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Pipe Dreams and Cassette Tapes


There were always the cassette tapes. Along with the bags of garbage, moldy clothes, old box springs and mattresses, and dirty, plastic Christmas decorations.

Many years ago, I worked for a property management company and one of my more glamorous duties was inventorying storage units when people fell way behind on their rent. Even before my co-worker pulled his bolt cutter out of the back of his truck to cut the lock, I knew what awaited us: a bag of garbage, half-drunk bottles of Mountain Dew (it was always Mountain Dew), moldy bags of clothes, an old, dirty mattress, cast off furniture, and plastic binders with cracked covers of old cassette tapes from the popular fitness gurus, top real estate hucksters and snake oil sales people of the decade.

The tapes were always in pristine condition with the first installment in a series of 10 half listened to before the owner gave up and put it back in its case. The people in the glossy photographed covers with their perfectly coiffed hair and whitened smiles promised their true believers they too could be the next best real estate giant, the fittest, thinnest, healthiest person on the block, and the smartest, rockstar in their profession. Just give them 10 hours of your time and you can transform your life! It’s that easy!

I saw the storage units as snapshots of these people’s lives. The salvation in a box of tapes didn’t deliver and they just couldn’t throw away the Christmas decorations leftover from a time when things were easier and happier. They hoarded things they couldn’t throw away.. and promised themselves they would pick that habit back up again when times got better or they had more time (like my husband’s wall of comic books in our garage) and weren’t distracted by Facebook or the second season of Jessica Jones.

Back before social media and the 24/7 news cycle, we never really got the full story behind these “self made” people. We never really learned that they were successful because they were born into privilege and their wealthy father funded their first successful “deal” or they had significant plastic surgery so they could play the role as the thinness and best fitness guru. Of course, we learned their dirty secrets later when they had a public meltdown or The National Enquirer did an expose piece on them. But for the time being, we bought the books and cassette tapes with the hope that by just simply reading or listening would transform our lives.

Why do we think salvation is easy? Should it be easy? How can committing yourself to some random deity, self-proclaimed guru with a box of cassette tapes, or reading a Buzz Feed article instantly change a lifetime of bad habits? 5 Kale Cleanses for the Successful Woman! 6 Life Hacks to Reverse a Lifetime of Emotional Baggage! No, hipster Buzz Feed writer living in your camper, I don’t think so…. and yet we still buy into it. As I am writing this, I got distracted by an article on Medium about 6 Ways to Hack Your Productivity and a NY Times article on re-wiring your brain.

We crave instant gratification in three easy steps and a life plan dictated to us in pig Latin from the back a Chipotle bag. We crave a clear, concise life map rather than the windy, twisty, dangerous road on the side of a cliff. I remember a day when I went to my favorite running spot in the middle of the woods in a rich, affluent Portland suburb and got annoyed that half the parking lot was taken up by construction. Surely I should have known! There had to be some sort of app or tarot card that I failed to consult! Did I mention I’m a horrible perfectionist? Life would be so much easier of we just listened to that box of moldy cassette tapes.

Despite my ramblings, I’m not dismissing the fact that a spark of imagination or creative inspiration can’t be found from that moldy box of cassette tapes or Chipotle bag.. we just have to realize the spark takes work to turn into a fire; it needs air and fuel and we have to coax it into a fire. The box of cassette tapes and the gym membership won’t make us thin unless we commit. Commitment is hard and frustrating and takes work. A lot of work. Something I’m not always very good at doing. Like a lot of creative people, I have journals (and a blog) full of Grand Plans and life changing lists that I never followed through on because I got distracted by the next shiny object.

So, the point of all this rambling is we can lead healthier lifestyles, run faster and be the top sales person in our field if we are willing to commit and put in the time. Having a dream can only get us so far. We have to find people who can help us set benchmark goals and encourage us to keep going. And most importantly, help us throw away those those moldy old tapes because that fitness guru and real estate mogol was indicted on money laundering charges back when Bill Clinton was president.


Spirit of Place # 1 The Hop & Vine


Welcome to the inaugural Spirit of Place. For my first “episode” I’m taking you to one my favorite places. No, it’s not Powell’s, but is on my list of places to go. I’m taking you to one of my favorite eating and drinking establishments in North Portland, The Hop & Vine.

The day I came here was a typical rainy Portland afternoon. My plans for the day had fallen through and I wanted to go somewhere to write. I got to thinking about this project and wondered what the spirits here would be like, if they would talk and what stories they would tell. So, I pointed my car to North Portland for a bite to eat and a glass of wine and a conversation.

The spirits at The Hop & Vine aren’t very forthcoming with information or making their presence known. Typically spirits in “haunted” places are usually a bit more forceful and insist on letting me know they are there and whether they like me or not. The spirits at Hop & Vine, however, are a lot like the clientele: laid back, relaxed and passionate about their libations, and are slow to open up.

I connected the spirits after my first glass of wine and lunch. I can’t do anything when my blood sugar is low and I didn’t want to go into the place with my metaphysical guns blazing. I never do that anyway, but you get the point. The spirits here made me work to connect with them as I sent my feelers into the dark corners of the bar. When I finally connected and proved I wasn’t there to exploit or kick them out, I told them I was there to hear their stories and just talk.

Their presence is felt more at night when the windows are steamy and people can’t feel them moving through the building. They are attracted to the building by the energy from the spa next door and come to The Hop & Vine for the ambiance. Having worked in a spa briefly, I can tell you spirits are attracted to the healing energies.

This is their story: We are the people of the land. The people who lived here before you did. We are the people who worked and tilled the soil and died here making Portland what is today. We like the energy here and we like to sit at the bar and trick the bartender dears into making drinks no one ordered. We are the working class, the blue collars and we enjoy the bar for its music, ambiance and tattoos. We stay in the back in the employee only area in the morning and early afternoon and come out at night. Sometimes we sit in the patio area when it’s sunny.

 Are you first natives? No, we are the settlers of Portland. The dockworkers, the mill workers, the people who needed to relax and decompress after work. This is where we came to be with our working families. We don’t like it when people are constantly on their phones, and if you notice, the people here don’t do that. Bring your friends, eat, relax and boast. Use this place like your working class neighborhood bar but with a better tap list and better food. Unpretentious. That is what we are and that is what we try to make this place.

 Come here to hatch plans and write and be creative but don’t take up too much space. This is not your personal office, it is a place for you and your friends and the people you love. We are the protectors of this business and this building and want to keep it prosperous for as long as we can. Thank you for talking to us. Not many can see/hear/or feel us and we are glad you took the time to seek us out. Come back often and hatch more plans.

I wrote this piece and let it sit for a few weeks and recently returned to Hop & Vine for date night with my husband. We sat outside in the back and I said hello to the spirits.  While we were there, I looked around and noticed, that except for the guy who brought his laptop into the bar to show pictures to his friends, no one was on their phones. People talked, laughed, ate and enjoyed each others company without posting pictures of their food and drinks on Facebook. I encourage you to come here for a date night or after work drink with people you want to laugh and talk to and leave your phones in the car. The spirits will thank you.

Do you have a place you want me to go? Drop me a line in the comments I’ll see what I can do.

Embrace The Suck


A video featuring the wise words of Ira Glass has been floating around my Facebook feed where is giving a commentary as only Ira can about the creative process and how we all suck at the beginning of any creative endeavor and just have to plow through until we get good. A friend of mine wisely paraphrased it as The Rules of Suck.

Last week I was reminded of The Rules of Suck when I was running through beautiful Northwest Portland. For those of you who don’t live here, NW Portland is beautiful but very hilly and I had to run up those hills for two miles during my weekly running group long run. My lungs complained, my legs complained and bad thoughts and four letter words went through my head when the marathoners passed me when I caved and walked up part of the hill.

When I got to the 1.5 mile mark, I stopped and watched the other runners and considered my fate. I could turn around and go back and no one would know, or I could keep huffing, panting and swearing for another half mile. About that time another fellow runner in my group ran by and told me I was doing a good job. I figured this was a sign from the Universe so I took a deep breath and walked and ran the last half mile before I turned around.

As expected, the downhill part was easy and gave me time to review my performance. Of course I immediately went to everything I did wrong: my sore muscles, my tight legs, etc. until a voice that sounded a lot like my mom’s said, “What about all the things you did right? You didn’t short your run and who cares if you walked? You FINISHED.”

Insert stunned, sweaty Anna here.

As I trotted back down the hill I realized The Mom Voice was right: If I want to be better and stronger I was just going to have to embrace the suck. The perfectionist in me HATES that but the sensible part of my brain knows I have to keep moving forward to get better at anything I do. I will never be Steve Prefontaine nor will I have has fabulous 1970s ‘stache but I can celebrate my victories no matter how small and embrace the suck until I can run up those damned hills without stopping. And when I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Book Report: Art, Anthologies, Royals and Movement

My original plan to add more content to my blog was to do a book reports when I finished reading a book. But, I’m not good at book reports and I’ve never been good at finding subtle nuances of gently placed commas and comparing the main character’s flaws with Freudian psychology. So, I decided to do things a little different; instead of reading a book and reviewing it, I’m going to do a monthly book report summarizing the books I read (and picked up but never finished). It’s much more interesting than long book reviews and I’m all about bite-sized chunks.

So, the first book I read in 2014 is a re-read and it’s Steve Martin’s book An Object of Beauty: A Novel. Yes, that Steve Martin. Steve Martin’s works of fiction like Shop Girl and An Object of Beauty are very approachable much like his on-screen work but have subtle, erudite themes that make you feel like you’re being included in something truly wonderful. This book is the story of a young, ambitious New Yorker named Lacey Yeager who lands a job at Sotheby’s Auction House. Narrated by Lacey’s friend Daniel who finds her strangely fascinating and infuriating. Lacy is one of those aloof and smart people we say we want to emulate but can never truly be. While this may seem like any other “ambitious young person” book, Steve Martin throws in an Art History 101 course (complete with visual aids and pictures of the work he references) and a behind the scenes glimpse into the New York art world. I’ve always admired Steve Martin and this book made me admire him even more. It made me want to peer into his brain and watch the gears turn as they work their magic.

Next up is Membrane Fiction + Art Anthologie. I have read many books of short stories by reputable authors and usually they have a couple of stories that stand out but the rest are fillers. Not so with this book. Membrane is a release from The Dreadful Café, an author collective and publishing imprint that gives their proceeds to charity. Membrane is packed with engaging short stories on everything from zombie grandmothers, clown plagues, cannibals and more. Sprinkled in between stories are original, thought provoking pieces of art with short back stories. It’s very rare when I don’t want a book to end but I was surprised when I got to the end because I wanted more. This book is available for download only but Dreadful Café promises it will be out in print soon.

Turning now to biography, the next book is one I started but didn’t finish but not because it was a bad book, but because the “characters” in the book were repulsive, abusive jerks. I’m talking about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. I first heard an interview with Jane Ridley the author of The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince and was intrigued by the topic. Besides walking by Royal Albert Hall in London and seeing the movie Mrs. Brown I knew absolutely nothing about Vicky and Albert. This thoroughly researched book shines a light on the life and times of “Bertie” or Edward VII. It gives you an inside look into the papers and writings of the family and explains why Bertie went from a gambler, glutton and womanize to a respected head of state. I loved the writing in this book and appreciate the research, but I just couldn’t finish it. Vicky and Albert needed a healthy dose of anti-depressants and why Bertie didn’t haul off and kill them is beyond me.

The last book on my “read” list is The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts by Hanne Blank. It doesn’t matter if you weight 120 or 220 pounds, this book is for anyone who has had body issues or just can’t find any joy in exercising. When I started my running program this year, my main goal was not to run a marathon or a half marathon (that will come later) but to learn to enjoy exercise. Before I started the program, exercise was work. It was something I did to train for an event and it wasn’t fun. It was something I did because I needed to lose weight. It hurt and I beat myself up too much when I didn’t “perform” to the standards in my brain. This book helped me get beyond those feelings and learn to enjoy exercise again. The basic message of the book is we shouldn’t exercise to conform our bodies to society’s standards or implied health issues, but we should do it to feel better in our own skin and make our bodies more functional. Hanne gives sound advice on choosing workout plans, choosing workout gear and how to feel comfortable in a gym when you’re surrounded by the Beautiful People. I can’t emphasize how important this book is for anyone who hates exercise or has felt less than comfortable in their skin. It’s a down-to-earth approach to exercise with no shame and by the end you’ll feel empowered enough to move more.

Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about taking R. Buckminster Fuller’s advice and changing things by building a better model. I called it Anna 1.5. Typically when I make grand proclamations about things like unfinished projects, weight loss, etc I think about it for a few days and put it in a dusty corner with a pile of other unfinished projects. This time, however, I took some time to mull over Bucky’s advice and broke it up into smaller chunks and thought about what it really means to evolve into Anna 1.5. What I learned was I wasn’t “chunking” things up very well and would focus on the entire mountain instead of picking it apart. I have trained and raced in triathlons but after the races, I never had anything planned to maintain my level of fitness. This time around, I’m not doing another triathlon, but I have joined a local running group and I’ve made a list of local, smaller events I can race in before a doing a half marathon. It’s a constant dangling carrot to keep me going rather than training for ONE thing and crashing at the end and undoing all my hard work. While I was “chunking” my goals into neat piles, I thought about this blog and its focus. It originally started as supplemental material for A Closer Look Radio with tidbits and detritus I randomly gleaned from the interwebs and evolved into a blog about life, creativity, business and whatever else came to mind. I wrote about my husband’s deployment and aired out my brain on a variety of topics. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m repeating myself and the blog is getting stale. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shut it down, I’m just going to turn it into Anna’s Blog 1.5. My plan is to provide more interesting content allowing me to grow as a writer and actually use my creative automat. I’m going to write more book and movie reviews, take pictures of my food (cuz I’m such a hipster), explore new places, and create a diary of my travels served on beautiful plates. Sure it sounds like my usual grand plans but using a calendar and my newly found chunking skills, I will have a plan before jumping in to the deep end of the pool. My mom always told us to get out of the house and explore, so I’m going to do that and take you with me. I will continue to write about the creative process and anything else that comes to mind, but more writing exercises and better content for Blog 1.5 is definitely on the docket. I also have an exciting project I’ll be working on as my way to give back to all of the combat vets but more on that later.

One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something

Celebrated architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist and designer of my sister’s (geodesic) home R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

2014 is lurking and so is the promise of a cleaner slate, grand plans™ and the year I will finally do x,y, and z. Like most people, I get caught up in the excitement of a New Year and the chance to “start over”. But somehow, when the clock strikes midnight, I have not transformed into Anna Alexander 2000® and I still have to get up for work, pay bills and deal with traffic. What I don’t do each year is take “Bucky’s” advice and think about how to build a better model and learn from the previous model’s mistakes. It’s easy to get caught up in the inertia of life (work, commute, family) and not spend time building better models of ourselves. I’m not saying you have to lose 50 pounds in one year and split atoms in your garage on the weekends, but how often do you take inventory of your life and think about the small ways in which you can either continue being fabulous or make little tweaks to build a better model?

One small tweak I did this year was set monthly lunch and pedi dates with a friend. I tend to ignore my feet until I’m doing sun salutations in yoga class and realize they need maintenance. The monthly date is a nice little treat of relaxation and it doesn’t cost the earth. Something I really need to work on in 2014 is getting out of bad headspace at work when I’m learning something new. The perfectionist in me thinks I should already know how to do something rather than “being a sponge” as my mom says and enjoying the opportunity to learn. I work with some very intelligent people and I have a great opportunity to learn – beating myself up because I don’t know how an electrical current works does not make me a better Anna 1.5.

What does make me better is knowing I CAN be a better Anna 1.5. I haven’t’ been exercising as much as I should these past few months so I used some of my Christmas money to buy a membership to a local running club. I do better when I exercise with others and, quite frankly, it’s more fun. Sure, it’s going to hurt and I won’t be able to sleep in on Saturdays but I’ll like myself better and that’s work an early morning wake up call any day.

What about you Gentle Reader? What simple steps can you take to build a better model in 2014? What has been on your list forever that needs action or just simply crossed off? Drop me a line and I’ll report on my findings throughout the year.

Wear your heart on your skin in this life

This weekend I joined the ranks of the Portland hipsters and ultra-cool and got a tattoo. For most people it’s no big deal, but for me it, was a big deal. It was a lesson in keeping my promises and following through when I said was I going to do something.

I had always wanted a tattoo but I never found anything that really spoke to me or that I felt I absolutely HAD to have tattooed on my body. In December of last year the Vegvisir came to me and I honestly don’t remember how I found it. The Vegvisir is an Icelandic symbol meaning guidepost. It is said to be an internal compass and helps the bearer find their way through rough waters. When I found it, I was unemployed and down in the dumps and needing something to grasp on to so I pasted it in my journal so I wouldn’t forget it.

A couple of months later I interviewed for my current job and made a promise to the Universe that if I got the job, I would tattoo the Vegvisir on my arm and we would be even. I got the job, but I waited to get the tattoo. I was nervous and needed to research about the best places so I asked around, talked to random strangers about their tattoos and took mental notes. It wasn’t until I told my friend Tressia I wanted to get a tattoo that the ball was set in motion.

Tressia has two gorgeous tattoos I love and she forced me to get out of my comfort zone and go the tattoo shop and talk to the artist where she got hers done. I figured it wouldn’t kill me and I wasn’t committing to anything. We set a lunch date and visited the shop after our lunch. I walked into the shop feeling like a fish out of water not knowing what to ask or how to ask it. Tressia took control of the situation and explained to the artist that I was looking to get a tattoo. I showed him my design and he told me he really liked it and told me how much it would cost and when I should come back. This particular artist is in high demand and is typically booked out six months in advance. BUT! He did take walk-ins on Sunday. We made a date to come back and Tressia bounced out of the tattoo shop like a giddy school girl while I stood there wondering what I just did.

On the day of reckoning, I awoke to excited texts and messages on my phone from Tressia with plans to meet. I was excited but mostly nervous while Tressia bounced off the walls. As we waited for the artist to set up, we looked around the shop making cracks about horrible tattoos I could be getting. I think it eventually morphed into a half-naked woman riding a phallic-shaped object. The laughter eased the tension and I was ready to go when Dan called me back. I’ll spare you the gory details from here, but I found the whole experience to be very positive from inception to execution. The staff at Atlas Tattoo is incredibly kind and supportive and everything was done quickly and efficiently. Yes, it did hurt.

I came away from the whole experience walking on Cloud 9 feeling very proud of myself.. it could have been the after-tattoo endorphins, but I said I was going to do something and I did it.

I know I am not the first or last person to get a tattoo but the whole thing was an important lesson in keeping my word. I made a promise and I kept it. I could have chickened out, but I didn’t. Yeah, it did hurt but in the end it was worth it. I don’t have a picture to share right now as my arm is bandaged up, but if you’re friend with me on Facebook – you will have seen it.

While getting a tattoo is not for everyone, I would recommend keeping this story in mind the next time you make a promise to yourself, the Universe or anyone else. Find someone who will take you to the edge of the cliff and encourage you to jump. Find someone who will jump with you and hold you accountable and make you feel like you’re not in it alone. It’s worth the endorphin rush in the end.