Thursday, 1 December 2011

Loss and More Loss

Needless to say, another month has passed without my whipping up a blog post.


My loss, really, because blogging is a great way to prod my mind into gear and practice the craft of creative nonfiction writing.


Otherwise, this is not a loss for you, dear reader, because November has only just today metamorphosed into December. Plus, unless you’ve been unconscious the past decade, you’re already drowning in tree books and e-books, online and print magazines, email and that other type that seems to keep mysteriously filling my USPS mailbox no matter how hard I try to get it to stop.


So if you're one of my regular readers, then you’re probably just as happy I messed up. You have enough to read and one thing less is no great loss!


Loss is kind of like time. It never stops arriving. Have you noticed how life seems to be not just a process of accumulating knowledge, experience, and wisdom, but also a process of stripping away everything else?


Birth, old age, sickness and death. Now there’s a jellyfish progression if I ever saw one.


There are Buddhist teaching stories about how living is rather like peeling away the layers of an onion until there’s nothing left. But the nothing that remains isn’t a nothing nothing.


Nope, not at all. It’s more of an emptiness nothing. Emptiness of the “not empty” category is actually the realization that, in the most famous Buddhist paradox of all, that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”


Meaning that this loss of everything we live for isn’t exactly what it seems. Emptiness in this sense refers to the condition of giving up all sensory conditions and awakening to enlightenment. In one sense, this is like saying – in the words of songwriter Kris Kristofferson and memorably expressed by the immortal Janis Joplin – that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .”


Well, naturally the world’s greatest Buddhist masters can expound for hours on the complexity of this unempty emptiness. I’m just giving you a quick nutshell, layman-impaired version.


Why? Well, to make myself feel better about all my losses.


How come? Because I like to vent about the unpleasantries of my life. All this philosophical stuff about writing is an acceptable outlet for my complaints and lets me blog about why I missed my blog appointment again. In the process, I can obfuscate my laziness and procrastination!


Still, I can blame birtholdagesicknessandeath.Without getting into sordid detail, let’s just say I had a long-term problem with my ears that seemed to crop up about the time I had five immunizations one day before my trip to Kenya last December. It might have actually started when I lived for a year in Wales and brought home something from that water-blessed climate that my immune system couldn’t handle after the immunizations weeks later. I did spend some hours scrubbing away some black mold that appeared on a wall during the infamous floods of November 2009. Annoying, but this itchy-itch didn’t keep me from my work despite the fact that I stuck my fingers in my ears to scratch so often that I wished I had four hands like many Asian deities. This problem eventually affected my calves as well, a sort of dermatitis.


About the time that this problem calmed down considerably and I thanked the universe, I had a for-reals bacterial / fungal ear infection in one ear, perhaps brought on by all that scratching, even though the itching had abated due to the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals. I don’t recall ever having a childhood earache of this explosive caliber, but as experienced by many kids, my  right eardrum ruptured and I spent lots of time in an ENT doctor’s office getting my ear suctioned. And lots of time going to the pharmacy to pick up various concoctions that didn’t vanquish the infection because the ENT was perhaps overconfident of what type of infections were brewing beyond my broken eardrum and didn’t culture them from the get-go.


Okay, so that slowed me down a bit more. About the time the blasted ear infection cleared up (only because I went online in desperation and made a home-made concoction that cleared in three days what the pharmaceutical companies couldn’t clear up in weeks). But this was okay too. Ya gotta keep moving, after all.


But thennnnn . . . an antibiotic-resistant skin infection suddenly reared its ugly head. It didn’t help that my ENT had me indiscriminately taking some antibiotics before the aforementioned culture from my ear determined what was in it. He twice had me on an antibiotic once thought not very long ago to be the king of all antibiotics and is now famous for spawning monster bacteria. But this was okay, because although I’d spent many days in bed with high fevers and chills and many better days exhausted and in pain, this condition passed too. I’d just recovered when went away to spend Halloween week with my grandsons.


You know how kids catch every known cold / flu virus in the universe. No problema. I’d worked for years as a K-12 substitute teacher and probably have had or been exposed to every known cold / flu virus in the universe, nyah-nyah. Besides, they’d had it a few days the week before and . . .


Boom. My daughter came down with the crud and was out of commission for the remainder of my visit. By the time I went home, that achey, creeping, doomster feeling had a grip on me. The worst cold /flu /bronchial infection I’ve ever had in my life (and maybe several past lives) kept me in bed for a week and coughing up my lungs for a second week. I’m lucky I didn’t go into p-neu-mon-i-a.


What does any of this have to do with writing? Well, the advantage of freelancing and telecommuting  is that you can take your laptop to bed. Although I lost a significant amount of writing time, circumstance allowed me to press forward. I didn’t miss my most important paid hours and still received full paychecks – I  would have run out of sick pay in most conventional jobs or drug myself to work and exposed my co-workers to my nasty ailments.


Plus, I managed to do some fun unpaid, speculative writing tasks such starting a story, polishing old pieces and submitting them to publishers, as well as tooting my horn about recent publications on social media sites and in e-mails. I also managed to do a few of the not-fun tasks like the dreaded nosing around and sending out CVs for new freelance writing jobs. Not to mention gaining some forced but necessary time off. Despite my resistance, downtime allows the subconscious mind the creative vacation we discussed a few blog posts back.


In spite of all my losses and frustrations (there are others, too many to write about without boring you to tears and making me sound like a perpetual victim), 2011 has been a pretty darn good year for writing and editing. I’ve had more publications and churned out more edits for clients this year than any other single year since I began to embrace the full-time writing life.


I hope I’ve managed to disguise my rant as another post about perseverance. Everything changes. Handle loss and change like any other writerly delay / rejection / failure. Embrace it. Own it. Shift gears and go around it, over it, or under it. Let this emptying out, this letting go of acquisitions and desires become another step toward enlightenment, that is to say, wisdom, acceptance, emotional equanimity, and transformation.


Turn those jellyfish into sundogs. After all, isn’t transformation everything?

"Transformation"
Illuminated Tibetan Iconographic Calligraphy by Tashi Mannox http://www.tashimannox.com

Monday, 31 October 2011

Horrified!

Well, not really, simply occupied.

I’m disappointed that I haven’t blogged since late August. When we writers start blogs, we generally have a posting schedule in mind. I set my bar low, planning to do at least one post a month. I had lots to say early on and surpassed that goal, then fell into my projected monthly rhythm. Well, except the gaps between posts became larger as time went on, running six weeks rather than thirty days.


Then I missed an entire month and almost a second, oh my.


So much for goals. Not that I don’t support goal setting or always miss the mark. I do think it’s useful to aim for writing a certain amount of time or number of words each day/week/month. After all, consistency is what moves us forward and makes us better writers. You can’t achieve much with wishes, hopes, or dreams. In this business, we have to apply butt to chair and write. Or at least unleash our imaginations and let ‘er rip until our thoughts spill into our fingertips.


There’s great value in flexibility and spontaneity. All work and no imaginative play makes any writer dull. So look at the bigger picture and don’t always try to micromanage your writing life if your odd schedule or renegade methods work for you.


But if your writing life isn’t in the right gear, examine your writing habits. Are you meeting your goals? If not, why? Are you setting the bar too high? Too low? Are you not motivated enough? Do you get bogged down in a rut? Waylaid by distractions? Or do you just think you’re not working when you’re really doing some essential living?


Distractions are a major obstacle for most writers and artists. The internet is clearly our greatest blessing and curse. Hours can pass like minutes when we get online for a little research or break for some fun with e-mail or social media. If you have a telecommute job or freelance at home, then the blessings and curses multiply. It helps to write from a computer with no internet connection or by pretending the connection is down. We imaginative types can convince ourselves of almost any reality! You can also try implementing a schedule of online rewards for writing and editing time well spent.


Apparently, there is  software for incorrigibles that will prevent logging on to the internet at specified times and I suspect that’s the answer for info junkies like me. *Cough*


Anything in the immediate environment can distract, from telephone to doorbell, to that big pile of laundry you didn’t wash last night. Maybe you need to move around with a laptop or go to a coffee shop once in awhile to stay fresh. Or maybe you have kids / pets / spouses / outside day jobs / infinite responsibilities and you MUST write at particular times or not at all. Then establishing clear priorities and schedules and sticking to them is a must.


Ruts are one of my greatest pitfalls. Rather than forge ahead in a playful manner, I tend to hunker down over old work and revise, revise, revise, which sometimes pays off with an unexpected publication. But I have an overblown sense of responsibility and often ignore my sense of playfulness. I could have some fun noodling around with imaginative writing prompts to get some new stories and projects started, but my ingrained sense of responsibility kicks in and I’ll tend to old, worn-out pieces instead. Don’t let anyone call me a quitter!


There’s always a time and a place for revision and the dull nuts and bolts of writing, of course, but there’s also no need to swim with the jellyfish all the time when you could be soaring with sundogs. Writing is SUPPOSED to be FUN, dagnabit!


If you’re anything like me, not only do you deal with ruts and distractions, you must either write or die! The rest of my life seems to work better when I’m creative, as if creativity is the soil from which everything else grows. Some distractions aren’t always separate from our writing or our lives. Sometimes we have to pull away from our craft and let our lives unfold now so that we have writing fodder later. In managing our time and occupying our lives, we must decide what makes our efforts worthwhile.


Occupy Wall Street has been one of my favorite distractions lately. There’s nothing like a major world movement to snag your attention, if you’re as much interested in the state of humanity as you are in your craft. In my world, the two interests go hand-in-hand. After all, no matter whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry or some combination of genres, then you’re working to affect your readers’ minds and emotions, to provide them with an experience that makes them see something in a different light. So whether you agree or not with OWS politics, you’ll have to concede that there’s a big change in consciousness afoot, a movement manifesting in different political spheres around the globe as people reclaim their own power.


Life really is stranger than fiction and you never know whether catching errant dust bunnies, earning a Nobel prize in literature, or marching down Main Street will constitute a life well-lived. Like anything else, this is a matter of personal choice and inclination. So whether you occupy that dust mop, occupy that desk, or Occupy Wall Street, do it with gusto, complete concentration, and a mischievous sense of fun!



WRITE OR DIE!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Move It, Move It!

I’ve struggled for several weeks to write my August blog post. So many ideas, so little time, so many distractions. 

This morning I had a good idea. A eureka moment. Well, maybe an uh-duh moment, whichever way you want to look at it. Actually, I had quite a few of both types of moments since my last post and I could list a string of titles for the essays I never wrote.

It’s a tricky business, not following thoughts when the mind is simply monkeying around and then turning around and following thoughts when the mind is coaxing us into creative awareness. Knowing when to follow and when to let go, when to move and when to rest is a key to mastering not only the mind, but life itself. Moment / movement. Movement / moment. 

Story isn’t any different than life. When we are captivated with a particular piece of writing, then we’ve immersed ourselves in the flow of a successful narrative. A narrative always moves forward, just as life does.

It doesn’t matter if  we are tackling fiction, nonfiction, a dissertation, a technical manual, or even a poem. Each piece of writing has a particular flow, despite the conflicts or contrasts inherent in the work. Knowing how to control the narrative flow in order make writing engaging and understandable is the key to keeping readers turning pages. 

Flow implies movement. If you’re checking your thesaurus, flow also implies a current, a tide, or a flux. Narratives have low and high tides, a fluidity of motion in which it sometimes gushes forward in floods of action and sometimes slows to a trickle of description or exposition. But that movement must make total sense within the context of the particular experience inherent in a narrative. 

Writers must control movement in their narratives. In my freelance editing work and in my own writing, I often have to pare away extra information that slows down an otherwise engaging story. Usually this extraneous information comes in the form of a descriptive passage – exposition – or character thoughts inserted in the midst of an action scene in fiction,  memoir, or creative nonfiction. These passages are like annoying speed bumps that suddenly spring up while the piece is racing toward a narrative climax. Excessive or clumsy dialogue in fiction and creative nonfiction is another speed bump. So is too much exposition - telling rather than showing, which must be in a pleasing balance.

Sometimes narrative barriers come in the form of what I call “warming up”. As we’re revving up our writing engine, we create repetitive opening sentences in paragraphs or scenes. These don’t always occur in the opening page or pages of stories, novels, or other narratives. In the case of book-length work, these call fall in any chapter. These phrases often look and sound like different, discrete pieces, but a careful editor or reader will see a setting motif or a character action multiplied or repeated. Careful tightening of prose usually catches these extra sputters, which allows for swifter and smoother narrative movement.

There are other dangers ahead. Don’t confuse action with movement. Sometimes writers mistake the two. Sometimes perfectly good, active scenes don’t move a plot or a narrative forward. Experts call this lateral movement. Delete! Take inspiration from filmmakers who metaphorically leave lots of perfectly interesting stuff on the cutting room floor.

Another danger - over-explanation sometimes feels like movement. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence.

One of the best ways to master narrative movement is simply to read beautifully written work of any type. Wrap your brain around the patterns of successful narrative movement and you’ll tend, for the most part, after you’ve found your own voice, to create work with greater fluidity. Reading is an important part of mastering the writing craft. 

This doesn’t mean that reading every classic or award-winning contemporary book that comes along will magically allow you to write perfect or nearly perfect first drafts. Any experienced writer understands that good writing comes in the rewriting. Sometimes the muse will high-five us and inspire a nearly flawless piece to pop through. But mostly we face extensive revision. Blood, sweat, and tears rewriting. Not only to catch simple errors in grammar and punctuation, but to fill in narrative gaps or exert that picky polish with vivid verbs and specific nouns, the good word choices that make prose sing. 

In some cases, rewriting suggests paring away wordy or flowery writing into leaner and meaner prose. Always, to achieve the all-important narrative movement, writers must craft sentences that flow into the next in an effortless and compelling story stream. Central to that process is ordering words in a natural rhythm that lends to that natural flow.

Hand-in-hand with revision comes practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter if we write 10 minutes or 10 hours a day. The point is that by continually moving forward with our reading and writing, we’ll gradually internalize all the facets of skillful reading and writing. This takes time, patience, and consistent effort.

Just keep going. You gotta move it, move it!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Sitting with Warrior: Interview with Carl Hitchens

By now I figured that some of you might be tired of reading about my writing and my pain and suffering. I thought maybe, dear reader, you might enjoy thinking about someone else’s writing and their pain and suffering!

Sometimes you read a book that smacks you right in the brain bucket. Sitting With Warrior slammed me with unusual power because it has spiritual relevancy that begs to be examined.

Without further adieu, I’ll share my Amazon book review and a short interview with author Carl Hitchens, a Washington, D.C. native who currently lives in N. Arizona:
Around the time author Carl Hitchens was a young, green Marine entering his first hot LZ in the jungles of Vietnam, I was a young countercultural student demonstrating against the unpopular war in the streets of Middle America. You might say we were on the opposite ends of a spectrum. In his sobering first book, Sitting with Warrior, Hitchens generously took me to his war, and also to sit with Grandfather Warrior, his internal spiritual teacher, who reveals the sweet spot of equanimity between these two destinies. I came away from my reading understanding better how one can embrace the seemingly irreconcilable differences between war and peace.

Hitchens has clearly spent a lifetime probing the depths and shadows of his war experience to find “the beauty in the breaking”. Sitting with Warrior is a richly woven tapestry of light and shadow, fact and fantasy, prose and poetry that soars far beyond the boundaries of the tepid patriotic and political rants of ordinary war literature. This little volume pierces the heart of consciousness itself and ultimately merges the creator and the destroyer, and by healing that dichotomy within the warrior, also bridges the paradox that lives within us all.

KR: If there’s any weakness in Sitting With Warrior, in my opinion it is that the voices of the seeker and the teacher are too similar. Both are exceedingly articulate and knowledgeable. The seeker seems to have done quite a bit of homework before we see him sitting with Warrior. Was this a deliberate choice in your portrayal of the two characters? 
CH:  As far as the similarity of the voices of the seeker and the teacher goes, it wasn’t an intentional stylistic choice. It just happened. But when I look back, it makes perfect sense. Warrior is not merely a Native American of a specific nation, predisposed by a former physical past life to speak in a cultural-period way. He is a transcendent being beyond racial, cultural, gender, and even “species-ist” singularity. He is the universal, consciousness-quickening spiritual dynamic in all life forms, individuated within the specificity of each life form he inhabits as the indwelling teacher.
After departing the exotic mystery and peril of Vietnam and its warfare, the seeker spent years processing “his” war. But he did so privately within his own personal consciousness. But sorting out his own true voice from all the others and their judgments was no easy task.

Though he found a spiritual grounding that validated the nobility of his overall life, he still was unable to put his war in proper perspective with noble accomplishment. He needed to understand his journey to war and through war to know if he acquitted himself according to his own heroic ideals. 

This soul-searching came to a head, when after 35+ years, the seeker located one of the Marines of his old unit in ‘Nam through email. This event was a catalyst for him to seek out an understanding that had eluded him over the years. A determination to get clear on Vietnam before connecting in the flesh with those he had fought with.

From then on, an intensity to know the current manifestation of himself compared to his Marine-self in Vietnam consumed him. His sleep time, his day dreams, his spontaneous and formal contemplations all gravitated in this direction. As he witnessed and recorded these journeys into self, Warrior figuratively and literally (as an aspect of his own self) appeared. Understanding beyond his own ken typified the seeker’s treks to Warrior’s campfire. At these times in sitting with Warrior, the seeker’s self merged with the universal and the realization he sought arrived like a lost relative.

KR: Your quest to understand your experiences in Vietnam and to relay your observations to others obviously led you to write this book. Did you have any other motivations or issues that inspired you to pick up a pen and move beyond your aspirations as a poet?
CH:  Vietnam was not simply a crucible for survival, but, more important, a spiritual lathe cutting so deep that I couldn’t ignore it. There was a triumphant feeling that surrounded my going and returning that was unexplained by the usual measures assigned to taking up arms: moral justification, victory-defeat, honor-dishonor, worthiness-unworthiness. Getting to the source and the reason for my lingering sense of positive accomplishment, despite contrary messaging, was important to me.

I journaled about the war for years, seeking not simply to record my experience, but to scale down its enormity into a manageable size I could get a handle on. The other thing that pushed me into this direction was that I couldn’t hear my own voice in the body of writing on Vietnam. Something was missing from it for me, something I thought was not only essential to my story, but to others’, as well. Not merely veterans, but all Americans, perhaps all the world.
KR: You did that brilliantly. Any other thoughts?
CH:  Another important reason for my wanting to bring the book out at this time was to help present military personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. While their reception is far more positive than we ‘Nam vets experienced, they nevertheless will have their own readjustment issues to contend with. Many realizations they will have are still years off, so that the initial body of their writing and sharing is not fully mature. I think my sharing will broaden their maturing voice more quickly.
KR: I think many will be grateful that you took the time and put forth the energy to publish this book. Do you have anything in progress?
CH:  I’ve been so consumed with promoting Warrior that I haven’t directed much time to other specific writing projects. However, I keep exhorting myself to put the finishing touches on my poetry manuscript, Shades of Light, and get it circulating among first-time poetry book contests.
KR: I’m also curious about your feelings toward war. If you could wave a wand and end all wars today, would you do that and why?
CH:  Rather than wave a wand to end all wars, I would rather reveal the seed of war, which I believe is the misunderstanding and concomitant misuse of our natural drive to perfection. The need to change things, improve on things, to manage things is, at its deepest root,  a desire to bring more perfected form into being. Distrusting life and other life forms, because of life’s seeming uncertainty, prods in us a desire to control the process, to eliminate the uncertainty. This puts life—human, animal—in opposition to itself. This is the perversion of the warrior-within, the narrowing down of “us” into “us and them.”

To explain this in an ultimate, effective way that would touch people not as an idea, but as the self-revealing nature of their inner selves . . . well that would be the next book. If only I could pull it off.
KR:  I bet you can – and will. You have readers waiting!




Direct comments and questions to drumtalk at mac.com

UPDATE: See also - 

"The Hero's Journey"  at TheVeteransPTSDProject.com




 

 



©  2011, Kate Robinson & Carl Hitchens


Sunday, 12 June 2011

Broken: Interruptions and Writer’s Block

I’ve been popping my head out of the rabbit hole and scanning the horizon now and then. I can’t say there are many pleasant sights. The world seems to be teetering on the brink of – um, something . . .

Summer is usually a light-hearted, energetic, and creative time for me, but what I’m feeling most is uncertainty. Like I’m the smackee caught in a perpetual smack-a-mole game, bracing for the next blow.

This is not good form, entertaining all these restless and doomerish thoughts. Perhaps the wave of current events predisposes me to a semi-permanent state of post-traumatic stress disorder.

At any rate, a lot of things seem to be broken.

I’ve had a solid week of broken stuff. This means my projects go on hold while I engage in necessary repairs and purchases. It means I struggle for an hour to right a confused printer only to have it suddenly refuse to communicate with the computer again for the tenth time. When I go out and buy a new printer, instead of relief, I find I’ve just spent over an hour carefully choosing a rather handsome one for the combination of features, reputation, and cost, only to find that it has a fatal defect. Instead of rebirth and renewal, I have a stillbirth on my hands. Only I don’t know about the defective chip in the printhead tape until I’ve struggled with the installation for three hours and finally call technical support in the morning.

When I rebox the darn thing, drag it back to the store, exchange it, and reinstall the (second) new one (in minutes this time), then the landline goes out. There’s some sort of area problem, only I don’t figure that out until I’ve spent a half hour trying to post a repair order online, and then another half hour spinning in an endless voice mail loop when I reach for the cell phone. When one of my loved ones gets through the loop on their first attempt, I know I’m a magnet for jellyfish.

At least the landline dial tone spontaneously reappears, but when that’s a go, the garage door opener expires. Then the internet goes down about the time the garage door guy has replaced the switch three hours after his ETA. Only the internet doesn’t come back up with the usual “repair connection” mouse click. Some human genius who refuses to own up to the deed has tried to clear the router and modem by disconnecting cables rather than the power cords, and placed one back in the wrong jack. Why is it we check the thing that matters most last?

*Sigh*

I have a new keyboard for my laptop sitting in its shipping box – you know all the rules about water and keyboards – but now I’m afraid to install it. This should be a simple 15-minute operation, but the way things are going, I have visions of my beloved and invaluable laptop disintegrating or exploding into space if I touch a screw.

In between my technology struggles are a whole raft of things that go along with having two teens leaving the nest – graduation preparations, college loan documents, entrance essays and videos, and on and on – you know, normal put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stuff that should go well but doesn’t always, eating up the hours.

The good thing is that these jellyfish – piles of them! – are small obstacles. I’m thankful for small obstacles and disasters because they seem to dispel even larger obstacles and disasters and give me something to blog about.

Sometimes I find that these involuntary breaks from writing do me some real good even though I chafe at them. I get insanely happy when I finally have a workday with no interruptions. Karma, or fate, or that gosh darn cruel muse gave me a break one day out of the last ten. I don’t mean a break from my writing, but a chance to write for a change. I latch onto a chance to write like a mutt with a tasty bone. I growl at others to stay away, something I need to work on.

Anyway, I spent a good twelve hours that day frolicking in a manuscript and revising. I found that my absence from the work was a boon. I re-entered the project with a fresh and eager mind, re-visioning the strengths and weaknesses of it in a new light, which is really the point of writing and editing, no?

This is why it’s always good to slow down and let your work simmer. It’s natural to do this after completing a draft, but sometimes these infernal and frustrating breaks in the middle are even better. My subconscious mind seems to have worked that much harder for me while I was whinging (as they say in the UK, rhymes with binging) over the interruptions than it would have with my active, daily participation. Sometimes our subconscious minds just need a little space.

Life is funny like that. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes dealing with stuff like broken printers, phones, routers, and garage door openers has a cosmic overtone (I picture confronting a jellyfish and having a sundog burst out of it, sci-fi style).

You could apply this principle to difficult manuscripts and the spectre of writer’s block. I’ve never felt that there is such an animal. Yes, there are times when writing doesn’t go well or fallow periods (I typed gallow periods!) in which the spirit is willing but the mind goes blank.

Stuckness always happens for a reason. More often than not, writer’s block is simply a signal that there’s something wrong with a manuscript. Our subconscious minds know this and refuse to go further until the problem is corrected. The problem could be an awkward scene, a character defect, or that we’re telling a story from the wrong POV. Whatever the issue, we’re grounded until we’ve solved it. We often refuse to accept this and keep trying to go over, under, or around the problem rather than letting the work simmer.

These writing dilemmas usually fall away with a sudden realization. This may not happen as quickly as we’d like. In fact, I can despair here again why we check the thing that matters most last. At any rate, these creative impasses are rarely solved by the rational mind. Solutions seem to appear from the intuitive netherworld, a gift from the subconscious mind. This undermind, as I call it, basks in creative ferment and works very hard on our behalf. All we have to do is wait patiently (or impatiently, as is often the case) until it sends up a eureka moment signal. 

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask the subconscious mind to help, please-please. Like anyone else, it responds nicely to well-mannered requests. Asking may even spur it to respond quicker. The subconscious mind also works when we haven’t asked it to, as in the case of my string of interruptions being rewarded with a little more clarity when I returned to my work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can use these broken times to our advantage. They don’t feel good, but sometimes the struggle opens up to become the path. Not that it’s easy to let go and let things happen naturally. This takes practice and lots of reminders. Building new, positive habitual patterns is as hard to accomplish as undoing negative habitual patterns. Clue: in Buddhist philosophy, it’s said that more miseries come from trying to avoid misery. . .

So celebrate your broken moments. Embrace uncertainty. Do what you have to do. Have faith that your subconscious mind works even when you can’t. Have patience. Just keep going.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dreams Dissolve Without Warning

In my universe, the month of May began with the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been discovered and killed in a raid in Pakistan. It’s closing with a Christian sect prediction of the Biblical Rapture that didn’t materialize, punctuated by all too frequent real-life earthquakes and destructive storms. We seem to be lurching from big event to bigger event and back again. I’m a fairly imaginative fiction writer, and I couldn’t make some of this stuff up! Real life is so awe-inspiring at the moment that I find myself reading much less fiction and many more news features, op-eds, and narrative non-fiction books.  

I’ve had a dozen different thoughts this month about what to write for this blog post. Out of those dozen ideas, maybe half of them would have yielded solid essays. But I didn’t write them down and my laziness led to loss. That’s probably a testament to keeping an idea notebook or file. I have one, but didn’t note any of the elusive thoughts inspired by either by randomness, the day’s newsworthy events, or maybe something I saw in the news or read on another writer’s blog.  

Also, I meant to do the next post on a Keats quote I mentioned in my last post, but I didn’t note this and then forgot about my plan! It wasn’t until I finished this installment and copied it into my long document of all my blog entries did I notice my previous intention! 

That’s a double jellyfish moment, for sure. 

The writing life is like that. If you don’t pluck them from the ether, ideas and the inspiration to use them evaporate:


Inspiration

Sheer as pearldust
stories flutter
at poets’ tongues

butterfly exuberant

Speak freshly
dreams dissolve
without warning


KR 1997

  
You’d think I’d learn my own lesson. I keep a pocket notebook with me wherever I go, and spend half my life in front ofa computer and near pencil and paper, but I still let ideas vanish. I often make the excuse that a good idea is so memorable I’ll never forget it. Either that or I’m in the middle of something I don’t want to interrupt. Or I’m simply being lazy. But in this age of information overload coupled with my aging brain and ADD, I forget my bright ideas very quickly. 

So act on your creative thoughts immediately. Jot them down, whether on paper or in a Word file. Interrupt yourself to do this even though you might not use your ideas immediately. I’ve perused old lists and then written poems, essays, and stories years after writing down the initial idea down. You never know what powerful writing might spring from a sudden idea if you allow yourself the grace to accept it.

That’s not to say that we need to grasp at all thoughts. As we do with our writing, we have to know what thoughts to follow and what thoughts to let go. It’s appropriate to simply observe thoughts arising in our minds without chasing them. This is because the human mind is prone to chatter; most of this chatter is rather useless and even debilitating. Attaching to some thoughts and continuing to follow them, as in letting our brain stay “on automatic”, leads to habitual patterns in our behavior that are hard to overcome. 

These are the thoughts that bind us to our own worst fears. Usually these thoughts run in the direction of self-hatred or hatred for others, ranging from envy to bigotry. Or these thoughts are tied to anxiety and insecurity. Some simply replay past issues, things we regard with negative emotions like resentment. 

Sometimes these binding thoughts are more practical, but they create narrow parameters for our lives. You know, like the ones that tell us that we must always prioritize things like making grocery lists and cleaning the bathroom. Sometimes we stand in our own creative path rather than letting some of the daily stuff go. Sometimes we have important, creative missions we effectively avoid by safely adhering to routine. 

We often spend considerable energy reviewing thoughts that bind us to a past that is over or a future that doesn’t exist (or even a present that lacks creative spark). Living in the present moment frees our minds to respond more appropriately and creatively to life as it happens. This is sort of like narrowing a beam of light onto the task at hand, a practice of concentration that’s very useful for creative work. 

So our thoughts are the threads that bind us to our own suffering, that create the webs that become obstacles to our creativity and eventual enlightenment. Both the negative and ordinary thoughts that bind us can be handled by simply observing them and watching them evaporate, like watching a time-lapse video of clouds forming and dissolving, swirling eternally across the sky. The true nature of our minds is like the sky, pure and boundless above those clouds. This practice of limiting mental chatter in order to maintain awareness is the point of meditative practice. 

When we’re engaged in deep creation, whether as writers and artists, or cooks and inventors, neuroscientists have discovered that our brains produce the gamma and theta brainwaves that also occur during deep meditation. We go into “the zone”. I suspect by training ourselves to clear unnecessary chatter that we open our mind for clearer and more creative thought. 

An open mind allows our own underlying wisdom, compassion, and creative energy to shine through. We all have this awake Buddha mind, this connected creativity – it’s the eternal sunshine that those clouds and storm fronts obscure only temporarily. The clouds are ephemeral but the sun’s light and energy is constant. 

The never-ending motion of waves at the ocean’s surface is another analogy or metaphor for the mind. Underneath the surface of the restless ocean lies a vast layer of imperturbable water. The waves are similar to the thoughts that constantly arise in our mind and disappear back into the source. The practice of mindfully observing arising thoughts and allowing them to disappear without following them makes us all happier people. 

We gaze with wonder at the rainbows and sundogs that appear unexpectedly in the sky. We view them with a sense of joy because they’re a metaphor for our luminous nature and our innate creative spark. The ideas our minds gift us with appear suddenly like rainbows. Cultivating only the most positive, necessary thoughts clears the way for creating good art or finding creative solutions to mend the world’s woes. 

Perspiration must follow inspiration. So when creative ideas appear unbidden, we writers should make the extra effort to note these special thoughts and let our ordinary ones drift away . . .

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Paradox of Error

I use an old but simple writing submission database to track my writing submissions (and my voluminous rejections and rare acceptances). The program opens with a menu that contains an author quotation. Since I’ve used this program for years, I’ve read and saved most of the quotations a long time ago. I dig them up periodically for various purposes ranging from Facebook status updates, to e-mail signatures to writing prompts.

So, when I opened the program to record a story rejection this morning, an old quotation popped up. I don’t recall ever reading it before, but I surely  must have because the program only contains a hundred at most. Perhaps it simply didn’t resonate at other times the way it did today.

But that’s not the quotation I’m going to share with you.

HA! That’s the way sundog and jellyfish moments happen, without warning and sometimes on a big switcheroo. . .

When I copied the Keats quote in question and went to paste it into my authors’ quotation bank, I dropped it in front of another quotation that I had to have read previously, because  I copied and pasted it along with all the rest, one at a time. It must also have struck me today as being far more important than when I deposited it:

If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out.

~ Rabindranath Tagore, poet, philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel laureate (1861-1941)

I’m sure that Rabindranath Tagore, being the multidimensional spiritual leader he was, could expound on error and this quotation in ways that would leave us all breathless. I can’t do that, but his words struck me like lightning.

In the course of navigating through our writing and our lives, it is important to correct errors, no? It is often said that good writing comes not with the initial draft, but in the act(s) of revision. As writers, we spend a great deal of time polishing our work to the highest level that we can achieve, which is dependent upon our understanding or skill at the time. We try our best to not make mistakes.

Life is like that too – we make errors, we correct course. As we gain experience, we are able to correct course or revise more fluidly and are also able to avoid making previous errors.

However, Tagore seems to refer here to error in the context of paradox: Truth will be shut out if you shut the door to all error.

We do things wrong, we’re supposed to suffer, right?

Not always. We make a cake but forget an ingredient, or make a wrong turn on a city street, or glob the paint on the “wrong” way, or commit some sin or another. But instead of disaster, we create a new product, discover a wonderful new neighborhood, start a fabulous new painting technique, or by committing a sin – just a shameful, guilt-ridden word for error – we are liberated from some habitual tendency by gaining greater realization through the consequences of the action.

I think Tagore’s point about error as applied to the writing craft reveals this: not only are errors valuable in the sense of the learning derived from making them, but that by allowing error into our work in the most creative sense, this allows us to create deeper and better connected writing.

I suppose this topic could be handled better in a book-length discussion by a more masterful philosopher or writer, but in my nutshell exploration, I think the jist of finding truth in error in our writing life is to simply allow error to happen or to accept error when it happens.

Both writing and life flow better with less negative critique from the “internal editor”, the judgmental side of monkey mind. This is the essence of mind that perpetually chatters, that assigns black and white judgment rather than allowing the shades of gray inherent in life and creativity to show through. If we operate outside the editor mentality, then we avoid limiting possibilities and are able to look past the right or wrong binary and into the realm of paradox.

Grappling with paradox allows us to deepen our writing and get to those real nuggets of truth. This may mean allowing ourselves to write in a genre or style not embraced by the mainstream, by discovering something interesting or beautiful in work that we might first perceive as an error, or simply by patiently polishing our work by stages into something beautiful.

How many times have you written something that you felt was wonderful, only to discover that your crit group or the editor of your favorite literary magazine not only didn’t see your work in the same light, they didn’t see any light in it at all? While the input of others can be invaluable, you can’t expect them to fully understand your truth until you’ve fully revealed it in your work. (And another paradox here is that even when you get the work polished, it still won’t please all, and still be viewed as error!)

A first attempt at something rarely yields the best result, and whether you’re learning to bake the best cake in the world, painting a masterpiece, trying to find the most intriguing neighbourhood in Madrid, or working on an award-winning essay, it may take a whole lotta rounds and errors to find the jewel.

Error can bring us to the truth just as frequently as “not error” or the right stuff can. By accepting the paradox in our creative work and our lives, by embracing the shadow portions of ourselves and our work, we allow the truth and /or the greatest of relative truths to shine through.

In this regard, jellyfish can be sundogs, and sundogs can be jellyfish. If we don’t make errors and simply reject (or run from, or punish) error and live in the black and white world of conceptual thought, the binary thinking that makes error wrong and “not error” right, then it’s a lot harder to bask in the light of truth. We might not even understand what the full spectrum of truth is in any given situation until we make errors and grapple with them.

Truth is best revealed in prose and poetry, song and music, image and film when an artist has allowed the work to take wrong corners, to miss ingredients, or to accept unorthodox elements. When we seek to  control life with pre-conceived recipes for success or control our creative work with a list of rules, we are rewarded with limited understanding and limited results. Rule-bound thinking results in partial right or “not error”, but not the full-blooded, hearty truth.

Rules are usually applicable, especially in the context of non-negotiables like the Ten Commandants or watertight grammar rules, but the paradox of negotiating error and “not error” is the process that leads to deeper understanding, to truth. Accepting error is an inclusive process, related to the exhortation in my last blog entry to not quitting, to “just keep going.”

I make no claim to have any great grasp of Truth with a capital T, but we all have our own relative truth. This is what we strive to present in our writing, those words that come from the heart. Truth is the arrow released by our best work and it plunges into the soul of the observer. Allow yourself some error - to play with error, to celebrate it, even -  to allow truth to shine from your work.

As for the Keats quote, I guess that’s a story for next time!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Just Keep Going


*Deep sigh*

As if there aren’t already enough jellyfish to go around, a big one plopped right on Japan’s doorstep. Life is like that – whether by karmic design or happenstance, not so good things pop up without warning. In Japan’s case, we have the foreknowledge that the nation of islands sits upon major seismic faults and historically has been subject to large quakes and tsunamis, but this is little comfort to the hurting people who must deal with the horrific consequences of the tsunami and the nuclear aftermath. My heart goes out to them . . . may all beings be happy and free of suffering!

Life is always like this and there’s not much we can do to avoid the not so good times. We must deal with them head on, one day at a time – or in the case of these dire, catastrophic events, an hour at a time, maybe even a minute or two, doing whatever we must to respond in appropriate and sensible ways.

The writing life is often just a microcosm within the macrocosm of our larger lives. We doodle along, mostly having good or perhaps mediocre writing days, in the sense that we make reasonably steady progress with our projects. Sometimes we feel the bumps of occasional dissatisfaction with our daily word count or the quality of our writing. Or maybe we’re dying to start something new but haven’t the foggiest notion where to go with the first blank page. Sometimes we even hit a wall and say that we have writers block. Writers have natural ups and downs – some swear they’re affected by moon phases or planetary alignments, others simply by what is happening in their personal lives at a particular moment.

Other writers seem to be able to produce a particular word count at a particular level of quality no matter what is happening around them. In fact, both the jellyfish days and the sundog days may stimulate this type of writer to fits of creativity. I admire an artist who can use both the dark and the light sides of life to stimulate their work. This is probably a sign of true equanimity, the ability to be okay no matter what. For aren’t we really okay even when things aren’t very okay?

I suspect that the process of being able to write or create art no matter the circumstances of our lives is probably more than a gift. It’s a process that can be cultivated by anyone, in the same way that years of meditation practice or contemplation allow the practitioner to achieve emotional equanimity and stability in their practice.

My Buddhist teacher Garchen Rinpoche says equanimity is possible because the mind can be either like water or like ice. In either case, the element is the same – H2O – but ice is locked up tight, of course, and water is fluid. Our minds either grasp and cling to our experiences as good or bad or we simply accept them as they arrive and respond in the most appropriate ways we can, seeing them simply as experiences.

I think we can apply this concept to our writing as well. Our minds are responsible for our creative flow. We can conceptualize, agonize, and become over-judgmental of our work. Some writers call this listening to the inner critic or the inner editor. This line of thought locks the creative process up. These negative thoughts are always with us, but compare them to clouds momentarily sailing along a clear blue sky. Let them pass without taking a ride on them.

We can choose to allow our creativity to flow moment to moment without restraint. The particular result of our daily – or whatever unit – writing may be either good or not so good, but our focus should be on the meditative aspect of it – the process itself, the flow of contemplation that leads us deeper into understanding, that allows us to shape our thoughts on paper. The process is all good, whether or not a particular session is serene / productive or mired in mishap.

Rinpoche always says just keep going. Good session – just keep going. Bad session – just keep going. Acceptance? Just keep going. Rejection? Just keep going . . .

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Peering from the Rabbit Hole

Today I’m taking stock of my original mission for this blog, which is short and sweet – to reflect upon the “sundry digressions of the writing life”. I’m sort of doing it, though I’d much rather kick back on my blog and share more fun stuff about writers and writing.

But life happens and I’m going with my gut. I guess I’d classify my small collection of blog entries thus far as rants more than essays.

So be it. At least I’m writing even if I’m not talking about the mechanics or the fun part, publishing and reading. This type of op-ed writing isn’t as interesting as writing fiction and poetry or even creative nonfiction, and it’s fairly new to me. In the past I haven’t piped up much on paper or in pixels, save for one long feature, a few exasperated letters to editors, short local color pieces, and a handful of nature essays.

As I’ve probably said before, I don’t care much for daily journaling and my writing about the “real” world is usually reserved for musing about nature, which seems far more real and precious to me than man’s constructs. But these days, I suddenly find myself inclined to write on reams of trees and across universes of cyberspace about human beings and human doings. These are extraordinary times that call not only for extraordinary measures but extraordinary words as well.

Sheesh.

Unless you’ve been in a coma lately, you’ve noticed that daily headlines and news clips on most any subject vary from the peculiar to the jaw-dropping bizarre. As a connoisseur of novels of all genres and an emerging fiction writer myself, I really couldn’t make some of this stuff up.

But it’s happening. It’s here.

While the Middle East struggles to embrace a more progressive way of life, the USA and the Western world are embracing – well, what are we doing?

I just received an e-mail geared to politically progressive folk about the useless, reactionary bills being supported by the party who allegedly wants to cut spending and restore the constitution. I can imagine this party probably sends out a similar list of bills supported by the party who allegedly will subvert the constitution and turn the USA into a socialist state.

Some of this is just noise that will recede, but popping some of these legislative wheelies is certainly a waste of time when we don’t have much time to waste. Many of these issues have gone under the microscope before. Existing legislation and the U.S. Constitution as we know it has withstood the test of time and served citizens well.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, in other words. Some of the noisy issues are really about a system we hopefully might fix if we don’t continue to ignore it – the petroleum technology vs. renewable energy boondoggle that underlies much of the current suffering on our trip down “da Nile.” Way down. But that’s another story.

You wonder if a lot of this noise isn’t just a cynical show put on by pretend legislators to assure us they’re working. As I saw some fairly anonymous person on an energy/economy web site declare recently: “we have a two-party system, the career politicians and us. They win every election.”

Or maybe these clowns are cosmic actors holding up a mirror to us in some great galactic passion play, and guess what, we’re not a pretty sight, either. It’s not easy to embrace the paradox, but rest assured, we live in one.

There are definitely some legislative attempts at “improving” the quality of life for citizens that make one truly pause, though. Within weeks of the assassination of a federal judge and the assassination attempt upon a congresswoman in Tucson,  some “conservative” Arizona legislators sought to test the limits of the  14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution with a state bill calling for required gun ownership. Why? How much further into a tasteless and bizarre rabbit hole must Arizona fall? And this is just one of many illogical actions spreading across our fair land.

Worse, the face of evil shows itself once again in international financial markets – especially those based in London and New York – where cynical speculation on commodities more often than not drives food prices higher, creating more suffering and unrest for the average world citizen.

As if the jellyfish situations caused by a soaring world population, peak oil (some would say plateau oil), diminishing fresh water resources, and climate chaos are not enough. It’s as if these cynical players are saying “let’s just drive another nail into the coffin of a less fortunate nation, a less fortunate tribe, a less fortunate family, a less fortunate child so that we may continue to flourish.”

Fortunately for the fortunate and unfortunate alike, there are courageous people seeking solutions to these and many other problems. Many brave souls are on the ground shining light into dark corners so that the rest of us may see the wizard behind Oz and find our way home.

These folk range from scientists and mathematicians crunching numbers and formulas to everyday people experimenting with sustainable living, to writers, artists, musicians, and visionaries who explore the inner and outer boundaries of what it means to be a five-fingered being. These people are the sundogs that pop out of the dankest fog and shine.

This leads me to the conclusion that our politicians can’t do this. Jesus won’t save us either. Neither will Buddha, Mohammed nor any of the sky beings swoop down to offer us an operating manual or pull us from the rabbit hole. They’ve already kinda done that. Now it’s up to us, the sundogs and the seadogs, what Buddhists call bodhisattvas – no matter what religion we practice – to invent the new paradigm. We ARE the leaders, the healers, the deciders. More paradox.

I just learned about seadogs a few days ago from the wonderful A.Word.A.Day e-mail sponsored by Wordsmith.org. Seadogs are defined as “a faint rainbow-like formation seen in foggy conditions; also called mistbow, fogbow, and white rainbow”. We’ve all seen these and I would simply have called them sundogs. Now I know better and I’m intrigued by both terms, combining as they do all the positive attributes of man’s best tail-wagging, hand-licking friend and the wondrous-on-many-levels attributes of sunlight. Of course, seadogs are also veteran sailors and we are these as well. Like I said, we live in a multidimensional world of paradox.

Who doesn’t look up in awe at a rainbow or understand at gut level the symbolism of the phenomena? Or resonate somehow with the image of a careworn sailor or a lighthouse keeper valiantly keeping the faith?

I can only hope the world will be graced with many stray sundogs and seadogs nosing about, if only to light the faint trail that continues onward and upward. From what I see, climbing out of the rabbit hole will be a mind-bending toughie.

But there’s hope. Hope lives inside us and manifests when we stay connected and do our best work, whatever that may be. “Best work” as in “be the change you want to see in the world.”

I have a feeling that the best change isn’t made via legislation or even on the streets in revolution, but in our own hearts and minds.

Let’s get busy, seadogs!




Saturday, 5 February 2011

Groping Redux

In part, I was inspired to start my blog after my first encounter with TSA in November 2010. I was so furious after my first patdown at Los Angeles International Airport that I immediately whipped my laptop out and spent the next two hours at the gate writing about it. I submitted the piece to a newspaper for publication, but newspapers and journals these days are full of the sound and the fury of people disgusted by having their bodies - including their "junk" - patted down in the name of safety.

So I thought I'd give the old journal entry the light of day here. It's interesting to note that on my return trip from Africa, I was groped not only once but TWICE, first in Amsterdam and then in Nashville, TN. In Amersterdam on my way to Nairobi, there were very, very few people stopped for a scan and none at my gate that I saw getting patted down. On my return trip, however, everyone without exception was being scanned to enter my Delta flight to Memphis, and I was again a magnet for the full kaboodle. Watch out for those lady bumps, they might explode!

The danger in all this is that we begin to accept the unacceptable when it becomes routine and normal. Another step down a slippery slope.

I have no problem with the responsibility of government and air carriers to keep us safe. What I object to is the reactionary (and questionable) practice of revealing scans and patting travelers down. The Israelis, who are experts at dealing with potential terrorism, post agents and dogs in their airports. They watch behavior, which makes more sense than targeting the average tourist for a patdown, including the elderly in wheelchairs and young children. Time will show that current TSA procedures are a waste of time and money. If they're effective at all, it's only as a deterrent. Posting well-trained agents and dogs sound like better deterrents than probably unconstitutional body searches. All this may become a moot point as peak oil creeps into our lives, however. Air travel will one day  - all too soon - become a privilege of the wealthy.

Here's the original piece:

11/29/2010 Scanning is NOT an Option

It’s early. Way too early. Why do I never get enough sleep before I travel?
I feel like a warmed-over, stale cuppa something by the time I reach LAX, check my luggage, and head for my Delta gate at 6:51 a.m. for a 9:05 flight. A good thing to be in place ahead of time. Not a good thing if you don’t enjoy dragging yourself out of bed before dawn to crawl into a cold airport shuttle, and then to a long wait on a hard plastic seat.

Oh, but let’s backtrack a bit.

I knew my day wasn’t going well when the TSA security agent standing on the way, far side of the metal detectors took a good, long look at me in the security line. One of those eyeballs on sticks kind of looks.

At first I think it‘s because I carry my laptop in a backpack – ooh, ooh, the big, black, suicide-bomber backpack. Or maybe it's because my handbag looks too heavy because I have a full water bottle in it. The ozone level is so high around the City of Angels that I always feel thirsty. I yank it out and suck the water down in one long pull as I walk past a recycling bin before dumping my shoes, carry-on, and laptop onto the conveyor.

The guy keeps his eyes glued on me. When it’s finally my turn to walk through the metal detector, he channels me into no-man’s land between two scanners, slick as you please.

“Female assist on 4A, female assist on 4 A,” he says into his walkie-talkie with a bit of self-importance.

Female assist? It dawns on my sleep-deprived, senior mind: Don’t you get patted down only if you refuse a scan? If I was the jaw-dropping type, mine would have hit the floor.

Now I know what farm animals in the slaughter line feel like. Myth #1 - you choose a patdown if you refuse a scan. I hadn’t refused anything yet.

Never mind recent news reports in which people say they didn’t see anyone get scanned or groped on their trip through America’s airports. At LAX the process is so quick and unobtrusive that most people behind you don’t even notice, unless your female assist doesn’t turn up in a hot flash.

Besides, myth # 2 is that you’re holding up the line. Actually, you’re channeled in-between lines into a quadrangle between two scanners. Then, naturally self-conscious that you hit the unlucky jackpot, you twist, turn, and gaze around, wondering if TSA is going to watch your handbag with cash, credit cards, and passport, your plucked laptop, or your carry-on bag, since your stuff just went through security without you.

Why the heck does the male TSA agent call for female assistance about 10 times? How long can this ordeal last?

I figure it doesn’t hurt to throw a small, polite fit.

“I want a scan,” I say, when the young female agent finally appears from wherever she was probably been patting down someone else. An elderly woman in a wheelchair is waiting behind me, though she was there first.

When my female assist agent finally rushes up, I insist on going ahead because my belongings are hanging out on the end of the conveyor belt where other, luckier, and less karmically bereft passengers are collecting their gear.

“Why are you patting me down?”

“You walked through the metal detector and into holding. We can’t scan you now, you’ll have to go through the line. Besides, these –” the agent waved her blue-gloved hands at the scanners, aren’t working.”

“But WHY am I being patted down?”

“You’re wearing a skirt and jacket.”

I look down at my long, form-fitting knit skirt and short jacket. The outfit is so tight I could barely conceal a band-aid. I may as well have been wearing a bikini, like the highly-publicized young lady who went through an LAX metal detector a couple of days before. I wore the get-up from LAX to London last fall. When you’re traveling for over 30 hours (my kids and I had to ride the Tube and later the Arriva trains to southwest Wales), you really don’t want to wear jeans or anything that binds, because you’ll feel every little seam and bump.

“And?”

“That’s a point we look for.”

“And all these people,” I wave my hand at the line of people collecting their shoes and gear from the bins ahead of me, all decked out in baggy jeans or tight jeans topped with heavy sweaters, generously cut long-sleeve collared shirts, and sometimes tight or baggy layers of knit shirts and sweaters. Some even wore bulky winter coats, scarves, and gloves, “just sail on through and yet they could more easily conceal things than me?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “We pick people out at random.”

By type of clothing, at random. Hmm.

“I want a scan.”

By now, my short little fuss attracts a third agent, a young male who looks pained at my logic. Damn straight, his face agrees. He shuffles from foot to foot. “You want a scan? You’ll have to collect your things and go back into another line if you want a scan.”

The female agent looks confused. “You can’t have a scan. You don’t have a choice. Well, you could go back, but you’re here. Do you want a scan or not?”

“When’s your flight?” The male agent glances at his watch.

“9:05.” I have over two hours and my gate is visible just beyond security. But I want to put TSA through as many paces as they put me through. At least they care when I have to board my flight. I’d read about some rough treatment by TSA agents in CNN news reports. Rudeness, theft of personal belongings from privacy rooms, direct quotes from the TSA hierarchy that security was more important than missing a flight.

“Plenty of time if you want to go back.” He looked uncomfortable, as though no one had ever collected their things and started over before.

I glare at them both, just a little glare, not enough to get me into more hot water.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “A patdown only takes a few seconds.”

I snivel. “Why does the world think you only get patted down if you refuse a scan? That’s the word on the street and in news reports. “Here I stand, not refusing a scan, and you’re patting me down.”

“Ma’am,” the female said, “it’s random security.”

The second male agent nods. “What do you want?”

“I just want to get on my flight, obviously.” I look the female in the eye. “You said it was because I’m wearing a skirt. It’s long, but it isn’t exactly big and fluffy.” I sigh. “Well, go ahead.”

She brightens, and the male agent takes a step back. “Hold your arms out, please.”

I do, but I don’t like it one bit. It actually feels more threatening than when I was pulled from a line in pre-metal detector days at the Kingston, Jamaica airport to a privacy room for a much more thorough pat-down than I get here at home during a war. Since they weren’t looking for explosives in 1989, it could only have been a drug search. I was amused because why would anyone in their right mind try to smuggle anything through international customs? Your chances were probably better to stash contraband in your checked luggage. Besides, there were far more bohemian-looking people than me leaving Kingston. That time, I wore a little knit mini-dress with ankle-length leggings. Sandals. No undies. When the attractive black female agent patted me down, there was definitely nada to grope but bony me, 120 pounds dripping wet. The experience left me giggling. While she had me cornered, some smuggler probably got away bigtime. I didn’t even carry the legal allotment of Jamaican rum in my checked lugguage.

But the experience of having my more jiggly and senior 135 pounds patted down didn’t make me giggle.

For one thing, the TSA agent didn’t do the patdown as publicized. No checking anything front or back, just down from shoulders to torso to the sides of my legs, then kinda sorta up the inside of my legs, bumping with one finger for a split-second my pelvic bone, where my left junk would be if I had any. I could have hidden lots of stuff in places she didn't check.

Dozens of people continued swarming unpatted and unscanned around me, all, according to TSA, potential terrorists. I didn’t appreciate being singled out for nothing one bit.

And that’s the crux of the problem. How much energy is wasted on random searches? When does security become tyranny? How much privacy and freedom do you give up in order to be secure? How many people with contraband have TSA arrested or pulled out of flight lines since starting the porno scans and patdowns?

The only one I’ve heard of so far is the young man in San Diego who didn’t want to be nuked, and didn’t want his junk touched either. He was willing to give up a holiday to fight for YOUR rights.

But I have a heckuva lot hinging around this international trip. I guess if you want to avoid having your lady junk touched, it’s better to wear pants. If you must fly and your trip is too expensive to walk away from, expect to get nuked or groped whether you like it or not.

It doesn’t make me feel one bit safer, because there’s always a way to get around each new security measure.
The best thing about my experience? Questioning authority. If I was younger, I might have been yanked out of line for giving TSA the lip. It felt damn good to be a cranky old lady.

I question the rationality of anyon who thinks it’s okay to have their junk touched without just cause. Anyone who says x-rays and groping makes them feel secure hasn’t confronted the nature of their own impermanence. Living is risky. Everything changes. We’re all going to die and some of us will die inconveniently and tragically. Nothing will ever totally guarantee public or personal safety.

I reach my hard plastic seat more morning-impaired than ever. Now that I’ll probably exhibit a mild case of PTSD every time I’m in an airport, I can take at least comfort in the fact that I made the experience as hard on TSA as TSA made it on me.

I look over at the security line. They’ve just channelled a young lady in sweater and jeans into no-man’s land. Three women in a row.

Tag, you’re it. You decide.