Saturday, March 23, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, See What I Did There Edition

1. re-drafting and crafting poems with an eye towards making them better--more effective, more moving, simply more
2. critically reading your own work with the goal of editing and crafting your writing towards a better end
3. crafting your writing towards a better end
4. revising
5. revision

Friday, March 22, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Letting Butler and Gracie Handle it Today Editoin

1. cheese
4. belly rubs
3. being good with numbers (theoretical)
5. thumbs (TOTALLY theoretical)
2. long walks/short but very fast runs (tie)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Trying Not to Suck

Let’s get something straight right away: I am not on a weight loss journey. I am not on a journey of any kind. I am in the middle of my life. I’m sure some people find the word “journey” helpful (or else it wouldn’t show up all the time—on television, on discussion boards, in conversation. I blame The Biggest Loser, but maybe it started before that). The phrase didn’t begin to irritate me until I started running with the Couch-to-5K program but, like a pebble in my shoe, it has caused more and more aggravation as time has gone on.

The first time I heard it—really heard it, that is—I wrote the following in an email to a friend of mine:

Also, you know what phrase needs to be banned forever? "Weight-Loss Journey" (oh, yes, often capitalized). I'm not on a Weight-Loss Journey. I am learning how not to suck. Good grief.

We have since altered that phrase to “I am trying not to suck,” which we think would look better on a t-shirt. Because it would. Someone needs to design one (in wicking fabric, please) and post it on CafĂ© Press and send me the money you make. Or even half. Thank you.

I also want to make it clear that I have been bowled over by the positive response I've gotten to my running—from people I know well, from people I hardly know at all, from people I only know through Facebook or other social media. People have gone out of their way to contact me, to wish me well, to ask me questions, and—and this scares the crap out of me, by the way—to tell me I'm an inspiration to them in some way. Yikes. There are way better role models out there, people, trust me on this. Some of them even already know how not to suck.

And I remain surprised, although I really shouldn't be at this point, by the people who are desperate to tell me I'm doing it wrong.

Make sure you eat enough carbs. Don't eat too many carbs. Count your calories. Don't count your calories. Weigh yourself once a month. Once a week. Once a day. Before and after every workout, so that you can tell how much water you need to replace. Run hills. Run flat. Run outside. Run on a treadmill. Cross-train. Don't cross-train. Drink something to replace electrolytes. Don't worry about electrolytes unless you're running half-marathons or longer. Eat "good fats," not "bad fats." Eat "good food," not "bad food." It's okay to be bad once in a while, as long as you're good most of the time. Run less. Run more. Run longer. Run faster.

And here is what I never say: Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

Here's another thing I never say: Tell me how much you weigh, and I'll tell you how much weight you should load into a backpack and carry around with you to catch up with me. Then you and I can run ten miles and we'll see who finishes first. Or five miles. Or one. Do that—do that just once—and then we can talk about whether my 11-minute mile is fast enough for you.

Because I'm apparently all about making things clear today, let me add that the people who give me advice are pretty much across-the-board trying to be helpful. And this is why I don't say the above things (although I realize I just did, up there in those last two paragraphs. Sorry). They want me to be better at what I do, and at least on some level, they want me to be successful. Some of them probably take some sort of satisfaction in being better than I am—and I'm okay with that. We're all constantly evaluating where we stand, and while we all have places where we don't care if we're experts, we also have different places where we feel like experts or want to establish ourselves, even if only to ourselves, as experts. I'm not above any of that, and I don't know anyone who is. But none of these people, as far as I know, is  acting out of anything but support or kindness. If there's a better way, then I should be doing that—because they care about me. If I'm running flats, I should be running hills, because it's a better workout. If I'm climbing hills, I should be climbing them faster, because it's a better workout. The logical progression of this, of course, is that if I'm not always working at the absolute hardest level I can work, I'm not working hard enough. So I should max the treadmill's incline out at 15 and run as fast as I can, right? While carrying a middle-schooler on my back and wearing ankle and wrist weights? On top of a mountain, where there's less oxygen? In waist-deep water? When you take it out to the extreme, it's easy to see how ridiculous it is, but it doesn't remove the implied (usually not stated) conclusion: if I'm not working as hard as I'm physically capable of, 100% of the time, I might as well not bother.

The problem is that I've gone about deliberately trying to make this process of mine about not being the best, not going the hardest. I am not the best runner, and I'm not going to be the best runner—hell, I may not even be the best runner I can be. This attitude is not easy for me, and it's not natural for me. I'm not saying that I do my best at everything I do. I'm saying that if I don't do my best at everything, I tend not to want to do it anymore. And that comes in really handy with things like exercise, or food, where so many of us are just looking for a reason to fall off the wagon: I haven't run for two weeks, so I guess it doesn't matter now. I ate two pieces of cake after dinner last night, so I guess I might as well eat whatever I want now. I've been watching my food for two weeks and haven't lost any weight, so I guess I can't lose weight at all. Any self-talk like that is justification to do what feels comfortable, or to punish ourselves with food, or engage in those behaviors for whatever reason we do so—different people have different reasons.

We make judgements about ourselves all the time, and our bodies are easy targets. I'm too fat. I'm too thin. My knees are weird. My hair is too frizzy. My hair is too straight. I have hips. I don't have hips. Having an all-or-nothing, good-or-bad view of exercise (or diet, or weight loss, or anything at all, really) is an extremely convenient way to make ourselves feel like crap. And while I may be good at a lot of things, I'm really, REALLY good at making myself feel like crap.

So it's been a battle. Not to run—I really love my running days—but to keep myself in check. To follow a plan so that I don't get injured and use that as an excuse to stop. To be okay with the pace I'm at. To focus on health instead of weight even while I get excited about the weight I'm losing. All together, that means that I've needed to become comfortable with doing well enough—just that, well enough. I am not fast—and I'm getting faster, especially as the weight comes off—but I am fast enough. I'm losing weight at what everyone will tell you is a healthy speed—one to two pounds a week—and on a bad day, it is crazy-making slow. But it is fast enough. In fact, my favorite days are the ones where I don't think I can make it, the runs where I have to talk myself through every quarter of a mile (or, sometimes, every tenth of a mile), the ones where I have to run my mental checklist (my breathing is fine, my legs are fine, what am I complaining about?) over and over again, the ones where I force myself to push through because I just don't feel up to doing it that day. Those aren't, I should add, my favorite days in the moment—but they're pretty damn awesome when I'm done.

And maybe that's why I have such a problem with the word "journey." Journeys have an end—and any time I've started any exercise routine or tried to figure out my eating, it's been with an end in mind, usually one that is so far down the road that it's easy to become discouraged and just let it all slide. There's also the complication that people tend to extrapolate to the most extreme destination: I lost count of the number of people who asked me, when I started talking about running, when I was going to run a marathon, often—though not always—the Boston Marathon. I weighed somewhere over 260 pounds at that point (down about 40 from my top weight), I was struggling to run 90-second or two-minute intervals, and people were asking about one of the toughest marathons in the world. It felt—and still feels, even while I'm training for my mythical half-marathon—completely unreal for me to even consider a marathon, but it was blatant insanity to suggest one when I couldn't run a quarter of a mile at once. Not only is it insane, but it's more of that insidious notion: if you're not pushing for the biggest goal you can think of, you're not pushing hard enough, and by the way, I think it's pretty hilarious that you're even pretending to do this at all ha ha ha. And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure and fuel for self-loathing. It's sometimes well-intentioned fuel, but you know what they say about good intentions, especially when we're talking about roads.

Journeys have destinations, but the fact of the matter is that there is no destination here. There will likely never be a time when I won't be at risk of punishing myself with food. There will never be a time when I will be able to say, "Okay, I'm healthy now, so I don't have to do this anymore." I need to be aware of the process, and comfortable with the process, because it is just that: process. It is not going to end until I do. I suppose in that sense, it's a journey, but please. That journey is going to come to an end whether I eat well or poorly, whether I run or not, whether I weigh 700 pounds or 150. It's process, and it's work.

The battle is with the process, but mostly it's with myself. The people who offer advice and/or criticism wouldn't bother me a bit if I were 100% comfortable in my own head. I wouldn't feel compelled to justify my program, or to point out the fact that it was designed by an expert, or even to write this post in the first place if I were not in combat with myself much of the time. But the fact of the matter is that it's working—I can run ten miles and am scheduled to run eleven on Sunday; I can often make decisions about my food without beating myself up or rewarding myself with it; I can still find joy in slow, sustained weight loss and incremental improvements in my speed or endurance. I am simply trying not to suck, and that is one of the most ambitious goals I've ever set for myself.

Five Things that Don't Suck, First Full Day of Spring Edition

1. baby chicks
2. seeing the first chipmunk*
3. spring training
4. a decided uptick in the amount of frolicking
5. peepers

*actually happened yesterday, but who's counting? Oh, wait. I am. Never mind.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, No Longer Living in the 70s Edition

1. internet radio
2. cell phones smaller than your torso
3. the difficulty of finding a lime green leisure suit (for a man or a woman--I'm not picky about this one)
4. a distinct diminishing of the number of men wearing pinky rings
5. so much less burnt orange in my life

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Purely Theoretical Edition

1. a second week of break
2. lounging on the beach in Italy
3. not lounging on the beach, as long as it's still in Italy
4. drinks with little umbrellas in them
5. not having your alarm go off at 6:30

Sunday, March 17, 2013

There Is No Wisdom Here

I've started a lot of posts lately, only to let them peter out. And it's okay—like with poems, sometimes they have to sit a while before they can tell me what it is they want me to say. I've grown used to it, and these little essays have sometimes left me wondering what the hell I'm doing as a poet—am I on a break? Am I lying fallow? Am I writing posts because it is somehow serving my poetry?—so it's been comforting, in a strange way, to have similar patterns emerge with this kind of writing.

But today, I started being a poet again. I'm not sure what happened. I've spent a fairly literary week, so I suppose that helped. It was spring break, which also probably helped. I started the week (or ended last week, I suppose) at AWP, the ridiculously huge conference of writing programs, which happened to be in Boston this year. Caron Andregg, from Cider Press Review, where I work as the managing editor, flew in from San Diego and hung out with us for a few days. We did some time at the book fair, she sat on a panel, and I ate various meals with various people I don't often get to see. I collected more than my fair share of hugs. Then I had a couple of international students come for dinner on Wednesday, because campus during spring break is a bleak, lonely place. I ended the week with a visit from my friend (and poet) Kathleen Clancy and, while we talked about all kinds of things, we also talked a lot about poetry. Because we often do.

And when Kathleen left, I sat down to organize my thoughts for a revision workshop I'm running next weekend at The Barred Owl. The workshop was already pretty much assembled, since we had to reschedule it from January, but I hadn't really looked at it since then, and I wanted to spend a little bit of time with it before I got sucked into the last half of the semester. I felt the need to read through my exercises and think about what sample poems I could use to discuss the aspects of revision I would discuss—I wanted to find a poem with all four purposes of sentences (declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory) in it. I also wanted to find a poem with all four types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex) in it. In doing that, I realized that I'd need some examples of the kinds of revision exercises I'd be working with, also, and that the only place I knew I could find those was in my own work.

I should add that I'm not a fan of talking about my own work. Part of it is that I think of some of poetry as magic—I don't know where it comes from, so I don't know how to talk about it as if it were intentional. Some of it is the result of hard work and hard thought and more hard work, but some of it just happens. And I know I'm supposed to pretend it's intentional, and people are supposed to pretend to believe me, but that whole discussion seems like a waste of time to me. And when it comes to discussing the intentional part, I worry that I'm the only one who's really interested in how I made the decisions I made. So I'm always worried about sounding like a douchebag when I talk about my own work. A lot of poets are, and those who aren't? Maybe they should be, a little. Because a lot of us sound pretty douchey and it doesn't serve us or the work well.

So there I am, digging through my files. I have a lot of partial poems—completed drafts that aren't complete poems, or scraps of poems that I don't know what to do with, or even single lines. I have one document titled "accident etymology" that just lists the words related to the word "accident." I have no idea what I'm going to do with that, or why I thought it was a good idea to list them, but at one point I did. I have poems that I knew were going to suck when I was writing them, and poems that I thought were pretty good at the time but really, really aren't, and poems that are 15 or 20 drafts in and still aren't actually poems yet. I am not going to count them, but trust me on this: there are a lot.

I haven't submitted any poems for publication since my cousin Turquoise got really sick—that is, since it became clear that she didn't have long to live. That was about a year ago, when it really hit home to me, when people started telling me that I needed to plan a visit NOW. It all took a couple of months, maybe a week or two more, but it felt much faster than that. I know that I graded papers during the last half of that semester, but I don't remember doing so. I know that I worked and spent time on the treadmill and worked some more. I know I didn't sleep a lot, to the point that one of my friends brought me a small handful of Xanax in case I decided I needed a little help (I didn't—they're still in my kitchen cupboard, and I'm not sure what I'll do with them. I keep forgetting to give them back to her, and they're probably expired now anyway).

And I drafted a lot of poems that April—many of them part of the "Dear Turquoise" series (some of which will be coming out in a chapbook this year, most of which will not). I wrote and wrote and wrote. I didn't revise much—once I wrote a Dear Turquoise poem, I often couldn't bear to look at it—but I wrote at least one poem a day in April and kept writing as my brother and I went to visit her in early May, and then after she died at the end of that month, I wrote a few more. I also started the FFTDS lists at that point. But I wasn't revising. And I wasn't—apart from the chapbook manuscript—submitting.

After I went through my workshop notes this afternoon, I sat with my notebook (I still do much of my early-stage planning on paper, not on the screen, even though I type faster than I write, or maybe because I type faster than I write) and made notes in the margins about which of my poems might work as an example of which exercise. I don't have poems for all of them, and that's okay. I also made notes about which poems or poets might be good to use as examples for other exercises or concepts (hint: if you need an example of an exclamatory sentence in a poem, Whitman's got you covered).

As I dug through my own documents and sliced a swath across the poetry internet, I found myself pulling out poems I knew were desperately incomplete. Some of them have been sitting forever, untitled except for their first line, full of sandbags dragging them to the bottom or helium sailing them far too high overhead. They were bloated or starving—or, in one spectacularly bad poem, both at once. My phone rang, and I ignored it. The dryer buzzed, and I ignored that, too. One of my dogs pressed his head against my right foot and farted, then sighed contentedly in his sleep. I did my best to ignore that. I checked the thesaurus and the etymology dictionary. I checked in on Facebook and email to give my brain a quick distraction while a puzzle worked itself out somewhere in my head. The mantel clock chimed one, then a few minutes later two, and a minute or so after that, three.

There isn't any wisdom here, or anything pithy I expect you to take away with you. It's just that sometimes things take the amount of time they take, that's all. Tomorrow, I go back to campus. But today, I got back to work.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Last Day of Break Edition

1. having a week filled with something cool every day
2. sleeping REALLY late for a few days
3. sunny skies and warmer weather
4. a quiet afternoon with Jed
5. knowing that Monday is a short day