I Took a Walk Today.

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Took this picture on a walk.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a walk. I mean, since I don’t mostly drive during the week I do a bit of walking here and there just getting around to work and school. But it’s been a long time since I went and took a walk simply for the purpose of walking.

I am very, very out of shape.

I used to walk all the time. It was an essential part of my day; it was wrapped in to physical and emotional and mental well being. It was a part of me spiritually. The rhythm of footfalls, the pounding of drums, the beat of one’s own heart; these things are so indelibly human that to deny them is tantamount to denying one’s own humanity.

I stopped walking as much during a rash of street harassment I experienced  prior to my trip to Bhutan, and then pretty much entirely after I returned from Bhutan. I was so sick and in so much pain after the trip, and then, well… my previous walking experiences had been so unpleasant, both having to deal with being yelled at by men in a pickup truck on multiple days, and having to complete the emergency hike in Bhutan while I had pneumonia, that the thought of walking filled me with dread. And when a thing fills you with dread it’s so easy to come up with ways to avoid it, especially when you’re busy.

And I have been kinda busy.

But last weekend I was a part of a parade. It was a short route, like a mile or less, not more, and all flat, urban walking, and by the time we were done and had walked back for lunch, I was feeling energized. I wanted to walk more. I was in a good mood, and my brain was clicking over at a good clip.

So today, when I finished writing up the notes for the latest episode of the podcast, I went on a walk. It was around seven in the evening when I left, and the sun was setting. It was the same route I used to walk in the evenings after work, a good and hilly two miles round trip, that can be extended to three by adding another hill. I stuck with two. And as I walked it, I just had all these memories, kind of barely formed, of times when I’d walked that route before; times that I’d seen deer, or times when particular slopes had been icy. I remember having watched the seasons change along that route.

And I’m not going to lie, after a particularly steep slope I was a little out of breath. The muscles in my hips feel tired from the slopes, both the inclines and the declines, and will probably be a little sore tomorrow. And you know what? That’s okay. That out-of-breathness, that soreness, that’s not a failure. It’s just another starting point, one of many I’ve had throughout my life and one of many that I will have throughout the years to come.

Starting points are fun. They’re the easy part, where everything is new and exciting.

I do desperately want to start walking again, but I won’t be able to do it every day with my class schedule unless I work it into my commute, and that’s only about a mile and a half. Maybe a little less. But maybe I can do it on some of the days. Maybe I can get a walk in on most of the days. And maybe until my schedule loosens up enough, maybe that’s okay.

 

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Watercolor.

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Doesn’t look like much yet, does it?

I told myself that after my novel, A Guide to a Happier Life, was published, I would never paint my own book cover again.

The unfortunate fact is that when you release two books that are related, like they have the same characters or whatever, you want the branding to feel consistent. And the cover is perhaps the most important part of your branding for a book. So since I painted the last cover, I’m going to have to paint this one too.

Since it’s a project that is going to require a total of nine covers, I have my work cut out for me.

The first cover was done in watercolor, and watercolor has a pretty specific look, so it’s watercolor again.

I’m not a big fan of watercolor.  Well, I’m not a big fan of using watercolor. It’s unpredictable, you see. It blobs out and runs and bleeds, and that’s actually part of its charm. It’s supposed to do that, to be out of control. And that’s part of what I like about looking at watercolor paintings, but it’s hard for me to not see those blobs and runs as horrible mistakes that I made when I’m painting in watercolor. And since watercolor is transparent, you can’t really cover them up. You just have to go with it, and as I’ve discussed previously, I’m not great at that.

You don’t really control watercolor. You nudge it. You guide it. You provide it with a path. But mostly you sit back and let the watercolor paint for you. You relinquish control, and just… participate. Play. See what happens.

Not my specialty.

And the thing is, not only are those inconsistencies, those idiosyncrasies, what makes watercolor beautiful,  it’s where I live in the painting. It’s the visual record of how my eyes, brain, and hand differ from everyone else’s in some number of tiny ways. And that has value, right? If we wanted everything to look perfect we’d just take photos and painting would have been abandoned by now.

Choosing something as rigid and architectural as a cityscape probably wasn’t the best idea either, but I think I’ll have a little wiggle room based on how this is all going to be used in the final product, that maybe I can curve those buildings around the vanishing point just a little, and maybe I can have the chance to play with some unusual textures here and there. It’s to my advantage that the image is intended to not be immediately recognizable. Maybe I can do something interesting in some of the sections where it’s mostly repetitive lines and rectangles.

I’m not feeling anywhere near as confident about this as I was about the last one. I do have more watercolor paper in case I change my mind, though.

So I’ll take that sketch with the big important lines and shapes, and I’ll probably do a couple more drawings; one with more detail, and one that kind of shows where the light and shadow is supposed to go. That’s going to be kinda fun, since that’s where I’m making the most dramatic changes to the source material.

Then I’ll start transferring the big shapes and some guides to the watercolor paper, and I’ll mark spots to leave white for highlights. Then I’ll lay down some big washes… pale yellow for the sky and brown for the buildings, lavender for the street.

And then come layers for shadow and detail.

Because more than anything else, painting in watercolor is the practice of painting light. I just have to remember that. This is a medium that works best for me when I think about it like that; about light and shadow covering everything like a thin veneer, rendering what’s beneath invisible.

Whatever. I need to stop worrying about it and just do it.

 

Skeptical About Mindfulness.

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Okay, so that title is likely a little misleading. I find mindfulness to be an interesting practice; potentially very useful in the world that we currently live in. Sources of stimulation and distraction are so common, and so often engineered to reward your brain for engaging with them, that it’s often impossible to resist the temptation to distract oneself with these things.

But as I’ve followed some of the trends in modern american mindfulness practice, things have started to look a little grim.

Mindfulness is a meditative practice intended to improve mental control; over time, the practice is said to allow one to become more resistant to distractions, and to maintain an awareness of one’s place in the universe. It is said to make people happier, healthier, and less vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and their attendant illnesses.

There is value here; in a world that is so full of distractions, in which we see so many people falling victim to compulsive thought patterns, there’s a great deal to say about being able to acknowledge thoughts without judgement and then calmly redirect one’s focus. I practice a limited amount of mindfulness meditation, and have found that it helps me a great deal.

But then corporate america got a hold of it and suddenly it became a productivity hack; a way that employers could get more work out of their employees while paying them less money.

It also fell into the hands of the Cult of Positive Thinking (more about the Cult of Positive Thinking in a later post), and became the answer to unlocking happiness.

The thought behind each of these uses is that misery and stress and unhappiness comes from within, and that if you are mindful, you can shake off these shackles.

The implication, of course, being that you are the one responsible for your own misery and not outside influences. If you are unhappy, it is your own fault.

There are several problems with this. First, mindfulness meditation is not and never has been a panacea. Second, much like attempts to breed the stress gene out of pigs for commercial meat production, it relies on changing the behavior of the victim rather than improving conditions that cause the victim’s misery in the first place.

I’m here to tell you that misery has a place in the modern world; that your work stress has a rhyme and a reason, and that all of us would be better off improving working conditions (here in the US, but also all over the world) and living conditions than we would be simply focusing on our breathing a few minutes a day. The stress we experience reading the news provides impetus to change the world in real, positive ways.

If your job is so difficult and so stressful that you cry at your desk, that’s not your fault. It is the fault of your employer demanding ever climbing levels of productivity for the same or dwindling pay. Studies show you can inure yourself to the emotional impact of these demands using mindfulness to some extent, but in the end you’re still getting paid less for more. Nothing has changed, other than the fact that you’ve become more pliant, more passive, and more productive.

If you breed the stress genes out of pigs, the conditions they endure in confinement meat operations are still deplorable. Nothing has changed, and what’s being done to them is still wrong. Pork producers are simply better able to do it without ruining the meat. The bottom line increases, and everyone involved wins but the pigs.

The revelation that happier workers are more productive workers should lead to an improvement in working conditions. It should lead to increasing pay. It should not lead to a corporate mindfulness mandate.

And that leads me to my second point: mindfulness meditation is not a happiness pill.

It has never been a happiness pill and was never intended to be one. This is a simplification of the practice to make it fit into the good/evil, black/white duality of a society based on judeo/christian tradition (more about the damage this duality does in a separate post, sometime in the future). It’s dedicated to awareness, and is not concerned with your happiness. And awareness has a dark side.

I mean, every aspect of human existence has a dark side, and ignoring that doesn’t eliminate it.

A friend shared this article with me regarding negative impacts of mindfulness meditation from The Guardian, and I found it really fascinating and utterly unsurprising. The word “mindfulness” is translated from a sanskrit word meaning memory. It is about awareness, and as a result some of the things that you will become aware of aren’t terribly pleasant.

This is a risk that comes with self-knowledge.

And this is what the resilience (resilience, not happiness) that mindfulness is said to bring is supposed to help with. Mindfulness is to help you be better at being human. It’s not supposed to make you happy, or productive, and it must not be used as a replacement for human decency or for global justice.

For further reading on corporate mindfulness, I found this article from Salon.com really informative.

 

I’m Doing a Photo a Day.

One of the things I decided to do at the start of the new year but didn’t really talk about was to post a photo a day. That’s it, just a photo a day. No theme, no challenges, no list of things I have to take photos of, just take a photo of something every day and post it.

I’m posting them to Instagram, and you can check that out here.

It’s nothing terribly exciting. I’m not a fantastic photographer or anything, and frankly my schedule is often too packed to be able to capture anything that isn’t already along my accustomed game trails. I’m not performing any editing on the photos other than the cropping and filters native to the Instagram platform.

So why do it?

I’m not a photographer, so it’s not a way to get my potentially lucrative work out, and I don’t usually tag them so mostly nobody notices that they’re there.

Well, I’m not doing it for other people, exactly, although the fact that I’m posting them on a social networking platform does help keep me accountable.

As someone who blogs sometimes (both here and at barelysalvageable.com), photos are surprisingly important. The space has gotten so crowded that common wisdom states that you need photos on your blog posts. And it’s true, posts with photos get a lot more love on Facebook, etc when they have photos attached. It’s difficult to find good, free to use photos out there, so I reckon that even if I manage to maintain both this blog and the business blog on a weekly basis, taking a photo every day will provide me with pictures to use in service of this finicky behavior. I mean, if I’m making sure to take a photo every single day (and so far, as of this writing, I have), then at least a few of those will be worthwhile. This takes care of most (or all) of my photo needs, and does it with fresh content that hasn’t already been used to make inspirational memes.

But there’s more to it than that. This is also personal development stuff. I hope that committing to taking a photo every day will help me to be more aware of my surroundings, to seek out the beautiful (or the at least visually interesting, I’m told I have an unusual conception of beauty) in the everyday. This is useful; I tend to spend a lot of time wrapped up in my own idiocy and not enough time externally focused.

Since I’m also an artist, taking photos (or engaging in any of the visual arts) is likely to improve composition skills regardless of intention. Looking at things in terms of composition every day is practice, and that’s a difficult skill to learn without just doing it. I mean there are basic fundamentals of composition that you can learn from a class or a book or a website or whatever, but you don’t really learn it until you put it into practice, and I’m so out of practice with anything connected to the visual arts that I might as well toss all of it in the bin.

It’s not that I don’t love creating art; it’s just that it has become clear to me that it’s never going to be a thing that puts bread on the table for me, so I’ve decided to focus instead on writing as a trade. The result of this is that my spare time (such as it is) is spent on writing and writing related pursuits. And taking a photo a day is a way to cram in a little bit of practice time on this neglected pursuit without having to reschedule my whole day to fit it in. I mean, it only takes a few seconds to take a photo.

It’s been interesting and fun so far, to wake up each day with a photo on my list of goals. We’ll see how long I manage to keep it up.

 

Productivity and Keeping Busy.

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Winter quarter is about three weeks in now. I talked a lot about productivity in my New Year’s post, and how important it was to me last year to at least prove that I can attain professional productivity levels as regards my writing.

I’m in kind of a holding pattern right now, as I wait for a couple of projects to get to the production stage and hold off for just a little while on finishing and editing my project from NaNoWriMo. I have a third project that needs to crystallize a little more before I really start digging into it.

But generally I hope to always be working on something, and I fill my plate with projects at varying stages of completion in order to accomplish that. Classes aren’t pulling a lot of punches this quarter; classes aren’t difficult exactly, but the work load is high and I’m already a little behind because of some personal stuff that had to get taken care of.

But the funny thing is, the busier I get, the more likely I am to make time for writing. To make that time, and to guard it jealously. I was joking with a friend and collaborator last night that I’m less likely to have problems making time in my life for writing, and more likely to have problems making time in my writing for life. And this increases as I become more and more pressed for time.

I guess it’s partly a question of priorities, which is not to say that I’m letting my studies take a back seat to writing. That’s definitely not the case. But my priorities tend to fall like this: School, Work, Writing, and Everything Else if There’s Time. That everything else includes things like socializing and video games and books and eating food and sleeping.

Some of this is elegantly worked around by setting my social landscape up in such a way that my social time does double duty as work time; writer’s groups and collaborative projects, etc.

But I think another aspect of this is that being in school gets my brain fluids all moving around in ways that spurs creativity. I think school, even though it eats up the most time out of all of my obligations, actually causes me to write more, or to think about writing more, which I’m sure I’ve told you before is almost the exact same as writing. There’s some kind of stimulating effect of being back in the classroom that is salutary to all manner of creative endeavors.

It’s kind of a curious impact, having less time making one more and more productive. I mean, I think there are situations that call for a certain quiet of the mind; times when you have to coax the words to come and seek out the particular voice that best contains what you’re trying to say. I think there are times in which that internal sojourning is vital, and I think it can be difficult to get to that point with a busy, cluttered mind.

But I also think that sometimes the way to reach that quiet of the mind is to just sit down and start, no matter what it is that you’re doing. And that sometimes being busy as hell can be a means or an impetus to that start. It can be the noise that borders the path of quiet, and without which that singular path might remain invisible, bordered on all sides by the similar and camouflaged by it.

So I guess instead of assuming that you’re too busy to do this work, maybe we should all experiment with simply hurling ourselves into the teeth of the storm and see what happens.

I Finally Got a Kindle.

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I know, it seems crazy, right? That a person who writes in part for e-readers would not own one.

I have tried to take part in the ebook revolution, really I have, but without a dedicated reader I have found it nearly impossible. Reading on a cramped phone screen was almost painful, and much too distracting to do for any length of time. Reading at home on my laptop suffered the same distraction problem, except more so, as the laptop is where I do my work, my writing, and my schoolwork.

A few days ago, I finally broke down and ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. I wanted something that wouldn’t be constantly connected and offering the siren’s song of social media and the internet constantly. A kind of walled garden for reading. And, I thought, at $139.99, it would pay for itself in savings on books in no time!

I am delighted by it. It is just small enough that I can (barely) cradle it in one hand, yet large enough that it’s comfortable for someone raised on mass market paperbacks to read; the user interface is so easy to learn that you almost don’t even need the tutorial that appears on startup. The display, with its adjustable backlight, is suitable for any light level and doesn’t cause the kind of eyestrain that a computer screen or a phone can.

In short, I love it.

I can read in bed now, without needing to have a light on. I can read while cooking or eating without having to weigh a book open or (gasp!) break its spine to get it to lay flat.  I can read in the bathtub (the touch screen functions through a ziploc bag even, so I don’t have to worry about ruining it), and perhaps most importantly I can read on the bus to and from classes.

This is the real game-changer for me. As I’ve gotten busier I’ve noticed my recreational reading time dropping off precipitously, and as a writer, continuing to read is vital. You learn craft from reading books; sometimes you learn what to do, sometimes you learn what not to do, but it’s all learning, and it’s all necessary. So turning the thirty to forty minutes that I spend on the bus every weekday into productive time is the perfect way to get my reading back.

I can carry dozens of books with me wherever I go on this one slim little device. It fits in my purse, and it fits in my jacket pocket. I will be able to take it traveling with me, and when camping I will no longer need to waste headlamp batteries on reading before bed. Wouldn’t want those batteries to run out on a trip to the latrine, after all.

And speaking of batteries, the battery on this thing lasts literally for days. I don’t even have to think about charging it, which is a revelation for someone who frets constantly about her phone battery.

I started out my Kindle adventure by re-reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and if the reading suffered at all for having been on a screen, I didn’t notice. I chewed through the novel in chunks of thirty or forty minutes at a time over the course of a few days; slow for me, but much more than I’d been reading pre-Kindle.

I still prefer paper books, don’t get me wrong. The feel of them, and the beauty of them (the flexibility demanded by the ebook format reduces your opportunities to create beautiful books) still charm me in a way that ebooks just can’t yet. But this experience has mostly cemented my vision of the reading future as one that includes both e-reading and paper books… but now, I can leave my paper books at home, and still read to my little heart’s content no matter where I am. The sheer convenience offered by ebooks isn’t something that paper books can match, and isn’t going to just go away.

I have always been astounded by claims that ebooks are declining (they aren’t) in popularity; owning a Kindle only makes such claims more obviously ridiculous than they seemed in the past.

And if you haven’t yet, my friends, join the ebook revolution. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Refractory Period.

Well, it’s been well over a week since I’ve posted here, which in itself is unusual.  I’ve been writing; most of that writing has been dedicated to one or the other of my manuscripts, though.

I wrote somewhere around fifty or sixty pages in a week.  Now, this is in addition to working my full time job, so that’s about eight or nine pages per day over the course of about four hours a day.  I would get home, sit and write, and then go to bed and lay awake for three or four hours just chewing on words, sleep for a few fitful hours, and then get up and go to work.  I would write furiously into steno pads when I didn’t have access to the laptop.  it was sometime this weekend that I realized that the sun had been shining for days and each moment of free time I had was spent at the laptop with the curtains closed and the lights off.  It didn’t matter.  I was in a fevered state; it wasn’t until Tuesday that it started to fall apart… the hallways at work stretched out to lengths that they hadn’t previously occupied, and people seemed unusually small, even though I knew, absolutely knew, that they were the same size they’d always been.  I was having to get up and walk around the office when I found myself dozing at my desk… each walk would buy me another twenty minutes of alertness.

And that was my first night of proper sleep in over a week.

Each night this week has been dedicated to hanging out with friends, knitting back together the threads of a life that I had let get too frayed.  The cats are anxious and overly affectionate with the recent bout of complete emotional neglect that they’ve weathered, and I can’t blame them.  The house has taken up a new and interesting odor, and there’s a stack of dirty dishes on the floor near my workspace.  This can all be fixed with some dedicated attention, and it will be in the coming days… the mail will be checked and the floor scrubbed and the phone calls made.  The apartment seems to communicate a kind of despair, but I don’t see it that way.

Don’t get me wrong; nobody should do this.  Not even me.  It’s madness… but what a fine madness.  Nobody can honestly expect anyone else to peel themselves away from anything that feels that effortless, that sublime.  It was like a thick and soothing syrup for the brain.  The words came, endlessly, one after the other and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with them.  I would repeat phrases to myself over and over again so that I wouldn’t forget them while my hands caught up with my brain.

And I read over it after the fever broke, and I… I think it might be good.  The nightmare is always that you’ll come out of just such a spell to find that you’ve written a few dozen pages of garbage and wasted all of that focus and effort.  But… I think this might be good.  This was something I had worried about; writing a novel with essentially only two characters is a difficult thing.  It requires some delicate balance between exposition, action, and dialogue.  Things need to be broken up, and other things need a focus so granular that it narrows the whole scope of the thing, and then you need to let the mind pan back out in a way that isn’t unpleasantly jarring.  It needs a light touch, and a light touch is not a thing that I’m known for.

Now there are things in there that need some going over.  There are things that need to be trimmed down and rewritten; there are other things that I breezed right past that will require expansion.  But the point is that I’ve got it down, and I think I only lost a couple of things, and I have had people read a couple of scenes and gotten good feedback on them.

On Sunday I made the effort to not write.  By the time Monday came around, my busy social week started and I didn’t have the time.  Tonight, I promised Tina that I wouldn’t start on that short story I want to get started on.  She wanted me to get to bed early, so I’m probably cheating a little bit by writing this up, but it’s only a blog post, and I’m pleased as punch to chalk it up to the business of putting things back together again.

And this is not a feast or famine situation… I’m not setting the manuscript aside in any long term sense.  It’s just that this little romance was so destructive to other areas of my life that I have to try to get those balls back in the air right now.