Sunday, July 29, 2007

Looking Back - Looking Forward

The first two posts I ever wrote for this little project - now more than 18 months and 300 posts ago, were about me. I know, in some respect almost all of them are, but I’m speaking more in definitive, descriptive terms. Vital statistics, as it were. At least that’s what my intention originally was, but I have a penchant for exploring tangents even if I still did not fully realize it. Upon re-reading those first two entries posted back in December 2005, I am happy to say that those inaugural pieces are still, to me at least, profound. Indeed, in retrospect and aided by the light of the passing of time, it is interesting to see how my goals have materialized and how they have evolved.

I began this journal of sorts as a diversion to keep my writing fresh during the five-week winter break at California State University, Sacramento. Only days after my 43rd birthday, I was still at the beginning of a new segment in my life’s journey. That segment will come to an end at the end of this year; I will have earned my BA degree in government-journalism at Sacramento State - magnum cum laude, thank you very much. Although it will be a semester later than originally planned, I am as proud of this achievement as I am surprised by it. I was apprehensive and more than a little scared going in, but I had enough confidence - just enough - that I would get through it. Obviously, I am not only getting through it, I am excelling.

I referred to myself in that first post as an “aspiring writer/journalist.” Today, I am no longer aspiring - I am a writer/journalist. I documented briefly some of the ups and downs of the roller coaster of my life. I wrote in a comment on another blog recently that I have not led a charmed life. In the context of what I was writing, that is true enough, but overall and taking into account where my path has led me today, I cannot say with a straight face “woe is me.” I don’t want to and I won’t discount the work it took to pull myself together, but I can’t discount the enormous help from those that have made it possible. There are so many variables that “figuring it all out” is impossible, however, doing it is not impossible and I am not the only one who has overcome adversity, tragedy, bad luck or trauma.

My first journalism professor at Sac State inspired my blog name, “Mr. Althouse.” It is one of his mannerisms, I guess, but to this day he still refers to me as Mr. Althouse. It was the first instance in a very long time that that salutation with my last name was used in a situation that did not involve a judge, or a doctor, or some other authority figure. I don’t know if it was his intent to instill a sense of self-respect among his students - perhaps, most are half my age and just “growing up,” but in a sense, so was I. At any rate, I no longer look over my shoulder when someone says, “Sir.”

I am currently enjoying a beautiful summer in Fair Oaks, Calif., a very nice suburb in the greater Sacramento area. My last semester starts in about six weeks and by year-end, I will have that diploma that has eluded me for so long. My goal was to begin my career working as a full-time journalist, making my way up the ladder to a major-market daily newspaper. That might still turn out to be the path I take, but so many other doors have opened along the way.

In September I will sit for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). I plan to take a preparatory course prior to it so that I will obtain the best possible score. That score, combined with a 3.8 + GPA at Sac State will be the factors that determine whether law school is in my future. If experience is anything, I must realize anything is possible. It is, again, terrifying. But I’ll do it and see what happens. I will never allow fear to paralyze me again. If I don’t try, I have already failed. Regardless, if all else fails, I think there might be a future in journalism for me.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I used to have some friends who would say or do something, often something in bad taste or otherwise anti-social, and follow it after a brief pause with the disclaimer, “Just kidding.” As if it’s only just a joke; that if I don’t "get it,” then I don’t have a sense of humor; that I have to disassociate myself from the demeaning nature of the “joke” because it is “all in good fun.” I have come to some conclusions about these now former friends: They are not “just kidding,” they are just testing. They are testing my limits, testing my patience, testing my tolerance, testing my intelligence and all the time pushing the envelope. Taken to an extreme, they are the friends who might take something shiny and if (and only if) they get caught will play it off as a joke. Funny.

Obviously, these are not friends. Oh, sure, there are the isolated instances where someone will say something off-color and regret it. Indeed, they might really have been kidding. I know I have been guilty… and what I really meant was “I’m sorry.” Everyone slips up from time to time and damage control is sometimes required… the sincerity, however, is there. It is when the constant pushing of the limits of respectful conduct is one’s modus operandi that motives must be called into question. Is it an attempt to improve upon one’s self image at another’s expense? Perhaps it is a serious lack of social skills that prevents these poor souls from showing any authenticity. Maybe low self-esteem is better than no self-esteem.

Regardless, friends don’t disrespect friends. In fact, decent folk don’t disrespect anyone and tend to hold their friends in the highest regard. Isn’t that what attracted them in the first place? One would hope. I am too far along in this life to deal with the superficial and the shallow. It can’t be about what I have, what I can do or my status. It better not be about race, color or creed and of course, beauty comes from the inside. It’s about who I am, my values and principles. It has nothing to do with political ideology or social standing but everything to do with respect.

I would hate to be in a position where I attracted “groupies” - people that would give anything to be my “friend.” Without knowing one little thing about me, they would claim to be forever faithful. Spare me. I feel sorry for those that must sort through the multitudes to find those who are genuine - those who cannot be bought at any price. My friends today do not care what I have, but I have in the past been sucked in by those who did. They are not friends…

They are parasites.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On Excitement

I have been somewhat reclusive of late - at least in terms of interacting with my peers in cyberspace. Although it is true that I have been busy with my “normal” activities and duties, it is also true that a number of unexpected situations have presented themselves for my disposition. So far, I have been disposing of them as they materialize, but the list of “things that are coming up” is growing and no small amount of [useless] mental energy has been expended trying to fit everything into a neat little package… a unit that can be processed by one executable command or directive.

Of course I know, it is never that easy.

Some of the tasks are tedious in nature. Some are regularly occurring maintenance items that must be done month in and month out. They are not mentally or physically challenging, nor are they exciting such that they are eagerly anticipated - rather, they are dreaded. Bills, appointments to keep, appointments to make, forms and rebates… ad nauseam - you get the point. There are others, too, that do hold a great deal of anticipatory excitement and, like taking on any new and exciting venture, there is the apprehensive fear. I recognize it and move through it, but still there is an energy expenditure due to its very presence.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Maybe, these perfectly normal yet sometimes uncomfortable feelings are what allow one to feel alive. Indeed, this managed upheaval can be and often is duplicated in much more unhealthy ways artificially. One needs only to look at the latest trials and tribulations of Lindsay Lohan to be reminded. I am reminded repeatedly by the drama some seem to be incapable of preventing and actually appear to create in their lives. To do what? Make themselves miserable? It is nearly always the result.

I have gone to great lengths to eliminate drama from my life. Through extensive and often painful experience, I have found it far less exhausting to avoid drama than to invite it. I might find myself on the periphery of other’s emotional turmoil, but I am very careful not to engage. As it turns out, my life does not suffer in the least. I do not lack excitement - what I lack is drama. Be that as it may, some very close friends are going through some issues at the moment - and I am always willing to lend a sympathetic ear.

So now I have a few moments to myself. The calamity has taken a break - it will probably return. My deadline has been met and my stories are in. I have a moment to reflect on my own personal priorities and although I have some big things to attend to, they can wait for a day, maybe two. But they are still on the back of my consciousness. I have a new semester at school rapidly approaching. I have applied for a new and exciting job that is much closer to home. I have registered for the LSAT, a giant step and if the results are good, a huge new commitment - I'll be applying for law school.

But all of that is tomorrow’s worry; right now, it’s time for a nap.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Another Archive

* This is another archive originally posted in what became my photoblog, "Overflow." It was titled "Still Crazy After All These Years," and since writing it almost a year ago, it still holds a great deal of meaning for me. *

Still Crazy After All These Years

I am a writer.
I… am a writer.
I am… a writer.
I’m a writer.

It still feels odd to say. I’m not sure I believe it sometimes. Then I start going into this “I’m not worthy” self-deprecating dialogue, usually internally, and then I start to second-guess even that. I feel like I’m singing the “poor me, nobody understands” song while questioning my motives for doing so. Am I seeking validation or am I sorting through something that touches others as well? Does it really need to be said?

Am I profound… or just pathetic?

Perhaps I just think way too much. That’s a fair characterization. Since this is the case, let us further dissect the premise. Come along, the rabbit hole is right over here…

First, some facts: For whatever reason, I find it difficult to attribute credit to myself, but only under some rather inconsistent circumstances. Don’t know why, I just do. It would probably take years of therapy and untold thousands of dollars to find out – I’ll pass. The fact is that I am a writer. There is abundant evidence. In fact, it’s not hard to be a writer – most everyone is at some time or another. If you write, you’re a writer – by definition.

Ok, ok, I know that is a rather broad interpretation and in most contexts it is not a sufficient one. We’re talking about a more concrete identification. Many would say that to be called a writer, it must be a much larger part of who we are than just jotting down a memo or a letter to a friend. It probably should occupy a significant amount of time on a daily, or at least semi-regular basis. For me, it does. I write often, I write daily and I write a lot.

Maybe to be a writer, one must have a writing career. Journalists, playwrights, novelists, and technical writers are but a very few examples of professional writers. Careers are jobs and jobs are paid. A professional writer is compensated for his or her written work. Done and done. I have been drawing a regular paycheck for putting words and punctuation in a specific order that someone is willing to pay for. Oddly enough, I find it marginally easier to say I am a professional writer. Don’t ask – I don’t know why.

Here’s the tricky part. I am a good writer. I don’t even like seeing that in front of me, but the empirical evidence is there. I receive high grades on my written work. Since entering Sac State, I have yet to receive anything lower than an A- on any prepared written work (on in-class writing like essay tests, I have only slightly lower marks). I get paid to write and I have won cash awards for my writing. I continually receive positive feedback – some from sources I greatly respect and are not known for giving false praise. Despite all that, I resist accepting it.

So what am I after? Is it validation and reassurance that I am indeed talented? Perhaps the desired result is one of sympathy or empathy. It can be very confusing when the manipulator and the manipulated are one and the same. I don’t know if these reflective, motive-checking moments are mine alone to endure, or if it is universally human. I’m not looking for validation, but I quite obviously am. I’m not seeking approval, but it’s approval that I desire. I don’t want praise, but can I ever get enough?

I try to finish everything I start, literarily anyway. I used to write the majority of my stuff in a single sitting. Sometimes it would take hours, sometimes minutes but I don’t like letting it go until it’s perfect. It never is and I always know it won’t be – it can’t be. The point is that the nature of the “professional” writing I do demands me to be far more flexible – sometimes writing even when I am not necessarily “inspired.” As a result, my collection of unfinished work is growing. It is becoming quite a load to carry.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. The point of it all? None. Don’t have one. I’m just thinking aloud; enjoying a little excursion to the lunatic fringe.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My Cover Letter

Dear Editor,

I have always known that I could write well. Until my recent return to the world of higher education, however, it was an unappreciated gift, one I would have gladly traded just to be able to play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar.

In addition to having a way with the written word, I have always been naturally curious; I never could take “no” for an answer. These qualities, backed by a nearly completed degree in government-journalism from California State University, Sacramento, are the force that drives my journalism. Ever since my first job as a newspaper delivery boy in my hometown some 30-plus years ago, the news has fascinated me. My early interest in government affairs, piqued perhaps by the Watergate scandal, would often keep me from getting my newspapers delivered on time. Now, with my skills embraced and honed through my return to college, I welcome the challenges this position can provide.

Since June 2006, I have either worked as a staff writer or freelanced for the Colfax Record and more recently, the Placer Herald. As the only staff writer for the Record, I wore many hats. I covered everything from city government to local events; law enforcement and breaking news; obituaries, business features, profiles and multi-part stories were all my responsibility. I learned that a reporter must be nimble, agile and versatile - qualities that I not only possess, but use regularly while reporting and writing the news. In my capacity as a reporter for the Record, I was also a contributor for Gold Country Media, owner of the Colfax Record, the Placer Herald and their much larger sister paper, the Auburn Journal. Breaking news in the Colfax area would often be covered in the Journal. Some of my most memorable stories were graced by publication on the front page of this daily newspaper.

Before my return to college in my early 40s, I worked in a number of different careers that could all be captured under the umbrella of “business.” From long-term employment as the marketing manager for a multi-million dollar corporation to self-employment in the transitional days of computer networking to a position running a one-man retail cellular phone store, I have had my hand in one type of business or another for some time - I know my way around.

I love what I do. I am hardworking, dedicated, flexible and tenacious; I get the job done. I am due to graduate from Sacramento State in December 2007 - my grade point average is currently 3.79. Although I still have one semester to complete, I have completed all required journalism coursework as well as some that is not required. I am ready to move on to the next challenge.

For more information or references, please contact me at your convenience.

Thank you for your time.


Michael K. Althouse

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Emotional Responsibility

* This is an old archive from my photoblog "Overflow" before it became a photoblog. It was originally a place to release words that would have at the time flooded this blog. It was originally published on June 13, 2006. *

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that my life has historically never resembled routine. Maybe it was because I always ran fast and loose; never having much more than short-term goals and not much in the way of dreams or aspirations, I never really noticed. Indeed, up until quite recently, my life did not even remotely resemble anything like what many would call routine, predictable or stable. Since coming of age when the ownership for these responsibilities are magically transferred, I never really had anything planned; except for periods of time lasting a few weeks or maybe months at the most, some kind of upheaval was always possible and often imminent.

I have experienced depression, jubilation, hopelessness, anticipation, grief, honor, fear and even death, though only very briefly. There would seem to always be an external reason for whatever I was feeling – something that life dished out elicited the appropriate and sometimes inappropriate responses I experienced. I was always able to peg my emotional state – good or bad – on some person, circumstance or situation. In other words, it was not my responsibility how I felt. My response was never my fault.

I remember once while in the hospital recovering from a near fatal auto wreck (that brief encounter with death…), at about the two month mark with no end in sight, I was quietly sobbing in my room. It had been a tough day; they all were, but this one was particularly tough. My recovery had suffered a slight setback that triggered all these built-up emotions to come out at once. I am not a whiner and I knew who got me into this mess, however, everyone has their limit. Much to my chagrin, the night nurse heard my sobs. Suffice it to say, I was not in the mood to “talk” about it.

She wanted to know what was wrong. I thought it was patently obvious and therefore a rather stupid question and… I didn’t hesitate to tell her so. She was just doing her job and limiting the institution’s liability – they don’t need a suicide on their hands. I was not, nor have I ever been suicidal, but they had no way of knowing that. She persisted. She wanted to know if I was “depressed.” I replied incredulously, “Of course I’m depressed! Look where I am! Who wouldn’t be?” I left out some choice explicatives, but I think I’ve made my point.

Little did I know that the term she suggested and I readily seized upon, “depressed,” carries with it institutional meanings far beyond what I meant. Indeed, I was suffering from depression - situational depression. It would go away when the situation improved, which it did the very next day. However, because I expressed that I was “depressed,” I received the obligatory visit from the resident shrink. Although I had moved out of the depression, I was still plenty pissed off for a variety of reasons – and now one more got added to the list. To make a long and entirely tangential story short, I eventually got better, in all respects.

Ironically enough, that three month hospital stay was among the more predictable periods of my adult life and coincidentally enough, it was a period that I was not controlling. I had no place in the planning of my day; every aspect of it was dictated by circumstance, my doctors and/or the hospital. Everything, right down to when I ate and the quality of the food (or lack thereof) was taken care of. When it came time to take back control of my life, it found the same path as before, which was, of course, no path at all.

Today and for the past two years or so, I have been working towards a long-term goal and beyond that I have very specific dreams and aspirations. I am not locked into a routine so rigid that my every waking moment is planned, but at the same time there are certain constants that I can count on. Regular intervals are taking a prominent place in my life and instead of “tying me down,” it grants me freedom. Furthermore, it gives life purpose and that was a quality my life seriously lacked. Surprises are not less surprising, but I am better situated – better prepared to deal with them.

What this predictability has revealed is that my emotional strength is dependant on being in touch with what I feel and why. This is not as easy as it may sound, but like anything else, it takes practice and after a couple of years, I think I may actually be getting it. Lately, I have been experiencing a lack of motivation… it’s a little like being in the doldrums, but not quite. It’s just a little blah. I am not, however, depressed – experience tells me that I need to make that perfectly clear.

I surmised that perhaps this was a cycle – one that I surely must have missed in the whirlwind that was my life. However, although my intent when starting this piece was to argue for that hypothesis, I must change my tack here and perhaps delve a little deeper. Indeed, the practice of getting in touch with myself through writing has once again proven that my head tends to be somewhat blind to second opinion. It is, in a word – lazy. Why pursue a new line of analysis when I already had it all figured out? And how convenient that I just naturally settled on a theory that represents no responsibility for my own emotional state. “It’s just a cycle.” Perfect!

Without the practiced skill of thinking via the written word, thinking out loud as it were, I would have come to the same conclusion that damned near killed me – a convoluted idea that it’s not my fault. Not that everything that happens in life is my fault or responsibility (really, I’m not that important!), but my reactions to these events are. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with any feeling. It is the behavior driven by these emotions that I hold responsibility for. Vigilance is important – my head almost took me there one more time, but introspection and a willingness to go deeper shut that door – this time.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pursuing Excellence

It should come as no surprise to anyone who creates stuff that there are times when it just comes out better than others. The means of measurement is subjective to be sure and often the perception of quality or aesthetics or benefit, etc. changes over time and circumstance, but the artist, I think, still has an idea when he or she has just nailed it. I know it is true for me and more often than not the feeling of having created something special is validated externally. It doesn’t have to be, but it has been my experience that there are some universal, albeit intangible, standards of quality.

In many ways it’s easier to recognize in the work of others. In the blogosphere, I run across the little gems often. Sometimes it is from someone who is so profoundly moved that the expression of whatever it is comes though so clearly I feel I am there too. Other times it might be an identification of a feeling - perhaps an identification that is universal yet never clearly identified before. I have read a great many accomplished authors and although my writing is usually pretty good, compared to some of these greats I always feel inadequate.

Well, almost always. I have written some stuff that is right up there and I know it. True, not as much and not as recognized, but there have been moments of brilliance - I know this. I know it not only of my own application of my craft, but I have seen it in countless others’ application of theirs. I don’t have to know how to make a movie to appreciate a classic - even a modern one. I don’t have to be a painter to know a masterpiece. And I don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to recognize great writing.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t come to this perspective in reflection of my own writing. True, I do have some pieces (not many compared to how much I have written) that I still enjoy reading. I produced a post recently I happen to be very happy with. However, while reading some of my favorite blogs - sites where I can expect quality on a regular basis - I was blown away by a particular piece that just left me dumbstruck. Thumper Thinks Out Loud is a blog from writer K.A. Thompson. She has a mishmash of anecdotes and musings and often reflects on the creative process involved in writing a book. This particular post is observational brilliance. As my comment there said - “I could not have said it better myself, and now I don’t have to."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

An upcoming column

By Michael Althouse
The Colfax Record

When I first started working at the Colfax Record, just a little more than a year ago, the paper was still at its long-time home on Church Street. It wasn’t even a stone’s throw away from the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.

At the time, I was still very new to Colfax and didn’t realize what the administrative differences were between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CAL FIRE) and the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.

Yes, I saw the word “volunteer,” but I didn’t really think that it meant they were volunteers. I figured the moniker was simply a throwback, a quaint relic of a time gone by and perfectly fitting for an old, small mountain town.

But I didn’t really think they were volunteers.

They all looked like the real deal. They had the clothes, the boots, the apparatus… the fire engine. No, they weren’t really volunteers, were they?

Um, ya.

As in they don’t get paid.

Not for waking up in the middle of the night for a call.

Not for the 15 to 20 average hours per week of responding to calls, training and maintaining equipment.

Not for leaving their families on a moment’s notice - sometimes for days at a time.

Not for risking their lives.

Not for saving yours.

Not for any of it.

And for all that, they must train just like their compensated counterparts. It’s not simply a matter of signing on the dotted line. There are hours and hours of initial training followed by more hours of training just to stay current.

In every respect except one, they are the real deal. They just don’t take home a check.

Colfax CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Chris Paulus approached me last month about writing a story on the volunteer firefighters.

He told me of the newest volunteers and of the professionalism that each member represents and of the sacrifices they make. He was (and is) still new to his positions as both Colfax CAL FIRE battalion chief and as Colfax Volunteer Fire Department chief. I could tell he had genuine admiration for the volunteer crew he inherited.

Although I did write that story, I told him that would be a good topic for a column. I explained that in a column, I get to say what I think - and I think Paulus is right.

Paulus feels strongly about his firefighters. He must - he took time away from fighting the 20,000-acre plus Antelope Complex Fire in the Plumas National Forest to return a call to me just to talk about these local heroes.

“They were the only ones working for free during the Independence Day celebration in Colfax,” he said. “All of the other police and fire personnel were getting paid and these volunteers left their families on a family holiday to help their community.”

Timothy Keyes has a regular job. He is a firefighter with the Sacramento City Fire Department. He is also a volunteer firefighter in Colfax.

“In Colfax, there is more work per person,” he said. “In Sac City, if there is a fire of any kind, there are instantly 30 people on it.”

“In Colfax, you have to do the same with fewer people, knowing that help might be more than just a few minutes away.”

Chris Toepfer, a five year veteran of the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department, echoes Keyes sentiments.

“It’s critical on the initial attack to get someone there to knock the fire down,” he said. “And we know it might be a while before we get any help.”

The Placer Hills Fire Protection District, just down the hill from Colfax, has a mix of paid firefighters and volunteers. Fire Chief Ian Gow relies heavily on the volunteers.

“Volunteers have the same training requirements as professional firefighters,” Gow said. “We couldn’t function without the volunteers.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

Michele sent me...

Sometime last year, I started to notice a phrase in the comments of some of the blogs I read. It was odd, I thought, that this one phrase popped up with such regularity, but only on the weekends. At the end of a given comment would be, “Michele sent me,” or words to that effect. Through a little bit of back tracking through the blogs of the comment writers, I was able to find the source of the line in their links. They all originated from and her “Weekend Meet N’ Greet” game. In fact, I discovered her blog in much the same way I discovered the others I frequent.

It started slowly enough; way back in December 2005 I started this blog to occupy some of the abundance of free time the semester break at Sacramento State had cursed me with. I was just looking for an outlet for some pent-up creative energy. I didn’t know where it would take me (a theme in life I have since embraced wholeheartedly), but it served its purpose - it kept my writing fresh during the five weeks of winter break. I would hit the “next blog” button on the Blogger header to browse some random blogs, but never found much that was particularly compelling. Even when I did, I never commented or bothered to return… It was as if I was peering over the fence not wanting to be noticed while at the same time longing to play.

Eventually, someone found my blog and commented. I was ecstatic. In time, I learned a little bit of the ins and outs of commenting, visiting the blogs of those who had commented and, because a comment was left for me, I felt entirely welcome to leave one in return. After my comment was posted, I would read the comments of others and visit some of those blogs via linking through their profiles. Now that my comment-phobia was somewhat attenuated, I started to leave thoughtful comments on those blogs and, in turn, their authors - some of them - would visit my blog and leave a comment. And so on…

Some of those earliest blog-friends are still actively blogging and they still visit occasionally, as do I, but times change and horizons expand. I was finding myself loyally visiting and commenting on too many blogs… I was not energized as I was early on and my time was in much greater demand as well. I was beginning to stagnate; it was becoming ritualistic; there was no spontaneity; it was starting to be not fun; it was turning into an obligation. I wasn’t commenting as often and visitors to my blog were dropping off as a direct result. Blogging at this level is about having a conversation - it doesn’t work without participation.

When I finally found the source of “Michele sent me,” I was simply amazed that a post could have 300, 400 or even 600 comments. I remembered remarking the first or second time I played by adding my own comment that it must be some kind of record. And indeed it might be. The rules are simple: leave a comment on Michele’s blog and then visit the person who commented before. Leave a comment on their blog and include the words, “Michele sent me.” Of course, the person following me would then be compelled to visit me, and so on. Wait for five or more to play next, and then repeat.

It was perfect! The game starts on Thursday evening and runs until Sunday night. Because she has a blogroll numbering in the hundreds and many are frequent participants, new visitors were directed to my blog on a regular basis. Although it’s true that anyone can play, she tends to attract primarily intelligent, thoughtful and genuine bloggers to her site. In addition to getting new and informed visitors, it also directed me to a host of new sites that offered a veritable smorgasbord of topics and perspectives. As the weeks passed I found myself looking forward to Thursday night and beginning another weekend of Meet N’ Greet. It has been more than six months now since fate directed me to
In addition to her weekend game, she has a variety of interactive commenting games during the week. They get bloggers to interact and are interesting, funny, compelling and profound - often at the same time. Oddly enough, until recently, Michele didn’t get involved in her games. Much to the delight of her fans (myself included) she has begun to participate in not only her own games, but also started to comment on the sites of those participating. Though just as mysterious as ever, Michele now has a more frequent personal presence and I can say with certainty that the blogosphere is a better place as a result.

Her most recent feature, “The Post of the Week,” has an added incentive for those commenting and visiting the chosen post - a guaranteed visit from Michele herself! I am both honored and flattered that she chose my last post as her first post of the week. The number and the nature of the comments left have been overwhelming. Here’s a little insight into the influence Michele has: I average 10 to 20 comments per post, often fewer. This post has so far generated no less than 45 comments. If it’s not a record number for me, it is very close to it. Next week there will be another post chosen as the recipient of this honor by Michele and I’ll be among the many visitors who will include the appropriate recognition - Michele sent me…

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Wood Chopper

Often are the moments when I sit down to write… when I have the desire to write... but there is nothing there. I have composed and deleted already a few groups of words - some even made it as far as complete sentences - and still I find myself at a loss. I only know that I want to say something, but I don’t know what it is. Michelangelo would say that he didn’t create his sculptures, they were already in the marble - he simply exposed them. And so it is with writing sometimes. I will write in my head wildly disconnected thoughts and excise those that do not fit, revealing the beauty of what is left. The words don’t always have to appear written before my eyes, but they have been written behind my eyes nonetheless.

It has been several hours since I walked away from this work. Now nearly 4 a.m., it is beckoning me back, drawing me away from the comfort of my bed, away from my sleep and back to a path that leads at once nowhere and everywhere. I usually have an idea about where I’m going… at least a general heading, but today, in the still hours of the predawn morning, I am lost. As if stranded in the jungle, I keep walking… listening for the sound of water, of civilization, of something - anything - familiar to move towards. The instinct to survive drives me to keep walking, to keep writing until I find it, whatever it is.

Annie Dillard writes of the solitude and the isolation of the writer. She tells in The Writing Life of the small rooms and the self-deprivation of comfort, of companionship, of society as she sinks into the world of words. The perfection of the carefully molded elements of the sentences and the interplay of the thoughts and ideas all come out in the solitude of the writer’s world. Writing is not a performing art, but rather a recorded one. The beauty is in the finished product, not in its creation. Indeed, the creative process is often ugly, agonizing and for long periods dormant. The work, however, may not reflect the agony. The work must flow like a river. The work will either be remembered - or forgotten. But the process, however, can never be known.

I used to have a padded desk chair. Covered in soft fabric, it had a multitude of adjustments. It could move up and down, tilt backward and forward and it was equipped with an adjustment to support the lumbar region of my back. It fit me like a glove and when I needed to take a break from my world, I needn’t leave my desk; I would simply adjust the chair upward and backward, placing my feet upon my desk and my head back into my clasped hands, elbows in the air. I gave that chair to my son. I now have a hard wooden folding chair that reminds me of its presence every moment I sit in it. I am never too comfortable and although my writing space is not so desolate as the many Dillard describes, at 4 a.m. it is none too scenic with only my darkened reflection staring back at me from the window.

The writing life is my life. I chose it as much as it chose me. In fact, it patiently awaited my acquiescence. The words finally won and came forth. It broke me. And it was not without struggle and much discomfort. Pain motivates me and it is perhaps possible that although past experience formed the words, self-imposed discomfort gets them written. There are tricks to every trade, I suppose, and excellence never coexists with complacence. The struggle to create is born of need and that need might be as simple as the need to seek relief.

Dillard tells the story of how she learned to chop wood. It sounds easy enough; stand the log on end, swing the axe and split the wood. But she found that no matter how simple it seemed and how much she tried, the axe only kept whittling the top of the log to a blunt point. It wasn’t until she was told the secret that the axe found its way through the wood. “Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood you will have nothing. Aim past wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”

The metaphor works for me. More than that, it resonates within me. I rarely ever have a clear idea of what the words will be. Like Michelangelo’s sculptures, the words are already there, waiting to be revealed. I don’t operate from some outline and sometimes I don’t even know what I am supposed to be writing, only that I must write. Even if it’s at 4 a.m. in the predawn morning. When the rest of the world is asleep. In my hard wooden folding chair. With my stark reflection staring back at me. I write.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Relaxation Equation

It is not uncommon for an epiphany to strike me when I least expect it. Such was the case mere moments ago when I sat down to compose a letter to a dear friend. Although I will get to that letter shortly, experience has taught me to explore, process and document these moments in real time lest I risk losing them to my rapidly eroding memory. I doubt seriously whether she will mind as she claims to enjoy these public musings nearly as much as my personal notes.

My deadline for the two papers I freelance for is usually Monday or Tuesday. The editors assemble their respective papers on Wednesday so they can be delivered Thursday morning. Therefore, I am usually quite busy on Tuesdays. Furthermore, some weeks are more hectic than others - the stories might be long, involved or technically complicated. This past week, my stories represented a little bit of all of that. They also required more “hands-on” reporting than usual. In other words, telephone interviews from my home office did not play a significant role in this week’s reporting - I had to be there.

Add to the mix a national holiday on Wednesday and the whole she-bang gets pushed up one day. Yesterday was my final deadline and although a little room was left for finishing touches this morning, I had to be done writing this morning - not today, this morning. As a result of the accelerated pace of this week’s work I actually did something that is entirely out of character for me; I filed a story ahead of the deadline - last Saturday, actually. And I am so glad I did, indeed, I wish I had filed two - I could have. Those two were, of course, the easier of my stories and when crunch time came, I still had the better part of two lengthy, involved and one technically complex article to write. Both stories had to wait for events to occur and, of course, those events were very close to the deadline.

As a result of the demands placed upon me by my chosen career (or did it choose me?), I have been moving at warp speed for the last three days. I have neglected some areas of my life while maintaining what I determined to be necessary - often at a moment's notice. Of course there is the writing, but primarily only the deadline driven work, optional writing, such as letter writing and blogging, has been placed on the back burner. Other leisure activities as well as some non-critical chores are also among the first to go. And that is where my revelation today is couched.

Just as soon as my immediate obligations were satisfied this morning, I planned to get a little R & R. I just wanted to relax and bask in the non-committed time I had earned. I could have done that, I still might, but I found that I was not, contrary to my plan, relaxing. I was doing this and doing that. There were bills that had to be paid and laundry to do - I still have to go grocery shopping - and every time I actually stopped, I found myself going again. Although I had crawled under a literary rock for the last three days, the world didn’t stop to wait for me. Shocking, I know.

Boiled down, the revelation is simply this: My comfort and relaxation is dependent, in part, upon my having my affairs in order. I’m not talking about having a pristine home that smells oh-so lemony fresh - I am not a “neat-freak” by any stretch of the imagination - I am talking about eliminating those nagging little tasks that are always hanging over my head. No matter how much I want to just veg out in front of the TV, one thing led to another and I found myself restlessly getting up to move the sprinkler or emptying the pool sweep or... Apparently knowing that those things are done is part of the relaxation equation. My free time, therefore, is not exactly free until I am satisfied that my cobweb-like “to-do” list has been at least partially dusted clean.

I am not going to get to everything and I know that soon I will tire of chasing down those little lingering tasks. They are endless and I refuse to be obsessed by them. I will come to a place where I am satisfied that the third step forward has been taken to counter the previous two backward. The minutia has not overtaken me and the battle against the detail has been won for today. The war, however, is ongoing and reinforcements in the form of vacuuming and washing the car are sure to be arriving soon. And in order - or not - their turn to be dealt with will arrive.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there is a book that is begging to be read.