Mission Possible: Un-Volunteering

canstockphoto6447962It’s been some rough and tumble weeks for this introvert. In my second and last year presiding over a parent teacher organization, I’ve spoken to, shook hands with and done presentations for more people in the last 3 weeks than I have in the last 6 months. Summer haze gave way to nonstop activity within the first few weeks of the school year.

Give me a need, a project, an event. Within 15 minutes, I can give you a solution, a time frame, a list of supplies, 4-5 ideas, and details that hadn’t occurred to anyone. I can foresee what some of the obstacles might be and have already come up with workarounds. By the 30 minute mark, I will have made requisite calls, sent out emails and ordered whatever was needed.

When you get older, you can look back and see the patterns of your existence. The people, the jobs, the activities, the resolutions. When I notice them, my current life becomes laughably predictable and I begin to see that I have become a caricature of my younger self. A disembodied life made up of habits and duct tape.

I am gruff about my volunteerism. It’s a little bit of dishonesty that keeps me saying yes over and over again. I act like it’s uncharacteristic of me to help out…grumble, grumble. But I started young, with visits to nursing homes and hospices, food drives, animal welfare petitions. Much had to do with whatever organization I was involved with at the time – church, Girl Scouts, the Army, my daughter’s school.

Then there were years when I just made up shit to do. I went to local nursing homes and wrote out Christmas cards for residents. I volunteered to make a holiday dinner at a domestic violence shelter. I’ve walk-a-thoned and donated and fundraised. I’ve assisted athletes at the Special Olympics. I’m spending days at an elementary school. I’m sponsoring a kid in Ethiopia. Helping out here, there, everywhere…e-i-e-i-o.

It’s all good. Except when it’s not. Except when it’s pathological – a way of defending against the secret belief that I’m a horrible human, worthy only in what I do. I’ve met people on the other side of the fence – people who believe their mere existence is good enough, no matter what kind of people they are. I find them a tad repulsive, yet this is the message we’re supposed to give to our kids. You’re fine just as you are, human.

I don’t believe that mere existence is worthy of esteem, as flawed and pessimistic as that thinking might be. It’s a crowded world with a lot of suffering. If you’re going to take up space, do something helpful while you’re here. You know, tidy up a bit, lend a hand, try not to be a hog about resources. Ensure that your world view is not myopic. Primum non nocere and all that.

In conversations with volunteers, I am astonished at how many things they do. They’re volunteering at churches, schools, hospitals and booster clubs. What astonishes me is not that they volunteer, but how much of their lives they spend doing things for other people. The world needs them, but it comes at a cost. And maybe it’s worth it to them, maybe that’s their schtick.

I don’t know if it’s mine. I’d like to find out how horrible a human being I am when I say “no” to outside activities. Maybe I’ll get a book published. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to do Japanese sumi painting. Maybe I’ll go back to working on my taekwondo black belt. Maybe I’ll discover I’m more patient and kind with my own family when I stop saying yes to everything else.

I want to sign up for a life that is lived intentionally and while it’s not a zero sum game, sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch and make deliberate choices, instead of trying to control knee jerk habits.

There’s an old bit of Army tactical training that comes to mind. When hit by ground flares at night, you move away from the illuminated area, reorient yourself and continue your mission. It’s time for me to reorient myself to some free time and to stop doing this every time someone asks for help:

 

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Doorstep Politics: Sometimes It’s Not About the Party

canstockphoto5811625We’re heading into another midterm election. I just spent 20 minutes on my doorstep talking to the Republican candidate for state representation of our district. While I am registered Independent, I tend to vote heavily Democrat. There was a time when I would mutter that oft-used phrase “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”, but now so many distinctions must be made between social issues I think government should get the hell out of and social issues that impact fiduciary decision-making that it’s no longer sufficiently vague to head off unwanted debate at the pass.

It hit me about 5 minutes into this conversation, how hungry I was for real political engagement. This candidate was a character – animated, humorous – he hadn’t been in the system long enough to turn into a rote zombie boot licking two-faced power suck (seriously, TV, stop doing shows about these assholes). He was earnest, but sufficiently vague for me to think maybe I’ll vote for a Republican. It’s happened before – and not always by mistake.

This candidate reminded me of a first grade teacher I once knew. Quirky, slightly awkward, but always, always willing to talk. We’re so used to the drab, polished demeanor of our national politicians. We get a variety here – they’re complete knuckleheads who say bizarre and reprehensible things (I’m from the state of Michelle Bachmann and Jesse Ventura) or they’re vague and incoherent as if pixie dust will fix the state budget but more commonly, they’re the party’s Stepford candidate  – when a slight breeze can blow over their cardboard cutout selves.

I could imagine this guy, years down the road, when our mummy representative finally collapses into a pile of non-pixie dust (the dude has been in office for 4 decades, can I get a term limit hallelujah, please?). The new guy will probably get his teeth fixed. He’ll become more somber. He’ll look less like an uncle you see during the summers at the cabin and more like an undertaker. He’ll be a smooth talker, because he will have said the same thing over and over and it’s what the party leader, who took him under his decrepit wing, said he should say.

He’ll automatically try to reach out and shake your hand when you’re just trying to get to the bathroom. He’ll mistake your purse dog for a baby and kiss it. Whenever he talks to you, you’ll see his eyes darting desperately to the side in search of a teleprompter. His daughter will get knocked up. His son will come out with a documentary on how to be a gay Republican. It will receive a tepid greeting at Sundance. He’ll hire a black Muslim lesbian for his spokesperson to make up for the glaring white heteronormativity of his unwieldy staff (and yes, I meant that to sound dirty).

But today, he’s just this guy who thinks he can make a difference. He laughs and talks amiably. He believes that his country, his state, his town are worth representing. He believes in his ability to be a good representative. I don’t care what party he is in – it reminds me of where politics really should begin. With some hopeful schmuck or schmuckette who believes in stuff. The problem is where it ends up and all the shuffling and unethical compromise in the middle. Did I mention term limits? Term limits, term limits, term limits. Ah, I feel better now.

It took me a couple of decades to get into the habit of midterm voting and I had planned to go this time, mostly for some school referendums. After talking with this candidate, I was reminded of how much I care about participating in this process. No matter what our party affiliations, this man, who I had never met before, who I likely have little in common with, reminded me that we share hope. And we could certainly use some of that right about now.

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Creativity in Suburbia

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Ah, my muse…Crayola.

This month, writing took a backseat to volunteering. Family time took a backseat to exhaustion. Workouts took a backseat to elder care. Introspection took a backseat to distractions and that overused misnomer, multitasking. Depression rolled in, a predictable fog of lethargy and glass half-empty thinking.

We shrug our shoulders with banal bon mots like “Life happens” and “It is what it is” in order to acknowledge that we are giving up control, prostrate in front of the bulldozer of modern living. The minute we complain, someone snipes “first world problems” or “check your privilege”, which is sometimes just a pseudo-intellectual way of telling someone to shut up.

Resistance seems futile. You say “yes” more often than you should. You conform in a million soul-crushing ways. You follow the rules, try to be polite, try to do the right thing. I am a creative person. But after a lifetime of trying to do the right thing and following the rules, I little resemble the person that I’d imagined I’d be – socially unconventional, wildly, artistically prolific.

Choices seem obscured by responsibilities, real or imagined. Arrogance about how one is needed and what one’s value is in the eyes of others, is conflated with a sense of worthiness.

The midlife clock started ticking a couple of years ago. An acute awareness of time, the luck of making it this far, has become excruciating to avoid. I don’t want to be busy – at least not with the sort of shit that eats up our lives. I want to, to quote my favorite movie line, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

My life is not a particularly hard one by anyone’s measure. What is hardest is that I am living in rote mode – this busy, inane rushing about and trying to do a little bit of everything. It dulls the senses, discounts my good fortune and leaves me listless. This is life in suburbia – a life I appreciate intellectually, but creatively, it’s scrabbling at my throat.

I’ve started paying attention to the many, many “rules” I follow throughout the day – all the things that I try to do right. It’s mind-boggling. Bills mailed on time, flag up on the mailbox. Drive all the way up the orange cones before the kid gets out of the car at school. Put away the cart. Sign and date here and here and here. Say thank you and please. Please hold, don’t call before 10am, don’t mow after 9pm and smile, smile, smile.

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It’s a snoozer. I’ve never made it past the first couple of chapters.

This is not even touching on the legal rules, like not using one’s car as a battering ram when the person ahead doesn’t use their turn signal (my vehicular fantasy). It’s all necessary, these enforced courtesy and safety rules. It keeps us from clubbing each other (for the most part).

Then there’s the Michelle rules: see the big picture, avoid people when I’m pissy, spend time outside, don’t let things pile up, communicate to the point, don’t waste time, stay active and lastly, always lastly, be creative. How much energy does one need to be creative? Apparently more than I have at the end of a day.

I’ve been trying to give myself a psychological makeover over the last few years, within the parameters of the life I have. It has worked on some levels, but when it comes to writing, I’ve been a dung beetle. Pushing the same old shit around without feeling much progress. When asked about my writing, I rattle off the same answer: working on edits on my novel, blah, blah, blahgging.

It’s just pushing dung. If I applied even half the discipline I use in other areas of my life, I imagine that I’d have a new answer.

I laugh when I think about the stereotype of middle-aged women’s fantasies. Mine are more like 50 Shades of Misanthropy. I would like to be alone writing for days on end or finally give in to violent impulses, like ramming texting drivers with my car or delivering roundhouse kicks to people who are rude to cashiers.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren't going to do themselves.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren’t going to do themselves.

I’m waging a mental battle to make room for a creative life. To always have that hunger, that niggling doubt, that sense that wherever I’m at, it’s not where I supposed to be, well, that’s been my life. I’d be the worst Buddhist ever.

The myth that good artists must suffer or live off the grid or be plagued with personal demons and volatile relationships continues to thrive. I’m an ordinary person living, like most people, an ordinary life. Finding that spark, hearing that beckoning amidst grocery lists, soccer games and laundry loads seems daunting. But it’s there, calling out in those quiet moments between errands and getting louder by the moment.

Some guides for making room for a creative writing life:

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft by Susan M. Tiberghien

The Resaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life, A Creative and Practical Guide by Margaret Lobenstine

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

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Filed under Writing

The Siren Call of National Novel Writing Month

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Fall brings the melancholy whisper from writers everywhere: Should I do NaNoWriMo? For those who are unaware of this event, National Novel Writing Month is in November. The Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit organization, sponsors various events online and around the country to get writers writing. The goal in November is to write 50,000 words, an average of 1,667 words per day. A double-spaced page, average font, has approximately 250-275 words per page. This means 6-7 typewritten pages per day.

Two years ago, I met the 50K goal and finished a rough draft of a first novel. And I’ve been asking myself the same question this year and these are the pros and cons I’ve come up with:

PROS

  • I learned that I can write 50,000 words in a month.
  • It brought a goal-oriented level of focus that I seem to be failing at in my daily life.
  • I got a lot of silly blog material from it.
  • I learned about my weaknesses as a writer (although this was mostly in the aftermath of editing).
  • I learned more about novel construction – story arcs, conflict resolution, foreshadowing, etc.
  • I got to whinge on interminably with fellow writers about flattened butts, hand cramps and dry eyeballs.

CONS

  • That’s a lot of words for one month and if you are a procrastinator who gets hit with a flu bug, you’ll be writing your last 5,000 words in a couple of days and wishing you were not.
  • Cut to two years later and I have still not finished editing my first draft. It is the dark shadow in the study – that thing I feel compelled to finish, which has led to loathing, denial and self-mocking.

 NaNoWriMo is a go for me this year. I’m struggling to find my way back to writing, but seem unable to set a clear goal and follow through on it. 50,000 words, 30 days – that’s pretty straightforward. And I can devolve into a writer sapien once again. Showers will be optional, as will other forms of communication beyond grunting and wild gestures. I’m looking forward to it.

 

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Blog Post Draft #13: Editing My Life

canstockphoto3792922This is it. Number 13. I will post this draft. I will, I will, I will.

She was most prolific unpublished writer in history. Besides that one creepy guy who left behind trunks of manuscripts in his attic, as well as an extensive collection of single socks.

Something happened to my brain over the last few weeks. As president of the parent teacher organization at my daughter’s school, the devil has been in the details. Get it done. Do it right. Do it on time. Look at every angle. Communicate, blah, blah, blah.

As an introvert, it knocked the wind right out of me. Fortunately, this is my second and last year doing intense volunteering. There was nothing left for me at the end of the day. Nothing to write about and when I did write, it was with painful constraint. So painful, that I’ve written 12 drafts that have been gathering dust. It has made me very, very unhappy.

It’s in this moment, when I am reminded once again, you know what makes you happy, why aren’t you doing it?

This is all to say that what I’m good at, this juggling of minutiae, is not what is good for me as a human. For many years, I’ve been tapping out my creative skills on kid birthday parties, workarounds at jobs, and volunteering. While I like being creative and solving problems, I’m the overkill queen – obsessing over details no one in their right mind would ever bother with – and I know how to tie a perfect bow.

In the 47th year of my life, I’ve realized that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I have already begun to daydream about what life will be like in a year. It won’t be easy to let go, this compulsion to say “I can do it, no problem”.

Yesterday, I took a call from my old job regarding some insurance and payroll questions. Then I filled out an assisted living application for my mother-in-law. I ran to the school to meet with our book fair rep. I made calls, appointments, answered emails, cleaned the house. I dropped off and picked up my child from school. I trimmed hockey skate guards and the cats’ front nails. Dishes. Laundry. Litter boxes. Garbage. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve spent all my editorial skills critiquing and measuring and marginalizing my writing, when what I should be doing is editing my life. Instead of saying “yes” to everything else, I need to use a red pen on my schedule.

Writing needs to be a priority. I feel like I’m where I belong when I’m fussing with words or making myself laugh with some absurd piece of writing. It’s a palliative for all the mundane bullshit that can wear a person down. To recognize that something makes one happy and then not do it seems self-destructive. Why?

Writer is as writer does. Time to use the red pen.

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Parenting: The Nostalgic Haze of Never-Really-Happened Days

WARNING: Extreme Defensiveness Aheadcanstockphoto2415989

This morning I ran across another article jumping all over parents about over-scheduling, helmeting and seat-buckling their children. Already angered by the repetitious message that parents today suck, I decided to throw gas on the fire and read the comment section. Apparently, the best parents are the ones with the shortest memories and empathy-impairment.

Let me tell you a story about the good ole’ days. Yes, I rode my bike, without a helmet, around town from the break of daylight until dinner time. Our family of 6 lived in a 2 bedroom apartment – converted from a commercial office. My stepfather was in and out of work, drinking heavily and arrested occasionally. My mother was drinking just to survive the close proximity of a baby, a toddler and two older children, the oldest of which was me.

Every week, we’d attend the Seventh Day Adventist church service. Surrounded by vegetarians, fire and brimstone sermons and an odd proclivity for footwashing, we’d pretend that there hadn’t been a drunken, late-night, screaming argument the night before at a barbeque. We’d pretend that my stepfather hadn’t threatened to bash our heads in with a two by four. We’d pretend that we hadn’t lain as still and quietly as we could in our beds, quivering mice, hoping that we wouldn’t be noticed.

In today’s terms, I’d have been classified as a high risk child. A shy, introverted awkward girl in an unstable, abusive home environment who wandered through town at all hours. A Safeway shoplifter of gum and candy. A child who longed for adult kindness, who was the sometime recipient of free food, a ride, clothes, a place to stay.

Like vague criticism waved at large, labeled groups, people need to learn how to qualify their statements. And I call bullshit on most nostalgic ruminations. When I was a kid, life was not homemade cookies and bedtime stories. I was scared, nervous and so angry inside that I nearly self-destructed in my twenties.

As for the flag-waving, suburban nostalgia, I learned to hide under my desk in the case of a nuclear bomb. Johnny Gosch disappeared, as did the idea that any kid was ever safe. Some of us were molested by neighborhood friendlies. And corporal punishment taught me that I had to be stronger and meaner and more physical against those smaller than I.

Just because you survived your childhood unscathed, just because you had loving parents, just because you lived in a safe, cozy neighborhood, many of us didn’t. So we are a little more vigilant and conscientious about the lives that have been entrusted to us. We’re supposed to raise decent humans in a world that caters to the cruel, the hyper-sexualized, the gun-brandishing Wild West of this America.

Parents today are expected to beat out advertising, technology and the sexual marketing of and to children. We’re supposed to be better than sugared cereals, stupefying television, an underfunded, disrespected education system, our own crappy inherited parenting skills. On top of that, we’re bombarded by a media saturation of child kidnapping, rape and murder – even if it’s a lower percentage of crime, a safer American than before, it burns into the psyche.

I am a diligent, conscientious parent. I took parenting classes. Read all the books – there’s an endless supply of information about the many ways you can screw up your child. I talked over issues with other parents. I listen to and talk with my child regularly. And STILL, my daughter might meet the wrong boy in the future or god forbid, sit in her elementary classroom with 19 of her peers when someone with an untreated mental illness gets his hands on weapons.

Parenting is hard and it is hard in a way that I had no idea about – the sleeplessness, gross hygiene issues, constant need – I expected these. But I am baffled by a world that is in the throes of self-destruction, yet takes time out from its downward spiral to deride parents – the individuals who are raising the people who just might pull this planet back from the edge.

The life my daughter has today is wonderful. I have no regrets. I have no problem with putting a helmet on her, making her buckle up, sending her off to try a new sport or hobby or instrument. She is whip-smart, kind and a critical thinker. Her home is stable and our expectations clear. I am not sorry for my parenting and I am happy to be a parent.

So save the anecdotes. If you can’t help me do this job, if you aren’t going to help me protect this child, if you are going to gripe about taxes for education and criticize using the barest safety standards, perhaps you should wonder why your perfect childhood didn’t create a more compassionate adult.

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Spammer Seeks Roommate with Problems

canstockphoto16553471Every once in a while, I scan the spam comments that this blog receives. If anyone can over-think a spam comment, it is yours truly.

With the guess that many of our spammers originate from countries where English is not a primary language, I am baffled by their opinions of Americans. We are apparently a helpful bunch of clods as entreaties for roommates and brothers with problems fill our spam boxes. We are also quite narcissistic and nothing pleases our peacock brains more than compliments about our skillful writing, that can be found nowhere else on the internet.

In the interest of international relations, I’ve decided to help out these misguided souls by providing a little advice (which I know they will like/bookmark/grab RSS feed in the hopes that I will buy their shoes/handbags/pills or allow them to have all my banking information following several cash wire transfers).

NOTICE: While these are real spam comments, no spammers have been hurt in the writing of this post. Attention is like air to them. Damn me.

Dear Random Blogger Who I have Spammed:

At this moment I am ready to do my breakfast, once having my breakfast coming yet again to read additional news.

Sincerely, Fake Name at gmail.com

Dear Fake Name:

If you are attempting to read the news, make sure your breakfast is comprised of cynicism sunny side up with a dash of disgust and faux outrage.

PS – You might notice that a lot of Americans shoot each other.

The Green Study

Dear Miscellaneous Internet Presence:

Thank you, I’ve recently been searching for information about this subject for a long time and yours is the best I have discovered till now. But, what about the bottom line? Are you certain in regards to the supply?

Toronto Star (aka MuslimRestaurant at zoho.com)

Dear Toronto Star:

While I’m flattered by the unsolicited and false compliment, it is clear that media across the border has taken a cue from its American cohorts. Using Twitter and random bloggers as reporting sources is an unsteady proposition at best.

If you are a Muslim restaurant, you clearly haven’t seen my kitchen, which is often bereft of supplies.

The Green Study

Hi mates,

how is the whole thing, and what you would like to say regarding this post, in my view its genuinely remarkable designed for me.

Papillon on the Park at opentable.com

Dear Papillon,

I also wore this shirt today for you. And I will be naming my second-never-born after you.

The Green Study

Dear Whoever You Are,

Simply want to say your article is as amazing. The clearness on your post is just cool and that i could assume you’re an expert in this subject.
Fine along with your permission let me to seize your RSS feed to keep updated with imminent post.
Thank you 1,000,000 and please continue the rewarding work.

Michael Kors Factory Outlet

Dear Michael Kors Factory Outlet (can I call you Mike?),

I am an expert on exactly nothing. Or everything, if you’re really stupid. By the way, I have no idea what the hell an RSS feed is, but I’m pretty sure it will fight back, should you attempt to seize it. Please thank me in $1 million dollars and no cheap knockoffs.

The Green Study

Dear Potential Smoker,

Its such as you read my thoughts! You seem to understand so much about this, such as you wrote the guide in it or something. I believe that you simply could do with some p.c. to drive the message home a bit, but other than that,
this is excellent blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

e-cigarette review

Dear e,

I can read your thoughts. Can you read mine? I’m thinking them really loudly right now and I don’t think you’ll be back.

The Green Study

Dear Person on Internet,

I do not even understand how I ended up right here, but I assumed this post used to be great.
I don’t realize who you are however certainly you are going to a well-known blogger for those
who are not already. Cheers!

Roseanna on YouTube

Dear Roseanna,

But used-to-bes don’t count anymore. They just lay on the floor ’til we sweep them away. Channeling my best canstockphoto3460980Neil Diamond for you. It is sweet bon mots like these that will indeed launch me into stardom. Then my publicist will write witty replies to spam. I’ll be too busy punching out paparazzi.

The Green Study

 

Well, this is a silly post that has gone on far too long. Have a great week!

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