Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Childish Energy


Child, Cool, Dress, Fun, Hero, Red, Feeling, Kid, Boy

Tap, tap, tap.

It’s six AM on a Saturday, and my 4-year old is tapping on my forehead.

“Daddy, it’s Friday o’clock. It’s time to wake up.”

I grumble and open one eye at him. “Friday isn’t a number, Sprout. Time has to be a number.”

He thinks about this and says, “Dad, it’s Saturday o’clock.” Which is closer to correct.

I pull the sheet over my head. He climbs up on the bed and jumps on me. Why? Because he’s awake, the sun is coming up, and he’s ready to start his day of watching cartoons, eating fruit, drinking chocolate milk, running around in the yard, tormenting his little sister, chasing the cats, coloring on the walls, and all the other things he has to do. His schedule is a giant blank slate, but he runs from one thing to the next like he’s trying to stretch out time by moving close to the speed of light.

Seriously. He runs everywhere. To the kitchen. To the bathroom. Up the stairs to his room. To the car. After the dog. In circles around the coffee table. Everywhere. And, to shamelessly reminisce upon my post from a couple weeks ago, he does nothing halfway. With every task, every diversion, he throws himself into it like … well, like a 4-year-old hurling himself into a bouncy house.

He’s that kid that adults see and think, I wish I had that kind of energy. Imagine what we could get done! But the fact is, we do have that kind of energy, we’ve just forgotten how to channel it. We work at jobs that wear us out physically or mentally or emotionally or all of the above. We come home from those jobs tired, wanting nothing more than to collapse on the couch and watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or whatever Netflix show is binge-worthy this week. And it’s all we can do to haul ourselves into bed a few hours later to steal a few hours of blessed sleep before it’s time to do it all again. We don’t have energy because our momentum sucks.

We watch TV because it’s that time of day. We heave ourselves out of bed after hitting the snooze button three times because we can’t put it off any longer.

Meanwhile, my son has seemingly endless reserves of energy because he’s always moving. He doesn’t rest because he just got done coloring or because he just wants to sit down for a minute after a hard day. He rests because he has to. He’ll run fifteen laps around the playground, then come to me and say, “daddy, I’m tired, I need to take a break.” And he does. For about two minutes. Then he’s up and running for the slides again. In fact, I can hardly ever capture a decent picture of him because he is always in motion.

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He doesn’t even touch the *ground*.

 

He has an urgency to everything he does that I wish I could recreate. He does everything in his life like he knows it won’t last forever.

And we can too, if we let ourselves.

Momentum matters.

We come home and watch TV for hours because our momentum sucks. We drag ass and sleep in and laze around on the weekend because we feel like we need the rest to muster ourselves for another week at work. But that’s only true if we view the movement, the activity, the doing of things as an obstacle in our day.

But these things are not the obstacles in our day. They are the stuff of the day itself. They are the stuff of life. Your job. Playing with the kids. Going to the store. Cleaning the house. This is life. And if it wears us out, well, okay, maybe that’s what happens. But energy is transformative. The more you spend, the more you seem to have.

It’s why I feel like I can get more done on a day when I run than on a day when I don’t. It’s why I feel like I need to write for an hour after I push through grading a whole stack of papers. The days I feel like I can’t get anything done are the days where I just never got started and can’t break out of the funk of the negative momentum.

So, back to my son tapping on my forehead.

Six AM on a Saturday. I’d rather be sleeping. But I’m coming downstairs. Making him breakfast. Taking time out to write a little bit while he chases the cats around.

And now, I think I’m going to go chase him around the yard a little bit.

You know, fill up the tank a little.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Dreams are Useless


Many times I’ve read the nugget of writing advice: “keep a notepad by your bed, so you can jot down the ideas that come to you in your dreams!” Which is the sort of nebulous, tree-hugging crap that sounds good at first. We don’t know where inspiration comes from, and we don’t know where dreams come from, so obviously they must come from the same place, right??

I’ve tried it. My results are less than stellar. Less than atmospheric, really. The trajectory of my success with this method is more like a Greyhound ride to Denton: disappointing, a little smelly, and at the end of the day, you’re in fargoing Denton.

But my best ideas come from my dreams! I hear you cry. If I hadn’t kept that little notebook next to my bed, I wouldn’t have ever remembered the idea that became the seed for my 7-part fantasy saga based on my life, The Rainbow Riders of Regulon 7. (btw, you can’t have that title; I made it up as a joke but I’M KEEPING IT.)

Sure. Maybe. But dreams are boring as hell to anybody who isn’t you and who isn’t bound by genetics or marriage vows to listen to you. And dreams aren’t compelled to make sense or be coherent at all.

Here, I’ll show you. (Feel free to skip this next paragraph, because it’s absolute garbage.)

I dreamed early this morning of a sort of Titanic-esque love story. Two people from different worlds collide on this boat that’s going away forever. Romance. Goofy frippery. Elaborate costumes. But the dude is found out as a fraud by a snooty guy who goads him into a fistfight and gets him thrown off the boat. Dude is losing his mind with love and the thought that he’ll never see his girl again. He tries desperately to get back on board, and ends up swimming out into a shipping lane in hopes of getting scooped back up. He does — by the Coast Guard, and his persecutor takes great pleasure in locking him up for international crimes or something. But our dude manages to win over the persecutor’s grandmother with the power of his love, and she convinces her grandson to stage an elaborate shenanigan (shenanigans can be singular, can’t they?) to stop the boat and allow the dude back on board, where he is tearfully reunited with his love.

Terrible. And that’s a salvageable dream, with a beginning, middle, and end, kind of. Never mind how the guy got out into open ocean to swim into a shipping lane, although that’s arguably the best part — maybe he could get mauled by the propellers of a cargo freighter hauling prosthetic limbs. As dreams go, this is a masterpiece of continuity.

It’s awful, but it’s vivid, and because it’s vivid, and because that little turdlet of writing wisdom is still kicking around in my brain, I wrote it down. So, now, I can ignore it as I flip past it when I go plumbing the depths of my drivel looking for inspiration for my next work.

But here’s the real problem with waiting for inspiration from your dreams (though it’s more of a skeptical hangup than a problem). If it’s kicking around in your dreams, that means it’s already banging around in your subconscious, which means on some level it’s something you’re already thinking about. The dream just brought it to front-of-mind for a fleeting moment while you were unconscious.

With that in mind, it’s hard to say that just because I dreamed something, it’s automatically worth writing down. Like most of the thoughts that pass through my head, anything I dream is actually probably not worth writing down or remembering at all.

Dreams shouldn’t get preferential treatment over any other old crusty idea that drops into your brain. If anything, they deserve more skeptical treatment by dint of being disjointed incoherent heaps of hot garbage. Dreams, just like any other idea I have, go through a rigorous screening process. Just like I don’t pick up the phone for phone numbers I don’t recognize, I don’t write down an idea as worth keeping just because it popped in there.

Most ideas are crap; dreams, doubly so. But you’ll know the good ones when you see them: The good ones will stick around, call back, or even show up on your doorstep to make sure you pay attention to them. The good ones will stick in memory whether you write them down or not.

 


Terrible Reviews: Born to Run


I know, I know. I just wrote about Natural Born Heroes, and here I go, writing about another Christopher McDougall, granola-crunching, you-are-your-own-gym dissertation.

Sorry about that. But Natural Born Heroes didn’t float my boat the way I hoped it would, and in reflecting on why, it made me wonder if I was just remembering Born to Run the way you remember the girl who broke up with you in high school, who you still stalk on Facebook every now and then to see if she’s still married or not. So I went and read it again. (Born to Run, not my ex’s Facebook.)

Born to Run starts with the writer’s own hangups about running, detours into the Copper Canyons of Mexico to meet a tribe of hermetic but seemingly superhuman distance runners, and crisscrosses running history while dipping its toes into evolutionary theory and an analysis of the modern running shoe.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. The book is lengthy, but I think its length and its hype are well-earned. Let’s dive in.

The Good:

McDougall covers a heck of a lot of ground, and the book would seem scattershot if not for the throughline of McDougall’s fascination and interaction with Caballo Blanco (White Horse), the near-mythical figure at the heart of the story. Caballo is alternately venerated and vilified in the book; on the one hand, he’s a gringo on a quest for self-discovery like so many runners, on the other, he’s a grouchy, flaky, off-putting sort. He’s weird, but he works, because he feels like fiction, even though he isn’t. Too strange to make up sums him up nicely.

What also works for the book is its grounding in a couple of places: specifically the Leadville 100 Race and the underground race that takes place in the Copper Canyons. Multiple chapters are given over to these two races, which gives the reader a sense of the sprawling nature of distance running and the time and introspection that such an endeavor invites.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the two chapters that keep me coming back to the book the most (and which have nothing to do with its narrative … more on that later): the chapters on the history — and indictment, really — of running shoes and on biomechanical evolution (chapters 25 and 28, respectively). These two chapters have done more to change the way I think about running as a whole and the way I run than a couple of years’ subscription to Runner’s World magazine and endless hours trawling running and exercise forums. In short: the human body evolved as a paragon of distance-running, and it didn’t evolve that way with $200 motion-controlled shoes on its feet.

The Bad:

McDougall describes talking with Caballo Blanco as a dizzying experience: he introduces a story, then detours into another, then goes back to recall details on the first while starting up a third, then has to stop and correct a mistake he made on the second … exhausting to listen to.

Well, the book is a little like that, sometimes. You’ll be cruising along, neck-deep in McDougall’s first-person narrative as he explores the Copper Canyons, then — whap! — you’re in the Leadville 100 race following rags-to-riches distance runner Ann Trason. Or, at the drop of a hat, you trade charting the bizarre course of Emil Zatopek for a rundown of the finer points of the Tarahumara diet (basically corn). I’ll go ahead and say that all of the book is well-written and fascinating to read, but following all the threads in the novel feels like McDougall took a big plate of spaghetti and flung it at the wall. The individual strands are great, but as a whole, it’s kind of a mess.

Then there are the characters. I get what McDougall is doing: trying to show the reader the breadth of distance running’s soul by showing us all sorts of runners from all walks of life and all parts of the world. But my goodness. If you simply compiled all the names he lists in the book, you’d have the beginnings of a phone book for a decent-sized suburb. There are coaches, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, nutritionists, writers, mathematicians, gurus, weirdos, mariachis (really), and business executives. Then there are the runners: small-time recreationals, olympic hopefuls, collegiate athletes, nature-bound escapists, and then, of course, the tribe of unknowns in the depths of Mexico who can outperform the best the distance-running world has to offer. Trying to keep up with all the characters is like putting your head in a blender and trying to chomp that one grape that’s going around and around. The only characters that really matter outside of the chapter that focuses on them are Caballo and Arnulfo. The rest is all window dressing (but fascinating window dressing, at that).

The WTF:

This book, much like McDougall’s recent Natural Born Heroes, feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people: part human interest, part scientific treatise, part evolutionary textbook. Like I noted above, it works, but only just. I wonder if the story of Caballo Blanco couldn’t be its own autobiography, but then I wonder if McDougall could have gotten throngs of people to read his scientific spiel otherwise.

Also:

If I had a fiery pen, I’d emblazon it all over every copy of this book: PSEUDOSCIENCE.

I love this book. I really do. And I want to believe every word of it. But McDougall goes way beyond what’s hard and fast and ventures into the wispy realm of the whimsical. Running can cure obesity, diabetes, cancer? All anybody has to do to become an excellent runner is take off their shoes? Adopt a diet of 90% corn, live in the mountains, run from dusk til dawn, and solve all of life’s mysteries?

Mmmyeah… maybe. These are certainly things that a lot of runners and practitioners believe, but it’s a hard thing to call them truths. Humans are biomechanically optimized to run long distances? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that any and everybody can train up for a marathon in the space of a year. Shoes get in the way of our naturally-evolved gait? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should chuck out our Chucks and never run a shod step in our lives, either. It’s thinking like that that gets us to the Vibram Fivefingers lawsuit of a couple of years ago, or that causes ridiculous and avoidable stress-related running injuries.

On the other hand, qualified statements don’t sell a lot of books, either. I can’t imagine the book would have had the impact it has had with a title like Born to Run — most of us, anyway, but be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise program.

Make no mistake; there’s good science being documented in this book. But McDougall presents running as this magic bullet solution for all the world’s ills, and, well. It might be true, but it moves from the scientific into the philosophical realm.

The Verdict:

By and large, “running” books are crap. I mean, what can you really say about a sport the heart of which is putting one foot in front of the other until you can’t anymore? You either detour into a long and sprawling narrative that only occasionally features running (a la Once a Runner), or you fall into tedious blow-by-blow accounts of training and races and eating and the myriad ways that your coworkers treat you like an insane person (a la Ultramarathon Man). The competition, therefore, is not particularly stout when it comes to running books.

Warts notwithstanding, Born to Run, I think, takes the flying leap from being a good book about running to being a good book. If you’re going to read a book about running, this is the one to read.

4/5 sharp rocks in your bare feet.


Touch Will Come Second


Door, Entry, Hospital, Passage, Red, HandleAlistair Van der Berg opens what he thinks are his eyes and looks up into blinding white lights. Into his field of vision swim three dark blurs in silhouette that resolve, like hardening acrylic, into androgynous shapes.

“Mr. Van der Berg?” says one of the shapes.

“Yes?” Alistair’s voice comes out stronger than he expects.

“Please hold still. We have to check a few things.”

Alistair turns his head and glances down toward his body, concealed under a grey sheet. Lumps and points in all the right places, but he can’t feel any of it. The sheet shifts and moves like a sackful of kittens, but his arms and legs are restrained. “What’s happening?”

“Alistair,” says another of the shapes. “Calm down.”

Alistair looks around the room in a panic. By the door, a sign. Synthetics testing.

It’s happened, he realizes. I died. I’m back. I’m alive again. My brain in a plastic body. “What year is it?”

The shapes have resolved into murky faces that exchange glances with one another. “What year do you think it is?”

“How did I die?”

“One thing at a time, Mr. Van der Berg.”

“Don’t give me that. I’m back from the dead, and I want to know what’s –” He stops as his eyes drift sideways and catch the mirror against the far wall. Not a mirror. One-way glass. Instinctively he points toward it, but his arm only rattles in a restraint he can’t see or feel. “Who’s in there? Is it my children? My grandchildren?”

“Easy, Mr. V –”

“NO!” He reaches out for the voice, and this time, there’s a squealing, shearing sound as the restraint gives way and he swats the androgynous figure aside with a fleshy thwack. He stares at his hand; pale and perfectly manicured, manacled at the wrist. A torn hinge dangles lamely down his arm. He jerks his other arm free of its restraint, then yanks his legs toward him with an awful tearing noise, and he’s free.

There are sounds of squabbling behind him as the other attendants rush to the one he’s injured. Alistair ignores them and goes to the mirror — or tries to. As he swings his legs out of the bed, they tangle in the hospital gown he can’t feel, scrabble for purchase on the cold tile floor, buckle, bend and collapse. He goes down in a heap of pain and confusion.

A voice crackles from above. “What’s wrong with it?The voice is familiar, but he can’t say why.

An androgynous one replies: “Touch receptors aren’t working. He won’t be able to walk or move effectively yet. Photo and audio receptors are online for this primary test, along with speech protocols. Touch will come second.”

The lights go on behind the mirror, and suddenly Alistair is looking past the crumpled wreck of his body at himself standing behind the glass. An older version of himself. Stern. Thoughtful. But alive. And unpitying.

The voice he now recognizes as his own crackles through the speaker again. “Shut it down.”

A tiny electro-dart buries itself in Alistair’s neck, but he doesn’t feel it. His processors drone off into silence and his servos go limp.

**********************

Chuck’s challenge this week was a random title. Mine? The Touch Will Come Second. For artistic reasons I dropped the “the,” and not only because I wanted a reason to say “the the” in my explanation.

 

 


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Never Ask a Word Guy to Math Something


The prompt for the week is “no.” Not “no” as in, “no, don’t eat that piece of chalk” or “no, don’t dump milk all over your baby sister,” but “no.” as in short for number.

Which is a dangerous topic for me, because I’m like that guy who does a few oil changes on his own car and then decides he’s capable of fine-tuning the engine, or the one who successfully builds an IKEA side table and then tries to build his own back porch complete with gazebo. I know a little bit about numbers, and I’m kind of fascinated, but I haven’t taken any math classes since high school.

Mathematics, Formula, Physics, School, Mathematical

Nevertheless, you can count anything, right? And numbers matter, don’t they? There’s the old bit about needing ten thousand hours of experience to get “good” at something that I heard somewhere. If that’s true, how long should I expect to have to plug away at this writing thing?

MATH TIME.

I aim for an hour of writing a day. That’s theoretically 365 hours a year, which means it’s likely to take … ugh … something like 28 years to log 10,000 hours that way. But I only do my capital-W project-related writing on weekdays. So make it more like 37 years.

Sharknado.

But surely, I can count writing on the blarg toward those hours, too, yeah? Well, I’m not as regular there (needs me some blogging fiber, which is a joke that only somebody over thirty could appreciate), but maybe I can claim about two-three hours per week. Which reclaims the years I had to add to make up for the weekend. So we’re back at 28 years.

But wait, do those 10,000 hours have to be dedicated to becoming better at the thing, or can they just be hours spent doing the thing?

If it’s just the doing and not the actively trying to improve that matters, then I logged a heck of a lot of hours writing assignments in college and high school. Has to be enough to get that 28 years down to 26.

And then I wrote a cough-splutter fantasy novella in high school (180 pages in number-two pencil on college-ruled paper, now that was dedication), not to mention a bunch of crappy stories. (These are all lost to the mists of time now, which may in fact be evidence of a benevolent God.) Let’s be generous and give me another two years. 24.

Oh, and there were the plays I wrote a few years back. Hard to quantify that time because I worked when the mood struck me, but surely it’s good for another couple if not trio of years. I’m liking the optimistic feel here, so call it 21 years.

Which is maybe not so bad.

But wait again! With a mental task such as writing, surely time spent planning and plotting and pondering my stories counts. I think it’s safe, then, to double my time over the past two years and bump the timer down to 19 years.

And if time plotting and pondering counts, then surely time reading writing advice counts — that’s learning after all. But at that rate, if reading counts, it’s impossible to argue that reading stories that have inspired me to write wouldn’t count.

And then the floodgates open. Reading has got to be good for at least 5,000 hours of my life, and that’s a conservative estimate, to be sure. And that means I’m just a thousand hours or so short of Mastering Writing Forever.

Geometry, Mathematics, Cube, Hexahedron, Body

Which is nonsense, of course.

Measuring these things is a mug’s game. It’s like asking how many birds are in flight right this moment in the world. Surely it’s a question with an answer. A correct answer, even — one that could theoretically be measured. But it’s a nonsense question just the same, because the means for measuring such a thing simply don’t exist. And you can no more measure the actual productive time you’ve spent in an endeavor than you can measure all the people in the world whose eyes are closed. The information is there, but we can’t know it.

And that means we can’t live in fear or doubt or frustration at the information. There’s no finish line. There’s no ticker-tape parade when you reach 10,000 hours of practice, or 5,000, or 1,000, or five. All we can do is keep plugging away, keep practicing, keep doing.

Math may be an intrinsic part of everything, but these things we do are much, much bigger than math.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

 


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