The Great Peanut Butter Tragedy

I assume everyone has heard about the salmonella outbreak by now, and the advice to cut out the peanut butter for the time being. Believe me when I say that a ban on the eating of peanut butter products will go down in my family history as a disaster worthy of its own title.

What am I supposed to throw into a school lunch when I’ve overslept and have only three minutes prep time? How can we live without our peanut butter chip granola bars? I went to the grocery store this morning, and it was really only then, as I cruised the aisles wistfully bypassing one desired item after another that I realized the extent to which my gustatory life revolves around peanut butter.  Couldn’t buy my favorite breakfast cereal. My daughter will have to forego her usual bed-time snack. 

I’ve relied on peanut butter to be an easy, affordable, yet surprisingly guilt-free way to assuage hunger within my family. I’m not all that great at domestic stuff. (In fairness to myself, I do know the rules for writing a sestina, so I’m not useless.) Without peanut butter, I’ll be forced to put thought and effort into meal planning, and even snack planning. I’m not sure I’m up to the task.

Book thoughts: How having a stroke is like going to school

Note: This isn’t a review. It’s a summary of some random thoughts I had while reading.

I began reading My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor after watching the author’s speech on TED . Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a stroke at the age of 37.

I’ve never been in the hospital with a stroke. So why did her experience seem so familiar as I read about it? The answer revealed itself with this sentence: “I wanted my doctors to focus on how my brain was working rather than on whether it worked according to their criteria or timetable.”

Aha! It was much like having a kid in school, I realized. Substitute a few words and you have a sentenced uttered by some parent somewhere at least once every day, especially if that parent has been through the IEP process.

“I wanted the educators to focus on how my child’s brain was learning rather than on whether it learned according to their criteria or timetable.”

I may have uttered those exact words. I know I’ve said something at least very close. 

There’s also this sentence from the book: “My ability to cognate was erroneously assessed by how quickly I could recall information, rather than by how my mind strategized to recover the information it held.” 

Familiarer and familiarer.

Taylor credits many thoughtful healthcare professionals who offered her real assistance and compassion. Nevertheless, it’s clear they were working within a strong institutional culture that made it difficult to operate outside the proverbial box. Likewise with teachers. Most of the ones I’ve known are great individuals, working within a strong institutional culture that allows teaching to a narrow range of learning styles and not much more.

We parents are asking them to meet our children’s needs, while the boss – the institutional culture – is requesting them to get the children to meet the needs of the system. This is why left-handers used to have to be cured. They smudged the paper too much; it caused problems with institutional efficiency. 

In the chapter titled What I Needed the Most, the list again seems like one that should be sent to educators as well as those working with stroke survivors. For instance: “I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.”

Some of the other needs she mentions – love, encouragement, dreams – are things we all need. May we all grow, learn and recover from our lives’ traumas if we remember to supply these to each other.

I encourage everyone to watch the talk on TED, even if you don’t read the book. It’s got good information on stroke, things we all should know. But it’s more about life and love and compassion, things we all should know as well.

When not swimming comes in handy

The lovely part of being the sole non-swimmer in a family of swimmers comes when we go on vacation and stay at a hotel with an indoor pool. Everyone else heads for the water, leaving me alone to commune with my laptop.

I finished a chapter of my novel this past week while we were in Oklahoma visiting family. I’ve been saying this for two months, but I can see the finish line. The first draft is almost done. I have 17 complete chapters, and I’m pretty sure I have three left to go.

More on “Writing Alone and With Others”

In my last post I made a brief recommendation for the book “Writing Alone and With Others” by Pat Schneider.  I want to add a bit more about it.

I mentioned the word “realistic” when I talked about the advice Schneider gives; to me that’s what makes this book so valuable. Perhaps the book speaks to me because the author has faced the same struggle I have of trying to find writing time while caring for children. She helped me see in a concrete way that finding time to write is a matter of priorities. It sounds obvious, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I took a hard look at the choices I make. 

An anecdote from Schneider’s own life sticks with me. She shares the moment she had her own epiphany. She was stressed about her lack of opportunities for writing, and at the same time she was trying to piece a quilt. Then she had one of those vaunted moments of clarity when she decided she could make the quilt or she could write, but she didn’t have time to do both. She put away the quilt. This is what I mean by realistic. She doesn’t feed aspiring writers false promises, telling us we can do it all – be a devoted parent, a fabulous chef, pursue every other art and craft that catches our interest and still write. You do have to choose between writing and other activities.

Schneider gives equal respect to people who would choose the quilt over the writing; she only points out that you need to be clear with yourself what you are choosing and why. This helps me make my peace with not writing at times, too. Some things are a higher priority for me. Daughter’s choir concert? No brainer. Sleep? I may choose to write instead. Knitting, as all of my friends seem to do these days? No thanks, I’d rather spend my time writing than learning to knit.

There’s so much more to the book: lots of tips on writing groups, critiquing in a helpful rather than hurtful way, writing prompts, encouragement to explore what works for you in your life, how to deal with naysayers. But for me, the lesson on priorities made the most difference.

Writing with Others and a Book Recommendation

Writing is a solitary activity. I find I have to make an effort to keep it from being an isolating activity. I write more and better when I keep in regular contact with other writers. For one thing, if I’m expected to bring a piece of writing to share, I have to get my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. For another, I’m encouraged by speaking with people who get it, people who will celebrate with me if I say I managed to find time for writing this week, rather than people who will look with at my messy house with an arched eyebrow upon receiving such information. 

Even if I’m only meeting with other writers for an hour in which we hardly speak, but rather sit with our individual laptops and spiral notebooks, I notice the boost. When I’m home alone,using time I’ve carved out that’s supposed to be dedicated to writing and nothing else, it’s so easy to slack. It’s so easy to tell myself I’ll sit at the computer after I get the next load of laundry in the washer, or after I do one of any of the other thousand chores staring me in the face, or after I read my email, then check a couple of web sites. But when I meet with other writers, I feel accountable for getting the words on the page. I’ll get caught if I cheat.

One of the best books I’ve read that addresses both aspects of the writing life, the solitary and the social, is Pat Schneider’s “Writing Alone and With Others.” She gives excellent and realistic advice about making the most positive use of both situations.

Opening Up to Joy

Earlier this year my sister and mom were visiting my house. Sis mentioned her plan to buy a new toaster when she got home, to which my mom replied “I have one I never use. You can take it.” 

My sister joked about how easy it was; all she had to do was say she needed something and it magically appeared. Laughing along, I announced to the air “I could really use a new couch. Just putting that out there.” 

It was a throw-away comment that I forgot almost immediately, though truly, we did need a new couch. We never sat on the old one because doing so caused the cushions to slide off. I didn’t fret about it; I figured we’d get money for a replacement eventually. I certainly didn’t expect a couch to appear the way my sister’s toaster did.

But a couple of weeks later I received a phone call from a friend who had been gifted a new leather sofa from her mother.  She wanted to know if I’d like her old one – free. Whoa! and YES! Her old couch was newer and much nicer than my old couch. In fact, I loved her couch. So I put it out there and a couch came into my life.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself reading tips for coping during tough economic times. One of the suggestions was to open yourself to receiving money in any way that’s honest. We could use a bit of extra cash right now. I don’t think of myself as a person who does this kind of thing – projecting out to the universe that I could use some dough, so howsabout it? But then I decided the worst that could happen is I’d feel silly, and nobody else would even have to know. So I spent a couple of days thinking “I’m open to receiving money.” 

Double whoa! A check I wasn’t expecting came in the mail. It was from an insurance company, which might qualify for a triple whoa. I hadn’t realized my husband had passed his medical deductible for the year. Since we paid up front, the reimbursement came back to us instead of the doctor.

I’m an agnostic. To me that means it’s okay to say you don’t know everything. I’m not big on prayer. I’ve been more of the mindset that if I need something, I make a plan and I work hard for it. Yet what was that I did with the couch and the money? Was it prayer? Did I get them just because I asked for them? I wonder. Then I remind myself of the vast inequities in the world. I don’t think it’s a matter of the bridge-dweller not being open enough to receiving what s/he needs.  Lots of people wish for new couches and some extra cash and don’t get them. 

But I did, this time (and time.) It made me think about what it means, opening myself up to something. It’s not as if I only thought how nice it would be to receive these things, with no other influences on the process.  My good friend knew the condition of my couch and I had mentioned a few times in my life that I needed a new one. Isn’t that more like telling acquaintances you’re looking for work during a job search. Maybe it’s more networking than prayer. Plus my husband and I had to pull the seats out of our van, pick up the couch during a certain time frame, and carry it into our house. So, you know, we did some work for it. Plus, I didn’t say I would only settle for a brand new $4,000 leather sofa. I only wanted a good enough piece of furniture.  And with the money, even though I had lost track of where we stood with the deductible, I did the work of filing the insurance paperwork; it wasn’t a case of some anonymous benefactor picking my name out of the phone book. 

Another factor I’ve been considering: I have witnessed people, myself included, lose out on things because they closed themselves to the possibility. How many people have missed what could have been great friendships because they weren’t open to others who were too different in some way or another?  

The sofa and the check probably would have shown up at the same times, whether or not I had consciously said I was open to them. Perhaps what I opened myself up to most was noticing the goods I was receiving. Maybe in telling the universe I was open to receiving something, I was really informing myself. Maybe. 

I haven’t been able to stop my mind from wandering down the what else path. What else should I “open” myself to? I have a feeling I should keep greed out of it. So what do I really want more of? What do I need more of? What would make me happy? During one of these musing sessions, my brain conjured up a quote from Aeschylus: “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.”

2008 has been a challenging year for me, with a lot of stress, a fair amount of worry and some loss. Often I feel as if I’m in trudge mode, getting through my to-do list and not much more. I tried to remember the last time I felt real, true joy and I’m not sure when that was. Yet, I have so many blessings, my husband and children not least among them. And don’t forget the couch, nor the friend who gave it to me. I need to remember to notice them, to make the effort to take joy when I can.

So here it is. I am opening myself up to receiving joy. Just putting that out there.

The Problem With Getting Published

It occurs to me the main problem with getting published – the paid kind of published, mind you – lies in all of the work you have to do that’s not writing. Selling is what I’m talking about. I don’t like selling; I’m bad at it. I’d prefer to sit down and write whatever catches my fancy, then have people come knock at my door. No, wait, my house is a mess, so I don’t want them knocking on my door.  Here’s what I want: for people to email me on a regular basis asking if I have any writing available for sale, anything at all.  

“Yeah, I got some poems I could let you have for, say $50 each.”  I’d reply. I’m not greedy, after all.

Then I would email them the poetry and they would drop money in my bank account. That way I could focus on the writing itself. And boy howdy, would it ever boost my productivity!

Not Doing the Math

I’ve been reading the new Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers. He says there’s a consistent pattern to the lives of the wildly successful. They’ve each put in 10,000 hours before reaching the pinnacle of whatever they’ve reached the pinnacle of. The Beatles – 10,000 hours playing music together. Bill Gates – 10,000 hours programming. Mozart, thanks to his father, had his 10,000 in by the age of 21.

I wonder how many hours I’ve spent writing. I imagine it’s far short of 10,000.  I wrote a lot in school. I chose college courses that required many lengthy papers. I have written creatively, off and on, since I was in grade school.  But the off periods really add up, I suspect.

Here’s how my not writing has gone today.  I have a theoretical Monday, one that works in the computer model. On my hypothetical Monday, I send my daughter off to Jr. High, drive my son to grade school, and report in for a three hour shift at work, getting off at noon.  I then come home, eat lunch, and have an hour all to myself to use for writing (real writing, the kind that requires me to concentrate and can’t be done with the kids in the house) before doing a quick chore or two and starting my afternoon drive around town picking up the kids from their schools. After that, it’s dinner and back in to work for another three hours while my husband is home with the kids. A somewhat hectic day, but I’ve put in one of those 10,000 hours.

My real Monday usually goes more like today. The schools are out for a snow day.  My husband stays home while I work in the morning. I come home & he goes to work.  My daughter announces that I need to drive her to a friend’s house at 1:00.  After my son and I drop her off, he realizes it’s almost Christmas and he hasn’t bought anything for anyone. I pause to appreciate having a generous kid before pouting over how I’m not at home writing. I take him shopping at WalGreen. We come home and I have to help him find the wrapping paper, scissors, gift tags, tape, etc. so he can wrap the gifts himself. Almost time to go pick up my daughter again before cooking dinner, and rushing back off to work. Not enough time for me to get into any deep writing, but I can hammer out a blog post.

Getting in my 10,000 hours 15 minutes at a time.  And no, I don’t want to know how long it will take to get there. I have no intention of doing the math.

Hello and the Death of Blogs

For the most part, I intend to write about writing on this blog.  The process, the struggle to get the words out when life is taking up all of my time, my writing inspirations, and whatever else my wandering mind considers blog-worthy.

But for my first post: a warning. The fact that I have finally started a blog most likely signals the beginning of the end for blogging. Whenever I become attached to a breakfast cereal, the grocery store stops carrying it. When my husband and I married, he owned a lot of vinyl LPs, and nothing on which to play them. I finally bought him a record player about the time everyone started switching to CDs. I own one of the last Chevy Venture minivans ever manufactured. It’s how things seem to go for me.

So, hello blogging world. Have fun producing your vlogs. I’ll catch with you there in a bit, long enough to say “Hey” before everyone leaves for the next adventure.

the damari