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Five Things I Can't Live Without
Five Things I Can't Live Without
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Holly gives an overview of the book:

A People magazine “Great Read” (July 23, 2007) “Smart, sharply written, and very, very funny. This is a gem of a book.”–Whitney Gaskell, author of She, Myself, and I “…offer(s) a deep understanding of human nature.  Topical coming-of-age story with a bright, humane heroine.”–Kirkus Reviews Nora Bishop is living a life of almosts. She’s almost thirty. Almost committed in her relationship. Almost employed. And she’s almost living her life. Stuck in what she terms her meta-life, she’s thinking and questioning everything to the point of self-sabotage. Then a friend asks Nora to rewrite an Internet dating profile, and the woman with the meta-life discovers her métier. As a Cyrano de Bergerac for the lovelorn, she asks her clients to name the five things they can’t live without. But what are hers? To get answers, Nora will have to stop asking questions. And then do the...
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A People magazine “Great Read” (July 23, 2007)

“Smart, sharply written, and very, very funny. This is a gem of a book.”–Whitney Gaskell, author of She, Myself, and I

“…offer(s) a deep understanding of human nature.  Topical coming-of-age story with a bright, humane heroine.”–Kirkus Reviews

Nora Bishop is living a life of almosts. She’s almost thirty. Almost committed in her relationship. Almost employed. And she’s almost living her life. Stuck in what she terms her meta-life, she’s thinking and questioning everything to the point of self-sabotage. Then a friend asks Nora to rewrite an Internet dating profile, and the woman with the meta-life discovers her métier. As a Cyrano de Bergerac for the lovelorn, she asks her clients to name the five things they can’t live without. But what are hers? To get answers, Nora will have to stop asking questions. And then do the hardest thing of all: Find herself by losing herself…in real life.

Read an excerpt »

Chapter 1.

NORA
Age: 29
Height: 5’6
Weight: 130 lbs
Occupation: Animal biographer
About me: Under construction
About you: Under construction
Last book I read: Can Love Last?: The Fate of Romance Over Time
Biggest turn-on: Under construction
Biggest turn-off: Under construction
Five things I can’t live without: Under construction
Most embarrassing moment: The window incident

Here’s when I knew it had gone too far.

My kitchen window was stuck, and I was trying to open it. No mental gymnastics required, just simple physical action. There I was, starting to sweat with the effort, and the normal reaction would be, Wow, this is harder to open than I thought, possibly accompanied by some annoyance. Maybe the normal person would have been dimly aware that it smelled ever so faintly like cat turds because it was an unusually hot day and the litter box was sitting directly under the kitchen window—a spot that had been chosen because in theory, that window opens while the living room “windows” are just floor-to-ceiling panes of glass. And the normal person might even go so far as to think what a glaring design flaw that is in an otherwise pretty decent apartment. What the normal person wouldn’t do is what I did. Which was to think all those things plus:
Why is everything always so hard? Why can’t anything just open for me? Maybe this window is the symbol, and this is the key moment in my life. Maybe this is who I am and who I’ll always be: some neurotic twenty-nine-year-old woman living with a roommate and her roommate’s obese cat, not even having what it takes to commit to a cat of her own, or what it takes to open a window.

But that’s not true. I won’t always be twenty-nine. And in two weeks, I’ll be living with Dan. Poor Dan. He doesn’t deserve this crap, all the crap involved in living with me, living with me while I live in my head.

Oh, man! That’s what this is! This is me, living in my head right now. Stop it! Sometimes a window is just a window. Stop it! Why can’t I just perform a simple physical action without stepping outside of myself and wondering about it all?
Stop asking yourself questions!

All the while, as I careened from irritation to despair to rage, I was tugging at the window. It must have been the adrenaline of my anger that made the window suddenly yield. The cooling breeze rushed in and I thought, Well, that should feel nice.

I slumped to the kitchen floor just as the phone rang.

“Hey, you.” It was Dan.

“Hey,” I said, slightly dazed from the physical and mental exertion that had just taken place.

“You sound funny. What’s going on?”

“I’d feel silly if I told you.” I felt silly anyway. “What’s going on with you?”

“I just got a lead on some moving boxes. This obsessive guy I work with actually breaks down and stores all his moving boxes in his garage, and he said he’ll loan them to us.” I noted how upbeat Dan sounded. He’s one of those people who enjoys the little things, doesn’t sweat the small stuff, etc.

“Meaning we have to return them?” I said. Yes, I generally do sweat the small stuff, sometimes quite literally. I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead.

“Yeah. And we can’t write on them either. You know how normally you write in magic marker, ‘Kitchen’ or ‘Bedroom’? Well, we need to work with the existing writing. If it says bedroom on it, that’s where you’re packing your socks.”

“Okay,” I said. “Cool!” I realized I was overcompensating; no one sounds that enthusiastic about used moving boxes. On loan.

“Nora, what’s wrong?” Dan’s voice was somehow warm and expressionless at once. He was remarkable that way. Even-keeled, that’s what my mother had said when I first told her about him. She’d said it approvingly. She thought I needed someone like that “to balance me out,” like my stepfather Ed does for her. It infuriated me because I suspected she was right.

“I went to open the window, and it wouldn’t open, and while I was trying to open it, the whole time, I was thinking and thinking and thinking, analyzing and analyzing, and—” It all came out in one angsty, humiliating rush.

“Nora,” he broke in firmly, “you’re doing it again.”

“It” meant leading my meta-life. Meta-life is the opposite of living in the moment. It’s the syndrome of simultaneously having an experience and being an observer commenting on and questioning the experience. By observing something, you change it, sometimes for the better, but in my experience, usually for the worse. You know you’re in the meta-life when you’re critiquing an experience while you’re having it (“This is fun but it would be more fun if…”), trying to talk yourself into happiness because you should feel it (“It’s a beautiful day, and all I really need to be happy are fresh air and sunshine”), or worrying that you’re not getting any closer to the Big Important Things (“Sure, this is a great date, but what are the odds this guy would ever marry someone like me?”).
“I know,” I responded miserably. “I know I’m doing it again. That’s the worst part. I know, and I do it anyway.”

“What could you possibly be thinking while opening a window except ‘Arghhh’?”

“Oh, you’d be amazed.”

“Try me.”

“No,” I said, shoring my resolve. “I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to get on with my day.”

Dan gives me semi-regular interventions, which are much appreciated. The only problem is, he thinks of me as having discreet episodes of meta-life, when in fact, it’s more like meta-life is the norm with discreet episodes of being fully, wonderfully, unthinkingly present. Maybe I should correct his perception, but I don’t want to scare him off.
I completely adore Dan, but we’ve only been together six months, and I’ve been around long enough to know that you just never know. We’re still in the flush of it all, though moving in together wasn’t even a decision born of that flush. It was born of my roommate Fara asking me to move out so her boyfriend could move in. Dan and I had one of those, “Well, you’re over here so much anyway…” conversations, and after the decision was made, we were both lying there, looking up at the ceiling, trying not to let on to one another how freaked out we were at the prospect, and we sealed the deal with some perfunctory sex.

Speaking of my freakouts, lately they’re coming hard and fast. It’s probably the stress of being only nine months from thirty. Now I’m fairly certain that once I actually turn thirty, it’ll be fine. But the approach—well, that’s something else entirely. It lends a whole other level to my self-evaluation process and believe me, what I don’t need is another level.

It’s worth noting that I’m not actually worried about my diminishing fertility, and I’m nowhere near ready for a husband or kids. But it’s hard to resist feeling on edge when everyone takes it as a given that thirty will inspire panic, when well-meaning friends and family have started asking “how I’m doing with that whole turning thirty thing” and my friends who have rounded the corner pat my hand reassuringly and say, apropos of nothing, “Thirty is actually really great.”

Okay, so it’s not all cultural anxiety. I’ve got more than my share of personal anxiety. Turning thirty puts me in mind of something one of my ex-boyfriends once said while he was illegally trying to pass a minivan on a two-lane highway across a solid yellow line: “Life is about jockeying for position.” Asshole context aside, it’s true. Before I’m actually ready for marriage and kids, I need to get in position. Certain things need to be lined up: the great relationship, the satisfying career, the level of success that will allow me to, say, cut back to part-time while still maintaining the fantastic lifestyle to which I will have become accustomed. So on one hand, I’ve got the run-of-the-mill, pervasive, irrational, culturally-driven backseat borderline panic, and on the other, I’ve got the fact that for me, personally, turning thirty is about having a secure place in the world, the beginnings of a nest. Meta-life means all I see are a bunch of twigs.

That night, I made a vow. I pledged to go a full twenty-four hours without self-investigation, starting first thing the following morning. I swore I’d be vigilant about not getting too much into my own head, and planned to internally yell, “Stop!” every time I felt myself waxing self-referential. What this would accomplish, I wasn’t yet sure, but it felt significant.

It definitely lent a pleasant clarity of purpose at the outset of my day. I read on the train, as always, but every time I found my mind wandering to a moment of self-congratulation about how well my plan was proceeding, I did my silent yell and returned to my place. I smiled at strangers instead of averting my eyes. I felt freer somehow.

When I arrived at work, it was 7:30 a.m. I worked on Market Street, San Francisco’s main drag. At one end, there’s a farmer’s market, the beautiful Ferry Building, picturesque views of the bay, and some of the world’s greatest shopping. I worked at the other, nonprofit end, at an animal rescue shelter wedged between a furniture rental store and a fast-food joint.

My desk was right inside the door, since in addition to my other duties I got to play receptionist. My official job title, though, was coordinator. I could coordinate anything; really, you’d be amazed. I’d become a master of organization over the past two and a half years. The place ran nearly exclusively on donations, so there were fundraisers to be coordinated and volunteer drives to be coordinated and then once we had the volunteers, well, they had to be coordinated, too. I didn’t coordinate the animals themselves, thankfully. I did observe them at the beginning of their tenure because I wrote the descriptions of each animal that were posted weekly on our website to be viewed by potential owners. I also interviewed staff about the animals, particularly the dogs, to find out how they behaved on walks, interacted with children, responded to commands, etc. I’d saved all the dog and cat bios I’d ever written as clippings for the portfolio I meant to have someday.

As I was stowing my purse, Denise came toward me with Norman on a leash, about to go for their morning constitutional. Norman was one of our long-term residents. We were overrun with pitbulls, and unfortunately Norman—who had reportedly developed a rather sweet personality in his time with us—had a mean little face that rendered him pretty unadoptable. Our animal rescue actually did the bulk of its rescuing of dogs and cats from other shelters that were about to euthanize them. That meant we didn’t always get the most appealing animals, and if they’re not adopted, they’re lifers with us.

“Hi, Nora!” Denise said brightly.

“Hi, Denise.” I smiled at her, and down at Norman. I very rarely petted the dogs, or walked them, but I did smile down at them fairly regularly, especially when they’re on the leash of someone I like as much as I like Denise.

Denise was twenty-three and started working at the shelter right out of college. She’d been with her boyfriend since they were both fourteen, and they lived happily together in a studio apartment with four miniature schnauzers named after members of the band Phish. She’s earnest and guileless and sometimes just talking to her made me feel clean.
“What time did you get here?” I asked her.

“I came in at six.” She absentmindedly scratched at her bare leg. She’s a runner, and wore athletic shorts practically every day. “I’ve been worried about Norman. I wanted to get in some quality time with him.” Norman yanked on the leash and she calmed him with a head tilt. She has a gift.

I, on the other hand, have no gift. We never had any pets growing up, and I’m not all that comfortable with animals. That hadn’t changed much by working at the animal rescue, since I tended to keep my distance. One Saturday a month, I had to get closer because every staff person took a turn at mobile outreach. Every weekend, our van parked in front of Petsmart and staff tried to entice people into taking home an animal in addition to the one they came to buy food for. So once a month, I was out there smiling at strangers and trying to talk up the charms of some dog whose mange we had just cured.

When I first got my coordinator job through a friend, I thought it would be just a few months before an opportunity materialized in publishing or journalism or advertising or some other writerly industry (i.e. someplace I might actually belong.) Sometimes it was hard being at the shelter among the true believers. I worked with wonderful people who loved animals in that selfless way that we all wish another human would love us. They managed to love the ugliest, snarliest of mutts, and they didn’t seem to mind being underpaid and overworked in the name of the cause in which they so fervently believed. They saw the good in every animal and so, incredibly enough, their sales pitch from that van came straight from the heart. About half the time I was around them, I felt like the worst person alive.

As Denise and I chatted, Estella sashayed by, looking far too hot for nonprofit work. She graced me with a smile. I said hi. She must be a dancer, I thought enviously for the tenth time since I’d met her.

Tricia was racing around, as usual. She got her smile at me out of the way, then said, “Maggie’s looking for you.”

“Do you know what she needs?” I asked.

“She just said to come by when you get a minute. By the way, do you have those flyers done?”

“Oh, yeah. They’re on my desk. Let me just check in with Maggie, and then I’ll get them for you.” I excused myself and headed for Maggie’s office.

Maggie was the director and co-founder of the rescue. She’s about fifty and has the kind of soft, lineless face that makes you wonder why you know immediately that she’s fifty. She’s soft all over, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in anything but a tunic and broomstick skirt.

“Hi, Maggie.” I poked my head in her office. “Tricia said you wanted to talk to me.”
“I do. Come in, and shut the door.” Maggie generally radiates acceptance, and that made her facial expression confusing to me. On another person, it would clearly telegraph disapproval but since it was Maggie, that seemed so impossible that I was suffering cognitive dissonance.

“Nora, I have something to ask you. It’s not easy for me.” And I could see that it wasn’t. She wasn’t used to having to do anything but praise her hardworking, committed staff.

I didn’t feel worried; I just felt sorry that I had put her in that position. I nodded encouragingly.

“I have to ask you this. Nora, are you happy here?”

I paused. “Sometimes.” I briefly gazed into the middle distance, then reiterated, “Yes, that would be the best answer. Sometimes.”

Maggie nodded slowly. “That’s comforting for me. Because I have to say that when I read one of the dog bios, I thought otherwise.” She picked up a paper from her desk. “That dog bio is ‘One-Eyed Frank.’” She locked her eyes with mine. “Do you remember writing this?”

“I think so. I just wrote it last week.” I wracked my brain, trying to think if there had been anything unusual about it. I couldn’t think of anything.

“So you remember it clearly?”

“Well, I wrote it pretty quickly. I was under deadline, I had other bios to finish–” I stopped. “I guess I don’t remember it that clearly.”

She began to read. “One-Eyed Frank, age eight, is not a treat for the eyes (no pun intended), but for the soul. He can be prickly, he can be ornery, he should not be in a home with children. But he has grit, he has fortitude, and he has a will to live that has taken him from the mean streets of Oakland to our very own hallowed halls, and I, for one, am glad we have him. You will be, too.” She carefully replaced the paper on her desk. “Were you mocking One-Eyed Frank, Nora?”

I had been under deadline, that was true. It was late, I wanted to get home, I was scheduled to work the van that weekend, and somehow I just dashed off the sentences, uploaded to the website, and left. But Maggie was right. The bio dripped with contempt.
“No, no,” I protested, stricken. “I wouldn’t do that!” But I had.

Maggie, though, looked instantly relieved, her worldview mercifully unaltered. “I didn’t think you would. But have you been getting enough sleep? Maybe we work you too hard.”

“I’m fine,” I said dejectedly. I knew that if I pushed just so, Maggie would lessen my workload, relieve me of some of my duties, perhaps even take them onto her already heaping plate, and after my behavior, that would feel absolutely seedy.

As I left Maggie’s office, I thought how nothing stinks quite like realizing that the more beatific a setting, the less you belong there.

I found myself walking slowly past the animals’ cages (the roomiest cages we could use and still warehouse so many animals). I looked in at them; I mean, really looked at them. It had been a long time since I’d done that. Unless they were making a serious racket or I was writing a bio, the animals hardly registered. That day, as I walked down the row, I met one particular dog’s dull eyes. His name was Rudolph, and he was one of our pitbull mixes, the kind that just comes out wrong. He was never going to get out of there. He didn’t even try anymore. Most of the dogs showed off when a potential owner walked in. They generally played to their strengths: The little ones yipped and pranced, the bigger, older ones held themselves with a certain watchful dignity, but Rudolph just didn’t bother. He sat far back in his cage, often with his back to people walking by. I couldn’t remember what Rudolph’s good qualities were, I had written his copy so long ago, and he’d become so—well, so inanimate.

I couldn’t tell you what shifted for me just then, because I followed my resolution and didn’t analyze it. I can only say that in my gut, I simply knew, and I decided to honor that knowledge. I marched into Maggie’s office.

“I quit!” I said loudly, filled with righteousness.

“Sit down, sit down,” she said. “You can’t say something like that standing in a doorway.” She looked truly perturbed that I would even consider such a thing, not the quitting but the doorway delivery.

Chastened, I sat. “I’m quitting,” I said again, not as loud but just as forcefully.
“Shut the door, please,” she directed in a low voice.

I did so obediently, then perched on the edge of the chair. “I think—” I began again. “No, I feel I need to leave.”

“Nora, I hope I didn’t upset you too much earlier. I didn’t mean to come down so hard on you.” Maggie looked genuinely distressed.

“No, no. It has nothing to do with that.”

Maggie was quiet. “It’s not easy work,” she finally said, her face full of compassion. “It’s hard to see all those animals suffering. We do our best, but still.”

Did she think I was leaving because I couldn’t take the suffering of the animals? On the contrary, I took it too easily. That was why I often felt so rotten.

“You’re not like the other employees. I know that,” she said.

She let it hang there, and I finally took the bait. “What do you mean?” As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t. I was done, gone, finito. I didn’t need to process it. For once.
“It’s not your calling, so maybe you suffer more than the others who feel they have the power to heal.”

What the hell?

“Maybe if you interacted more with the animals instead of just watching… It would probably enrich your bios. They’d be more personal.”

“But I don’t want to interact more with the animals,” I said, frustrated that she was missing the point. Did she not see my determination? This is not a negotiation, I wanted to say. I knew myself well enough that if she got me thinking about the decision, I’d get too scared, or I’d want to please her, or both, and I’d stay. And I didn’t want to think, I wanted to act. I will not think. Whatever she pulls, don’t think.

“You’re tentative. And you’ve been here a while. It’s harder to jump in the longer you stand on the sidelines. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Tricia can help you. She’s great at that.”

“I don’t think that’ll help.” You don’t think? I mocked myself. Say ‘it won’t.’ Use forceful language. Blast your way out of here.

“Maybe we could just try it. We could make some changes in your job duties, too, make sure you leave at a reasonable hour so you can sleep and replenish yourself.”

My boss wanted to nurture me, and I wanted to throttle her. I decided it was time to put this conversation out of its misery. “It’s not about my duties or my work hours. You said it yourself: It’s not my calling. I don’t want to work in a place where it’s everyone’s calling but mine.” I looked at her kind face, and my annoyance dissipated. I suddenly felt touched that she was willing to fight for me when I felt like such a pariah. “Even if it is such an amazing place. You’re tremendous, Maggie.”

Maggie looked away. I hoped when I was fifty I’d be able to take a compliment, but in nearly every other way, it would be pretty cool to turn out like Maggie. “I’ll accept your resignation,” Maggie said. “Could you give me two weeks?”

Two weeks?!!! That’s no time at all. You’ve got nothing lined up. Did you hear me? Nothing! You can’t actually—
“Two weeks.”

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Holly

I'm a novelist and a practicing marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco bay area. My first novel, Five Things I Can't Live Without, was a lighthearted look at the neurotic art of self-sabotage. My second novel is called Love and Other Natural Disasters...

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