Tuesday, December 31, 2013

'Tis the Season

Are we all jolly? I like December--I have no idea why, I don't particularly like snow or cold or shopping or decorating--but I had a good month of reading and writing and thinking. I hope everyone had "happy" holidays and I wish everyone a "happy" new year in a few hours. Here's our last How to Be Happy of 2013:
  1. Look forward to the approach of strong or unusual weather. It's one thing to look forward to it. It's another to enjoy it as it happens.
  2. Attend a trial. Hmmm...the trial of getting myself to do dishes? Present.
  3. Feel your pain. I think everyone who knows me knows I feel all my pain.
  4. Write down everything you do. I did do this for one day--kept a day-long activity journal. It was as boring as it sounds.
  5. Do what comes easily/naturally. Who doesn't love staying in their comfort zone?
  6. Create an ad. I tweeted links to my blog. That's advertising, right?
  7. Ask off-the-wall questions. I am a weird question asker...as in both myself and the question are weird. 
  8. Buy some clothes in a thrift store. Check.
  9. Play in the snow. Check--my brother and I made a slide going down the deck stairs at my parents' house.
  10. Welcome a friend or new neighbor. Becca's not exactly a "new" neighbor...but she is the most recent arrival to our neighborhood.
  11. Choose someone you know and pretend you've just met. I do this to Jesus for fun, usually when we are somewhere like Target.
  12. Redecorate your home. Check! New rug, new curtains, new sheets all set to go for the new year.
  13. Take a sauna or steam bath. Check. Our bathroom has no ventilation.
  14. Respond promptly to everyone. Check.
  15. Begin a long-term project and work on it a little every day. Like this blog?
  16. Look at the world from the highest point you can find. I haven't been on my roof in a while (since it got cold), but that's the highest point around here.
  17. Prepare your home for the holidays. Check! My home and work. That's a lot of decorating for a girl who doesn't really like decorating.
  18. Look through an art book. Nope. Sorry, art. Maybe next year.
  19. Have your child invite a new friend over. Not exactly, but I did babysit for six kids over Christmas vacation. Lots of new friends!
  20. Pay for someone today. I bought Jesus snacks and got M coffee.
  21. Do a ritual burning. We burn our candles nightly at the Naw.
  22. Take a walk at night. Check.
  23. Try a different approach to parenting. My approach is to not be a parent quite yet.
  24. Be easily awestruck. I'm usually awestruck by really simple things, like candles or plants.
  25. Give a unique gift by saying something special to loved ones. Check.
  26. Organize your bookshelves. I have a book tower. It's organized by order-to-read: top first, then work my way down.
  27. Do nothing. Check.
  28. Change your outgoing message. I don't know if I have one of those, or how to change it if I do. I'm not technology-smart and neither is my phone.
  29. Play Charades. Haven't done that yet...maybe we will play tonight?
  30. Start to write a book or short story. Check. :)
  31. Think about your purpose in life. Always.

Monday, December 30, 2013

three, two, one...


Tomorrow sure is New Year's Eve. I haven't solidified plans or thought at all about resolutions. It just doesn't feel like the end of the year, and I'm more likely to make resolutions on my birthday. My years begin and end in August--none of this dead of winter nonsense. These three words are less about resolving to do something than they are reminders of the direction I'm taking in my blog life.

Create. Create, create, create. Not brilliant stuff, maybe not even good stuff--just stuff. A lot of it.
Enjoy. The simple things, the complicated things, other people's things, my things.
Rest. Just. Rest.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dave Eggers & Creativity

Here we are: just about done with the last Sunday of 2013. As I've done the past few weeks, I'm looking at creativity through the lens of a writerly role model. This time I want to know more about Dave Eggers and his creative processes. Eggers is another writer I feel a kinship to, if only because I read his memoir at the tender age of post-heartbreak/pre-college graduation. What he's done since is pretty awesome: not only writing seven more books, a screenplay, and making numerous appearances as an anthology editor, but also founding/co-founding an independent publishing house, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center, a human rights book series, a college scholarship program, and a nonprofit foundation that builds and funds educational resources for/in Sudan. (Hopefully I didn't miss anything!)

That's a lot of non-writing activity, but I still think we have something to learn from Eggers. All of this stuff that he's done, that he continues to do--it all propels humanity forward. He's gotten flak for being unapproachable and not doing interviews, but continually surprises interviewers with his humility and affability. He's been accused of selling out, yet I don't think people are complaining about the millions of dollars his "selling out" earns their nonprofits and foundations and scholarship programs (okay, these are all "his" things, but still--financial support is important in these arenas).

In his own words, "What matters is saying yes." We should do things, anything that we can, in the name of curiosity. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers talks about the "luxury of place and time" that his generation has. "It's almost historically unprecedented," he writes. "We must do extraordinary things. We have to. It would be absurd not to." Why would we waste our brilliant expanse of time doing anything other than a whole lot of awesome stuff?

In later interviews he echoes this same sentiment: 
"What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips's new album is ravishing and I've listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who's up and who's down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say." 
What was that he said? What matters is doing and producing and meaning it. Have we learned our lesson yet? The crux of creativity - of creation - is getting down to business. Showing up. Doing our part. Putting our heart and soul into our work and letting it go into the world. I haven't planned any more posts for my Sunday creativity series, and after reading up on Dave Eggers I don't think I need any more. I can only guess that any other creative person I google and research will leave me with more of the same--sit down, shut up, and write my tush off.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle

Do the Hustle...no, not that one. The one where you con several congressmen and a senator into taking money on camera so that you, who previously only conned desperate, dirty people, can get off the hook and go back to living your split-life: conning and sleeping with your gorgeous girlfriend, then going home to your unpredictable wife and young son.

Before I saw American Hustle, I had no idea what it would be about. The preview pretty much just tells us "WE HAVE SUPERSTAR ACTORS AND A COOL SOUNDTRACK," giving little to nothing away about the plot, other than the ladies are sexy and the men not so much. Still, it worked to get my family and me to the theater to see what really happens--and we weren't disappointed.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a comb-over-sporting, beer-bellied con man who deals in loan scams. Amy Adams, as Lady Edith Greensley/Sydney Prosser, his assistant/girlfriend, works as his foil in the con world. Where he is moody and "reluctant" to take people's money, she flirts with and "coaches" the loan-seekers to "be more aggressive." Irving's wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence, doesn't know exactly what Irving does, but she isn't a fan. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Edith in the act, arresting her, he offers a deal: help him catch four more (bigger) con men, and she's free to go.

To pull off their long con, Edith and Irving enlist the help of one of Irving's friends, who pretends to be a wealthy Arab Sheik looking for somewhere to invest. They also use FBI resources and Richie himself, who acts as an associate to the Sheik, and they do what they do best: make people believe what they want to believe. Several times, Rosalyn threatens to shut the whole operation down, and Edith/Sydney plays at her own con in creating a love triangle between her and the men.

Like its preview claims, American Hustle does have superstars and a cool soundtrack. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence own their performances, and just about steal the show from Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. Louis C.K., Jeremy Renner, and Elizabeth Rohm shine in supporting roles. The improvisation of several key scenes attests to the skill of these actors, and makes the film into the character-driven film that it is. Funny and heartbreaking, this Hollywood glamorization of an actual story - the opening credits claim "Some of this actually happened" - makes for a great time at the movies.


Friday, December 27, 2013

The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back is the story of one teenager's summer spent at his mom's boyfriend's beach house. Told through a solid cast of characters, some fresh, some seasoned, this coming-of-age tale is clever without being cute and substance-filled without being dramatic. Yes, we've all seen and heard and read this story before--there's nothing new about teenage angst or divorce or adults who won't grow up--but the script and the acting are punchy and nuanced enough to make watching this movie worth it.

Duncan (Liam James), 14 and a self-described "6" on a scale of 1 to 10, doesn't want to spend the summer with his mom (Pam, Toni Collette) or her boyfriend (Trent, Steve Carrell) or Trent's daughter (Steph, Zoe Levin). He doesn't want to go to the beach with Steph and her friends (they don't want him to come either), and he doesn't want to hang out with Trent's friends, who would much rather eat and drink without a teenager around as well. When he finds Steph's old bicycle, he rides it to the water park nearby and stumbles upon a summer job under Owen (Sam Rockwell), the man-child manager of Water Wizz.

Working at the water park gives Duncan an identity other than "child of divorce" or "girlfriend's son" and allows him to be a kid and while he grows into an adult. He also befriends Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of Trent's neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). They commiserate about having divorced parents and the fact that their moms are currently on "Spring Break for adults." Duncan's co-workers at the water park, Trent's married friends, and Susanna's younger brother round out the characters--each knocking their roles out of the park. The view from the way, way back isn't always pretty, but it's bearable when we share it with people we love.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Making an Entrance

Lou was seven minutes late to Swank the Tank’s science class on our first day of school. I could hear her asthmatic wheezing from where I sat in the back of the room, but that didn’t stop her from trying to be sneaky. She waved at me and tiptoed towards the seat I saved for her while Mr. Swank continued scribbling his name on the chalkboard like a six foot, 220-pound kindergartner. She was halfway back when his bicep tensed briefly. His hand, still clenching the chalk, hovered over the board as he boomed out Lou’s full name over his shoulder: “Louise Babcock?”

Lou stopped in her tracks, her face flushing. She hated to be called Louise, particularly by figures of authority (and even more particularly by figures of authority with mullets).

“It’s Lou.” She turned around, hands on hips, to face the front of the room.

“Do you have a note?” Mr. Swank turned as well, crossing his arms over his billboard-size chest.

Reaching down to pick up a non-existent skirt, Lou curtsied. "My apologies, I neglected to ask for one. Please forgive me."

“No need for groveling, I’ll just mark this as a demerit.”

Lou put up her hands in surrender: “Whoa, calm down, Father Brown. We started off on the wrong foot. Cut me some slack on the first day. Let’s put this behind us, shall we?”

Mr. Swank considered this for a moment before nodding. “Fair enough. But this is your only warning.”

“Roger that.” Lou saluted Mr. Swank and turned on one foot to join me in the back. “Hey Duke,” she said to me as she slid into her seat.

“Smooth entrance,” I greeted her.

“Louise? Duke?” Mr. Swank asked.

“It’s Lou,” both she and I answered.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ghosts of the Past

Claire found me after first period. I was at my locker when I heard her stomp up behind me.


I didn't even turn around, just continued twirling the dial on my lock so I could get my books for second period. “Hey Claire, what’s up?”

She came around to face me, leaning against the row of lockers and crossing her arms over her chest. “You know what’s up, Frankie. Why are you avoiding me?”

“What? We don’t have first period together, how could I be avoiding you?” I knew she wouldn’t be happy with that answer, so I continued looking into my locker as if I was holding a conversation with my school books instead of my best friend.

She swung open the locker next to mine while leaning in beside me until we were cheek to cheek. “We’re locker buddies, Frankie!” she stage whispered. “We always hang out here before second bell.” Without looking she threw her books into the bottom of her locker and grabbed another off the shelf. “I know you’re mad at me for putting you on blast yesterday in English. Can we just get over that?”

I turned to look at her. I knew she was sorry, but if I let this go, it wouldn’t be long before she embarrassed me again. “First of all, we don’t always hang out here...it’s only the third day of school. And secondly, you humiliated me, Claire. My...” I looked around to make sure no one was near us, “...ghosts are my business, not yours. I told you in confidence.”

“Ghosts? Lighten up, Frankie,  no one cares that you used to stutter when we were kids. You didn't tell me in confidence, either. We've gone to school together for eight years. I know all of your 'ghosts.' If anything, your stutter makes you endearing. You can be kind of a jerk, but now you seem...charming, almost. I helped you.”

She wasn’t getting it. “Look, Claire.” I put my hands on her shoulders, making direct eye contact in the hopes that she understood what I was about to say. “We’re in high school now. No one else from our elementary school goes here, so no one knows us yet. We...we can recreate ourselves! This is the time when we can be the people we dreamed about being! I don’t want to waste this.”

“Hey guys...everything okay?” It was Calvin, a quiet kid from our English class.

“Calvin? I didn’t know you spoke.” Claire looked over my shoulder to where he stood. I dropped my hands to my sides and turned to face him.

“I-I don’t, much.” Calvin looked down at his feet, then back up at me. “I st-t-tutter too.”

Claire patted me on the back. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she whispered. There was nothing left for her to do but walk away.


Merry Christmas Eve! I'm writing for The Speakeasy again.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Disney has been on a good run with its recent princesses--and not only the princesses themselves, but their backstories as well. Tiana is a businesswoman, Rapunzel was modeled after spunky actresses Natalie Portman and Amy Poehler, and Merida, content to explore and ride horse, doesn't even have a love interest. Frozen brings us two more princesses--sisters--who are themselves feisty and independent, but I found their story not quite as magical as their relationship.

Elsa and Anna, the two Princesses of Arendelle, grow up as best friends until Elsa's magical ice-creating powers threaten to hurt Anna and their parents make a decision to keep Elsa (and her powers) hidden--from Anna and from the world outside. Anna doesn't remember any of this, only the fact that Elsa used to play with her, but now stays in her room. When their parents die at sea, the sisters are even more alone. Anna looks forward to Elsa's coronation, a day when the castle gates will be open and she will finally meet someone--"maybe The One," she thinks. Elsa, on the other hand, dreads this day and having to hide her powers in front of so many people.

Unsurprisingly, Anna provokes Elsa's powers with her hasty engagement to Prince Hans. Elsa freaks out and runs away to the mountains, building her own ice palace and leaving behind eternal winter in Arendelle. Anna follows her, both to bring her back, and to save Arendelle from the cold. She enlists the help of Kristoff, an ice salesman, and his reindeer, Sven, to take her up the mountain. On their way, they meet Olaf, the snowman from Elsa and Anna's childhood brought to life by Elsa's powers.

Bringing Elsa back proves difficult, and creates even more problems for the sisters. There's a snow monster, magical trolls, an unexpected twist, several near tragedies, and several acts of true love to bring this tale to its happy ending.

I loved the sisters--as a sister, it's nice to see a Disney movie that features such strong sisterly love (and anger and annoyance and jokes). Their interactions were a joy to watch. I just wish the parents weren't so one-dimensional. They left the movie too early for a viewer to have any feelings for them, and their deaths seemed contrived, like they only died so that Elsa would have a coronation. I'm sure there's a more natural way for the coronation to happen--and actually the coronation was only needed as a way to get the castle gates open. Couldn't any grand party (maybe the parents' anniversary, or a national holiday) serve that purpose?

My other issue is that the biggest problem of the movie could have been solved with a little communication. I guess this is a teaching moment--sometimes parents make mistakes--but c'mon guys; how could locking up one of your daughters and keeping them both hidden from the world help anybody? They're well-meaning, but misguided. A whole lot of trouble could have been avoided by a simple explanation: "Hey, Anna, your sister's gonna wear these gloves because she shoots ice from her hands and that can get dangerous. She still loves you very much, just don't mess with her gloves, okay?" I get that we need Elsa to shoot ice eventually, but there have to be more story-driven ways to do that. I want the challenges in my stories to be tough ones, not just matters of miscommunication.

The twist was a nice touch--it got both Jesus and I--and the final climax of the movie kept us guessing. I nearly cried. Olaf the Snowman was a charming character for his throwaway jokes, awkward timing, and for this, my favorite line: "Some people are worth melting for."

If I take anything away from this movie, it's that. Some people are worth the trouble of climbing a mountain to find them, some people deserve our true love, and some people need us to melt for them so they know how much they mean to us.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert & Creativity

Whenever I'm faced with the task of creating (and by creating I mean writing) something, whether that be a actual research paper, a poem, a story, or even an email, I do my research. I like to know everything I can about something before I take all the interesting tidbits I've gleaned and weave them into my own thing. In my recent obsession with creativity and raw storytelling, I've learned a lot from several artists, writers, and creators. This week, I sought out Elizabeth Gilbert's take on creativity and writing. As one of my writerly role models, Gilbert has come through for me in more ways than she knows. Her book Eat, Pray, Love fell into my lap at a time when I most needed it; she's the reason I studied abroad in Rome. (As I look back at the times when I read EPL, I'm thinking right now might be another life phase where I could use her story.) She gave a TED Talk on creative genius, which I guess makes her an expert of sorts, or at least a person with something to say on the subject.

Gilbert's creative mantra can be summed up in two words: "Show up." We've heard this before--the idea that hard work will get you where you need to go. In an interview given after the success of Eat, Pray, Love, she says, "It doesn't need to be good, it just needs to be done." If we do our part, creativity and genius will show up--and if they don't, well then it's not our fault. We did our job. Gilbert calls creativity a "scavenger hunt," where we must pay attention to "the thing that gives you that little tweak," and we do that by the simple act of sitting down and being present to our work. She credits her favorite writers with doing just this: showing up, writing, and "letting go of the results. Not going to war against anyone else, or against their talents, or against themselves.” 

That's what I'm doing, and what I will continue to do. I will write and write some more. It won't all be good, but it will be and it will be mine. I have this picture on my bedroom wall. It's graced the walls of nearly all my bedrooms since I was in high school, and I once called it my mantra. I think it's very simple advice that's also quite challenging. It's been the underlying current to this end of the year creativity series, a strong focal point for me when all the inspiration and knowledge overwhelms me (in a good way). I may not always be brilliant, but at least I will be here when it shows up.


Friday, December 20, 2013

There's a Happy Feeling Nothing in the World Can Buy...

We are only five days away from Christmas, and I'm still slowly getting into the spirit. It's raining today, so that's not helping any. Music, though, that just might do the trick. Before I give you my Top 5 Christmas Songs (of 2013 at least), let me warn you that I'm not really a fan of holiday music as a genre. Some of these songs are by bands I enjoy, who recorded songs that just happen to be Christmas-like, others remind me of Christmases past. Songs for Christmas, not necessarily "Christmas Songs."

Dave Matthews Band - "Christmas Song"
Okay, this one is actually called "Christmas Song." You got me. It's a gentle song, almost a lullaby, about love and the Biblical Christmas story.

Tchaikovsky - "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker

The music from this ballet is so ingrained in Christmas culture that it's become a kind of Christmas background music. Still, I personally have good memories of watching The Nutcracker with Jesus after Zoolights last year, which means it gets me closer to the Christmas mood.

John Williams & The Boston Pops - "Sleigh Ride"

That's John Williams AND The Boston Pops...need I say more? This one brings me back to my CHS Band days, in a good way.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra - "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo"

Another song attached to good memories of seeing Trans-Siberian Orchestra in concert as a family for Christmas. And an all around solid arrangement.

Coldplay - "Christmas Lights"

"When you're still waiting for the snow to fall/it doesn't really feel like Christmas at all." That about says it. Another love song set during Christmas.

"May all your troubles soon be gone, oh Christmas lights, keep shining on."

Mama’s Losin’ It

Linking up with Mama Kat's Losin' It today for my final blog prompt of the week. Whew! Let's see if I can keep up the momentum for the rest of 2013.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shout Outs & Shame Ons

Some cool things happened this week...along with some uncool things. I'm trying this thing where I write down positives, since I know I'll remember them better that way...but sometimes the negatives need a place to go as well.

Shout out:
  • Random Man who spent several minutes hailing a cab for an elderly couple outside the hospital.
  • Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Barney's, and Bloomingdale's customer service representatives for helping me chase the wild goose that is an unavailable sweater.
  • My old bus driver for dropping me off at a more convenient corner than where the stop actually is.
  • The table of old men playing Backgammon next to me at Starbucks, especially for singing along with the Christmas songs on the radio. 
  • My new bus driver for letting me ride even though my Ventra-linked bank card hasn't been working.
Shame on:
  • World Market for awful aisle configurations, cramped corners, and never having what I (my boss) need(s) in stock. 
  • Ventra for suddenly not working on my bank card after two weeks of zero problems.
  • My other new bus driver for not believing that my bank card has worked the past two weeks with zero problems.
    • And for dropping me off in an inconvenient location/at the actual bus stop. (Okay, not a real complaint...that is her job.)

Linking up with the moonshine grid at yeah write today. Non-Competitive + Almost Anything Goes = My Kind of Night.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Deck the floors
with enough pine needles
to make another tree.

Deck the sink
with the dishes we used
to bake cookies.

Deck the fridge
with cheap wine
...now let's all get decked.


“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” - Charles Dickens

It's another writing challenge, this time from Trifecta.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What I Found

I found the tracks in the deep snow between the trees.

"Bigfoot. I'm positive." I told my family at dinner.

"A deer or a neighbor's dog, I'm sure. Eat your food, Millie." Mom plopped another spoonful of meatballs on my plate, where they rolled around like bodiless heads in the tomato sauce.

My older brother, Everett, set down his phone and leaned into the table, grabbing the salt and shaking it liberally over his plate as he spoke. "We aren't anywhere near Bigfoot territory." He paused to shovel a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth, slurping up the noodles and getting sauce on his face. "Wouldn't the Abominable Snowman make more sense? It is December."

"Watch the sodium intake, Ev." Mom pulled the salt shaker away from him as she tried to get Johnny, my baby brother, to eat with a fork instead of his fingers.

"The Abominable Snowman is from the Himalayas, dummy." I twirled spaghetti around my fork, wishing dinner was over.

"No name-calling, Millie." Dad set down his newspaper to pick up his glass of red wine, swirling it around before taking a drink. "You’re right though, we're not in Yeti stomping grounds."

I made a face at Everett. He was already back on his phone and didn't notice. I continued spinning my fork as Izzy, our dog, wandered into the dining room. She pushed her nose into my thigh, asking for scraps. I waited until Dad was reading and Mom was busy picking up solitary noodles from Johnny’s tray, then I dropped a meatball onto the floor. Izzy ate it gingerly and looked back up to me as if to say, “That’s all?” I shrugged my shoulders and dropped her another one.

“Can I be excused?” I asked to what could have been a table of face cards instead of my family members. No one looked at or answered me. I grabbed an orange from the fruit bowl on the counter, threw on a coat, and motioned to Izzy. “C’mon, girl. Let’s go for a walk.”

Outside, the early winter darkness added to the quiet of our rural town. I peeled the orange as we headed towards the line of pine trees at the edge of my parents’ property. Izzy ran in giddy zigzags ahead of me. I started to call her back before she ran through the tracks, but I didn't have to. She froze a few feet from the trees; her ears pushed forward and her tail went straight.

I caught up to her and saw why: the tracks were still there, but so was the creature who had made them. Creatures, actually. Two brown bears stepped out from behind the trees, their dark eyes first taking in Izzy, then me.

I heard a low rumble and realized it came from Izzy. “Iz,” I hissed. “No.” She didn't listen. Barking, she jumped back and forth in the snow in front of me. The bears weren't impressed and continued pacing. They didn't advance, but they didn't retreat either. I crouched down behind Izzy and slid my fingers beneath her collar. She stopped her hasty activity, her body still tense.

We can't outrun bears. That’s all I could think as I buried my head into Izzy’s scruff. Juice from my half-peeled orange ran from my fist down to my wrist, where it fell into the snow like pale blood. The citrus stung my dry skin.

Izzy nudged my hand with her nose, forcing the orange out into the snow. She licked the juice off my fingers and pushed into me, knocking me off balance and onto my back. When I sat up, she was already halfway to the bears, the orange peeking out of her mouth. She bent low to place it in front of them and took a few steps back.

I doubt the bears lurked on our property for a dog-slobbered orange, but Izzy’s peace offering proved effective. One of them pushed it around with his nose while the other sat back on his haunches. Izzy trotted over to me, nipping at the sleeve of my coat. I stood up and together we backed away.

Only Everett noticed I’d been gone. “Why are you breathing so heavy?” he asked as I slipped back into the kitchen to help clean up dinner. “You look like you saw Bigfoot.”


Call it a pre-resolution--I'm throwing myself into blogging for these two weeks before the new year (which coincides with my 5th blogiversary). This post was prompted by The Speakeasy #140.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Creative Process & Ira Glass

In my recent self-reflections and research on creativity and imagination, I found these words of wisdom from public radio personality Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You've just gotta fight your way through.”
Let's highlight some of that again:
"...the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work..."
I love that. He's honest: creativity takes work, and it's okay (more than okay--it's normal) for your output to take its time becoming as good as your vision for it. That's what I'm doing here, what I'm trying to do here--a lot of work. I want this to be a years-long portfolio of my creative work. It's not everything, and it's not all that great, but it's my attempt at closing the gap.

(if you prefer to listen to Ira as he breaks it down):

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Imagine: How Creativity Works...and How it Doesn't

In our world, economic capital isn't scarce. Money's out there. The thing that makes the difference? Human capital. Creativity can never truly be commodified, and that's why people with imaginations and aesthetic ability are so important. In Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer outlines ways to increase creative insight: when to let our minds wander and when to hunker down and focus on a problem. His suggestions of improvising, traveling, and collaborating make sense and drew me in to his book, another self-help that isn't quite so obvious about its self-help-ness. Then I googled him.

His Wikipedia page summary--"disgraced American author"--doesn't give a reader much confidence. Turns out he recycled some of his own previous work (lazy, yes, but if that was his only fault, forgivable), and took creativity to its dark side by making up several of the Bob Dylan quotes he used. The book was pulled by the publisher, but the library still has it on the shelves, which is how I came upon it. I wish they would have put a disclaimer on it somewhere: ATTN! Read at your own risk! because I'm not sure how to feel about this book.

Initially, I still agree with Lehrer's underlying message: creativity is important and the more we know about it, the better we can cultivate insights in our own lives. Taking a walk and letting my mind wander does help me let go of a problem, while at the same time allowing my subconscious to work on it. Becoming an outsider (mentally or by traveling) does make me think about things differently. I get where this guy is coming from.

And yet, if we do nothing but read the book and take it for what it is, we miss the bigger picture: Lehrer stole from himself (without telling the reader) and made stuff up in a book about creativity, of all things--that which is rooted in originality and newness and relies on us humans to give it value by keeping it honest. If I force a creative breakthrough by bullshitting a blog post, I know it. And most readers can smell it. I can't in good conscience publish something I don't 100% stand behind, and I don't even get paid for these! (Not that I haven't posted less than stellar stuff in the past, but my blog is a constantly evolving experience. Part of my writerly development is showing you guys my stuff, with the hopes of making it better stuff--and again, I'm not getting paid.)

What I'm saying is, I don't know how to laud the book without giving credit to its writer, and I don't know how to hold sketchy writing practices accountable without dismissing the work. I'm stuck with a crummy feeling that if this guy can BS his way through several books and make a living (he currently has another book deal, and that already has problems), why should any other journalist or writer take care in their craft? He's not the first journalist to endure a scandal, and surely not the last, but it's situations like these that bum out the aspiring writer in me. Knowing that publishers relax their standards when it will make them a buck tarnishes the credibility of the publishing arena.

What reading this book made me realize is how grateful I am for all the genuine, hardworking, and creative writers I've had the opportunity to read, both published and not. They entertain me, make me a better writer, and give me hope that in the end the real artists rise to the top.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Talent Is Overrated

I don't like self-help books. They're unnecessarily optimistic, which only makes me feel worse about myself. More like self-not-helped. Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin nearly crosses the self-help plane, but keeps to a more research and business-based tone. His thesis--that there is no such thing as innate talent, but rather a perfect storm of hard work ("deliberate practice"), support, and coaching--is both comforting and unsettling.

The idea of talent being a non-issue in the world of success means it's okay that I have none. (I'm okay at things. I don't think I have any great "talent" that no one else possesses.) The "greats" of each arena (business, sports, art, music, writing, etc) got to the top because of what they did and who encouraged them along the way, Colvin says, not because of any God-given gifts. They worked hard, like 5 hours-a-day-for-a-decade hard, so they deserve the superstar spotlight. His examples? Mozart, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates.

On the flip side, if talent doesn't matter, I have nothing on which to blame my lack of fame and superstardom...except my lack of hard work. It's true, I don't think I've spent five hours a day doing any one thing ever in my life, much less for at least ten years. Maybe reading. Is there a Reading Olympics? I don't know if I love anything that much to devote that kind of time to it. The way Colvin describes "deliberate practice" sounds kind of awful: it focuses on your weakest areas in need of improvement, it's repeatable (and repeated obnoxiously), it involves feedback from a coach or teacher, it demands deliberate mental application, and (no surprises here) it's not fun.

With that definition it's easy to see why so few people achieve greatness--it's not enjoyable, so everyone won't do it. Only the truly committed/slightly crazy. Still, applying the tenets of "deliberate practice" to my everyday life could prove useful. It can't hurt to set goals, observe myself in the moment, take responsibility for my imperfections and adapt in the future.

Other things that can't hurt right now: another glass of wine, a bowl of pasta, and a handful of chocolate covered cranberries (thanks Mom!).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Winter Walks

It's a shame that I do all my best thinking during my walk to work. (With this past weekend's snowfall, my biking days are on hold for now. This week I started taking the bus again, but any bus route I take still leaves me with a half mile walk. Brrr.) Once I get to work, I forget about all the blog/writing ideas, general life ideas, and overall positive energy that my walk inspires. I switch gears to deal with piles of laundry and dishes, dinner plans and house projects, and I bury my carefree creativity for the next several hours.

Today, though, the Miracle Thursday gods smiled on me; I had a light Real Housewife load, so I intentionally took some time to free write my thoughts when I first got in--just a few key words and phrases to trigger longer thoughts--before I made the beds and took out the trash. Honestly, what I'm thinking about this week can be summed up in two words: simplicity and progress.

We all lead busy lives, but we realize what "busy" really means around the holidays. There are travels to be made, parties to attend, gifts to first get an idea of then buy or create, holiday TV specials to watch, and food to cook, bake, and eat. I'm not ashamed to admit that anything involving more than one sense overwhelms me (a huge reason going to the mall is an Event), and I burn out rather easily. People don't always understand this, or they think I'm being sensitive/antisocial/depressive, but I've come to accept and appreciate my introverted predisposition. When things get busy, I crave alone time more than ever--my simplicity is reading, trying out new recipes, rearranging furniture, and online window shopping.

I've been craving simplicity in my blog life as well. You may have noticed some recent changes around here--black text on a white background, very minimal color or decoration--as I sift through what's truly important in how I share my story. I'm sure I'll add design and ornament again (I never sit long with any arrangement, physical or digital), but for now I'm operating under the motto "Content is King." I'm refocusing my energies on what I post and when, and I've started following a number of other similar blogs to stay in the know about blog trends...which brings me to my next thought topic.

This blog has wandered semi-aimlessly at my side for nearly five years--I shouldn't say aimlessly, rather it's had several unique lives based on where I've lived and what I've been doing (see: Rome, North Myrtle, MercyWorks). For As The Romans Do's 5th anniversary, I want to give new purpose to what I do on here. I have a few ideas simmering, a few still in their concept phase, and a plan to celebrate five years (forging onward into six) each month.

I'm treating December as a regroup month, a month to try out a few new things, to work on my consistency and hone my craft. You'll see me try to review every book I read, post updates on apartment events, and integrate more original pictures along with my text. I'm also testing out a new page, Poems, which you can find on the top bar, along with Blog, About, and Photos. These pages will all get makeovers as I refine my purpose and learn how best to present my digital self.

Thanks for sticking with me through my strange journey! I write to make sense of my world and my thoughts, but at the end of the day I write to be read and you guys make that possible.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

I can't complain about Elinor Lipman's collection of personal essays, the majority of which were published elsewhere first, but can now be found in this slim volume. I sped right through these brief forays into her private life, and though I've never read her before, I learned a lot about her childhood, marriage, motherhood, and personal writing style. I hope these essays serve as a solid introduction to Lipman's fiction writing as I now want to read her novels.

Gleaned from Good Housekeeping, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Gourmet, More, Salon, and the Washington Post, among others, the selections from I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays span several decades and cover varied topics, from online dating to writing a novel without an outline. The writerly side of me appreciated her explanations of naming characters and developing them by giving them unique appetites. As a woman, I enjoyed her relationship perspectives and comments on social functions. Mothers new and experienced will relate to her anxieties and joys in raising her son. Readers in general will find her insights and honest humor refreshing.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tree Lighting at the Naw

It's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas
everywhere in the Naw

Despite below freezing temperatures and advancing dates on the calendar, it hasn't felt much like Christmas around here. I've barely recovered from turkey-induced comas and only just finished Thanksgiving leftovers. In these cases it's best to fake it til you make it, so last night we turned on the Bing Crosby Holiday Pandora station and got out our decorations. We turned on the fireplace and bam! festive.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Zoolights 2013

Zoolights 2.0 was a success. Despite zoo renovations which closed off the giraffe house, Jesus and I still saw plenty of sleepy animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo last night. The millions of Christmas lights wowed us once again with their intricate designs and sheer numbers, and the musical light synchronization was spot on.

Free activities like Zoolights are the best part of living in Chicago. Sharing the activities with someone and making them into date night tradition makes them even better.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hump Day

As a house manager I've dealt with my fair share of home improvement projects--I've jump-started cars, replaced leaky sink cartridges and water filtration systems, fixed broken lamps and garage door openers, installed widow treatments, configured home wireless networks, repaired storm doors and shower doors, and re-lit gas-powered water heaters--so I know each project has unique challenges. Knowing this doesn't make it any easier for me to stay calm about what needs to be done around the house, though--until I remember "around the house" means "at work" for me.

I recently took a step back to remind myself that at the end of the day, my work is just work, not my life, and that helps me to let a lot of little things go. (Is the dirty laundry piling up and the clean laundry not put away? C'est la vie.) I can't stress out about someone else's problems. It's not my place, or my responsibility, to do anyone else's worrying.

Still...it will make me feel a little bit better if I can share some of the annoying things that happened today.

  • When I called Kohler customer service for help removing a stuck toilet seat bolt and anchor and the customer service representative read to me word-for-word from the anchor removal kit manual.  I had the manual in front of me. I didn't call for story time, I called because the manual does not explain what to do in case of product operation failure.
  • When the removal/repair part I bought didn't work for what it's advertised for, despite promises from the man who sold the parts to me that "this is the only thing that works, short of replacing the entire toilet," forcing me to call customer service. Also when the manual even admitted this might be a possibility, and here I quote step two (which was later read to me over the phone): "If that doesn't work, the bolt might need to be pried out of the anchor or drilled through."
  • When the fence repair company I called two weeks ago was no-call/no-show for a price quote appointment, then told me they are "too far away to just do a repair" when I called to ask why they never came. Uh, you already set up the appointment. If we are out of your service area, why didn't you mention that before I made the appointment? Let me also add that this is a repair for something the company itself installed. We weren't too far away then, were we?
  • When the fence repair company spokeswoman told me they don't do "just repairs" or are "too far away to just do a repair," but had no suggestion for other, closer, companies for me to try because they are "the only company who does these repairs." What?
These are only two of my current ongoing projects. I think it's safe to say they won't be resolved within the week, and possibly not even within the year if today's progress is anything to go by. I commend all homeowners who survive home improvement projects with their sanity intact. It's a mad world out there.

Take the Cannoli

Take the Cannoli is a fun collection of personal essays by Sarah Vowell that sometimes verged on jargon, but still remained conversational enough to enjoy. I found it clever and easy to read during a bus trip. The essays were short enough to keep my attention, long enough to teach me something, and interesting enough to warrant a nearly complete read through (I only skimmed a few essays).

Monday, December 2, 2013

Two Rivers

There's a lot going on in T. Greenwood's Two Rivers. We've got racism, single fatherhood, teen pregnancy, war, depression, widowerhood, gender roles, murder...pretty much anything that creates drama is thrown in the mix. This could make for a confusing, rambling mess, but Greenwood does a fine job of weaving these issues and concepts into a story.

I don't know how to write a plot summary for this book that includes all the storylines and isn't several paragraphs long, so feel free to read some reviews that have already summarized the events of Harper Montgomery's life and his connection to a young survivor from a local train crash.

The story develops little by little, like a slow burn, but then it explodes in the last few chapters. I think the book could be streamlined more--it could use a few more revisions to remove superfluous descriptions and flourishes--but the concrete details and events kept me interested. This would be a good book club read (I actually got it from someone who read it in their book club).