End of the peace process

Last year I entered a writing contest.

It was a flash fiction competition. The deal for the first round was you were assigned a genre and a few things to include in your story, and then two weeks later you had to submit your piece. Since I have been ruining my chance at a literary career by not writing my own things for about a decade — to illustrate this specifically, I did not finish a book while a Canadian literary giant who was championing it was still alive — I thought a two week timeframe was about right so that I didn’t collapse in a pile of goo.

The genre I got was fairy tale and I wrote a story that wasn’t very good about a young woman who learns she’s a fairy princess and kicks ass. But I wrote it.

I got the feedback from the reviewer, and had it focused on my lack of detail or somewhat stilted prose or that two of the characters’ dialogue sounded the same, I’d’ve agreed. But the feedback I got instead was that the story was unbelievable because in one day the fairy princess was able to complete three tasks and save the kingdom, the last being that she had a duel.

I had opened the story with her sword and martial arts achievements visible on her wall. Also, in the fairy tales I read growing up, it seems like the prince was able to complete his three tasks fairly expeditiously without it being a character flaw.

I was enraged and started working on My Own Stuff again for about three entire days, and then fizzled out.

Since then I have been working to make peace with the idea that I am not really a writer. Not because I got bad feedback — as a editor and a writer I know that is a necessary part of the process, even though I still am bad at the emotional part of it. But because the rage didn’t motivate me for very long. Because I don’t write. Because I have defined myself as “someday-a-writer-but-it-never-works-out” for 30 years and so obviously I just…am not.

I have said many more times in the last year that I am a martial artist than I have said anything about being a writer, not just out loud, but deep down. In the continued mental construction of my self, I had taken writer out of the building plans. I even told my writing partner I am not a writer any more, several times. (I think I was ignored.)

But right now I feel like I was building a nice modern restaurant, and I was about to launch it when the pipes burst. And when I took a sledgehammer to the wall to get a better look, I found a venerable old pub back there, with all my old drinking buddies at the bar…Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, John Gardner, Ralph Keyes. I’m not sure yet whether I’m having one drink for old times or creating a practice but…it’s so there.

I also feel like I can’t hold my liquor any more — well that’s torturing this metaphor. It’s stiff, writing these posts, and I feel like I’m hobbling around a dance competition. But here I am writing them.

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Falling on the Floor

I attended a PIAC conference this fall. The keynote speaker was Dr. Stuart Shanker, who outlined some of the differences between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. He also pointed the audience towards Dr. Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness. It was eye-opening as a parent to recognize how easy it’s been for me to forget my original parenting position which basically comes down to “kids will do good if they can and have the right support and guidance.” I’d fallen into some patterns of assuming laziness in my children for sure.

And myself.

The premise shared by both Dr. Shanker and Dr. Levine’s books are that if a child isn’t succeeding, there’s probably something in their way. Dr. Shanker looks at stress and anxiety in particular, and how that kicks children into “red brain” — a stressed, anxious response as if a tiger were chasing them through the woods. And people who are trapped in their red brains can’t access the parts of their brain that help them to learn and perform at a higher level.

Ding, ding, ding. I know allll about the red brain, trust me. As a person with PTSD, I’ve spent a lot of time learning to (somewhat) manage my broad-strokes fight-or-flight response, sometimes better, and sometimes not so well.

I often (not always) do some of the right things for the “big” PTSD-related issues- deep breaths, calm down, get centred, “fake it ’til you make it,” etc. Five years of therapy helped. And in some ways I feel like I’ve mastered some of that to the point that I can turn around in my journey and start to more openly share some successes with other people to see if that helps.

My martial arts journey has been a big part of that, since learning to get grounded in my body and be in a place where I can learn skills, physically, that are completely foreign to me, and work through any triggers and upset, physically, has been huge.  I spent decades of my life becoming an expert at not being in my body, so the idea of being expert at using my body is…ridiculous.

When I start a class, I’m always ready to be at the bottom of it. But I go anyway.

And because it’s martial arts, and that was just brand new to me when I started, I come to it without expectation. If this were a movie maybe that would make me really skilled at the martial arts part of it, but unfortunately, it doesn’t – I mean I even broke my leg doing it! But I am willing to fail 99 times out of 100, because I don’t confuse my beginner status with my own value as a human being. I don’t have a sense that I should do this better or that better. I identify as a martial artist not by my achievements but by my effort. (Technically, I guess, I have a growth mindset.)

And what’s more, I recognize that some weeks, my capacity to risk myself on the floor is more limited. And I’m okay with protecting myself that way and seeing it as part of the journey.

But…here’s the realization as I grapple with having a broken leg while starting a new job in a new field, which involves a lot of walking around and I can’t walk yet…I don’t always apply the same principles to other ares of my life.

I let my critical inner voice mistake inexperience for incompetence. I let the frustration of those around me impact me. I judge myself as not enough.

And to some degree, what I am always going for is what I’ll label supreme competence. I like to be good at my job, to be the expert, to be the one who can be relied on to think things through and do things right. I don’t think these are bad goals.  I don’t want to be a lousy martial artist, and I don’t want to be lousy at other things that I do. I want to excel.

The problem is that in one case, I let myself really experience my incompetence, and work to get better, and it adds to my day immeasurably. In the second case, I experience my incompetence, and work to get better, while beating myself up and feeling like shit about myself, and stressing out and eating chips and being cranky about chores, and it eats away at my days. And it makes it harder because that tiger of anxiety that says “you suck, you’re ruining things, you need to be better” is actually contributing to lack of success.

I learn and perform way better when I am not generating a field of anxiety. Like…really.

So simple, and so not.

 

 

Giddy up

20171204_225355It’s been a while! Quick summary: I loved my job at The Royal Conservatory for two years, but with Noah growing up sooo fast and Liam fast on his heels, as well as having fallen in love with martial arts, I took a job at what I will now refer to as The Academy as their operations manager in September. Anyone who thinks small business is calmer is crazy but being close to home and in the middle of the action has been really great. I still miss the RCM crew a lot.

Everyone asks, so I will say: I have a green belt which is not very close to black belt. 🙂

However in great irony, I broke my leg about two weeks ago!

Blessings of a broken leg
I have only been injured doing martial arts twice. Both times, I was pretending to be someone else. The first time, I was learning zero kicks (where you go right down on the ground as you kick) and I was imagining myself being Wonder Woman and ended up on my elbow. Later I realized the scene I was picturing was not a zero kick. Also, I am not Wonder Woman.

The second time was two weeks ago. I was learning jumping side kick, which looks like this although…lower, less spectacular. One of my fellow students, who is a young man, was inspiring me and so as I took my steps towards the target I was picturing the way he had done it. It was a perfectly decent kick from all accounts, but the landing was a little rough. I heard a snap, went down, and sure enough, I broke my fibula in two places and have new hardware.

My brain seeks patterns in all things, and so here’s lesson #1: Stop trying to do martial arts as someone else.

Or, you know, life.

I’ve been on a quiet path of renewed self-discovery over the past few years, but one part of my identity I haven’t plugged back into at all is storyteller. And so I’ve been stumbling around a bit. So here we go, back on the horse.

Here’s a moment. Everyone is out of the house on various errands this morning and I got myself coffee. I got a bag, filled a Contigo travel mug with coffee at the pot, put the mug in the bag and hobbled to the fridge, put milk in the mug, put the mug back in my back and hobbled back to bed with it. (My leg is still stuck on elevation, having it down even for 10 minutes makes it swell.)

This felt a bit like getting the keys to the car. It’s nice to know you’re never too old to take adolescent joy in independence.

Really Bad Poetry — Labour Day: Uber Education

Labour Day in the age of parenting

Dear school,

I am consigning my child to your curriculum
Hoping that you will have him labour, but not too much.
Help him arrive in at least the middle of the middle class,
Although upper middle class would be nice
As long as he is not too much of a hipster and
Doesn’t take the New York Times Style section too seriously.

Could you please let me know what the standards are this year?
NPR informs me there’s an Overparenting Crisis.
Could you define over parenting? Will there be a test on that later?
Do I need to supply the snacks?
And if so, do boxed mix cupcakes count as nut-free?
Should I worry whether the food colouring was made by child labourers in Bangladesh?
(Do you think my child’s job will be outsourced to Bangladesh in 2045?)
(Do you think he should be learning Bengali?)

As for learning, here are our summer benchmarks:
Handwriting: Not Instagram-worthy yet
Times tables: Able to multiply 4 NDP signs by 5 lawns.
Vocabulary:  “Since beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light.” (Netflix had Avatar: The Last Airbender this summer!)

You will find my son two shoe sizes larger,
Four eye-rolls closer to puberty,
And three camp friends richer.

I hope he won’t disrupt the class,
Although if you could help him create a disruptive app that would be awesome.

Review: Unspotted by Justin Fox (short e-book, non-fiction)

unspottedIn summary: Worth picking up. Here’s the Amazon link and here’s the publisher page with all the other ways to get it.

One of my favourite books ever is Douglas Adams’s (yes, that Douglas Adams) Last Chance to See, a travelogue-quest to spot rare and endangered species around the world and which predisposed me to love the first-person account of chasing after animals in the wild in order to save them.

Unspotted by Justin Fox fits into that genre with an added twist (or bonus, if you are me and taking care of a 4 year old post-surgery as well as renovating 1/4 of your home for the arrival of your mother-in-law.) It’s a short e-book: 40 pages.

Fox recounts his time spent chasing after the elusive Cape Mountain Leopard at the side of zoologist Quinton Martins, founder of the Cape Leopard Trust. Seven reasons I give it a thumbs up:

  • Chasing leopards around is a pretty cool activity and Fox brings the reader inside the experience with a lot of rich detail.
  • The pacing of the book is pretty good; it does sometimes feel like it could have been a longform article but for the most part there’s not a lot of extraneous information, or a lot of gaps.
  • I got a good sense of the zoologist at the centre of the story, Quinton Martins. There are a couple of moments that made me want to go meet him, which is a gift in any story.
  • I learned a lot without ever feeling lectured to, with the possible exception of the scene that actually is a lecture.
  • There’s a strong sense of place without (mostly) being overwrought description.
  • Pictures!
  • It feels candid on the truth side of truth-telling, and controlled on the telling side…in other words, Fox (who is not a novice writer) is providing a true tale, well-told, or at least that’s the sense I’m left with as a reader.

Three ways it could improve:

  • I didn’t come away with a strong sense of Fox’s interior journey beyond details like mud in his shoes. This could be a feature for people who find The Serpent and the Rainbow-type books to be self-indulgent writing, but because the narration was quite close first-person, I expected a bit more. I felt a bit like I missed some of the journey, or like this was a smaller piece of a larger work.
  • Occasionally I felt pelted with adjectives/adjectival phrases, particularly in the opening chapters. It settled down well once the story got rolling.
  • I think Fox is a strong enough writer that he could have dropped the chronological narration and moved some of the stronger anecdotes to the start of the book or at least the start of a chapter. I mention this not just editorially but because my understanding is that as a money-making enterprise, e-books sold through Amazon are increasingly compensated for whether people actually read through them. I found some of the strongest material was buried at the end of the book.

Publishing digression: And with that last point I want to talk a bit about why I volunteered to review this book. I think the idea of small e-press publishing original works is a great compromise between “free” and “writers don’t get compensated and The World Ends.” But it doesn’t work if people can’t find them or aren’t talking about them, so I’m pleased to be a part of the conversation.

This particular book didn’t sell me on the format in the sense of wow, were it not for novella-ish-length e-publishing this completely perfect gem wouldn’t have been the ideal shape to bring me joy but given the crazy summer I am having, it absolutely was the best length for me as a reader.  And it costs less than a latte!

Here’s the handy publisher link if you want to check it out. 

Disclosure: I received a free review copy and I’m an Internet fan/supporter of Annorlunda Enterprises which is a startup enterprise publishing short e-books.

Mini-review: Ricki and the Flash

ricki-and-the-flash-reviewSo say Joanna from Kramer vs. Kramer didn’t actually come back and fight for custody of her child and win because she was the mom and instead she moved to California and became an 80s rocker chick and then came back home once she got kind of old, and smoked pot with Dustin Hoffman while spewing great Diablo Cody dialogue…but it all rang hollow because no one really bothered to flesh out any emotions other than guilt sucks, following your dreams is great, but it sucks when your kids suffer, but they’ll be all right because a strong black woman (see: nuanced discussion) will stepparent them.

Then you’d have a movie where all the parts are kind of fun and worth seeing if you don’t actually think too hard, but at the end you really actually do feel like you just spent a wedding with your narcissistic boomer mother and you’re left with that sort of fuck it, family’s family, but it’s hell feeling.

That’s pretty much what Ricki and the Flash is like. If you want to laugh a lot and contemplate whether Rick Springfield is hot and be prepared to feel just a little bit disturbed, I say it’s worth the price of popcorn. And I mean, Diablo Cody.

Byte sized #9: The judging women edition

There’s been some great conversation on the web lately about women and their work. My favourite by far is a two-for-one. Jess Zimmerman asks over at The Toast“Where’s my Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labor. The article is thought-provoking but the discussion over at Metafilter about it is pretty stunning, if only for the list of emotional labour from various women.

And while you’re reading Zimmerman don’t miss her feature about her midlife crisis over at Hazlitt: “I realized that, like many women, I had made all the decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf.

Nick Levine over at Vice’s i-D encourages us (who is us? Nevermind…) to rethink Courtney Love. The point that her behaviour would basically be standard male rock star behaviour is a pretty good one, and now I need to dig out more Riot Grrrl tracks.

Maybe rock star men should start speaking more like women, or at least middle management should consider it…please? (Debbie Cameron at her blog language: a feminist guide)

Shameless plug: Melanie Nelson is running an online course on how to run better meetings.  It’s only $20! What?!

The Comic Con Batman vs Superman trailer does indeed have Wonder Woman in it. Briefly. I will scream if she does all the emotional labour.

Featured photo: from Pete via Flickr/Creative Commons