Making Life Practice my B****


As a musician, much of my life revolves around the idea of practice. Most kids will tell you that practicing sucks. My friends with kids bitch about practice logs they need to (forge) sign and turn in to music teachers fighting for priority with the other hours of assigned homework each night.

I’ve given lots of advice about practice mindset, practice strategy, and practice goal-setting. Practicing music is a joy for me, not a chore. When it comes to music, practice isn’t a bitch, it’s my bitch.

Most people will say that practicing is repeating something over and over again in order to achieve some goal. I don’t like this definition. It reminds me too much of those days locked in my room playing the same phrase over and over again, often worse off at the end than when I started.

Practice is no more than the real world application of theoretical principles. Simply put, stop thinking about how to do it and do it. Practice is not about getting it right. Practice is about getting it wrong, mindfully.

When it comes down to it, is practicing music is any different than practicing anything, be it yoga, healthful eating, or writing? What about being a better listener, or a more patient parent, or putting down the IPhone and taking in the moment? Why don’t I practice life like I practice music?

My yoga teacher talked about practice yesterday, and how it’s a daily commitment–a choice. To grow, we have to embrace the discomfort,and let go of the ego enough to explore. I am too often focused on accomplishing some end state. Wrong goal.

The goal of practice is integrity. The alignment of idea and action.When one achieves alignment, energy travels without interruption . That’s the goal, right? For the words to flow like water, to run without touching ground, to savor every bite of life until your soul is full?

If you want to align something you don’t jam it into place and bingo, you’re done. You have to fuss with it, explore the boundaries, experiment to see how different actions give a different result. You have to practice.

You also have to get some humility.

Sometimes, I’ve worked a difficult passage until I have it down cold, but then blow it when I have to play it outside of my practice room. Is it that my fingers don’t know the shapes, the placement, the correct bow tension to produce a sound? Not really. It’s that I get close to the passage and that little voice says “Hey Heifitz, here comes that passage. Don’t fuck it up.”

Why don’t we accept that our nature is to err, and embrace it? After all, that’s all practice is. Instead of saying “I effed up” I can say “I’m out of alignment.” Not because I can’t deal with screwing up and need some sort of feel-good double-speak. It’s because mistakes aren’t the end of the world. They are the world. It’s because it’s often my fear of failure, or the fear of feeling like a failure that keeps me from practicing in the first place.

I know it sounds all new-agey of me, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Practice takes time. It takes commitment. It takes patience. It takes a sense of humor and more than a little forgiveness. Practice takes love.

So what is it you want to practice?

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Ditching the electronic calendar

1-IMG_1077Sunday morning began in the usual way. Turn off the fan. Turn on the lights. Turn on the lightbox. Move the cat. Check email.

Check email.

Where the f*** were my emails?

I rebooted my phone. My Gmail account was still empty, so I ran to my desk to check the account on my laptop. Nothing.

This was a disaster.

Google wasn’t much help. The best they could do was restore the mail from my promotional tab so I could relive every website deal from Thanksgiving until Christmas. All of my business correspondence? Forget it. The holiday best wishes from friends and family? They would have to live in my memory. Anyone who asked me to do something or be somewhere, good luck with that.

Then again, I had an empty mailbox, which felt pretty cool.

How much of what was lost did I really need, and how much was I hanging on to because I could? I knew who I needed to ping to get critical information back. As disasters went, I’d survive.

I had a similar situation last month when my computer died. My advice for today–do not drink near your computer–especially if you gesture a lot when you’re on the phone. That sizzling noise the laptop makes as water seeps into the motherboard is your files saying goodbye.

Luckily I had a backup of my files on the server. Luckily I have a server, thanks to my husband to whom I apologize for rolling my eyes behind his back when he talks about security and recovery because like most people, I assume these inconveniences won’t happen to me.

I had a shit-ton of stuff in my archives; Multiple versions of the novel-that-will-never-see-the-light-of-day, Four year old orchestra press releases, Every iteration of the Dude’s college essays.When I thought about the files I really needed access to, it was a small fraction of what I had in storage. Did I really want my new laptop to inherit all of the clutter and chaos of the last one?

I decided to manage it like moving boxes. I’ll bring a file over to the new computer when and if I needed to. Otherwise, it could stay where it is.

Having the Dude leave the nest has had a similar effect on my life. For eighteen years, his schedule dictated mine. I loved being an at-home mother, but I was definitely in orbit, held by the gravitational pull of the Dude. Now that he’s on his own, the slate is wiped clean.

I have always kept a detailed electronic calendar, a throwback to my consulting days. It’s color coded by type of activity, participants and purpose. That calendar was the extra set of hands that kept me from dropping the ball, but the Dude took the ball with him when he left for school, and my calendar still looks exactly the same.

My father-in-law gave me an engagement calendar as a Christmas gift. When I opened it, I thought, “how quaint,” but I’m starting to reconsider.

The beginning of a new year serves as a reboot for me, a time to consider what to take from one year into the next. if how I live my day is how I live my life, how does my electronic calendar measure up? Like my email account and my computer files, maybe my schedule could do with a little electronic obliteration.

The booklet that my father-in-law gave me is beautiful, but not complex. It shows a week at a time, without demarcations for hours and minutes. It doesn’t call itself a calendar, or a planner, but an engagement book. Perhaps the term isn’t one of pretentiousness, but one of intention. An engagement can be a commitment, but engagement is also a state of being. This calendar requires a pen, and writing, and some consideration. I have these 24 hours. What will they mean?

Of course, I have appointments to keep, for which I’ll maintain my Gmail calendar, but focusing on life at the granular level is like bad musical theater, where time becomes no more than filler between songs.  Instead of focusing on what I need to do each day, I can decide what I want each day to be.

So I’ll add my engagement book to my morning routine, right after moving the cat. My email can wait, assuming there’s anything there.

 

 

Don’t let Angry be the New Black


A few weeks ago I went to Trader Joe’s to pick up some avocados. I don’t usually shop at Trader Joe’s. Their parking lot was clearly designed by the owner of the local body shop looking to generate new business, but the store was on the way to another appointment so I thought I’d brave it.

I grabbed my avocados and stood in line. The woman in front of the register had two carts of groceries and the most adorable little girl, with whom I played peek-a-boo while awaiting my turn. Just as the cashier was about to ring up my purchase, a woman lined up behind the register pronounced, “I AM NEXT IN LINE. THIS WOMAN CUT IN FRONT OF ME.”

I was confused. “I only saw one shopper in line when I got here.”

The other woman, full of righteous indignation, replied, “I DON’T CARE HOW MANY ITEMS YOU HAVE. YOU CAN’T JUST CUT IN FRONT OF PEOPLE. YOU MUST GO CHECK OUT SOMEWHERE ELSE.” She sent me off with a pointy finger. The cashier said nothing. I took my avocados a few lines away and made sure she’d left the store before I made my way to the car.

It was my fault. I lined up on the wrong side of the register. It’s backwards from what I’m used to. But I had been standing there with my bag of avocados for at least five minutes playing toddler games. Was it impossible to say to me, “Excuse me, but I’m next in line?” I would have apologized and taken my rightful place. Instead, the woman created her own narrative that because I had one item, I felt entitled to take a spot ahead of everyone else. By the look on her face, admonishing me was the highlight of her day.

I’m just grateful no one videotaped the interaction to post on the internet. Social media shaming is the new planking. Everyone is doing it, but it doesn’t really have a point.

When the heck did everyone get so angry? It’s like we’re all stomping around, elbows out, looking for a reason to let our frustration flag fly. Just this week, the parent of one of the Dude’s little campers went off on a kid he thought had picked on his son. Instead of talking to the counselors, he went Charlie Sheen on a seven-year-old.

With so much ire in the atmosphere is it any wonder that every day we hear about another incomprehensible, random act of violence. We say something has to change, and then we forget until it happens again. There’s nothing we can do, right?

Or is there?

I get it. Life is stressful and complicated, but I believe we reap what we sow. Maybe the woman at Trader Joe’s had a good a story to tell when she got home, but what if she cut me some slack and forgave me over a two minute transaction? What if she pointed out my queuing faux pas then graciously offered to let me go ahead?

The planet is getting too hot under the collar. So starting this week, I’m going on a Self-righteous Anger Free diet. I know it won’t be easy, but it’s good for me, and for the environment too. It reduces my use of fertilizer and conserves energy. We are so careful about what we put in our bodies these days–Sugar Free, Fat Free, GMO Free, Gluten Free. We should be just as careful about how we feed our souls.

If you care to join me, Self-Righteous Anger Free products can be found wherever you shop, and for once, cost much less than their counterparts. You might even find them at Trader Joe’s. Just be careful in the parking lot.

Abominable Behavior

Boston-YetiAbout ten years ago, when I was living in Boston, a major snowstorm hit the city while I was traveling on business.

As fate would have it, parking at Logan was limited, so I had to park on the roof. That’s right. The roof. The part of the building without more building above it.

I was totally screwed. Not only would my car be covered with eight inches of snow, I would be boxed in by whatever the plow left behind my car while clearing the roof for everyone else. In the time I was gone, surely it would have half-melted and re-solidified into a natural barricade which would require a jack hammer to get through.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely sure exactly which row I’d parked in. It’s not like the roof has a lot of identifying characteristics, and I sort of counted on having the identifying characteristics of my car to rely on, unless, of course, it was the only one still covered with snow. Then it would be easy to spot.

I had a snow brush in the car, but what I really needed was a shovel, or a pick axe. Maybe I’d be better off taking a cab home, and then going back the next day with a jack hammer.

And that’s when my husband called.

“So you and the dude are going to drive over and dig me out before I get home, right?”

The dude was six. At seventeen, he still is useless during a snowstorm. If only he shoveled snow as effectively as he manages to shovel everything else.

“Hahahaha. Right.” My husband is such a romantic soul.

When I finally arrived in Boston it was late–well past midnight–and I made my way to the roof of the parking ramp. As expected, the rooftop was a sea of white under bright lights, each car an indistinguishable white blob next to another white blob.

All except for one. Mine. Completely cleared and shoveled out of the mess. All I had to do was back up and I could head home.

I called my husband. “I was joking, but really, thank you. That was amazing. You really didn’t have to dig out my car.”

I basked in the feeling of overwhelming love. It was so good to be home.

“Good, because I didn’t.”

I’ve always wondered who shoveled out my car. My husband’s theory is that someone spent an hour digging out a car only to figure out it wasn’t theirs. Their silver Sienna was one more row over. Their worst night ever had become my coup.

But as of today, I know the truth. It was the Boston Yeti.

Boston has been hammered with snow the last few weeks, and the Yeti has roamed empty streets late at night, played in the snow, and even hailed a cab. Folks all across town have tweeted their sightings using #BostonYeti2015. Last week, he began digging out cars, and he didn’t even put a lawn chair with a box of cat litter on top of it to call dibs on the space for later. I told my family that my mystery was solved.

A lot of really shitty stuff is happening in the world right now, like we’re engaged in a sick one-upsmanship to establish who can be the most horrific of all.  Ironic, isn’t it? Someone in a an abominable snowman suit is representing the best of human spirit, while others engage in abominable behavior while pretending to be human.

The Yeti says he’s just lending a claw, but I’d like to think he’s starting a movement. What would the world be like if we were all Yeti, just doing what needed to be done, without fanfare or attribution, just to make the world a little better for one person on one day by doing one simple (or not so simple) thing.

Is today’s Yeti also my Yeti? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s been over ten years since my personal Yeti rescued my car from burial by snowdrift at Logan, and just thinking about it renews my belief in magic. We could use a little magic, don’t you think? Maybe we could all be someone’s Yeti.

Go do it. Be abominable. Be a Yeti.

Photograph from Mashable

I have depression. You get over it.

This time of year is always difficult for me. The monotony of winter takes its toll and I become a hermit, not leaving the house. I don’t see the point. I write funny essays and drop quips on Twitter, while pretending that everything is okay. The internet is a great cover. No one knows that I’ve been wearing the same sweats for a week while eating a diet comprised solely of baked goods and cappuccino.

I’ve been through this cycle for many years now. Eventually I remember that to be a badass I have to engage with the universe, get dressed in clothing with zippers and buttons and move forward.

Andrew Solomon’s TED talk spurred a much needed discussion about how to talk about mental illness, but even more importantly, emphasized the importance of talking about it, period.

Every time there’s a shooting, or a suicide, or some other tragedy, we talk about “what has to be done.” How do we get people the help they need? Why didn’t they tell someone? What did we miss? At the same time, we start labeling people. She must be bipolar. He’s schizophrenic, right? They were on meds. They weren’t on meds.

I had a disagreement with an acquaintance who implied that the medications used to treat psychiatric disorders were the root cause of mass shootings. That’s just what struggling people need. More shame and judgement piled on top of the mountain of crap they’re smothering under. Better not get help, because someone might find out. It’s much better to slog your way through, year after year, making yourself and everyone else around you miserable until it gets better. Unless it doesn’t.

This acquaintance didn’t know that I have dysthymia. I don’t hide it, but I don’t announce it either. So when I heard the TED talk and read the subsequent articles and discussions it occurred to me that those making generalizations are working from a faulty sample. It’s time for people living with mental illness and those who love and support us to step up and tell the rest of world to get over it. We are everywhere. You just didn’t know it.

Hopefully my friends and family will attest that I’m not the least bit scary, unless I haven’t been adequately fed. I’ve even been known to be intelligent, competent and somewhat funny on occasion. This is not because my depression is not a problem. This is because my depression is a problem that I deal with every single day. I actively manage it, so that it can’t control me.

I know I am not alone. When I talk about my experience with depression, invariably someone tells me that they’ve sought treatment at some point or another.  At the same time, someone else will say “But your life is so great.”  I  merely respond, “It is, but I still feel like shit. That’s how I know it’s depression and not just that my life sucks.” “Just focus on your blessings,” they say. Really? I wouldn’t tell a diabetic, “If you put your mind to it, in no time you won’t need that insulin at all.”

So I’m publicly owning my depression. Honestly, with as effed up as our world is these days, I’m more suspicious of people who can’t acknowledge they’ve lost their shit once or twice. If society can make a sex-symbol out of high-functioning sociopathic Sherlock Holmes, surely it can see the rest of us with mental illness a little more objectively.

And perhaps someday we’ll look back and see that stigmatizing people because of mental illness was just plain crazy. Until then, speak up. I’ve got your back.

Throw Out 50 Thoughts #19 – I’m tapped out

cliff diverA year ago, I was a very busy woman. My life was out of control. I had two blogs where I posted daily, and had started guest writing for another. I was editing a novel, had some short stories coming out, and was doing a live reading of one of my works at a local author’s event. I was taking violin lessons from a master teacher, playing in two orchestras, plus a chamber group, which meant practicing four hours a day. I spent two hours a day at the gym. I was physically exhausted.

At the same time, my imagination was supercharged. I loved the feeling of being lost in a story, drunk on words, having characters whispering in my ear. I had so much to say, I was afraid I would explode if I left the keyboard.

Still, I had a family life to tend to, so I cut back. I took a break from lessons and from chamber music, and dropped out of one orchestra. I moved this blog to three times a week. I decided that one hour at the gym each day would be sufficient, and I cut down on my social commitments. I had more time to write, some breathing space.

And the words disappeared.

I wasn’t too concerned. I had been so stressed, stretched like taffy over so many activities. I’d depleted my reserves. After a rest, surely my writing would snap back. One year later, I’m still writing, but it feels like work.

I was afraid that maybe, I was tapped out. I contemplated giving up.

My former boss and mentor used to ask me why I thought so small (my words, not his). I told him that working with him was like driving beyond my headlights. One day, I’d follow him right off the cliff face into the ocean. He didn’t say “that won’t happen” or “you can always stop in time.” He said, “Come with me. The water is warm.” The look on his face said, “Jeannine, this is life, and you’re missing it!” He’s a very successful man, but not infallible. If he crashes on the rocks, he gets back up and says “That was fun. Let’s do it again.”

Maybe I’m not tapped out. Maybe I’m trapped.

When a plant becomes root-bound, you have to put it in a bigger pot. Sometimes you have to break it apart, or score the roots to trigger them to grow.

I’m turning off the internal editor. I’m speaking through characters with world views opposite to my own. I want to scare myself a little by acknowledging the dark corners of my imagination. The beauty of writing is that I don’t have to actually do what I write, nor do I have to share those words with other people if I don’t want to. I can use language that would singe my vocal chords. I can bend reality. I can hug tigers and banish cars.

Not only do I feel energized, I feel…free. I’ve written 15,000 words this weekend, and my only enemy was the clock. And somewhere lurking within those words is the glimmer of my next novel. While I wouldn’t go back to the pace I was keeping last year, I know that if I sit in a box, I only hear the echoes of what I’ve already said.

They say do something every day that scares you. I think they have a point. Come on in. The water’s warm.

Photograph “Cliff Diver : Acapulco” by Alejandro de la Cruz © 2009 Creative Commons

Throw Out 50 Thoughts #18 – There are no do-overs

ApplauseThe show must go on. Especially when it’s already going. It’s one of the tenets of performance. Things blow up? Keep going. When it’s over, flush it and move on.

I played in a chamber music concert yesterday. One of the pieces was the premiere of a wind quintet by a local composer. It was contemporary–not atonal, but not like Mozart where you know exactly where it’s going. If you get lost playing Mozart, you can regroup pretty quickly. This composition was more fluid, with meter and tempo changes that made it unpredictable.

A couple of minutes into the first movement, the work began to sound a little more contemporary than it was supposed to. When I looked at the oboe player’s face, it confirmed that the train had jumped the track.  They had no idea where they were, and none of them were in the same location. After they finished, rather than leaving the stage, they asked the audience if they might play it again, so we could hear the work as it was meant to be.

It was a ballsy move. It would have been a lot easier to pretend all was well and leave the stage. The audience wouldn’t have known the difference. They’d never heard it before.

The group played it again, and the audience applauded. They lauded the composer and the musicians felt proud of their performance. I didn’t see it as a failure, but a success. The fact that they struggled made the performance that much more poignant.

Sometimes I treat life like a performance. I made a mistake? Just keep moving. That decision is done, the  moment is over, and I can’t go back and ask for a second shot.

Or can I?

I won’t know if I don’t try. Perhaps the world is a more forgiving and accepting place than I believe. Maybe I can ask for patience and try again–to play my part the way it was intended to be.

My career as a writer has had many stops and starts. Sometimes I feel like the world is saying “Haven’t you been here before?” But maybe the world isn’t. Maybe it’s only me. So I begin again, and hope to find applause at the finish line, even if it’s only my own. To amend the saying, it’s not over until the diva sings, and I’m not close to done, so get some popcorn and settle in.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph “Applause” by Svenwerk ©2007 Creative Commons