she said. Which made me realize I was questioning a lot about her.

At the end of the first night all I could think was, I have so many beliefs to question. Luckily, a man in the crowd stood up and expressed the same sentiment, to which Katie replied, “I’d question that.”


The crowd was noticeably thinner. She started the session by digging into the The Judge Your Neighbor worksheet. She explained that the worksheet is basically a written form of meditation. To judge someone else is the short cut to your own denial system. Your enlightenment lies in your answers – not the ones you hope they are or think they should be. She instructed us to listen and experience the answer to the question; “if you can hear it, it’s for you.”

The idea is to answer every question quickly on your Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet – don’t over think it. Then walk through the 4 questions for each question on the worksheet except for question #6. For that question the turn around should be “I am willing to…” and “I look forward to…” Doing this really gave folks a hard time. Katie said, “People are superstitious. They think if I say it, it will happen.” She challenges that by saying, “Good - if that happens to me it’s to show me what I’m not enlightened to yet.” She added it’s easier to welcome uncomfortable moments when you realize that reality is always kinder than your story. The only obstacles are what you are believing. Katie concluded, “It’s just an illusion and yet that illusion is creating your entire world.”

It seemed that not even small, seemingly inconsequential beliefs could get by without Katie’s scrutiny. When an audience member mentioned she was afraid of the dark walking over to the tent, Katie responded, “Of course you’re afraid of the dark because you’re projecting something into the dark. The dark was never that cruel. Can’t trust your thoughts? This is a way to find peace. What is real and what is not says you. Nothing terrible has ever happened; it’s what you’re believing in that moment.”

I have to say, it was pretty hard to believe that someone could embody this philosophy so whole-heartedly – could actually live it every moment of every day. But Katie seems to. There were many incidents that occurred that might have rattled a lesser person – like at one point the electricity went out, her mike didn’t work several times and an audience member called her out on having had a face lift. She was unmoved. She was placid and receptive to it all. I began to think she must have had a stroke.

The rest of the day she spent helping different audience members work through their Judge Your Neighbor worksheets.

Her response to a man who believed his father abandoned him: “If anyone leaves me, I’ve been spared.”

To a woman concerned about the recession and her retirement savings: “The retirement you’re going to have – you’re going to be left with your state of mind. Many people think money is the answer. They think I’m going to be safe, happy and secure. Is that true?”

One of the more powerful learning moments came when Katie worked with a woman who had been raped by two men 36 years ago. Katie asked the woman, “How long did the rape last?”

“Seven hours,” she replied.

“How long have you been raping that woman in your head?” Katie responded.

The woman looked struck. Katie continued, “Didn’t you say it’s been 36 years? Who then showed the most mercy – those men or you? Those men stopped.”

The bold statement sparked a turning point in that woman’s thinking that the whole room felt. It was a powerful demonstration of challenging beliefs.

Finally, after a long day of doing the work, a man stood up and said, “I’ve spent years working on myself and am frustrated.” She says, “Well yeah, considering there’s nothing wrong with you.”


The turnout was even sparser. What Katie is espousing is not easy to understand or accept. Still, I found that I reached a level of peace when I started questioning my beliefs. It was as if, taking full responsibility for my life, though at times hard to do, was also a relief.

She helped additional people walk through the questioning of their painful thoughts. One of the questions that came up is what happens if the painful thought comes up again. She said, “Let’s say you’re at peace and then someone says something you experience as a criticism – the womp. Get excited for that because it’s an opportunity to access a piece of the puzzle. It will show you what you’re still believing that stands between you and loving what is.”

She left us with these parting words, “This is a full-time job. If there’s fear in you then it’s not done. If you can’t walk in the streets and feel connected to everyone then you have work to do. If you can’t find peace, how can you expect others to? Work on you – it’s your only hope.”

How to Draw

Course: Drawing On the Right Side of your Brain

Institution: DrawRight

Instructor: Brian Bomeisler

Location: Fort Mason, San Francisco

Long before Dr. Betty Edwards wrote The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence, she gave birth to her son, Brian. From whom, I had the great pleasure of learning this past week. Brian teaches workshops across the country based on his mother’s book.

I learned of the workshop and Brian in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink's theory is that right-brainers or creatives will rule the future; a concept that gives me great hope. Still, I am the product of a lot of left brain influence and training. I was an investment banker for God’s sake. So I decided to sign up and see how drawing could help me access my right brain, what I consider to be the pathway to my soul.

Day One

From day one, it was clear that this was not painting with Bob Ross, the guy with the Afro on PBS. As Brian immediately pointed out we’re not making “happy little trees.” The idea is to “discover your voice in drawing.”

The class began with a smattering of art history. Major artist names spewed from his mouth, Mary Buckley, Jackson Pollock, and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, to name a few. He showed some slides and then asked us to dig into the big black portfolios placed on the tables in front of us. Each of the students, 16 in total, received all the tools we would need for the week – drawing pads, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners and my personal favorite, a pencil box.

He then turned to the hardest and most common part of any class I’ve taken as an adult: the introduction. He asked each of us to introduce ourselves and share our experiences with drawing. I was first up. Thankfully, I didn’t break into a sweat. I gave my spiel and then waited for him to move on to the next student.

Instead, Brian asked me when the last time I had drawn was. I draw all the time, I answered. I have a chalkboard up in my den and I draw many a stick figure there.

“So there wasn’t a time in your life when you stopped?

“Nope,” I said.

He paused and commented to the class, “Something usually happens to you – at around the age of 12 that causes people to stop drawing.” He looked back at me.

I turned my body to the student next to me, signaling Brian to move on. Mercifully he did.

The rest of the class consisted of a 14-year old (or eighth grader), 2 high school students with their fathers, a make-up artist, a management consultant, software engineers and a couple of career transitioners. Only a handful of the 16 students were actually from the Bay area.

Our first task was to draw a self portrait. “The biggest hurdle you will all face,” he warned us, “is yourself. Now how many of you are thinking you’ll be the only one who doesn’t learn to draw? Well, I’m going to be your waterloo.”

Insert_drawing day 1 self
Insert_drawing day 1 self

We all pulled out mirrors provided to us in our portfolios and set about drawing ourselves. Mine is below.

Brian then went on to explain drawing. “Turns out,” he said, “it’s just a skill.” He elaborated that drawing is not a motor skill problem, but a thinking issue.

He clarified that the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body. LMode refers to left hemisphere thinking and RMode refers to right hemisphere thinking. LMode is verbal, analytic, symbolic, abstract (as in taking abstractions), temporal, rational, digital (likes to count) and logical. RMode is nonverbal, synthetic (sees the big picture/the forest from the trees), concrete, realistic, timeless, nonrational (intuitive), and spatial.

To draw realistic depictions, we have to learn to pull away from the symbolic representation of things (supplied by our left brains) and instead try to see things in terms of shapes and relationships – to see what’s there – not what we imagine is there. To do this you have to access RMode or your right brain. His methods and the class exercises were meant to enable us to do just that and to quiet down the language center of our brains (the left brain), which generally gets in the way.

In the meantime, examples abounded of LMode thinking – a common question was “How much time do we have to complete this?” His frequent response, “You have enough time to finish.” Brian commented that students always want, “spit it out, tell me how do you do this so I don’t have to think about it.” But he’s interested in our self-discovery through drawing. “No imagining allowed right now – copy what’s given to you and it gets filtered through your brain and comes out quite unique,” he said. “The drawing should be coming from what you’re looking at – not your head.”

In order to gain access to the subdominant visual perceptual Rmode, it is necessary to present your brain with a task your Lmode will turn down. Turning a picture upside down is one way.

Hence, the next drawing exercise of the day was to replicate a drawing that Picasso made, upside down. I started out by measuring the lines of the drawing very precisely, but by the fourth line, I was impatient. So I started eyeballing it. I was very frustrated. I felt confined and unhappy. I decided that I didn’t like copying things.

When I finished my drawing and turned my copy right side up I found the subject, a man in a wrinkled suit, was way out of proportion. A metaphor for my issues?, I thought.

Before I could think too much about it, Brian had collected all of our drawings and hung them at the front of the class so we could see our work among others. I struggled a bit drawing the exercise but I didn’t realize exactly what my left brain was saying until I saw my picture hanging in the front of the room with all the others.  Then there it was, People are doing a better job than me.

I saw my Picasso drawing up there among all the others and it looked terrible to me. My pencil strokes were light, my confidence minimal and my strokes unsure. Others were bold and heavy. I would even have said it sucked, except the 17 year old high school student two seats down from me used those very words when Brian asked her to review her own drawing. Great, I thought, I’m emotionally 17. Anxiety it seems is also part of the creative process. Brian acknowledged this and said “anxiety also means you really want to know about this stuff.”

When he finally reviewed my Picasso drawing in front of the class, he noted that the man in my drawing looked like he was ”staring off into the clouds.” Brian added I had a very natural line style – he described it as subtle, repeating lines – “softly feeling your way.” My personality was so essentially a part of my drawing that I felt I had been laid bare.

My drawing’s problems were my problems. I was upset and cried the whole way home because so much hit home. I found, that after everything, I am still incredibly judgmental of myself. To top it all off, he was right. Something did happen to me around the age of 12 that stopped my artistic progression and the reopening of that Pandora’s box on a sweltering Monday evening, walking home hurt.

Day Two – Learning how to see “The problems of drawing,” Brian reiterated, “are psychological.”

He then introduced us to a ViewFinder – which is designed to reduce the input of verbal information and help with the idea of composition, which is basically positive form and negative spaces in some pleasing arrangement.  The object of the drawing is the “positive form” and anything around it is the “negative space,” or using the context to understand the subject.  Emphasis on negative space, like words unspoken, tends to unify the drawing.

Our first exercise of the day was to draw our hands on a viewfinder and then pass our drawings forward to be hung in preparation for the daily discussion of our work.  Of course, when I saw my hand up there again with the others, all I could do was compare and judge myself – unfavorably.  But I did notice a few that were a bit worse than mine –progress from the day before, I suppose.  Or maybe not.

When Brian reviewed my hand drawing he said, “You really get a sense of the delicacy of your touch.”

I was again stunned by how much my personality came through in my picture – and it was even clearer when lined up next to other drawings.  It was amazing to see how distinct our drawings and therefore our points of view were.  By the end of day two, the 8th grader and I had graphite on our faces.

Day Three- Perspective

Perspective: it’s all flat information. Drawing is essentially creating a two dimensional illusion of a three dimensional space. 

One of the students asked Brian, “Is this what real artists do?”  As if Brian wasn’t an artist.  I was embarrassed for her.  He was incredibly gracious.  He went on to say that there are tons of misperceptions and misconceptions about art.  Often, these are propagated by art historians.  They seem to like to paint the picture, if you’ll forgive the pun, of a crazy artist.

He related that Van Gough taught himself to draw.  Van Gogh drew almost exclusively for 2 years – he really wanted it.  He also showed us a retrospective of Picasso’s drawings, who was taught to draw at a very young age by his father, to drive home the point that to be a great artist takes hard work and a solid grasp of the fundamentals as opposed to the often bandied word, “talent.”  Picasso himself said, “I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child.”

To teach perspective, Brian pointed out that in architecture, lines below the horizon line will ascend up and lines above your horizon line are going to descend.  For the doubters among us, he ushered us all into the hallway with our angle finders, pencils and viewfinders.  It was illuminating – what you think is a straight line when looking at it, is actually angled when you put your pencil up to it.

The last exercise of the day was to choose an item of architectural interest and set about drawing it.  I chose a window inside of the classroom and in the end wasn’t happy with my drawing.  I felt frustrated and struggled with the details.  In the immortal words of Eminem, I “guess that’s why they call it window pane.”

“This drawing,” Brian said, “is about power over space.  You’re not creating the real thing.  You can’t recreate it, you’re creating an illusion.”

When he reviewed my drawing he said I got the angles and perspective and commented that my drawing had “a mysterious quality.”

I learned that placing angled lines in your drawing, requires an intense amount of trust of yourself.  Because, at first, it looks very wrong or doesn’t seem possible.  But eventually you start to see.  You gain perspective.

Day Four - Relationships

Brian began by talking about what the class is and isn’t.  The class is about drawing a recognizable object and the qualifications of that.  It’s not about Art with a capital A.  It’s about teaching you the fundamentals of perception and from those you can run with it where you want to.

The exercise of the day was to draw a side profile portrait of a classmate.  He explained that the human head often gives students the most trouble, but it requires constantly checking the relationships between the various parts of the face.  Invariably, students never realize how large the head is in proportion to the eyes, nose and mouth because the eyes, nose and mouth get so much attention.

The exercise was difficult.  Brian noted, “The left hemisphere says, ‘Drawing is supposed to be fun!  And checking for relationships is not fun.’ But you have to do it and the more you practice, like anything, the easier it will be for you.  It will start to feel natural.”

When many of us stumbled on the eyes, he added, “You can’t trust your eyes.  Well, not so much your eyes but your brain gets in the way of your eyes – it mixes in symbols with which it is familiar.”  In drawing, as in life, I was discovering.

We reviewed our work again at the end of the day.  The personalities continued to pop off the pages.  It was unconscious and unavoidable.  I was starting to see that’s also what makes it art.

Day 5 – Putting it All Together

Brian opened Day 5 with “You’re now all ready to take drawing classes.”  He then went on to describe how we could all practice – which is required for all this to come easier. 

He emphasized “you can learn from misconceptions if you don’t get freaked out about them.”  Starting over can be debilitating or demoralizing but I learned you can adjust stuff.  In the end, he advised, “Whatever works is what you have to do to make things work.”

The final day’s assignment was to draw another self-portrait, pulling together all we had learned.  Brian warned, “The difficulty is that you’ve being seeing yourself all your life,” but consoled, “the drawing you do today is simply going to be the drawing you do today.”

Here is my Day 5 Self-Portrait:

Alicia Morga day 5 drawing

My self-portrait looked so painful to me – there was something in the eyes.  Something I got right on the first day, too but my pencil marks on day five were so much darker, bolder – more confident.

During the final review discussion, one of the high school students commented, “Funny how I started off smug [day 1] and ended up looking tragic.”  I could relate.

After I finished mine I went outside.  The sun was shining for the first time that day and people were setting up tables for Off the Grid. I saw the Kara’s Cupcake van pull up and I got so excited.  Then I flashed on a picture of myself at the age right before I stopped drawing, when I stopped pursuing art.

Alicia Morga young

That child-like joy.  I was in touch with it again and it was so good, it hurt.

How to Write Your Story

Course: Memoir I: Beginning Memoir Workshop

Institution: SF Writer's Grotto

Instructor: Rachel Howard

While a law student at Stanford I had the opportunity to take classes in their creative writing department. My professor, in his infinite wisdom, told me I should never write about what I know. According to him, this wasn’t “real” writing. Not sure what to do, I wrote fictional accounts of my stories. I started writing in the third person.

Ten years later, I find myself writing in the first person – a lot. Like here on this blog. It hit me, maybe it’s time to write my story, my truth; however unreal the effort. So this summer of self-actualization I decided to take a memoir class.

I walked into the SF Writer’s Grotto offices in downtown San Francisco and immediately judged the people I saw seated around the table. I guess I knew better than to expect Po Bronson, but I was a bit taken aback by my cohorts. Have you ever seen yourself in others and hated it?

I put my backpack down and surveyed the room. I immediately looked for the angry lesbian, the pampered Marina housewife, the retiree, and the whole retinue of writing class characters I have come to expect. I wondered which character they thought I was in my hideously bright pink cashmere sweater, dark jeans, and running shoes. I didn’t engage in conversation and instead discouraged would-be greeters by burying my nose in my blackberry until the instructor arrived.

The instructor, Ms. Howard glided in and began class. I listened to her opening preamble and thought, Why, Alicia, are you so god-damn judgmental?

Experience has taught me that the moment you find yourself judging someone else it’s invariably because you’re not owning up to something in yourself. It held true in memoir class. I realized that I want to tell my story but I am terrified of telling my story. I also was afraid that my story would somehow get lost in all the stories around the table. Would I be heard? And what if I am? I worried that telling my story meant laying it to rest. What happens after? I reasoned that once I put it down on paper I would then be really truly responsible for what happens next. A scary proposition.

While Ms. Howard is a delicate-featured, small-boned individual she is steely when it comes to the workshop process. She outlined her rules: we would each submit a piece to the group for critique. When reviewing the submitted pieces we were asked to read the piece two times, first for pleasure and the second with an eye for the positive.

I’ve taken a number of writing classes. Most of them have operated via the workshop method. Some of these classes were opportunities to display a participant’s utter lack of reading comprehension, others were tear the writer a new asshole sessions, but most operated under the guidelines of Ms. Howard’s class: first do no harm.

I have to admit that I struggled at first with the rules. I cringed at the idea that workshop was just going to be a love fest and I wouldn’t glean anything substantive from it. I found my first few critiques were very brief. When feedback was presented in class, I looked around and thought, How am I going to understand what people really think of my piece when we’re all forced to sit around and make nice? Are you saying anything good if you don’t say anything bad?

Still, I stuck to the rules and eventually, a funny thing happened, I started to see that every piece was actually good and the class discussion worthy of them. It finally clicked: How, really, do you judge someone’s story or their stage in the writing of it? When I made the connection, I stopped judging my own story so much and the words started tumbling out.

With every successive class, I felt my eyes and heart opening. I started to see the stories I had read in the eyes of the other students, or in the way they held their heads or shoulders. How they crossed their arms and leaned on the table or angled away from it. I begin to think, there’s so much pain in the world, and then I began to feel it. I wondered if it shouldn’t be required of everyone – to have to write your story. To face the truth as you know it.

It’s not always fun or easy, but I learned that those who are bravest – who do the work it requires to get close to their own experiences, are perhaps the finest writers. It’s so hard to do that very few people can actually do it. The rest of us? We’re learning how to write our stories. So when we’re ready and as we are ready – we can share them.

The Landmark Forum

Course: The Forum

Institution: Landmark Education

Instructor: David Cunningham

Location: San Francisco

A Harvard MBA grad introduced me to Landmark in 2007. She wasn’t trying to recruit me but mentioned the name Landmark offhandedly during a conversation at dinner. At the time, I didn’t ask her what it was or what it meant. But I was curious enough that when I went home I googled the term “Landmark San Francisco” and discovered its program, The Forum. I also discovered that it is a fairly controversial one.

In essence, The Forum is an updated version of Werner Erhard’s Est – the group awareness program from the high flying 70s. Est borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and many of its principles are said to have been picked up by the founders of Landmark. The Forum itself is basically an intense weekend in a basement full of about 50 strangers.

There are many stories about how Landmark is a cult, how they push marketing too much, they verbally abuse participants, etc. You can read one take here (btw - what's with everyone needing snacks everywhere they go? That's for another post, I suppose). I wasn’t worried about being brainwashed so much as I was concerned about missing my daily runs, but given I’m open to learning (as you all well know) I signed myself up.

Day One

The first day was a Friday and because I had returned from traveling to the east coast for work the night before, I found the main struggle of the day was just to stay awake. Not to mention how difficult it was to sit for such long periods of time. There are scheduled breaks and yes, contrary to reports, you can go to the bathroom, but it’s still more sitting than I was used to.

I thought going into it, after reading all the terrible reviews, that I would not be receptive or at least, highly combatant. Surprisingly, I was not. Because what I heard were a lot of concepts and philosophies that frankly, I had heard before.

The class is about adopting a new language with which to structure your life. The Landmark Forum premise is that the language we use, affects what we think and hence how we behave.

This is not new. There is a whole research movement dedicated to how linguistics affects cognition, perception and memory. “Linguistic relativity” or “explanatory style” are different names for the same thesis: your thoughts create your reality.

The funny thing is that while you’re learning how language can trip you up, Landmark is teaching you a new vocabulary. Like “rackets.” This is the innocent front you put on to hide criminality in the back or said another way, the lies we tell ourselves. Rackets are defined as persistent complaints plus a fixed way of being. Rackets, like other persistent behavior, have a payoff - that's why we keep them up.

The day was mainly spent learning Landmark speak and illustrating the central idea: there is what happens and then there is the “story” we attach to what happened. We humans do it so much and so quickly it’s hard to recognize when we’re doing it. When you judge people, you are creating stories on the fly. Even when you see say a wrinkled forehead, you are assigning a meaning or creating a story behind that wrinkle. The story might be negative (usually) or it might be positive (still limiting), the thing to notice is that it’s a story. If you know when you’re creating stories and learn to give them up you can, in the Landmark parlance, “create a new possibility for yourself.” How? That was for day two.

At the end of day one, I was proud that I didn't storm out or argue with the teacher. I did, however, nod off a few times.

Day Two

Day two was more of a roller-coaster. The morning started with a bit of the hard sell. The program leader reiterated the importance of getting our friends and family to sign up for Landmark. It definitely turned me off. It was also hard not to notice all the subtle things that were done to make the program "work." Like the heavy use of the Socratic method. Most people aren't used to it and it can be very intimidating. It was used in law school and I hated it. This technique, however, can make it easier to guide someone to your point. I wondered sometimes what the class "conversations" would be like without it.

This day was full of sharing by participants. One gal in class got up and shared how her ex-boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and they broke up and she was very upset. The teacher asked her several questions which led to the fact that she willingly entered a relationship she didn't respect. The leader asked how could she be disappointed with the outcome given how she went into it? I have to say that one was an eye-opener. The teacher and program were pretty ruthless in terms of getting folks to assume some personal responsibility. It also illustrated the point that you can cause a relationship that you want to be in. But only if you take responsibility for the ones you have been in; you are honest with yourself about why you’ve chosen someone. Playing the innocent victim, as the class gal was doing, it seems, is just another racket.

We also talked about the "Genesis of Identity." How because of certain events in our lives at certain ages we created core strengths (like being independent or a people-pleaser) to combat three thoughts: I'm not enough/something's wrong with me; I don't belong; and I'm on my own. The traits we developed in response to these thoughts are called our “strong-suits.”

While I struggled with this at first I came to realize my whole identity is based on not feeling good enough/thinking something is wrong with me. Is it any wonder that I’m such an over-achiever?

Day Three
Day three was about reinforcing the entire message. “Transformation,” as they call it, happens when you understand the role you play in your life.

We took another look at our strong suits and reevaluated them. The point of understanding these is to understand that you are not limited to your strong suits, your emotions, your decisions or your attitudes. That anything is possible for you when you take responsibility for your stories (which these strong suits are based on). When anything is possible, the only question is who do I choose to be?

In the end, who I choose to be is only truly up to me when I’ve set the stories aside and taken responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned I have the power to do that. Well, at least now, the vocabulary.

Big Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you should attend any of Landmark’s programs or that you shouldn’t. While I’m open to learning about myself I do have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter which is to say I like to think I wouldn’t have drank the Jonestown kool-aid. Ultimately though, you have to do what feels right to you.

I should add that Landmark is one way to hear a message that many other organizations, authors espouse, like Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, etc. Below is a diagram from, that while snarky, illustrates my point.

Alicia Morga The Landmark Forum

How to Photoshop in San Francisco

Course: Photoshop, Module 1 and Module 2

Institution: LearnIT

Instructor: David Liebman

Location: San Francisco

I have a very powerful tool. No, it’s not my long, lustrous hair, but CS5. It kind of sounds like a weapon. Creative Suite 5 is Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop. I attended a class on Monday to learn how to brandish the sucker.

The classroom was fairly large with close to 30 folks in the room, each with a computer and students ranged from their 20s to 60s. We were also joined by three LearnIT Anywhere participants. These are students who take the course from their own homes and join by conference call and web ex.

Our instructor, David, was designer cool. He even wore a pageboy hat. Photoshop, he told us, is not a design tool, it’s really for photo editing and Illustrator is really the design tool. That clarification aside, he launched into how Photoshop works. Basically, Photoshop takes an image and turns it into pixels of different colors. In fact, in Photoshop when you change an image, all you are doing is changing the colors of the pixels – you never actually delete a pixel.

Next we learned how to hold a mouse correctly. Before you laugh, this is actually very important. Photoshop is probably the most physically demanding of software I’ve ever used. There’s a lot of clicking, holding and dragging of the mouse to get what you want. So it’s important that you grip the mouse with the heel of your palm resting on your desk. This helps cut down on repetitive motion injury and gives you greater control when you make “selections.”

Yes, in Photoshop, as in life, it all comes down to the quality of your selection. The term selection refers to grabbing and isolating the area of a photo on which you want to work. I won’t bore you with all the ways there are to make selections (there are lassos and magic wands, to name a few), but making selections is probably the most difficult part of learning how to effectively use Photoshop.

Fortunately, the style of the class was such that David would point out a tool, demonstrate how to use it and then give us plenty of time to try it ourselves with loads of sample photos. I had a seat in the back of the class near the door and from my vantage point I could see many of the other students’ screens. It was amazing to see just how differently everyone approached a task. I was also struck by all the genius ideas students had. For one exercise, we were asked to select two photos from the sample photos we’d been working with and blend them together. There weren’t two people who did the same thing. It was a great reminder of how much creativity lives in the world.

We then learned about “layers.” The software itself works much like how old photo shops did when they had to retouch or change a photo. Back then, if you wanted to say put a hat on someone’s head in the photo lab, you had to cut out a picture of a hat, paste it on clear plastic and then lay that plastic over the photo you were trying to change. The same process would apply if you wanted to add text to a photo. This concept of creating layers is duplicated in Photoshop. Layers allow you to manipulate different parts of an image without affecting the rest of the image.

The day ended with a short lesson in air brushing. Most people associate Photoshop with air brushed pictures. I learned how to air brush pictures of myself. I have to admit, it was a bit disturbing. I noticed for the first time, how much air brushing gives a flat affect to facial expressions. Though, I did find the actual coloring in of the dark circles under my eyes, very meditative.

I left class stuffed with information and a fabulous spicy tuna sandwich from a stand nearby, The Sentinel, our teacher's recommendation. One day of class really only scratches the surface. David advised that for every day you spend in class, you need three days of practicing after you leave class for the skills to really sink in. I’ve been practicing and am noticing that, not unlike my love life, my selections need work. But hey, the fun is in the practicing.