Tag Archives: longreads

Creativity in times of despair

Lindy West summed it up rather astutely in the opening paragraph of her 14 Feb column titled, “The first 25 days of Trump have been a zoetrope of galloping despair” [The Guardian]:

“Today, during my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming, I made the astonishing discovery that Donald Trump has only been president of the United States for about three weeks. Which is weird, because I could have sworn we had fallen through a tesseract into the airless crush of a two-dimensional void at least seven eternities ago, or what would have constituted seven eternities if such a place had a linear concept of time. Turns out, though, it has only been 25 days, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it.”

No, I’m not going to get all political over here. Not today, anyway. But I do want to talk about the effect all this upheaval is having on me, and on almost every writer I know. This feeling of being emotionally crushed or creatively flattened and unable to write.

It’s a problem I’ve been hearing about both publicly and privately on an increasing basis since the inauguration. Several well-known authors have addressed it in blog posts– some of their advice has resonated with me and some has fallen flat. That’s to be expected. We’re all in different places in our lives and careers. But the underlying assertion is that stories are vitally important, and there’s no denying that.

We all know, often first-hand, how stories can make an important difference for people going through overwhelmingly difficult times. We’ve all heard accounts of how the escapism or optimism of fiction has literally saved people from despair.

But what happens when writers are among those who need to be saved? How do we continue to create when we’re the ones overwhelmed and not feeling up to the task?

I realize that right now some of you are thinking, Well aren’t you all just speshul creative snowflakes. Buck up and do your job like the rest of us. And, well, maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe.

Except . . . doing a job where you create something out of nothing but imagination IS different. I know, because I’ve done those other jobs too. Answering the phone, waiting on customers, wielding a shovel or a hammer, typing a legal brief . . . hard work, yes. But a completely different kind of effort.

It’s tough enough to be creative when you’re feeling normal– well, as normal as writers ever are. But when you’re feeling outraged or hopeless? Helpless? Oh, man. It’s almost impossible to maintain the belief that what you’re doing matters. That it even should matter, in the face of more dire things. It’s so damn hard to tamp down the anger and pessimism and cynicism — and yes, the fear — to focus on writing stories that will entertain by somehow being clever or funny or romantic or scary or even just delightfully different. All those things you’re not feeling and don’t think you can fake.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. It can. I’m still doing it, or trying to, albeit more slowly. But it isn’t easy. Not for most writers I know, anyway, and certainly not for me. I’ve had to devise strategies to try to achieve some daily balance, to invent a new normal in my life. I’ve had to make several adjustments to my routine in the past few weeks, so hope and creativity aren’t being continually crushed into oblivion.

Here are some things that have helped, for me:

1. Limit time spent on social media. I’d like to ignore all SM entirely, forever. But I can’t actually do that and still call myself an informed citizen, something that’s important to me. But my curiosity and [so-called] self-restraint are such that I’m quickly down the rabbit hole, reading that in-depth article about sea urchins that I randomly decided was fascinating, and then two hours later realize I’ve also read a political history of the Ukraine (talk about upheaval) and bookmarked five new ways to prepare salmon and have watched perhaps twice that number of cat videos. And, yeah, read a half dozen political articles. *sigh*

So I decided I needed a timer. I really wanted an hourglass, because it just seems like such an interesting thing to have and I know a couple writers who use one . . . except I’d constantly be looking at it to see whether the sand had run out, or ignoring it entirely since they’re silent, and that’s not exactly productive. So I got this thing (quarter for scale, but it’s about 2 inches each side):

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I love it. It’s so simple to use, it’s genius. To activate, you turn it so the amount of time is on top and it beeps (loudly, unlike sand) when time is up. To stop it, turn it so the zero is on top. The one I got has settings for 5/15/30/60 minutes. There’s a little digital screen on the bottom doing a countdown, but I never look at it.

The key is to remember to use it. I set it before I venture over to twitter or facebook or my blog feed and I STOP WHEN TIME IS UP. Knowing I have limited time makes me read faster (or skim) and stops me from wandering off. Mostly.

Also, because sometimes just getting started is the tough part, I’ve used the timer a couple times to convince myself to write for “just 15 minutes.” After which I turn it off and keep writing, obviously.

2. Re-arrange the workday. This is related to limiting time spent online. I used to check email and news and blog feeds and social media first thing, then write in the evening and into the wee hours. This was no longer working for me, even with using a timer. The outrage was accumulating to new levels every day and messing with my head and my creativity. And probably my blood pressure. So I flipped my schedule.

There are still a couple things I check at the start of the day, in case someone needs me urgently or there’s a more than twenty percent chance of mushroom clouds, but the vast majority of that is now relegated to the end of the day, after I’m done writing.

I haven’t completely adjusted to this new schedule — it is NOT easy — but on the days I manage it, it’s really sort of amazing how peaceful life can be. Sure, crap still happens and I miss hearing about it right away. But that’s okay. *twitch* Really. Not like I’m the one in charge of stopping it or fixing it or anything. Unfortunately.

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3. News curation. Probably most of you have already seen this site, “What the fuck just happened today?” There are days I just want a quick summary of the mayhem, and this is a good resource for that. I appreciate that there are links to news sources if I’m feeling all masochistic and want more detail. Again, setting the timer is invaluable.

4. Pacemaker Planner. No, not the medical device for your heart. This is a tool for planning and tracking your writing. It also has settings for exercise and finances, for you non-writers. I’m finding it helpful in setting a goal and focusing on it. Accountability at a glance. It’s easy to see whether I’m falling behind and need to step up the pace, or if perhaps my projections were unrealistic and need adjustment. Plus, the graphs are just cool.

I created a sample to see how it works, and below are a couple screenshots. I set a goal of 25K words between 21 Jan and 10 Feb, with a provision that I wasn’t going to write at all when my daughter was here the weekend of 4-6 Feb (there are a lot of options; adjustments are easy to make). The blue line shows consistent distribution of words-per-day to meet the goal. The green line represents words written each day (these are made-up numbers).

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Here’s the same info, but using the option of the blue line changing so you know how many words you need to write daily to meet the deadline, given what you’ve written.

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Here are a couple more screenshots showing a different sort of timeline, one that will look familiar to NaNo participants. Again, the first one uses the option of keeping the original target blue line and the other one changes it with input.

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The basic plan is free to use, but I signed up for a paid subscription. There are a few additional features with the paid version, but that’s not why I got it. I just think it’s important to pay creative people, even if — no, especially if — they’re generous enough to put their work out there for free.

They’re currently running a special promo for an annual subscription (link to blog post with discount code), good through March 31. If for some reason that link doesn’t work, I got a code when I signed up, which they encourage people to share, so let me know in the comments or via email and I’ll give it to you.

NOTE: I am not in any way affiliated with any people or products mentioned in this post. I don’t get a commission or even a pat on the back for sending potential customers to these sites.

5. Maintain focus on physical health. Yeah, all those boring but necessary things like balanced nutrition and staying hydrated and moving body parts other than my fingers on a somewhat regular basis. Going outside to breathe some fresh air, feel the sunshine on my face. Getting enough sleep, taking naps if needed.

It seems too obvious to even mention this stuff, but I often need the reminder. Just because I want to curl up into a little ball and hide under the covers doesn’t mean it’s a sensible long-term plan. And a long-term perspective is important.

6. Have faith in history. Or humanity. Or something. As catastrophic as current events seem, these are not historically the worst times we’ve ever known. Nor will they be the last of the worst times we’ll ever know, sadly.

Oppression relies on widespread deception and social isolation and fear of the unknown, all of which have become almost impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, in the internet age. Never mind the eventual futility of employing those tactics in a country that cut its teeth on rebellion and principles of freedom and equality. Our collective memory is not impaired.

We haven’t been told we are not allowed to write or create. Yet. But imagine we have been, if that helps, and imagine how that would spur motivation. History is rife with examples of people who found a way to create in spite of chaos and tyranny. There’s strength in the knowledge that bringing beauty or laughter or diversion into the world is as much an antidote as an act of defiance. And there’s hope in realizing that sometimes we just need to outlast the bastards. To take care of ourselves so we’re able to do the hard work of fixing things once they’re gone. To hold tightly to the certainty that they will indeed, one day, be gone.

Speaking of which, my timer just went off. Good thing, as I’m bordering on the political when I said I wouldn’t. Time to get up and move.

Quickly, to wrap up, those are a few strategies I’ve found helpful in trying to maintain sanity and creativity in uncertain times. If you’re struggling similarly, whether you’re a writer or not, maybe some of them will work for you as well. If you have other tried-and-true suggestions, I’d be more than happy to hear about them in the comments.

 

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Filed under creativity, deep thoughts

Winter Storm Advice for Southerners

Ah, here we go again. Wintry precipitation is imminent here in the South and people are reacting with their usual calm indifference.

Not.

The typical attitude down here is actually really interesting, a weird hyper-anticipation that I haven’t seen for any other type of weather. The energy is almost tangible. It involves a combination of both panic and elation, depending on your age and the likelihood of skipping a few days of work or school. And whether you own a device suitable for sledding.

The forecast this time (ever-evolving and subject to last minute change) calls for either 4-6 inches of snow or a bunch of sleet followed by a layer of snow. So not nearly as bad as freezing rain, but just the right combination to cause all sorts of problems for those venturing forth to traverse our many hills. Also, power outages. Because that always happens.

In addition, it will be unusually cold afterward, with low temps forecast to be 9 on Saturday and 0 on Sunday (Fahrenheit). Apparently, our all-time record low is -9. Downright balmy, for this Minnesotan, but almost unheard of here in NC.

To give you some perspective, this is from our local weather people: “In 130 years, we’ve only been below zero four times in Raleigh, and we’ve only hit zero four other times.” –WRAL

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So in honour of all this shivery news, today I’m re-posting something I wrote a few years ago, when we were expecting an icier storm. Given that my blog followers have somehow multiplied 10x in the past year, one or two of you might not have seen this. The advice is mostly for writers, but I’m sure all you non-writers can adapt it for your own use.

*   *   *

From February 2014:

We here in the South are supposed to get some nasty weather later today. Several inches of snow followed by the dreaded coating of ICE. Or so they say. But even 1/4-inch of ice is cause for concern, as that’s enough to bring down power lines. And when the forecast predicts there will be a significant coating of ice over a large geographic area, well, it means people here are sort of freaking out.

I grew up in Minnesota where winter was just something that happened every year. Cold, snow, wind, even ice. It wasn’t really a big deal.

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But I’ve lived in the South long enough to know how traumatic and disorienting it is to suddenly have to cope with the arrival of something other than daffodils in early February. So I decided this was a good time to give you all some advice about how to prepare for and handle icy winter weather.

This advice is specifically directed to all the writers out there. Because I know how vulnerable we writers are when faced with the harsh implacability of the real world. We need all the help we can get.

At this late date, mere hours before the onslaught of precipitation, if you haven’t yet made a trip to the grocery or liquor store, you’re flat out of luck. Believe me, those shelves are bare. And honestly, if you’re a writer and you don’t have at least a week’s worth of liquor stocked up at all times . . . what kind of writer are you, anyway?

You’re going to have to make do with what you have at hand. So let’s start with some basics.

Run the dishwasher. Yes, really. Do I even need to explain this? Do this now while you still have power.

Do a load of laundry. If you lose power, in the winter, even in the South, it’s going to get cold in your house. You might need to actually put on a pair of pants. I know, desperate measures. But if someone needs to come rescue you, for whatever reason, clean pants are a lot easier to explain than . . . well, that’s sort of the point. Clean pants won’t need explanation. Unlike your current laundry pile.

Make soup. Yes, soup. Surely you have some quantity of chicken or beef in your freezer, festering, waiting for you to do something with it. So make soup. Right now, while the stove still works. Add some thyme and sliced carrots and barley. Dumplings, even. Yes, the prospect of eating cold leftover soup is rather unappetizing. But it’s infinitely more palatable, and less life-threatening, than eating thawed raw meat.

Hard boil some eggs. You do have eggs, right? The unequivocal accompaniment for bacon? Same concept as the soup. No one wants to eat raw eggs. Hardboiled eggs are a good source of protein and . . . other stuff. You can even use the egg decorating dyes and stickers leftover from last Easter to add some festive colour to your power outage.

Take a shower. I know, it hasn’t even been a week since the last one. But weather extremes sometimes cause people to have to interact with strangers — calm down, this is just a possibility and not some dire portent set in stone — and it’s best not to frighten the neighbours unnecessarily.

Update your spreadsheet of food sources. Speaking of neighbours, I assume you’ve been keeping stats about which ones might be the best targets in terms of easy takedown and tender flesh. Avoid drug addicts and alcoholics and extreme athletes who tend toward gristle. Families with small succulent children are likely sources. Um, wait. Sorry, that’s advice for the zombie apocalypse. Heh. Never mind.

Locate sources of combustibles. Identify which neighbours have random unattended cords of firewood. Or a less than sturdy weathered deck. Or a rotting fence that’s on the verge of falling down. I know you’ve been too distracted writing the latest story to stock your own woodpile, so you’re going to need access to a supply of seasoned firewood that doesn’t necessitate taking an axe to granny’s rocking chair or the dining room table.

Keep your curtains closed. People will tell you this is a buffer to keep the warm air inside, or to keep the cold air outside. Nonsense. This is to keep your neighbours from spying on you to determine whether you have any small children or meaty pets. What? You think they don’t have their own spreadsheets?

Have a backup heat source. Speaking of pets, it has been scientifically proven by people who wake up in the night, sweating, with a cat plastered to their side, that cats generate enough BTUs in one night to power a small country. Of course, if you show any sign of wanting them to keep you warm, they will ignore you. Indefinitely. So be clever. Tell them how pretty they are. Dole out treats judiciously. Lull them into a state of complacency before you burrow your icy cold hands into their soft warm stomach fur. Caution: Be sure you’ve stocked up on antiseptic and bandages before using cats as a heat source. As with any heat source, use proper ventilation at all times.

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Wear a hat. If you lose power, you will be cold. Wearing a hat, especially if it’s a particularly stylish hat, will make you feel better and keep your brain warm while the rest of your body slowly freezes to death. Also, socks are something to consider if you are overly concerned about retaining use of your lower extremities.

Download more ebooks. You’ve charged up your ereader of choice, right? So you might want to stock up on new stories to read during the impending power outage. Might I suggest my latest novella? Coincidentally, it’s a short sweet story of two people who get stuck in a remote mountain cabin during a snowstorm. Perfect reading for this weather! Ahem.

Play games! After hours (or mere minutes) without electricity, your laptop and cell phone batteries will die and you’ll no longer be able to play Words With Friends. Okay, settle down. I know this seems like extreme hardship. But this is a great time to dig out the actual Scrabble board game that you forgot you even had. You live alone? No problem. You can play with yourself! Er, that is, play against yourself. And since those pesky tiles will slide all over the place if you move the board, you’ll burn calories and generate heat by running back and forth from one side of the table to the other as you take turns. This is the perfect opportunity to use all those creative words the #%$^@ computer says aren’t really words, or to play words that go off the grid by just one space. Or three.

Write!! Of course, this should be the first thing on any writer’s list of things to do during inclement apocalypse weather. Of course it is. Who needs a computer, anyway? Did Plato have a computer? Did Shakespeare? Austen or Hemmingway? Did Franzen— okay, never mind. Harsh weather is punishment enough. But seriously, severe temperatures and lack of electricity are not sufficient reasons to stop writing. Dig out that pad of paper and a pen. Or pencil, if the ink and quill have frozen. Who cares if your handwriting is indecipherable? You’re going to re-write the damn thing anyway, right? This is your chance, maybe your only chance, to experience first hand that whole romanticized starving artist living in a freezing garret with a broken heart and shattered innocence and surviving on a heel of moldy bread and cheap bottle of wine lifestyle we’ve all heard so much about and foolishly envied.

Um, you did stock up on the broken heart and cheap wine along with the bread, right? I figure there are some basic survival techniques I just shouldn’t have to enumerate.

So, good luck surviving the impending weather. At the very least, wrap up your sense of humour in a soft wool scarf and offer it a dram of the finest whisky. After all, the chances are slim to none that you’ll make it through this storm intact without it.

 

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Filed under just for fun

Reflections and resolutions and the requisite splatter of blood

You all know I don’t make resolutions at the New Year. I’ve said it more than once over here, and explained why. Mostly because it seems like an artificial point in time but also because this time of year has historically been so stressful (for me) that resolutions would tend to be along the lines of “burn it all down.”

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But this year . . . this year feels different. I feel different, more resolute. Actually, in going back to re-read a few older posts, I see that last year at this time felt different as well. I resolved then that 2016 was going to be the year of me being selfish and saying “no” and focusing on what I wanted to do, which was write fiction.

To a great extent, that’s what I did. I made significantly more progress in 2016 than the year before — just shy of 100,000 words, a vast improvement — but not as much as I had hoped.

This past year has been really tough for a lot of us, myself included. It has gotten to the point where things that I’d normally take in stride have felt devastating. Things that would normally not feel personal have piled on top of troubles that are very personal and their combined weight has been overwhelming. It’s been an accumulation of tragedy. Following waves of communal grief. Shared anger and frustration and a feeling of helplessness. It has all added up this year and become a relentless self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

That’s not healthy.

There are so many awful things I can’t do anything about, I’ve lost sight of what I can influence and achieve. But I do think recognizing a problem is a necessary first step in doing something about it. So, there’s that.

*   *   *

I’ve been re-reading portions of my novella, A PLACE TO START — looking at some details for the sake of continuity in the second book — and came across this scene toward the end where Mac (our hero, for those who haven’t read it) (why haven’t you read it?) and Charlie (a wise old mountain man) are having a little heart-to-heart. I skimmed it, as it wasn’t the scene I was looking for, and then stopped and read it again. And again.

Why? Well, see for yourself:

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

You know, sometimes I read a thing I wrote and can’t quite believe I wrote it. It’s as if past me was giving advice to future me, like I knew I’d need to hear those words someday.

So, that’s one of my resolutions for 2017. Change the way I look at things, try to focus on the positive and happy and peaceful in between the inevitable moments of pain and grief.

While I can’t change certain things, I can limit my exposure. I’ve been doing that already, to a degree, since November. I can certainly set a timer before I look at twitter or facebook or news sites. I can unsubscribe from RSS feeds that I tend not to read anyway and get rid of some clutter. I can mute a good deal of the negativity and anger, and try not to engage in it myself. Maybe. Probably.

In the week since Christmas, I’ve resumed my focus on good eating habits and cut back on consumption of adult beverages and chocolate which, to be honest, had increased a wee bit since November. *sigh* I can’t avoid the fact that my work involves sitting in one place for hours each day, but I can set reminders to get up and move more often. Release some endorphins. Or, failing that, a kraken or two.

I can’t control when people send me text messages and emails, but I can control when I read and reply. In fact, yesterday I spent hours getting rid of hundreds of old unread emails from various group feeds, admitting I’m never going to read them. Given the rapid changes in publishing, most of them were obsolete anyway.

I definitely can’t control whether some idiot mouse decides to enter my house, as one did the night before last, nor can I stop The White Ninja from playing with it to the point of bloodshed. Again.

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Cats are barbarians.

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But I guess I can be glad all I have to do is clean up the mess and not chase the stupid doomed thing myself. Small mercies.

So, those all are positive and constructive things I can do to improve my mental and emotional state. It’s helpful as well to keep in mind that there were a lot of really good things that happened worldwide in 2016. If you need a refresher, take a look at this powerful listing in the twitter timeline of Commander Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and all-around good guy (keep clicking “show more” at the end to see the entire list of 46 items):

Really, go read it. I’d missed hearing about several of them.

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I’m also resolving to do something I hope will improve the consistency and volume of my writing output. No promises about what it’ll do to the quality.

The other day I was scrolling through twitter and saw a spreadsheet graphic someone had made where she’d not only tracked her writing, she’d blocked out time during the year for vacation and sick days and flex time and holidays– just like she would if she were working a “real” job. It was complex and colourful and highly organized. It was also a real eye-opener.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you need to treat writing like a “real” job. No surprise there. And I thought I had been doing that, until I saw that schedule and realized . . . I don’t have one. What an idiot.

Thing is, I know how to work hard. I know how to get stuff done. I know what it takes to meet deadlines. And I know I haven’t been doing it. Not the way I would if it were a “real” job with a real schedule.

How do I know? Because for the past two years I’ve been keeping track in my own complex, colourful, highly organized spreadsheet of all the words I’ve written. I can see exactly how and when I’ve been slacking off. Not holding myself accountable. Indulging myself when I should be demanding the results I know darn well I’m capable of achieving. Getting lost in the escape of reading when instead I should be writing.

If I were my boss (and I am) I’d have fired my ass by now.

Yes, I’ve had reasons for some of that behaviour. As I said, tough year. But that certainly doesn’t account for all of it. Some of it, I’m now convinced, is due to a lack of structure.

So I’m going to make a writing schedule for the coming calendar year, with concrete goals. Not just to keep track of what I’ve written, which is good and necessary (for me), but to plan out what I intend to do and when. Create a familiar framework within which to get shit done.

I’m going to schedule four weeks of vacation, something I’ve never had at any job, ever. I’m giving myself a week of sick time and all the weekends and holidays I didn’t get to take off while working in retail finance, even though I wasn’t part of the sales team. In some ways, it feels like I’m still stubbornly making up for that lack of time off, even now.

That sounds like a lot of non-writing days, doesn’t it? I imagine you’re wondering just how, exactly, I expect all that time off to improve output. But here’s the important part, the part I’ve been missing: The rest of the days will be for work.

No more vague feeling of every day being the same, of not having a sense of whether it’s a work day or a weekend or vacation, which makes it way too easy to procrastinate and simply take the day off since there is always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I’m going to hold myself accountable for sticking to it, even if it gets all irregular and pear-shaped at times. Which it will. But I can already tell that having a schedule mapped out will make it easier to get back on track when life tries to derail me. Which it will.

I wonder whether this sudden enthusiasm for a schedule is just a sign of getting older and sensing time slipping away more quickly each year, feeling the need to control it somehow or at least force it into neat categories. I’m sure that’s part of it. I never worried about this when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I had schedules and expectations imposed on me by others. In this strange new stage of self-employment, the first couple years without a schedule was the most liberating feeling of sheer relief– I have no words for it.

But it feels like it’s time for some order and routine again. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and doing this will be setting myself up for failure and future feelings of inadequacy and guilt and shame. Or maybe it will work.

Won’t know if I don’t try. So that’s my new plan of attack, even though I’m wondering why it took me so long to figure this out. Nope. Not going there. Regrets are useless.

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For a change, I’m feeling all resolute at the same time of year everyone else usually does. Time to move forward and make the coming year what I want it to be. And every year after, for however many more there might be.

One thing 2016 demonstrated quite clearly is that none of us are guaranteed more time than this moment right now. And as old Charlie might say, “Not makin’ the most of the time you got just ain’t no way to live.”

We all have varying interpretations of what it means to “make the most” of our time, our talent, our energy. However you define it, my wish for all of you is that you manage to accomplish that in the coming year.

May it truly be a Happy New Year, for all of us.

 

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Filed under deep thoughts, goals, holidays, writing

When you least expect it

Today is the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death and I’m surprised to find myself feeling all nostalgic and melancholy. You’d think, after so much time has passed, that feelings of loss and grief would have faded. And, of course, they have. But there are still times — odd times, not necessarily the times you expect — when it all comes flooding back, as fresh and raw as if 20 years were just a blink.

Today is one of those times.

Here’s an old picture of my dad and mom (holding my son, who is now an adult) and me, squinting in the bright Arizona sunshine. Dad looks shorter by comparison than he should (I’m 5’8″ and he was 6′), as he’s standing in the grass and we’re on the sidewalk. Dad hated having his picture taken almost as much as I do and it was a rare event that someone managed to torture capture both of us at the same time (photo credit: my bossy older sister).

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So many memories and such excessive eye moisture I’m having today. My very stoic father would be rolling his eyes at me with an expression of affectionate but pained tolerance on his face. So would my mom and sisters, for that matter, if they ever read this. I’m telling you, it’s not easy being the sappy emotional one in a family of Scandinavians. Whatever. Might as well just wallow for a bit and get it over with.

I guess it doesn’t help that earlier in the week I asked my older sister to send me a copy of the eulogy the two of us wrote, and delivered at his memorial service, because I couldn’t find mine. Twelve typed pages of memories, so many things I’d forgotten saying. I had thought I might share some of it here, but it’s too personal. Too evocative. Too much an invasion of private grief.

But the day feels like it needs some sort of tribute, so I decided to share something else instead. My dad knew a lot of people. Quite a few of them were involved in politics, as political and civil rights issues were a passion of my dad’s. He never ran for office, preferring to remain behind the scenes in the role of teacher and advisor.

One of the people he knew was Pete Stark, a US Representative from California. We discovered, quite some time after dad died, that Mr. Stark made memorial remarks during session that became part of the Congressional Record. I’ve decided to share those remarks below, redacting dad’s name and some details– not in an attempt to protect his privacy, but mine.

Mr. Speaker, today I wish to pay tribute to an educator, activist, and my longtime personal friend, [xxx], who passed away recently in [xxx], MN, at the age of 68.

I was privileged to know [xxx] at a special time in our lives and in our Nation’s history. As a grass roots activist, Mr. [xxx] took special interest in civil rights issues and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1970, a group of 31 Americans, including [xxx] and myself, traveled to Paris with the People’s Commission of Inquiry to discuss solutions to the war. [xxx], along with our group, participated in a week of talks in France with North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese delegations and the American ambassador. During our stay he encouraged an open discussion in which he questioned, challenged and explored solutions to this problem of international scope.

[xxx] . . . dropp[ed] out [of high school] during his senior year to join the Navy. He was stationed in Bermuda for part of his tour and was chosen to run the admiral’s launch that took President Truman deep sea fishing. An avid sportsman, he played offense and defense and was captain of the Navy football team. He contracted rheumatic fever during his service and suffered from its effects for the rest of his life.

[xxx] finished his high school equivalency degree in the military. He went on to the University of Minnesota, the Wahpeton State School of Science, and graduated magna cum laude from Moorhead State University. He later earned a master’s degree and completed doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. During his early college career, he played AAA baseball with the Minot, ND, Mallards and pitched against such notables as Satchel Paige and Roger Maris.

As an English, drama and debate teacher at [xxx] High School for 30 years, [xxx] was a mentor to students in and out of the classroom. He led several debate teams to State championships, served on the faculty senate, and supported the American Field Service Program.

[xxx] will be remembered as an avid reader, a lover of language, and a remarkable individual whose ideas reached far and wide. His genuine enthusiasm for American politics prompted people of all ages to become interested in government and civil service. Because I experienced [xxx]’s vitality and wisdom firsthand, I’ve no doubt that this tireless role model made [xxx], MN, a richer place to live.

As friends and family reflect on his lifetime of achievement and scholarship, it is only fitting that we also pay tribute to this great man and good friend.

Quite a tribute to the legacy he left. Dad would have been touched and deeply honoured. But it’s just a small sampling of who my dad was, publicly, the things other people knew and admired him for. And why the world was a richer place for him having been in it. He was by far the most intelligent person I’ve ever known and among a handful of the wisest.

I can’t even begin to find words for what he meant to me personally and why there will always be days, like today, when the void he left seems immeasurable. Other than the obvious ones: I miss you, Dad.

 

 

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Filed under deep thoughts

Yet another incident of critters in the fireplace, dammit

How to rescue a tree frog you discover jumping around and climbing the inside of your glass fireplace doors at midnight and driving the cat insane, in just 10 Easy — oh, who am I kidding — in 30 Not-So-Easy Steps:

1. Spend 10 minutes debating whether the frog is capable of getting out on its own. Remember the squirrel that died in there on top of the damper a couple years ago and how awful it smelled. Also, death flies. Resign yourself to performing sooty acts of heroism at midnight.

2. Put the cat in the bathroom. This is important, as the cat is faster than you are and she has been stalking that stupid frog for 20 minutes. She really wants that frog.

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3. Retrieve the cat [see above re: faster], who now knows what you’re up to. Put her in the bathroom, again.

4. Decide you don’t particularly want to touch the frog. Get a paper towel.

5. Realize a dry paper towel will stick to the frog and you will have to touch the stupid creature to pry off bits of paper towel upon release.

6. Go back into kitchen and return with a damp paper towel.

7. Reassure the cat that NOTHING IS HAPPENING OUT HERE CALM DOWN.

8. Try to find the stupid fucking frog, which has now disappeared.

9. Find the flashlight. Hope it works.

10. Spend five minutes cursing the now absent frog, wondering how it is even possible for a frog to climb a two-story house and get past the supposedly critter-proof chimney cap and survive the drop and still have enough energy to torment the cat and then be wily enough to HIDE FROM YOU WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO SAVE ITS STUPID LIFE HERE GODDAMMIT.

11. Take a deep breath and back away to reassess frog/fireplace logistics and have a sip, okay maybe a couple big gulps, of wine.

12. Reassure the cat once again that THERE’S NOTHING INTERESTING HAPPENING OUT HERE ISN’T THE BATHROOM LOVELY AT THIS TIME OF NIGHT OH JUST BE QUIET PROBABLY THE NEIGHBOURS CAN HEAR YOU.

13. Open the glass fireplace doors even wider and stick your head inside because you are now determined to save this frog like it is the only frog left in your entire ecosystem and the fate of the known world hangs in the balance. Plus, DEATH FLIES.

14. Realize the frog is quietly crouched three inches from your face on the front edge of the door frame staring at you like WHAT THE HELL EVEN IS YOUR PROBLEM WHEN IT’S BEING SO FUCKING COOPERATIVE SITTING THERE PATIENTLY WAITING FOR YOU.

15. Gently pick up the frog and wrap the damp paper towel lovingly over its filthy little ash-covered body.

16. DO NOT DROP THE FROG.

17. Try to ignore how it feels like you’re holding an eviscerated still-beating heart as the frog thumps against your palm and loosely curled fingers and tries valiantly to escape.

18. CHRIST DO NOT SQUISH THE FROG.

19. Head to the back door and freeze with your hand on the knob when you abruptly realize you can’t put the frog on the deck because there’s a BIG ASS SCARY SPIDER THAT HAS BUILT A MASSIVE WEB RIGHT THERE NEXT TO THE DOOR FROM WHENCE IT HAS BEEN TERRORIZING YOU FOR THE PAST WEEK. FUCK. THAT. WAS. CLOSE.

20. Mutter increasingly vile curse words under your breath as your heart rate returns to somewhat normal and you once again reassure the cat that THIS WILL BE OVER ANY MINUTE NOW JUST HANG ON DAMMIT STOP STRIPPING THE FINISH OFF THE DOOR.

21. Carry your throbbing bundle-o-frog to the front door and open it and gently DO NOT FLING THE FROG RECKLESSLY INTO THE NIGHT YOU MONSTER gently place it on the front step and tell it to go now and live free and TRY NOT TO GET EATEN and maybe USE BETTER JUDGMENT next time when confronted with a chimney because you’ve just gone to GREAT LENGTHS to save its stupid life PLEASE AND THANK YOU and hope no one is out there walking their dog who might witness you having a one-sided conversation with a goddamned frog on your front stoop in pajamas at midnight and decide to stage an intervention.

22. Nonchalantly, like you didn’t see that curtain twitch in the window next door and you do this ALL THE TIME YOU’RE A WRITER DAMMIT YOU MAKE STUFF UP FOR A LIVING WHAT DID THEY EXPECT ANYWAY, go back inside and close and lock the front door.

23. Close the glass fireplace doors.

24. Open the bathroom door and STAND THE HELL BACK. [Note: it is important to do steps 22 thru 24 in this precise order.]

25. Dispose of all frog related evidence and wash your hands. Thoroughly.

26. Place an apologetic offering of kitty treats on the hearth, which will be totally ignored due to lack of movement and also a heartbeat. Cats are barbarians.

27. Refill your wine glass and offer up a sardonic toast to the Frog Gods and their DEATH FLIES BRETHREN. Imbibe freely.

28. Pretend to be impervious to the cat glaring and sulking and withholding all signs of affection for . . . looks at clock . . . well, for however long it takes.

29. Take a picture of the cat, still stalking that stupid damned frog at noon the next day.

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30. Write a blog post about it, because of course.

 

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Filed under just for fun