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Category — Life

Bunk, balderdash, malarkey

Lest you think this post is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (which he didn’t, by the way: The fiddle wasn’t invented yet.), I will say pro-actively and in my own defense that I DO, in fact, think and care about MUCH MORE IMPORTANT things than the subject of this post. But, frankly, I am all Comey-ed, Trump-ed and Session-ed out. Oh, that’s yesterday. Today there’s a horrific fire, yet another crazed shooter. These neural pathways need a momentary rest. And so I am allowing myself to feel righteous indignation about something else. Something small. Like these stupid sayings. I am calling bullshit on these sayings.

“That’s like comparing apples to oranges” – meaning you can’t compare the two because they are so different. What? They are both fruit. They both grow on trees. They are spherical. They are both in the top five most-consumed fruits in America. Why the hell can’t you compare them? Apples are better than oranges. See. I just compared them.

“Everything in moderation.” Seriously? Like love your children in moderation? Like be moderately creative? Moderately empathetic? Moderately generous? I. Don’t. Think. So. Be excessively loving. Burn with creativity. Open all the gates to empathy. Be generous to a fault. Because it’s not a fault.

“One picture is worth a thousand words.” Speaking as both a writer and a photographer, let me say: Bullshit. Still images can have enormous power and emotional resonance. It is possible to read subtext into an image. But not 1000 words of subtext. Or text. Words also have power and resonance. Aside from communicating emotion, which images do quite well, words can communicate what happens or happened outside the frame: backstory, context, inner and outer motivation, relationships, nuance. In fact, my friends, one word might be worth a thousand pictures. Love. Trust. Respect.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” First of all, in the scope of things in this world, in the universe, in the ether of time, it’s all small stuff: your divorce, your kid’s shitty report card, the 45th president. Small stuff. Second, of course sweat the small stuff. From a writer’s point of view, it’s all about sweating the small stuff: laboring to find the single right word, cogitating over the use of a comma, spending an hour crafting a single sentence that sings. It is the culmination of sweating all the small stuff that leads to the good, big stuff. Now if I could only find the single right word for stuff.

“Live every day as if it were your last.” Okay, I don’t know how YOU would live your final 24 hours on earth, but here’s what I’d do: Plan A: All-day hike among the early summer wildflowers in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, fueled by multiple generous handfuls of high-quality gorp. Plan B (should I be physically incapacitated on my last day): Binge watch every Thin Man movie while eating chocolate éclairs (maybe a cannoli or two thrown in) and having my feet rosemary-oil massaged. So, really, I can’t live every day as if it were my last, can I?

Your turn.

June 14, 2017   2 Comments

My so-called (Facebook) life

Here’s what a few of my friends were up to today (via Facebook): Taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon in southwestern Iceland; eating brunch at a café in an impossibly picturesque French village; signing advance copies of her brilliant new book at BEA in New York; celebrating 18 years of marriage so perfect that its participants still swoon over each other.

Here’s what I did: Climbed a 12-foor ladder with a broom and a dust rag to bat at spider webs and sweep up dead insect carcasses in the vaulted entryway of my unkempt home. Cleaned the cat litter box because apparently I am the only one with a sense of smell in this household. Drank 4 cups of tea and chain-chewed most of a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum while sweating my way through the writing of a chapter of my new book, the book that for six months it seemed that no publisher wanted.

All this might lead me to suffer from the now well established Facebook-fueled FoMO phenomenon (Fear of Missing Out), that feeling that all your peers are doing, in the know about or in possession of a something better than you. Disturbingly but not surprisingly, “FoMO” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. But, actually FoMO is not where this leads me. Or at least not all the time.

Where it leads me is to a deep sadness about our insistent (and it seems to me increasing) lack of authenticity. (I do NOT mean the  happy and successful FB friends I referenced above are inauthentic! I mean the FB world can be and can encourage us to be.)

Facebook is an easy target – too easy. It is, literally, the face we want to show to the world, and most of us want to show our best face. Most of us don’t leave the house without “putting on our face” (and I’m not talking foundation and blush here). Many of us have a “game face” we use when we believe it is warranted, or to our advantage. We all, at one time or another, employ a façade – that is, an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.

I think the more we do this, and the more circumstances during which we do it – Facebook being only one — the farther away we get from who we are. And over time, creating and perfecting that façade, training ourselves to conceal, walking that talk, we deepen and strengthen those particular neural pathways. And we forget who we are.

I mean we really forget.

June 7, 2017   2 Comments

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

I gotta little list

I love making lists. Even more, I love checking off items from the lists I make. Often I do something that is not on my list, and I add it to the list just for the joy of checking it off. Oh yes, I know some of you do this too. I have also been known to make lists of my lists. That may be taking it too far.

Here is a list of the reasons I love making lists.

1.  Making a list quiets the omg moments that keep me awake at 2 am.
2.  Making a list is a low-bar entry to actually doing whatever needs to be done. Sure, no sweat, I can make a list! It is way less scary (not to mention time-consuming) than starting the project itself.
3.  Lists break down huge tasks (writing a book, getting rid of a President) into manageable action items.
4.  Lists simplify life. Whaaat? All I have to do is these 5/ 10 things!
5.  Lists help me think things through. They demand logic.
6.  Lists clear my brain. I no longer have to try to remember all this. I wrote it all down!
7.  Lists are finite. It may not seem like it, but my tasks are not endless!
8.  Lists keep me from procrastinating. Uh, Friday…and two more things on the list? Better get to them.
9.  Crossing something off a list = instant gratification.
10. If you save your lists (um, yes, I do), they provide an historical record of your life. A power point diary.

I also love to READ lists: The 500 greatest albums of all time. The 100 books everyone should read. Twenty places to visit before you die. Top 10 most popular lists on listserv. When the “25 random things about me” crazy hit Facebook, I read everyone’s list. Most favorite part of the old Letterman Show…can you guess?

March 29, 2017   3 Comments

My Favorite Things

For this post, blame my friend Florian Niederndorfer, a reporter at DerStandard, who alerted me to a news story announcing the appointment of Patrick Park as our new ambassador to Austria. The selection (made by you-know-who) was based on … wait for it … Park’s love of the movie “The Sound of Music.” Which was filmed in and around Salzburg. Which is in Austria. So a big fan of the movie would be very very knowledgeable about Austria having watched the movie as many times as apparently Mr. Park has. (“I know every single word and song by heart,” he is quoted as saying.) Okay, then: Hired.

I too know the songs by heart. But not being an old, rich, white-man crony of the man in charge, I lack the essential credentials.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

No, not in angling for the position, but rather in revisiting the musical score to see what might be running through our new ambassador’s head. How about “My Favorite Things”? I’m thinking that maybe, amidst all of the current sturm und drang (see I even know a little German! Hire me!), we could take a moment to focus on what continues to give us joy – our favorite things.

When Mr. Ambassador Park sings the opening lines to the song, I wonder whether he thinks about who that biting dog and stinging bee might be?

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Herewith, the favorite things that are sustaining me and keeping me (almost) sane.

The news, almost every day, from Oregon, Washington and California of governors, legislators, judges, faith-based groups and corporations taking big, bold, principled stands against the thoughtless, hurtful, ignorant, dangerous, unAmerican edicts coming from the White House.

But also, coming from a far different place:
>The glorious, loving expansion of our family from five to six truly outstanding humans
>Wordstreak
>Van Morrison, then, now, forever
>The extraordinary men in my Lifers’ writing group
>That floating space between sleep and wakefulness
>Rain. Soft hiss, pounding needles, open windows
>My Seattle storytellers
>Kim
>Kettlecorn

And yes, Lizzie, of course: whiskers on kittens.

Looking forward to your lists. Post in comments!

February 22, 2017   5 Comments

Nevertheless, she disappeared.

I learned a big lesson recently: I am utterly and completely replaceable.

No, not at home! I am talking about in the workplace.

You would think this revelation would be depressing: I am not as important as I fooled myself into thinking I was! But it wasn’t depressing. It isn’t depressing. It is instead an ego-confronting moment that has the power to transform. It is liberating.

I recently exited a place where I had been working for a very long time. A very very long time. I was single and childless when I started working there. People typed memos and placed them in mail slots when I started working there. Over the course of multiple decades and more than a dozen book projects, I worked at this place, became part of its fabric, became a weaver of its fabric.

And then, suddenly, it became harder and harder to be a weaver. But that’s what I am. I need to weave. And so I needed to go.

I left, by design, without a public announcement, without the standard good-bye party. I wanted it that way for a number of reasons, including this one. I wanted to know: Would anyone realize I was gone? Would I leave behind a hole where I used to be? Was I, you know, irreplaceable?

The answers? No. No. Yes.

I am so very thankful to have learned this. The exit experience shows me how essential it is to do things, to create, innovate, weave, whatever, to contribute, for the good of the order, for the joy of it, for the fun of it – and not for the ego, for the (oh please) enduring legacy. I love that whatever tiny hole I might have left behind so quickly closed that no one was aware that it had existed at all. I love that I was the only one who honored my exit.

I wrote about just this kind of moment at the end of my last book, Raising the Barre, when, after my final performance dancing with the Eugene Ballet Company – an accomplishment I doubted even as I was doing it — I didn’t arrange to meet up with anyone to note the occasion. I hurried out of my costume, jumped in my car and started to drive home. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to sit in the moment for a while. So I stopped at a neighborhood watering hole. Here’s what I wrote. It’s the last scene in the book:

Me and my baggy sweats and my over-the-top eye make-up walk into the bar and sit between an old guy eating a burger and a young hipster nursing an IPA. And they don’t know who I am or where I’ve been or what I’ve done. And that’s just as it should be. Because the only person who knows what this means to me, the only person who can truly celebrate this moment with me, is me.

February 15, 2017   15 Comments

Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.

February 8, 2017   9 Comments