Archive for May 2010

Longterm Focus – Stress and Creativity – Pearl!

May 31, 2010

Pearl - Habit and Engagement

The other day I worried that I really didn’t have a focus for this blog; something to orient  both me and any readers I may be lucky enough to snare.   What have I been I writing about?  What subject do I even have to write about?

Then I suddenly realized that the general subject of this blog has been stress and creativity.  If I wanted to sound official, I’d say the interface between stress and creativity, but since I can’t say that with a straight face (or interface), I won’t.

What does this mean?  I guess the question for me is how one, in this manically depressed stressful modern world, maintains some kind of creative effort?  How can one use stress as a source for creativity rather than as a wet blanket for its termination?  (How, also, can the manic avoid using creativity as a further source of stress?)

For my first conscious exploration of this subject, I turn to the teachings of my old dog Pearl.  Pearl was struck by a sudden spine problem a couple of weeks ago that paralyzed her from the dog-waist down, rendering her hind legs both insensitive and immobile.  Amazingly, with the help of steroids, she has recovered some use of her legs: she can wobble along now, though she moves like the proverbial drunken sail—dog.  (BTW, after reading several Horatio Hornblower books last week, I now feel enough “expertise” to understand that the unsteadiness of a drunken sailor is archetypical because it arises from at least two sources—(a) alcohol and (b) sea legs, i.e. legs accustomed to the sway of waves that are suddenly posited upon dry land.)

Pearl’s up in the country this weekend, and her reaction to it is a lesson in the maintenance of creativity under stress.  (For these purposes, I’ll consider Pearl’s outdoor explorations and general cuteness her “expression.”)

Pearl still has trouble even walking, and yet, here, in a country place she has loved since puppydom, she wobbles, skips, trots.  What motivates her, what keeps her going, seems to be two factors:  habit and engagement.

There are certain places (a long dirt driveway), and certain times of day, in which Pearl has always run here.  That habit (plus steroids) is so strong that when I put her down on these spots, and at those special times, her legs just move.

Where habit runs out, engagement takes over.  The scent of a place where a deer has recently bedded down will lure Pearl, sniffing, into tall grass, pull her through reeds, propel her into Heraculean effort.  I can only derail her lopsided enthusiasm by physically picking her up and putting her back on her track, where, out of habit, she quickly wobbles off again.

Which brings me back to the creative human mind dealing with stressful obstacles–all those drags upon the consciousness.  How to avoid paralysis?  How to dart and trot, dig and ferret?  How to just keep going?

This (I think) is this blog’s inquiry.

Thanks so much to those who have been following.  Stay tuned.

Memorial Day Weekend- Liquified Whitman

May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Weekend

Here is a draft poem for Memorial Day weekend.  Did you know that Vitamin B is recommended to ward off bug bites?  Apparently, mosquitoes hate the smell.

On the Grass By the Pond

My Vitamin B-infused pee
blends with the blades of yellow-green
below my thighs, like
liquefied Whitman.
Memorial Day Weekend.
First outdoor pee of the season.

Memories of Memorial Day

May 29, 2010



Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day Weekend.

When I was a child growing up in suburban Maryland, the weekend was glorious. It meant the opening of swimming pools for summer; it meant the opening of summer for summer.   It meant that any school days we had left would count for nothing but a countdown, in which the sweat accumulating at the backs of our knees would smell faintly of graphite and the white vinegar used to sponge down the school cafeteria.

The pool was where we spent almost every daylight moment in our summers.  We had no air conditioning,  managed the heat through damp bathing suits, that were kept on even after we came home, darting around the slow darkening of summer yards, kept on even in the blue glare of night TV.

Later, as an adult, Memorial Day Weekend meant a chance to drag my two children to upstate New York, leaving the very momentary green of May city for some real, deep, comprehensive, green.  We seemed to be collecting coolness up there too.   (Air conditioning has not been an easy accomplishment in my life and there is nothing like most New York City apartments for jumping into summer fast, each room its own little microcosm of global warming.)

It was only on these trips up to the country that I glimpsed the true meaning of Memorial Day.  There is one cemetery our route passes; actually the road bifurcates it; drives smack down the middle.

Of course, the cemetery is green in May;  it’s green all summer long, the grass lush, fenced in, mown, lined with small brown and grey headstones that look almost like the class of kids in my old schoolroom, half-asleep.

There were always a few little bouquets, some too brilliant against the rectangular stones to be completely real.  But on Memorial Day weekend, there were more, and, with the flowers, small American flags, prongs stuck into the earth or on small stands

Sometimes, driving by, we’d see a few small groups, women with pale hair scalloped around their faces, the curves made by curlers, or permanents, old-fashioned hair.  Women with pastel pants, sometimes worn under dark windbreakers; upstate New York’s weather changeable in May.

Even watching them, with their curled hair and small American flags, it took me a while to catch on.

(For a villanelle about swimming in summer at the pool, check here.)

Blogging, With Elephants?

May 28, 2010

More Elephants

I am bemoaning today the lack of subject matter of this blog.   Actually, it’s not completely fair to say that there is no subject matter.  The subject matter is whatever comes into my ManicDdaily head.

I am bemoaning today the lack of consistent subject matter.

People like subject matters, just as they like a certain predictability.  It’s bred into the species, I think, maybe into living itself.  Babies with clear naptimes tend to nap  more easily and more cheerfully; dogs want to stick to their routines, marking the same old spots on their same old walks; horses find their way back into their stalls; and adults (human adults) like to get the same kind of bagel with the same kind of cream cheese, with the same kind of coffee, with the same amount of sugar and milk in it, every single morning.

As part of this preference for the routine, I am pretty sure that people tend to prefer a blog that has a theme.   Something they might even learn from, or at least, feel uplifted by.

But I don’t really know anything well enough to teach it.  Further,  anyone labeling their blog ManicDDaily may not in fact be so uplifting, so….

Hmmm…..

What can I write about?  Consistently? (Or draw?!)

Elephants?

(But shouldn’t it be meaningful?)

More elephants?

Hmmm….

Any and all suggestions are welcome .

Responsibility/Independence…Independence/Carefreedom–Horatio Hornblower Longs For His Wife’s Hand

May 27, 2010

Scale - Responsibility/Independence

My latest hero, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, makes an interesting observation in the 9th book, (the one I am reading tonight), Commodore Hornblower.

Facing difficult decisions in the Baltic in the period immediately before and after hostilities open between Sweden, Russia and France (led by England’s arch nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte), Hornblower is suddenly, deeply, homesick.  He finds his command and the many duties and expectations heaped upon his slighting stooping shoulders suddenly overwhelming (those who spend the life in the cramped quarters of ships almost always slouch a bit); he misses his wife, child, and the trivial chores of the land-based life in England that he found almost stultifying at the beginning of the book.

Then he calls himself back to the realities both of who he is and of human nature generally:  “And here he was complaining to himself about the burden of responsibility, when responsibility was the inevitable price one had to pay for independence: irresponsibility was something which, in the very nature of things, could not co-exist with independence.”

Responsibility/independence.  I’ve never heard the words rigged quite so cleverly.

What a wonderful thing it is to call one’s own shots.  Yes, it’s nice to get help; it’s very nice to feel taken care of; to have some prop holding up the idea of self-reliance.  But to be able to say “screw you”has a special satisfaction, which, of course, comes with a price.   If you say, “screw you”, to someone, it’s helpful to be able to live without that person’s financial or emotional support.

Perhaps this is all very obvious.  Perhaps I’m just blinded by my current affection for all things Hornblower.   (He really is a very charming character.)   But I find his direct correlation between responsibility and independence remarkably thoughtful.  The odd thing is that when one is burdened with responsibility, it is hard to actually feel independent;  often, especially in today’s society, independence is equated with freedom–freedom from ties, freedom from responsibilities.  But that freedom, or carefreedom, is different from the strength, the possibility for discretion, that Hornblower sees as independence.  (Hornblower catches this irony too as he describes the envy he feels for the able-bodied seamen, who have the carefree nonchalance of those whose only job is to competently carry out orders.)

Hornblower’s understanding all this doesn’t negate his sharp longing for his wife’s hand, son’s smile.  But, ever the stoic Brit, the Naval officer, he (silently) goes down to his cabin to study the chart of Riga Bay.

(That Hornblower.)

Fleet Week – Where are you, Horatio?

May 26, 2010

Fleet Week in New York (See Statue of Liberty in background!)

It’s Fleet Week in New York!   It corresponds, oddly, with my current personal absorption with Horatio Hornblower, the mythical hero of C.S. Forester, who through a series of eleven books makes his way through the ranks and at least some of the depredations of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s an interesting testament to the power of narrative that I had a very hard time tearing myself from the printed page of Forester’s Ship of the Line this morning to watch actual battle ships course down the Hudson, right next to my apartment building.   (So much for living in the moment.)

I just wanted to stick with Hornblower, even though the ships were hugely impressive, and lined with living, breathing human beings.

Much has changed since Hornblower’s time.  The U.S. Navy ships seem inordinately plain compared to Hornblower’s schooners, frigates, ships of the line, with their top gallants, topsails, reefed topsails, mainmasts, mizzen masts, jury masts, rigging,  netting, and long nines.  There are a few small towers of gizmos, presumably related to radar, but for the most part, these new ships are large slightly curved trapezoids of painted grey.

It’s hard  to imagine these huge wedges of steel as the descendants of the beautiful, if gnarly, sailing ships of the British Navy.  Though there they were–men (presumably women too) lined up in rows of white (the sailors) and dark blue (the marines), roughly in the same divisions of rank and service as on Hornblower’s ships.

Other similiarities: decks!  Portholes!  (Wait–are there portholes now?) Starboard, port, stern, bow, lee, tack–vocabulary.

Space constrictions–though I expect modern seamen have more than 18 inches per hammock.

Some monotony of food?  But, hopefully, today’s soldiers  do not have to tap their sea biscuits to scare out weevils.  (They only need to be concerned about trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

What else do Forester’s sailors and today’s share?  The sea!  The sky!  The horizon!  Occasional seasickness!

Reading C.S. Forester makes one very conscious that conditions of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars were almost unimaginably severe, especially with so many sailors press-ganged to begin with.  (Hardly a volunteer force.)

Scurvy, disease, amputation, the requirement of absolute obedience at the threat of flogging, court martial, hanging.  Though, actually, the biggest danger seems to arise from the incompetence and/or greed of supervising officers. (Hornblower, of course, excluded.)  And too, less-than-reliable allies.

Hmmm….

Of course, what ultimately makes the books compelling is not the politics, the tacking and heaving of sails, or even the discussions of sea biscuit, but the character of Hornblower himself — outwardly indomitable, inwardly hyper-sensitive, noble (in spirit if not rank), brave, and amazingly quick-witted even when in a near stupor of fatigue and stress.

Did one of his spiritual descendants sail by this morning?

Maybe.   (I, for one, was too busy reading to notice.)

Even Stouter than Hornblower?

More on Blocking Writer’s Block – Maintaining Bad Habits (Advice from the Dalai Lama?)

May 25, 2010

Rotating Storm

At the Dalai Lama’s lectures in New York City over the last weekend, he advised (naturally) meditation as a means to slowly effect change in one’s life.  “One lecture not enough,” he chuckled.

He encouraged the audience to start a practice even if their beginning steps felt very small.  He advised just “five minutes” every morning, particularly if the five minutes were “quality time;” that is, five minutes spent with some attempt at genuine focus.  A small period of quality time seemed better to him than a longer, more wandering attempt, simply because it helped one avoid bad habits.  In His Holiness’s view, a bad habit was harder to break than a new habit to instill.

All of that sounds right.   And I hesitate to argue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Particularly about matters related to meditation.

So I won’t.  Still, I was thinking this morning as I did my slightly desultory, bad-habit-infected, yet daily, yoga practice that I’m not in complete agreement with these principles, at least not when they are applied in areas other than meditation, such as a practice of daily writing.

Here’s my problem:  of course, quality time writing is better than going-through-the-motions time.  But what if you are faced with a choice between going-through-the-motions-time vs. zero time?  Is a bad habit really worse than no habit? (That is, not writing at all?)

I am concerned that many people when starting any kind of discipline make a good and earnest beginning–then, things bog down, especially as the glow of initial results fades, and the hard slog begins in earnest.

I don’t know what His Holiness would advise for a bogged-down meditator—I’m guessing that it would be a combination of continued effort, and a little less fretting.

I would co-opt that same (surmised) advice for a writing practice.  At times, it is likely that some bad, escapist, habits may creep in;  they may in fact be all that keeps you going–the background distraction of a book on tape; the muddled support of three cups of tea and a glass of wine;  writing on the elliptical machine;  relaxing with vampire novels so as to avoid the schaden freude of more challenging works.   Perhaps it does make sense to scale down during such a period–when you are having a hard time finishing anything, you may be better off working on a short story (or  blog) than the great American novel.   Still, it’s important to keep putting in your five minutes, even a fitful five.

The most important caveat here is not to get smug about your fitful efforts.  Stay honest.  Sometimes you may not feel capable of more than a thread of creativity; but don’t assume either (i) that it’s all you will ever be capable of; or (ii) that it’s enough.

One other suggestion (taken from a yoga teacher, David Life, who was trying to help me with backbends)–if you need to cheat a little to do your work (or pose, in the case of yoga), try alternating your form of cheating.   Rotate your bad habits to avoid letting any single one become the norm.  In the case of backbending, that meant sometimes turning out my feet too much, other times, bending knees.  In the case of a writing practice, that may mean sometimes just writing a very boring journal entry; other times, a very boring prose poem!