Thursday, July 5, 2012

No Muse For You...

What do you do when your muse is being a jerk?  You want to write.  You’re sitting there, pen in hand or fingers on keyboard; but the creative spark is now barely a fading ember.  Your muse refuses to inspire.  Don’t despair.  The truth is your muse is a figment of your imagination.  He doesn’t exist.  The magical creativity-inspiring voice that whispers inaudibly in your ear… that’s you! 

I struggle to maintain this same revelation time and again.  In truth, I find it all too easy to blame my muse for literary impotence; I have to make a conscious effort to avoid that particular pitfall.  Once you have given power to a fickle muse, you have given him your greatest asset: your creativity.  Believe it or not… your creativity doesn’t go away.  It just goes into hiding.  No, that’s not true either.  Your own doubts and fears get in the way.  Creativity.  Inspiration.  These are not magical rainbows, dependant upon the positions of the planets and the direction of the wind and a fairy princess with a wand.  They are psychological mechanisms.  They are controllable. 

You sit there, struggling to spit out a string of coherent words.  You have the great American novel deep inside you, locked up like a political prisoner in some dark dungeon.  Yet you cannot find the key to his release.  You squeeze your eyes shut.  You pace.  You drink too much coffee.  You try yelling at the walls.  You even revert word play and free association.  None of these are working for you and you are becoming frustrated.  You are ready to punch holes in things that don’t need holes in them.  You’re ready to rip up your old unfinished manuscripts and burn them in sacrifice to whichever cruel god is taunting you.  You’re on the verge of flinging caution and your computer to the wind.  And still… you are stuck.

What now?  How do you defeat your own psychological roadblock?  If the muse is a fairy tale and cannot be summoned, then what hope is there when your mind is your problem?  The first thing you do is set your resolve to full scale.  That’s right; dial it all the way up.  Make up your mind that you will not give up.   There is a thing in you that can only be released through the putting of words into sentences and then sentences into stories.  Set it firmly in your mind that you will not fail to free that thing.  That idea.  Next… write.  While you may think that’s a circular logic for writer’s block, it’s not.  Writer’s block is the thing that prevents us from attempting to write… it is not the inability to write.  If you can sit down and write your name, you have overcome writer’s block.  If you can spit out a sentence about yourself, even if is a simple paragraph about what kind of car you drive, you have overcome your dependence on the elusive muse.

Lower your shoulder and push through that barrier.  Write anything.  Write a long rant about writer’s block and why you despise it and how you think other people should overcome it.  Describe the color of your carpet and why you hate it.  Explain just why you refuse to carry a bow and arrows to the grocery store.  Once you put words to ideas, you have defeated the writer’s block and you have broken your dependence upon the muse.  The moment you realize you are being creative when you thought you could not be is the moment you have become a writer.  That’s when you understand you don’t have to rely upon the whimsical nature of inspiration and you are capable of creating worlds at will.  You can thrust immortals into conflict and yank them again from it.  You can uncover the deepest secrets of the universe and stir the most profound of emotion from even the most stalwart of reader.  You are a writer and the universe is in your hands.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Did You Do That?

Twice now, I’ve expressed myself through the painful and permanent art form known as the tattoo.  Painful, in the sense that getting a tattoo hurts.  Permanent in the sense that once it’s on you, it isn’t coming off.  

The basic way to get ink to stay on your body forever is to get it under your skin.   To do that, you use a needle and poke thousands of tiny holes in your skin then rub ink in those holes.   After that, you let your skin heal and if you’ve been good and allowed the scabs to heal on their own, you have ink imbedded in your skin.   Brutal but effective.  Fortunately, the process has been refined somewhat over the years and the means by which the thousands of tiny holes are poked in the skin has improved.   Traditional and much more painful methods of tattoo involved using bamboo slivers and some sort of striking device—probably another piece of bamboo.   While still in use today, this method is rare and usually only practiced ritualistically or as a test of manhood.   Modern day tattoo artists employ tattooing needles that move very quickly by means of a vibrating motor (or something like that).  The movement of the needles is so fast that you don’t feel the individual punctures as much as you feel a steady stream of “pricks” which you invariably find yourself wishing would stop. 

Whether acquired by modern methods or by traditional, it begs the question: Why do it?  The reasons are as diverse as the people who have been tattooed.  Some people do it to feel tough; however, that usually only works if you are already tough.   If you’re kind of wimpy, this may not be the way to assert your toughness.   As mentioned before, it hurts.  If your threshold for pain is low, then you may not even be able to “survive” the process.  Go to any tattoo artist and they’ll have an array of entertaining stories about the tough guy or the tomboy who freaked out at the first touch of the needle.  When it’s over, after you’ve endured what may or may not be a very painful experience—depending on your tolerance for pain and the location on your body—you have a permanent reminder of what you’ve chosen to put yourself through.  For better or worse. 

If you are not motivated by the exhibition of toughness then perhaps you are driven by sentimentality.   Many people have been “inked” to express devotion a lover, a mother, a child, a dog, a lost friend, even a fictional character.   A great many people have chosen to express their love for dolphins or butterflies, lizards, frogs, unicorns, dragons… or any number of creatures real or imagined.  In some cases, the tattoo represents a statement of religious affiliation or spiritual awareness. 

For many, the tattoo is simply a cosmetic consideration; they just look cool.  What cold be cooler than a tattoo of a flaming skull impaled by a jagged sword?  Who wouldn’t want Tweetie Bird on their ankle? 

Me?  My motivation is maybe a little bit of all the above.  Initially, it represented a symbol of solidarity between my brothers and myself.   It was a testament to my ancestral and religious pride… that and my willingness to mutilate my flesh a little to show off.  Also, I thought it would be pretty cool. 

It’s a strange sensation, having a rapidly vibrating cluster of needles dragged across your flesh.  You could say it’s a cross between being cut by a moderately sharp knife wielded by a shivering doctor and the sensation of a deep, un-scratchable itch.  That was on the arm.  The second was on my calf and that one just plain hurt. Imagine someone sticking a pin in your leg then dragging it around to trace an image. I don’t recommend it.  That’s just me though. Some people don’t mind that kind of pain. Some people just don’t feel that kind of pain. I do. 

The end product though… I think it’s pretty cool.  It's something of a conversation piece.   If you bother to ask me about it, I get to tell you a little about my personal philosophy.   It sets me apart from others, just enough.  I’m not much of a rebel or an outsider, but I am a creative man and self-expression is part of the mix.  Who am I?  I’m that guy with the cross on his arm and the weird words on his leg.  OK, I’m more than that, and ultimately that’s what it boils down to.   Are you the kind of person who gets inked or are you not?   It doesn’t really work to judge people on their outside appearance, because the image doesn’t necessary reflect the motivation.  We are all motivated to do what we do.   What motivates us is what defines us.  What we do with our motivations is what we become.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Being The Big Guy...

After awhile… you just get tired of being fat. Eventually you decide it’s time to do something about it. You try to soften the truth by saying things like “more of me to love” and “I’m just big-boned.” You use euphemisms like ample and husky and plus-sized and over-weight. You say, “Love me for who I am, not what for I look like.” You tell your friends, “I like being big” and “I wouldn’t want to date some skinny little thing.” These are all just lies and they don’t really help. I know this because these are the lies I have told. They are the lies we tell ourselves to take the edge off the pain we feel when we look in the mirror. They’re the lies we tell to divert the shame we feel in the presence of those thinner and healthier. The truth is, no matter how happy we seem, how great our personality is, we still look longingly at the skinny people. We still have to suppress a pang of jealousy that stirs inside us in the company of our friends. In the end, the only real escape is to stop being fat.

Easier said than done. Being fat is the result of a lifetime of decisions. Of staying too long on the couch. Of driving where you could have walked. Eating that third helping. Too much sugar. Too much starch. Too much fat. Too much sodium. Too much processed food. Too many excuses. Too much stress. It’s easy to defend to the lifestyle we’ve settled into than it is to make a change. Even in our fledgling desire to lose weight, we look for the easy way out. Miracle pills. Liposuction. Stomach bands. More often than not, they all fall flat.

This isn’t news to anyone. America has a very real and dangerous obesity problem, compounded by the fact that some of our most profitable industries thrive on keeping people in front of a television or computer. Some people have a metabolism that overcomes even a sedentary lifestyle. Most don’t. I don’t.

More and more, I’ve found myself disgusted with the image in the mirror. Sadly, that image saturates deeply. It affects the ego, the sense of self worth. I look at photographs—the spontaneous ones where I don’t get to suck in my gut first—and I can’t believe I really look like that. “Is that what people see when they look at me?” I come away from clothes shopping depressed because the shirt I really liked doesn’t come in XXL or sometimes even XXL isn’t big enough.

Enough is enough. There comes a time when you have to finally decide whether you are a victim or a victor. Can do or won’t do? Getting in shape isn’t easy. It’s hard. But being fat sucks. Life with the increased threat of diabetes and/or heart problems sucks. Longing to be looked at with desire sucks. The only way to make it stop sucking is to do something about it.

Exercise. Diet. There is so much taboo attached to these words that the mention of them is enough to make the chronically lazy turn their backs and run. Images of five-mile runs and of virtual starvation flood our minds. This is why we shy away from the things our bodies desire most. Need most. We are used to sitting around and we are used to eating as we please. We are used to being fat. And that’s the problem. Complacency. The true enemy of health and happiness.

In the end, what it takes is willpower and the directed application of desire. Yes, I want to eat potato chips and burritos. But I also want to be able to take my shirt off and the beach or buy clothes without wondering why they never have the stuff I want in my size. What do I want more? That’s the burning question, and only I can answer it. In fact, it’s up to me to decide what the answer is.

So I decide. I want to feel good about myself. I want to look in the mirror and feel like I’m doing better. My wife and I resolve to do it together. We start to eat right, eat better. We start to exercise, even when we don’t feel like it. We stick it out. We persevere. In the first week, I think I’m going to die. I’m frustrated because I can’t even do some of the exercises on the videos, let alone keep up with the trainer. After a few days, I think I’ve committed to a hopeless cause. “I’m just too far gone.” But my wife is there to keep pushing me. To remind me why I’m here, so I keep at it. I talk to my friends who are healthy, who work out, who eat well. Their encouragement is enough.

In the second week, I realize I can do more repetitions with fewer breaks. I can actually do most of the exercises or closer approximations than before. I’m eating healthier and complaining about it a lot less. And best of all, I’m wearing my belt and notch tighter than the week before.

I’m in week three now, and have no intention of stopping. I can feel it. I’m better. I don’t feel bloated—although I’m nowhere near my target—and my clothes don’t feel so tight. When I work out, I actually have the energy to work out. I’m not stopping as much to rest which means I’m working my muscles more, I’m getting my heart rate up and keeping it there… burning calories!

I’m not there yet… the image of me I have in my mind. But I’m on my way. And at times like this, when I’m feeling a somewhat good about myself and what I consider to be noteworthy accomplishments, it seems fitting to throw out one of those corny adages from yesteryear. “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.” At the end of this—if there is an end—I will probably look as good as I ever have, but I have already begun to realize the more important aspect in the quest: I finally feel good about me, and it doesn’t really matter what I look like. In time, the body will reflect the mind… and honestly, that’s pretty encouraging.