Tag Archives: motivation

Metaphor Tuesday (Let’s not kid ourselves): Weird Little Dials


Do you know what a tachometer is?

I only know because I played video games like most people breathe when I was a kid — and not only did I play them, I read about them religiously. Strategy guides and reviews. I had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. I read the instruction manuals with new games, for goodness sakes. And one of the racing games I played (It might have been Top Gear or something, before that was a TV show), of course, had the display that looked like a car’s console. This console featured, in addition to the course map, rearview mirror, and speed (the only thing a kid really cares about), the tachometer.

That was a long way of saying your eyes probably pass over the tachometer on your car every day. It’s that dial next to your speedometer that tells you how many times your engine is turning over in a minute. Ever step on the gas while the car is in park? The tachometer spins up even though you’re not going anywhere. It measures not how fast you’re going, but how hard your car is working. Which, by certain metrics, makes it a much more important indicator in your vehicle, though one we hardly pay attention to.

We watch the speedometer, because we want to know how fast we’re going. Or maybe because we want to avoid the flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror. Or because the guy in front of you is moving maddeningly slowly and you want to know EXACTLY how slowly because that information will surely benefit you, somehow. We watch the scenery passing by outside the windows, because that tells us where we are. Trees and buildings; keep those a safe distance from the side of the car. Other cars get to drift in and out of that space; all fine as long as they’re pointing in the proper directions. And of course, we watch the road ahead, because if we don’t pay attention to where we’re going we’ll never get there, and we may in fact fail to get there very very quickly.

But we don’t watch that meter that tells us about the vehicle we’re taking the journey in. Or, at least, we don’t watch it until we have reason to — when something may be wrong. When the engine’s overheating and we’re struggling to maintain speed, or the transmission has slipped and we can’t get out of a lower gear, or … I dunno. My lack of car knowledge betrays me, here, but you get the idea. All of a sudden, we’re just not GOING like we want to, and we check that little tachometer and, huh, holy cow, that thing’s pushed all the way into the red. That can’t be good. So you limp your car (or, given my luck lately, you more likely tow it) to the shop and find out it’s gonna cost a couple thousand dollars to get it fixed and you sit there and question your entire life leading up to this moment.

That’s when you realize how important the tachometer is. If you had noticed it earlier, seen the engine was working too hard before you ran it into the red, you might not have broken whatever you broke to find yourself here on the side of the road with a useless vehicle. You could perhaps have treated the problem or replaced an overworked component before the whole engine melted down. But you didn’t. And here you are.

Or rather, here I am.

For months I’ve been focused and wrapped up in all kinds of stuff. The play in production. The novel(s) I’m trying to write. Running and exercising every day. Day-to-day work and planning for my classes. Playing Mr. Fix-it around the house, or paying people to come in and do the same (or, sometimes, paying people to come to the house only to tell me that their contract forbids them from fixing that particular problem, so hey, you get to play Mr. Fix-It after all, less a couple hundred bucks). To say nothing of being a dad and husband who isn’t a complete jerk.

I was redlining, and I didn’t know it. Instead, I was paying attention to the road ahead (fraught with obstacles as far as the eye could see) and the scenery creeping past (moving not nearly as fast as I would have preferred). I just wasn’t getting enough done, and that shortcoming was all I could think about. Not enough words written. Not enough miles run. Not enough paperwork finished. Not enough.

Boom. Blowout. All of a sudden, I’m afflicted with some sort of creeping crud for the third week in a row: congestion and cough and all that good stuff. My heel goes haywire from some phantom injury and I can’t run. A week’s gone by and I haven’t even opened my novel. I’m barely making it out of bed in the morning in time to get the kids up and dressed and off to school, and it feels like I’m accomplishing nothing during my working hours.

The tachometer is a metaphor, then, for something on the body, I’m just not sure what it is. Maybe it’s your sleep schedule. Maybe it’s your blood pressure, or your stress level, or whatever else. Point is, whatever it was, it was out of whack with me and I didn’t pay attention to it and I spent a couple weeks with the car in the shop and taking the bus to get around, as it were.

I make a lot of noise about momentum and staying busy around here, but the fact is, I think I’ve been overdoing it and not being honest with myself about the fact. Residual stress from the move this summer. Frustrations at things going wrong (and costing us lots of money!) around the house. Unforgiving standards for my creative endeavors. Dogged insistence in my exercise habits. It all adds up.

But the play is over, as of this past weekend. And you know what? All of a sudden — the very next day, even! — I felt lighter, calmer, better. Just knowing that that particular source of stress was gone (for now, at least) made the next breath of air come in that much cleaner.

Maybe I need to find a way to relax a little.

And I definitely need to pay more attention to the weird little dials.

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Metaphor Monday: Breath of the Fall


Looks like Metaphor Mondays just come on Tuesday now. I guess that’s just the way it’s gonna be.

Fall feels like it’s arriving late this year. Seems like the summer, like a bad movie, has gone on and on and on — hot, sticky days without end. Days without a breeze. Weeks without rain. Doldrums. Ennui. The itch slowly settling in.

And then, one night, like magic, it changes. The damp, drab air gets swept unceremoniously out the door and in rushes that cool, chilly sting. You leave the windows open at night and wake up shivering. You leave for work in the morning bundled up in a sweatshirt you’re going to leave at work because it’ll still be eighty degrees when you get out. The summer’s not gone yet, but it’s on its way out, and the morning tingles with possibility.

Even the night skies get clearer as the haze dissipates. Stars hidden from view for months pop back into being: diamonds on a velvet backdrop. The air is cleaner, lighter, sweeter.

You step outside in the morning and you feel alive. You breathe it in and it lifts you up. You shiver, whether with cold or anticipation, and it really doesn’t matter, does it?

I like fall.

But there’s no telling when that first breath of the fall is going to come, is there?

I mean, sure, the seasons come more or less on schedule every year (but if you don’t like the weather around here, just wait five minutes, AMIRITE?). But you don’t get notice; you can’t mark it on your calendar: actual fall weather starts here. Circled in the ombre of falling leaves and scented with pumpkin spice deodorant. It doesn’t work like that; it’s rather more like the crappy toy on the back of the cereal box that you saved up for as a kid. You dutifully tore off all those UPCs, stuffed them in an envelope with your greedy, gooey kid fingers (seriously why are kids’ fingers always so gooey, brb buying stock in Purell). And you waited. You knew that, some day in the future, your prize would arrive, but there was no telling when — one day, when you’d almost forgotten about it, your dad would walk in with a weird little brown package, toss it on the table, and say “who the hell is sending YOU mail?”

Magic.

Which is basically how inspiration works.

Inspiration, I find, is largely a load of horse puckey in the commonly understood sense. Writers (and artists of all ilks) don’t wander around in fields holding radio aerials hoping their new ideas will strike from the heavens. The ones really getting inspired are the ones slavishly returning to the page day after day whether they feel inspired or not. You have to work for it. You have to sweat it out. Languish in the doldrums. Ripen and rot under the unforgiving summer sun…. and after a long enough sojourn into the word mines (as CW would put it), the lightning strikes.

And when it does: well. It’s like the first frosty breath of fall on a mid-October morning under a sky full of sapphires.

Chilly out there this morning.

Makes me hungry for the blank page.


Little Things We Do


I was out for a run the other morning and I came across a gentleman walking in the other direction. Older guy, with a cane. Pants up a little too high, polo shirt that looks like it’s older than me. Not moving very fast, obviously, but not bothered by that — in fact, he had a big smile on his face, almost like the sunlight was just soaking in through his skin and lighting him up from inside.

“Morning,” I called as I approached, as is my wont. (Those of us out getting active at daybreak owe it to each other to salute our shared insanity.)

“I know you,” the man replied.

I pull up short. Not the response I was expecting. “Beg pardon?”

“You’re the guy going up and down the street before the sun is up, during the week. Bout five in the morning, right? With your dog, most of the time.”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Crap. Is his yard one of the ones my dog likes to stop and pee in?

“You run by my house three, four times a week, it must be.”

I nod. “That’s about what I shoot for, yeah.”

His grin gets a bit bigger. “You remind me that I need to be out here, moving around.”

“Oh, yeah?” (My vocabulary isn’t as impressive when I’m run-winded. I realize I’ve said “yeah” three times in a row. I wonder if he noticed it, too.)

“Sure. Doctor wants me to stay active what with my treatments. Always feel better when I do, but I don’t always remember to do it. The day gets on and it gets too hot and I can’t be out in that.” He waggles his cane for emphasis. “But I see you truckin’ past my house and I think, ‘well, I guess I’d better get out there, too.'”

Now I’m smiling, too. “No kidding. Good for you.”

“Naw,” he waves me away. “Good for you. Keep on doin’ what you do.”

I nod and fall back into step. “You, too.”

I finish the last leg of my run feeling a little bit stronger than usual.

This has been your friendly reminder that even the little things you do can inspire others. (As if you needed more reasons to do them.)

So, on this day, go forth and do.

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This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Metaphor Monday: Splinters


Over the long weekend, I built this kitchen bench.

Our old kitchen was enormous, you see. Cavernous, you might even say. And while our current kitchen is by no means tiny, it’s also definitely and noticeably smaller than our old digs. So we’ve been economizing the space in as many ways as we can: shelves over the backs of the doors. Stuff stackers on the tops of the cabinets. Racks and organizers galore. (Minimize, I hear you say. Pshaw, I say. This is America.)

Then, my wife had a great idea. We have this recessed window area in the kitchen. Why not put a thing in there that can hold other things and not look like just a pile of stuff?

Yeah, that’s cool, I think. I love a little weekend project.

So I build this bench. Heavy as a bale of bricks and long enough to store a dead body or two. And it fits pretty snugly under the window. It blends in well enough with the space, in fact, that despite having some family over during the weekend, nobody noticed it squatting there, disguising the economy bundles of water and diet soda we picked up in advance of the storm.

Thing is, it took me most of the morning to build it; a good three or so hours, to say nothing of the trip to Home Depot for lumber and screws and so forth. Lots of frustrating work by myself in the garage, balancing things on edges, leveling them off, toiling to make sure the thing came out even in my modest home-fix-it setup.

It’s a weird thing, building stuff. I know enough about construction to get myself into trouble, as they say; I know a little bit about carpentry principles and if I really work at it I can build stuff that’s sturdy, but forget about making it look particularly presentable from any closer than fifty feet away. (Incidentally, this makes me fantastic at building things for the stage, which — surprise! — is a not insignificant portion of my job.) And because I’m decent but not great at building things, I have this love/hate relationship with building things. I love it — for a while. When it comes to building the thing and making it structurally and functionally sound, boy howdy, I can jump in with both feet and work ’round the clock without even really noticing the passage of time. But once I reach the limits of my expertise? Once the thing is built, and functional, and it’s time to make it look pretty? I lose interest faster than a goldfish in a dark room.

But that’s the problem, innit? Because the thing’s done only when it’s done. Which the carpentry gods reminded me of, painfully, with my bench.

I build the thing. It’s sturdy. It’s functional. Its edges are square. Its lid goes up and down. It’s basically done. The thought goes through my brain: you should probably sand it down. But having just put the hinge on, and having seen that the lid fits just so perfectly, I figure I’ve earned a break. The plywood I built it with, after all, is sanded on the outside anyway. I go upstairs. Poke at the wife until she agrees to come have a look at it. She agrees with me: it’s not bad.

“Is it done?” she asks.

“Basically,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

I perambulate through the garage, winding up extension cords, sweeping up piles of sawdust. Job’s basically done, after all. “Well, it’s almost ready for painting, but seeing as we don’t have the paint yet, I figured I ought to take a break. Maybe try it out and see how it looks in the space. Maybe we’ll see what color we want to paint it when we get it up there.”

So we haul it upstairs. Plonk it down in the corner. Sit on it, test it out. Yep, it’s a bench seat.

“Looks good,” she says. (Actually, she lays it on a little thicker than that. She strokes my ego a bit. I think she must’ve been reading some articles or something lately; I feel her psychologizing me.)

“Yeah,” I agree.

“So, what now?”

I ponder. What I really don’t want to do is haul it back downstairs, or work on it at all anymore right at the moment, or perhaps, ever. It’s functional, after all. You can sit on it. The lid opens and shuts. Case closed. (So to speak.) Finally, my answer: “I guess it’s not hurting anything here. We can just keep it over here until we get the paint; then I’ll prep it.”

She gives me a look that I should recognize by now, but I let it bounce off me.

Fast forward a day, and I’m sitting down with the Sprout to work on some sight words. He wants to sit in the kitchen while mommy cooks. Hey! I just made a brand new bench seat for exactly that purpose! So I sit down, scoot over to make room for him, and catch a dagger-sized splinter in the meat of my hand.

Needless to say, after a healthy bit of cursing and an unpleasant bout with some tweezers, I find myself out on the back porch doing the job I should have done to begin with: sanding down the damn bench. It takes all of twenty minutes, and at the end, the thing is well and truly safe and pleasant to sit on, painted or not.

You see where I’m going with this.

I left the project nearly but not entirely finished, and its rough edges caught up to me almost immediately.

The parallel to writing is striking: the thing is not done until it’s done. That means whatever it means for the stage of the project you’re in: the draft isn’t done until you actually write an end to the thing (and go back to write all the things you intentionally skipped over on the way). The edit isn’t done until you’ve been through every inch of the project with your fine-toothed editing comb and fixed all the little fitzy bits. The submissions aren’t done until you’ve written and perfected the query letter and delivered it to the inboxes of everybody you can stand to send it to.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of two minds on this topic; I’m acutely aware of the dangers of overcooking an idea. You work at a thing too long and it turns to mush. You break yourself trying to perfect a thing which will never be perfect. There’s a virtue in being able to say, nope, that’s enough, and let a Good Thing simply be good.

But there’s a difference between stopping before you overcook the thing and leaving it properly unfinished, covered in jagged little splinters or worse. (Mixed metaphors, for example.)

Make no mistake — it’s easy to get sick of a project. To want to slap the last chapter in place because you’ve been after it for months and you want desperately to think of anything else. But if you don’t knuckle up to the tedious work that comes with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure that all of your plotlines properly resolve and don’t just wander off into the ocean or something, well…

Somebody’s gonna catch a splinter up their backside. Maybe even you.

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Metaphor Monday — The Half-Life of a Tantrum


Are you listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast?

If you aren’t, you should be. Sam is a prolific author, speaker, debater and philosopher, with his fingers in pies as varied as religion and its effects on society (generally bad), artificial intelligence (be afraid), and free will (nonexistent, but not for the reasons you might think). Not afraid to let the full bluntness of his ideas and criticisms strike the unsuspecting bystander soundly across the face, he nevertheless seems to me to be one of the most thoughtful and measured communicators in the public sphere these days. Add to that that he has a way with words which frankly makes me feel small on a regular basis.

His ruminations on such topics takes him often into the realms of morality and emotions, and the roles that these things play in our lives; if you can learn to master your emotions, you can more easily and completely tame your morality. How to best master your emotions? Harris advocates for meditation and mindfulness practice. I’m not quite enough of a tree-hugger to have done more than dunk my fingertips into the deep waters of meditation, but I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and that is an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s something I did fairly often before I knew anything about “mindfulness” being a thing: simply stop, now and then, and ask yourself — why am I doing this? how am I feeling right now? is this thing I’m doing a good use of my time and my energy? The point isn’t to change your behavior overnight, it’s simply to begin recognizing patterns. Behavioral patterns, like constellations in the night sky, become impossible to un-see once you’ve noticed them. Once noticed, you can begin to redirect yourself toward making decisions and choosing behaviors which more closely align with the life you would choose for yourself.

Which is where the emotion comes in. When emotion floods your system, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions. Take the guy who’s trying to drop a few pounds who, while at his parents’ house on a long weekend, decides to have a second piece of pie for dessert. This guy doesn’t usually avoids having dessert at all; desserts, after all, are somewhat antithetical to losing weight. But put him in his parents’ house, where through a strange alchemy of the brain, food equals love and eating everything his mother puts in front of him is a way of expressing that love, and gosh darn it the pie tastes so good, you know what, I think I will have another piece. (Did I mention that the guy in question was me? The guy in question was me.) Emotion short-circuits the rational brain.

One of Harris’s saws about emotion, though, is that it has a half-life. And that half-life is shorter than you might expect. Emotion, like an afternoon drizzle on a hot summer day, burns away quickly if you allow it to. Trouble is, most of us are happy (see what I did there?) to let emotion run us. Get caught behind the idiot paying for their groceries with a jarful of pennies or a fanny pack full of expired coupons, and we’re likely to keep coming back to that moment, reliving it, and getting enraged again for hours afterward. It can trash your productivity at work. It can distract you from a family outing. Case in point: just this afternoon, I went out with my family to lunch. On the television situated right behind my wife’s head, they were replaying this last year’s Super Bowl, wherein my beloved Atlanta Falcons performed the saddest, most public self-strangulation in sports history. And I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore it, but my eyes kept darting up to the screen and that knot in my gut kept tightening, because I knew what was coming. It messed me up. I was physically getting angry.

And then, after about twenty minutes, I stopped and asked myself. Why are you watching it? You know what happens. You’ve gone through the heartbreak already. Your kids and your wife are right here with you in the here and now. Pay attention to themAnd I did. I’m not going to say I ignored the game entirely — the second half of that game was like a bad train wreck played out in slow motion, after all — but I did better. I noticed a bad pattern and I improved on it.

I’m not great at this. I’m not even particularly good at this. But I want to be better.

You know who’s really good at this?

Kids.

Both of my kids are Jedi masters when it comes to letting their emotions decay: my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter, both of whom can be proper terrors when they don’t get their way. I can send my son to time-out for anything from taking an unsavory tone with me or his mother to whacking his kid sister across the skull with a decorative figurine. He goes to his room scowling and howling, slams the door and buries his face in his blankets. Ten minutes later, I check on him, and not only has he completely calmed down, but sometimes he’s totally forgotten why he got time out in the first place. Or my daughter — she can have a full-on tantrum in the grocery store over not being allowed to buy another bag of rainbow Goldfish (laid on the ground, kicking, screaming, tears streaming down her face), and after just a couple of minutes buried, sobbing, in an adult’s shoulder (usually my wife’s), she’s got a smile on her face as she runs up and down the cereal aisle.

On the one hand, this short memory can be infuriating (you don’t even remember why you’re in trouble?), but on the other, it’s instructive. You never talk to a toddler who’s really having a rotten day because they got cut off in traffic. They don’t even remember what happened to them ten minutes ago. They don’t hold onto stuff, good or bad.

There’s a lesson in that. I’m not even going to bother tying it to writing this week; it’s a lesson we all need, and the lesson is to make like Elsa and let it go. Kids somehow intuitively know how to let stuff go, and somewhere along the line, we stress them out and they start holding onto their insecurities and their frustrations and all the things that upset them. Somehow we have to embrace the half-life of the tantrum. It’s okay to get pissed off, to get angry and upset and down on yourself. That stuff happens, and there’s probably no stopping it. But when it’s five hours later and you’re still replaying the moment when the jerko hipster on his cell phone jumped in front of you in line at the Kroger, you have to ask yourself — why is this still in my brain? It isn’t benefiting you in there. And it certainly isn’t still bouncing around in the hipster’s head. It’s only there because you’re keeping it there.

And we don’t have to keep it there.

Tough day at work? You’re home now, and you get another day tomorrow.

Friend said something that upset you? Either tell them about it and clear the air, or forget it — they probably already have — and move on.

Stubbed your toe yesterday and it still hurts? Well, that’s a bummer — but you don’t have to take it out on your wife and kids.

Pay attention to the thoughts that are banging around in your head. Sometimes all it takes is opening the windows to let the bad air out to give you a clean perspective.


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