Monday, December 31, 2018

The Year of Living Large

This isn't a New Year's resolution post.

One summer, on a trip to Chicago with my small children, I optimistically wore a hot pink graphic tee that read in silver glitter letters: The Joy is in the Journey.

What a mistake. The flight was a complete disaster, my kids misbehaved in ways I've conveniently forgotten, and it ended in me all but containing a seething yell across the airplane aisle: "Just you wait until we get off the plane!" My naughty children smirked, snickered even.

So, I don't set myself up for such epic failure. I don't emblazon inspirational sayings across my chest because life just isn't a party cruise. It smacks you down. Oddly, Ariana Grande's breathin is playing in the background right now.

But, I'm optimistic about 2019. Maybe because I feel good. Good, as in, life is an open book to me right now. I'm feeling energized and happy. Like I could accomplish just about anything I want to this year. Can one be happy? A counselor once told me that true happiness is impossible. Contentment was more like it. But, no, I'm happy.

Even though there are so many reasons not to be:

  • the glaciers are melting at incredible rates
  • plastic and micro-plastic are clogging our beaches and ocean
  • my word count is still pretty sucky
  • financial security is a myth
  • hell, security of any sort is elusive and easily lost
  • my dance card is empty (again. i'm open to dates, if you're available.)

But but but but. My unfinished books, they're calling. My travel plans, forming. My dreams (mostly about motorcycles) still keep me up at night. Let's see what 2019 will bring. C'mon, 2019, let's get sweaty.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Askance at a Celebration

Only a writer would make writing prompts a fun birthday activity. But they were for me last month when I decided to write brief essays leading up to my day. Funny, though, a few friends on Facebook, most of whom know me, gave me some surprising feedback. I didn't necessarily feel like these were a downer when I wrote them, but several readers took them that way. Wasn't my intention. These are reflections on good stuff with reality woven in. Five in total.

#1, The Bike of Second Chances
Woman walks into a bike shop. Tiny place. Two rooms. Shiny bikes. Fresh gear. Two men behind the counter. A mechanic and a counter guy.
Her bike is 30 years old. She’s sure it needs a tune-up. Probably worse. She almost trips rolling it in. She braces for the up-sell.
My antique.
“Look at that,” the mechanic tells the counter guy, maybe even elbows him. ”You got one just like it.”

“A Cannondale?” she says, not sure to which guy. “It’s kinda old.”

“Jesus, and roller-cam breaks.”

Should she blush? Are they admiring it? Or amazed it’s still in one piece?

“I wanna start riding it more,” she says. “I just need to make sure it’s ready.”

The counter guy wheels it behind a glass case full of sparkling objects that would probably make her ride faster, go farther, look far more hip than she does on her one and only mountain bike. Her first real boyfriend helped her buy it before she knew what mountain biking was, before she had a mortgage and teenagers to raise by herself. Parenting pushed the bike to the recesses of the garage, and then life pushed everything else into the recesses. She wanted to come out of the recesses.

The mechanic lifts it up on the bike bench right away. She sucks a little air, like she’s watching her cat at the vet poised for an examination.

Thinking it might be better to look away, she wanders into the store, hoping the mechanic will be gentle when he delivers the bad news. Oh, he’d say, your axle is shot. Geez, he’d point out, these gears are stripped. No way, he’d admonish, should you ride this old thing on the street.

“Hey,” he calls back, within maybe three, five minutes tops. She hustles over, stiffens her neck. “Nothing really wrong with it,” he says. “I’d say, ride it ‘til the wheels fall off.”

A year later, the bike’s on the street, and she’s on the bike, rolling out every wrinkle.

#2, The Mysteries of Family Ephemera
Pearly whites.
Mom's always had a killer smile. Must of smitten Dad pretty good, so much so he worked hard to beat out his best friend, Freeman, who was dating Mom first. Dad took lots of pictures and slides back when he wore sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses. I've got a picture or two of him, packed away, looking all James Dean. Not sure who took the pictures of him. He took this picture of Mom, I think when they were still dating. She just turned around someplace outside on a Missouri afternoon, where they were together one day, and he caught her full-on happy. The precursor of a selfie. She still smiles like that, on occasion.
The Elmores.
My other family photo shows Dad's side of the family. On the front row, seated far left, is Pearl. She was still alive when I was a kid visiting Lebanon, Mo. Aunt Pearl was how I knew her, but my memories were just from an 8-yr-old point of view, and everyone then seemed dignified. Right above Pearl, my Dad has told me, stands Mabel. The story goes that Mabel was a bit of a playgirl and fancied herself a few boyfriends. She never married. I'm feeling (channeling?) ya, Mabel. But I'm getting a late start.
If you look hard enough, you can see my reflection in the glass of the group picture. Wonder if someone will be writing about me to hundreds of acquaintances in a few decades?

#3, Life on a Train
Somewhere in Colorado.
Life on a Train
...slows waaaay down
...shreds your cell service
...causes you to revive that spectacular-crazy idea you've put on hold for too long.
Outside the Train
...the landscape is grass, snow, mountains, the horizon
...scenery you never thought existed
...and an ongoing rumble
Life on a Train
...goes on hiatus for a while
...places you at the mercy of the American railway system, and despite its potential, A-types will mutiny, screaming for a rental ride rather than a cheap bottle of wine in the bar car
...opt for the bar car.
The Train Stops
...whenever it feels like it, or so it will seem the middle of nowhere at anytime of day, where you'll see the signs of someone with a good sense of humor who also had time on his hands

...and during the night, it goes so dark, you can only see your reflection in the train window, and you'll feel yourself looking inward, wondering why it took so long to get there.
#4, The Hat
Sometimes, an object carries a story. This hat, for instance, tells a story of wanting to be cool and its consequences. See, those young things on those spring break shows in their scant bikinis, well, all the cool ones wore hats like this. Imagine feeling that damn good about yourself by wearing a hat.
A friend of mine had to move her family out of her house, and that's where I saw this one. Cool was within reach. I helped the last day of the move, at the 11th hour. I actually felt like a bad friend for showing up late to the "party." But the timing proved fortuitous, for other reasons than the hat.
The nitty gritty of all the million decisions made during a move had come to a head. No more processing could be done--what to keep, what to throw out. It all seemed a little senseless after weeks of decluttering and downsizing and packing. The house, still full of unpacked possessions, was down to the arcane items that come into our lives. A Ouija board, mismatched cups and saucers, old cookbooks, overloved stuffed animals. After days of last-minute sorting, nothing else seemed worth taking. I felt more like a counselor than a friend pitching in. I'd been there before, painfully rerouting my direction.
You see, her move wasn't by choice. Gentrification and the soaring prices of Asheville real estate uprooted her and her small close-knit family. If you live in a home for a decade and a half and are unapologetically asked to uproot, all the stuff seems suddenly more precious and a weight around your neck.
I bought the hat and few other items--and then felt like I had trespassed on my friends' misery. To counterbalance, I decided to become the caretaker of the hat and not the owner. I've worn it, but it looks like someone else's.
I've told my friend that the hat is still hers. It reminds me not to covet and to understand my own possessions are fleeting and full of an energy not my own.
#5, Artifact of Love
He started all his designs by sketching. It could have been on a napkin from a favorite haunt, or across the back of a used envelope, or in one of his dozens of sketch books. He said he was studying the problem. And when the problem is making something beautiful—making something timeless—you better study it. Occasionally, his sketches took on whimsical elements, and for no reason, he’d draw a hot air balloon in the corner, or a strange curve would be added to a bracket or a clockface. Maybe he called on the ghost of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to pull off an uncharacteristic design. Like the Scottish architect, he understood the human appeal of surprise. How could he not experiment? Especially if he were the builder presented with his own challenge.
Love note, not pictured.
 (DSR 1961-2014)
He started the jewel box late in December. Always late, just days before Christmas morning. Before time ran out, he threw himself into chiseling and sanding and varnishing the piece, the one he determined was the most beautiful design of the season. For his wife, he took greater pains to pull off challenging inlays and mortis-and-tenon connections that would drive a master craftsman into fits of despair. His focus on creating the work gave the design life. He often marveled over the transformation from 2D to 3D, when the real magic happened.
While putting the final touches on the jewel box—a small tabletop tower for special trinkets—she accidentally walked into his studio one late night. He was sanding the finish. “Oohh,” she murmured and pulled back from the doorway and the ill-timed glimpse. The downturn in her voice told him she regretted spoiling his surprise. He shrugged and told her to stay.
He didn’t say anything profound. He still had work to do to make it perfect. He just smiled, knowing he’d place it under the tree anyway. Like a surprise. Like it should be. With a love note inside for her.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Theory of Life and Death and Writing

This is my theory. It is unproven. It is not dogmatic. It is not based on any religious theory. It makes semi-logical assumptions. It speculates about life and death. And, for me, about why writers write.

Zero is the moment of birth. The Positive Finite Years begin at birth. These are the years of knowing. We learn how to live. We become self-aware. We become other-aware.

Then, we die.

The Negative Infinity Years are the years of not knowing. They are the ultimate unknown. We do not know them. We are not self-aware. Nor are we aware of anything. Death erases knowing.

But, let's go back. Here's what we know about the Positive Finite Years:

We must survive. As part of survival, we must learn skills. We must work. We must learn to interact, to be with others. There is suffering involved. There is love. We must process pain and rejection while also experiencing joy and the mystery of the unknown, aware that these years are precious and finite.

Here's what we know about the Negative Infinity:

In the Infinity, we are not required to survive. We do not need people or skills. There is no suffering. There is no love. We are not required to process pain or contemplate mystery. These years go on unendingly.

Expressed in another way:

Finite Years = Survival + Suffering + Love
Infinite Years = No survival + No Suffering + No Love

Which is nirvana?

Fear plays a factor. We FEAR in the Finite Years. We fear everything:

  • lack of resources
  • bodily harm
  • betrayal
  • rejection
  • success
  • failure
  • the unknown

But, there is no fear in the Infinite Years.

How do we take fear out of the Finite Years?
Some use dogma and creeds, hence religion.
Some use reason, hence intellect.
Some use science, hence research.

Our blindspot is always fear.
Fear, I believe, can be defeated by wonder.

What if ... ?
Wonder is our asking, what if?

What if ... we lived forever?
What if ... no one ever starved?
What if ... racism didn't exist?
What if ... I could play the piano?
What if ... we could travel in space?
What if ... my neighbor and I got along?
What if ... there is life on another planet?
What if ... the Infinite Negative doesn't exist?

What ifs take away some of the unknowing and fear and replace it with wonder. I know I must use my mind now. I must maximize the what ifs. And I do this, partly, by writing. I write by asking what ifs. Not large, existential questions, like in this post, but smaller questions. What if one person loved another in this story? What if it didn't work out? And, then again, what if it did?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Obsession is A Writer's Best Friend

When all else fails, obsess.

The heart of the matter is all else. I've bargained with myself. Reframed. Thrown fluffy pillows on the "writing" chair. Switched laptops (not purchased a new one, mind you; just shuffled a few around from underneath couches and such). Bought a new pencil and notebook. Recommitted. But I can't seem to finish the last damn book in my series. So, I have to obsess.

An incentive? Book cover mockup.
Writers who obsess get shit written.

Writers who obsess don't do the dishes (see last post).

Writers who obsess toss out every social invitation, forgo family obligations, lose a few bills, banish the 13-yr-old Golden Retriever to the backyard, ignore text messages, and don't see people for weeks on end. They grow hair where it's not supposed to. They drink too much wine and wear stinky socks (because y'all know I hate sorting them, and I may already do these things regardless of my word count). They forget they have kids to feed. They certainly don't check Facebook. They also don't blog about writer's block. For the obsessed, nothing gets done but the writing.

I NEED to obsess.

Okay, so I wrote 350 words on an airplane using my smartphone's "notepad" app while the folks next to me thought I was a little touched, trying to type a novel into a tiny damn screen on a smartphone with my index fingers. 350 words doesn't count. 350 words is paltry. I need 30,000.

I NEED to push this book out of my brain. Out of my life.

I NEED to obsess.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hello, Dishes

Thank god I waited until this morning to start a new post. Writing after drinking wine on a weekend night when the most exciting thing on the agenda is emptying the dishwasher probably isn't a good idea. Those are the times the f-bombs lob liberally from the ol' noggin. My goal here isn't to f-bomb you. We have enough violence in the world without me adding to it.

Ironically, I'm reading "The Book of Joy," a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The book is based on a week-long conversation between the two friends facilitated by a writer, who wrote a book about their discussion. A friend suggested it to me. Though it may sound ludicrous, these guys would make a good morning show. The Lama/Tutu Coffee Hour. Reset your life with advice from the enlightened.

Far from it, I can't claim to be enlightened yet. And, generally speaking, my thoughts assume bad patterns. Negative outcomes. Dwellings on the past. Doggy downers. Basically, a rewinding shitshow (sorry about the vulgarity, couldn't get through this post without one). The Lama/Tutu duo advise that in order to overcome the negativity: think more of others than yourself. And meditate (if you're a lama/Buddhist) or pray (if you're an archibishop/Christian). One main focus should be on compassion. And, in a chemical combo of these two -- caring and compassion -- you'll be a better, happier person.

I'll buy that. Let me take an ohm break. Ah, there, now on with the post.
Do you have enough?

Back to the mundane dishes. To reframe, the Lama/Tutu way would reconsider the dishes as a representation of abundance. I may have a pile of dirties, but in reality, the dishes show that I've been able to feed myself, my kids, the occasional doe-eyed pet. The dishes also show that there's an element of leisure regarding when I actually need to clean them, because I have a machine that can do the hard work in less than an hour. I don't have to spend a soggy session soaping, rinsing, and drying those dishes, because the dishwasher does most of the work. What a miracle. Most of the world doesn't have this luxury. So, in many ways, the dishes, piled high, crusty and gross, aren't deleterious at all. They are symbolic of privilege and the vast resources available to me.

That certainly puts a different light on those dishes. Does it put a different light on my life?

Yes ... and no. Living in a modern culture, all the trappings of cultural expectations (usually, consumer items) make feeling contented an impossible ideal. How can I feel contented when I don't have X, X, or X, like my neighbor, or co-worker, or that beautiful model in the ad? Admittedly, I consume far less of the "false feed of need" by not watching commercial television or clicking on every idiotic Facebook ad, but it's there, nonetheless. The message is loud and clear: You won't be happy until you do/have/become THIS (insert car, vacation, relationship, book, method, status symbol, coffee grinder, retro LP collection, etc.). Ack. How will we ever overcome the bombardment?

Well, I start with the obvious, which is recognizing the messages never end and are constantly incoming. And, they sometimes are quite sneaky, i.e., "Why, of course, I want to be healthier by doing that new supplement regime touted by Oprah!" (Remember acai?)  

And, I'll read the book. And, I'll reread the book. Maybe, I'll even start to meditate. Would that be reaching for X, too? Depends, I suppose, on what I meditate on. Perhaps, just on my abundant dishes.