Archive for In Other Words

Nostalgia: Gazing at the Past Through Now-Colored Glasses

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers”

                                                             – Quote often attributed to Socrates

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. We all know it can warp our perceptions of the past, but sometimes it’s easy to forget how much it can do so. On occasion, in fact, it can become a downright hallucinatory experience.

For instance, between the ages of eighteen and twenty, I was stationed in and around Japan in the U.S. Navy. I loved everything about the experience: the food, the culture, the sights, the people, you name it. People still say to me, “Man, that must have been so cool to travel to Japan at that age,” and I reply, “Yes, yes it was. I was an incredibly fortunate and enlightened young man. Not only that, but I was always mindful of just how fortunate I was.” Or something to that effect.

The only problem is, when I really think about it—when I push aside all the sentimental considerations—I remember that I didn’t actually love it. Not at the time, anyway.

Yes, being stationed in Japan was interesting and far outside anything I had ever experienced in my insulated eighteen years on Earth, but that was actually part of the problem. When I lived in Japan, I wasn’t nearly as interested in new and unusual things as I am now. In fact, the things I was most concerned with then were cigarettes, beer, music, and anything that happened to contain generous portions of those three. The fourth thing I was concerned about—only slightly less than the cigarettes, beer, and music—was getting myself back to the U.S.

Sad, I know. Take your best shots. Do it now. I deserve them all.

By all accounts, I should have loved living in Japan. My mind should have been blown, in a good way. But it wasn’t Japan’s fault that I didn’t get it. Nope, it was all on me, with my self-centered, short-sighted eighteen-to-twenty-year-old disposition. Certainly, I appreciate it now, and I know (or at least hope) that, possessing the knowledge I have now, were I able to return, I would appreciate the experience in the moment, rather than having to wait until years later. And trust me, I’d go back to Japan in a half heartbeat.

But if I say I loved it then, while I was actually living it, I’m lying.

Another example: High school. These days, I look back on my tenure and cringe, wondering how I ever survived. When I hear people say that high school was the best time of their lives, I immediately feel deep pity for them and, occasionally, also scope out the nearest exit, just in case.

When I was a teenager, I knew people who had their shit together. I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. Now, I chide myself constantly for those lost days, thinking what I could have done with my life if I hadn’t been such a slacker, if I’d only had a bit of drive and determination then, the heights I could’ve reached, the depths I could’ve plumbed.

You know what, though? If I’m being honest—which is a leaf I’m making a concerted effort to turn over these days—I don’t think I really hated high school at the time. It was an inconvenience, certainly, with its endless days of having to get up early and having to do things. But I had friends then, people I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reconnect with , something I doubt would have ever happened without social media. And, as usual, friends are what help us through things like high school. They’re also often the only things we miss when it’s too late. All that said, I’m beginning to suspect high school wasn’t nearly as bad as I like to think it was.

So, nostalgia. I should have loved living in Japan; therefore, through the lens of nostalgia, I did love it. All signs point toward the fact that I should have disliked high school, which means I did hate it. There is a point to all of this, by the way—above and beyond me talking about high school and living in Japan, I mean—and it has to do with the Socratic quote from above.

My point is this: It is all too easy to fall into the trap of misremembering our own pasts and judging the present—including younger generations—in light of those flawed views.

Many times, I hear people my age, and sometimes younger, talking about how, when we were young, we didn’t have the luxury of doing this or that. (Falling into the “When I was your age” trap, by the way, is something I will fight until my final halting breath to avoid.)

The mantras go something like this: We didn’t make excuses, we didn’t have drugs to make us behave, we always took responsibility for everything we did, we appreciated everything we were given, we were always satisfied with what we had, we respected our elders, we cleaned up after ourselves, we were shining examples of everything good and pure in the human spirit.

In short, we were awesome.

When I hear these platitudes, though, the only thing I can think is that, again, if I’m being honest (see previous leaf reference), I have to say I don’t remember it that way. Also, I remember you, man, and I don’t recall you being as saintly as the portrait you’re painting.

So I wonder, is it possible that we are retroactively endowing ourselves with the qualities we want to see in today’s youth?

I’ll answer that: Yes, it happens all the time.

In the same way we can re-evaluate our past experiences based upon present knowledge, we can also reinvent our own once-upon-a-time selves based upon our present worldviews. Based upon the only data I have to offer, which is my interaction with late teens and early twenty-somethings on a regular basis, I don’t believe they’re doing anything significantly different than what my generation did, not in principle, anyway.

They just have much cooler toys.

Reflections on Towel Day

Yesterday being Towel Day and all (for the uninitiated, a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), it occurred to me that I’d love to walk around every day attending to business with a Douglas Adams narration running in my head.

Then I realized that actually already happens.

Having a [Expletive] [Expletive] Day

This morning, my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant next to four military dudes peppering their loud conversation with explosive expletives. My wife asked me if it reminded me of being in the navy.

No, I said, when I was in, we were a bit more strategic in our use of cursing. If you use the “F” word as a noun, verb, and adjective, it loses its potency a bit.

Unless you’re a character in a Roddy Doyle novel. That man is a master.

Bacon of the Candied Variety

40634_120531747995067_116046498443592_112183_6077474_nLast night, my friends, I discovered something I want to share with you. Candied bacon.

Candied. Bacon.

Though it may seem premature, I’m going to go head and predict that eating candied bacon will be one of the most transformative events of my life. It’s a bit like bacon (which it is, you’ll no doubt point out), but it’s oh so much more. It’s also like honey-baked ham, but, as I said before, it’s bacon.

In essence, it’s candied bacon.

Will I eat candied bacon every day? No, of course not. Every week, month, or even every year? Probably not. Why? Well, for one thing, I would end up very fat, more so even than I am now. For another, I get the feeling candied bacon would be a harsh master.

Look, I don’t even want to eat regular bacon, but I do, primarily because it’s bacon. In fact, if karma is an actual thing, I feel sure I’ll have a pig for a boss in another existence.

But this candied bacon. Come on.

To Do Today: Try Not to Think About Not Thinking

To Do Today: Try to learn not to rush through things, even when they’re unpleasant.

For instance, there’s exercise. This morning, as I was riding the stationary bike, I found myself performing random acts of mathematics to figure out how much longer I had to go until the clock hit zero. (If you know me, you also know what a frightening development this is. Math? Seriously?) And even within my fifty minute workout, I have intervals. For every five minutes, I do two at high intensity and three at normal. So I find myself monitoring those as well. And I’m becoming good at it.

Concentration is an issue for me, and I’ve been trying—though not as consistently as I should—to be deliberate and aware during all activities, especially unpleasant or mundane ones: taking out the garbage, cleaning the cat’s litterbox, washing clothes, shoveling snow, brushing my teeth, critiquing student essays (no offense, students. It’s not you—it’s me). The challenge is to try and keep from thinking about it, to even refrain from thinking about not thinking, to live each moment of whatever I’m doing not as something to do but as something to experience.

So I’m trying to make room for the things that matter most to me, but I’ve realized I’m approaching it from the wrong direction. Here’s an idea: First, do the things that matter most. Second, make time for the things I don’t necessarily value but that need to be done anyway. Maybe I’ll eventually discover that some of those unpleasant things are only unpleasant because I’ve labeled them that way.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn to enjoy cleaning the cat’s litterbox.

Cutting Back: Trying to Eliminate What’s Not Needed

For the last two or three months, I’ve been slowly reading a book called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. Generally, the book deals with ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which boils down to developing ways to accept and work with feelings rather than struggling with them. I like the book, but there are a ton of ideas to take in and absorb. I want to start practicing some of the techniques, but I usually only think about them at the end of the day.

This brings me to today’s topic: There is not enough time in the day.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this. From morning to night, I don’t complete half the things I’ve planned. In fact, crediting myself with accomplishing half is being too generous. The result? At the end of the day, most everything on my To Do List is deferred until the next day, if not later.

For example, take this morning. I went to the doctor early for a routine blood draw, came back to the house, checked Facebook and Twitter, and went to the gym to abuse a stationary bike for an hour. Now, as I write, I think to myself “It must be about ten o’clock.” Wrong. The clock’s at noon and moving on along. Where did the time go?

My lack of productivity isn’t a result of overwork, at least not because of factors outside my control. My time is scarce for two reasons: I’m overly optimistic about what I believe I can accomplish in a given span of time, and I want to do too many things. These two things alone, by the way, would be enough to land me in the efficiency expert version of hell, if such a place existed.

So here’s what I’ve decided: I’m going to start cutting away unnecessary things. For everything I do during the day, I’m going to ask myself if it contributes to who I want to be. Notice I didn’t say “who I am.” This is because the person I am right now is the man who tries to do everything. He’s a decent enough guy, but he needs focus.

Shrinking Myself: Reshaping My Life, One Late-Night Snack at a Time

I’m about to write here on a topic I’ve rarely discussed with anyone outside a small circle of people. It’s no big secret, and it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. Well, maybe I am, just a little, but I’ll get over it. Plus, I’m a writer. I write about things, and this is one of those things.

Okay, here it is: I’m overweight. (But not as overweight as I was six weeks ago. More on this in a few paragraphs.)

Every six months, I go to the doctor for my regular checkup, and for the most part, everything always looks good. My slight hypertension is under control with the help of medication, and my HDL cholesterol (the good variety) is occasionally just a tad low, but the fact is I’m far healthier than I have any right to be. I have sleep apnea, which is probably made worse by my weight, but that’s been issue since I was a kid, and I’ve been successfully using a CPAP since 2005. My joints are in remarkably good condition, considering my age and weight, and that’s probably due to the fact that I never played high school sports.

Still, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve pushed it health-wise too far for too long.

There’s a reason I’m discussing this publicly, and for the most part, my motives are selfish.

  • I Want to Create Accountability: I want people to know what I’m doing, but even more importantly, I want to know that people know. If that guilts or shames me into doing what’s right, then I’m golden.
  • I’m Open to Suggestions: I know other people may have insights into what I’m going through, and I’d appreciate any advice offered.
  • I’d Like Support: Honestly, I’d like some positive feedback and encouragement. What can I say? I’m a weak man.
  • I’m Hoping to Inspire Someone Else: Who knows? Maybe what I’m doing could help someone else. Hey, I said my motives were mostly selfish.

Here’s the good news: Over the past nine weeks–since Memorial Day, to be exact–I’ve lost close to twenty pounds, which puts me a little over one-third of the way to my primary goal. And I haven’t been starving myself. Here’s an overview of what I’ve been doing so far with encouraging results:

  • Exercising at least every other weekday, I usually do forty-five minutes of aerobics, stationary bike, elliptical trainer, or brisk walking. I do it every day when possible, but I don’t beat myself up too much if I miss one day.
  • On one or both weekend days, my wife and I look for a place to go hiking, the longer the walk and the higher the elevation, the better. Fortunately, Colorado has no shortage of viable candidates.
  • I’ve been keeping my daily calorie intake to around 1,700 calories. To calculate this, I’ve been using a multi-platform calorie-tracking app, MyFitnessPal, which I’ve found to be useful. That’s probably partly me, though: I get into charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. Also, I read (and am now re-reading) an excellent book by psychiatrist Roger Gould titled Shrink Yourself, which deals with a lot of the issues surrounding eating habits.
  • As I said before, I’m refraining from eating after 8:30, which has always been a huge thing for me. Late-night grubbing is something I’ve done since I was a kid. I even did it when I was in the military, but I was so active in those days that it didn’t really affect me.
  • Weekends aren’t as regimented. In fact, I make a point of letting myself get some of the “treats” I don’t have during the week: dessert, one or two comfort foods or ethnic favorites like Thai, Indian, or Mexican.

But here’s the thing. Diets don’t work, binge exercising doesn’t work, deprivation doesn’t work. They may be useful in the short run, but they rarely last. One of the finest nuggets of wisdom I ever read about behavior went along the lines of “No matter what life changes you make, eventually, you’ll always have a tendency to be you.” The advice wasn’t as pessimistic as it might sound, by the way. The point was, essentially, that it’s unreasonable to expect big life alterations to be easy.

I know, then, that unless I come up with a way to make lasting, reasonable changes, any benefits I gain stand a good chance of dissipating with the wind.

For instance, back in the late 90s, soon after my wife and I got married, we spent nearly a year going to aerobics class and adhering to a somewhat low-fat diet, which resulted in my losing about thirty-five pounds. And I actually enjoyed it. It was great–it was wonderful. The only drawback was that the following year I started making plans to return to school and get my master’s in English, which changed my schedule, which in turn led to me skipping out on the gym, which led to…well, you get the picture.

Over the next few years, I dutifully gained back all the weight I’d lost, with about fifteen pounds to spare. Since then, I’ve never been able to replicate my success. I’ve lost five or ten pounds here and there but nothing significant or lasting. As you might have guessed, this is not something I want to happen again.

Keeping this in mind, I’m trying to build habits I can live with, such as not eating after a certain time, being more active on a daily basis, not eating second helpings, and tracking my calories now so later I’ll have a better idea of the impact of what I eat.

One thing I have in my favor is the fact that I stopped smoking about sixteen years ago–after a fifteen year habit–and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, the time I finally quit puffing for real was probably about the hundredth attempt I’d made, and that’s not an exaggeration. But the takeaway is that if I can do that, I can do this. I know I can.

But knowing isn’t the problem. Remembering is the problem.

More to come.

(Note: Special thanks also go out to Anastasiya Goers for her article “3 Proven Strategies to Strengthen Your Willpower,” which has helped me along my way. Check out her website, Balance in Me.)


A Feast for the Senses: The Smell of Rain

While watching television a few nights ago, I caught the scent of rain coming through the front window. This is big news here, since it’s not that often that it rains enough to hear it, much less smell it.

But in the split second before my brain labeled the smell, before I even knew what was happening, I re-experienced every rain storm and downpour I’d ever known.

And they were, all of them, glorious.

It reminded me of a piece by Thomas Merton called “A Festival of Rain”:

I had better get this said before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute. By “they” I mean people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even the rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

…I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the corn fields, said Vespers, and lit the Coleman. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside….

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

But I am also going to sleep. Because here in this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. For here I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.

Source: Peak & Prairie. The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter’s Online Newsletter, June/July 1999.

My Writing Manifesto: Or, Yes, a Manifesto is Usually a Bad Sign, But Not This Time

This, dear ones, is my manifesto.

Okay, that sounded ominous and pretentious. Maybe a more apt way to phrase it is to say this is my writing contract with myself. Hey, at least I didn’t invoke the dreaded words “mission statement,” right?

The problem is I’m dissatisfied with where I am as a writer. I know, I know. Alert the media and break out the sandbags and buckets.

Seriously, though. Day before yesterday, when I went to the doctor, the medical assistant was entering my information, and she asked me my profession.

I replied “Writer.”

She looked around at me and asked “Do you do anything else?” to which I answered “I also teach writing.”

“I’ll put that down,” she said.

This certainly didn’t make me angry. It didn’t really even bother me. It just made me think, and here’s why: I don’t talk about my writing that often, especially with non-writers, not because I’m a snob (I’m not), but rather because I don’t think people are all that interested in it. Along with that, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and not in a crumply “it’s so emotionally close to me that I can’t bare my soul” way, either. It’s more that I sometimes find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is I’m working on at any given time.

As a result of this, the only people who call me a writer are usually the ones who don’t know me. Those who do know me, on the other hand, usually say things like “He used to work in music production,” or maybe “He’s a teacher.” Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, they might say “He’s a writing teacher,” or, more often than not, “He works? Really?”

Look, I’m fortunate enough to be able to hold a job that allows me to pursue my writing. I’m also lucky to be able to get side gigs writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and coaching, and I’m glad to be able to help friends and students with their own writing. These are all things, by the way, that I intend to continue doing. But if you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have this level of freedom, I’d have said you were insane. I might have also asked you for a cigarette, too, but that’s another story. The point is that I’m fortunate, and I know it.

What some folks may not know is that I’ve actually been published. Not in any pubs that people would kill to get into, necessarily, but still a few good, solid magazines and journals that I can pick up and carry around with me. I’ve ghostwritten a couple of books and nearly won a big contest. Okay, even I have to admit that last part sounds silly. In my defense, though, it was big.

But I really do want to continue to be published. Really published. I’m trying to get the other areas of my life in line–exercise, nutrition, time management, and attitude–so I want to get my writing straight as well.

And now that I think about it, there are other similarities between writing and exercise. I’m good at bingeing on them: I can exercise like a pro for weeks and sometimes even months at a time, just like I can develop an alleged writing habit for short lengths of time. Same goes for eating well. As long as I can remain focused on it, I’m fine, but once my concentration wavers, it’s all downhill from there.

As I’ve said elsewhere, knowing what needs to be done is important; remembering what needs to be done is crucial.

But rather than complain about my dissatisfaction (please ignore the previous paragraphs, nothing to see there), I’m going to try my best to do something about it.

Here are my problems, as I see them:

  • The past four or five years have been disorienting, to say the least. In 2007, my mom died after a three-month battle with melanoma, and in 2011, my wife Shannon and I moved from Alabama to Colorado. So my life, to some extent or another, has been in flux for a good deal of time now. Of course, it’s not as if either of these changes is on my mind twenty-four/seven, but they have caused my life the be much different than it was five years ago. For that matter, though, it was different five years back than it was ten or twenty before. The point is, for whatever reason, these two major life events–one bad and the other good–have changed my creative perspective in ways I have yet to fully consider.
  • I’m terrible at self-promotion. No kidding, I would have made one of the worst salesmen in human history. I’d sooner take a beating than ask someone to buy something from me. In fact, I couldn’t sell talcum powder at a grandmother convention. As a kid, when my school would sell candy or other items, I usually ended up selling it to people who couldn’t possibly say no: my parents. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I can, however, pitch other people’s talents all day long. Maybe it’s something in my genes. Who knows?
  • I have issues with concentration. Nothing new there. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it difficult to stick with a project through its completion, though I eventually found ways to work around this. Don’t mistake me, though. It’s not as if there’s a physical magnet in my head that makes me gravitate toward certain shiny things. Yes, it may feel like that from time to time, but it’s an illusion. If I become distracted, it’s because I’ve allowed myself to become distracted.
  • I lack a community of creative people with similar goals. Probably the most productive writing time for me was during my MFA. No big surprise, but my output consisted of more than the impressive amount of writing I was doing for school. In those two years, I also finished numerous short stories and a novel-and-a-half. Part of this was also due to two excellent writing groups I had the pleasure of joining, one directly after the other, successes I’ve yet to replicate. What both of these things have in common is that finding a well-fitting writing community is a lot like getting married, other than dealing with the communal property issues. MFA programs only last for a limited time, and locating that perfect writing group requires you to get out there and look around. As with dating, sometimes you have to sort through some duds before you find The One.

The thing is, I really do love writing when I’m doing it. It’s like exercise. Thinking about it inspires me, believe it or not, but gearing up to do it leaves me flat. When I’m actually in the middle of it, though, and immediately after I’m done, I experience full-on euphoria, or at least as close as I’m going to get. With writing, I like writing jokes, mostly because they’re snippets. They’re begun and done quickly, and I can move on to the next one. Writing longer pieces, though, takes more dedicated concentration, so perhaps that’s where I’m falling down.

What to do? I’ve sort of tried everything. I say “sort of” because I get lots of great ideas for becoming more disciplined about my writing, but few of them ever seem to pan out, primarily because I never implement them, or when I do I don’t stick with them long enough to actually judge.

Still, I need to find something that works for me, and the only way I’m going to do that is to try methods and see what works. Try them every day. There’s an interesting article I need to read–or I think it’ll be interesting, anyway–on working out writing schedules. I suspect that my best bet may be to mix it up.

All that to say that the writing contract I mentioned is not just with myself. It’s with you as well, my friends, family, colleagues, readers, postal carriers, and anyone else who has an interest in what I do.

As far as the concentration, that’s my bug to work out, but regarding the other two, you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me regarding what’s happening in my writing life. I’ll try to (shudder) promote myself more often, and I’m also going to become more proactive about finding writers interested in sharing work.

Oh, and also this:

To everyone who’s ever taught me.

To everyone I’ve ever taught.

To everyone who’s ever sat across a workshop table from me–you know who you are.

To the people who made me want to be a writer.

To my wife, who reads everything I write.

To Dad.

To Mom–I miss you.

Thanks to you all.

On the Value of Reading Books, Avoiding the Weather, and Playing Guitar Indoors

This morning, I realized that, in just over two-and-a-half years, I’ll be fifty years old. That thought caused me to stop and ponder. And as many things do these days, it also inspired me to want to take a nap.

Here’s a bit of me-related trivia: Once I reached a certain point in life, I never considered age to be terribly important. I spent my twentieth birthday in the navy, my thirtieth went by without a sound, and forty arrived, left, and barely said a word. But now fifty looms, and suddenly it gives me pause?

This is what really makes me think: Along with being hit by the reality of the passage of time, I also realized I’m long overdue for a mid-life crisis. Not to be an alarmist, but it occurs to me that this could be serious.

Don’t get me wrong. I participated in some dangerous stuff when I was younger. Despite growing up in Alabama, where the only person more reviled than the heretic is the agnostic, I refused to pledge allegiance to either of the state’s deities, Alabama or Auburn. Up until the age of about twenty-five, I rode a motorcycle, even did so in California for a while, demonstrating my manliness by refusing to wear a helmet. I lived in one of the toughest areas in San Diego, though in fairness, being generally averse to weather in all its forms, I spent most of my free time indoors. Also, the band I was in played numerous gigs with Hell’s Angels in attendance–so, you know, I and every other musician on the California coast shared that distinction with Mick Jagger and the Stones–and I even bungee-jumped on my thirtieth birthday.

But all these adventures took place, as careful readers will realize with the aid of a bit of subtraction, A Long Time Ago.

These days, my life is pretty mellow. I still avoid weather when I can manage it, I haven’t flown an airplane in about fifteen years, I quit smoking at about that same time, and although my book collection could probably crush me to death if I somehow ended up pinned beneath it, I don’t think reading qualifies as a dangerous activity. Same thing goes for playing guitar, at least the way I do it now: in the privacy of my own home with no actual bikers present.

As I see it, there are four possibilities as to why I haven’t gone mid-life bonkers, dashing out to shave my head, get a tattoo, start wearing a bandana, or purchase a convertible. One is that I’m actually going to live to be over ninety-four years old and therefore haven’t yet reached my half-life. While that could happen, it’s doubtful. Another option is that, since I don’t have children, I’m bereft of those hyperactive, mucus-producing little treasures who serve as constant reminders of their parents’ progression through the halls of time. Or it could be because I never actually grew up, which, now that I think about it, seems likely. Lastly, the reason I might not have embarked on that last gasping grasp at elusive youth might just be because I’m happy with the life I have now.

I’m going to go with a combination of three and four.