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October 4th, 2013 - Sarah Grace McCandless

For the past twenty-nine days, I’ve been collecting data to prove that I have everything under control. It is the eve to the end of a “30 Days of Clarity” challenge, a practice I’d introduced into regular rotation in recent years. Deployed every few months, these initiatives were either tied to a wider-known, well-established cooling off period, like Dry January, or simply self-designed and self-imposed, like this one. The challenge always involved a bartering system, trading out alcohol for a hyper fixation on eating and exercise, documenting my journey in private journals, and then broadcasting my progress and results through social media posts as evidence of a woman fully capable of taking care of herself. I am entering the season I most covet. The fall has just begun.

It is also the onset of my favorite month, and I’ve always loved the double entendre of this day in particular. 10/4, or ten-four, developed in the late 1930s as part of the ten-codes system. Initially created as a means to deliver information quickly and clearly among police officers, now a universal, affirmative signal. As in understood. As in okay. As in message received.

It is the last October I will experience in my thirties. I am engaged, for the second time, in a relationship where co-dependent is used as a playful meme, foreshadowing what’s already in play, and what’s to come. We have our practices too, like losing ourselves in our respective vices, his inhaled, mine imbibed. And we are less and less careful about reserving such activities just for the days we don’t have custody of his only child, who is twelve and on the cusp of no longer caring about or craving time spent with and around adults.

Since our engagement in May, I’d been researching wedding options, from location and guest list to format and attire. We’d both had more traditional, larger gatherings our first time around, and have finally decided on a much smaller affair. A February vacation to Hawaii, just the three of us, the week culminating with our “I do” on the beach, locally officiated as the trademark for our newly formed family unit. I brand it “triloping,” as if it were the most darling, inclusive choice that ever existed. Later, I will realize that my own mother also got remarried, in February, in Hawaii, when she was thirty-nine. Just like me. Apple. Tree.

Except her second go would last.

One trait I do not share with my mother is drinking, as this has never been part of her repertoire, but she is another channel where I lobby my, “I’m fine, this is fine, everything is fine” campaign. The final days of my current challenge are somewhat derailed with a head cold – a real one this time, as opposed to code for what is a really a hangover – and I provide my mother with a status report via email:

I went to bed last night at 8p and woke up at 7:45a, then went back to bed at 8:30a until 11a. There's a crud going around, which managed to get me, despite the fact that I am now on a regular vitamin/supplement daily routine, haven't had anything "adult" to drink in a month, and have been working out 4-6x a week. Damn crud!

I make air quotes on the page around the word “adult” to add lightness, humor. A distraction. A way to avoid using the word alcohol, because that is far too close to other words. Like alcoholism. And alcoholic. There’s no need for any euphemisms in my booze-soaked workplace, though: a digital advertising agency I’d joined two years prior as employee number eight, when the firm was primarily still focused on websites and email campaigns. I came in just as some limited social strategy work was about to explode into massive social content development and community management opportunities for the most well-known athletic brand in the world. As I helped build this new division from the ground up, my own creative writing endeavors had already become mostly just a fun fact, then a soundbite to share in client meetings: “She’s published two novels with Simon & Schuster!” It was less and less about any real current doings, despite my “I’m working on a new book” declarations. “Working” was a highly subjective term.

We were definitely working at the agency. Sixty to seventy hours or more a week, now a team of fifty+ and growing rapidly, with a client portfolio that included global juggernauts in both food and beverage as well as technology industries. We were in a much fancier building, too, with an open-air design, exposed brick and skylights, a custom-made ping pong table, our own archery area, and the finest craft beer and Pacific Northwest wines on tap at all times.

We’d also acquired partnerships with several emerging brands, particularly in the eco-conscious and wellness spaces, perhaps as do gooder badges to counterbalance the corporate giants we were in bed with. One of these badges belonged to a fitness company headquartered and originally launched in Portland, but now with studios all over the country. I’d grown incredibly close with both the founder and her leadership team, and became a self-appointed brand ambassador, taking full advantage of the free classes I received as a work perk. My personal social feeds were robust with photos from their studios, recipes from their blog, calls-to-action and related hashtags, regurgitating every piece of content we were being paid to develop. But I was all too happy to do so. It gave me a cover story, particularly during my current “30 Days of Clarity” challenge. The perfect yin to my usual “It’s Wine O’Clock Somewhere” yang.

One of my agency colleagues was also a gifted illustrator. I’d recently commissioned her to design what was to become my first tattoo and she’d just given me the final rendering. I’d been contemplating what I wanted for several years. Originally, it was going to be a line of script only, a go-to phrase I’d embraced as my own personal rally cry: Make good choices. I also knew I wanted it to be in a different language, so as to not disclose the meaning upon first glance. I chose Italian because it was the first European country I’d ever been to, and not that long ago, April 2010, with my now fiancée. I enlisted the help of a native friend who lived in Bologna, to ensure my translation was accurate, but the phrase I’d originally wanted turned out to be much longer in Italian. We talked through shorter variations, and where we settled, Scegli Bene, inspired the addition of my personal totem, an owl, to the design.

Choose well. Choose wisely. My left forearm arm, now a compass. An intention set. The slightest reframe in permanence. I wasn’t even close to honoring it, but oh, how it would serve me in the years to come. ~


Sarah Grace McCandless is the author of two novels, Grosse Pointe Girl: Tales from a Suburban Adolescence and The Girl I Wanted to Be, both published by Simon & Schuster. She has adapted her second book for the screen and is currently working on a memoir and TV series.

Sarah Grace also currently serves as Chief Strategy Officer and Creative Producer for New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander and his related entities, including Big Sea Entertainment and KA Productions. Recent projects include producing Alexander’s podcast Why Fathers Cry, inspired by his memoir Why Fathers Cry at Night.

A Writing by Writers Mill House Residency recipient, Sarah Grace is the creator of the Hopeless Semantic project (, has served as a producer and storyteller for Mortified and Back Fence PDX live stage shows, and taught fiction and creative writing through Mediabistro and Gotham Writers. Sarah Grace lives in Portland, Oregon, with her Corgi-Terrier rescue, Gilda Radner. She has maintained sobriety since April 28, 2018. Find her online at


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