The Nihilist on Vacation – Part 1


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Dead in 70 years anyway.

So reads the Instagram tagline of someone I know well, like a self-referential epitaph. This person is a teenager every bit as tormented, apparently, as I was at his age. The difference is that today the world can know your torment, which is not confined between the cardboard covers of a journal. The torment is no less acute for its publicity.

I went on vacation with this person.

Somewhere over Nebraska

Somewhere over Nebraska

The idea of vacation is in many ways as absurd to me as the idea of retirement. I am blessed with the good fortune to live in a part of the world that many consider to be a premier vacation destination. Blessed, too, with satisfying work I cannot see wanting to stop because I pass some arbitrary chronological age. So, just as I feel there will be no need to retire, there is no need for me to vacation. What folly, then, drove me onto an airplane with my family?

We planned the trip because I felt, after several years stuck at home in my routines like a hamster exercising on the same sorry wheel day after day, an almost insuperable need for something to change. What better way to satisfy this need than to yank everyone out of their comfortable routines for two weeks? Plus, as the keeper of the family’s emotional life, it falls to me to curate the future, to make a memory we can all carry with us. (I didn’t say it had to be a pleasant memory.)

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Gardening Into the Apocalypse


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Readers often ask fiction writers the tiresome question: “Which part of your story is true?”

The correct answer is: “The whole thing.” After all, if a story doesn’t express a Greater Truth, why bother telling it?

That said, I understand the urge to parse a story for “facts.” Coming from a journalism background, I’m sensitive to the reader’s desire for sourcing and verification (to the extent that anything can ever be sourced or verified, given the frailty of human memory and the chasms of misinterpretation into which even the most well-meaning of reporters can fall).

The chasm that can swallow facts (Grand Canyon 2008)

The chasm that can swallow facts (Grand Canyon 2008)

I decided to pull back the curtain just a bit on my forthcoming novel (still untitled), which has, at its center, the lifelong friendship of two women. Their friendship was enabled by their mothers’ friendship, which was based, at least in part, on gardening.

I can share these facts from my life:

  • I have a lifelong friend.
  • Her mother likes to garden.
  • My mother liked to garden.

The facts take us no further

That’s about as far as the facts can take us. I won’t say which of the women in the book is me and which is my friend because I can’t. They are neither of us; they are all of us. My characters embody the traits and habits of scores of people I have encountered over the years.

Nonetheless, to scratch the readerly itch to know what’s “true,” I offer the following annotated passage from my novel, with facts called out.

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I am a casualty of the war between head and heart


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After twenty-four years of getting nostalgic every time I hear Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” because I listened to it the morning after my husband proposed, I discover the song is about a break-up.

It seems the heart knows no logic. Or perhaps it’s the ear or the body’s musical core that are immune to logic. Logic, after all, is the currency of the intellect, the Spock-ification of everything, the natural state of macho men. Illogic is the realm of the mysterious inner feminine, of dream fragments that flicker across our corneas, of the hormonal slurry polluting—or perhaps enriching—the veins of women of a certain age.

Can we manage to exist in both realms?

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Wrinkle-free style for the modern writer


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I recently had a discussion with my son about why I enjoy editing so much. He admitted—to my surprise, since he’s not much of a reader or writer—that he enjoys editing too. “It’s like ironing a big pile of wrinkly clothes. It’s really satisfying.” (Not that he has ever actually done this.)

Iron Rotated

This seems to me a perfect analogue to the pleasure of editing. Smoothing rough prose is satisfying in the same way that ironing is satisfying. You start with something less-than-presentable and end up with something you can wear proudly.

Of course, to iron well or edit well, you need reliable appliances.

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Are you a robot? I am.


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I had planned to write about feeling overwhelmed by tasks and projects despite my evolving ability to say no (a skill everyone should hone). Then I thought about how much I am able to accomplish every day and began wondering why I don’t feel more overwhelmed, what with three careers (author, birth doula, and marketing consultant), volunteer activities, and family and personal commitments. How do I manage it?

Maybe the same way you do. In a word: templates.

I use e-mail templates for many situations: sending contracts to clients, responding to inquiries about the Nursing Mothers Counsel, and following up with prospects. I use Microsoft Word templates for creating various kinds of documents. I use newsletter templates for e-mail marketing in Emma (which I use with my clients) and MailChimp (which I use as an author).

Templates are life rafts for the overcommitted. Just assemble, address, and send—little thought required and much time saved. Why reinvent the wheel each time you have to send a piece of correspondence that is essentially the same as hundreds of others?

But if so much of my daily activity consists of simply assembling components I’ve already created, what does that make me?


In a word (or two): a robot.

This conundrum is articulated perfectly in a 2012 Wired article titled “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take Our Jobs” by Kevin Kelly. “When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’”

This question may induce a certain level existential anxiety. Yet I find the idea of technology taking over routine aspects of my work life quite appealing. We are at a relatively primitive stage of office automation, which arguably began with the invention of the typewriter. I create templates, but still must store them, hunt for them, open them, modify them, address them, and check them over. Far too much of my time goes toward managing interactions and responses in ways that are ripe for robotic takeover.

The unevolved state of automation is not for lack of trying by technologists. Siri’s inventors, for example, recognize her limitations and have undertaken to build a more responsive digital persona that learns as it goes. I look forward to a day when a personal digital assistant is truly that—rather than a shrunken computer with a clumsy interface and a tendency to misunderstand my intentions.

Not everyone is so sanguine about where automation is headed. The video below from C.G.P. Grey takes a darker long-term view, comparing humans today to the horses of the early automobile age—blithely unaware that new technology would eventually render them (no pun intended) unemployable.  Artificial creativity, anyone?

What do you think? Do you fear being usurped by robots or welcome the freedom that might come from having the time to contemplate what humans are for?

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For an up-to-the-minute conversation on the state of automation, see Reddit’s Automate stream. Or, for an in-depth look, see The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee.


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