Writer Mind

I’m in the valley every writer goes through. I keep showing up day after day intending to make something amazing. If I were an artist, I’d be making stick people. If I were making dinner, it would be haggis. If I were conjuring up an animal, it would be a platypus. Sure, I just got petted last Friday. Won a contest. Got to judge. But without a steady stream of word-gold, I become convinced the well is dry.  I’ll ever write anything good ever again.

I worry the story I’ve been working on, bleeding onto the page for eternity squared, is a total waste of time. I worry I’m selfish. I AM selfish. I ask myself, what have you done for others? Surely not this writing gig. So I try to list out the selfless …act I’ve committed recently. It’s a short list.

So I’m writing and writing and every so often is the thought: Why don’t you do something eternal like laundry or weeding or deep cleaning? The grime is holding my home together, I tell myself. The weeds have feelings too. Things get dirty again. I wax certain I’m an undiscovered C.S. Lewis (the moment I won a little contest) and certain I’m a grub (most other times, beginning a few minutes after I won the contest).

To really keep things interesting, I sabotage myself by revealing my political leanings to people who would’ve liked me well enough had I just kept my mouth shut. If I had multiple personalities, they’d be Ann Coulter, Ann Lamott, and little orphan Annie. I’m the most liberal conservative in our family, the most confident insecure person I know. The nicest mean person you’ll ever meet. I don’t know why I feel the need to cough up my worldview every now and again. I hope it’s an involuntary trait of a writer. Like how the kidneys clean out your blood without you telling them to. My soul churns this stuff out against the advice of a meek little voice: are you sure you want to post that? I plunge ahead.

Today I read a lovely, worthwhile blogger writing from the mountaintop I can see from my valley, where he talks about writing “whatever the hell he wanted” for five years and he has no regrets and over a hundred thousand followers. He “likes” many posts, including mine. I emailed him to ask, does he really read the posts he likes? Because if so, does he sleep? Is he human? He has not answered my email. Oddly enough, I also have been blogging for five years.

This is what I say when I’m a  grub: He didn’t even read your post. Some days a rational being who’s just finished running a few miles and done vitality yoga– that person will tell me I’ve got something important to say, that to give up is the only failure. And, some really weird people like haggis. Days like today must be climbed over or crawled under or blasted through. On the horizon are days where I’ll come away thinking I’ve made something worthy– and had a great time doing it.

 

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Book Review: Outliers

3228917Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell
Non-fiction Hardcover, 309 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

I grabbed this off the classics section of my library on a whim. I’m not sure how it got shelved in the classics section, except to think that some brilliant educator realized Outliers should be required reading for anyone with a pulse.

 

Exaggeration? I’m known for it. But not this time.
The sort of books I take on vacation are strictly page-turners. I don’t want to feel like I’m working while I’m reading. I do enough of that at home.

 

Some people take worky books on vacation as a sort of counterbalance, like the man in the hot tub next to me reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. You could jack your car on The Fountainhead. Some people just can’t relax… but we had a nice discussion until the chlorine and heat had melted away several layers of my skin. Over the course of the week, I saw him in the same hot tub, and noted his steady progression through the literary behemoth.

 

Even on cruises, gossip abounds. Apparently, the Ayn Rand reader garnered a reputation. As in, people avoided his tub for fear he’d opine in their personal space for inordinate amounts of time, apparently bad taste on vacation. I thought he was nice enough.

 

Tangent, but ever-so-timely: sharing an opinion is dangerous business. At best, people will avoid you. Unconvinced? Wear a Make America Great Again hat through the streets of San Fransisco, I dare you. Dress in a rainbow-colored toga and stroll through any rural Texas town. Let me know if you don’t find yourself staring down the business end of a homemade AR-15. We’ve devolved. The idea of mutual respect in the face of differing opinions is not the status quo. How did this happen? Trump. He did it. Just ask anyone.

 

Alas, Outliers doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but it is a book anyone, of any political/religious/socioeconomic status could read, enjoy, and be better for the time spent.

 

The moment I began to read, the premise– what makes us successful, the supporting evidence, and the artful storytelling all conspired to suck me in. “Listen to this…” I’d say to my husband, and I’d quote whole swaths of text as we lounged by the pool. So intriguing were the connections Gladwell made, so sensible yet revelational. Smack your hand on your forehead revelational. Did I mention this was non-fiction? I did, but it bears repeating. A page-turner non-fiction book. Holy cow.

 

This is my first review ever, and I’m realizing I’ll probably only “review” books I want everyone on planet earth to read. I’m like a cheerleader for team Outliers, and I’m not even giving you substance. I’m like Donald Trump. It’s gonna be great. Believe me. Really great. Huge. 

 

But really– have you ever wondered what’s the difference between greatness and garbage? All things being equal, that is.

Take J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Radioactive Boy Scout. Both built dangerous nuclear devices. The boy scout at age 14 and Oppenheimer at age 38. One was arrested and the other commended by the governing bodies of their day. The Radioactive Boy Scout does not appear in Outliers (but it’s another must-read for scientifically minded young people or anyone interested in the lengths to which inspiration can take us); however, Outliers would show, systematically yet with flair, the reasons why one genius is stymied and another exalted. We don’t build our own stairways to heaven. Our thighs burn on the way up, but we climb stairs provided to us by a Las Vegas blend of social and cultural constructs. Personal grit, while important, is one of several factors to success.

…so Malcolm Gladwell effectively argues.

Readability: 5 out of 5
Merit: 5 out of 5

 

Swimming Over the Moon

I’ve decided, now that I have three years swim-parent experience, swimming is a sport about the following: 1. conquering your fears, 2. conquering your flesh, 3. extreme repetition, and 4. pressure. As a child, the extent of my swimming was the drowning preventative offered by the local pool. I had no idea there was a whole world of splashing and angst and sweaty bleachers where parents wring their hands and tap their feet like speed-jacked jazz musicians.

Gabe, Coach Mike, and his buddies.

Setting: the sweaty bleachers. I mention this is Gabe’s third year swimming. “And he’s here?” says a mom. I didn’t tell her he was here last year too. Mom-pride, rein it in.

Getting to the Great Lakes YMCA Zones swim championship was an achievement Gabe coveted in his first year swimming. Like I said. We were new. Zones was the pinnacle, so when the kids were told to make goals, a Griffiths makes them lofty. (Gabe’s dad ran the Boston Marathon just 5 years after his first 5K.)

I watched the coach’s face as she read Gabe’s goal, saw her body language. It laughed to the other coach standing nearby. It said, let’s be reasonable. Gabe didn’t make it to zones his first year swimming, but he did make it his second year. Gabe’s second year he was under a new coach, pictured above. If there is even a speck of work ethic in a swimmer, Mike draws it out. For Christmas Mike has the kids swim 10,000 yards (5+ miles). I’m convinced Gabe would swim the English Channel if Coach Mike told him he could do it.

Swimming is set up so that no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone breathing down your neck. Or more aptly, swiping at your toes. The races, called heats, pit like swimmers against like, and you’re ever-reaching for a better time, a personal best. There are harder and harder cuts to make, exclusive meets for which to qualify. This past weekend we swam the zones meet at Bowling Green State University. The hotel stay meant “team building,” aka romping the halls like a gang of street thugs. Who wouldn’t get heady on a cocktail of zones-glory, camaraderie, relief (the season’s almost over), and independence (parents? what parents?). “It was the best time I’ve ever had,” said Gabe. You’ve heard the expression over the moon? He was, we all were.

Mom-delight, I won’t even bother to rein it in. 🙂

In this book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell writes about a dynamic I find true in swimming and in life: courage is acquired. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”  This dynamic explains how Blitz-era Londoners handled life so casually. It explains Stonewall Jackson’s near mythical moment when he sat upon his horse while bullets whizzed by him, earning him the name. In both cases the courageous ones had been through brutal experiences and had come out the other side, stronger.

Desirable difficulty is the phrase, and it quantifies the boon that is swimming, and perhaps all athletics, to young people.

Desirable difficulty is this: People who’ve been through hell, find the temperature wasn’t as bad as they’d imagined it would be. In other words, the fear of the future is actually worse than the future itself. Gladwell states, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to being afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…”

Exhilaration. Well, if that doesn’t define Gabe and the other zones swimmers…

Gabe about to swim a relay split.

Throughout the season swimming places fearful moments squarely in front of a kid and then the kid must watch the horizon event come closer, closer. He’ll feel the curl of fear in his stomach, perhaps puke it up when he enters the pool. The swimmer must face the fear and step onto the block of his own volition.

Over and over again.

For the 1650 race (that’s a mile, friends), I had the honor of timing. The 11-year-olds who were about to jump in that pool– they were facing fear square on. But I was also there when they touched the wall after the 66th lap, exultant. They swam through the fear and came out the other side. Gladwell seems to describe swimmers when he’s describing surviving Londoners: “…the contrast between the previous apprehension [of swimming the mile] and the present relief [of surviving it] …promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

The father and mother of courage: whatever we face that scares us. Makes me want to jump up off my couch and run bull-style into a public speaking engagement… or onto a dance floor. Makes me want to recruit kids by the hundreds into a sport or challenging activity.

…makes me want to smile at the weekend we just finished, to thank Coach Mike and all the RYD coaches for the work ethic they promote, and the swim parents who work tirelessly to provide the celebrations of a year well-spent.

 

Thankful for a great swim team!

A Volcano Hike: Mt. Liamuiga

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Mt. Liamuiga, aka Mt. Misery

A rust-ravaged truck would take us to the base of Mt. Liamuiga. After the 45 minute drive through St. Kitts, our 2+ hour ascension hike would begin. Behind me lay the Adventure of the Seas with its hushed hot tub waters and attendant waiters, plush deck chairs, everlasting soft-serve ice cream cones…

What had I done?

Across from us sat a young, solid-looking couple. How can you tell a woman knows exactly what she’s doing in the wild bush? By the handkerchief expertly tied around her tightly braided hair of course. Best I could do was a half braid and a camouflage ball cap. Pieces of my unruly hair already stuck out like wild feathers. This couple read the reviews too; they’d run half-marathons, Tough Mudders, trail races, etc. I sensed oncoming disgrace.

Then another couple climbed in the truck. Surely they hadn’t read the reviews. Both were older, somewhat heavy, and the woman– her overlong, manicured nails would never survive the crags and crevices we’d have to grasp in order to heft ourselves to the top of the 3,792 foot volcano. I simply could not imagine her completing. Thank God, I thought. I won’t be last.  

How does one have such ruthless, Darwinian thoughts on a cruise vacation?

Part of the fun of cruises is choosing your excursions. Amongst the taxi tours and beach visits, the volcano hike stood out as something different. We are lovers of different. The hike was labeled extremely strenuous, but on a cruise “strenuous” is taking the stairs rather than the elevator. So how bad could it be, this extremely?

Bad.

Trip Advisor used phrases like “way harder than described,” “you are looking at the ground most of the time so you don’t die,” and “of the 60 [hikers] only 15 made it to the top.”

Or this, my favorite:

This is the hardest thing that I have ever done and I have biked a century, hiked mountains in Italy, Wyoming, and Montana. The best way to describe this is extreme hiking. Imagine doing Stair Treadmill for 2 hours and you are ready. Don’t take this for the scenic photo ops, no this is for people who love extreme challenges.
I took this tour from Celebrity cruise and they described it as extremely strenuous. That does not really describe it because you get the impression that this is just really tough exercise like running on a treadmill. No!! The elliptical machines don’t prepare you for this…   – Krsna T January 5, 2017

I’m a review-reader because I believe in being prepared, whether I’m buying a product or putting my life in the hands of a St. Kittsian Bushman to guide me up a volcano. I like knowing what’s coming. In this case knowing what was coming struck fear into me that I wouldn’t be able to finish, that I’d fall and break a leg (that was in one of the reviews), that I’d have a heart attack or (more likely) a panic attack and stop up the whole group, that I’d have to hold my pee for inordinate amounts of time (also in the reviews).

These fears plagued me especially because of a previous, extremely-strenuous hike I took in West Virginia. My hiking company: Bob, a marathoner, Luke, a soccer player, and Gabe, a swimmer. The three of them bounded up the mountains like billy goats on amphetamines while I straggled behind, heaving and gasping and feeling like a zombie.

Though I run five miles regularly, a set of stairs winds me. A part of me thought maybe it was foolishness, this volcano. The opposite pull was the idea of letting Bob down, of looking a challenge in the eye and letting it beat me. Let me be clear: Bob puts zero pressure on me. Bob wants only my happiness but he’s often stuck because I’m happiest when I don’t feel like a wimp. What to do? I decided to train for my cruise vacation.

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A wall of roots and rocks.

Before, I worked out with less-than-average intensity. With the hike looming, I became a fitness honor student. I Googled How to train to climb a mountain. I ran faster and harder and longer. I found HIIT routines and used weights. I even surprised myself by losing weight. “Good,” said Bob, “It’ll be less for you to pull up the volcano.” He was right. Much of the volcano is pulling your body weight up the rocky and root-infested face.

Excursion day. At first, Bob and I were in the slow group. When our guide called experienced hikers to the front of the pack, I could not in good conscience go. We were put in the second group, which was also the last group. At the first rest stop I had to use the “bush room.” This put us as the last two hikers of the entire group. I noticed the guide breathing as heavily as I, and it comforted me.

At the next rest, the lead guide said we were short on time, that we’d have to split up and he needed two climbers for the fast group. I raised my hand. Bob looked at me, wondering if I’d lost my mind. We were sized up and chosen to go with the experienced climbers. Was I afraid? Yes. But I was more afraid of missing the summit.

As the trail morphed into walls of rock and roots, I felt rather billy-goatish myself, though I breathed louder than a dragon. My walking stick became my best friend, grinding blisters into my palms but relieving some of the pressure off my legs. I focused on my next step and my next, and… bam! Rest stop. Bob and I, by placement of where we sat as we began the next leg, were in the front of the experienced climbers, right behind the guide. Now I really felt compelled to push. I didn’t want to hold up people behind me.

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Do you see that sweat?

Can I tell you what a delight it is to do hard things I can do? Just like little Anna said that day at Whipp’s Ledges, when her mom offered a hand over the slippery rocks and Anna declined because she wanted the full glory of her accomplishment. I love vacation. I love rest. But unearned rest is sloth.  I speak from both sides of this issue. I remember complaining to Bob about how awful running felt, the whole time.

“Try running harder for sections,” he advised.

“That’ll just make it even more awful.”

“No, that’ll make the other times feel easy. If you don’t ever push yourself, the whole run feels hard. Push yourself and you’ll get the reward of an ‘easy’ stretch.”

But I didn’t want to hurt. Hurting stinks, so I kept plodding along at the same slow pace for my runs– until Mt. Liamuiga gave me a reason to push myself. What I gave in extra effort, I got back in ease later. And the whole process was more fun. Yikes.

Truth: the hike down was harder for me than the hike up. I’d expended all my energy fighting gravity for 2+ hours, when it came time to pick my way over the slick roots and rocks, my legs were jelly. No one talked on the way down. Not only were many exhausted like me, but total focus was required “so you don’t die.” At the bottom of the trail we were cheered by the folks who’d turned back at some point. (That’s what all the extra guides were for.) Also waiting was a spam sandwich on white bread with iceberg lettuce. Bob had one.

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A kiss at the summit.

The rest of the cruise was as you’d imagine…  take one before you die. C.S. Lewis said it best: A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.  …it [the experience] was nothing. Now it is growing into something as we remember it, what will it be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then – that is the real [experience]. -excerpt from Out of the Silent Planet, the book I’m working through with my 5000 Words class.

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St. Maarten

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Formal night

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Locker Room Talk

I love writing about overcoming. It feels like I’m having a locker room talk with myself. Not the kind Donald Trump has– the kind like this:

My family makes fun of me because I listen to things like this all the time: in the shower, while doing my hair and make-up, pretty much any time I’m not actively focused on something else. When I hold planks I play these sorts of YouTube videos. They distract me. Ever since I was young (12ish), I wanted to work harder than everyone else. Talent is a lottery. So are looks. Even brains. But anybody can work, went my thinking. I was sorely just an anybody, so I focused on the one thing I could control: work ethic.

“She works harder than any of the guys,” my coach mentioned to his friend. He thought I couldn’t hear, as I was attempting giants (see video below) on the bar next to him. The best compliments, the truest, are the ones they don’t mean for you to hear. That’s how I feel about affirmations. If you’re telling me because you want to pet me, I don’t believe you. If you’re whispering to your friend I work harder than any of the guys, I dare to believe.

And to think? Harder than the guys. The tomboy in me smiled at that thought.

Today is one of those days I don’t feel right. I’m so wrong I can’t concentrate. I want to do what I’ve committed to (write my novel), but with no extrinsic motivation like a time clock or a boss or a bar coach, I’m left to motivate myself. And today– I’m not feeling it. So I write about not feeling it because at least I’m writing. Only writers can see how much sense that makes.

I said in my resolution post that life will throw you down, that it’s our job to get up. How you do that will look different than how I do that. This is how I do that. I can’t hear my characters whisper their feelings because my own are yelling. Anne Lamott was once told, “You think everything that happens to you is interesting.” I fear that is the lot of a writer… but what writer sits down at her laptop and thinks Today I’ll write about something superbly boring… ? No one thinks that. We all think we have something interesting to say. Or at least, we dare to hope.

An invisible bar coach sits beside me and reminds me that I can still work hard at my craft. I do wonder though: what does Stephen King do on his off days? He says he writes every single day of the year. Christmas. Birthdays. Down days. Knowing what a liberal he is, I wonder if he picked himself up by his bootstraps and wrote great prose the day Donald Trump won the presidency? Or did he mope around the house? Or play motivational videos and distract himself until he felt right again? I’d love to know.

 

 

 

 

 

The Only Resolution You Need: Be Resolute

Resolute: 1. marked by firm determination 2. bold, steady.

In a fit of New Year’s zeal you wrote a bunch of resolutions. And in a fit of cold reality already broke at least one. Now you’re starting 2017 as a failure. Why even bother with the rest?  New Year’s resolutions are like trains. One car off the track and the whole thing goes. The year’s derailed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Make resolution your resolution.

Life will throw you down in 2017, of that you can be sure. Determine to get up when you fall, no matter what the goal or circumstance. Decide you’ll keep your vows, your promises, your commitments, both to yourself and to others. When you do that, everything else falls into line. Even a derailed train doesn’t have to stop. Where does it say it has to? A derailed train can keep moving forward, churning the earth into ruts behind it and dragging along whatever freight is there. And what is it doing?

Plowing. Paving its own road.

Imagine that train engine dragging its overturned cars along the tracks, igniting sparks from the flint of will and the drag of steel, bellowing the howl of metal on metal. That’s the mantra of the resolute.

Psalm 15:4 describes a resolute person as one …who keeps a promise even if it ruins him. 

Have you ever committed to something and halfway through, the landscape changed? The workload mutated, the expectation grew claws and horns and sharp teeth? That’s happened to me so many times I now brace for impact when I make a commitment. Call me a cynic. Or a realist. The fact that my commitment morphed into something else does not release me from it, not if I’m resolute. That’s what it means to keep your word no matter what.

Anybody can decide to fast. Deciding’s easy. It’s a word on a page, an intention. Not just anybody can Gandhi their way into changing the world. Don’t think Gandhi didn’t hunger. Don’t think he was some sort of superhero who didn’t need food like the rest of us. The difference between Gandhi and you or me: degree of resolution.

Look, if your resolutions don’t fly off your soul in a heartbeat, you probably don’t care enough to follow through. Limit your focus to a handful of things for which you’d die. They are the freight you’ll be dragging. They’re also the weight that makes you powerful in your momentum. You know the physics: a body’s mass determines its force.

Often our goals contradict one another. Lose weight. Enter ten hot-dog-eating contests. See more friends/family. Find more time for myself. Make more money. Get more sleep. Resolution is a pyre at which I must sacrifice worthy, wonderful, needful, beautiful things. Most of us can’t possibly accomplish all the high-minded and half-hearted goals we wrote in a delirium of self-aggrandizement. A train can’t go east and west at the same time. Take a fresh look at those resolutions. Do they align? Purge until they do.

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At Mount Rushmore, a young man was getting his picture taken. Giving the architectural marvel a middle finger salute.

“Don’t do that,” chided his mother, who was taking the photo. I’ll never forget his answer.

“This is ‘Merica. I can do Whatever… I… Want.”

In ‘Merica, we can flip off the stone busts of the founding fathers. We can do whatever we want. And that’s why we scrawl grand lists and scheme and plan and dream of the future. And some of us put more energy into flipping off life than embracing it. 77% of us would rather write resolutions than accomplish them.

Because it’s easier and more comfortable, we flip off a challenge and console ourselves with next year. But why wait?  If you, like me, like so many ‘Mericans, have trouble keeping your resolutions, try making just one this year: be resolute.

It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows. – Proverbs 20:25

 

Shooting up Motivation

Phenomenal. I want that to be my word of the year.

Easier said than done, I know. I have a plan. But first, a story. I choose to tell you about working out, though there are many areas in which I want to be phenomenal. Working out is a universal bane, er… goal.

I’m not one of those people who gets excited about the process of sweating or hurting or gasping. When it’s done I feel good about myself because I did something healthy and I overcame. Living in Cleveland means the first challenge in working out, is weather. I’ve learned the hard way that running in the freezing cold makes my face look like a bleached gorilla’s. In the winter, I don’t run; I get on my recumbent bike. I overcome the weather.

Except when the bike breaks.

Then I feel like hosting a pity party with lots of cake and ice cream because I hate working out anyway, and why does it have to be so hard? (Insert bite of cake.) Not like I’m trying to book a cruise here…

[One eternity later…] I find a deal on a used recumbent bike that I hand-twist for tension, that I pull the batteries out to reset the time counter, that squeaks in protest when I pedal too fast, but I’m happy because: I overcame. Now, I can’t just pedal and look out the grey window at the skeletons of trees. That’s a recipe for disaster to a woman who hates working out. No… one must distract herself when her thighs are on fire, and the sweat is stinging her eyes, and the mirror isn’t saying she’s the fairest as she’s pumping her legs, not looking very athletic or strong according to western culture… distract me, please.

I try watching motivational YouTube videos and pretend I’m Rocky Balboa. But guess what? My daughter is streaming Netflix, and my son is watching Minecraft, and my broadband is as broad as a pencil tip because I’m getting nothing but buffer on my iPad. Can you feel that? Says the video. But it sounds more like C… oooh… eh… t?

Phenomenal overcomes the broadband, the bike, the weather. I pulled out the rowing machine and had pitiful rowing workouts until I found another bike. Rowing stinks, I tell you. But it’s better than nothing. To overcome my YouTube issues, I hook up my mp3 or our ancient TV/DVD player, set it on the workout bench and watch a movie; I decide to overcome every workout obstacle. The chorus in my mind is Get thee behind me, Satan. 

Confession: much of my motivation comes from putting videos like the one below straight into my brain while I’m pedaling/running. It’s like shooting up motivation. I’m not exaggerating. Although I admit I’ve never actually shot up, I’m using my writer’s imagination. Just watch it. Or be like me and watch it a hundred times until you can quote it and the epic music rings in your ears while you fill your car tires with air or stand in line at the supermarket. Not a bodybuilder? Me neither. I apply everything he says to whatever area I want to be phenomenal.

Thank you, creative people who have compiled some of the best motivational speeches set to music. I literally get goosebumps while listening. I have grande thoughts. I think, if I can do this, then I can do that. That’s how doing hard things works: You do it and it eventually ceases to be hard. You look back and ask how you ever thought X was hard. We all know the feeling. Think about anything you ever feared that you pushed through. Now it’s the status quo. The problem comes when we allow ourselves to scuttle back and not do whatever hard task is before us. As we let fear or laziness or lack of an appropriate workout apparatus stop us, it becomes easier and easier to stay still. Initial force is always the heaviest. But the same goes for the other direction. Keep doing what is hard and less and less is hard for you. That’s my plan for a phenomenal 2016. I wish it for you too! 🙂

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This… is from the hand of God.  Ecclesiastes 2:24