Friday, September 30, 2016

Bedtime Stories

A recent article by Pagan Kennedy published in the New York Times titled "The Insomnia Machine" got me thinking about my own struggles with sleeplessness.

I've always favored the night hours over the day.  They are often my best hours for productivity.  I am most "awake" (alert, alive) during the darkest hours, usually between midnight and 4 a.m., while much of the rest of my time zone sleeps.  It is when my best ideas occur to me, the most creative thoughts arise, and the most organized planning happens.

I chalk it up to the Circadian Rhythms I've grown to know & love. In spite of inevitable next-day fatigue, overall I have made peace with these nocturnal tendencies.

That is not to say there haven't been night-time hours where I've tried to sleep (or more accurately, had to sleep, perhaps because of work or other commitments) and couldn't.  I've also experienced the obvious consequences of insomnia.  Which, in turn, might become a daytime nap that becomes necessary in order to get through a late-afternoon slump, and on and on...

When you lack sleep, as millions of people know, it feels like a vicious cycle of never quite catching up.  A fine balance of caffeine to wind up and herbal tea to wind down.  In the article, the author talks about ultimately finding a solution for insomnia in "spoken word audio" and goes on to give examples of some of the podcasts and streaming audio books that have been effective.

Similarly, for me nothing has been more effective, though, than the human voice -- especially certain timbres of the human voice.

In the past few years, I have stumbled across a remarkably effective solution.  I started listening to podcasts on long drives (when I distinctly hoped NOT to fall asleep!), and it started with French language learning podcasts, then grew to LibriVox recordings of literature in the public domain, like the ones the author of the article mentions. Then I began to seek out more specific, more literary stories.

My affinity for the ghostly horror tale led to even more inspiring, moody, curious bedtime stories.  I sought out voices that soothed me.  Gradually, I honed this listening to different stories for different times and circumstances.  A daytime power nap or a nighttime sleep passage could be powered by a meditation, some of which were designed precisely for the purpose of leading the listener into a sleep state.  And it went from there.

I was never read bedtime stories as a child.  The idea of falling asleep to the sound of another's voice while listening to a tale of far away places seems almost too quaint to work, like something that only happens in fairy tales and happy families.   But work it does.  And not only does it work, it does so better than any other technique or sleep aid I have ever tried before.

A highly welcome one, with no discernible negative side effects.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

More Musings on (Not) Writing

This post may not have a point to it, but that's the point.

I've been writing since I was a kid. Like many kids, I wrote stories -- sometimes for school, sometimes just to amuse my siblings or to get something off my chest about them that I couldn't express directly because they were older and bigger, and I was small, little, younger, less powerful.

After we got a new piano in our house, the nine-year-old I was at the time wrote a little four-line story in landscape format using red marker on a piece of tablet paper about how my big brother was always "playing on" the piano and leaving no time for anybody else to play it, and how I "can't stand him" because of it.

This must have been a particularly prolific writing period for me, because around the same time, I won a third-grade contest for a short poem I wrote about what I loved most about going to elementary school -- stopping at the candy store on the way to school every morning to stock up on the requisite sugar needs for the day.

I wrote because I was driven by a feeling I desperately needed to express, an assignment I had to finish, or some intangible reward, like a satisfying reaction from a sibling.  AKA the payoff.

Eventually, as every writer does, I eventually struggled with what is commonly known as writer's block -- the ongoing mythical experience of simply being otherwise unable to put pen to paper, at least with any viable output.

Lately, I'm hearing that there is no such thing as writer's block.  That's something I can really get my head around. That's something I want to believe.  That is something I hope is true.

Whether there is or isn't such a thing as writer's block, however, I see many parallels between that (writing, or finishing a piece of writing) and something I struggle with far less (exercise, or finishing a workout, as I wrote about here).

So I'm getting to the point of this NO POINT post.

I'm blocked.  This visual (below) is what it feels like, and often this goes on for hours, days, weeks, I daresay even months or years.

That's all I have to say.  I am being called to procrastinate.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

A musing on the Writing Life and the Fit Life

In addition to being a Writer, I am a Fitness Enthusiast.  There are at least three obvious parallels between the disciplines of Exercise and Writing.

1. They both operate on momentum.  It is lore among some writers that Ernest Hemingway would often complete a writing session mid-sentence so that when he returned to it, he literally would pick up where he left off.

Whether or not there's any truth to that story, getting into a Mid-Sentence Hard Stop is a great way
to create momentum for the next time you face the page.  In the context of exercise, there may not be a direct "mid-sentence" equivalent, but sometimes I'll leave my workout clothes out for the next morning so they're ready to put on, or I'll schedule the next day's workout the night before (assuming I'm not attending a scheduled group class), all the way down to the minute.

2. They both improve tremendously with slight challenge increases.  When you "hit a wall" in fitness, you either take a break (which also helps in writing) or increase the weight, time, any X challenge slightly. This way, you can keep the momentum going and also maintain enough challenge to keep from injuring yourself (i.e., giving up writing because it's too hard) or from getting bored, with the same result.

3. When you're starting from scratch, there's nothing like the "Just Do It" approach.  In 1988, Nike came out with its famous ad campaign that has become a pervasive part of the Type A personality's culture of ambition and achievement.  When there is a risk of seeing my momentum slip, another trick I use is to ask myself:  "The time is going to pass anyway, so how will you wish you had spent it?").

The same applies to writing and facing the blank page. There's really no way around it, or put another way, a saying attributed to a variety of different sources but here from Gavin Rossdale's Bush song "Superman":  the "only way out is through."

When I'm lagging and feeling like I just may hit the pause button on my fitness routine, that's the phrase that nearly always comes to mind, and one hundred percent of the time, it works.

Ultimately, these tips apply to learning any skill, including and especially writing.  When you get to a plateau, just keep going.


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Sunday, July 24, 2016

When All You Find is an Obit...

Or, "On Googling Old Acquaintances."

A conversation I was having recently prompted me to recall a guy I'd gone on only a couple of dates with eons ago, back in high school.  He was a year ahead of me, and I knew him from one of the extracurricular activities we were in.  I didn't know him well, though.  That, combined with the fact that I was a painfully shy, introverted teenager with very little confidence and even less social awareness, led me to feel a little shocked when he asked me out on a date.

Like, an actual evening "I'll pick you up at..." date.

I went.  Twice.  Both times it felt weird, amateurish, as I imagine many teenage dating experiences do.  Having never been on a formal date with anybody, I didn't know what to say in this new context, outside of school, outside of the extracurricular activity.  He did nothing untoward, was entirely appropriate, but I wondered why he asked me out. There had never been any flirtation on either side, perhaps no more than a few exchanges among classmates, and I was unaware of any "signals" I had given, aside from being mildly friendly on the few occasions we spoke. I knew who he was; I knew his name, but that was about it.  Again, it was a combination of teen awkwardness, multiplied by my own personal brand of awkwardness, multiplied again by my pretty sheltered upbringing to that point.

I don't remember much about them, but I do recall that one of the date activities was a serious, mature, grown-up movie.  This was the late seventies, but he didn't take me to see Animal House, or Saturday Night Fever.  No, nothing like that.  It was a foreign film, with subtitles nonetheless, and everybody else in the theater was over the age of thirty five.

It was fine.  In fact, for the right girl, it was incredibly charming and perfect. I just wasn't all that into it, being who I was at the time, and I would much rather have been at home, in my room, watching TV, baking cookies, or just doing something that didn't feel so bumbling.

At the end of the second date, in the car on the way back to drop me off at my house, while stopped at a red light, unrelated to anything going on as far as I can remember (or maybe it was in response to a request for another date, or a suggestion for "next time" or something), I dropped the bombshell:

I did not want to go out with him again.

Now that.  Was.  Weird.

He blushed.  Oh, how he blushed.  I remember the red face on white skin.  I remember how I was glad I got it out, but still I felt so bad about it.  He was so appropriate about it, too.  He didn't say anything mean or angry back at me.  He was just a really nice guy.

So I thought of him recently, and now we have something we didn't have then:  Google.

Google turned up something that made me think, no, it couldn't be.  Same guy?  Really?

It was an obituary.  Not a recent one, either.  It was from over four years ago.  Now, for a long time after reading it, I was shocked.  I went searching for pictures of him online -- Google Images.  Not much, but I did find one, and I recognized him, even through the changes of age.  He looked good.  He left no wife, no partner, no children.  There was no mention of anything "unexpected" or a "long battle" or anything like that.

A swirl of questions went through my mind, but mostly I just felt sorry that I might have hurt him, if in fact I did -- at one point so many years ago.  That I said something that caused his face to flush with -- what was it? -- anger? embarrassment? surprise?  I don't know that we spoke after that at all, or even crossed paths. 

I certainly don't assume that such an experience informed anything else he did with his life, or even impacted him beyond that moment, but for me, it is that one memory that I'll forever take forward about him. I thought well of him, before and after that, and always have since.

Rest in peace, MW. 

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The falls and the Fields

I have been back in the U.S. for a while now, since end of May 2016, from what was an uplifting, educational, and truly inspiring experience.  Two out of three of those would have been worth the resources invested in this trip, but the Inspiration Mojo was a major bonus.

The uplift came from the sheer newness that lights the paths of all those who love Travel and its glories -- the anticipation of sights only imagined or seen in pictures, the immersive experience of details of the coming and going, passports, security checks, border crossings, the babble of foreign languages on arrival, the way things are just done differently, from the outbound flight all the way to an open air market (where, frankly, many things are done quite the same as anywhere else).

The education came from, well, pretty much everything I didn't already know, plus one bit of unwelcome education (to be covered in a future post).  The up-close-and-personal learning about zebras, elephants, cheetahs, springbok (which I learned is the national animal of South Africa, as well as a tasty lean meat), and other native fauna. But education also came in the form of meeting locals, learning from guides (who were in many cases locals), practicing the native tongues (e.g., Xhosa), and seeing first-hand that even twenty years later, much has yet to be done to leave behind the disgraceful legacy of South African Apartheid.

The inspiration came from waking up every morning in this stunning, alive, primordial country that has surprise at every turn, beauty that defies description, and flavors -- literal and metaphorical -- that will stay long after landing back on home turf. 

Thing is, in many ways, in fact, it felt very much like home.  It is Africa, after all.  The cradle of humanity.  The place that unites all of us who are descended from our original "source material," whatever one believes that to be.

I am eager to return to Africa.  But until I do, let me tell you....

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

The passing of Genius

Precisely five years ago this month, in April 2011, I attended (and wrote about, here) a personal event at a Prince concert at The Forum in Inglewood, California.  The Purple One was doing a series of concerts at the time to raise funds for the venue, which had fallen on hard financial times and was facing closure.

That was the last of five times I had the experience of seeing this great man perform.

I grew up in a household where my siblings and I all took music lessons on various instruments, though piano was always the starting point. Over seven years of lessons, I developed more than a modicum of skill.  Eventually, I went on to play guitar, too.  First acoustic, then electric.  And eventually, later in my adulthood, I learned the electric bass.  I always sang.  I was in a band and played a few gigs and wrote a lot of original songs, though not as a profession, just as a thing to do.

The point is that I know music.  I don't know it, obviously, in the way or to the degree that Prince embodied it, but I know it well enough to grasp fully the exceptional nature of his genius.

It strikes me that the Genius moniker gets assigned to people somewhat haphazardly (maybe just nowadays, or maybe always), but to use the term genius in association with Prince Rogers Nelson is about as accurate an appellation as one can be.  Each field or discipline has genius in its history. Some even have several.  Eras, periods of time, have their own.
Darwin. Einstein.  Shakespeare. Michelangelo. Jordan. Mozart. Prince.

Each of us has a gift, a talent, something unique to offer.  And then there are those, like Prince, who are given something so far beyond the pale that they carry it for the duration.

Those whose gift seems otherworldly, who seem almost like gods in human clothing.

So many phrases and thoughts come to mind when I think of Prince.  He marched to the beat of his own drum.  Played by his own rules.  Things that imply that he made choices others of us don't, that he worked harder, was more inspired, more driven.  But maybe he didn't have a choice.  Maybe it was simply his purpose.  Like how the Sun's purpose is to support life on Planet Earth.

I think, too, of cliches about how stars that burn the brightest have the shortest life spans.

Things like that.

But if the Sun died, we would die with it.  We wouldn't be left here to mourn.  So I struggle now to find words to reflect the profound feeling that matches the heartache that I, and so many others everywhere, are feeling over this monumental loss.

In every generation, those who are alive at the same time as that genius -- those whose existence on this planet overlap -- have a great opportunity.  Whether or not we actually interact with one of these geniuses, the opportunity we have is to witness their lives, their performances, their creative output, their ideas -- basically, the shows of their lives.

And then, when they are finished, when it is their time to step off the stage, they lay their genius down before us, and they let us use it for the long haul home.   Peace b 2 u 4 ever.

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Next stop, South Africa

Johannesburg. Pretoria. Cape Town. 

These are the names of cities and towns I'd heard throughout the late 80s and early 90s when I was only half-listening. 

Mandela.  Apartheid.  De Klerk.  

Now, I'm going.  Fifteen days in May, including two luxury trains, plus a couple of nights on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls.

Much to anticipate.

More to come.

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