The Story Inside You.

Or How I Came to Be a Writer Even Though I Didn’t Want to.
notquite

Not quite a writer, at the grave of James Joyce.

Being a writer is a little like having a small stone in your shoe.  Perhaps it is inconvenient to stop, sit down and take off your shoe, but you must. Off it comes, a hand seeks the tiny kernel that nags each step. Sometimes you have to shake it out.

Do people choose to be writers?  I didn’t. In fact, I tried everything I could think of to not be a writer. In my high school yearbook it says I want to be a film director. I started out with broadcast journalism. I have a degree in performance. I’ve worked in museums, bookstores, libraries, newspapers . . . uh-oh, I see a theme.

It is my blessing and my curse.

Both of my parents were writers.  My father spent much of his life trying to pound out a biography on the somewhat obscure poet, John Berryman. The sabbatical year Dad took to work on the book, Berryman leapt off a bridge and died on the ice below. It would have been the opportune time (as much as any) to have a Berryman biography published, but he never did close the deal.  Years later, clearing out my father’s office, I found filing cabinet drawers full of research on Berryman. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote on a notepad– cancer having robbed him of speech– “Pitch it.”  I did not.

I carry it around in boxes, instead, a cautionary tale as heavy and solid  as a bowling ball. Many bowling balls.

My mother’s writing time was sacred. One morning, my sixteenth summer, I had a bad fall from a horse. As I regained consciousness in the cool netherworld of the ICU, I saw her sitting there. My first cogent thought was to feel guilty that I had interrupted the writing time.

I had seen from the cradle what a writer’s life was like and it looked like lots of work for little glamour and I wanted no part of it.

The problem was that I kept falling into writing, the way one might stumble into a ravine. I was supposed to be studying radio and television at the University of Florida but I when I went to register for Freshman English I signed up for a senior level creative writing class with Harry Crews instead.  No one said I couldn’t.

Harry derided me when I said I didn’t really care for a story by Kafka. But then he discovered that I was the 17-year-old daughter of one of his former colleagues (“Well, how the hell is he? We were the dearest of friends!”) and after that he treated me with considerable kindness. Like you might treat a kitten. A kitten that had a little talent for writing. I miss Harry.

It was no surprise to anyone that I didn’t last in my chosen major.  I did get to do a stint at the Independent Florida Alligator before I left. It might have been the only “student” newspaper in the country that was a mid-market daily: becoming a journalist by the seat of one’s pants.   I wrote on the side, because writing was like breathing. Just something I did. Short stories. Record reviews. Interviewed bands every weekend. Met the Rolling Stones.  I couldn’t decide what I wanted to Be. Or do. I thought about learning to play bass, be in an all-girl band.

Instead, I wrote my way into Art School in Boston and wrote throughout Art school and somehow ended up with a degree in Performance Art.  Other students asked if I realized how “text heavy” my installations were. Audiences were often speechless when the performance ended. I don’t know what that meant.

After college, I got a job as a buyer for children’s books, no writing involved. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to Be. At home, when it was quiet, I counted syllables and built poems. I read The New Yorker. I started sending them poems, which they politely declined each and every time. That was okay, I didn’t want to be a poet anyway. Did I?

FaulknerquoteMy mother suggested a writer’s conference with the poet Howard Nemerov. It was in her town, could I get the time off?  Well, I probably could, but The Poet was going to choose his students on the merit of their work, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, I said. I probably wouldn’t get in. I did get in, one of seven.

I confessed to Howard one afternoon that I didn’t think I would ever be a “real” writer.

“Too late for that, my dear,” he said lugubriously. “You’re about as real as they come.”

Well, perhaps I could be a poet then. Perhaps I was a poet. I read books of poetry and went to readings and kept sending thick brown envelopes to The New Yorker and getting thin blue ones in return. They didn’t care that the U.S. Poet Laureate thought I was already a “real” writer or not.

And then it happened.

It was as if I’d walked along the beach. I was quite certain that I didn’t want to get in the water. Well, okay, I might wade along the shore a little bit, picking up the odd shell or bit of driftwood. The water is refreshing, so perhaps I’ll venture out a little further. Now I am in it up to my waist. It is starting to carry me a little. I can splash around a bit, it’s almost like swimming. Eventually I choose to slip beneath the surface, and swim. Like Eliot’s mermaids, riding seaward on the waves.

I never did decide to Be a Writer. But when the story is in you, it must come out. Over the course of a thousand poems pecked out on an old Royal typewriter; and books started and never finished and literally millions of words lined up one after the other and forced to march along in some kind of cohesive fashion, it happened. I found my voice finally. Not a poet. Not a novelist. I write non-fiction. I am lucky that sometimes people even pay me to do so.

Essays. Profiles. News stories. Posts. Some come easily, practically writing themselves. Others, like this beast, hang around my neck for days at a time. You never know when you start which will be the problem children. Some stories compel me, haunt me, demand to be written. Often these are stories about crime, and this is a large part of what I have written about for the last twenty years. Hobbled by the limitations of deadline and column inches, conventional newspaper accounts often leave most of the story untold. The tenets  What-Who-How-When and Where are usually all the reader gets, and even then “Who” is little more than a name, age and gender.

No one even attempts “Why”.

Writing about crime has meant sticking my neck out. Way out. It’s one thing to write poetry in a quiet room, pulling the rhythm from your own drummer. Writing about crime leaves you vulnerable– not just to the wrath of the criminal (which is not insignificant) — but to an insidious malaise. When most waking hours are spent poring over the minutiae of a terrible event, of creating a portrait of the victim, of examining the unanswerable “why”, in time it feels like your very soul is being sucked right out of you. When you hold the mother of murder victim in your arms while she sobs, there is a price for that. After awhile, I couldn’t do it anymore. Oh, I still make notes. I still follow threads and even draft outlines. But I think that chapter might be done.

That only leaves everything else to write about, thousands of stories left to tell.

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Counting in the Rain

Monday is the day to take count. So how could I let it pass without remembering Jerry Nelson, the voice and puppeteer of Sesame Street’s Count von Count, who taught so many of our children to count? Nelson died Thursday at his home in Cape Cod, after a lengthy struggle with emphysema. He was “the Count” on Sesame Street for forty years, along with voicing Mr. Snuffleupagus, Dr. Julius Strangepork (from Pigs in Space) the boomerang-tossing “Lew Zealand” and Kermit’s nephew, Robin. Sadly, his passing got little notice, and was completely eclipsed on Saturday by the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

I hope that Sesame Street will retire the Count, and not just try to replace Jerry Nelson with a sound-alike.  There are other characters who can count, but there will always be only one true Count von Count. The video is a clip of the Count as a tyrannical director eliciting a fabulous performance from Liam Neeson, “Counting to Twenty.”  Godspeed, Mr. Nelson, and thanks for all the great numbers.

Target today 72 Steps 2737

Breakfast: yogurt with granola. Lunch: two hard-boiled eggs, one serving of “Bugles” Dinner: hot and sour soup, 4 sardines, one Chinese meatball, quarter cup Napa cabbage, half a cup of lo mein, fortune cookie. 

– This Week –

Number of pounds to lose this week: 1

Number of pounds lost this week: 3

Cumulative number to have lost by this point: 26

Actual cumulative number lost: 28

Number of steps to have walked: 30,000

Actual number of steps walked: 29,184

Cumulative number to have walked: 500,000

Cumulative number walked: 638,658 (241 miles!)

Win Fabulous Prizes!

Nearly 25 years ago, I was in this very same predicament. Well, except that I was half my age, and I lived alone, so I could eat or not eat as I saw fit. Every day I weighed and every day I walked to the train and took the train to work and walked from the station to my job.

In the fall of 1988, I went to Europe, where I was very sad, and I walked all over. I wasn’t hiking or doing anything energetic like that, just meandering along cobbled streets for hours at a time. The silver lining to being sad in Europe is that I had no appetite and came back to the states 20 pounds lighter.

Along that journey, I rewarded myself with little treats for every ten pounds I lost. I remember three of them: fire-engine red lipstick at ten pounds. A trip to LL Bean to buy a Panama hat at thirty pounds, and a Trek Mountain bike at a hundred pounds.

I’d made a schedule of fabulous prizes for this one too, although it sits forlornly in my notebook like a too-long Christmas wish list detailed from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Still, let’s be optimistic, shall we?  I thought if maybe I spent some time thinking about these fantastic rewards, I might feel renewed in my eagerness to acquire them.

Prizes one and two already sit in my closet, with eight left to go. After this morning’s weigh in, Fabulous Prize number three (my beautiful IKEA full-length mirror) is just six pounds away. Just. Six. Pounds. How hard can that be? It’s been decades since I had a full-length mirror in my house; I dare say that may have something to do with how I got this way.

Prize four at Forty Pounds is a new leather show lead for dog shows. Five is a decent pair of sunglasses. Maybe Ray-bans; not Wayfarers, possibly Vagabonds.  I bought my husband a pair of Bolles one year for his birthday, and you know they are different from the ten-dollar drugstore variety.

To mark the more than halfway point, I’d like my friend Jill Wright to make me a necklace.  We were going to do this for my 50th birthday, but that horse has long left the barn, so why not celebrate being more than halfway to the goal with some fantastic creation to hang around my neck? This is a bracelet she did, but imagine a whole necklace of that. 

When I’ve lost seventy pounds, I’m going to take a flying lesson. This is one of the things that made me embark on this quest to begin with. If you get on a very small plane they weigh you. If you weigh too much you can’t go. Maybe I’ll be terrified, and kiss the ground when it’s over. Maybe I’ll be exhilarated and want to do it again. I have no idea, and that’s part of the attraction.

With eighty pounds shed, I’ll feel like climbing on the back of a horse again. It’s not that I can’t ride horses at my current size, it’s just that I’d feel so terribly self-conscious about it. My husband is just relieved that I don’t want to actually buy another horse– really an afternoon or two meandering down a bridle path would be fine. It would be lovely to revisit that part of my life, if just for an hour or two.

Prize number 9 is a pair of long boots. Winter after winter I’ve been slogging around in ankle boots. Or duck boots. Or rubber clogs. Though they make boots with extra wide calves, I don’t want to go there. When my calves are small enough again that I’m no longer tempted to call them cows, I’ll go shopping. I’m already quite fond of these.

The grand prize, the quarter century marker for having lost another hundred pounds? I’d like a little sail boat. A Beetle cat like this one would be perfect, but unless I win the lottery while losing weight, that’s probably out of my reach. But regular perusals of the Cleveland area Craigslist show many little sailboats to be had for about the same as a new bicycle. It doesn’t have to be fast– just easy to bring to lakes, easy to launch, easy to spend a day in far from the madding crowd. And far from the refrigerator.

 

Today’s target 76. Steps 6561. 

Breakfast: hard-boiled egg, yogurt with blueberries and granola Lunch: six wheat thins, each with a small square of brie (maybe an ounce total) half a cup of frozen yogurt. Iced coffee and a maple donut while out with my husband. Dinner was a cup of beef stroganoff, two cups of watermelon. 

More hoofing around the WSU campus, plus a stroll along the Stillwater river. 

 

The Ringmaster

It’s been a week since I cranked this three-ring-circus up again. It’s been a mixed week. I don’t know that I’ve hit the goals that I set, because this is really the first chance I’ve had to sit down and look at them. I’ve almost been able to get the exercise I need.

I have nibbled wantonly, mostly  because there’s more junk in the house than usual and my husband and son aren’t doing their part to get it eaten. If it’s not gone by midweek, I’m just going to chuck it. I’d do it now, but waste is a big anathema around here.  Still, they’ve been warned.

Still I feel essentially like I am more or less in control. Occasionally the elephant steps out of line, the dogs are rambunctious, the clowns don’t cooperate and of course you can depend on the diva for at least one hissy fit every few days. Some nights the ringmaster is too tired to even weep. But still, it’s up and running, my life.

We’ll see where we are again next week.

Today

Target: 75  Steps 5735

Breakfast: hard-boiled egg, 5 m & ms, Lunch: Cobb salad, chocolate chip cookie, Dinner: 2 cups salted watermelon, two hard-boiled eggs, yogurt with granola, smore and later, two Oreos. 

Vigorous 1.5 mile over Huffman prairie. 

– This Week –

Number of pounds to lose this week: 1

Number of pounds lost this week: 1

Cumulative number to have lost by this point: 26

Actual cumulative number lost: 26

Number of steps to have walked: 30,000

Actual number of steps walked: 32,845*

Cumulative number to have walked: 500,000

Cumulative number walked: 609,474 (230 miles!)

*okay, I had an extra day this week, sue me. 🙂
bike ride, hike with run, 40 minutes apple picking, heavy-duty cleaning,
exercise associated with entertaining, energetic walk

The Reinvented Wheel

There’s some truth to the adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. I can re-work how I’m going to approach diet and exercise, but there are limitations as to how many ways I can reinvent it.  For instance the following are off the table: liposuction, Nutrisystem, gastric bypass, Jenny Craig, fad diets– and on the exercise half of the balance, it’s unlikely that I’ll be getting fit through running marathons, climbing mountain faces or sumo wrestling, though you never know. Especially the Sumo wrestling.

But I did tweak this plan a little, because I had run myself into a big deep rut. I’m eating more or less the same. I didn’t eat the vegetables I hoped to get today, but there’s always tomorrow. I went to late lunch-early dinner with a friend, and sometimes that precludes eating just as one should. I am going to try mightily to broaden the variety of what I’m eating, and hope to cook more. A reader suggested Thai recipes and that’s a great idea. At the time I was too disheveled and disheartened to think about “recipes”, I just wanted something I could land my hand on in the fridge.

That ennui has lifted, like fog rolling off the shore, and I am going to make an effort to prepare at least seven meals a week at home. That will also give me something else to write about. (By “meal” I don’t mean a dollop of Brown Cow yogurt with a sprinkling of granola. A meal is made up of several dishes and generally served to the whole family. I hope someone else will clean the kitchen.)

While I will continue to wear the pedometer, I am giving up my relentless pursuit of 5000 steps a day. That really got to be a grind. I do want to average 30,000 steps a week; and will try to achieve that in a variety of ways– hiking, shopping, dancing, bowling, showing dogs, and even a little running. In addition to that I am adding four exercise sessions a week. I had hoped that today was going to be one of them, and was looking forward to my inaugural visit to the Y.

Alas, I spent the morning on the telephone with a variety of bureaucrats– harumph– and will have to go Tuesday morning instead. So– four days need to see me get my ass in gear: on the tennis court, in the pool, on the treadmill, on the bike path, on the back of a horse, in the racquetball court, in the bowling alley, in a fitness class. It doesn’t really matter which one, at least to start with, I just have to get moving.

I did get some housecleaning in today and I also washed Rowan, our Irish Red and White Setter– so I probably burned a few extra calories there. I’ll be noting in each day’s report what kind of active things I did and whether or not they qualify as truly exercise. Don’t chide me too much for my sloth, these habits were years in the making.

I have scaled forward the target weight loss number by another twenty pounds, so that in the end I will be a hundred pounds lighter. Also, it makes it easier to figure percentages– like, I’m nearly 25 percent to my goal! A quarter of the way! So the number is bigger, but that’s okay, it won’t be for long. I’ve reset all the cumulative numbers back to zero, because it was too difficult to figure it all out with the time off. I may need to take more time off down the road, I’ll cross that bridge if and when I arrive there.

Finally, the most important thing. I ran across this in someone else’s blog, I don’t even really remember how I got there, and what she wrote was only marginally applicable to my life, but her theme struck me to the core:

Lose weight by satisfying your true hunger.

I’ve done fairly well at giving up eating while mad, or sad or bored or annoyed or frustrated, though all of those have been at play in the past.   But here’s the question, still. What does satisfy my true hunger? Because it was that hunger, not fed or even met, that was gnawing away at my sense of contentedness. I was following the rules, but I wasn’t seeing progress and I wasn’t happy. Some mornings I would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.

A few months ago I started a book. It’s an American story, not fiction, and there is an enormous amount of research that needs to be turned over and looked at with a fresh eye. I got off to a great start, and then little things here and there started to intervene. I was supposed to go to Washington for a research trip to the Library of Congress in May. That got put off. Days went by, then weeks, then a month. Another month. This story needs to be told and I am the one that needs to tell it. As soon as I returned to the research, a great weight lifted from me. I felt infused with joy. I am feeding the real hunger inside me, and with a little help, the rest will take care of itself.

Target number 76, steps 3403.

Consumed: cup of  yogurt with quarter cup granola. Bowl of lobster bisque, and three slices of foccaccia. Two  small slices of wood-fired pizza. And again, a cup of yogurt with a quarter cup of granola. 

Tidied the dining room and kitchen. Washed large dog. Wandered around in fireworks warehouse. 

Rising of the Moon

“New Moon” by Albert Aublet, c. 1890

 

It’s been awhile.

Five days since I posted. Longer than that since I tracked anything– food, exercise, mere steps. I was so bored with myself I could hardly stand it. The amazing thing is that readers went on reading these little posts even when I stopped writing. Someone, somewhere on the other side of the world would click that they liked a post, or a friend would write that they missed hearing my voice.

It wasn’t that I’d gone without a break. I’d taken breaks here and there; though I kept walking, kept counting and measuring and judging. Most of the time, I even kept writing. So, five months in, I really did have to lay it down for a little while. It wasn’t just my intellectual interest that had been ground to dust, my body was also tired.

I’ve used the time away to think about how I’d like to see this project change. I’ve decided that I’d like to lose a hundred pounds rather than the mere 80 I’d set in my original sights. So the target number is going to start off higher again. I just couldn’t imagine getting to the end of this and then tacking on an additional twenty pound goal. I am restarting the cumulative clock. It’s too difficult to figure out from this point, so those will be zeroed out.  It was enough to know I’d walked more than two hundred miles. Tomorrow I will weigh again, measure and reset the pedometer. I’m also going to the Y in the morning, my inaugural trip. Monday will be the first day.

Since Monday’s post is about the reinvention of the wheel, I am not going to say too much more about the new program tonight. I don’t expect that any journey is without bumps in the road. This one reminds me of losing the air-conditioner compressor in the Saab in Iowa City, Iowa on my way from Montana to Ohio. I slowed to a stop, and had to reconfigure how the rest of the journey was going to unfold.  One thing for sure is that, now like then, I have to figure out a better use of my time. On that trip, I had to cut out some slack time– now that’s the story of my life. The problem is that, like many, I’m deeply fond of killing time. Even when I know that the end of my life will come too soon.

Thanks for hanging around. More tomorrow.

This is Not Goodbye.

 

This is not goodbye. I’m not quitting. It’s not even “I’ll be back in a little while.” It’s more like “Excuse me for a minute while I go to take a pee.”

Yesterday’s post– about it being time for recess– was met with questions, assumptions, howls of protest, and many queries, public and private. Hey, kids, you made me feel all warm and fuzzy, thank you.

I am not quitting.

In fact, yesterday’s post was to assuage concerns that my lackadaisical approach did not mean that I was going to quietly drop off the face of the blogosphere. I realize I have not  been as focused on the diet and exercise facets, and I know that I have written that I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to continue this.

But honey, if you want to be, you’re definitely along for the ride.

Here are a few examples of the conundrums that stare at me like a flock of blinking sheep under the bed. I set out to lose 80 pounds. I’ve lost 25. But really, I think I’d rather lose 100 pounds. If we all go through this together and arrive at 80 pounds, will I want to start over for twenty more?

What if it takes longer than Twelve Moons– a year? Does that matter? Should I change the blog’s name then to Twelve More Moons? Can I make the writing more interesting? Can I make the exercise more interesting? I’m sick of the whole step thing, I tell you. When people tell me, oh so blase, that they walk an average of 10,000 steps a day it sets my BS alarm off. 10,000 steps a day is a lot.

If you have a job where you sit in a chair most of the day– unless you are going to incredible efforts outside of work, you’re not logging five miles a day. You’re just not. (Nurses, teachers, some retail folks, people in agriculture, letter carriers– yeah, I can see that you are walking that many and more– but even when that’s the case, so many of you are still so plump– so what gives?) Sex burns more calories than walking 10,000 steps and it’s more efficient but that only really works if you and your partner are awake at the same time.

There is still all that other stuff: the Y, cycling, the pool, showing dogs, etc. And I will get to that, but along the way, I am going to have to do a more reasonable job with time management. There’s an ad on television lately with supposed Olympic athletes saying things like “I haven’t watched TV since last summer” and “That great book everyone’s talking about? I haven’t read it.”  “A day off? I don’t remember the last time I took a morning off.” Maybe I need to take a leaf from that.

I need to tell the story I need to tell. I need to improve my health and fitness. I need to take better care of my responsibilities to my household: husband, son, dogs, the house itself. That horribly long to-do list from last week is not much shorter, but I have lined through a few things.

So, I’m not going anywhere. There may not be one of these every day, but there will be a post more days than not. Until I figure out exactly how I’m going to re-shape the program to capture my interest again, I won’t be reporting on the target numbers, steps taken, or what I’ve had to eat. Not because I’m cheating– the changes I’ve made in those areas have stuck– I eat better, I feel better, I am more fit– those are lifestyle changes and I feel good about them. I’m not reporting those things because until I figure out the path to meet the goal, there is nothing to report.

See you tomorrow.