Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's December. Now what?

November is of the past, as is NaNoWriMo. Gone is my excuse to ignore my blog because I need the extra time to bolster my word count.

I did it. I wrote 50,000 words in fewer than 30 days. My final word count was around 54,000. Most of those words are actually correctly spelled and strung together in such a way that I have a good start on a story. Notice that I don't claim to have written a complete novel; in fact, at 54,000 words I am only about halfway through my tale.

Now it's December, and I have to decide if I want to continue adding to that 54,000 words. A part of me (and more than a few books written about writing) says that I should keep on truckin'; after all, I just spent thirty days working on this thing. But there's another part of me that is itching to move on to smaller, greener pastures. In the process of working on a "novel," my brain pinged on some pretty good short story ideas (and more than a few blog topics.) And - let's face it - I have a much better shot at finishing a short story than I do at finishing this novel right now. I'm not saying that I'm abandoning it; in fact, I'm continually jotting down ideas to make what I have already written stronger.

This often happens to me when I am working on a big assignment for my job, or even when I am tackling a complex knitting or crocheting project. No matter how much I enjoy what I am doing, no matter how much I desire to hold the completed item in my hands, I reach a point where I need to step back, breathe, and work on something relatively easy for a while. Something I can finish in a short amount of time. Something that reminds me why I started the larger project in the first place.

Everyone gets bogged down on occasion. I think this is an unintended consequence of the goal-driven society we have created. We have become so focused on "getting there" that we have forgotten that most of the good stuff happens on the way to the destination. Anyone who has little kids or remembers being a little kid knows that long car trips are easier to bear if you plan adequate rest stops. You can only count so many blue cars before you desperately need to look at something different, even if that something is a notice tacked to a Plexiglas-encased bulletin board at a roadside "Welcome Center."

December is my Welcome Center bulletin board. After writing some blog entries and short stories to post on it, I'll climb back into the car and count some more blue cars. Or maybe I'll count red ones instead. Either way, I plan on having as much fun during the drive as I hope to have at the destination.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNo Update

It's day 11 of NaNoWriMo, and I've written just over 26,000 words of my novel.

25,500 of them will be deleted in the rewrite.

And yet, I don't consider this a waste of time.

There could be hope for me yet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's about time

Ian walked into my office this afternoon and lamented, "I wish there were more hours in the day. There's not enough time for me to do everything I have to do and still be able to do the things I want to do!"

He's ten years old.

While we are busier than I would like to be, I don't think our family has a particularly fast-paced life. True, Ian dances three evenings a week, but that's his only extracurricular activity. He is homeschooled, so - while we do follow a lesson plan - he hasn't been pigeonholed into an academic schedule that is too difficult for him. Consequently, he rarely has homework. I work full time, but two days a week I work from home. Mike is a stay-at-home dad/microfarmer. Lily spends her days learning her ABCs and watching old episodes of Blue's Clues. Overall, I would say that we are much more relaxed than the typical American family.

And yet, at ten years old, Ian is already craving the mythical 25th hour.

I know how he feels. I started my workday today with a massive to-do list. By some miracle, I had it down to six items by lunchtime. I was well on my way to being done by 4pm. But at some point in the afternoon, I lost an hour and a half and wasn't able to shut down my accounting program until 5:30 - a half-hour later than my "official" quitting time. The ninety minutes I was going to spend working on my NaNoWriMo novel outline had trickled away, and I hadn't even noticed there was a hole in the bucket.

Time slips away from us the way calories sneak up on us. One of the (many) times I tried to follow Weight Watchers, I had a group leader who was fond of reminding us to count our "BLTs" - the "bites, licks, and tastes" we indulged in during the day that could easily add up to one of our snack allowances without us realizing it. Maybe I should start keeping a tighter leash on my "PETs" - the phone calls, emails, and text messages that, though individually not significant time-thieves, add up to one of my precious hours.

Or maybe I should change the way I think about time and let my PETs run free. Instead of thinking of time as a series of events with a defined beginning and end to each event, how much more time would I have if I entered each day without a plan as Leo Babauta suggests? Of course, this wouldn't work all the time - there will always be appointments to keep, shifts to work, and deadlines to meet, - but how would minimizing the number of "events" in my day affect the amount of time I have? Or at least my perception about the amount of time I have.

Regardless of our situation in life - whether you are a ten-year-old boy or a 31-year-old working mom who aspires to be a writer, - we are all equal in one thing: time is our most precious commodity. Like a rare jewel, once our time is depleted nothing will create more of it.

Maybe it's about time we stopped wishing for more hours in the day and started doing more with each precious minute we are given.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Recorded for quality assurance purposes

Every word uttered in our house is recorded. Our conversations are stored in a comprehensive database for later review and utilization. No, I do not think the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, or IRS has bugged our house or tapped our phone line. I am not a conspiracy theorist.

I am the mother of a 2-year-old.

Sitcoms, movies, and even commercials are rife with cherubic children creating awkward situations for their parents by revealing intimate family secrets. Remember the commercial in which a little girl in an elevator regales strangers with the details of the Disney cruise she enjoyed with her parents the previous year? The one that culminates with her telling one of the other elevator passengers that her mother refers to her baby brother as "our little souvenir?" I'm pretty sure that commercial was scripted by a mom.

For now at least, Lily doesn't tell embarrassing stories about our family. She does, however, repeat everything she hears us say. Every parent thinks their children are in some way gifted, but it is positively uncanny how well Lily utilizes her ever-expanding lexicon. She takes our words, runs them through the Cutenator 2000, and astounds us and those we know with her loquacity.

What she says is always cute. Often, it is surprising. Sometimes, it is embarrassing.

Occasionally, it makes me stop and think.

Sarcasm is used quite liberally in our family. While my husband and I have never thought anything of it - blame it on too many episodes of Friends and Seinfeld - not even the Cutenator 2000 can dull the edge on everything. In fact, some things seem even harsher when said in Lily's sweet, tiny voice.

Mike and I are products of our society, and I think our society has put too much stock in the wrong kind of wittiness. Somewhere along the way, snarkiness has become synonymous with intelligence. We are ever in search of the "zinger" - that perfect comeback line that is delivered so flawlessly by comedians and actors with a prepared script and no need to worry about the consequences of what they say. We have become desensitized to the impact of words. What might be humorous were our lives a series of 30-minute TV shows is - however unintentionally - cruel in reality, with long-lasting effects on us and those we love. We have forgotten the importance of showing kindness at all times and in all things.

We may be products of our society, but we also have the final word about what our society produces. Lily is still an impressionable little girl, and there is plenty of time to teach her the value of kindness. I think we can retrofit ourselves to produce more kindness, too. It will take time. Commitment. Effort.

And maybe an army of toddlers to record our conversations for quality assurance purposes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In search of unknown geniuses

A few months ago, I attempted to read The Atlantis Blueprint, by Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath. I say "attempted" because it took me four weeks to get 2/3 of the way through the book. My failure to complete the book rests squarely on my shoulders: sadly, I usually only have about a half-hour before going to bed each night to devote to reading, and the material covered in The Atlantis Blueprint requires much more attention than I was able - or willing - to give it. In other words, I was looking for a mindless read, and when I didn't get it I gave up and returned the book to the library.

While much of what is covered in the book is speculative science and therefore does not pertain to this blog, one sentence made it into my "Random Ideas" (now my "Observations on Daily Life") file:

"There are probably millions of human beings in the world today whose intelligence is just as great as the famous scientists, artists and intellectuals in our history books, yet they remain unknown because they fail to make any determined attempt to pull themselves out of their daily routine."

I read this particular statement several times, not because it was late and I had once again lost my place on the page, but because it sparked a "wow moment." I can name at least three people I consider geniuses, and I could easily compile a list of people who think they are geniuses in one respect or another. But how many "unknown geniuses" do I know?

And so I issued a challenge to myself, which I am now going to extend to you. I'm sure you - like me - know a good number of people with very well-defined strengths and abilities. People who have a career and a life plan and have more than enough determination to make themselves known to the world. However, I am also sure that you - again, like me - know at least one person who just seems to bounce along on the waves that carry him across life's ocean, hoping his boat doesn't capsize because he didn't bother to buy a life jacket. My challenge to you is to find out what his deal is. If you don't already know, ask him what his interests are. Then ask him why he doesn't pursue those interests. Encourage him to take some classes, or read some books, or even to apply for an unpaid internship in a related field.

Let's try to find some of those unknown geniuses.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Balancing act

Forgive me, readers, for I have been delinquent in my blogging. It has been almost three weeks since my last entry.

My reason for not blogging is a lack of time. No, that's not completely true. That isn't a reason. It's an excuse.

While it is true that I have been busy recently, I haven't really been any busier than I usually am. What I have been is unwilling to work on balance in my personal life. Yes, I am admitting to - gasp - a bout of laziness.

I have not been idle by any standards. I have consistently worked my customary 40+ hours each week. I have continued to do laundry on Sundays. I have finished knitting a sweater and a hat for Lily, started knitting a sweater for Mike, and made considerable progress on Ian's blanket. I have been hard at work on Ian's English curriculum.

But I haven't written a word outside of work-related email since my last blog entry on September 30. I realized this morning that I feel out of balance. Incomplete. Unfulfilled. And I'm crabby. It seems that now that I have recommitted to writing, I feel empty without it. Even though days often pass without me making measurable progress on any writing project, when I carve out just a few minutes each day to tinker with something I feel...well, better. I've told myself for more than two weeks that I don't have time to write. There's always something else that requires my attention, that needs to be done now so I can spend time with my family later. I realized today that I've been lying to myself to justify laziness.

It's hard to make time to write each day, but I realize now that I have to do it. Otherwise, I am out of balance - a shell of my true self, wandering through each day with too much direction but no real purpose. While taking the time to write may take me away from my family in the short-term, the long-term consequences of living with a writer who doesn't write has to be worse for them.

Balance is not an easy thing to achieve. Remove just one component or add one too many, and the scales tip and everything slides into the floor. Achieving balance requires organization, concentration, and willpower - three things that I have allowed to be absent from my personal life lately. But as difficult as balance is to achieve, living without it is even harder.

So take down that net called "excuses." I'm ready to take this balancing act to the center ring.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The examined life

The top of the chalkboard in my high school Western Civilization class was emblazoned with this quote:

"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

A sophomoric sophomore or an eleventh grader acting like an 11-year-old would sometimes venture to alter the quote, either by erasing part of it or by adding letters here or a word there. Each time this happened, we would snicker and await the reaction of our teacher - Mr. L.R. Smith - when he entered the room.

It was always the same. He simply rewrote the quote and started class as though nothing had happened.

At first glance, it's obvious that Mr. Smith was following classic teaching (and parenting) advice by not reacting to this non-destructive, rebellious behavior from the children he was charged with teaching. I believe there was much more to his lack of a reaction, however. By writing the quote in chalk instead of using a more permanent medium, he was actually encouraging us to alter it. And, by altering it, we were doing exactly what he wanted us to do. We were examining our lives.

I clearly remember the only time I altered the quote. My first serious relationship had just come to an end, and I was devastated. Feeling uncharacteristically rebellious, I walked into the classroom, erased the first two words of the quote, then slouched in my seat and waited for Mr. Smith's reaction. He entered the classroom, paused for just a moment, and then - as always - fixed the quote and started class. But from where I was sitting, I could see his brow furrow just a little.

I spent the next ten minutes avoiding his eyes. In that furrowing of his brow, I could tell Mr. Smith was deeply concerned for whichever student in the class thought that life was not worth living. I'm sure he quickly determined that I was the student in question, but by the end of the class he no longer had cause for concern. The mortifying scenario of being escorted to see my adviser because I was suicidal was enough for me to get my act together. I engaged in class as I never had, and by the end of the hour I felt better than I had since the first weeks of the ill-fated relationship.

Did I truly believe that life was not worth living that day? Not really. But when we are young, we tend to think the smallest misfortune is a devastating calamity. The same is true when we become too self-involved as adults. Invariably, we will all have times when we question why we should bother to keep moving forward. It is during these times when we are given the gift of a moment - be it the furrowed brow of a friend or a vibrant double rainbow after a downpour - to stop and examine our lives. In that examination, I believe we will always find something that makes life worth living.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It all comes out in the wash

Sunday is a special day for me. It's the one day I can sleep late, even if sometimes that's only by half an hour. I don't feel compelled to check my email or - on some weeks - even turn on my cell phone. Sunday is my day to relax, hang out with the kids, and watch Mike play video games. In short, Sunday is my "guaranteed" day off.

But you can't fully appreciate the sun without clouds, and there is one big cloud that hangs over my Sundays.

Laundry.

In the litany of household chores, doing laundry has to be the least satisfying and the least appreciated. Unlike cooking, washing the dishes, or grouting the shower, laundry is never truly "done." Even if you insist that your whole family spend Sunday in their birthday suits just so all their clothes can get washed, there is always the stray sock or pair of jeans that somehow escapes your notice and the washing machine, never mind that you walked by it a half dozen times while hauling baskets of soiled clothing through the house to the laundry room. And how many fingers do you have left over after you've counted the number of times you thanked your mom for washing your underwear?

Big, fluffy, spring-fresh-smelling cloud.

Even though it is a thankless and unsatisfying job, there are some small joys for the laundress. While doing the laundry occupies the hands, the mind remains free to wander. This makes laundry day the perfect time to answer some of life's most baffling questions. Apropos laundry, I spent some time today considering the classic case of the lost sock. I am convinced that - under a certain, as-yet-undetermined set of conditions - socks are magically transformed into dryer sheets. How else can one explain how after eight loads of laundry I am short three socks, but I have eleven dryer sheets?

Another small joy of laundry day is discovering lost treasures. When Ian first realized that those little pouches in his pants were the perfect places to stow "things," I made a rule that every member of the family was responsible for emptying his or her own pockets. Any items left in pockets become the property of the laundress. Everyone abides by the pocket-purging rule for the most part, but every so often something will take a spin in my washing machine. Usually my treasures amount to a few peppermint disks (minus the red stripes, which disappear at some point in the wash cycle,) but I do score a five dollar bill on occasion. My elation lasts until I realize that the money fell out of the pocket of my jeans. My greatest thrill is to find one of the kids' toys, squeaky and sparkling clean, in the bottom of the washing machine. I forfeit my property rights in those instances, instead taking my reward by watching their faces brighten when I present them with a treasure they hadn't realized was lost.

Even though the laundry is never completely done, there comes a point each Sunday when I consider the chore finished. Though I know the hampers will only be completely empty for a few hours, I experience a sense of fulfillment as I tuck neatly folded t-shirts into drawers, hang jeans in closets, and marvel at the beauty of the sunset as it colors the clouds. With the celerity of life during the week, I sometimes feel that I do not give my family the care and attention I should. Doing this one small thing for them on my day off doesn't make up for the rest of the week, but I trust that in the end it will all come out in the wash.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Everthing I need to know in life, I learned from the weatherman

"There are two types of people in this world...."

That phrase is the introduction to some of the finest examples of egotism on the market. The most conventional way of completing the phrase, "There are two types of people in this world," is to put oneself (and whomever one is addressing) in the lofty position of being "right" and everyone else in the inferior position of being "wrong" or in some way lacking, at least by the speaker's self-centered set of standards.

Then there is the oversimplification factor. There are, of course, many types of people in this world. How boring would it be if there were only two?

Life isn't about me, and life isn't that simple.

But, when it comes to living life to the fullest, there are two types of people in this world: those who jump in with both feet and live with the consequences of their actions, and those who over-think every little detail to the point that no action ever gets taken.

More often than not, I find myself in the latter category.

I'm not arguing that carefully considering one's actions and consequences prior to making a decision is not a judicious thing to do. However, when you worry over every possible outcome to the point that you stand frozen and incapable of action, you become incapable of living life to your fullest potential.

I think those of us who tend to over-think things do so because we dislike being wrong more than those with healthy-sized egos. We all pay lip service to the "nobody's perfect" axiom, but somewhere deep inside we want to be considered perfect, or at least as close to perfect as one can get. Why wouldn't we? Our society has very little tolerance for those who err, with one notable exception:

The TV weatherman.

The TV weatherman has a very limited time frame in which he must make a decision about what he thinks the weather is going to do tomorrow, arrange his maps and graphics accordingly, comb his hair, check for oregano between his front teeth, and stand up in front of the camera to say with all confidence that you can leave your umbrella at home in the morning. He doesn't have time to agonize over what will happen if he gets it wrong, and he doesn't really have to, anyway. With all the computer models analyzing more data than a mere human ever could, the weatherman's predictions are usually uncannily accurate.

But - especially in Oklahoma - the weather can change without warning. Even with a million dollars worth of scientific equipment and all his years of meteorological training and experience, sometimes the weatherman is WRONG. When that happens, is it the end of the illustrious meteorologist's career?

No. The next day he gets up in front of the camera, takes some ribbing from his slightly soggy colleagues behind the news desk, smiles, and tries again. Within a couple of days, most people will have forgotten the inaccurate forecast. Why? In spite of his mistake, the weatherman keeps trying. He realizes that he won't always be right, but he keeps moving forward, and he moves forward without agonizing over his past mistakes or his potential future failures.

The best any of us can do is to take what we have learned from our past experiences, follow the advice of those who have gone before us, and make educated guesses about where our actions will lead based on those things. Sometimes we're going to get it wrong, but the times we get it right are what really matter in the end. Like with the weatherman, society will refuse to forget our mistakes only if we let those mistakes define us.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The week the Lord has made

I've had one of those weeks. You know the kind: you're rolling along, enjoying the sun on your face, not a cloud in the sky....

Then out of nowhere comes a bit of bad news. The "bad news" isn't even really that bad; it's just a little cloud over the sun that shone on your life a few minutes earlier, but it's enough to rock you back on your heels. You take a little breath and start to regain your balance...and another piece of bad news comes blowing in from the south, gusting at about 35 miles per hour. Not so bad as Oklahoma wind gusts go, but since you were already off balance this gust knocks you to your knees. It's starting to look a little darker outside your window, but the weather could hold out. After all, your personal forecast didn't call for rain.

You take a deeper breath and get one foot under you, and then the phone rings. Fortunately, it is clipped to your belt, so at least you don't twist an ankle rushing to answer it. But after taking that call the clouds move in so quickly you would swear sunset has come early.

From then on, every little thing you hear - even if it does not directly affect you - further darkens the sky. You start to convince yourself that you don't deserve to walk in the sunshine. If you did, these bad things wouldn't be happening. Surely you have done something wrong to bring this down on yourself.

By the time the rain starts to fall, you don't even bother to drag out your umbrella. It's probably broken, anyway.

I stopped memorizing Bible verses when I grew too old for vacation Bible school. There were no longer prizes for knowing the most verses at the end of the week, so I chose to use my memory for other things. Thank God some brain cells refuse to be reformatted; otherwise, I would have lost this verse from the Psalms:

This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Something odd is happening. It's pouring rain, but the sky is inexplicably lighter. This small glimmer of light is just enough for you to realize that no matter how bad things are, they aren't as bad as they could be. And now the deluge is lessening to a heavy shower... a soft rain... a sprinkle... and now the clouds part and you see the most beautiful rainbow against the receding black clouds.

The forecast for this weekend? Mostly sunny with a chance of torrential rain. Sounds beautiful to me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Putting yourself out there

Since I am "the writer" in the family, I am in charge of my 10-year-old son's English classes this year (my husband and I homeschool our children.) I say I am "the writer" because I haven't written anything other than business letters and e-mails for more than five years. Still, as Mike and I were assessing the curriculum for this school year we both decided that it was time for Ian to move beyond basic grammar and - since I am the parent with the most writing experience - that I should be the one to teach all the joys of composition. This was one of the most exciting prospects I had encountered in quite some time. Not only would I finally have an active role in our homeschool, but I would be teaching writing, something I have always loved to do.

We just completed day 4 of the school year, and I've lost count of the number of times I've made my son cry. I think we're up to seven.

Now, I realize that Ian is only in fifth grade and that I cannot expect a high-school level composition out of him. We're starting out easy, with the basic 3-5 sentence paragraph. He is very capable of grasping the concept and applying it to his writing. But we have a two-fold problem. First of all, Ian doesn't like repetition. Since he is an intelligent child, he has never really had to work at anything in school. He has gotten used to doing his work once and then moving on to the next new and exciting thing. In short, he has not yet learned that "practice makes perfect" applies to school as well as to dance and music, where he encounters repetition three days a week and loves every minute of it. Writing is something that he doesn't like to do, and he hates it even more because he has to work at it. He must get that from his father.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he fears rejection.

He gets that from me.

Thirteen years ago, I dreamt of a career writing fiction. I have several manuscripts and loads of short stories in varying stages of completion stacked neatly in a box under the bed. I've been told by a variety of teachers and professors throughout the years that I produce publishable work. I even have a 14-year-old list of publications from one professor. He assured me that all I had to do was start submitting my work to the publications, and one of them would publish my stories.

He couldn't tell me which one would do it. And so, I never pursued it. I refused to put myself out there and risk the rejection all writers must face before they finally see their work in print. Instead, I went for the sure thing, ultimately falling into a career that deals with absolutes. Facts that are so concrete they cannot be disputed. In short, no risk of rejection.

I hadn't realized how alike Ian and I are until he handed me his first paragraph. Instead of taking the guidelines I had given him and shaping them into his own original creative work, he had answered the questions asked in the outline, indented the first line, and called it a paragraph. I pointed out all the good things about his work and then told him we would work on it some more. The tears started flowing, and he said, "I don't understand. I followed your guidelines exactly!"

On some level, I'm sure I knew I was limiting myself with my short-sighted and even arrogant attitude toward rejection, but I thought the only person I was limiting was myself. Though this is my first year as an active teacher in our homeschool, it seems as though my son has already learned something from me: the risk of rejection is too great to justify putting yourself out there. I have, in effect, taught Ian to not be creative, to focus on getting the right answer and pleasing everyone except himself.

It's time for a new lesson, and I have my work cut out for me.

This blog serves multiple purposes. First and most importantly, this is my exercise in putting myself out there. I don't know who will end up reading this and what their judgments might be, and that's scary. Secondly, I've been promising someone that I would start sending her some samples of my writing. I started writing a short story a few days ago, but it's slow going. I hope this blog entry will pacify you until I get the story finished, Annie! Third, I need to get back into the practice of writing; this entry has taken forever to write. No wonder my short story isn't finished yet. Finally, my dear husband recently told me it's time to either write or get off the pot. He's been hearing me talk about "someday" for almost 13 years now.

I had a thought this morning that I think summarizes this entry quite well. If you always go after the sure thing, the only thing you can be sure of is an unexceptional result.

Here's hoping for some exceptional results.