Reflections

I started this blog after finishing quite a bit of writing. I spent much of the summer of 2011 emptying my brain of memories, pouring my history into my keyboard in an attempt to understand who I was. I told my story in 88,559 words – that’s 160 letter-sized pages in 12-point Times New Roman font, or, were I to publish a standard-sized book, roughly 350 pages – the first draft of a memoir.

Nine months earlier, I was shoved down a life-changing path and found myself on a shadowy stretch of road that wasn’t on any map. I thought I could write my demons away and find my way back to the safe and well-travelled route everyone else seemed to follow. I worked at a feverish pace, writing, editing, constructing, arranging, rearranging. Committing my words to virtual paper, though, wasn’t quite enough. I had an urge to put some of my experiences out into the universe and see what came back. So began the life of this blog.

When I started, I set a goal to post something daily. Even then I knew it was unrealistic, but I put it out there anyway, thinking the statement alone would make me more accountable to myself. It didn’t. I kept up a pretty healthy pace for a while, but my hypothesis that the act of writing would lead me back to what I perceived as “normal life” was wrong, too. The past few years have shown me it’s not nearly so simple.

I’ve made forward progress, only to find dead ends and be forced to go back the way I came. I’ve traveled in circles, some with dizzying speed and others at a painfully slow pace. I’ve managed to generally stay lost despite my best efforts to find myself. With these setbacks, my writing stagnated.

I’m not the kind of writer that writes because I have to, because it’s the only way through, or because the words just flow out of me. As much as I wish I fit that romantic notion of writer, the simple truth is that I don’t.

My earliest attempts at writing came in my late teens, more than twenty years ago. Then, I wrote because I was searching for some kind of explanation – some way to understand why the world was the way it was, and to learn how I could live in it when I often felt I didn’t belong. Sometimes writing was an outlet for rage or sadness or bitterness or disappointment. Sometimes I could channel my disillusionment into witty sarcasm and make light of the absurdities I saw around me. Other times, I simply documented my experiences and feelings. But more often than not, I wrote about not being able to write – not being able to find the right words – wanting to say something, but not knowing quite what it was or how to say it. Eventually, I stopped trying.

When I picked up a pen again a few years ago, I was determined not to let it go this time, and yet, I find myself in a similar place, faced with challenges that might technically fall under a different heading but are really quite the same underneath. I began to write again because I was still searching for something, though with age, it was clearer that I was searching not only for an explanation for something I couldn’t quite comprehend, but also for some sense of purpose in my life.

I have a propensity for “being in my head,” – thinking, philosophizing, analyzing. If I’m not careful, I can get stuck there. I mentally break things down and try to build them back up in new combinations. I apply logic to even the most illogical things. I’m constantly fooled into thinking that if I can just understand why, I can be in control. Of course, life is rarely so black-and-white, and I’ve come to believe that control is a concept we might be better off without. Still, no amount of thinking provided me with a purpose that satisfied my desire to live a meaningful life. The more time passed without answers, the less I wrote.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read a blog post about Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, and something about the way the story was excerpted and commented on struck me in a more personal way than it had when I originally read the book in its entirety. I won’t attempt to duplicate the already very well-written article, which I recommend you read, but I will highlight the one sentence that best represents what I took from these powerful words the second time around.

I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. -Viktor Frankl

As I read the article, a shocking thought occurred to me.


Maybe it’s that simple.

Maybe the people in my life are all the meaning I need. Maybe honoring them, supporting them, connecting with them, championing them, helping them be their best, and making sure they know they matter – maybe that’s my purpose, and maybe it doesn’t need to be any bigger than that.

Today, I’m beginning to understand that I’ve been looking for complicated, intricate answers that probably don’t exist. Perhaps instead of finding my way back to “normal,” it’s my definition of “normal” that needs to change. Maybe I’ll never be that compulsive and brilliant writer that writes in order to survive. Maybe the turn my life took will keep me on a different path than I imagined I would travel, and maybe that’s OK if I just stop fighting it.

My analytical nature is as much an embedded personal characteristic as my eye color is. I know I won’t stop asking questions and trying to figure out why. I know I’ll still struggle to feel in control and I won’t always feel like the thoughts I’m trying to capture today are “enough.” The dark side of life may always nip at my heels because that’s just how I’m built. But, maybe I can get out of my own way, and write because I want to even if I don’t have any solid answers.

I want to know what book that is…

That burnt orange paperback. The one you’re only maybe a dozen pages into. It made you chuckle out loud as you wedged your bicycle between your body and the train wall. The story so engrossing you don’t hear the screeching of the train against the tracks in the tunnel under the bay that amplifies noise to a normally distracting level. Then another page or two in, you try hard to laugh silently, burying your face in the book while your body shakes and your cheeks turn red as you are powerless to stop the laughing fit. More than once you attempt to pull the book away and continue to read only to start your hyena laugh all over again and return the book to its face hiding position. I want to know what book that is so I, too, can laugh until I cry.

Cable Car Safety Tips

I was on my way to a conference in San Francisco last week when I saw this sign with safety tips for riding the famous cable cars.  I imagine the person that designed these images must have had fun using “sign people” so creatively.  The “hang on around curves” picture makes me want to go see if I can get that much air, though, so perhaps they missed the mark.  It’s also a bit ironic that the “do not step into oncoming traffic” picture assumes said traffic would be in the form of a taxi.  If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco, you’ll know it’s next to impossible to get a cab.  In any case, next time you come to visit the city by the bay, take heed.

CableCarSafety

Seriously?

I try really hard to ignore advertising on the Internet, but unfortunately, this ad caught my attention.  Imagine the flags animated, marching swiftly around the border of the message.  The obnoxious movement caught my eye, but then I read the text and realized that not only did someone write the absurd first line, but someone also paid to have it placed where real people could read it.  This copywriter needs to hook up with the fortune cookie writer for a few tips, I think…

NotAJoke

Between Panic & Desire

That’s a superb title, isn’t it?  The title alone made me want to buy Dinty W. Moore’s book, but the Prologue quickly confirmed I’d be glad I did.  I am also a regular reader of Brevity’s blog, edited by Moore, and an accompaniment to Brevity magazine, a journal devoted to “the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.”  All are worth a read.  Enjoy the excerpt below from the Prologue of Between Panic & Desire.

Deep in the scrub hills of Jefferson County, about eight miles north of Punxsutawney, lay two towns, Panic and Desire, separated by farms, trees, and a narrow road.

Returning from Pittsburgh one morning, I tug my steering wheel to the left, swing off the main highway, and motor up a steep rise. I have seen Panic and Desire on a map, and for some reasons I want to visit.

Desire comes first, and proves to be little more than a few old houses and a modest cemetery  I’m curious how the town got such a name, what it is like to live here, what the people know that I don’t, so I roll my compact car down the main road, looking for someone to ask.

But no one is out.

The graveyard appears to be my only alternative. I search the ancient stones for clues until a large white dog appears from nowhere. He shows me his teeth, follows me to my car, and barks his sharp warning until I leave.

So I head to Panic, a five-minute drive past tumbledown homes and modest trailers – families who have lost their farms, and those who are barely hanging on.

Like Desire, Panic turns out to be just a few ragtag family houses along a strip of asphalt. One of the homes has been completely gutted by fire and blackened furniture litters the front lawn. It looks as if it has been this way for months.

A white-haired gentleman bundled into an orange hunting jacket ambles down the road, so I step out of my car, walk toward him. “Any idea,” I ask, “why they call this place Panic?”

He gives me an odd look.

“How about Desire?”

The man in orange shakes his head, offers a sad shrug, hurries down the road before I can squeeze in another question.

I’m intrigued, though, and fairly stubborn. In nearby DuBois there is a library, and I am heading more or less in that direction.

Twenty minutes later and I’m in the stacks, unearthing a handful of local history books. For the next two hours I settle in at a wide table and read about the first European settlers – German and Scotch-Irish farmers pushing west across Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. The hills were full of deer, wild turkeys, and wolves.

There is no mention of Panic or Desire.

I ask the librarian.  She doesn’t know either.

So I return to my car, but instead of continuing east toward home, I double back, revisiting the road that separates Panic from Desire.

At what I approximate to be the halfway point, I pull over, switch off the ignition, and get out one more time into the cold March air. I am in the middle of a small patch of hemlock, a secluded spot, and it is here that I finally realize I don’t want the actual answer, the truth of where these towns found their names. The mystery is sweeter.

I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire.

Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.

A Writer’s Identity

A few months ago, I attended my first writing group, and I instantly realized that I had no identity.  Because I was a newcomer, all the seasoned, confident, group members – many of them published – were asked to introduce themselves, which only some of them did.  The group, so accustomed to each other and seemingly unused to newcomers, had a hard time staying on task as the leader prompted each of them to share their names and writing genres.  Even before the meeting officially began, the man I sat next to asked me what I write.

“Ahhh, … essay, … some memoir,” I responded. My answer sounded more like a question than a statement and I was sure I looked intimidated, unsure of myself.

“Do you mean essay, memoir, or memoir essays?” He continued.

“Um, … All of the above?” I fumbled for an answer again, the student who thinks the teacher is asking a trick question.  Thankfully, he gave me a break, anddescribed the mix of writers’ that attended this particular weekly session.  I was silently grateful that the meeting began before I could be further flustered by his polite attempt to match my face to a genre.

Becky (Facilitator, anxious to get the meeting moving): “Tom, why don’t you start us off?”

Tom (Pleasant, bald gentleman, whose well-groomed salt and pepper facial hair makes me wonder if he invented the goatee): “Sure.  My name is Tom, and I am writing a novel – a dystopian thriller that takes place in the Bay Area.”

A what? I thought, but nodded and smiled as though I knew exactly what that was.

Becky: “Joan?”

Joan (Disgruntled woman that looked of retirement age and wore a tired facial expression): “I don’t want to read tonight.  In fact, I might never read here again after last time.”

Becky (Slightly snappy, losing patience): “This isn’t about reading.  Do you want to introduce yourself?”

Joan (Confused, still oblivious to my presence): “No, I don’t.  Why would I?”

I really don’t mind if she doesn’t introduce herself.  I mentally attempted to head off the awkward conflict.

Becky (Exasperated): “There’s a new person here.  Can’t you at least introduce yourself?”

Joan: “Oh.  Well, I guess.  I’m Joan.”

Boy, is she grumpy.  I smiled, unfazed by her bitterness – it reminded me of a relative I’m fond of, so I could easily look past it.

Becky (Rolling her eyes as she gives up on Joan): “OK, Liz?”

Liz (Late twenties, bubbly, all smiles): “Hi, I’m Liz.  I write YA, and have a novel coming out next February.”

I’ve always wondered what motivates people to write YA.  Maybe now I’ll find out.

Becky: “Mike?”

Mike (40s-ish, excited): “I have a new piece tonight.  I’ve been working on a Sci-Fi short story.”

Wow, talk about diversity.

The introductions continued, and in addition to the YA (Young Adult for those that don’t speak in writers’ code), dystopian (Wikipedia says a dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian), and Sci-Fi writers, I learned I was amongst a group that included writers of historical fiction (one WWII novel in progress, another set in the time of the Spanish Conquistadors), Western (which I would soon learn involved drunken cowboys reading their destiny as inscribed on the worms found at the bottoms of bottles of mescal), creative non-fiction, a rather vocal reviewer whose genre I cannot remember, and a poet.  Then we got down to business.

Various members of the group read from their works in progress, and each had a fifteen-minute time slot for reading and taking comments.  As we listened and read along, the rest of us made notes. We corrected grammatical errors, noted misspellings and typos on the printed pages and passed them back to the author at the close of each reading.  Spoken comments were kept to major points about things like characters and writing tone.  A novelist suggested that a short story be turned into a novel.  The poet recommended a prose piece be edited into a poem.

Luckily, new members aren’t allowed to read until they’ve attended three sessions.  I’m not a very outgoing person, and it took some courage for me to attend the group at all.  In fact, I’d been tossing around the idea for three months before I actually went.  If I were expected to read, I surely would not have come, and if my attendance represented one step forward, then the unexpected genre identification drove me at least three steps backward.

I listened intently to each speaker, though, and felt satisfaction when another member of the group brought up a point I’d also thought of.  If I had no identity as a writer, at least I was capable of reading.  The comments were all over the board.  There were some words of encouragement, but also some blunt criticisms.  In all, the readers took their lumps pretty well, though Becky did have to stop an exchange or two when a writer and reviewer disagreed.

Periodically, Becky leaned over to whisper to me, providing backstory.  Her comments were about logistics – authors weren’t supposed to respond to reviewers’ feedback.  They could follow up later, if they really needed to, but fifteen minutes flies by.  The group had to be repeatedly rushed along like children unwilling to brush their teeth before bed.  She told me it’s always a good idea to bring copies because reading spots open up if scheduled readers don’t show – which happens especially on rainy nights, like that one.

Rain or not, I couldn’t see myself reading my work in front of this group.  Perhaps my hesitation stems from my introverted character, or maybe from the fact that I’m fairly new to writing.  Though I assume the authors probably don’t cling to their genres as tightly as the introductions suggested, each person read or commented with confidence (except perhaps Joan, in her wound-licking state of mind).  The investment they had in the pieces they shared was evident, and each clearly had a writers’ identity.  I couldn’t imagine emulating their performances with any semblance of grace.

I don’t know that I really have a genre.  Because I don’t write fiction, perhaps it’s fair to say my genre is non-fiction.  If I agree with that statement, though, it sounds as though I’ve made a definitive choice, which I haven’t.  And that’s not to mention that like fiction, which runs the gamut from dystopian to romance to just plain literary fiction, non-fiction, too, breaks out into any number of subcategories – memoir, essay, biography, and journalism, to name a few.  Examine the category of essay, and the world of identification opens up all over again.  Lyrical essay, personal essay, nature essay, travel essay – the list goes on and on.

Since I began writing in earnest, not quite a year ago, I’ve simply written about whatever is on my mind.  I’ve written a lot about my life, though I have yet to produce more than a couple of finished pieces.  Perhaps that means I write memoir.  I’ve also written a million papers on leadership as I wrapped up the final year of a Master’s program.  That could mean I’m an academic writer.  I write articles for my professional blog.  In this case, technical writer might be the best label.  Then there are the posts for my personal blog, which range from stories about work to short pieces that come from writing prompts.  Maybe that means I’m an amateur.

Critics of creative non-fiction and memoir say it is weak in comparison to fiction.  They believe that only great minds can tackle fiction, so alternatives are seen as inferior, conceivably because we write about what we know, not what we imagine.  Sometimes, I almost agree with them.  There are moments when it seems an impossible feat to create a world out of words, with imaginary inhabitants, events that shape their lives – offer them pleasure and pain, force them to struggle, but then grow – their personalities emerging slowly on the pages, like a fine piece of glass arrives at the hands and mouth of a master with fire and a blowpipe.

Then I think about my writing.  I often don’t know where to start, and I rarely know where I’m going before I get there, but I strive no less to provide the rich experience I’m sure a fiction writer aims to deliver.  And although I’m not writing fiction right now, I do not preclude myself from doing so at some point.  If I do, who knows what genre I might choose?  Surely, I don’t.  I can’t even say what I’ll write about tomorrow.  In truth, I write to figure out what I have to say, and perhaps that’s why I don’t yet have an identity.  First, I’ll focus on finding my voice.  Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell you what I write.

Business Casual

There’s nothing I hate more than dressing up.  Well, that’s probably not completely true.  I probably hate other things as much or more.  But in this moment, the Friday night before I start a new job – the first job I’ve had in ten years that requires me to dress “Business Casual”– I detest the fact that next week I will have to wear clothes that I don’t want to wear and shoes that will invariably hurt my feet.

Almost as bad as wearing the clothes, is shopping for the clothes.  I come from short stock and inherited the husky genes of the Eastern European women that came before me.  That combination precludes me from finding almost anything off the rack that fits me.  I have to hem all my pants, and even the sleeves of business suits.  Shirt length is a problem, too.  Apparently only tall persons are meant to have broad bodies.

As if that weren’t enough, I have feet that are flatter than the plains of Nebraska.  I’m supposed to wear custom orthotics to fool my feet into thinking they have an arch, but that rules out about 99% of shoes in the world.  The rigid blue plastic inserts add just enough height that my heel slips right out of the shoe with every step I take.  Add to this that the forms, made after my doctor molded “fitted polyester casting socks” to my oddly shaped feet, drop off abruptly before the ball of my foot, leaving a hard ridge that reminds me constantly of its presence via blisters.

To deal with these abhorrent problems, when I do find clothes that fit, I buy at least half a dozen of them in different colors.  Yes, I’m one of those people.  Normally, I only have to worry about buying t-shirts, jeans, and the occasional pair of sneakers, though, which is considerably more manageable than maintaining a wardrobe of Business Casual.  Years ago, when I escaped corporate America for smaller companies, I swore would never again work for anyone that forced me to dress up.  I know.  Never say never.

In high school, I played clarinet in the concert band.  Girls had to wear floor-length black polyester sleeveless dresses with a mile-long zipper up the back, underneath which were white blouses, also polyester.  We despised the puffy long sleeves and odd built-in scarf thingy that tied in a complicated way under our chins and hung like a long narrow double bib down our fronts.  Boys got to wear black pants and jackets with white button down shirts so at least they looked like they were from the century we were living in.

My sister, two years behind me, joined band when she got to high school, and when it came time for her to don the hideous outfit, she expressed her disgust like all of us had before her; she questioned why we had to wear uniforms at all.  Despite the fact that I agreed with her, in an effort to prove my superior knowledge, I answered her complaints quickly by regurgitating the reasoning I’d heard from our band director when I was a freshman.  Drum roll, please.  Uniforms create uniformity.

If we all looked alike, we would effectively disappear, and the audience would not be distracted from the music in any way.  We were not there to be individuals.  Not to mention, we were an accomplished lot for a high school band, with a director who could have wiped the floor with Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.  We should look the part.  Of course, I failed to acknowledge that none of these reasons explained the necessity of our particular abominable uniform.

As I write this, I have to admit that I still can’t find much fault in the reasons we had to wear uniforms in high school band, which perhaps makes the teeth of my argument against Business Casual a bit less sharp.  Nonetheless, I still seethe with irritation at the thought.

I can’t decide if being forced to dress a certain way as an adult feels more invasive than it did when I was still a teenager, or if it was just too long ago for me to recall the degree to which I felt oppressed in high school.  I do remember a sort of resignation that came with the knowledge that at least we all had to wear exactly the same thing, so I looked no worse and was no less comfortable than the person next to me.

It might not be evident based on my opinion of business dress codes, but I am actually not much of a rebel at all.  Most people that know me would say I’m quite rule-bound.  I hate being late to anything; in fact, if I’m not at least fifteen minutes early that qualifies as late.  I obey all the traffic laws and am what you would call a defensive driver.  I wait for the walk signal even when the street is empty.  I never cut in line or miss a deadline.

Early in my career, when I was first thrust into an environment in which business suits were the norm, I had the same issues with locating clothes that I do today.  I was young and fresh, though; eager to impress the experienced consultants around me, I suppressed the dress-clothes-loathing part of my personality and aimed to conform.  I even wore some sort of strap meant for people with tennis elbow to cover a tattoo on my forearm.  After I left the corporate world, I kept only one suit, and for more than a decade, it served as my all-purpose outfit for interviews, weddings, and funerals.

But, here I am, making a foray back into corporate America, forced again to comply with the policy of Business Casual.  Why, I wonder, do people still believe casual clothes aren’t appropriate for an office?  My girlfriend says dressing up shows respect for the role.  While I don’t disagree, neither do I believe dress clothes are necessary to illustrate respect.  I do understand why it makes sense in her world – the world of a public school principal.  She wants to portray authority and while formal dress cannot accomplish that alone, it can certainly bolster her image.  She also happens to be tall and thin; she can be comfortable in anything.

My issue is not with those that enjoy dressing up.  To them, I say, have at it.  But for people like me, dressing up is a form of torture.  I’m physically and mentally uncomfortable, inherently in a worse mood than I would otherwise be, and I can’t wait to get out of the office at the end of the day so I can be comfortable again.  I can guarantee Business Casual has a negative impact on my productivity, even if it is slight.

The stinger in Business Casual is, without a doubt, “Casual Friday”.  You might think it would ease the pain of having to dress up the rest of the week, but to me it simply makes an absurd rule even more preposterous.  It tells us that the corporate rule-makers acknowledge the constraint of Business Casual is loathsome; otherwise why throw in the “perk” of being able to dress down on Fridays?  Or taken another way, if the powers that be truly believe we won’t conduct ourselves appropriately in jeans, do they expect we won’t get anything done on Fridays?

—————–

Note:  Just to clarify for regular readers that I’m not actually about to start a new job, I wrote this last summer.

The head on the horse

A few months ago, I began a brief consulting assignment for a guy I found quite perplexing.  He is the sort of guy that thinks very highly of himself, yet also surrounds himself with consultants, many of which he strings along from one part of the organization to another as he himself moves around.  After one of our first meetings, I’d have said he had a big head, but I didn’t need to because he did so nicely by referring to himself as the “head on the horse.”

I’m not really sure how I kept a straight face (or maybe I didn’t and he just didn’t see my brow pinch in consternation), especially because he squeezed it into the conversation six times in an hour.  Imagine a few variations of this:

“I didn’t really want to take on this project, but the boss needed someone that could really get it done, and he knows I’m the head on the horse.  I’ll get things done, whether people like it or not.  I mean, this project really needs a head on a horse, and that’s me.”

“My professional life is really looking up,” I thought to myself at the end of that painful hour.  Then I began my work.

One of my tasks was to update a stakeholder “molecule diagram,” which had been drafted by another consultant that came before me but then left the company mysteriously.  A “molecule diagram” is sort of what you’d think it’d be, but applied in a way that is somehow both superfluous and just plain stupid.  In this case, company departments were named in circles randomly placed on a large page, connected with lines of varying length to a central circle that represented the project (the project that needed the head on the horse).  Then, individual stakeholders were shown in smaller circles that spider-ed out from the department circles.  I can only imagine if it were a model of a real thing, it’d be some kind of free-will-stealing, integrity-thieving, crazy-making substance we’d all best stay far away from.  Even as a poorly chosen representational thing, it had that effect on me.

One of these days, I will figure out what kind of work I can do that won’t leave me feeling like I’m pimping myself out so someone else can get rich selling the same ideas to the same client every few months.  In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions…

Follow the links

I know I just did a Follow the links post, and I’d normally give it some time before putting another out there, but in my effort to catch up, I’ve got more I need to share, so please – follow the links…

Congrats are in order for Tele of Hooked, and I want to spread the word about her success!  I’ve been very lucky to stumble across the writing of a few people that I’ve also been able to create a genuine connection with, even if it is just in blogland, and Tele is one of those people.  I’m so excited to see her piece on National Fisherman.  Check it out!

And, because I haven’t introduced anyone new in a while, and this piece is worth every second of your time, please read Valuing the impulsive word on bottledworder, a blog I recently started reading and suspect I will continue to follow closely.

Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor at Write to Done did a wonderful interview with Seth Godin, and he has some great things to say about writing, making art, and his new book, The Icarus Deception.  It’s a must read (more on this later).

And to close on a light note … like Stephanie at Listful Thinking, I too come from a family that has not yet evolved to incorporate the hug into social interactions.  If you are one of us and get tired of people looking at you funny, read this.  I promise you’ll feel much better.