Throw out 50 Thoughts #25 – But I’m going to suck at this…

runnersacrificeMy seventh grade Biology teacher also happened to be the cross-country coach. One day in class, he suggested that I join the team. When he did, my classmates laughed. You see, I was the least likely person one would take for a runner. I was heavy. I wore glasses. I was non-athletic. After class, he urged me to ignore my classmates and try. “I saw your sprint times,” he said. “You’re fast. All you need is stamina.”

This is not one of those stories where the protagonist is the fastest kid in the class. I did not leave my detractors in the dust while the soundtrack swelled. I’m not even sure my teacher ever saw my sprint times, because being fast wasn’t the point. I knew exactly what would happen if I came to practice, and I think my teacher knew exactly what would happen, too.  I’d run, fall behind, puke my guts out, cry in the shower and listen to people snicker about how idiotic the idea was in the first place. And the next day, I’d show up at practice and do the same thing all over again.

I said no. I wish I hadn’t.

Let’s face it, we don’t all get our Susan Boyle moment where we make the Simon Cowells of the world eat crow. We will try, and nine times out of ten we will fall short of our desired goals. I won’t call it failure, because failure sounds so final. Failure is only the beginning.

While it might have been nice to have my movie moment, I would have learned so much more through reality. My classmates were right. I would have sucked at cross-country. The next day, however, I would have sucked a little less, and a little less the day after that. I may never have won a race, but it didn’t matter. My victory wouldn’t have been showing people that I could run like the wind, it would have been showing people that they could not define who I was and who I was not.

My son, like many teens, draws himself with thick lines. It’s a wish, I suppose, that if he stays within the boundaries, he’s safe from ridicule. I tell him to embrace suckitude. It’s inevitable, and I say it not as a cynic, but as an optimist, because the point is, SO FREAKING WHAT.

If I’d run cross country, with the expected outcome, who would I have hurt? My suckitude would have been mine and mine alone to do with as I pleased. I could have wrapped it around me like a straightjacket, or I could crumple it into a ball and toss it into the circular file. Kids laugh at others because they are afraid for themselves. Over time, they learn to avoid things they fear rather than staring fear down and telling it to shut the heck up.

My teenage self would be shocked to hear that I run every day, Yes, it’s good exercise, it’s free (except for the shoes and the blister tape and the friction reducing socks), and I get that nice endorphin high at the end. I run because I like knowing that  I can will myself to put one foot in front of the other, again and again, and watch the miles fall behind me.  I run, I fall, I get up. Evaluating my success is up to me. And that’s what I think my teacher was trying to accomplish.

So Mr. Shoemacher, better late than never. And thanks.

Photograph : Marathon Sacrifice by David © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

The exponential complexity of teenage dating

puzzleboxWatching the Dude negotiate his teen years, I’m reminded of some fundamental truths of  high school life.

1) You are not as dorky as you think you are. It all balances out over time.

2) Similarly, you are not as awesome as you think you are. It all balances out over time.

3) There is some subject you hate because you think it’s confusing and useless, and you’ll end up needing it some day. For me, it was logarithmic functions. I was fifteen years into my research career, and I was like, really? Now? This is why I became a writer.

4) Combination locks were invented by a sadist. So were logarithmic functions.

5) Dating sucks. Having a boyfriend/girlfriend is very nice. The road to there, however, is convoluted, confusing and no matter what you do, it’s the wrong thing. Sort of like logarithmic functions.

Social life at my son’s high school works like a puzzle box. He must move the pieces in precise order and placement for the top to open, and just when he thinks he’s got it right, someone adds another layer of complexity. You can only use one hand. Touch the wrong piece and and the box resets. The box holds another puzzle box.

I remember the teen caste system as pretty unforgiving. The Dude is in a good place. He has nice friends and seems to move across social strata without much trouble, yet like many teens still feels on the outside looking in a lot of the time. Come to think of it, many adults feel that way too.

He’s counting on college to be different. After all, he’ll have no parental supervision. I reminded him that we sent him to a four week Spanish language program over the summer where it appeared he had very little supervision, and by the looks of the Facebook pictures from the week, plenty of girls to pick from. In fact, given the No English policy, if he’d dated a girl from the French camp, he wouldn’t even have had to talk to her.

“Mom, no one hooks up at camp.”

Generations of band camp attendees beg to differ.

I told him that it gets better. After all, his father and I found each other at a big group event where the Venn diagram of our social circles had an intersection of one person. That’s all it takes. I look for hope and understanding in his face and all I see is you had choices and ended up with each other? I’m not sure if I should be offended or not.

It could also be worse. Malia Obama went to her first prom. Her secret service agents wore ties that matched her dress. Dating is hard enough without having to introduce a young man to your father, the Commander-in-Chief. Your parents are only Prius-driving dorks that use the term “Venn diagram” in regular conversation.

The thing about a puzzle box, is that you just have to try until you find the combination that works. It will open in its own time, when you least expect. It only feels like it goes on and on without end. Sort of like a logarithmic functions. On second thought, maybe you ought to talk to your father.

Photograph : “A Mystery Box” by RBerteig © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

Throw Out 50 Thoughts #24 – That was a waste of time

hourglassTime is a gift. Time is fleeting. That’s a half hour of my life I won’t get back. The tape loop cycles in my head.

Tape loop, will you please, please, shut the hell up?

When I was a management consultant, I kept track of my time in 15 minute increments. Time without a code was overhead, and overhead brought on the managerial grouchy-face, so was best avoided.  I never really lost the mindset. The habit of packing time like Tetris blocks is reinforced by our outcome-oriented society, and face it, a to-do list with lots of to-done items is satisfying.

I’m neck-deep in editing a novel in hopes of finding an agent. It’s painstaking, exhausting work. I want to finish, not just because it’s a painful process, but because it represents a milestone in my journey as a writer. Last weekend my husband was out of town. My son was supposed to be out for the evening. I was going to edit like no one has ever edited before.

It didn’t go well. I’d spent the better part of the day buried in words, and I was mentally exhausted. I was writing stuff just to write stuff.

My son came home early. Way early. And then he didn’t go back out. He camped on the sofa and watched the ballgame. I wandered out for some soda water, and never came back. I sat down next to the Dude, got a beer and popped some corn. After the game was over we watched a couple of hours of Modern Family. Like Law and Order, Modern Family is always on, all one has to do is find the right station. Soon it will have it’s own variants, Modern Family – the Minivan Chronicles, Modern Family – Live Poetry Readers.

The next day I was kicking myself. I was behind. Did I not care about my book?  I was a sloth, and a slacker, and way too old to be a Gen Xer (Most Gen Xers are way too old to be GenXers these days). I would never finish. Never.

I’ll admit. I don’t always align my choices with my values. But am I really honest with myself about what I value?

I treasured every moment of my evening with the Dude. I was happy, and before long, he’ll be in college and I won’t have the opportunity at all. Is there more virtue in sitting brain-dead in front of my computer, convincing myself that I’m actually getting something done when I’m not?

The time is only wasted if I’m not embracing what I’m doing, and the only person who can assess the value of my activity is me. If I spend an evening playing 2048, that’s okay, as long as I’m present and happy playing 2048, and my score is higher than everyone else in my family. I totally rule at 2048.

So, I can stop with the self-directed managerial grouchy face. I can’t see it anyway, and it gives me wrinkles. I will save it for the Dude, who should be studying, but is throwing a tennis ball against the wall outside my office. What a waste of time.

Photograph – “Time” by Alexander Boden © 2007 Creative Commons/Flick

 

 

Throw out 50 Thoughts #23 – It’ll never sell

1070845410_28ee7a7f69_zA few years ago, I wrote a novel. It resides on my hard drive. It’s drivel.

I took classes, learned a lot, but not enough. My second novel also resides on my hard drive.

I took more classes, read more books and wrote a third novel. I even let people read this one. They liked it. I thought maybe I’d try to publish this one. So, I trolled agent websites to understand what the market was looking for.

Everywhere I went, I heard the same thing. You’ve got to have a hook. You need your elevator speech, your concept, your logline. You need to explain your novel in one pithy sentence or an agent won’t take it. I realized that my book would never sell. It wasn’t unique enough. So I rewrote it…and rewrote it again…and again.

This is how I’m wired. I throw myself at challenges until I’m drinking Jack Daniels while crying in the bathtub. My husband first encountered the phenomenon when I was in business school. The phrase “net present value of electric cranberry dryers” still raises my blood pressure. Luckily I don’t hear it much.

The phrase “You gotta have a hook” elicits much the same reaction. I worked my novel until I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore, yet was still contemplating clean-sheeting the whole thing once again. I’d do it in a month, just like NaNoWriMo. To prepare, I went back to the original version–the one I let people read.

I got to a passage that gave me pause.

 

“I thought I knew what I wanted, but now, I’m not so sure.”

Leslie shrugged. “It’s not so hard, you know.”

Jess sighed. Even breathing seemed difficult at the moment. “What isn’t?”

“Knowing what you want.”

“Please, Leslie, tell me how, Because I can’t hear the sound of my own voice anymore.”

“Well that’s easy enough—stop listening to everyone else.”

 

This was the novel that I wrote for myself, not the market, and it’s a better book.

We all have endeavors that the market doesn’t value. Does it really matter? If I focused on what people wanted, I’d write a Medieval political thriller about meth-dealing Zombies who are into BDSM. (Maybe my next book – steal my idea and I’ll sue)  I wrote the story that I needed to tell, not because I wanted to be published, but because doing so made me happy.

This book may also live on my hard drive. It will have good company. Maybe I’ll find the hook, or maybe it will find me. There are some things in life we do for money, like cash flow analysis or determining the ROI on an electric cranberry dryer. There are some things we do for ourselves.

Off to work on that new novel. I’m thinking it needs a sociopath detective vampire artiste.

 

Photograph, “Shad Lures” by Carl Vizzone © 2007 Creative Commons/Flikr

 

 

Be strong, be brave, be a badass

Boston-StrongWe’ve been in Virginia for seven years, but when Patriot’s Day rolls around, I really miss  Boston. We lived in Lexington, the cradle of the revolution, where relatively sane people get up at the crack of dawn to watch the reenactment of the first skirmish on the battle green. It’s over by 6:00 a.m. Then everyone leaves to eat pancakes.

Over and over again, the Dude and vowed to get up in time to see it. When 5:00 a.m. rolled around, my husband would go to work and the Dude and I would go back to sleep. We’d make pancakes at a more reasonable hour and say “next year.” Next year never came. We moved.

Virginia doesn’t recognize Patriot’s Day as a holiday. Most of the United States doesn’t recognize Patriot’s Day. I do in my own way, by watching the Red Sox game. The Dude sometimes gets home from school to see the end. Last year he got home in time to see all hell break loose.

Boston owns its position at the center of the revolution story with pride. The city does not capitulate and it does not forget. Just say the name “Bucky Dent” in a Boston bar and you’ll see what I mean.  It only makes sense that one of the world’s most grueling, challenging tests of human endurance takes place  in Boston. The Marathon has always been one of the city’s hallmark events, but now it’s sacred.

It’s so easy to sleepwalk through our days, lulled by routine and repetition. Then something happens to remind us that life is not endless and time is finite. We say “someday” or “next year” or “tomorrow” knowing that, of course, we will. Right?

You can’t finish the race if you don’t start. Do something defiant today. Something audacious and exhilarating and maybe even a little crazy. Because next year is 365 days away and there’s no good reason to wait. Because in 1775 people in Boston said “now.” Because today 35,000 people will run 26 miles because they can. Because there will always be people who say you can’t, or you shouldn’t, or you won’t be able to in ways both dramatic and mundane. Because sometimes that person is you.

Do it. Be strong. Be Boston Strong.

What badass thing will you do today?

 

Throw out 50 Thoughts #22 – I let my opportunity pass me by

3656751897_093f5abef2_bI’ve been working on a novel, like…forever. I’ve been through multiple iterations, restructuring, honing characters, doing everything in my power to get it right. It’s not even the elusive Great American Novel ©. Then I’d have cause for my lack of progress.

My goal was to finish it in February and get it out to beta readers. It would be eligible for a contest in May which would get it in front of a set of editors and agents. That isn’t going to happen. It’s April 7th, and I’m still working on the first 20,000 words.

I was really disappointed. This was my shot, and even if I work night and day until May 1st, it won’t be where I want it to be. On top of that, saying I’ll work night and day on anything is a recipe for disaster, since the only thing I get night and day are interruptions. Every time I hear “We need to,” my timeline slips another day.

True to form, I was working away on another set of edits when the Dude threw himself on the floor of my office. His test score wasn’t as strong as he wanted it to be. It would effect his semester grade, which would effect his final grade, which would effect where he went to college. All was lost.

I wanted to say, “in case you’re wondering, this is what work looks like when you’re a writer. I hit the keys and words come out.” Instead, I told him that one test score cannot determine the course of his entire life and offered to make some popcorn.

Face, meet palm.

The truth is who the heck knows?

Certainly I will miss an opportunity. I don’t think I’ve missed THE opportunity. Otherwise, I have to consider all of the opportunities I’ve missed that I didn’t even know about, thus ruining my life before I ever had a chance to ruin it.

I lived in Chicago for many years, and the one lesson I learned is that if I’m waiting for the LaSalle bus, at least two full ones will pass by without stopping, and sometimes three or four. The bus, however, does come. And sometimes it’s the State Street bus and that’s okay too. I’ll just get to Starbucks a little later, because let’s face it, there is always enough time for Starbucks.

So, I won’t kick myself over  something I can’t change. Instead, I will think about it this way. A fixed opportunity, like a contest, or a deadline, or a meeting, is like a concentration of hope. I can use it as a point on which to focus my energy and effort, to keep moving forward towards the eventual destination. But the point, the real point, is to keep moving.

If I finish by the deadline, good for me. If I don’t, I will not say “If I’d only.” I will bundle up my excess hope and find a new home for it somewhere in the future where I know we’ll meet again, and this time, I’ll be ready?

What thought are you throwing out today?

Photograph “Dang it… I missed my bus” by Nathan Rupert © 2009 Creative Commons License