Patience: Two Recent Anecdotes

1.

Following a joyful and transformative experience at SUUSI this year, I felt the need to integrate a meditative practice into my lifestyle.

Well, that, and I ate and drank way too much.

Mindful eating is something I’ve never practiced in any seriousness. I’ve always eaten voraciously, practically (and occasionally) inhaling my food. While I’m a snob when it comes to coffee, sushi, and craft soda, most of the time I haven’t cared much about the quality of my food. I’m also an unrepentant grazer.

Sunday morning following SUUSI, holed up in a motel room, I sat down with the worst plate of breakfast buffet food ever. My practice is as follows: I leave my phone locked, turn off the TV (music is fine), and sit. I take one-inch-cubed bites, smelling the food before it enters my mouth. I set my fork down. Then, I count each chew: 1 (chew), 2 (chew), 3 (chew)…

Have you ever tasted something as awful as clammy instant eggs? Mindful eating made the experience so much worse. Some foods turned really, really awful, like some fried mushrooms from Zaxbys.

But the good food tasted better. Chipotle, despite their recent issues with foodborne illness, is still a favorite of mine, and their food benefits from mindful eating. Bland food can taste better, too, given enough time. Best of all, I feel full having eaten less than I would have were I not paying attention.

I do this with soda and other beverages, too. Like some poor man’s sommelier, I smell, sip, swish four times, and swallow. (Coffee tastes amazing like this; other drinks, not quite as much.) The only thing I gulp now is water, but dehydration is more a threat than starvation for me.

I’m not in this for weight loss, although I wouldn’t mind eating less. And the past few days have been hardest, with a congested nose muting my taste sensations. But it’s been interesting to see how food actually tastes.

2.

If mindful eating is the deliberate practice of patience, then my most recent injury has taught me patience or else.

Sometime in the last two weeks (either from a weekend spent in Orlando or that week in Cullowhee, NC hiking, dancing, and walking up one steep hill three times a day), I developed a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my right big toe. I thought I had sprained it until it swelled up like a plum last Friday. I limped into the nearest clinic. The doctor initially diagnosed me with gout, after hearing about the bender I had, but upon seeing the x-ray images he quickly changed his mind. He put me on an anti-inflammatory medication, told me to keep my toe straight, and forbid me from walking or running until it healed.

I currently spend my evenings on the couch, my right foot elevated with a bunch of couch cushions, either reading or watching TV. When I go out, I wrap my toe in an ace bandage (buddy wrapping, I discovered, doesn’t work as well for big toe fractures), wearing my running shoes since they’re the only shoes I own that are sized correctly.

I had planned on running a half-marathon in November, but now I’m laid out for all of August. There’s a two-month window in September and October where I could train, barely enough time, but my training’s slipped this summer (Florida’s not so great a state for running these days). And now I’m wondering what, exactly, caused the stress fracture. If it was just a badly-sized shoe or inadequate support, I could make sure my footwear is more adequate. If it’s my running stride, or something in my physiology that makes me more prone to stress fractures in my feet, that’s not something I can correct for.

For now, I’m reduced to just enough walking for work and social activities until I heal, which should be by September. I intend on using the stationary bike in my exercise room, as long as it doesn’t aggravate my toe, to build my endurance. I’ll try some strength training, too. But a pleasure stroll? Ambling through Ikea? Not the best idea right now.

What I’ve Believed: A Personal Religious History

2016, besides being the most turbulent year in memory, has heralded a return to my roots. I’ve thought a lot about deep-seated issues: the reasons for what I write and why; my current profession as a web developer; whether my character is as good as I think it is. 2015 was about deconstructing my life to its essentials; 2016 is about starting to rebuild.

For various reasons, I’ve thought a lot about my interior spiritual life. A requirement of membership at my UU church is a description of your childhood beliefs, and I thought it time to try this exercise again.
Continue reading What I’ve Believed: A Personal Religious History

Why I Won’t Vote Green

A few months back, I vowed not to discuss the primary or general presidential election on Facebook. It had a lot to do with the divisive Democratic primary process, with my Hillary friends and my Bernie buds at loggerheads, and an unwillingness to sling any more mud after some testy exchanges. During one exchange, a friend who supported Bernie Sanders said that if Hillary Clinton got the nomination, he would instead vote for Dr. Jill Stein, the presidential candidate for the Green party.

Solely by political orientation, I should be a Green party supporter. I lean far left; I support taking action on climate change; I’m worried about the rate of species extinction; my college major was Environmental Studies.

But no. I will not be voting Green this November.
Continue reading Why I Won’t Vote Green

Writing Shouldn’t Hurt

I turned 31 this year. Given a family history of heart disease, as well as a recent hospitalization in January, my life expectancy is probably less than 78.8 years, which is the most recent estimate for American adults. That gives me 47 more years, at most. Not quite middle age, but well past 1/3.

I’ve been writing “seriously,” by which I mean writing for market, since 2006. That’s 10 years. In that time, I’ve written and submitted 12 short works (short stories, novelettes, etc.) and 5 novels. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I also wrote half as many unfinished shorts and just as many unfinished novels.

For every work I’ve submitted anywhere since c. 2006 that I have records of, including publishers, agents, and short story markets, I’ve received (170 agents + 26 publishers + 82 markets =) 278 rejections. That’s not including the stuff I wrote in high school and college, since that doesn’t really count. That’s an average of 2-3 rejections a month. But that’s never how it happens: rejections come in packs, sometimes many at once when you’re querying agents. (I’ve sometimes queried 10 a day, which is the max I can do while researching represented works, manuscript wishlists, etc., and tailoring each submission to match.) Waking up one morning to a dozen rejections in your inbox is disheartening.

The business of writing is managed rejection. Agencies and markets demand attention to the smallest details in their submission guidelines (which I follow fastidiously), but the odds are so low that quantity almost matters more than quality. I may spend an hour wrangling my sample chapters into whatever format an agent prefers, then grooming my query letter so it fits the agent’s expectations. But the odds are near certain that it’ll be rejected, and most likely form-rejected.

I think the myth of the sterling novel, pulled from the mountain of slush submissions at some publisher to transcend to blockbuster status, needs to die. It’s as obsolete as the journalist, cigarette dangling from their mouth, hammering at a typewriter to meet deadline. Books are sold through networking nowadays, not slush.

Is there another industry that’s this hard to break into? Filmmaking, perhaps. If I were selling cars instead of books and short stories, I’d be an awful car salesperson. If I were a realtor, I may not be the worst, but I wouldn’t get any clients.

Writing a novel (including conception, composition, soliciting critique, revision, etc.) is one job, and selling a novel (querying, querying, querying) is totally different. But the latter begins to shape the former, and you begin writing high-concept, three-act books that are little different than blockbuster films.

Aren’t novels supposed to be novel?

Once, a well-respected author critiqued a short story of mine. “It’s like a French film,” he said, because “nothing happens.” I took it hard, and appreciated the time he spent breaking down the story’s flaws. It should be more like The Avengers, he suggested, with a strong story structure (not because it needed superheroes). He had a point: the story didn’t sell as it was. But it was my story, dammit, and I didn’t want it strung out like a tent across two act breaks. Another writer suggested I lay the story on top of a romance plot, but after reshaping the story to fit it no longer felt like mine.

Well, I wrote stories with three-act structures, and strong hooks, and high-concept themes, and they didn’t sell, either. I rewrote a novel to better conform to story beats, and it hasn’t sold anywhere.

At some point, writing fiction on spec felt like a job. I felt like I was behind on every publishing trend, on the things you’re not supposed to do in a query, on whatever convention I couldn’t attend because I switched jobs and needed to save money. That hanging out with friends one night instead of polishing that chapter was setting me back, that now I’d never get published because I wasn’t 100% committed.

Selling your writing is a job that doesn’t pay. And I already have a 9-5 job. It’s sucked the joy out of writing: I dread pushing myself through a chapter, knowing I’ll have to revise the shitty writing later, knowing I’m a bit closer to the avalanche of form rejections when I attempt to find a home for it. I can’t do NaNoWriMo like I used to, because I know the filler words I’m writing to make quota will just be deleted a month later, and I’ll be left with an emaciated skeleton of a story. It hurts.

Writing wasn’t supposed to hurt.

I hate this industry: so many of us want to be published authors, but there are so few markets to go around. (Yet there are plenty of scams!) I’m sick of how self-flagellating we are, how “writing is hard!” is our mantra, how “You Should Be Writing” is on every meme like propaganda posters from 1984. The Calvinist work ethic has stained our creative impulse. For those on the midlist, sure, writing is a job. However, for those of us who haven’t even signed our first contract, it’s an unpaid internship.

So I have 47 years left. I don’t want to spend them waiting for the next form rejection, writing the next YA sure-to-be-a-hit that won’t ever see the light of day. I want writing to be enjoyable again. If not fun, then satisfying, like a run through a park. Not like a death march.

“You Must Choose…” Thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

last crusade posterI have a very complicated relationship with my biological father. My parents divorced early in my life, and I rarely saw my father growing up. We lost touch for nearly a decade, until we reconnected a few years ago after finding each other on Facebook. Personal reasons kept him out of my life (which I won’t discuss here), but meeting him again after I had become an adult was bittersweet.

I have only seen two Indiana Jones movies in theaters, and it’s the one without the monkeys and flesh-eating ants. It is also, and I write this with some trepidation for the comments that could follow, my favorite of the entire franchise. Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark is perfection on celluoid, but Last Crusade is meaningful for two personal reasons. My relationship to my father was one. (I’ll get to the second reason below.)

Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. was a distant father from Henry Jr., too distracted with a personal quest for the holy grail to notice his son had stolen the Cross of Coronado from a band of grave robbers. Henry Jr., nicknamed Indiana, became as opposite to the bookish, homebound Henry Jones Sr. as he could become, reuniting only years later when the Nazis abduct the older Jones in an effort to find the grail.

My father is a painter and graphic artist, a man with such a bohemian spirit he lived on a boat for years at sea. If my father is Indiana Jones, I’m Dr. Henry Jones: domestic, studied, obsessive. I was taught that I shouldn’t be like my father, and I tried very hard not to be growing up.

Eventually, our similarities were too hard to ignore. Like both Dr. Joneses, our underlying natures are the same: we’re both creative types, though expressed in very different ways.

I watched Last Crusade again about a week ago, as I’m on an Arthurian legend kick. Of the original films, it’s the least problematic in terms of racial depictions (and don’t get me started on Temple of Doom, which I enjoy less than the underrated Crystal Skull), as much of it takes place in Europe. It’s also full of delightful action sequences, such as Indy jousting with a Nazi soldier on a motorbike, using a flag pole as a lance. The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is note-perfect, utterly believable in their bickering, their similar intelligence, and their charisma.

It works so well that when Henry Jones, Sr. is shot in the third act, you feel it as much as he does.

And here’s the other reason why I love this movie: this is an amazing depiction of faith.

The grail quest is a part of the Fisher King myth: a chalice (or bowl, or plate) that must be found to heal a dying king, whose fate is shared with the kingdom. Eventually it got tied up with Christian mythology, as the grail was later depicted as the cup Joseph of Arimathea used to catch the blood of Christ as he was crucified.

Indiana Jones, outnumbered by the Nazis pursuing the grail, force him to obtain it to save his father. He takes on the role of Sir Galahad, undertaking certain challenges that test his faith in order to obtain his prize. The first two are trivial: he dodges some spinning blades and walks across a crumbling floor, using his father’s diary as a guide (which is where Henry Jones’s bookishness came in handy!)

But the next challenge is a literal leap of faith: he has to step across a vast chasm, with no bridge or rope to guide him. He has no other choice, because if he refuses to make the leap, his father will die.

Resigned, too afraid to even look, he takes a step … and finds footing on an invisible bridge. (The movie depicts this as some forced perspective painted over a slab, which is unconvincing from almost every angle.)

What inspired this post was a video on Crash Course (hosted by the inimitable Hank Green) about Pascal’s Wager. He describes Indy’s trials to get the grail as a perfect demonstration of philosophical Pragmatism: choosing to believe because it’s the expedient thing to do, until that belief becomes inborn. I’d argue that the grail trials are representative only if you ignore the last test, the one after the leap of faith: choosing the cup.

After the leap of faith, Indiana Jones meets the last caretaker of the grail, a centuries-old knight (who speak English!) who guards a room full of false grails, with the true grail hidden among them. Drinking from a false grail would lead to his death, but drinking from the true grail would give him everlasting life and be able to save his father from his gunshot wound. Indy chooses the right grail (after the villain Sullivan picks the wrong one and ages centuries in the span of seconds). He picks a cup that, with his extensive education in archeology, looks like something a man of Jesus’s talents and time period could have crafted.

I love this scene for several reasons. First, it shows that a leap of faith isn’t the culmination of faith, but only the beginning of a period of sound judgment and rational thought. (Indy didn’t pick one out at random and hope for the best!) Second, Indy becomes more like his father in that moment, ditching his impulsiveness for a moment of insight. Third, to make sure that it’s the right grail, Indy has to drink from it. If he had picked the wrong one, he’d be dead, and his father soon after. He trusted his own judgment, but was willing to risk his own life before risking his father’s.

Indiana Jones loses the grail, on par with every other grail retelling. When they try to take it out of temple where it was held, the floor collapses, and he nearly falls to his death trying to get the grail out. (His love interest does just that moments before, unable to let the grail go.) In the end, it isn’t the grail that matters, but what it’s done for those who matter to him.

It’s an insightful 30’s-era retelling of the grail legend, a great father-and-son story, and a way better film than Temple of Doom. This is my Indiana Jones.

Frozen Head

Here’s a scene I wrote tonight for Altars and Acolytes (or whatever the title ends up being). It seems as though I may finally have this draft done by the end of May, after over a year of disassembly and revision. I haven’t edited this scene apart from a couple of misspellings, and I don’t know how well it works out of context. Anyway, enjoy!
Continue reading Frozen Head

Ouroboros of Inadequacy

(Inspired by this exchange.)

The mountain would not come to me,
    So I went to the mountain.
I slogged upstream, wading through the creek.
On the trail, the ground gave way beneath my soles, and I slid.
Climbing up the face, my sweaty palms grasped against handholds without gripping.
But at the top
   The summit fled.

Regret

What is regret? The side-effect of opportunity cost.

It was three years ago that I decided to go on vacation in Japan. I had the money, the time off, and a lifelong inclination to do so. I still think about that trip when I catch a photo of some combini on Reddit or a PR event with a mascot in the press.

As it so happened, my Studio Ghibli-inspired Pandora playlist had a track called “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” on it. It was a remix on a compilation album called, appropriately, Big in Japan. I think I heard that song dozens of times leading up to, and well after, my stay overseas.

(I later discovered that it’s, in fact, the title theme to a 1983 movie starring David Bowie and Beat Takeshi. The movie’s great, but tragic, and different from what the title song would suggest.)

I wanted desperately to go back, so much so that I applied for a position teaching English there. Twice, in fact: once for JET, then for Interac six months later. And … I decided not to go.


Regret is the side-effect of opportunity cost. You can go to a party with your friends on Saturday night, or spend it at a play instead. You regret the choice you didn’t take, no matter how good the choice you made ultimately was.

I think regret is healthy. I think about those choices I made that I didn’t regret, and I wonder how much of a choice I really had.


How’s this for a choice? Abandoning a middling career in web development to go to pursue game programming at a graduate program.

Last year, I was accepted into UCF FIEA, a competitive program in game design. I would pursue an 18-month course for a Master’s degree, an internship to be lined up with a major game publisher (most likely a conglomerate with a two-letter acronym). I would also be in some student debt, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Two things happened. First, I read more about the working conditions of those in the industry (read “EA Spouse” for the most harrowing account), and I balked at not having time for those hobbies that keep me sane.

Second, I was harrassed by a coworker for even having the nerve to leave my last employer to pursue higher education. This person put a lot of pressure on me to switch to a closer college that he happened to work at.

Ultimately, the choice was made for me. I had a nervous breakdown and had to leave work. Without that income, I couldn’t go to school (and I had already turned down FIEA). This was also the time I applied to Interac and subsequently backed out. Things were so bad I had to live with my parents for a few months while I got my life in order.

Things worked out. I found a new job back in web development, in an office that won’t give me anxiety attacks. That middling career has turned out to be not-so-middling anymore, and I no longer fear having to leave it just to support myself.

But do I regret turning down FIEA? Sure. My life would be very different. On the other hand, my health wouldn’t have been any better.


Last month I spent a few days in the hospital, after having some chest pain. I suffered through a coronary vasospasm, a constriction of the arterial walls (think of it like a heart migraine, a cardiologist told me). In fact, I had experienced one several months before, while I was moving out of my apartment and putting my entire life into storage. I thought it was a pulled muscle back then, but some internet research confirmed that I was having angina and needed immediate treatment.

After several thousand dollars of medical bills and some cheap medicine, I’m feeling much better. The risk factors for vasospasms are the same for coronary heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity. Years of lifestyle debt, one could argue.

Years ago, I was much healthier: fifty pounds lighter, able to run an 11-minute mile, and eating a mostly vegetarian diet. I let that go for a relationship, so my lifestyle would mesh better with someone who was so very, very wrong for me.

That regret stings the most.


Regret is an archeological excavation. On the surface you find relatively modern artifacts, bullet casings or spades or nails. You dig further down, discovering tools and shards of pottery from successively older eras. Eventually, from iron age to bronze to stone, you run out of artifacts because the technology simply couldn’t be preserved. You have childhood regrets that you can’t even remember because your brain was still developing.

However, my excavation is different. My regret has an impenetrable bedrock, and its name is Jimmy.

Jimmy was my childhood friend, the earliest neighbor I remember having. Together, we played Super Mario Bros. (both the video game and occasional dress-up), GI Joe, Hide-and-Go-Seek. Jimmy was my best friend at a time when I could still have one of those.

When I was five, his family moved a state away, without notice, and I lost touch.


“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is the sound of my regret. For missed opportunities: a career in game development, years spent teaching overseas. For bad choices. For time wasted. For friendships lost. It is the sound of opportunity cost as it settles on your shoulders, to be carried forever like a weight you will never shake off.