I love to run. I wasn’t built for it – short, muscly, a little knock-kneed and uncoordinated. I started to run in high school track. I was slow, but I could finish the race. I got put on the 3000 meter run, because regardless of placing, you’d get points for the team at a meet if you finished. During the track award dinner my senior year, the coach said “Michelle gets an A+ for effort”. At the time I thought it was damning and faint praise. Now I think it sounds like a pretty good gravestone epitaph.
One year we were challenged by our coach to run 100 miles over the course of the winter. He called it the Arctic 100 challenge. My brother and I were going through our Rocky phase, swallowing raw eggs and bouncing around like we were fighters and then we’d run through snow, slip sliding on icy small town sidewalks, the snot freezing inside our noses.
In the Army, I ran a lot of hills because I had to and the Presidio of Monterey was nothing but hills. I could finish. And I was still young enough that the late night binge-drinking and that early morning cigarette before P.T. didn’t incapacitate me.
Afterwards, in college, I lived in an apartment building surrounded by prefab condos and hills. I was trying to quit smoking for the 492nd time and decided to start a regular running program. The very first stretch of the run was a steep uphill jaunt. I was usually sucking wind by the time I got to the top, but I knew if I made that hill, the rest of the run would be okay.
In my 40s, I started training in taekwondo. With a lot of heavy footwork and kicking, running had to take a backseat to the many injuries I was getting. My sparring partners tended to be teenage boys about a foot taller than me. I ended up with a black eye, turf toe, pulled muscles, wrecked quads. Running just made it worse, since I was using many of the same muscle groups.
My dojo (school) closed and I decided after four years of having the crap kicked out of me, I was done as well. To compensate, I took some circuit training classes, which included a lot of jumping and knee work, until I could barely step off curbs or go down stairs without stabbing pain. The injuries to both knees took months to recover and I was depressed about the idea that I might not be able to run again. Again, this caught me by surprise.
It strikes me as odd, this running thing. I’ve never been fast. I don’t look like a runner. I don’t even have any competitive ambition except against my last time or distance. I sweat like crazy, my face turns all red and at nearly 50, there are parts of my body moving independently of any muscle. Still, as soon as I felt ready, I started to run again.
Today I finished an 8 week 5K training program. I did my last run slowly, steadily, and strongly. I’m starting a 10K program next week. It makes no sense to me – this love that I have for something I’m so incredibly unsuited for – it has become this touchstone that I return to again and again.
Perhaps it is my unsuitability, my lack of speed or grace, my inability to wear stretchy, breathable running clothes with aplomb, the lack of competitive drive, that makes it all appealing to me. It does not require much from me except that I show up and that I keep going. Sometimes that seems like a pretty good metaphor for life.
Is there something you love to do that makes no sense to you?
In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.
For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.
While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.
The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.
I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.
Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.
I am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.
After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.
I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.
It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.
The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.
The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.
I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.
Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.
A few weeks ago we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that had a night art installation by Bruce Munro – lots of light, a little weird music, and a great deal of walking. Throw in the S’more kits being sold around a fire and it was a lovely evening. We walked along dark pathways from sight to sight, under a clear, starry sky.
Light pollution often obscures the sky in our neighborhood, so I took the opportunity to point out some constellations to my daughter. We had to keep finding dark areas to stand in because beyond the actual Munro installations, people were walking around with their phones out, taking pictures of the art.
It’s in my nature to push back against cultural trends and this one, of taking pictures in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way sends my brain off into incoherent, spluttering rants. We noticed this as we traveled the west coast last year. We’d be standing in front of some sight, an animal at a zoo, a zen garden, a perfect view of the ocean and someone would walk up, take a picture , and walk away. I wanted to yell “Have the #$%@ experience – put your phone down!”
Part of this is my particular way of taking in an experience. I can stand for an hour in one spot just watching waves, reading informational plaques and observing people coming and going. My family moves a little faster, so I’ve gotten in the habit of breaking off on my own, finding a bench or a space where no one else is and becoming a rock. Museums are a challenge. I find some work I like and I just want to sit there for a long while, so when I go, it’s more likely to be alone.
I have friends and family who seem nearly maniacal in their picture-taking. One relative has forever earned my enmity for snapping photos of me in the hospital after I had my daughter. I was in for a long stay due to a complicated delivery and having bad reactions to pain meds. After vomiting most of the day and being poked with needles (apparently I only have one workable, ever-elusive vein). Click. Click. My husband had to keep me from ripping out the tubes and strangling her.
A friend explained to me that taking photos was how she processed experiences. As a writer, this is an approach that I can understand. The world makes more sense to me through words than any other way. But there is a compulsiveness with cameras and I see it around me every time I go out in public.
It would seem that the primary purpose of taking a picture is to capture a memory, or at least the shadow of one, so that at a later point in time, one can be reminded of an experience. What if you didn’t actually have the experience? You were there, but not present. You saw something, but you really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then the picture becomes about something else entirely. Bragging rights, a need for validation (look at me, I do stuff and have been places) and the possibility of likes.
There is also the aspect of skill. Very few of my photos are particularly good. When we travel now, I buy postcards, appreciating that someone with more skill and better equipment has already gotten the job done.
Standing on the hotel balcony in Fort Bragg, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the horizon. Spouts of water! I looked again – more spouting and then I started to see them, dark figures coming out of the water and then retreating. An unusual time of year, but we had lucked upon a pod of whales.
If I had taken pictures, they’d be little more than vague shots of a horizon. But at the very least I would look at them and remember the excitement of yelling for my husband and daughter to come and look. I would remember the chill air and the sound of the waves. I would remember watching until the sun went down and then early in the morning, searching the horizon and finding the pod again, only a little farther north. The thrill of discovery and the awe of nature.
Many years ago we made a 13 state road trip out to the Grand Canyon and back. We saw and did a lot. While staying in Flagstaff, we drove out to Sunset Crater and did some hiking. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through the remains of craters, on paths of hardened lava, passing by a cornucopia of wildflowers and plant life. It was a really good day. I have a couple of pictures, but I have even better memories.
A day later we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, since we didn’t have much time before we had to head back to Minnesota. It ended up being a stop, take photos, get back on a bus. I have some photos and very few memories. Absolute worst way to see anything. My daughter, who was seven at the time, remembers Sunset Crater and getting to eat sugary cereal at the hotel. No memory of the Grand Canyon whatsoever.
To me, it says a little about how our brains work. When we integrate and absorb and move in the places we visit, pictures are just tickler files for memories. But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context.
I know there is no point in railing against this cultural idiosyncrasy. It’s here to stay. I just wonder how it impacts our ability to process the fully dimensional world and what that means for the human brain. My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.
For months, I’ve been eating, dreaming, walking through this pitch conference. I’d never been to a writing conference of any sort, and have long eschewed workshops and book clubs, and lived in my make-believe land of being a writer. This is the first concrete step I’d ever taken to make it real. And it was a great step. That I’ll likely never do again.
There are writers who remain oblivious to the market, to the numbers, to the sheer complexity and enormity of their dreams. They constantly send out work and occasionally hit their mark. There are writers like me who are painfully aware of the odds, see the enormity of the task before them and tell themselves someday. When I am ready. When I have time.
So here I am, almost 50 years old, trying to launch a writing career. I laugh using the word “launch”. More like a slow crawl, an inch worm’s speed. Talk to any writer who seems to be an overnight success and odds are, they’ve been doing a slow crawl for years. No one saw them, no one lauded their work, no one sharpened their pencils or handed them a guide.
Parts of the conference were the expected breakout sessions on querying and selling, but what most people came for was the golden ticket of being able to meet with three literary agents and/or editors for 8 minutes each to pitch their work. I researched and submitted my preferences in advance and ended up with two I’d requested and a last minute replacement I knew would not be a fit.
I wrote 50+ pitches in advance, talked to friends about the book, read all the advice articles on pitching, bought a suit and showed up on time. I came away with two requests for partials (10-50 first pages) and a full manuscript request. When I saw who my replacement agent would be, I did a nonfiction book proposal on the fly and she said they’d be interested in seeing my full proposal.
This was an optimum outcome for me. But what does it really mean?
It means that I know how to talk under pressure. Yay me. The last workshop I sat in for the day was about debut mistakes. Two local, established writers talked about their experiences and took questions. A moment of clarity hit me. I’m done being at a conference. These people had been working their asses off for years – around marriages, divorces, children, jobs, setbacks and personal demons. But what mattered to the writing was the writing.
This weekend was an important reminder to me. I can talk knowledgeably about the market and publishing of books. I could even become a writing advice blogger. I can pitch the hell out of my work. But it’s all bullshit. And manure only has value and meaning if there is something to nourish and nurture. I got caught up in the dressing, while the body was being neglected.
So, it’s back to work – reading, writing, editing, revising. It’s nice to know I have some people who’d be interested in seeing my work, but that was always the case – if the work was good. So back to making it as good as it can be.
I’m in a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis, wrung out and exhausted from smiling and talking about my novel with other writers. My hobnobbing and pitching at a writer’s conference garnered two requests for pages from lit agents. I’ve already called and texted friends and family to squee about it. But as usual, the exhilaration has melted away into the realization that I will have to work harder than I ever have at digging in and writing. I do not spend a long time in joyland. The water’s too warm.
The woman who met with the same lit agent in the time slot before me, passes me in the hallway, eyes downcast. She told me about her book beforehand and despite the fact that it wasn’t my cup of tea, I could see her light up when I asked about it. That’s writing for you – guts, out on the table for everyone to see.
While waiting to go in to meet with another lit agent, the woman behind me complimented
my suit. I had felt, to that point, like an idiot. I went with a black business suit, like out of a stock photo from a 1990s corporation. Most others looked like what I imagine writers to look like – all Bohemian scarves and elbow patches. I looked like I was interviewing at an accounting firm. Still, it was kind of her to give me that little boost before my pitch session and it made me think about the fact that I’m not kind like that.
People talk about supportive communities and I fail miserably when it comes to the little compliments that boost. I’m so in my head just trying to cope with being surrounded by people, that I miss those opportunities. I’m a compliment blurter, which means I’m usually interrupting someone so I can get it out there. Better than none at all, I suppose.
Right now, I’m hiding in my hotel room writing. Other writers have found compatriots and are off to restaurants and bars. Some are even rubbing elbows with agents and editors. I’m eating leftover chips from lunch and have started the coffee maker. I thought I’d find a sense of camaraderie here and instead, it made me realize how long I’ve worked on my own and how I’ll always need an out and I can’t decide if I’m sad or just resigned about it.
This is me. Following happy news with a chaser of Michelle. I came back to the room, threw on a t-shirt and sweats, started writing lists, checking agent name spellings, taking notes on everything I was asked to do. Pulled out my calendar, looked at time frames and figured what I needed to get done and when. Time to go to the evening event. I’ll put on that suit again and find a chair near the door.
I’m a writer.
I speak several languages.
I am fit and active.
I love my family.
I believe love is the right choice.
But, but, but…
What about the fact that I’m none of these things consistently or expertly?
What about the fact that I don’t spend each and every day honing my writer’s craft? And that despite working on a novel, 80% of my reading is nonfiction?
What about the fact that if you ask me any question in the languages I know well on paper, I’ll have a blank look on my face?
What about the fact that I don’t look like an athlete? Or that I eat enough for four athletes…of the Sumo kind?
What about the fact that on Monday morning, I’m glad to see my family out the door?
And for all the love I purport to feel, to advocate for, why am I repeatedly calling fellow humans jackwads and dipshits while driving?
I had the good fortune of hearing the author Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, 2009 Pulitzer Prize), give a lecture last week. She talked about the value of fiction and why it’s important to readers. She spoke about how fiction gets to the truth of characters and in turn, to the truth of ourselves. I took notes and all I could think was – as a writer, I’m a complete and utter fraud. This is a bad thought to have a week before I’m scheduled to pitch my novel to three literary agents. But it’s bad in a way I have learned to value.
When I started tutoring English learners, one of the students asked me in front of the class what languages I spoke. Ever eager to sound like I knew something of value, I muttered “I speak a little Spanish, German, French and Russian.”
It was, to my knowledge, true – if you wanted me to count to 10, list the colors of the rainbow or ask you where the bus station was. I’m proficient in asking for another beer in German or talking about military tank positions in Russian. I can accurately describe cows or the children at the swimming pool in French. In Spanish, I have a terrific food vocabulary, because Mexican food is the bomb.
So, in the back of my head, I really felt like I was telling a lie, even if I’d get off on a technicality. Lies bother me. Especially my own. I intone Jean-Luc Picard in my head Make it real. Since starting tutoring a few months ago, I’ve been relearning or building up languages. I start off every day on DuoLingo. It takes me about 20 minutes, but in the last two months, my language skills have improved exponentially. I started enjoying it so much that I’m ramping things up a bit with workbooks and online websites in those languages. I frequently wander the house repeating nonsensical phrases, sometimes mangling all four languages in the same sentence. International incident, here I come.
I have never in my life looked like an athlete. I’m solid, but short and round. All my life I’ve been fairly active. I look in the mirror and it never reflects back at me who I think I am. This disconnect between how I feel and how I look frustrates me to no end. Years of martial arts, running, tromping around in combat boots hauling packs, endless numbers of push-ups, weight training, and in the end, I still look like a disheveled hausfrau. This time my body is a reflection of the lie.
I’ve only ever dealt with half the equation – exercise. The reality is that I eat like a horse. A horse who could eat its own body weight in mashed potatoes. I eat well – really, really well. From my twenties on, I’ve resisted dieting, mostly to my benefit. But as my income grew, so did my access to all the foods I loved – foods that I didn’t get growing up and foods that I generally couldn’t afford or have access to during my Army and college years. Simple foods, even some that are quite healthy, I eat in large quantity.
My truth is that if I want the outside to truly reflect how hard I work, how much training I’ve done, I have to come to terms with the mentality I have, that whatever is in front of me now might be gone tomorrow, so I better get while the gettin’s good. I went through an absolute culling of personal belongings and clothing over the winter and found the same mentality at work. If I liked something, I bought two or got all the colors, because tomorrow it might be gone.
I want the reflection in the mirror to look like how I feel inside. I want to make it real. So I’ve begun doing that most mundane of dieting tasks – tracking calories and setting a target goal that I get all my servings of fruits and veggies. I just started Week 6 of an 8 week 5K training program. I’m starting to see results. My humble brag is less about the particular goals than it is about the fact that the lie had become untenable for me to sustain. It has simply become easier to make a lie the truth, than deal with the angst of wishing it to be so.
Elizabeth Strout said it’s the job of the writer to be bring honesty to the reader, because it helps us get in touch with our own truths. That’s been rolling around in my head the last few days. My own truth is that despite all my experiences as a human, I am not an experienced writer. I have not, like Ms. Strout and so many working writers, spent my days and nights learning the craft.
Next week, when I sit in front of my first literary agent ever, I will be out of my depth. And that is the truth.
Somehow, even confronting that truth head on, I find it invigorating. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because when that conference is over, when I’ve gushed out the verbal vomit that will be my pitch, I will return home knowing that I need to make it real. I’ll spend my days and nights learning what other writers already know. My path is one of retroactive truths, but truths…eventually.
Over the last year The Green Study blog has hit a plateau. There’s been very little growth in readership, commenting activity has been slow to middling, and I really haven’t improved as a writer. This is interesting to me. If it were a diet plateau, I’d have to make a few more changes to see progress on the scale. If it were a career plateau, I’d go back to school or attain some new certification. What do you do for a blogging plateau?
The first step in defining any problem, if it is one, is to know what you are trying to accomplish.
Reasons for Blogging
My blogging goals go through a regular review once or twice a year. Since writing blog posts takes time and is not financially rewarding, the intrinsic reasons need to be solid. Generally my reasons have been that blogging has kept me writing regularly for 5 years and I have connected with a group of interesting, smart, funny, and thoughtful people. That sounds nice and reasonable.
If I were to really going to dig deeper, it would be that because I write in isolation, having outside, regular input on my writing soothes my insecurities and urges me forward. And frankly, too much time alone makes me super weird. Not in a kidnap-strangers-torture-cellar sort of way, but in a way that when I enter the world, everyone else seems like an alien and I engage awkwardly. Take me to your leader. Meep-meep. Engaging with others online seems to take the edge off, because writing me can do.
Metrics and Engagement
I used to be more aware of the numbers, the stats, the pings. At least the ones I understood. Whether it be a development issue or spam season, there have been several periods of time over the last 5 years when every new subscriber was a spammer. You lose interest pretty quickly in your numbers when they’re a tourist company trying to drum up hits or to sell you knock-off handbags.
My metrics tend to be engagement – the comment section. Two things changed over the last year on my blog. I stopped answering comments in a timely manner, sometimes missing them altogether because I forgot to return to them. Secondly, I wrote more political posts and decided to institute a comment policy. While I don’t think this necessarily had a deleterious effect, it did slow down the social aspect of engagement, by not engaging in real time and by suggesting that there would be some level of curating.
The goal was to be less distracted throughout my day. Stopping one task to engage in another or getting caught up in ruminations about someone’s comment could throw me off-track for a good hour. It hasn’t worked well. I’m still distracted by one thing or another and am coming to terms with the fact that those are hard habits to break.
I think, too, I’ve been less attentive to commenters. When people take the time to write a comment, it is my hope that I can give it my full attention and respond in kind. But there is certainly a degree of burnout in these exchanges. They’re not full conversations, just interactions that connect only briefly as we move throughout our day. I found myself adding “Answer blog comments” on to-do lists which is a sure way to take the fun out of anything.
The Changing Environment
Culturally, social media is not moving in favor of long form posts. Instantaneous feedback, things that don’t require focus, click bait that revs up our emotions, and content that adapts easily to mobile devices is where we’re at. Perhaps we can hope, like slow living or tiny houses, blogging becomes this hip, retro thing to do for people who have a lot of time and disposable income (hence the time). It doesn’t seem promising, though.
I tend to hunger for longer thoughts, developed ideas, and something with a little more staying power. Maybe there is still room for blogging, as long as we don’t compare it to the lightning fast zeitgeist of other platforms and without the expectation of winning a popularity contest.
These are some of the things that I’ve been mulling over. I know that growth is important to me, but haven’t figured out what that means in terms of blogging.
Do I change content? To me, this is like trying to write for an audience. I like the organic approach – people come here for the subject and sometimes stick around for the voice. Until I write something that irritates them.
Do I run another contest? Contests can be labor, and sometimes dollar, intensive. I’ve enjoyed the five I’ve done over the years, but I’m a little burned out. As the number of readers grew, so did the number of submissions and while I enjoy promoting others’ work, I don’t enjoy “judging” it.
Do I start allowing guest posts? I’ve never done that because I follow blogs for specific reasons, mostly for a writer’s voice. I’ve always felt it better to provide a link to the original work and let it and the author speak for themselves.
Without a profit angle or a willingness to actively use Twitter or Facebook, there are really no gimmicks, click bait titles, or fads I’m willing to engage in that will promote blog growth. There are only a few areas that I can work on: engaging more fully in comments, visiting more blogs and engaging there and lastly, but most importantly, working on my writing game. If it’s not improving, that bit’s all on me.
Have you reached a blogging plateau? Have you made changes to deal with it?
It’s hard to write a blog post these days. I seem to have lost my sense of humor over the last few months and am writing serious missives about the promulgation of incompetence and grand larceny. I used a lot of words like promulgation and malfeasance and hackery, which is apparently not even a word. I finally deleted them from the draft file. You’re welcome.
My life is more organized and productive than it’s ever been. Staying organized, working out and being busy with volunteering and projects every day – these are the things I’m NOT supposed to be doing, so I’m doing them extraordinarily well. I’m supposed to be writing, sanding off the rough edges of my novel, so that I can panic-pitch it to agents at a conference in a couple of weeks. It turns out I can be just as focused in my avoidance techniques as I am when I write and so far, to-do lists are winning.
I’ve rewritten my elevator speech 60 times and I still sound like a babbling idiot. Likely anxiety will fix it all and it will come out Here. Me wrote book. Read it. Like it. Give me money.
I had to go to the mall for a biannual visit. I discovered that ordering professional clothes online automatically spits out a polyester 70s outfit intended for someone the size of a small child. So I trekked to an actual store, which didn’t have the sizes I needed in stock. The helpful assistant ordered them online for me. It’s as if the internet is the house and the house always wins.
Tutoring is going well. I’ve started learning some offensive Spanish from students, as well as witnessing the addictive behaviors of teenagers and their cell phones. I’m grateful to be old and belligerent. By the time the brain-implant phones show up, I’ll be too gaga to be a candidate for one.
We visited an outdoor nighttime art installation at a local arboretum and my daughter had to hear me point out stars over and over again. I was tempted to get her attention by telling her that the star below Orion’s belt was called the Penis Star. It’s not and I didn’t, but the idea made me laugh the rest of the night.
I’m in week 4 of my 8 week 5K runner training program. Since the wind carries an icy chill and/or rain these days (March is being intransigent), I’ve been running on treadmills at the Y. I’m starting to become one of those people who waits for a specific treadmill, because it doesn’t creak, or the buttons are more responsive or the fan blows directly where I run. I used to mock those people, so I can appreciate the turnabout of becoming a fussy old broad.
I took my daughter to see “Hidden Figures”, because of math, science and girls – and a free community showing. I liked the movie, but felt bothered by it as well. I requested Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, upon which the movie is based, from the local library. The true story is more nuanced and interesting than the movie, without wasting time assuaging white guilt. So yay for math heroes, not so much for this film director’s decision to add Costner’s fictional white savior scenes.
Blogging has fallen to the bottom of the list and I haven’t been reading much, although I have found a couple new blogs that I like. Tim Miller writes at word and silence about culture and literature. He approaches his subjects with conversational curiosity.
Amid a cultural crap storm where lies are treated with the same veracity as facts, I like the brain stuff these days. The Last Word on Nothing is a collection of writers writing about all things science. Science – it does the gray matter good.
I saw an old friend last weekend. After 17 years, 1600 dye jobs, and many pounds later, I was a little self-conscious about the reunion. She was always one of those people who seemed like she had her shit together. I am one of those people who, no matter what the circumstances, will never feel like my shit is together. I tend to be a bridge burner and I don’t care much for reminiscing. I knew her when I was struggling through jobs and college and bad boyfriends. All of that evaporated at the first laugh. Humor and friendship are what I consider a high form of grace.
My brain is like a junk yard these days. Amid the detritus there might be something worth salvaging, but it’s mostly junk. There’s not much to be done about it, except to wander about and not get too distracted by the shiny stuff.
I’m waiting at my daughter’s orchestra practice and one of the groups is playing the national anthem. Without fail, it brings tears to my eyes. Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…It’s an odd patriotic twitch, much like praying to a god I don’t believe in when I’m scared. It’s reflexive indoctrination which serves religion and country well, keeping the machinery of industry and institution well-oiled.
My practice of critical thinking, looking at as many perspectives as possible and making sure that I am cognizant of my own irrational emotional reflexes, has brought me to a detente of sorts. I’ve never felt more uncertain of my future, of my child’s future and of this country’s future. My thinking has become more apocalyptic in nature. I feel the gears of my life subtly shifting toward preparedness.
How does one prepare for the unplanned or unexpected? And is it healthy to always be in a heightened state of concern about what might happen tomorrow? I’ve always been a planner. That is why the shift is subtle, a slight extension of the organizer inside.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been working harder than I have in a long time. I started a new running training program. I’m focusing on finishing my novel rewrites and looking at what I’m actually doing with my writing. It no longer feels like a creative impulse, but a desire to strengthen skills and rhetoric for income and for civic engagement.
Garden planning is on the horizon. I’m working on learning how to grow more year round and with a few different methods – grow lights, cold frames, and hydroponics. I’m strengthening my language skills, readying to speak French in Canada and Spanish in Mexico. And my Russian is cold war ready. I’ve made sure our passports are current.
I’ve tested our water for lead and our air for radon. Long term health seems more critical than ever. I’ve started to cut some of our household expenses, putting more money in savings and college plans, redirecting more money toward the environment, children’s causes and education. I added more volunteering hours, joined a civic organization and have started to attend more community events.
I do not have enough of an imagination to see linchpin moments around every corner, nor do I have patience for any more partisan hyperbole. The click bait from both the left and the right is tiresome and demoralizing. Somewhere in the middle, I’m trying to figure out what it is I need to do to be more prepared, stronger and more technically agile for the future, over much of which I have little control.
Perhaps the shock of the last year – the vitriol, the conspiracy theories, all the Twittering and freaking out by wingnuts did what chaos has always done to me – forced me to find order and structure and calm within. I did not know so many people were so angry. And it has made me sanguine. I did not know so many people blamed others for the problems in their own lives. And it has made me seek more personal responsibility. My response is Newtonian in nature – an equal and opposite reaction.
My life is small and only a measured success, depending on one’s metrics, but as I approach 50, I have come to appreciate the moment I’m in – this fragile time in human history. The big picture does not look good, but I am here. Even though what I do will likely have very little impact, I have decided to do what I can where I stand, with the resources that are at my disposal.
Common sense deems that we are a rapacious lot – locusts that consume everything in our path. And everything is not an endless supply. At a time when we need science and academic pursuit to find innovative solutions for energy, antibiotic-resistant disease, and natural disasters, education and intellectualism are being denigrated. When population controls are needed, access to reproductive and family planning resources are being circumscribed and supplanted with religious ideology.
I don’t believe in an afterlife. The reason I don’t believe is very simple – it’s too easy. Too easy to ignore life on the ground. Too easy to do a trust exercise, falling back into the arms of an imaginary being and not stand on my own two feet. I don’t trust easy answers. Life is complex and challenging. If somebody is giving you an easy answer, they’re lying. If they’re giving you an easy answer when evidence suggests otherwise, they’re lying with an agenda.
These days I’m a bit of a humorless git, but hard work makes me happy. It also takes me away from the world of what ifs to a world of what is. I don’t know what the years ahead will bring. I cannot separate out the truth from all the untruths, nor accurately predict whether we’ll thrive or have our lives reduced to shadows of their former selves. I do know that I’m not waiting to find out, nor expecting other people to do the work for me.
Perhaps it’s all a mirage, an indulgence of the quiet anger that I feel constantly beneath the surface. That we exist at the whims of people more powerful, more armed, more moneyed. That our existence may become paltry or cease entirely because lucre has become the law of the land and war the god we serve. It angers me and so I study, train, conserve, and strengthen. It may all come to naught in the end, but it beats the hell out of waiting.
It’s unlikely I’ll come up with coherent blog posts for the next month. I’m running down the clock on my novel and frantically trying to get my shit together for a pitch conference next month. I finally dumped 10 drafts out of the blog pile and am just giving in to writing pithy, disjointed posts. It will be gratifying to short attention spans (mine included), but it’s not a long-term intent for the blog. Until then, LOOK – SQUIRRELS!
They said, they said
Words mean a lot to me. I’m a writer, so I spend hours agonizing over turns of phrase, the rhythm and bounce of sentences, the thumping of my own little drummers. I’ve been reading George Orwell’s collection of critical essays All Art is Propaganda. 72 years ago he wrote the essay “Politics and the English Language” and it’s still relevant.
I don’t watch award shows or political chest-thumping as a rule. It’s false prophets, cynical staging, coordinated applause, and forced laughter. A public manipulation. Give me the bullet points. Then I’ll know what other people are referencing at the proverbial water cooler.
Most speeches sound like a bouillabaisse of vagaries. Actors go for canned laughter and scripted informality. Politicians buy into the algorithm that if you use certain words repeatedly, the crowds will adore you and call you presidential. Since we’ve heard our current president’s “telling like it is” talk for the last decade (well, it felt like it), we know this is just marionettes at work. But kudos to him for finally learning how to use a teleprompter.
But that is neither here nor there. Politics and entertainment – two arenas where words don’t seem to matter, except that people buy into them. I’m skipping the recycled nationalism and the inflated self-importance and reading the transcripts instead.
I’m becoming an anachronism and I’m not sure how I feel about that. After cancelling Netflix and Amazon Prime, I am formally cut off from television culture. I stopped watching regular television ten years ago. I haven’t seen a movie in six years. I’m re-watching DVDs I’ve purchased over the years and sending them to new homes.
The decision to disconnect, even more than I already am, came on the heels of several conversations with friends and family. What we watched, what we were going to watch, what we thought of what we were watching – it made me think about how I might be pissing my life away watching fiction.
Perhaps, too, it’s the midlife thing. Vicariously living through others, be it watching sports or watching actors present stories, seems empty. I’d rather kick the ball than watch someone else play the game. I’d rather write the story than have someone else telling me tales.
I began to wonder if this was a natural regression. I am, in so many ways, still my teenage self inside. Introverted with a tinge of defiance and the need for solitude. The other day I was sorting through pictures and realized that the clothes I wear now are exactly like the clothes I wore when I was a teenager. Jeans, t-shirt, flannel shirt. They’re bigger of course, and some of them are higher end (as in more expensive, but more cheaply made).
In between then and now so much has happened. The lessons, so many lessons. All the different people I’ve met and all the places I’ve traveled. How is it that at any moment I feel like I might slam the door to my room and write bad poetry about the cute boy in 6th period? I have returned to the most comfortable version of myself.
And sometimes it feels like everything else was just a detour.
Degrees of Intolerance
Tolerance is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. I consider myself a fairly intolerant person. It’s not something I take lightly or am proud of, it just is. My recognition of this fact has come with time and is tempered by a little wisdom.
My intolerance starts with the sensory issues, mixes in a stern grammar marm and ends somewhere around a bellicose drill sergeant. I am in a constant battle with myself not to lose my shit at grocery stores, the gym, in the car (I’m not winning that one), parent meetings, coffee shops, offices, classrooms and here, online. Since I’m not doing time, one might say I’ve exercised an inordinate amount of self-control.
The sensory issues have always been a part of my life, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve recognized why I constantly seek solitude and sanctuary. Under stress, I feel overwhelmed by sound, distracted by color, nauseated by smell. My practice lately has been to say to myself It’s my problem, not theirs. It’s my problem, not theirs.
Yesterday, as I gasped through a treadmill run at the Y, a woman got on the treadmill next to me. She smelled like she’d just come in to take a break from smoking. As an ex-smoker, I’m feeling some karmic resolution. I felt a little nauseous, but made myself keep running, instead of flouncing off in a huff to another machine. It’s my problem, it’s my problem.
The lady on the other side of me started talking to herself. Or was on her phone. Either way, I whipped out a side eye before I could even stop myself. My side eye also includes a visualization of me punching someone. It’s my problem, it’s my problem.
My sensitivity to smell has not always been a negative. Last week, I may have even saved a life or two when I smelled aldehyde outside. Aldehyde can be a by-product in the exhaust of an inefficient furnace. After the gas company checked all our gas-burning appliances, they went over to the neighbor’s. Their furnace was not working properly and CO levels were building up in the house.
Back to putting my shoulder to the grindstone and getting this damned book done. I say that with some affection. There’s miles to go, but it feels like a good place to be.