Monthly Archives: February 2017

A Swamp Story

Characters:

  • THE REPORTER, who works for a small newspaper someplace in Kentucky
  • THE ARTIST, from down the hall, who does graphic design for some marketing wizards
  • ME, a mere mortal who keeps trying to juggle too many projects

The story evolves over the course of three days, from an email initiated by Me.

AIRPLANE TICKETS TO IOWA

I used to think I live in a zoo here at work but I’m changing my mind. It’s a swamp, complete with black murky stuff on the bottom, thick nauseous green water with strange creatures lurking beneath the surface, submerged stumps that snag your butt, and trees and moss hanging everywhere, making navigation nearly impossible. My boat is small, the motor is questionable, and swimming doesn’t look like a viable option. I’m just holding on to my oars and trying to keep my lunch dry.

“Keep paddling,” The Reporter said. From across the newsroom one of his coworkers noted there’s a dead possum in the bottom of my boat. Yuk!

The possum dropped from one of the overhanging cypress trees. The possum had been securely wedged in the tree for some time, but as its bloating increased it rolled off the branch. It’s so large, had it not landed in the center of my boat, it would have tipped me into the water. It stinketh! I’m squeamish about the dead possum, but grateful for still being in my boat.

“But you are so happy,” The Artist said, “that it landed in the center of your boat. How pathetic is that?”

“Ecstasy is relevant,” I tell her. “It just depends on what’s happened recently.”

“Do you think I should take this story seriously?” I say to The Reporter. “Perhaps I could develop it into a full-length novel. I’m not sure whether it would be fiction, nonfiction, romance (now there’s a concept!), science fiction, paranormal, or mystery. Romance in a swamp seems a bit far-fetched . . . but there is a possum, dead and bloated though he may be. Perhaps he’s really some other kind of spirit waiting to be unleashed.”

The Artist chimes in, “I think it should be one of these ‘This is What I Learned from the Swamp’ nonfiction, how-to books. Maybe it could be a reality show.”

In an attempt to improve my situation, I tied a rock to the dead possum, threw him overboard, and he sank. However, this morning he has mysteriously reappeared, and is worse than before. In a brief moment of sick humor, I declare, “He has risen to the occasion!”

I’m looking for a way out of the swamp, but I hate to learn by trial and error. Lacking a map or paper and pencil to document my movements through the swamp (only for the purpose of not going round in circles or going down the same dead-end channels) I’ll have to rely on my memory and keen observation. It’s a matter of public record, here in my office, that my memory skills are lacking, so sheer determination and stubbornness will have to get me out of here.

The Reporter is looking for headlines. “Return of the Zombie Possum” or “The Possum Also Rises.” He’s been smelling too much newspaper ink.

It’s a wonder the rock didn’t tip the boat itself, but since the possum returned I’m figuring it wasn’t a large enough rock. But you can only use what the swamp provides, and the swamp ain’t providing much that’s useful or helpful.

The Reporter continues. “You never know what the possum might have brought up from the murky depths of the swamp.”

“Check under the boat.” The Artist is offering advice for my predicament. “The rope you tied to the possum is probably caught on your propeller. By the way, that’s probably why you aren’t getting anywhere! It’s usually the things we do that hinder us most.” In a moment of judgment or perhaps insight, she continues, “But Jean, it’s probably something YOU put there!”

The Reporter adds his bit. “Sounds like you need the latest copy of the ‘Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.’ If only some kind soul would airlift one to you. Going by memory is difficult, since all the trees look alike after a while.” He offers little real help.

“It reminds me of a scene from The Muppet Movie,” The Reporter reminisces, “where Dom DeLuise is lost in the swamp and finds Kermit sitting on a log playing the banjo,” For The Reporter all life events can be found in an old Muppet movie.

“I’ve lost my sense of direction,” says Dom.

“Have you tried Hare Krishna?” asks Kermit.

I don’t get it; perhaps I’m too old.

I find it totally ironic at this point that the ongoing subject line of our email conversations is “Airplane Tickets to Iowa.”

Duh — I went to the boat dock instead of the airport.

That explains everything.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

Intentionality

To be intentional — about anything — means to act with purpose, to decide and then act accordingly. “Good” intentions are different; they’re noble thoughts that never get acted upon. They often dominate our conversations and are accompanied by complaints of not enough time or too busy. You know the conversations; you know the excuses. We’ve all done it; we’re all guilty.

Lest we beat ourselves up as hopeless unintentionals and victims of our circumstances, let’s understand that such behavior is normal — part of being human. However, if we’re not careful, we’ll make a list of all our intentions we’ve failed to act on, declare ourelves successful failures and say, “There’s no point. I’m incapable of follow-through.”

Today I want us to think about tiny intentions — those small hassles or discontents that dog us through life, those things that get obscured by bigger issues and demands, or get covered up as historically unimportant in our lives.

We can change. You can change. I can change.

It’s a matter of setting a small intention — one so tiny, so simple that success is guaranteed — and then acting on it. Once. Then again. And again. Your action won’t change the world, or even your whole life. But it’s impact will accumulate, action by action, until you’ve conquered one personal disappointment, one hassle, one failure to act.

Case in point. For years I said I wanted to read more books. Though I thought about it, and talked about it, and had stacks of books I intended to read, it never happened. I used to read in bed — and always fell asleep after a page or two. The next night, with little remembrance of what I’d previously read, I’d back up a page or two to refresh my memory, and then fall asleep again in nearly the same place. Little progress was possible in these circumstances.

Then I made one tiny change: I decided to read in a chair instead of in bed. Sometimes I read as many as twenty pages at a time. I never fall asleep in the midst of reading. And I actually comprehend and remember what I read.

I made a tiny change, acted on my intention, and now I now read more books.

The same principle of tiny intentions can be applied in many different ways:

  • Intend to exercise? Start with ten minutes twice a week. Be consistent. You can increase the frequency and intensity later after you’ve mastered this much.
  • Intend to improve your musical technique? Begin each practice session with ten minutes of exercises or drills. You can add more time or more difficult drills once you’ve established the habit of technical discipline.
  • Intend to improve your diet? Add one veggie to dinner every night. You can make other changes after this habit is established.
  • Intend to write more? Set aside fifteen minutes when you’re at your daily prime. Then do fifteen minutes tomorrow. Fifteen minutes every day makes nearly two hours of writing in a week.  That’s a lot, if you’ve only been talking about writing. Once this daily habit is established increase your time.

Start small. Guarantee your success.

The most important thing is to start.

Show up. Do your work.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

 

Standards of Play

During the academic year I frequently attend recitals and concerts at the university. Many are given by students in fulfillment of their graduation requirements. Faculty and guest artists also perform throughout the year.

This week I heard two pianists – both with impressive credentials. Nikita Fitenko, a native of Russia, played an entire program of Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Moussorgsky. Though he appeared to play effortlessly, he talked about the difficulty of the music afterwards. Yu Jung Park, a native of South Korea, performed Beethoven, Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Schumann.

In the not too distant past, I would be personally discouraged after such fabulous performances. “Why do I even bother trying to play the piano,” I would say to myself. “I’ll never be that good; I’m not even close.” After a couple days, I would reluctantly return to the piano, determined to try again, and believing that hard work will eventually pay off.

My attitude has changed since those days. It’s easy to be wowed by artistic brilliance and overwhelmed by the barrage of notes that few humans can play.  Though much of their music was unfamiliar to me, I listened for the things Dr. B discusses with me at my lessons: tempo, phrasing, dynamics, control, articulation, pedaling, themes and key changes. Such things are present in every piece of music and I’m working on them every day.

This week I heard crisp, articulate playing — clear notes and pedaling, no mushiness, no notes slopping into other notes, careful phrase endings, and lyrical breaths (pauses). There is so much beyond just getting the notes right.

I also saw musical confidence. They played with conviction, without hesitation, and without mistakes. Their playing exuded great power and exquisite softness, and everything in between.

As I returned to practice today, I posted two words on my music rack: crispness and confidence. I stopped when I heard sloppy, mushy pedaling — and figured out how to create clarity in the passage. I stopped when I made mistakes — some new, some familiar. Uncorrected, these nagging mistakes, along with memory slips and a wandering mind, will continue to haunt me and undermine my confidence.

I value gifted performers, not so much for their repertoire, but for their mastery and confidence in the details.

So I’m working with new energy on my own music: conquering the tricky spots and gaining confidence in their inability to trip me up.

Show up. Do your work. Master the details.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

Literary Sanctuaries

We’re in a universe of technology — and I often struggle with it.  “But this is so much easier,” friends say. “It’s way more convenient. It’ll save you so much time. You don’t have to lug a stack of books with you.” You’ve either heard these words or said them yourself.

Yes, I know all of these things. I get it. Honestly, I do.

And yes, I have a Kindle, that I used to take on my travels. Now I download books to my phone and skip the Kindle.

But I don’t much like this e-reading. For me, nothing can replace a book in my hands, holding its weight, feeling the paper pages between my fingers, thumbing ahead to find the chapter’s end, marking passages with my pencil, noting thoughts in the margin, or skipping ahead to read about the author.

You see, books let me read my way. I don’t have to adapt my reading style to the quirks of an e-device.

With my love of actual books, it’s not surprising that Austin Kleon’s link to the most beautiful library in each state caught my attention a few weeks ago. I scrolled through all fifty, looking for ones in states I frequent, thinking I would find a familiar one. What I found were fifty book sanctuaries I’ve yet to discover.

I began to remember libraries where I’ve spent some time. In high school it was the Walla Walla Public Library with it’s reading room and funky balconies. In college it was Holland Library at Washington State University — the biggest library I’d ever seen. When my children were young we frequented the Kingsport, TN public library. Later, as I returned to college, Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University, Hunter Library at Western Carolina University, and the Asheville, NC public library became my places of study and research.

My fondest memory is of a vacation afternoon in the Seattle Public Library. The architecture, the glass and steel, the nature carpets, the ramps, the light, and the coffee created an ambience that begged me to sit and stay after I had explored several of its floors. It was nearly too much to take in — and yet it wasn’t. It was magical — sacred even.

 

With the suggestion of including libraries in our travels (which I will definitely do) and with my Seattle experience, I’m wondering why I haven’t explored the main library in my own city, or its seventeen branches, or the library on campus. I seldom visit even the closest branch.

One simple excuse keeps me from the library — convenience:

  • downloading books is easier than visiting the library
  • ordering books from Amazon is easier than visiting the library
  • online research has replaced my traditional library work

In my pursuit of convenience I’ve dismissed the repository of words and culture, but I’m going to make a change this year. I’ll go to the main library first and check out a book or two; this will be more than a cursory visit. Then I’ll work my way around the city, exploring the branches, their locations, and their literary collections. I’m way past due for such adventures.

Have library card, will travel.

How about you?

Until next Tuesday . . .