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.

Privilege Check

This weekend was HOT. The West Coast is suffering. I grew up in Alaska, so the extreme temperature there was COLD. In extremes of temperature, on both sides of the spectrum, the way to cope is to stay indoors.

Enclosed in my house, I looked for something to watch on TV, and discovered that a second season of Poldark was available.

Hooray! Poldark is a period piece that is basically a romance novel come to life. A vastly handsome young British Lord who falls on hard times. The plot is very melodramatic, but the people and the dresses are so beautiful it is very good entertainment.

The nobleman hero Poldark does marry a commoner (swoon!) and because he has fallen on hard times, both of them must work very hard.

So Demelza has to straddle both worlds, working as hard as a servant sometimes but still being the lady of the house.

One of the things that I find unrealistic about these shows is how the ladies do their hair. Demelza is beautiful with HuGe free-flowing red wavy hair. It’s magnificent, and as she travels the coastline to fish or gather driftwood to feed the fire, she leaves it free to blow in the wind.

It’s beautiful.

As a woman with magnificent hair, every time I watch her picturesque windblown hair I rage. It would be a complete rats nest after a day walking in the wind like that! How ridiculous! She would tie it back, cover it or at least braid it so that she didn’t have to spend an hour trying to comb it into civility after she returns indoors.

That part is so unreal.

There was another part where Demelza took a walk along the beach because her lord husband did something that disturbed her.

I remembered she was straddling the lady/servant role. She did have servants, but not enough to keep body and soul together. Their 17th century wood fire heating and fish meals required a lot of work. Many times she would have to go to the shore to get those two materials.

But this time, she was the lady of the house. The activity of walking on the beach because you needed to think was a highly privileged activity. For people who had to work tirelessly for their food, that kind of luxury was unheard of.

Only people with servants had that kind of freedom.

This occurred to me as I was sitting in my boudoir, with my laptop on my lap and the AC keeping me cool as I spent my Saturday binge-watching season two of Poldark.

I have a lot of freedom.

I have a lot of privilege.

I even have a lot of product for my hair to keep it civilized if I want to let it wave free instead of tying it back.

It’s a good time to be alive.

Fact and Fiction

I’ve been writing for a long time now. I’ve been reading even longer. The joy of reading is so easy, like boarding a train for a beautiful adventure.

Writing is different. It’s more like BUILDING a train. Or at the least a little wagon to take the readers on a journey. That’s harder.

So I’ve done what I can to learn the best practices and skills of building a story wagon. There are a lot of things to know, and methods and techniques to follow to achieve a desired result. I’ve learned a few things about what’s under the hood in a book

The book that took me the longest to write, The Russian American School of Tomorrow, is a memoir. It’s a very special form of non-fiction.
I found this definition from Hoover library talking about fiction vs. non-fiction:

Fiction” refers to literature created from the imagination…

“Nonfiction” refers to literature based in fact. It is the broadest category of literature.

See? Is my memoir my imagination or fact? Are my memories of events facts?

See what the Hoover Library says about nonfiction? It’s the broadest category of literature. It’s a super powerful form of writing. To learn and understand how things work, and how people did things in the past or what they are thinking right now about how to do things in the future.

People are very picky about facts. There are rules for what you can call a fact and how you present things as facts.

It reminds me of construction. When you build a building, there are rules and laws and every single part of that building has to be rated and tested, then inspected so that we are sure the building will not fall on our heads. That’s how we can feel confident–even in earthquakes!–to go be in that building.

We trust the building. We trust facts.

But my memory of the facts? Is that trustworthy?

In fiction, there is an UNDERSTOOD warning. The author, by placing the book in the fiction category, warns all readers that this story has not been tested and inspected. It’s ‘just’ a story. It didn’t really happen.

But in my exploration of literature, I’ve encountered books that are more true than facts. How is the story of Frodo’s battle with the ring of power not one of the truest kind of facts? Yes, it didn’t happen. The place they ‘live’ doesn’t even exist. But that story lives again and again. In my life, and in others’.

So the story of my life, what really happened, written in a memoir, is fact. But some people would dispute it. That’s their right. If they lived the story too, their view and experience of it was undeniably different.

But the imagination it took to form that story was not in the realm of non-fiction. I’ve written non-fiction. I have written training materials on how to use technology. I’ve written step-by-step instructions in The Pregnant Professional. The level of imagination is completely different.

There are parts of life that feel like non-fiction. It’s a non-fiction moment when my alarm goes off in the morning. No imagination required.

You know what’s fiction? When my daughter is crying because her homework is too hard and she doesn’t want to do it. That’s where the imagination comes in.

So much of our lives would do better if we composed it out of fiction. If we were willing to unbind the prescriptions of what we HAVE to do, and open up the box of what we MIGHT do.

What might we do when the boss calls us into the office to reprimand us about something we were unaware we needed to do?

What might we do when we feel our beloved spouse is too busy to pay attention to what we want?

What else is possible?

What else might we imagine?

There are steps. There are best practices. As I’ve found in my writing, though, those are a starting place, not a finishing place. We are all creators of our destinies. And each created life is a work of art. Look for the places to inject imagination.

Look for the art. You will find it.

Action changes everything

There have been a few Saturdays when I have been invited to two birthday parties on the same day. Always, these birthday parties were for Veronica’s friends.

Yesterday, the second birthday party was for one of my friends. And we were all going to have a picnic at Shakespeare in Griffith Park.

Griffith Park is Hollywood–all the way Hollywood.

They were performing Measure for Measure which is very NOT Hollywood.

This is what I have learned about Hollywood from living here, and from experiencing the huge amount of entertainment that this juggernaut puts out:
Hollywood does not go deep. There is a limit to how deep you can go in a movie.

I like books, and a book can go deep. So deep.

I think that books turned into movies often are so disappointing. There are things that one can do with the material of a book that doesn’t translate into film, and vice versa.

Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s ambitious exploration of justice and mercy. A town that’s gotten too lax with their morality, so the Duke decided to tighten things up and goes out of town so his deputy Angelo can do the job for him. Angelo immediately sentences a nobleman to death for getting his fiancée pregnant.

The doomed nobleman had a very moral sister, who postponed taking her vows to join a convent to save her brother’s life.

The conversations between Angelo and the sister really allow for this idea to be discussed. Isabella the nun could speak with innocence on the matter. Few can. Even Angelo, who condemns the sinning nobleman, proves that he is not innocent.

The idea of this play reminds me of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece exploring whether a crime can be excused because of the greatness of the man who commits it.

Also, Isabella reminded me of Antigone, the Greek heroine of the play that gives up her life for honor.

Plays are best in expressing action. Books are better at showing thoughts.

I first read Measure for Measure when I was more of Angelo’s mindset. I had a lot of iron-clad judgments. I didn’t know how to break free of them.

Isabella was caught between love for her brother and her dedication to a chaste life. Still, she can see how he deserves mercy because she loves him so much.

There are not so many people dedicated to trying to be perfect. Isabella represents the contrast. She DID play by the rules. She was an ascetic, but she still found mercy in her heart.

Shakespeare did some exploration of the problem, some rhetoric in iambic pentameter. But the reason this play works is because the arguments are not as compelling as the actions.

The act of killing the nobleman is too far. Arguments are not enough to cover the wrongness of taking this man’s life.

Even in Crime and Punishment, the deep sticky thoughts of the hero would have remained only his business except that he acted.

And Angelo acted. He sentenced a man to death.

The action took it out of ideas and into reality.

Books are ideas. Plays are action. They are performed in Acts, for goodness sake!

The idea of judgement and mercy is a toy until it comes down to the action. And the act is the most real thing ever.

I have learned how to release judgement by this time. I have learned how to choose a better action than condemnation. Which means I can encounter this book or play in a different way. Which is part of what the glory of art is about.

What are you going to do?

It was becoming clear to me that downtown was for pedestrians. How had I never noticed this before? Perhaps this Friday was worse for foot traffic than usual.

I was not on foot. I was driving and I had two errands to do for work. One was to have a meeting with a new business contact, and another was to drop off a large amount of binders and paperwork.

I was late to the first meeting. I had forgotten how bad traffic was. The second problem was that I had put the address for where I was meeting the guy in my GPS.

This is another issue with downtown. I have to put my car somewhere while I go to the actual destination.

I hung a Ricky and found a parking structure. I hoped it wasn’t too far from the skyscraper that was my destination. Also, no chance for validation. One other catch: cash only.

Oh yeah. Cash is easy for under-the-table economies. I checked–I had a 20 and a few singles.

Hop out and walk the blocks to my meeting. He was generous about how late I was, and I accomplished my mission.

Now back to my car. I was starving. But this cash economy had me strapped.

Did I drive to the next location? Or walk with the heavy box?

I did have a cart with wheels.

But downtown Los Angeles was hilly.

I checked the GPS. It said a mile.

A mile.

One big factor was that the person I needed to deliver the documents to might not be there, and I might have to walk back with them.

It was decision time. What would I choose?

I decided to drive.

I drove out of the parking garage and got $2.50. I hoped the next parking garage took credit cards. Deeper downtown probably would.

The GPS couldn’t get signal inside the parking garage, so I couldn’t tell which direction I was supposed to turn when I got to the street. I turned left, hoping that was it.

I had to stop a lot, because of all the passengers going through the crosswalks. Good thing because it took time to get the turns from my GPS.

And when I thought I could turn right, I encountered a one-way street.

And now came that demon.

That demon which says “You made the wrong choice. You should have walked. This is taking too long and it would have been better to do it the other way.”

I engaged with that demon for a while, trying to figure out if that were true.

Had I made a stupid decision? Was this a dreadful mistake?

This kind of demon pops up a lot.

He’s my companion on most large projects. Did I do this right? Surely everyone but me would have seen the easy way to do it. Surely I am missing something and I am doing it all wrong.

This Friday, I quickly realized it was not helpful. I’d made my decision, and I couldn’t turn back anyway. By car, it was more like 5 miles to get to the next building.

But I got there. I would not have gotten then nearly as fast if I had turned around and second-guessed myself.

That’s the thing. Making a decision, even if it’s not the best decision of all possible decision in a universe of infinite possibilities, is the most productive thing to do.

Choices

Me and Veronica walked out of the store looking so cool.
I’d been trying to get rid of stuff in the house, because there seemed to be so much underfoot.
“Come on, Veronica, we are going to the thrift store.”
I’ve always gone to thrift stores. My favorite teddy bear as a child was one I chose from a Salvation Army store. She has a velvet tummy and I named her Deanna.
When I got older, my jones for shopping could only be fulfilled somewhere very cheap. Thrift stores it was. The aisles were full of random things, and it was easy to try a look that I happened across because it was so cheap.
At some point, in my early adulthood I came across an article praising the fashion sense of Diane Keaton. She said she was shocked at the acclaim when it began, right around when the movie Annie Hall came out. She said she was only shopping in thrift stores.
Oh really? This was the first time I had thought of thrift stores as cool. It had always seemed like something to be ashamed of.
But I had always secretly preferred the thrift store. I could go to the fancy department store of my youth, Lamont’s and see what I was supposed to wear to look cool. But it was all the same.
I wanted something different from what they had. And Salvation Army was full of different things. I could make my own look.
And that’s why I’m writing about it. There is a cult following of thrift store fashion. Diane Keaton was not the first or the last. We thrifters are ready to take chances. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be stuck with the choices some corporate person selected for me. I have my own ideas about what I like to wear.
Even if clothes and fashion are not your mode of artistic expression, this is something to remember. You and I–all of us– have more choices than the ones we’ve been given.
You are not stuck in a rut. Life can sometimes feel like we’ve been given a booklet of ration coupons, and we have to stand in line to get what’s ours.
There is so much more than that. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And we can rifle through what’s discarded, look around and see if there’s a road or even a deer path less traveled, to see who else we might want to be or where we might like to explore.
Veronica found a faux leather jacket in her size. After looking over the whole store, even lingering on a purple hat, she settled on the leather jacket. She feels pretty awesome.
So when we left the store, I felt pretty awesome too. We make our own choices.