This frigid Monday morning I found myself driving right back to the data-entry temp gig, the very one at which I felt ennui of such abysmal, eyeless-fish-inhabiting depths that I started this blog because it was all I could think of to do. At that time, I just needed to feel that I had some kind of power, needed to remind myself that I had an identity above and beyond the dreary robot work (no, seriously; at one point they had me typing in CAPTCHA codes for an automatic e-mail program) I sat doing for 8.5 hours of each weekday. This particular assignment -- the lowest-paying and least enjoyable of the five temp gigs I've had this past year -- quickly became for me a symbol of all that was wrong about what I had done with my life, of inertia, of taking the path of least resistance, of settling, of selling myself short, of not working up to my potential as they say in the parent-teacher conferences that yes, my poor parents had to attend when I was a slacker teen.
I went back because they asked and because it's money, and because no work has yet come from the temp agency for creative people -- but I refused to have a bad day. Simply would not allow it. It was weird, as if I body-swapped with Mary Poppins or something. I'm surprised I didn't break into "The Temping Song" or something. ("Just five minutes' worth of Facebook browsing helps the temping work get done! The temping work get do-one, the temping work get done...") I woke up and put on a nice outfit -- not a lazy, slacker-ish, phoning-it-in kind of outfit that consists partly of fraying purple corduroy pants I've had for almost ten years; or boots caked with mud from hiking in the woods; or an oversized, pajama-like hooded sweatshirt that I totally slept in the night before.
Actually, OK, my boots had a little mud on them. But other than that I looked sort of "leveled up." I wore a deep-teal knit turtleneck sweater-dress that has a pleated skirt, and nice new black tights, and knee-high boots (the uh, ones with the mud on them). I put on a dressy cardigan, and even wore some goddamn jewelry. I switched winter coats -- I temporarily shelved my "usual" black coat with the perma-stains on it from drippy Nutella post-drinking crepes on Saturday nights, and put on my newer hot-pink one with a glittery Lurex scarf that's shot through with a galaxy of rainbow threads. I tied my hair back in a vaguely librarian-ish bun. I swear to god, sometimes when you pull yourself together a little bit, you carry yourself different -- as if you're someone who matters, not a doormat for everyone to wipe their muddy boots on -- and then people treat you accordingly.
I focused on little small-scale exciting stuff. I brought my new book with me -- "In Praise of Messy Lives," essays by Katie Roiphe, which finally arrived in the mailbox -- and took a moment to marvel at the sunrise while walking to my car. I got to hear way more NPR during the commute than I do on my five-minute jaunts to Starbucks on days when I don't work away from home. I heard about some Dutch study claiming teenagers who play on sports teams are consequently more sociable and confident, and I (a former school-newspaper nerd who was not on sports teams) shouted at the radio that it was a "chicken-and-egg" thing to claim, and then some expert came on and made the point I'd just made in my car, and I hollered, "Thank you!"
WHAT IS YOUR FRIGGIN' POINT HERE, WOMAN?! you may be forgiven for screaming at your monitor or mobile device. My point, you un-holder of horses, is that today I saw this domino effect of tiny, positive moves and choices spill out in a most pleasing and self-worth-bolstering manner. It started as this series of, "Hmm, what if..." thoughts. At first they were ambitious: "What if I just got up tomorrow and started living the way I feel that I'm supposed to -- rise before dawn and do Pilates in the morning quiet, and eat steel-cut Irish oatmeal with blueberries and drink calcium-enriched orange juice as the sun is coming up, and drive to work listening to NPR without making the usual detour to Starbucks..." Yeah, I lost myself at "rise before dawn." And if I hadn't, "without making the detour to Starbucks" would've been the last nail in the coffin containing that idea.
So I modified it: "What if I put on a pretty outfit? What if I finally stopped wearing the stained coat that I keep forgetting to take to the cleaners?" I did those things. And then I felt special. The day took on a festive aspect. I got to the temp gig, and for the first time I parked in the unmarked yet somehow still VIP-seeming spaces closest the building, not in my usual plebeian-nosebleed section. And then -- click-clack go the dominoes! -- that made me feel special, somehow fancier and more important and perhaps even more deserving than I usually feel. (But not entitled. So help me, I hope to never feel entitled to things, at least not any more so than the next human being.) Inside the building, I calmly strolled to the door that I now know leads to the stairs -- instead of dashing madly for the elevator because I always have to make a show of getting places early, make a show of demonstrating my gratitude for having the gig, for being wanted someplace.
Instead of cowering in my (temporary) office, away from the intimidating CEO who drives a mid-life-crisis car and likes to schmooze about golfing with his star sales guy -- I sailed right into his office as if I belonged there, as if I were some favored client, and asked him about his holidays. He tried to put me in my place -- he said merely, "Oh, so you're back to make a few bucks?" -- but I only smiled at him in what I felt was a benevolent, "Oh, you poor unenlightened man... Maybe someday those three Christmas ghosts who visited Ebenezer Scrooge will come to you and you'll be humble" sort of way.
I refrained from nervously gnawing at my cuticles until my fingers were Halloween-display-worthy bloody stumps. Like, you know, some zombie hand you get at Target that holds the candy bowl, and is motion-activated, so that when kids go for the candy it grabs at them. I thought, "I should get or give myself a manicure."
At lunch, instead of stress-eating a meatball sub followed by a decadent cupcake from the bakery my sister got her wedding cake from, I read my book for 50 minutes then got a virtuous sandwich from Subway (six-inch turkey on wheat, no cheese; tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, pickles, and only mustard from that condiment bin with all the squirt bottles in it). I didn't relent and get a Snickers bar or anything sweet for my customary "lunch dessert;" I picked up a bottle of water to keep me going through the afternoon. It was as if some better being had hijacked my body... and I liked it.
After work I came home and my housemate asked if I would pick up pita bread to go with the delicious homemade hummus and tabbouleh she was making. Instead of seeing it as a tiny inconvenience, I realized it was an opportunity to buy virtuous breakfast, lunch, and post-workout food at the grocery store -- those damn steel-cut Irish oats that are supposed to be much lower on the ol' Glycemic Index and therefore better for you, blueberries and raspberries to put in them, bananas, orange juice, some special Whole Foods five-bean soup for lunches at the temp gig, fat-free vanilla Greek yogurt for a protein boost after working out. So now I have those things. And oh my god I totally just said "protein boost," like some article you'd read in a fitness magazine while waiting for your dentist appointment.
Each of these little things, on its own, probably sounds so dumb. But when I put them all together in one day, I wound up magically feeling like a slightly better version of myself. This isn't some big action-y thing I'm reporting here -- no new job or temp agency, or writing group, or dumping out trunk booze, or running four miles. It's like that Zen quote about a beach being made up of tiny grains of sand. And yet -- dueling clichés! -- there's also the one about "don't sweat the small stuff."
I'm not going to knock myself out, going around trying to do every little stupid thing better. But if you're like me, and you're scrambling to make even an inch of forward or upward progress, a little bit is better than going backwards, and a little bit is better than nothing at all.