GOOD TO KNOW FRIDAY #2

 

Water is your enemy.

If you want to roast, bake, or fry something, and you want it to be crispy, you need the surface of the food to be dry. Why? Because wet things produce steam when heated. Steam turns the item soft and porous allowing more absorption, becomes then becomes softer. So after washing your vegetables, or tofu, or meat, don’t skip the step of patting them dry first. This is true if you are using a batter as well. Even though the batter is wet, most combinations of batter ingredients are designed to prevent the steam problem.

GOOD TO KNOW FRIDAY

This is a twofer.

You’ve probably heard that oats are good for you. Consuming oatmeal has a laundry list of health benefits. When applied topically, it can improve your complexion. Oats contain compounds which stimulate fibroblasts (the cells that provide structure for skin) and is a rich source of ferulic acid. If you google ferulic acid, you will see that many luxury beauty services will be happy to sell it to you for a tad more than the cost of breakfast.

Here’s a way to use the same serving of oats inside and out. Take a cup of steel cut oats and put them in a bowl and cover them with water. Let them soak overnight. Soaking makes grains easier to digest and shortens the cooking time. In the morning, drain the oat water into a container and rinse the oats. You can cook the oats according to the usual rules, although the cooking time will be reduced because of their overnight ‘sprouting’. 

Using your fingers or a cotton ball wipe the oat water over your face and let it sink in, for at least fifteen minutes or overnight. You don’t necessarily need to wash it off, but if you want to all you need is a damp cloth or a splash of tepid water to remove. You can save the rest and use it each day for the next few days. You can also add it to your bath or use it as a pretreatment before washing your hair.

The Soundtrack to You And Me And Mars

 


Yesterday my short story, You and Me and Mars, came out on

http://lunastationquarterly.com/

I started writing this story a long time ago, over seventeen years, but I can still summon every essence of that story by a method that isn’t discussed much but is an invaluable tool to many writers. I have a musical index.

If the subject ever comes up, most writers will tell you that music is indispensable to them. Some writers need a background sound to block out the usual sounds of mundane reality. It’s often just music, classical or drum sounds or even weird experimental stuff. Writers tend to not listen to actual songs while they are writing, since the lyrics can be distracting, although I’ve known a few who do not mind lyrics, so long as it is distracting from spoken voices. Although I have heard of at least one person who listened to talk radio as they wrote. Sometimes sounds that sound like words but aren’t differentiable into meaning will do the trick, like metal or Nirvana. My personal choice is silence. I’d write in a stone temple on an island filled with mute animals wearing cotton mittens if I could. But music definitely has its place in my writing.

For every story I write, I develop a playlist of songs that encapsulate scenes, atmosphere, theme or emotion. Not every song stays in the playlist as the story evolves. Sometimes I’ll hear a discarded song in some random context and I’ll think, “Oh yeah, that was the song when my protagonist was going to use x to conquer y. Ah nostalgia.” Of course no one would have a clue to what I was talking about, but if you’re a writer who uses music to keep track of the emotional content of your story, you have an idea of what I’m talking about.

This story, being one of the first stories I wrote, has a long soundtrack. But here are the songs that most define it as it evolved, and the ones that upon hearing can instantly transport me into this story’s world:

“Run to the Water” by Live. This song is the theme song, the song that, if it were a true soundtrack, would be the intro and outro. Every beat of this story is contained in this song. In fact, if you put this song on repeat and read the story, you’d find the theme echoed in every refrain. The speaker was burnt to the core, but not broken.  (I have no idea what the writer of this song meant, but it will never mean anything but the successful transformation of Mars by a single human to me)

When the speaker becomes part of the mission, and especially when she is contemplating their purpose, during the takeoff:

“Is It Like Today?” by World Party.

“Don’t Give Up On Us Baby” by David Soul is the song that encompasses the speaker’s literal and metaphorical increasing distance from the person she is addressing in the story, which echoes the shift from romantic love to heroic love to familial as she realizes none of those could be possibly be returned.

The speaker’s try/fail attempts to release the drones has “Rock Me Gently” by Andy Kim playing in the background.

This song is longer than the scene it accompanies but “Walk On” by U2 expresses the idea of taking a leap forward without assurance, knowing that even though you don’t have to do it, if you do, there is no going back.

“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen is pretty obvious, the joy of exploring a new world and the memory of exploring a first love.

“Flood” by Jars of Clay for the storm and “SOS” by ABBA for the try/fail sequence in which the captain dies.

“If You Only Knew” by Shinedown followed the speaker’s try/fail cycle of sickness and adaptation and learning to terraform the planet on her own, as well as initiating the transition from the singular to the plural you.

Sometimes I would listen to “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac when I wanted to get in touch with the loneliness that the speaker felt as the decades passed. This would also define the transition when the singular ‘you’ transforms to the plural ‘you’ of humanity that she is preparing the world for.

There are a lot of versions of this song, and I think I have all of them in my music library, but “Feeling Good” by Muse is the one I listened to as I thought about the speaker’s discovery of the body of water.

I had a few others I listened to over the years, but as the story evolved, they didn’t fit as well, and so I no longer visualize elements of this story when I hear them.

So rest easy, baby. Rest easy. And recognize it all as light and rainbows, smashed to smithereens. And be happy. Because maybe somebody's out there, building a paradise for you, on the off chance you might make it there someday.

 

The Socially Awkward Guide to WorldCon75

Around 1993 I went to my first Science Fiction convention at the crumbling Castlegate Hotel in Atlanta. My sister and I would stroll the dealers room arm in arm looking for VHS copies of Red Dwarf, which was impossible to find in the US. We graduated to Dragon Con and enjoyed many years of discovering new and fun things, until that became an insurmountable, unwieldy labyrinth. I don't have my sister anymore, so navigating a con alone is like having one eye shut and flailing. I did have my writing friends, Gary and Mike and Jenn. (You may not know Jenn yet, but you will soon. Her epic fantasy, The Ruin of Kings, is set to hit big soon.)

Of course, I couldn't tag along with them everywhere, they had their own stuff to do, so I struck out on my own.

It was my first time visiting Helsinki, and my first big trip traveling alone. I know from previous trips the first order of business is to figure out the transit system. The station names are Finnish street names. Umlaut-laden multi-syllable consonant-heavy words. Of course if you don't read Finnish they also show the names in Swedish, which looks nothing like  Finnish, or English. 

When you ride the ride the trams or the trains you are to press when your stop is next. If nobody presses their button the tram driver doesn't stop. This may be an imperfect system. Or maybe the driver was annoyed that, due to my anxiety over missing my stop, I kept mashing my stop button repeatedly. LIke I am groot repeatedly. My bad, HSL.

 

I did better when walking. Once I got into the groove of getting around, I popped in my earbuds and let this song be my soundrack, security,  and courage.

 

 

Down Bulevardi I went and through the Esplanadi, passing statues and fountains. Some serious, men with big mallets and bears, but also seals spitting at mermaids.  In Finland, wearing a bear is a fashion statement, especially if you're a Finnish muse. I wonder what you would wear if you're a vegetarian muse? 

Wearing a bear, as one does, in Finland. JL Runeberg statue

Wearing a bear, as one does, in Finland. JL Runeberg statue

I stopped at a cafe that reminded me of Bioshock Infinite...

cafe on the Esplanadi, Helsinki

cafe on the Esplanadi, Helsinki

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...and had a blue cheese bagel, a special cake to celebrate Finland's 100th year, and a cappucino with a foam heart. At the water's edge I bought a paper bag filled with a liter of strawberries while I waited to meet up with some other writers to catch the ferry to Suomenlinna, the sea fortress.

Back at the Messukeskos Convention center, I roamed around and saw these kickass girls. I loved how they were walking along all normal but as soon as I asked to take their picture they immediately formed up into their character's ideal stance:

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IMG_2671.jpg

I ran into the inimitable Alasdair Stuart from http://escapepod.org/ which was a huge deal for me. He hosted the episode of Escape Pod my short story, Joolie and Irdl, was featured on, but even before that I loved listening to his enthusiastic introductions on the podcast. Even though I was very nervous about approaching someone I didn't know and bothering them, you can see from the picture that he is as nice in person as he sounds on the podcast.

 

 

 

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Gary and I spent some time in lines and had a great conversation about lines (or if you're all fancy-like you can call them queues) and Finnnish culture and politics and people and buckets, and how to signal to your seatmate you want to exit the train without actually speaking to them (begin putting on your gloves, examine your transfer ticket, etc). In general, Finnish people don't smile at strangers, or at least, they are not as gregarious as Americans, but no stereotype is true all the time. This girl is the antithesis to socially awkward and was one of my favorite people I met in Helsinki.

 

Effie Sieberg, Trailer Park panel

Effie Sieberg, Trailer Park panel

Mikko Rauhala and Benjamin C. Kinney, Superintelligence panel

Mikko Rauhala and Benjamin C. Kinney, Superintelligence panel

I went to some panels, but it was tricky to manage. So many people showed up you had to get in line early. Eventually the organizers began moving things to larger rooms. I did manage to go to a few panels. Benjamin C. Kinney at the Superintelligence Panel. Tom Crosshill moderated almost all of the panels I went to. I particularly enjoyed this little incident during the Superintelligence panel. After the panelists have discussed the topics the floor is opened to questions and the moderator usually repeats the question using the mic so that everyone can hear what is being asked. There was this one particular commenter who had a surprisingly loud and resonant voice - so much so that the entire audience did a collective startle take. Not missing a beat and dry as can be, Crosshill said, "I will now repeat the question in case someone did not her it." Who knows what the panel's response was, since the audience was doubled over in laughter.

 

Standing in line and sitting in panels is the easy part. One problem I had (have), is that if I recognize someone but don't 'know' them, I get kind of tunnel vision directed a few centimeters to their left or right, like they're a sun I can't look directly at, and if I'm close enough to interact with them I start to imagine I might say something stupid. I usually overcome this by a) becoming very interested in my phone b) retreating, or c) saying something even more stupid. Case in point:  There was a person that I had been IM'ing with prior to the convention and had wanted to meet in person. I did see them peripherally here and there. They had told me the various panels and meetings they would be attending, but the opportunity to engage in conversation never arose. Finally, on the last morning, I was eating in a cafe and I saw them, at a table amongst a group of other people I recognized. Normally I wouldn't disturb someone while they are eating, but I said, self, be bold, this is the last day, you won't have another chance. So I summoned my courage and went over and introduced myself. This person, gently, mentioned that they were in a meeting. A meeting I knew about because they had told me about it prior to the convention. Some part of my brain was calculating time zones and matching up dates to events,  but what came out of my mouth was somehow questioning why this person was at this meeting. They graciously and politely explained what what they were doing why they were there, while all the other members of the meeting waited.

So yeah. That happened.

I slunk away like Charlie Brown. I wanted to go home and hide in a book. But I was at a convention, in Helsinki, and it wouldn't do to go to the airport an entire day early. I circled the dealers room, head down, stared at my phone, and decided to go get in a line for a panel. It was way early, but at least I know I can't screw up standing in a line.

There were already three people leaning against the wall by the door to the Tomorrows Cool SF Physics panel when I arrived. This was the last day and people had learned to show up early to some they really wanted to see. A man came up at the same time as I, and we both stared at the poster, phones in hand, pondering if the update on the wall was the same as the update in the app. Deciding it must be, I settled at one end of the waiting people and the man smiled and went to the other. Soon a staff person came up and handed the man the end-of-the-line sign.

Evidently I can screw up standing in a line.

I moved into the spot after the man, who looked every bit Plato's ideal of a Finnish person, except for his everpresent American-style smile, and held out my hand for the sign. It wasn't long before someone else joined the line and I relegated the sign to him. We three, the Finn, me and an Englishman, struck up a conversation, and the cloud of mortification of the morning's foibles dissipated at least for the time being. 

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By the end of the day I was mostly okay, and Gary and I joined Mike and Jenn at the lobby of the Holiday Inn. George RR Martin happened along and that is where the (semi infamous?) photo was taken. He didn't really tell me how ASOIAF ended. What he said was that the Mars company and Finland had reached a deal where the peanuts in Snickers bars were being replaced by salted licorice. 

So, all in all, it is possible for the socially awkard to survive a worldcon. Now you know that if you ever happen to recognize me at an event and I fail to engage you like a proper human, it isn't that I'm anti-social, or rude, or even clueless. It's only a mild terror of engaging other people.

 

 

Brief Musing On Time and Entropy

My physics education was so long ago it was practically in the dark ages. Cold fusion was going to be a reality within five years.  That's probably not much of a grounding epoch, since people are still saying that. Suffice it to say it was a long time ago. Most of what I remember is a fever dream of strange possibilities that got even stranger the deeper you delved into them. Like Alice, I came out of the looking glass and settled upon more mundane pursuits, but a few things stuck with me over the years.

One thing, which we learned early on, was that our equations gave us two answers for time. Forward time and Negative time. We were taught to discard the negative one, usually with some hand-waving, and certainly for Newtonian physics, it's all fine and good. But I always liked the possiblity of the negative time solution. It was like a secret we got to keep, that even though we didn't use it, nothing in the math prevented it from being true. If you've ever had an event in your life that you wanted, more than anything, to go back in change, you'll understand why I write the other time solution, if not on paper, then at least in the back of my mind, where I occasionally take it out and ponder it. It's not a unique idea.

https://smile.amazon.com/Time-Traveler-Scientists-Personal-Mission-ebook/dp/B001T4ZHRC/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1498655618&sr=8-6&keywords=time+traveler

The thing I detested most, the thing I found most disturbing was entropy. Without any math you can describe it like this. Entropy is a measure of disorder of a system. Entropy never decreases. The universe is a system and will eventually reach a point of disorder so that nothing more can be accomplished. This is known as the heat death of the universe. I distinctly remember working out the proof on an exam, and sitting in my chair, my lap covered in eraser crumbs and graphite, thinking, no, I don't accept this. My math was right. I had followed the rules and surely would get the points for showing my work. But it bothered me. To think of all the effort, all the striving, all of our endeavoring to make order of the chaos, and it's all going in the opposite direction whether we like it or not. 

Some may not be surprised that the thing I love the most (that time is malleable) and the thing I hate the most (that nothing productive will result from the striking of time's arrow) are intimately connected. It can be said that entropy defines the arrow of time. But what if something were amiss, something that deflated the pomposity of entropy while giving a little credence to the malleability of time? What it time isn't as sticky as we've been led to believe? What if we have yet to discover what lies in the shadow we cast while we face ever forward?

A Man and a Puppy in Moorea

 

Due to one of those time glitches of scheduling travel within travel, Hunter and I spent about three hours in an open air restaurant waiting for the ferry to take us from Tahiti to Moorea. It wasn't the lush view of the mountain or the sun glittering on the lagoon, but at least it had comfortable tables and the breeze was cool. I watched the people passing through, ordering lunch or snacks or Hinano beer. A tall man with sunglasses and a puppy ordered a beer and sat toward the back alone. I might not have noticed him at all if it hadn't been for the puppy. It looked like baby pit bull, its belly resting against the palm of the man's hand, and it observed the world with the stoic gaze from its blue eyes.

I watched other people, birds, played imaginary tetris with containers. At one point Hunter tapped me and indicated that I look at something over my shoulder. It was the same man holding the puppy near the railing as if showing it something below. When I turned back to Hunter he was holding his hand on his chest, his eyes wide with shock. "I only wanted you to see the puppy. If I would have known he was going to hold it over the railing I wouldn't have made you look."

Moorea from the ferry

Moorea from the ferry

He was mostly joking, the puppy hadn't been dangled, and soon the man went back to his seat, and later he took his empty beer back to the counter and walked away. I was surprised later, at least an hour, that he was still there. I wondered if he was waiting, like us, for the ferry. I'd assumed he was a local and as such he might have known that the ferry had a limited schedule on Sundays. Eventually I lost track of him again, as we purchased our tickets and boarded the ferry with cars and mopeds, families counting suitcases, a group of teenage girls from some kind of sporting event, excited to order the swirls of pale chocolate and vanilla soft serve and french fries from the snack bar in the middle of the ferry. Eventually we escaped the din of the dining section and went to the front where we watched the lush tree covered atoll approach.

We debarked into a chaotic port and waited for mini tractors to unload the pallets of luggage from the yawning belly of the ferry. People around us chatted in French and Polynesian but eventually we found transportation to the Intercontinental Resort: the local bus. It was sparsely crowded, but the seats were small enough that Hunter and I could not sit near each other and keep our luggage, too. I wedged my suitcase into the aisle seat and clamored over it, ready to see what I might see out my bus window.

But as I was settling who did I see sitting opposite me alone on the bus but the same man with the puppy from the ferry restaurant. He did not smile at me or in any way acknowledge my presence, even though we'd sat within a few meters of each other for literally hours and I'd given the puppy plenty of glances. He didn't acknowledge the puppy resting against his chest either, except the occasional brushing whups on its nose as he moved it from one arm to the other.  I began to wonder what kind of culture this was, in regard to animals. Everyone I'd met so far had been warm and friendly to...other people. For all I knew this was some kind of dog-fighting initiation. For all I knew the puppy could be this man's lunch. 

I turned my attention to the window. Moorea is not a big island and the local bus gave me a chance to see plenty of locals gathering at the beaches and walking from house to house. I could smell the dinners from the ahi ma'a, the way of cooking food long and slow in banana leaves in an underground oven. There were dogs too, untethered and at ease, ears bouncing and tails making slow circles as they maneuvered from yard to yard. It rained softly, and I saw one of those rare sights no camera could justice, a rainbow over the mountain. It put it me in mind of my long dead sister, who had saved pictures of rainbows and painted them.

The bus had stopped and there was movement, but I was lost in my own thoughts and wasn't paying much attention. We were at a village. Outside my window a girl with long black hair straddled a bicycle. I couldn't see her face, but her posture was that of a young person, and she held out her hands in reception. I couldn't tell if she was happy or sad, but I could see the face of the man handing her the puppy.

I knew that face. The man at the ferry restaurant had been a stranger to me, but in his expression now he was as familiar as my own face in the mirror. I didn't know if the girl was his wife or his daughter or girlfriend, but I knew her happiness was reflected in the joy in his face as he held out the puppy to her, and I knew that man's heart, then, like I know my own. 

When you travel you think you’re getting away from it all. But you can’t get away, not really, because wherever you go, you take yourself with you, and that includes all your habits and judgments and predisposed states of mind. What you can do though, is see humanity through the lens of another culture, and that alone makes the trip worthwhile.

 

 

 

Where I Get My Protein

The single most common question vegetarians and vegans get is "Where do you get your protein?" There is an obvious answer, and as with most things regarding food that answer is scattered, smothered, covered and chunked with everything from boring science to outright propaganda. The short answer is that they get their protein from the food they eat, because all food is made up of some combination of three things: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. 

A related question is usually along the lines of, "So you have to eat weird spongy bricks floating in water, or mushy beans all the time?" Nope. Fruits and vegetables have protein. Broccoli, spinach, peanuts, figs, sunflower seeds, potatoes, strawberries, corn, avocado, peppers, barley, cabbage, and any plant you can name all have protein. A person who only eats plants (fruits and vegetables), can get enough protein without even thinking about it. Still not convinced? Have you ever seen a bull? Over two thousand pounds of muscle and bone, and it all came from plants.

 But, like an omnivore, a vegetarian who eats junk food will be unhealthy.  "What's an omnivore?" or, more disturbingly, but sadly not more uncommon, is the follow up question, "You still eat chicken, right?" 

So, here's a list of diets and their definitions. 

Look into my eyes

Look into my eyes

Carnivore:  Eats animals almost exclusively. Cows, pigs, chickens, fish, sheep, snails, crickets. If you want a cheat sheet, you can remember the basic tenet that if it has eyes it's meat, but that's not foolproof. Best to go back to the tree of life classification systems from your Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Sand high school biology to really understand what an 'animal' is. Fun fact: some animals, like cats, are obligate carnivores, meaning they couldn't survive on a vegetarian diet even if they wanted to. 

 

Omnivore: Eats a combination of animals and plants. This would seem to be the diet with the widest range of food choices, but oddly, in my personal experience and my observations of what other people eat, most omnivores are really carnivores with the exception of small amounts of potatoes (french fries) and corn (breading) added. Fun fact from The Omnivore's Dilemma: Chicken McNuggets contain more corn than chicken.

 

 

 
too pretty to eat

too pretty to eat

Pescetarian: Eats plants, but also fish. Sometimes wrongly classified as a type of vegetarian, hence the combination of pesce- meaning fish, and -tarian, as if to imply vegetarianism, but, no. Fish are animals. Possibly the mistake came from the pre-Nemo era, when fish were not considered cute enough to be animals. 

Now things get murky, and the eye-rolling, defensiveness, name-calling and fear-mongering really begin. Introducing the VEGETARIANS!

Lacto-ovo Vegetarians: As sexy as the name is you'd think it was going to be special. Nope, eats plants, but also eats dairy products and eggs. You can subdivide these categories further into lacto only or ovo only, but the division is usually based on allergies or taste preference.

cluck and moo

cluck and moo

 
eggplant flower

eggplant flower

Whole Food Plant Based Vegetarians WFPB: Eats plants. No dairy or eggs. This category is sometimes further restricted by allowing no oil (no means no. No coconut, no olive, no fun). The focus of the WFPB diet is on foods that are minimally processed. The diet is designed for health and the components of the diet have been vetted by numerous scientific studies. It is a de facto vegan diet, but it should be distinguished from the practice of veganism, which encompasses more than nutrition, as described below.

 
An animal sitting on a plant.

An animal sitting on a plant.

Vegan: Often considered the strictest diet, although it's not a diet at all, but a lifestyle choice. (However, if you are just comparing the diet aspect, WFPB-no-oil has more limited choices than a vegan diet. Example: oreos) The basis of veganism is to completely avoid consumption or use of any product derived from an animal. Vegans don't eat any animal products, including honey (bee slave labor). Vegans don't wear leather or silk coats or shoes, they don't take medications that are suspended in gelatin (derived from hoofs), or from continuously impregnated mares (Premarin-a portmanteau word coming from 'pregnant' and 'mare').  Veganism has strong ethical underpinnings.  Vegans see all living things as part of a balanced ecosystem, and make choices that benefit or at least do minimal harm to that connected system. 

Lucas Cranach the Elder painting of A and E with an apple. The original fruitarians.

Lucas Cranach the Elder painting of A and E with an apple. The original fruitarians.

Fruitarian: Eats only fruit (which includes seeds). This is a real thing, or so I am told, I have never actually met one. Fruitarians can be further restricted by eating only fruit or seeds that 'fall' from a plant. But before you fall off your paleo horse from laughing consider this fun fact: Dental studies of early hominids have shown that our ancestors ate a primarily fruitarian diet, making it a more accurate definition of a paleo diet than the reducing diet of the same name that is in vogue these days.

How I Discovered Mindfulness

When I was very young I would sometimes, for no reason at all, be overcome by an anticipatory bliss, a punch in the solar plexus that feels like hunger and satisfaction shaking hands, and think to myself, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

Occasionally a wonderful thing did follow, like a present or a story, or the opportunity to touch a turtle shell. But everyone knows the cause and effect of anticipating a thing and then getting it. What I’m talking about here is a subtler experience, where the result of the anticipation didn’t impact how or why or when it happened. It was merely a state my mind tended to enter apropos of nothing.

As I got older, the time between those hopeful sparks grew until they faded completely. I regained the ability when I began to think about and write science fiction, where my imagination created possibilities that outpaced reality, or skipped over to a world where the most debilitating issues still plagued humanity. But it was a deliberate kind of optimism, squeezed from my orchard of life’s-not-fair lemons. In daily life, I learned not to ask what might happen next, and I learned the hard way to never make the assertion, “It can’t possibly get any worse.” I muddled through, though, head down and shoulders hunched, until a cornucopia of very bad things happened in a proportionally very short amount of time. Some of those things didn’t stop happening, either, and still continue to this day. I became very cautious, slow to dip a toe into the unknown, preferring an ‘evil that you know’ kind of stance. I became very still and cautious, the modern day equivalent of buttressing myself against the monsters lurking beyond the horizon. But even tiptoeing past the monsters, coated in invisibility spray, isn’t enough to stave off the possibility that there is no set amount of bad things that can happen to a person. My invisibility spray would be washed away in the rain, or I’d sneeze and be back at square one, fighting a tidal wave with a sword, drowning no matter how hard or fast I parried.

Finally, too exhausted to go on, I threw off all my armor, all those little tricks and incantations against doom. I would only concentrate on the next minute. There were many terrible things all around that minute, before and after, but I was only going to focus on what was contained in the space and time within which I presently existed. Now, I am only brushing my teeth. Now for this minute I am only going to chew and swallow. Now I will open this door. And so, minute by minute, I swam out of the abyss. Eventually I hit a smooth patch and I was able to visit the realm of ordinary people once again. 

Because I didn’t want to be dragged into those depths again, I began to take steps to fortify my mind’s fortress. I started walking, outside, in parks and around water whenever possible. I started reading about mindfulness and yoga and happiness and life hacks. I made lists and goals and even managed to take back some time that modern life was siphoning off me by the jugful. I discovered, of course, that what I had been doing as a life-saving measure was already a foundation for an entire way of existing, and had been in practice for thousands of years.

So here's what I discovered, and it's a momentous thing. It's the secret to life. More specifically, it's the secret to filling the vessel of time that will take the shape of your life with meaning.  So, here it is: Mindfulness is an awareness of the content of the present instant you are in. That doesn't seem like a big deal, and you probably experienced mindfulness when you read that sentence. So why isn't everyone doing it all the time if it's so great? Well, mindfulness is difficult to maintain beyond a few seconds. If you don't believe me, try and do nothing but be aware of your surroundings for sixty seconds, without having a thought about the future or the past. Mindfulness is so slippery that an entire discipline has been developed around it, which you might know by the name meditation.

Meditation, sadly, is a loaded word in our culture. Somehow people associate it with religion or hippie political movements or incense-waving woo-woo. But meditation in its simplest form is the practice of mindfulness for a set amount of time. This regular practice will increase the amount and quality of mindfulness. Meditation teaches you how to be mindful, but the end goal is mindfulness. Not to be too alliterative, but the more mindfulness one's minutes are, the more meaningful one's life becomes. No one, not even the oldest, stillest, up-on-the-highest-mountain-peak monk is mindful all the time. It's merely a state that you can enter at will, and anyone can do it, at any time. And once you get into that habit, you'll find yourself asking yourself, with all the anticipatory bliss that lies within you, "I wonder what's going to happen now."

If you're interested in investigating mindfulness meditation, check out David Cain's blog http://www.raptitude.com/, where he has several ebooks about how to meditate, and a month-long class for beginners called Camp Calm.

 

 

How To Know if You Are a Writer

 

 

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann

"Writers write." -Anonymous

 

We are all writers. If you are reading this, then you have written something in your life, because writing is simply putting symbols together into strings of comprehensible meaning. You already know that you can write, little-w write. You want to know if you are a Writer. Big-W. But as the above quotes demonstrate, it isn’t an easy question to answer, and no pithy quip will do. Anyone who has story inside them and wondered if it should come out has pondered this conundrum. Am I a Writer? Should I be Writing? How do I know if I have what it takes?

 

Some of us began our writing journey with this idea: Being a writer is a momentous responsibility. It should be heralded by a visitation from someone who knows the deal, a tap on your shoulder to say, “It’s time.” That was me, most of my youth. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I kept waiting for the guru with the lamp to light my path so the words could find their way out. It never happened. I had to turn the damn lamp on myself.

 

Or you may know that an outward sign is silly, that a writer’s quest begins within. But you have responsibilities. You have a job, and bills, and maybe people who depend on you. How do you balance all the demands of life and a writing career? There's already a shortage of time in your day.

 

You might even be one of the lucky ones: You’ve given yourself permission to write and you’ve got a story and the bills are getting paid, independent of your contribution. But you're still at a loss. How does the story get from me to the that sacred unicorn known as the ‘reader’? Or you might have other issues. In fact, if you’re human, you have other issues. Your parents want you to be a doctor, not a writer. You don’t have thumbs. You're dyslexic. Jupiter isn’t in Aphrodite until next century. Whatever the excuse you're using to keep the story inside, I promise, can be surmounted.

 

Welp. I’m here to tell you how you can answer all those questions, and more. Here’s a test to determine if you are a Big-W writer. You don’t need to purchase anything and you don’t need any special materials. You will need something to physically write on. Pen and paper or a digital medium with the capacity for saving your work so that you can see it at some point in the future. The one thing you will need in abundance you can’t purchase, and that thing is patience. Fortunately, patience is an unlimited commodity once you’ve trained yourself in it. The test takes time, I won’t lie, but you will have the time for it. No matter how busy your schedule is, the big W test adapts to you.

 

Okay, ready to begin? The exercises should be done in order. If it isn’t expressed, you can do more than one in a day or you can skip days in between, but try not to let the slack time between steps stretch longer than a week or two.

 

Step one:

This one is easy and you probably already know what it is. Today you are going to write. You can write anything you want, but you must devote yourself to the task for at least fifteen minutes. That’s it. If you can’t think of anything to write, try googling writing prompts, but don’t include the searching part in your fifteen minutes.

 

Step two:

Today you are going to write again. You can continue whatever you were writing from step one or write something completely new. This time you can write for as long as you want, but you must write at least 350 words.

 

Step three:

Today you are going to create an outline for a complete but short story. You can use the components of the prior days or something new, it can even be that an abbreviated version of your magnum opus. An outline should include the following elements: A sentence describing the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end. The names of the characters. The thing that changes. You can spend as long as you like on it, but if it feels too uncomfortable to come up with an idea, you may add an explosion.

 

Step four:

Write the story from your outline in step three. The story can be the novel you have dreamed of writing, but try to only include the bare bones, the most important parts. If you feel like you can’t write this story within a week, that’s okay. Take the last day to add a few sentences to sum up the parts you didn’t get to for cohesion.

 

Step five:

Put that story away. You are not allowed to look at it again until I tell you to. Instead write something new. Decide whether you liked the timed writing or the word limit and let that guide you. Remember to set a goal, the minimum being either x minutes or y words.

 

Step six:

Repeat step five, but using the schedule of your life for how often. Keep doing this for one to three months, until you have a finished story or chapter or a completed vignette or essay. You can also try writing with friends, timed sprints, dictating and transcribing, doodling your scenes, or imitating the style of your favorite author.

 

Step seven:

Today you aren’t going to write. Today you are going to read what you’ve written. If you can, try reading it out loud. Not to judge it, but to ask these questions: Did the character/status quo change? Was a conflict resolved? If you can’t answer those questions, then think about how you can add those things to what you’ve written, or how you can add a section which includes those things. Don’t write the changes or additions this time. Only add notes to yourself for how you will do that.

 

Step eight:

Write the changes from step seven. Allow at least one day but no longer than one week to elapse between step seven and eight.

 

Step nine:

Read what you’ve written and change anything you’re not happy with, but make sure that at least one 24-hour period has elapsed between step eight and step nine. Make sure that the finished product is legible and as free from typos as you can make it. If it isn’t a complete story, at the least try to have a self-contained segment.

 

Step ten:

Prepare yourself. This is the point where many get tripped up. It may be the hardest step of all, but it’s crucial that you not skip it. You must let someone else read this thing you have written. It can be a writing group, another writer, a friend, or an anonymous (or not) online venue, or a teacher or mentor. However, it should absolutely not be your mother, spouse or offspring.

 

A note on step ten: Step ten is really the divider between little w and big W, and step ten won’t mean anything if you can’t do step eleven.

Step eleven:

Whatever the response the reader gives, say thank you and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree or don’t understand, or if they don’t give the amount of feedback you’d like. Step eleven is about gratitude, not fulfillment.

 

If they’ve given you written notes you can go over them at your leisure and consider whether to make any changes based on the critique. However, it is your story and ultimately only you get to decide how it is told.

 

Step twelve:

Today is a special day, and it’s one that you must prepare for. Today you are going to devote entirely to writing, so make sure you clear your schedule, make arrangements for an unencumbered day off of work and inform your family members that you will not be available for at least eight hours. Ideally, this step would be accomplished in a closed room with no other people around, so if you can swing getting a hotel room or the use of a friend’s empty vacation home for the day then do it. Don’t set up anywhere where people who normally expect things from you are. Go to a library or a coffee shop at least, but try to go somewhere where you can spend at least eight hours uninterrupted. Once you’re settled in, turn off your phone, turn off all access to email, google, texts. That’s right, no internet. No distractions.  Today is an entire day of you and your writing.

 

Write, scribble, outline, or brainstorm, for a minimum of 45 minutes, but don’t write to exhaustion. Take a break for no longer than fifteen minutes. You may check your phone if you must but only if you can limit yourself to fifteen minutes. Once you’re satisfied the world has not crumbled without your thumb’s exertion, turn everything off again, and start writing for another session of 45 minutes to an hour. Take a good long break at some point for a meal. But try to complete seven 45-minute sessions of writing.

 

Marathon writing, like marathon anything, is hard. Don’t expect to come out of your first one with a gold medal. But don’t surprised if you end up with a real sense of accomplishment, either.

 

Step thirteen:

So now you have a veritable treasure trove of material from the blood sweat and tears of step twelve.

Put it away.

 

Remember that story I made you hide from yourself in step five? Today you’re going to take out this cooled manuscript that you haven’t thought about in months and read it. Do you think it’s pretty good? Do you think it needs a tweak? How would you feel if someone else read it? Now ask those questions about what you wrote in step twelve.

 

Finally, think about this. What is a Writer? What have you become? You’ve probably figured out by now that some version of these steps is how writers become Writers. Every published work you’ve ever read encompasses one or some combination of the above steps. Pick the one that works for you and go with it, until it doesn’t and then try another. Continue forever.

 

One final thought:  If you don’t know the answer you can always go back to step one and go through it again, because there is only one limiting factor to being a Writer, and that is whether or not you do it.

Enter Sandy's mind

This is my blog. It's going to be about the things I'm interested in. In case you are worried about the consequences of some radical quantum of information entering your mind from mine, here's a short list of things I will probably blog about:

Writing: I write fiction. I'm particularly interested in the craft of writing, and the various paths to publication. On this blog I will be mostly writing about the creative process of writing and getting published.

Reading: I read a lot and books are something I like to talk about. I read as varied and widely as I possible can.

Philosophy: I am very curious about all that exists and the intersection between reality, nonreality, and my mind.

Food: I like to eat. I've been a vegetarian for over a year, and I'm exploring veganism. 

Mindfulness: I've been exploring this topic long before I knew this was what it was called. I'm fascinated with the study of getting better as I get older, and I'm patiently waiting for the world to catch up to the utopia I've been expecting for over forty years.

Other miscellaneous interests: Cats, humor, television shows, music, yoga, and video games.

Things that I'm not interested in: Politics and religion, in so far that they are used for shock value. That goes for things that are controversial for the sake of getting attention and subjects that cannot be discussed rationally.