Strum true

Of all the forms of art in the world, my focus has been writing. I’ve worked hard and steady on my craft, and I’m proud of what I do.

And I look around sometimes and wonder at the other possibilities. I could have focused on music, you know.

Music is magic.

It’s time based. Tempo is part of every piece of music.

It’s temporal. It lives in the time stamp. The music starts and it ends and it’s over.

But for the songs that I hear over and over, they are a time machine. Somehow, they preserve the moment when I hear the song the first several times.

I’ve had that happen to me. Even songs that I didn’t even think much of, if they were on the radio at some moment and I hear them years later

BAM

time machine

I’m back to when I heard it, awash in all the feelings. Was I crushing on someone then?  Was I broken hearted?

Now, years later, when I hear the song again, I am right there.

What other kind of art does this?

As much as I love books, that’s not my experience with books.

Music strums our hearts in fantastical ways. It’s a highly exploitable characteristic.

I know. When I played the piano for church, they taught me how to use Major 7th and minor chords to manipulate the pews.

And Madison Avenue and Hollywood have even better tools than a single spinet piano.

Sometimes I’ll hear the soundtrack swell, and my eyes will tear up and narrow at the same time. I’ll feel so betrayed, when the music swells and I am moved while at the same time I realize the story doesn’t deserve this strong of a reaction.

I can feel the music buttressing the weakness of the story itself and it WORKS to a certain level, but only skin deep.

Sincerity matters. Authenticity matters.

Don’t lie to me, music.

Songwriters and performers have a similar relationship. Songwriters have the skills to write beautiful songs, but they often need people whose skill is performing.
That same sort of betrayal can happen when performers who haven’t earned the right to sing certain songs. I think of boy bands.

And then…There are performers who take a song and make it more theirs than the initial performers.

I stumbled onto this video of two guys singing Toto’s Africa. These guys, for an audience of nearly nobody, sang the song better than the band.

I find that so much more moving than a boy band. Music will carry so much of the load, but in the end all art has to be true.

Curriculum

I have a meeting this week on a college campus. Sitting here right now, I’m nervous that I won’t be able to find the building and the room that the meeting is in.

University campuses are often confusing. Also, I find them terrifying. The gravitas of Higher Learning makes me feel small and uneducated. These places are NOT FOR ME, in scary capital letters.

And oh, how I’ve always wanted them to be. At least I used to. Part of what I want to share today is what’s changed.

I remember when I was in high school, and people or magazines told me that I should look into what college I wanted to go to. As a homeschooled kid in Alaska, I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I sent in a postcard asking for college information, and packages came to my mailbox. Large envelopes with pictures of happy students–slightly older and WAYYYY cooler than me– sitting on lawns under trees laughing and studying.

Alaska had very few lawns or trees you could sit under.

When I got to the part where they outlined how much it cost I couldn’t believe it. Forty five THOUSAND dollars for a school year?

For four years in a row?

That wasn’t going to happen.

And, in fact it mostly didn’t. I took classes when I could, between working to keep myself alive and pay for school. The University in Alaska wasn’t like those fancy college packets.

Years pass and I move to California, where the colleges were a lot more like the packets. But I was now older that those still WAYYY cooler kids, and behind and not catching up.

I would walk the grounds of colleges sometimes; I felt the hunger to learn every single thing I could.

But it won’t for me. I was still there on my night classes, like some kind of stowaway, sneaking snatches of learning.

Snatches of learning served me well in the jobs I was doing to support myself. I was always ready to learn more in my job, and so I got better and better job.

Then came the magical moment that I graduated from college. Which felt great!

Except then I wasn’t in college anymore.

But wait! There’s graduate school! College can go on forever!

But I’d already started my career without college. And I’d have to abandon a perfectly good career path to go to graduate school.

Isn’t that completely reverse of what they tell you?

Yeah. But learning for learning’s sake still called to me. And when I would go to college campuses, I would have this surge of wishing I could study there.

Until it kind of felt nostalgic. Like I was wishing for a past that I has imagined I could have had but then didn’t actually have, but not in the future was remembering wanting.

Did you follow that? I hope so.

So looking at these Ivory tower campuses got really confusing.

And after I finished writing THE BEAST, aka The Russian American School of Tomorrow, I knew that colleges–even grad school–couldn’t have helped me write THAT. I was and am so proud of that book and what I created that I saw something.

I had gone past what college could do for me. Not to say I wouldn’t learn something from classes, if I took them.

But the neat packages of learning that are outlined in syllabuses are not what I’m doing anymore.

I’ve graduated. And I finally feel it and know it.

So when I go to UCLA for my meeting, I can appreciate it. Maybe like a person an old unrequited flame.

But I’m really happy with what I’ve been learning and doing. I’m confident that I have my own curriculum I’m uncovering.

word count

“You have to cut it in half.”

“What?! I wrote it, and it says what it’s supposed to say!”

“The rules of the contest say it has to be half the number of words. Don’t worry, this will be easy.”

I did not believe it. But my mom, my best writing teacher ever, took the time to go over my story, and we did in fact cut it in half. I won the contest and have never forgotten the lesson I learned as a young teenager:

Say what needs to be said, in as few words as possible.

Then came college, and the assignments included writing a ten-page paper.

Ten pages? Of what?

Whatever the topic is, apparently. And I had to use sources, which means I am writing ten pages of stuff that has already been written. But for my paper, I can’t use the same words as the original stuff. I’m supposed to make it my own.

But never use the word “I” or refer to myself in any way.

My mind exploded. Who is making these crazy rules?

But I was used to unfair rules, and I learned to do it. I cranked out a series of ten page papers in enough succession to get a bachelor’s degree. Then I learned that in order to get a master’s degree, you had to write 20 page papers.

That was a bridge too far.

The length of a piece of writing should serve the purpose of the idea it’s trying to convey. It should be interesting, it should definitely convey the voice of the writer and it should not ramble on.

I graduated from college 15 years ago, and I’ve done more writing after than I ever did during. And I did get past the 20-page mark, but I used the first person “I” many many times.

I have been able to make my own rules about what makes sense in my writing.

It’s been lovely.

AND

A new unfair rule has popped up in my world. The rules of the search engines.
The Wonderblog lives in a world dominated by Google. It’s 15 years old, and I have published more than 2,000 posts. Very very few of them are more than a thousand words. Very very few of them are less than 300.

Heretofore, I have spent no time thinking about Google’s opinion of my blog and my posts.

I am thinking a little about it now. A lot of people do think about it. I found this article that suggests Google prefers to serve up articles of a certain length: 2500 words. So if I want people to find what I write by using Google, I have to meet these new rules.

I wonder.

Does Google really know what people want?

I don’t know. I’d love for more people to read what I write, but not at the cost of making my writing worse.

It’s probably the same issue that the university had. Neither Google nor academia is a great judge of art.

They are systems, not souls.

And if I wanted to play by their rules, I had better bring a different set of tools.

Sometimes 500 words can do what 2500 can’t.

Cruising with the Spirit of the City

I’ve been told that for Shakespeare, England is always a character. England motivates and moves the action of the play.

I recently discovered a character, Tim “Speed” Levitch, who gives tours of New York City and who is the subject of an existential and metaphysical rant of a documentary called The Cruise.

He tells the story of his city, New York, from the same heroic perspective. The City is a character.

The title of the movie comes from his concept of the motion of life. It’s a cruise, a magnificent and glorious forward motion.

In the interview I heard with Tim Levitch, he brought up another kind of forward motion: the commute. The commute is when all parts of me are focused on the goal of BEING THERE.

When I am going to work, I am commuting and I want to be THERE. Especially when I am commuting home.

The streets in California–wait, the highways–have a complete character all their own. They have a life and a will that is implacable and must be reckoned with.

A consciousness, as I am beginning to see.

If I am in the city, and in the traffic, on my commute, and all I am focused on is BEING WHERE I AM NOT YET, then I miss so much of where I am.

The mindset of the commute robs me of my life. I am commuting so often, not only on my way to work and back, but also when I am at those destinations. I live in the future of when THIS project will be done, when THIS goal will be achieved.

I miss the now. It doesn’t even exist when I am so goal focused. I don’t even exist.

I recognize this in my life. I come in and out of that mentality.

I will get caught up in the goal, the desired end, and forget myself and forget who, what and where I am.

And my discomfort increases.

At which point I shake myself into awareness again.

 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help [psalm 121]

That’s what I see on my commute. Hills. And when I look up to my beautiful surroundings, I remember that my goals and my problems have a bigger context.

There is a whole world of beauty and love out there.

These roads are part of it too. The paint is just lines and dots. They are part of the city, not all of it. Even if they are the part I am most intimate with.

We are in this world together, agents of destiny. My desire is to add to the glory and beauty of this cacophony. With intention. Where I am.

I’ll get where I’m going in good time.

anonymous and the monomyth

I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. -Virginia Woolf

It’s called the Monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you know what it is. George Lucas was a big follower of Joseph Campbell, who wrote Hero of a Thousand Faces to outline how this same story has repeated itself throughout history.

Homer’s lliadBeowulf, King Arthur and Luke Skywalker all are doing that thing. That’s a big swath of history for one basic story to cover.

We know this story. I breathe this story. I read the hero stories–fantasy like Lord of the Rings. And when I watch movies, I pick the comic book hero movies.

This is how I like to see my life. Conquering adversity, be it a dragon or a self-serving government, and rescuing myself and my people.

Those stories have something else in common. They all have male protagonists. Where are the women?

What is it about women? Why aren’t we as frequently in the hero’s role?

Dorothy? When she went to Oz? Her return to her home was as uneventful as it comes. In the sequels to the first book, she is even treated for being insane for her journey.

That’s not a great example.

Alice following the white rabbit to Wonderland? Her journey was equally uneventful, in the book she wakes up in her companions lap, with the whole journey dismissed as a dream.

Why are the storytellers finding it so hard to see a female in this role? I don’t have a problem picturing myself as Frodo, travelling against all odds.

How much does it matter?

I believe it does. Because when I walk through the door, my shape and gender declare themselves as NOT the one who solves the problem no matter what.

Other people will assume that I am meant for saying safely at home to care for family and children.

Because it’s the other people, the ones who I am NOT, that are the heroes and the problem solvers.

I’ve been racking my brain for weeks. I finally thought of one:

The nightmare world of The Hunger Games introduced us to Katniss, who is a hero(ine) to rival Achilles. In a horrible dystopia she fights, first for her sister and her special knowledge spreads to bring salvation to everyone.

One.

Can you think of a female hero?

Woolf had a point. Anonymous has had a big impact on our world. I wish she would come out of the closet. We need her help now.

curiosity cure

I am the girl who sits in the front row. I am the one who raises her hand, even interrupting the teacher to get my answer.

Yes, they will be impatient sometimes. But more often the teachers say “I’m glad you asked that question. If you thought of it, that means  other people thought of it too, but didn’t have the courage to ask.”

Believe me, I know I am providing a public service by asking the question. I can feel a wall of impatience and disapproval from the student body in the classes when I bother to break up the rhythm of the teacher’s presentation. I also know how people will come up to me after class and thank me privately.

I know.

I also know it’s who I am. I can’t not ask the question. It’s my mutant super power. And it’s often lonely in the front row.

This question-asking impulse doesn’t stop after I leave the classroom. I carry around this curiosity. My desire to poke the dark thing, or turn over the rock is not something I can turn off.

I’m always learning more, reading more books, listening to experts give talks on their expertise.

And this week, one of those books (Rising Strong by Brene Brown) named the pooch, my particular pooch:

“The brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information.”

Yes! It is a public service! I have proof!

She goes on to say:  “But curiosity is uncomfortable because it involves uncertainty and vulnerability.”

That’s what is is. It takes courage to raise my hand, and admit I don’t know something. But that drive to know–to wonder–overrides the fear.

So this, this Weekly Wonder, is my current manifestation of the hand-raising habit. I have often wondered what I’m doing with this effort. Why do feel the need to write this every week? I do. It’s important to me, and I won’t give up on it. I started it seven years ago, like a blind worm grousing toward a shady destination.

I grew my list of readers, grateful for their indulgent consumption of my little art project. Even when they would reach out–thank you so much for reaching out!–to tell me they loved it.

But as Brene Brown explains it, curiosity is a basic function of humanity. And when we give up on curiosity, we lose the flavor of life and are poorer for it. It is a higher human need than I had recognized.

My wonder, and the sharing of it, give my readers a chance to remember their better selves.

My words, strung together in an email, gives perspective on our lives. When I write them, and you all read it, we see more than the little circumscribed box we grind away in. There is a wonder in the world.

This writing lifts our heads and broadens horizons, even if only a moment, and breathes fresh air into our thoughts.

Even more, it helps all of us to remember we are not alone.

This little project is valuable. It’s a small cure for the doldrums and the grind.

Wonder is worth it. You are worth it.

 

Explication on Failing

(This quote is from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”)

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. “

The thing about the critic in my life is that the external critic is by far the least prominent critic. My loudest critics are the Greek chorus inside my head. How much I point out that I stumble! Based on time spent, my favorite activity is pondering where I have stumbled, and where I am currently stumbling.

I have a bottomless appetite for looking for where I might do better

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, “

I’ve talked about this before. Action is so glorious! The darling of my heart to act, to DO, and strive valiantly. YES! I wish to strive valiantly.

But erring and coming up short? Oh no. Let us never never do that. If such a horror were to happen, I would paper it over with the same act re-taken, only THIS time properly, again and again to prove I would never never do THAT mistake again. See? Look how many times I did it right. Like a stuck machine, again and again, re-doing the mistake but correctly this time.

How pointless. How regressive. This shameful habit needs releasing.

“because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,”

The first job I had that I was proud of, the first one that counted (althought in retrospect, I am not giving McDonald’s enough credit), I was so terrified that I would screw it up, I carried a notebook with these words written large on the cover:
Show me a girl who makes no mistakes,
And a will show you a girl who does nothing

Doing nothing was worse than making mistakes. Barely.
I carried that notebook for years, and I still barely believe it. So most of my actions are careful careful don’t make mistakes actions.
But they are actions.

I am hungry for that high achievement in a worthy cause. I am so eager for it. It is the thing that gets me taking action in spite of the very very terrifying prospect of making a mistake.

The fear of making a mistake can set my heart racing, fear of that critic who I may encounter will clench my muscles, shoot acid though my stomach and rob my sleep.

What if the worst should happen?

“and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. “

There is that other saying, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Or another pithy quote from John Stuart Mills.
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

It is better to take a chance, try for something big and to fail, or be dissatisfied. It is of value to try even if you don’t succeed. It is of value, in fact to fail.

Success requires failure. And trying, failing, and surviving the failure is valuable.

I’m not happy when failure stares me in the teeth. I would do almost anything to avoid it. Anything except give up on myself.

But let me tell you, there are times when giving up sings a siren song. It comes down to 1% more intolerable to give up on myself than give up.

So I keep trying. My life belongs in the arena, and when I fail–which I will and I do–I hope to fail in the right direction.

California Road Rules

When I moved to California one of the hardest things for me to get used to was the freeways.Seriously, in Alaska, we did not have the plethora of choices. Freeways and highways that intersect, merge and divide sending the populace to wherever they want to go.

Those kind of choices were not available where I was from. Dizzying choices that had to be made at 65 miles an hour! It was terrifying.

I enjoyed taking the bus when I could.

After a short time I realized that the highways were not always moving at 65 miles an hour. In fact, just when you needed to use them they were most likely to be going 5 miles an hour.

Or even completely stopped.

So the choices didn’t have to be made so fast. In fact, the choices–which lane, which route–could be re examined at length while staring at the dozen or so surrounding cars.

I quickly found a reason to be on the freeways a lot. I got a job. And I’ve had jobs that take me to the streets ever since.

There was this magic place on the freeways:

The HOV lane

HIgh Occupancy vehicle lane

You have to have another person in the car with you to use it. And in California that separate lane on the freeway was achingly wide open, with no one using it.

So many questions. So long to ponder this phenomenon. Why don’t people ride together? Are all the hundreds of cars in front and behind me really only one person to car?

For more than a decade I would spend hours every week longing for that lane.

Then a law was passed: Low emission vehicles could also ride in this exclusive lane. You could get a sticker and be set free!

Of  course, the low emission vehicles (varying degrees of electric cars) were too expensive. Should I really give myself such an extravagance?

My new job is the furthest I’ve ever driven. I got an electric car in March.

In the fashion typical of governments, the paperwork to get my stickers took a very long time to get to me.

Last week they arrived. My commute is now enhanced. I get to use the HOV lane.

I have never felt so priviledged. As soon as I got to use it, I renamed it the VIP lane. I can’t imagine a better gift to myself. I immediately thought about the things typically called VIP-bottle service at a bar, box seats. Sure, those are nice.

But THIS! THIS IS WHERE I LIVE. This takes my whole life to a new level.

What I love most?I love most that I don’t sit in the car questioning “did I make the right choice?”

Yes, sometimes the HOV lane is slow traffic. BUt it’s the BEST you are going to get on that lane.

And knowing that I’ve done the UTMOST to optimize this travel is like a warm blanket of assurance. This is it. I can let this be the right choice and think about something else.

Letting that worry go is a weight lifted. A weight I didn’t know I was carrying.

I love my new car.

I’ve never felt so *VIP* in my life

My books are not what people think

I was so sick week before last.  A whole unfortunate and unpleasant stomach thing, and I was left with no mental capacity.

I texted a friend “I read a Brandon Sanderson book in 2 days.”

She replied, “At least you did something productive.”

Huh?

Oh. This is that thing that comes up sometimes.

Here is a thing about me:

I read.

I read the way most people watch movies or TV. So when I say I read a book for two days, I was implying I had utterly wasted two days. For other people, this would be like binge watching trashy TV for 2 days.

No redeeming value. Just brain candy. And barely that, because the brain wasn’t much involved. THIS Brandon Sanderson book was all limbic system.

I’ve read more than 20 books so far this year.  Like I said, I read a lot. And when I share that information, I get this weird reaction “Oh, I should read more.”

MMmmmm… Don’t take my reading so seriously. Maybe 5% of the books were something more than entertainment

One of the books is Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability. In that book she talks about how we have created lives that we need to escape from, using “Numbing” activities.

About 5 years ago it occurred to me that my reading was totally escapism. That I was coming home from work and diving into beautiful heroic worlds that were the OPPOSITE of my life.

I wasn’t being brave or present in my life. I was avoiding my life.

My reading was not enhancing my life; it was taking me away from it. Just as video games, or TV or Movies do for other people.

I became a more careful about my reading. I couldn’t just dive in and stay as I had been used to. I wanted my life to be full. I knew things had to change.

I started some mindfulness practices.

Well. That sounds very linear. I started to do some different things. I started to pay attention to my intuition. I say intuition, even though that word enraged me at the time. “WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY IS INTUITION? HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE IT?”

In hindsight, I can see what I didn’t at the time, which is that if I am escaping from the uncomfortableness of my life, I am not going to feel the subtle urging of intuition.

My numbing agent of choice, books, was me putting earplugs in my ears so I couldn’t hear the fire alarm telling me SOMETHING WAS NOT RIGHT.

The fire alarm had to be reckoned with. And more urgently, the fire it was trying to tell me about.

It was not subtle how I was unhappy. What was more subtle was how I had convinced myself that I had to stay unhappy.

And that my escaping into a good book was the best way to tread that very unfortunate water.

I recognized the behavior as unhealthy and began to pull away. Which did not make me happy. It made me very uncomfortable at first. Because it meant I had to deal with that annoying fire alarm.

That fire alarm was the intuition. Misery is not subtle.

But I’d stopped my ears up pretty good. I was like a blind man who suddenly gains sight…Took me a while to make sense of what I saw.

I did change the misery, though. And I learned about what mindfulness and intuition can do for me.

And I have a better respect for books’ proper role in my life.

mundane and magic

It was late—for me—as I sat on the grass with my daughter and six thousand other people watching the fireworks.

I love fireworks so much. My head tilted back to see the explosions of color arc over the sky again and again.

They used to have smiley face fireworks. An explosion of lights that form a circle, with two dots for eyes and a smile in the middle. They don’t have those so much anymore. I guess they fell out of favor.

It’s funny that fireworks are used on patriotic occasions, because fireworks are made out of the same materials as bombs and bullets. The explosive sounds are identical.

I heard that sometimes veterans don’t like fireworks after they’ve seen action. I can totally see why the screaming explosions wouldn’t sound fun after you’ve seen them take lives.

I’ve heard that China invented gunpowder, and then outlawed other people from having it. They would only use it for fireworks.

As I looked at the awe-inspiring beauty of the showers of lights, I could only think of them as technology. The gunpowder it takes to launch these, and the advances it took to get them to squeal and sparkle–to make a smiley face!—that’s technology.

Art is all about technological advancements. How do you divide the soul from the spirit or the art from technology?

From chemical colors, which allow for textile and paint to be brilliant, to polymers that allow for sculptures and dwellings to have new shapes that weren’t possible before, these are the stuff of science and art.

Metal guitar strings allowed for louder music, so musicians could travel and perform for bigger audiences. And when bigger audiences were involved that changed the music again.

I don’t think it was the musician that figured out how to make the guitar strings metal. Perhaps the usual thing is for industrial forces to create an advance, and then artists to experiment with it.

But then I think of Stradivari and his violins. This was before the industrial age, and his craftsmanship with the violin–technology, really–changed the whole understanding of what violins could do.

He approached the art of violin making scientifically, using materials and forms to create these instruments. And his art affected the art of music for centuries. Arguably, his artisanship raised the violin to where it rests today, an inescapably pillar of music.

And these ideas swirl in my head, as I listen to the Souza march that accompanies the fireworks display above the field in my little town. The Chinese gunpowder, the craft of music making, and all the ordinary crafts that each of us can do…mixing a cake, fixing the computer, reorganizing a closet or helping a child with homework–these all have that mix of technology and art, the mundane and the magical.

As the final crescendo of fireworks explodes, I feel lifted and joyful at their beauty. I wish I could take that with me and see more of that than the mundane.

Sometimes I do.