Kaite's Words of Wisdom

I met the writer, theatremaker and dramaturg Kaite O'Reilly three years and one week ago at the Singapore Writers Festival, and we became fast friends and devoted pen pals. The relationship stimulates and sustains me, as I go to Kaite with my highs and lows, and have celebrated and bemoaned hers. If you're a writer struggling away on your own, I hope that you will take heart from what I'm posting today – an excerpt from an email Kaite wrote to me during one of my darker moments – both because of her words, and also because it encourages you to connect with other writers, to share your work, your fears and frustrations, your successes and suggestions. I couldn't do without it.

Kaite's Words of Wisdom

This is a tough response and one I know as a dramatist when you realise the play they want is not the play you have any interest in writing. In fact, perhaps you're not even that kind of playwright for god’s sake! And then distance comes and the breath (BREATHE) and the understanding it is all negotiation and collaboration – in theatre at least, as you know so well – it is all process and nothing is ever lost, nothing is ever 'slashed and burnt' – it is all creative, and we just need to find our way and see what is possible with this particular project. 

I have largely made most of the projects I've really committed to – but some, like the novel, I am still roiling with a decade on as in a stormy sea I have no understanding of. But it sort of fascinates me, despite the pain and danger, so I stay engaged and hopeful and learning. It's finding the collaborators and it's deciding what the compromise I'm willing to do is, and within that compromise there is always an integrity still, and learning.

I've also walked away from collaborators, and shelved projects, and put manuscripts again to bed. Not very much in my middle adulthood, but it's always an option that actually the time isn't ripe, and the feedback isn't right, and the fekking market isn't right, and so I go 'So what would I be interested in writing to fit this temper of our time and the people I'm with? And should this be put down now and picked up another time?'

And when I write responses to peoples' work, and critiques, or when I mentor, I always say (as do you) 'this is just one person's perspective'. It will not be that the writing isn't good, or the novel 'right' - it just 'disappoints' certain criteria or ambitions that we have no control over.

All we can do is be true to our selves and true to our writing and what fascinates us and the stories we tell. But also to know as creatures of skill and learning, we can also turn our hands to something else if we decide that may be helpful to where we are in our lives and our careers – and decide is it worth reworking that again in this aspect, what shall we learn and gain from that, or is there a better use of energy and focus at this point or should a different project work better?

 

Long-tall Adam

Last weekend's Sunday Times STYLE magazine featured a section called 'Those Warm Wild Nights' in which eight critically acclaimed writers shared unforgettable summer encounters. I enjoyed the read a lot, and of course it got me thinking about what I would have written if they had asked me, so I got up from the breakfast table and wrote my own. 

Long-tall Adam

On some evenings after dinner at Echo Lake, an Appalachian Mountain Club camp on Mt Desert Island, just under Maine’s chin, there was an opportunity for guests to perform. The broad dining room with its rows of long refectory tables and views of the mile-long lake had an upright piano. My dad was a jazz pianist, and this meant he met long-tall Adam before I did. Adam, one of the crew at work there for the summer, played the fiddle. The only entertainment I can remember from the evening they played together in the summer of 1982, when I was 16, is their rendition of ‘Satin Doll’.

My mother had imagined much family fun on that trip to Maine, I’m sure. The camp organized daily hikes and climbs, but I refused them all. I had hiked 40 miles of the Long Trail in Vermont already that summer (also her idea), and had starred as Rosemary in our town’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was tired, I told her. But Adam had caught my eye.

My parents went on hikes, and I swam the width of the lake, watched by loons, when I couldn’t find a way to chat Adam up. When he had free time he took me sailing. Although I’d had lessons I still mistimed ducking under the boom when we swung around often enough to have angry grazes on my shoulder when we returned to shore. It raised some eyebrows. Another crew member joked, ‘What’s he been doing to you out there?’ I joked back, ‘You should have seen what he wanted me to do.’ He and Adam both laughed. They looked impressed. I felt cool. That was what I did those days. I talked plenty sexy. But I avoided the act for another five years.

My parents agreed to allow Adam to take me out in a rowboat under the crowded stars on our last night at the lake. I remember sitting on his long lap, embraced by his atmosphere of liberal intellect and coffee, my neck tickled by his soft goatee, telling him I wished my parents were dead. (So sue me. I was 16.) We were out there a long time, and when we got back to the camp and walked up to the deck where we would part, my mother was standing there waiting, livid, in a knee-length, nylon, leopard-print nightgown.

I now know that parents have internal clocks set for when their children should be home, even if they haven’t expressed that time as a number. They – we – just feel it: the reasonable amount of time for such an excursion has passed, and my daughter should be back by now. Having been allowed to go out without a curfew, I couldn’t understand her anger that night. I imagined her trying to get my father to do the confronting, imagined her frustration when he quite rightly didn’t feel as strongly as she did, imagined her storming out of the tent. The embarrassment was acute. But now the memory of watching her lay into Adam in the moonlight, her head tipped back to look up at his bowed head, his abashed face, is an emblem for me now. I’m no longer embarrassed by it; I’m impressed, because I’m no longer a beleaguered teenager. I’m a mother. I know the fangs and claws we grow when protective. So on that starry summer night, I went out in a rowboat with a man, but she was the wild one.

A Message for George, Whose Essay on Pride and Prejudice I Found in the Grass

This is a message for George P–, of Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire.

I found your English essay on the grass near the corner of St. Nicholas Street and Stalls Farm Road, crumpled, not in a ball, but more as if you had rolled it and twisted it. It had opened itself out again, a bit, and had been spattered by tar during recent road works. The paper is sticky.

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It’s not so much an essay in the modern sense as it is in the old, because you’ve merely answered two questions, question 3 and question 4. Well, you’ve tried. An essay is an attempt. It’s from the French, George. It’s also an assault.

There’s a good deal of red pen from Teacher, and I won’t duplicate her efforts. (I’m deriving her gender from her handwriting. Speaking of which, your handwriting is beautiful, your esses practically the eff-shaped characters of antiquity. Lovely. She doesn’t mention your penmanship on this paper. Has she elsewhere? I hope so.)

What I’m here to do is to fill in the huge gaps she left. What’s a boy to do with gaps that big? I mean, really. If a sentence is crystal clear to you, how is her simply writing “vague” [un-capitalized, I note] supposed to improve your future assaults?

Let’s have a look at question 3. I gather from what you’ve written you were asked to write about how Jane Austen goes about portraying Elizabeth Bennet’s embarrassment. Or perhaps you were asked to choose a feeling yourself? If so, bravo! Excellent choice. And not surprising, given how embarrassing it must be to be asked to read that book at your age. Or ever. Don’t be bamboozled, George. Not everyone loves it.

You begin your answer to question 3 this way: “The writer starts with very broken up sentences to portray her feelings of embarrassment. This clearly shows her feelings because the pauses show shes waiting and carefully choosing her words.” Teacher says you need to “be more technical than this,” but I can see what you did there. All technical terms fail us when we’re embarrassed, don’t they? You’re writing in an embarrassed way to underline your point. Genius.

Moving on. Second para: “As well as this the writer shows her embarrassment through how she talks to Mr. Darcy. She said ‘thank you again and again.’ This shows she was nervous or embarrassed because this isn’t how someone talks to someone they’re comfortable talking with.” It is here that Teacher writes “vague” and “What do you mean?” What could be clearer than what you’ve laid out, though? I’ll tell you what, George. I think you just need to change up the vocab. Change ‘talking’ to ‘communicating’ sometimes, ‘someone’ to ‘a person’. See what happens.

“In addition to this,” you continue, “her embarrassment is further shown through how Elizabeth starts talking to ‘Mr. Darcy’, [Okay, I have to interrupt you here because Teacher didn’t. First, the writer does not show her embarrassment, she shows Elizabeth’s. Also, ‘Mr. Darcy’? Why the inverted commas? Were you distracted by some texting? Focus, George. Little things like that are huge in the real world.] saying ‘I am a very selfish [Your eff and your ess, George! It reads as ‘felfifh’. V funny.] creature.’ This shows her embarrassment because shes [Needs apostrophe. Not the first time. Not funny.] almost dehumanizing herself because of how embarrassed she is to talk.”

There’s a red arrow from Teacher pointing from ‘dehumanizing’ and asking “how? Which bit?” What exactly about dehumanizing herself by calling herself a creature doesn’t Teacher get? Hold tight, George. Be strong. That bit’s as obvious as it needs to be. I have to agree with red arrow #2, though, indicating the end of the sentence is “not analytical”. What we’re dealing with here is a tautology. (From the Greek, meaning needless repetition, in the same words.) It’s starting to feel as if you’re saying we know she’s embarrassed because she’s embarrassed. I know you’re not. But you sound like you are. Maybe you’ve taken your own embarrassment a mite far? Have a think about that.

Question 4 is where things get beyond me. You write: “The writer successfully shows its difficult to express your feelings through the way Elizabeth starts talking trying to tell Mr. Darcy something. This is effective because she dehumanizes herself calling herself a creature.” For this you get a check and a note at the bottom of the page: “Good start – just needed more.”

It’s not a good start, George, and you mustn’t believe it is. If the answer to question four is supposed to be a summary of question 3, then start again. Your answer shows neither the clarity nor the cunning of question 3. It is neither precise, nor poetic. So what am I missing? Why has Teacher let you write this garbage now, when she criticized you for something much tidier just a few lines before?

I had to think about this for a long time. And then I wasn’t thinking anymore, and I had it: Teacher wasn’t thinking either. She’d given you a check and called those two sentences good because they are so poignant. It is difficult to express your feelings. Poignant is from the French, George, originally meaning pricking, stinging. You prick us with this sentence. You, young George, adolescent essay-twister, can say it with complete authority. You prick us, and we are stung.

Cryptic Poems

Yuki Means Happiness will be published on July 27th, the novel I recently finished is getting feedback, and I'm as yet too busy to start the one I'm planning. So I'm between projects. When that happens, I turn my hand to shorter pieces. I send out short stories to literary magazines and contests, I mess around with audio (see previous post), and I write poems. 

I'm a big cryptic crossword fan, and the other day I noticed a clue that felt poetic to me, so I scribbled it down and took it up to my office. I decided to use it as a writing prompt for a poem, with the challenge of using the clue as the first line, and ending the poem with the answer as the last word. My brain has loved the exercise. Here are the two completed so far. I know I'll do more!

26 Across

Bored, having seen tide turn at sea,

not having felt a thing,

I nosed my kayak to the horizon.

“The tide has turned,” people say ominously,

always giving me a sense of the surge

from ‘i’ to ‘ur’ when they do.

The figurative water moves powerfully, one way

Or the other.

Sitting, literally, in my kayak,

Watching the waves overreach themselves

up the beach,

and then desist,

I felt no gravity in the change.

Human tides are more dramatic at the turning point.

The tide turned.

I paddled away,

Uninterested.

 

12 Across

Old joke about man, saint and fiend

dragged its way around the bar, over months,

a contagious yawn zigzagging

among the drinkers.

Widowers leaned in,

Brilliantine to Brilliantine.

Young men spoke it

into the air under their baseball caps.

It moved more slowly

when women were present;

was forgotten completely,

left to wait for peace to settle,

when Mercedes Rodriguez

proceeded to her table,

flashed her porcelain teeth,

and traced,

with the ends of her tapered fingers,

the knots in the chestnut.

The Crown, the Brooch

While my husband has been away for work, I've been spending my evenings alone watching 'The Crown' on Netflix. Someday I'll write about how I identify the queen with my mother (as the monarchy may well have intended, but I think it's more than that), but right now my mind's on diamonds instead. 

My mother gave me my grandmother's diamond brooch when I turned forty. "You're more comfortable wearing diamonds than I am," she said. I wore it to my birthday party on a sleek little black dress that I had inherited from a friend of my aunt. Almost eleven years on, I haven't worn it since, until today. 

I normally don't think about it. Watching 'The Crown', though, I now think about it every evening as I consider the range of diamond brooches Elizabeth II wears near the shoulder of her dress or cardigan, even when she's merely doing her correspondence. If I were to wear mine as I sat at my writing desk, I have found myself wondering (in an internal voice a lot like my mother's, or the queen's), what would it bring?

I can see it reflected in the monitor. I bought the shirt it is pinned to in a charity shop when I moved to England from Singapore and didn't have warm enough clothes for June. What is it bringing? So far, only consternation. The young Queen Elizabeth II's brooches make her look older, which befits her. Mine does the same. Which gets right up my nose.

Too American?

“Maybe you’re being a bit too American,” said a writer friend when I told her the trouble I’ve been having reaching local readers in the small English town I’ve moved to.

I wonder.

I’d imagined that the best way to begin the journey to instant recognition when walking the streets of any British city would be to start locally. The library system has an online form you can fill out if you want to join one of their reading groups, so I thought I’d drop them a line and tell them there was a writer willing to chat in town. But there was a note on the page saying solicitations were unwelcome.

I hesitated.

That’s not super American, right? Hesitation? Not only did I hesitate, I also walked over to my local library to inquire. Sure, I took the copy they have of my novel off the shelf and brought it to the people who seemed to be in charge and introduced myself first, and then I inquired, but I didn’t really see any way around that. The woman I explained myself to was a volunteer. When I got to the “no solicitations” part of the story she said, “Oh, they don’t mean you!” Encouraged by an actual English person, I wrote to all five reading groups in the locality.

Crickets.

It’s been over three months since then.

My husband visited the biggest bookstore in the closest city to us, and while there he mentioned my novel to the staff. They weren’t carrying it. (No, it’s okay. I’m fine with it. I’m fine.) They recommended I write to the leaders of the bookstore’s monthly book group. I wrote.

Crickets.

Okay, okay. I give up. No more reading-group outreach for me. I told myself just to keep writing the next novel. Write good stuff. See what happens.

I wrote.

And then I attended two literary festivals in rapid succession, and benefited so much from the listening and learning and mingling that I thought I’d attend a bunch more. I was looking for an interesting writing workshop (part of the Write Good Stuff commitment) and found one at a festival not far from me. The sign-up link didn’t work, though. I filled out a contact form to ask why, and if there were still places available, and the form didn’t appear to work either. Then, a day or two later, I had an email from the director telling me that the festival had been several months before. I had missed it completely. (Nothing to do with being American. I just need to remember to take my Ritalin when looking at a dozen lit fest websites in a sitting. I get confused.)

That was nice. An email from the festival director. I wrote back with thanks.

End of story.

NOT!

What? Are you crazy? Of course I added a note about who I am and when my next novel will be out (July 13th, published by John Murray, thanks for asking). And this time, this time, the bait got a bite. She wrote again to ask me to have the publisher send her the details.

So, I’m American. I’m a gun-control-supporting Democrat, but when it comes to doing publicity for my work, it looks like I’ll continue to take the machine-gun approach. I recommend it.

That, and skin as thick as a bulletproof vest.

Because crickets hurt.

The Benevolent Manager

This essay was originally written as a Restroom Reflection, sent out to clients when I was working as a corporate communication skills coach. It's about benevolence in management, via Confucius.

As an improviser, I'm not your most obvious follower of Confucianism. Dependant as it is on the rites of a hierarchical society, Confucianism assigns everyone a place in society and according forms of behavior. Siblings, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters, subjects and lords, all are to behave in manners befitting their stations. If they do so with sincerity, harmony will reign.

In short, no one flies by the seat of their pants. That can't be good!

Yet I'm drawn to this ethical system's concept of humaneness, or benevolence, particularly when I consider how organizations go about getting ideas out of their people.

Feeling comfortable offering one's ideas requires not only creativity but also confidence, especially when seated a few uncomfortable seats away from the boss at an unattractive meeting table. More than this, though, I'd say it requires a benevolent boss - a humane leader who recognizes that patience is a virtue. Confucius says, "To rule with virtue is like the North Star in its place, around which all other stars revolve, in homage."

How many of us feel our bosses are virtuous, or benevolent? How many of us, as bosses, consider the question of benevolence? Does the word ever come to mind? Ever?

If you're wondering what benevolence comes down to, let's keep things Confucian. The Master was a little coy on the subject, even though it was one of the axes of his philosophy: "Resoluteness, persistence, simplicity, and slowness to speak are close to benevolence."

Slowness to speak. That's the bit that strikes me. Slowness to speak (unless it is the result of a slow wit) means consideration and reflection. it might be reflection on the merits of the idea offered; it might equally be reflection on how to respond politely to a completely harebrained concept. Either way, it's good, and leads to appreciation.

I was in a meeting with a company's innovation team the other day, and when I asked them about the general attitude of the company's management when soliciting ideas, there was a sharp intake of breath, sucked powerfully through the teeth. They weren't shocked at the question; they were imitating the way the bosses respond to ideas. This sucking in of air is employed, I believe, to imply reflection. But we all know it comes across as, "How can I have hired this idiot?" Maybe you're slow to speak, but if you've already done The Suck, no words are necessary.

So a humane, benevolent manager takes time when an idea is posited. Another complaint of the innovation team was that when people put forth an idea, the boss would say, "Great. You do it." Which means that they were loath to open up not because they feared the idea's rejection but because they actually feared its acceptance. If the idea is a good one, then, it behooves a leader to take time to consider the best way to go about implementing it, the best way of employing the people at hand.

That seems to be to be the paramount role of managers: to encourage the individuals in their teams, and the team as a whole, to discover and then perform at their potential. Reflection and slowness to speak will help. Ideas will flow, and fewer mistakes will occur. Unless, of course, the people involved are beyond help, in which case it is helpful to remember what Confucius also said: "Rotten wood cannot be carved nor a wall of dung troweled."

Rant, with haiku

The other day I wrote a rant to a young friend who is studying poetry and is unable to write at the moment. Unable to write, unable to reveal. Just in case you're struggling too, I'll copy it in here. Stop reading now if four-letter words offend you.

"Fuck writer's block. It's a term I don't countenance. Sure, it's hard to write when the brain has been taken over by the little amygdala (so small, so much power), but it's not impossible. Sometimes it's just that the tools don't suit the moment. For me, when I'm struggling, the WORST place to be is at my computer. For the moments when my brain goes quiet, I keep a notebook by my elbow. The current one is a Dr. Who TARDIS notebook. The stupider the notebook the better. Keep it low key. Use a pen or pencil you like. Open the notebook and doodle around. Or if that doesn't work, get a piece of newspaper and a crayon. I once wrote something pretty good on the back of about ten free postcards I picked up at a kiosk by a museum. Try haiku. If writing feels too big, make it small. I wrote one yesterday, 5-7-5:

The wind blows with the

Sound of lovers tussling in

Fine expensive sheets

Little poems get the water flowing in the pipes.

So please fuck writer's block. Get a big piece of paper and a crayon and draw a picture. Draw a woman and a speech bubble and see what words go in the speech bubble. Jump up and down and get angry and when your arm is shaking with fury pick up a pen and write that shit down. There is no writer's block. Only a hand with no crayon in it.

You got this."

In Common with the Kalenjin

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published in November 2013. When I wrote it, I was missing and worrying about my daughter, far away from me at college in New York. I'm posting it again now because my son has just graduated from high school. My heart goes out to all kids leaving home, and to all parents with college-age kids.

Today I learned in a podcast about the Kalenjin people of Kenya and their global domination of long-distance running. People have studied the Kalenjin for decades, ever since Kipchoge Keino ran six races in eight days at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 5000 meters…all of it in extreme abdominal pain caused by a gallbladder infection. A doctor kept sending him to bed, but he kept getting back out of it.

“Kip” Keino is one of many Kalenjin who have sped to the front and stayed there. David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the new book The Sports Gene, said in the podcast, “There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.”

People have looked at climate and geography, diet, physique and behavior, but have had trouble identifying anything particular to the Kalenjin. Lots of Kenyans live at high altitudes, eat corn meal, have long tapering limbs, and grow up running many miles a day to and from school. What is now considered a defining factor in their long-distance excellence, however, is the social pressure to tolerate pain. Excruciating pain.

The podcast listed elements of Kalenjin initiation as crawling naked through stinging nettles and being beaten on the bony part of the ankles. Then, of course, there’s the circumcision, performed with a sharp stick. No effort is made to ensure the circumcision is rapid and painless. The boy must keep his face impassive, and in some cases a layer of mud will be caked on his face and left to dry so that the onlookers can see if he causes it to crack. A crack is an invitation to beat him.

The men who prevail in this test get the pick of the women, and the pick of the women are often those who haven’t flinched during their own initiation rituals and genital mutilation. Pairs like these are considered to be most likely to produce pain-tolerant children. Warriors. Olympic medalists.

Where I come from, we don’t, as a rule, make our kids crawl through stinging nettles and beat them, not in any socially agreed way.

We just make them leave home.

I dropped my accomplished but also apprehensive daughter at college at the end of August, and got on a plane that would put 10,000 miles between us. Six or seven weeks into the experience of figuring out who her friends might be, wondering whether her long-distance relationship was going to work out, and grappling with the constant question of where she was “from”, she called me. She was so bleak, so frozen with self-questioning and self-loathing, feeling weak and stupid, that I wondered if she’d make it through the semester. 

Listening to the podcast on the Kalenjin people had me wondering about how Kalenjin parents could watch their children being beaten and humiliated, and deprived of sexual choice if they didn’t measure up. I’ve realized, though, that when I hung up from a tearful and seldom conclusive call with my daughter and didn’t get on a plane to bring her back to me, I was doing a version of the same. I was watching her suffer, and doing what I could to help her stay in the game.

Her spirits are back up now. She’s had fantastic midterm grades, she’s exercising, she’s volunteering with cats, and her boyfriend will be picking her up at the airport when she comes home for Christmas. We now say that she’s “come through,” that she’s “come out the other side.”

Out the other side of what? Well, I know what to call it now.

Tribal initiation.

Playing with Words

I live on the 11th floor of a 23-story building. I’m normally at my writing desk, playing with language, by about ten each weekday morning. Sometime between ten fifteen and ten twenty, an autistic young man who lives on the second floor of the identical building on the opposite side of this condo’s playground comes out onto his balcony and starts shouting. He’s playing with language too, in his own wonderful way. When I’ve met him outside, down at the pool or riding his bike under the gentle supervision of his father, his voice has always been a monotone. Out on his balcony for the morning shouting session, though, he uses two notes. His focus is rhythm.

I work hard on getting the rhythm of my sentences to feel right, and I read everything I write out loud to see how it’s working. Meanwhile, across the space between our buildings, the young man plays and plays and plays with his own rhythms.

When I first noticed him shouting, he wasn’t playing quite as much. He just repeated “Roti prata teh tarik bye bye!” Roti prata is a meal of fried pancakes and curry. Teh tarik literally means “pulled tea” in Malay, and is a popular way of serving sweet milky tea in Singapore. Eventually he started pulling on the words, like taffy, and added new ones, such as Nestlé's powdered chocolate and malt drink, Milo. For whatever reason, the words he plays with are always foods and beverages. The chant became “Milo teh Milo teh roti prata Milo teh!” with each word rather than each syllable getting a beat, each pair of words being a bar in 2/4 time. On the piano, it’s G A A, G A A, G A A A, G A A.

Soon after that, he started holding on to the ‘a’ of prata, and the sound became plaintive, anguished almost, as if it meant, “Come back to me! I can’t live without youuuuuuu!” But he was just playing.

This week, he’s only shouting drinks, and rather than drawing out the vowels, he’s repeating them:

Milo teh Coca Cola
Coca Cola Coca Cola
Milo teh Coca Cola la la la la la la!

He doesn’t put the stress on the ‘co’ of Cola, as most people do. He stresses the ‘la’: Milo TEH cocaco LA. It’s still in 2/4 time.

Sometimes when I walk my dog by his building in the late afternoon, he’s back out on the balcony. He’s only a morning shouter, though. In the afternoon, he stretches his arms out between the balcony bars and claps his hands very, very hard against each other at length. If I look up and acknowledge him, he slinks back behind the laundry. I feel like he’s a little pleased to have been heard, though.

I also imagine that I know how he feels when he's making his noises. Across the playground in my writing room, I sit down to play with words, reading them out loud, clapping my emotional hands together as compulsively as he does.

Late morning, rain on the roof

Last year I wrote a poem for a contest. The poem had to be inspired by one of the pieces that would be played at the BBC Proms, the eight-week series of classical music concerts held in London each summer. I chose Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto, op. 57. Then, once I'd finished the poem, I read the small print and realized that I wasn't eligible, as I'm not a UK resident. I'm moving to England in June, though, so I'll try again this year. In the meantime, here's the poem, just for you. (NB My husband's name is not Stan. I don't iron anyone's underwear.)


Late morning, rain on the roof

Late morning, rain on the roof,

a little on the windows.

Stan’s finished shaving but hasn’t dressed.

The smell of coffee drags me to the kitchen

but he’s gone.

 

I know this game.

 

I tiptoe through the dining room and find him

in the den, fingering his LPs.

I slide a pinky down the bumps of his back

then he’s off around the coffee table.

It’s the size and shape of a sprawling man,

and it makes for more interesting chasing

than a square.

Thirty years into our union,

Stan’s footwork’s still fancy.

 

I laugh. I try not to screech.

I screech. I gallop up the stairs

behind the blousy old boxers I sometimes iron.

The wind picks up. We know this swirl.

We slow down, we speed up, we dissonate.

His teeth hurt my lips without wounding.

We resolve.

 

Stan’s snores growl in the mattress springs,

and my lungs keep time.

Whose Opportunity is it Anyway?

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published April 17, 2012. I'm posting this one again now as a reminder to myself, and an encouragement to readers, to question assumptions in the New Year. And also because I'm a geek about words.

Today’s reflection actually occurred to me a few days ago, in the restroom. I don’t know what I was doing in there when I thought it – certainly not resting – but whatever it was took a long time. No doubt I was late for something, because the word ‘posthaste’ came into my mind. Sometimes it does. I don’t say it, but sometimes I think it. And whenever I think it, I think about how it makes no sense. It’s always meant “after haste” to me, as in postnatal and postgraduate and postcoital. How can “after haste” mean speedily, I asked myself, yet again. And that’s when I realized that it couldn’t. I’d been using the wrong meaning for 'post.' Of course ‘posthaste’ means to do something with the speed of the post. Pigeons used to be considered fast. Likewise ponies. Of course.

Not only had I been using the wrong meaning for 'post,' I had been using a really silly meaning for it. When I told my husband about my revelation, he smiled and patted me on the head. That’s how silly.

This revelation brought me back to the conversation I’ve been having with myself for a long time about how often people refer, particularly in motivational speeches, to how the Chinese word for crisis (危機, wēijī) means danger plus opportunity. Perhaps you’ve heard one of these speeches. John F. Kennedy talked about it in a speech to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund in April of 1959, but apparently people have been invoking the concept for longer than that. Christian missionaries used it with regard to a push into the Chinese interior as early as 1938.

Here's what bothers me: The people who use wēijī in their speeches insist that the combination of these two characters means that the Chinese see a crisis as a good thing: that there’s always an opportunity afforded by the danger. But it isn’t necessarily so.

First of all, jī can mean opportunity, but it can also (in combination with other characters - the character never stands alone) mean something more like “incipient moment” or “crucial point.”Wēijī can therefore be interpreted to mean “the beginning of danger.”

(Incidentally, jī can also refer to a machine. Fēijī, or flying machine, means airplane. I suppose we could stretch airplane to mean “the opportunity to fly,” though.)

But even if people are right in thinking wēijī combines danger and opportunity, I’m not happy with their insisting that it means “danger plus opportunity." Wēijī could mean “danger opportunity," i.e. the opportunity for danger. It’s not necessarily your opportunity.

Sinologists out there will be patting me on the head now. They’ve been complaining about this misconception of the word for years and I’m suddenly calling it a revelation. I’m glad I finally looked into it, though. I’ve learned that I wonder about things to myself much longer than is useful, and I allow myself to think words like posthaste are just crazy when I’ve simply misunderstood them.

How many other things do I think are crazy because I haven’t really stopped to learn about them?

And how many do I believe in for the same reason?

The "As If" Principle

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on March 5, 2014.

A few years ago I ran into a young friend, Michelle, who was studying musical theater, and who had just come out of a singing lesson. In the course of the lesson, her wonderfully wise teacher had asked her what she wore to sleep in. She wasn’t being cheeky; she was trying to help her student sing with greater depth. The answer? Winnie the Pooh pajamas. “Go into a lingerie shop and get yourself a lacy nightgown,” her teacher said. “You’ll never be able to sing if you don’t sing from your womb, and you’ll never sing from your womb if you sleep in children’s pajamas.”

This keeps coming back to me as I’m reading a book by Richard Wiseman called Rip It Up, the fundamental message of which is that small changes in behavior have a big impact on thoughts and feelings. In 1884, the American philosopher William James argued that if you behaved as if you were a certain type of person you would become that person. A few thousand years earlier, Confucius put it about that people could be improved by self-cultivation, and that our habits are what distinguish us from each other. Today, psychologists call the cultivation of new behavior in this way the ‘As If’ principle. You can watch a short animated video about it here.

In my communication skills coaching, I’ve been a broken record reminding people that they know what confidence looks like, and that imitating confident behavior will have an impact on their mental state. There’s always some part of the nervous person’s brain saying to another part of his brain, “Look! His shoulders are slumping! His hands are shaking! Danger! Send more adrenalin! Make him run away!” It makes sense, then, that a straight back and a firm handshake will not only impress his listeners but will also impress his self, calming his brain. We can try to talk ourselves into feeling less nervous, but behaving ourselves into feeling less nervous may be equally if not more important.

Behaving “as if” is a form of self-education, and just like any successful education, it requires persistence. Changing from someone with a weak handshake into someone who always has a strong handshake takes time, just as learning a language takes time. When I wanted to change from someone who couldn’t speak Chinese to someone who spoke it well, I spent six years on it. If we spent six years on confidence, or kindness, or leadership, or creativity, we’d have these traits and abilities embedded deep in our systems.

But back to nighties. I recently got in touch with Michelle and asked if she had gone out and bought some age-appropriate sleepwear. She had indeed, and had really felt the impact. “I feel that I carry myself differently gradually,” she wrote to me, “and feel more mature and more grounded.”

Maybe you already have your power suit, or your maturity nightgown. What’s key is that you remember how it makes you feel, and carry that feeling with you when you’re not wearing it. And then, if you’re still a bit tentative, imagine that the people around you are naked. You can take it from Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

I Understand Ukranian

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on November 16, 2014.

I’m pretty sure I’m on the same SPAM lists you are. Weekly I’m awarded national lottery prizes, monthly I’m offered Robert Mugabe’s millions, found in his cupboard by a housekeeper. They just need a few details from me. I haven’t enjoyed being on those lists, but it has been interesting to register the changes in the communication over time. For example, when we started getting emails from Chinese as well as Nigerians alerting us to the money they are willing to release into our accounts, we moved from lengthy heart-string-pulling epistles to a cursory “I’ve got a deal worth $7M to talk to you about. Reply me.”

I hate those emails as much as I hate the ones inviting me to be a delegate at a petrochemical or aviation conference. I hate them slightly less than the unsolicited newsletters I end up reading against my better judgment and then respond to in order both to unsubscribe and to correct their spelling and grammar.

There’s one list I’ve been really glad to be on, though: the Ukrainian one. The address and the subject line are always in Cyrillic, and since they are identified as SPAM by my mail program, the words there are in tan rather than black. While this color makes an English junk subject look junky, somehow it makes the Cyrillic look golden. At least, now that I’ve started really studying them, it does. Because they’re lovely.

Nobody else writes to me with the same visual charm. The emails are never very long, and they’re always a pleasant balance of images and words. They don’t fool around with background colors, but they vary the font colors for impact. There’s never more than one exclamation point at the end of any sentence as they endeavor to sell me a truck, encourage me to build on some attractive pastureland, invite me to a small seaside hotel, or suggest a teambuilding course on a sailboat.

The word ‘teambuilding’ was in English on that last one, and I recognize only enough of the Cyrillic alphabet to have understood that flights to New York were being offered for a mere $327. Everything else should have been completely foreign to me. And yet I’m able to understand the fundamental message of all these emails. And I am motivated by them – much, much more motivated than I am by the info-heavy advertisements that I get from companies at home, in my own language.

Somehow the Ukrainian emails come across as more authentic, less overblown. The photos generally look as if they were taken by someone who works in the little hotel itself, or is proud of the trucks in their yard. They seem to have chosen their words carefully, so that a few are enough. When pictures are taken so they look not only attractive but also realistic, and therefore trustworthy, I find I look at them for longer. I can imagine myself in them, walking through that pasture, standing on that beach, deciding why I should buy that truck.

Even if it’s been a long time since I saw one of those emails, I still remember it. I remember the wildflowers. I remember imagining the smell of the place. I’ve never had that experience with a stock photo.

I can’t tell the senders of these emails how much I appreciate their communication style, so I’m telling you. And now I’m turning back to a short story I’m working on, to take another look at its authenticity.

A Mountain of Indecision

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on November 7, 2011.

James T Lester - Everest 1963

James T Lester - Everest 1963

Thirteen months after my father died, I read something he wrote before I was born. It was his account of an adventure, and it not only taught me about his approach to that adventure, but also opened a bright new window on decision-making that I never imagined was there.

My father was a psychologist, and in 1963 he participated in the first American expedition to Mount Everest, with a grant to study group dynamics at high altitudes. The story goes that he met the expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, at a dinner party in San Francisco when Dyhrenfurth was in the process of building the team. During their progressively Martini-soaked conversation, my father eventually just came out and asked, “Can I come too?” I’m not sure if Dad ever decided which was more astonishing: that he asked, or that Dyhrenfurth said yes.

In those days, getting to the foot of Everest required a strenuous three-week trek, followed by a long climb and establishment of a base camp. Most people have heard of the dangers of altitude sickness and weather when climbing such mountains. Not so many are aware that one of the most capricious areas of Everest is quite far from the summit: the icefall of the Khumbu Glacier. Dad described it this way: “within it small avalanches occurred daily, crevasses were constantly opening up or closing, monstrous blocks of ice and snow were shifting and slipping, as the whole of the glacier moved downward.”

This icefall was in view of the expedition’s base camp. They would climb a lot further up the mountain and establish their advanced base camp from which a select group would launch their assaults on the summit. But first they had to negotiate a way through the icefall, whose constant shifting and groaning made it not just a threat, but a slightly different threat every day.

It was the job of a few climbers to map out a ‘safe’ route. And one of these guys – the team’s youngest member, Jake Breitenbach – lost his life doing so, crushed by a chunk of ice the size of a house.

In his account of the tragedy, my father wrote something I never heard him say during his life. Nor have I heard anyone else around me express the same feeling. He needed to decide between staying at Base Camp and continuing his climb, through the icefall, to Advanced Base Camp. Expedition decisions often had to be made as a group, but this one was my dad’s alone. He was in control of the scope of his study, and could adjust for safety concerns in ways that the summiteers would never have considered.

Here’s what I read in his account: “I had to decide whether going through that icefall was a risk I wanted to take. (It took me a week to decide, but I never wished I didn’t have to make the decision.)”

I looked up from his words, and thought about all the times I’ve complained and made myself sick over some defining decision or other. I couldn’t recall ever having had the sense of gratitude that my father did when he had such an important decision before him.

After that week of indecision, Dad climbed through the Khumbu icefall, and proceeded to spend a month at Advanced Base Camp, studying the climbers as they wrangled with their own fateful decisions and welcoming them back from their successful summit attempts.

“I never wished I didn’t have to make the decision.” It’s funny that he put such a powerful statement in parentheses. I’m taking it out now. I’m passing it on.