Midwestern Robot

Is this your week to stay off the couch?

Part of a couch
Not necessarily the enemy, but possibly.

If this doesn’t sound like a challenge, you are probably awesome. Probably you travel a lot, or spend your evenings creating art. Maybe you work out or play board games or engage in small home improvement projects after dinner. In any case, for you the couch is not a symbol of exhaustion, defeat, or your mother’s projected self-image. Read no further, you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.

Everyone else, consider joining me.

For fellow Midwesterners, this is an extra-ambitious week in which to launch a challenge. It’s  the week of -50 windchill Wednesday. It’s also the week of January-into-February, the two top contenders for most depressing month of the year (though I’d still argue for March).

And it’s the week of a friend’s first divorce mediation, so I’m watching someone I love finally come to terms with their worst mistakes after it’s too late to fix them. If you’ve been here, you know that witnessing that kind of pain requires either extreme detachment or full-time care,  and I have neither. Watching him deteriorating while he simultaneously grows more compassionate and appreciative is messing with me in a way I can handle only by burrowing on the couch and watching The Durrells in Corfu.

But this is the week I’ve chosen. Or rather, this is the day I woke up thinking about a week off the couch. So here we go.

Here are the rules.

  1. Don’t sit on the couch for a week.
  2. Don’t lie on the couch for a week.
  3. Don’t touch the couch for a week.

Doesn’t mean you can’t watch TV, or read, or nap, or burrow. Just don’t do any of that on the couch. 

That's it.

It’s not like I’m expecting life to suddenly become easier or more amazing, but I am curious to see what might happen. If you decide to join this challenge, I’d be curious to hear about your experience. And also, what makes it hard or easy for you to stay off that big piece of furniture this week.


Creating an attention paperweight

An actual paperweight.
An actual paperweight.

My friend Julie sent me a great piece about Mary Oliver’s essay “Of Power and Time,” that counsels on protecting yourself from distractions in order to write. This comes up a lot for me when I’m journalling, which is pretty much the starting place for any other kind of writing I do.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions…But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.
—Mary Oliver, from Upstream: Selected Essays, quoted in Brain Pickings

Sometimes it’s the thing I’m journaling about that sends me away from the desk (“Susan asked me about–Oh right, I forgot to email Susan–I’ll just do that and finish journaling”…which I never do). Other times it’s just self-doubt (“This isn’t a worthwhile thing to be writing about”), or other perfectly valid thoughts that are nonetheless counter-productive and unwelcome at the journaling table.

Being at Hawthornden Castle enabled me to write so much–not because I didn’t get distracted, but there was a lot more time to entertain the distraction and then get on with it. Also, there was no internet to feed my distraction habit (“what’s the weather today?” “what does yeoman mean?”).

But here, technology is embedded into my personal space. I can’t turn off my phone. I’m sorry, I just can’t. What if I get an emergency call or text from Max, a deeply depressed person I love and worry about constantly? What if what if what if?

Then there’s the chinkle of Nola’s collar and click of her nails as she trots over to see if I’m ready to go to the park. No I’m not ready, but maybe I can take her and come back and finish. (Of course I won’t come back and finish, the workday will have begun. The to-do list and the deadlines will take over.)

Enter Insight Timer.

It’s a free meditation app that includes an easily customizable timer that—and this is important—you can add ambient sound and interval bells to. Here’s why I love it:

  • The timer makes the experience finite and out of your control. Like being in class, you just write until a force outside you says “Stop.”
  • The interval bells provide just enough of a distraction to placate my addiction without taking me too far from the page. (“Wow another five minutes has gone by. That was long/short.”)
  • The ambient sound serves as a paperweight, holding down my fluttering attention. It provides a soft barrier to other sounds, and reminds me that this time is special.
  • It keeps my phone near by, so I don’t get nervous, but occupied, which for some reason makes me feel better.

Here's how I use Insight Timer for writing.

If you want to try it yourself, here’s how to create a reusable writing session:

  1. Download the app and set up an account.

    You can check out all the meditations and social features later; for now, just stay focused. This is about your writing timer.

  2. On the home screen, click the Timer icon.

    It’s that little clock icon along the bottom of the screen.
    Insight timer start screen.

  3. Set a duration for your first session.

    You’ll save this session later as a preset, so even if you’re not planning to write right now, create your preset so it’s all ready for you.
    Choosing a duration

  4. Choose an ambient sound.

    Click through the sounds to find one you like. You’ll want to keep your volume fairly low, so that the repetitiveness of the sound creates a white-noise effect, but loud enough that you’ll hear the interval bells.

  5. Choose your interval bells.

    You need to specify a few things: The time from start (like 5 minutes), the Repeat (add a checkmark), the duration between intervals (like 5 minutes), and the number of repeating bells (click the infinity symbol so the app fills the time with as many intervals as needed for your duration).

  6. Name your preset.

    The process differs depending on whether you run the session first, or are just creating it to use later. If you don’t see a red Save command shown in the screen above, click the 3 gray dots in the same location.
    Saving the preset

  7. To start a session, choose it from your Presets tab.

    There are all sorts of ways to copy and modify presets, but this should get you started.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

The Chicken Little question, answered

Do the climate change deniers have it right? Are we all just a bunch of Chicken Littles running around screaming, the sky is falling? I have struggled with this question—not only because I respect science. Which I do. I respect people who gather data like the amount of CFCs and water vapors and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. But I have struggled mainly because I have problems with the story of Chicken Little itself.

I resent the way, no matter which version you read, the narrator always tells the reader things than Chicken Little can’t possibly know, so we spend the whole story judging her. The narrator always tells us right from the start that it’s an acorn that hit her, even though she doesn’t see it. So we know all along that she’s jumping to conclusions, getting the whole farmyard riled up for no good reason.

Climate change deniers appropriate this story as proof that people who go around saying, “the sky is falling, we’ve got to tell the king,” are wrong. And this is hard for me to say, but those idiots are right on. I hope you can indulge me just for a few minutes, to think this through, because, as much as the Chicken Little story bugs me, I believe it the definitive folk tale for our climate debate, maybe even for our entire fate as a species.

Let’s start with Chicken Little. And I don’t know why she’s called Chicken Little because her size has no impact on the story, not like Snow White who’s really pure, or Puss in Boots, who likes to look gallant so he can impress people.

But anyway she’s walking along in nature and gets bonked in the head by something—which we know, thanks to the narrator—is an acorn. Only she doesn’t see it. She looks around, nobody in sight, no obvious cause like a bird flying overhead. So she thinks, “Oh no, I don’t see what hit me. It must be a piece of sky! Oh no, the Seychelle islands are disappearing. The sea levels must be rising. I’ve got to tell the king!”

And off she goes, and runs into Henny Penny. That’s another irritating thing. Everybody Chicken Little runs into has a rhyming name that has no payoff, story-wise. The name Henny Penny would be great if the character is frugal, always saving a penny, and that has some impact on her character arc. Maybe it will be her ruin!

Or maybe it will save the day. Like she’s been hording this one grain of corn for no reason, but when the dam is about to break due to “global warming,” Henny pulls out that one grain that everyone scoffed at her for hording, and lodges it in the right place, and the dam holds and the farmyard is saved! But no. I guess it was just the easiest rhyme the writer could think of. I’m still in awe of this story, though. Bear with me.

So Chicken Little tells Henny, “The sky is falling! I’m off to tell the king!” And Henny’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ll go with you!” Off they go, and run into Turkey Lurkey—Lurkey not because he lurks about and gathers intel which is used against our friends at some crucial point, but just because it rhymes—and they tell him, “the sky is falling, we’re going to tell the king!” “Woah,” says he, “I’ll come with!”

So along they go, and gather a few other friends with lamely rhyming names, Goosey Loosey and Ducky Lucky, and finally Foxy Woxy. And they tell Foxy, “The sky is falling! We’re off to tell the king.”

And Foxy’s like, “What? No way!”

“It’s true! Chicken Little’s got the bump on her head to prove it!”

“Woah, that’s intense,” says Foxy, “Well I happen to know where the king is right now, I’ll take you to him!”

So they all follow Foxy through the forest, this is another CHEAT in the story. The narrator tells us where Foxy is actually leading them, so we can all laugh at how gullible they are. He gets to the entrance to his den and says, “The king is right through there.” And they file in, and Foxy traps them, and kills them, and eats them. End of story.

So why is this brilliant? What makes this smug and lazily constructed story the one thing we should all be reading? It ain’t the acorn. It’s what Henny does about it.

If we really believe the sky is failing, why do we allow ourselves to take one ride in a car that burns fossil fuel? Or spend one minute longer in the shower than we need to? Or accept even one plastic fork at a picnic?

If Chicken Little had thought, “I’m Little but I’m mighty,” maybe she would stayed right there and searched until she found the cause of that bonk on the head. But searching for a piece of sky is lonely. Talking is comforting. Talking lets us focus on our listeners. Are they getting your message? Do they believe us?

I can’t stand here and tell you the glaciers aren’t melting, or there aren’t holes in the ozone. But how do so many of us, including myself, respond? We read the emails and sign the petitions and write to the oil companies and recommend the documentaries.

We’re so busy spreading the word that we walk right into the fox’s den, the fox with the bright red hair and the distractions that keep us thinking we’re doing something when in fact, all we’re really doing, is talking.

Story Report: First Trip to The Moth

I don’t like the competitive aspect of The Moth but last night there I was, wondering if my name would be called and simultaneously hoping I wouldn’t embarrass myself and also that I’d win. I did neither.

The host, Peter Kim, made us laugh and then pulled a name out the bag and it was mine.

Good news: I was onstage before I could even get nervous. Bad news: I felt like the first pancake. My mom used to say, you always throw out the first pancake, it never cooks right. But I found the mic and started my story.

“Last year our dog Django died…”

And right there, I wish I had paused to take the temperature of the room. Don’t worry, the story went well and I got fine numbers and lots of warm comments from strangers afterward. But the nugget I want to share with other storytellers is:

When you tell a story, allow some space in your opening to accommodate where you are in the running order and to check in with your audience.

My focus, in contrast, was the clock. My inner monolog was Please oh please don’t let me go over time. So although at that moment I heard a little “Oh…” after I said “died” and felt the audience think: “This is going to be a serious one,” I didn’t pause and say something like:

“It’s okay. She’d had a good long life and went about as well as she could without being magically parachuted to Heaven straight from the dog park.”

or something to lighten the mood. Instead I pushed through to what I’d seen as the first joke:

“And the day we got home from putting her down all I wanted to do was clean the house. (pause) Which was weird because the house was already clean.”

To me, that’s funny—a grieving person cleaning an already clean house. But because I had plowed through according to my initial agenda, it took me a few minutes of reshaping the story to reveal the humor in the gap between what I think of as normal grieving and my obsession to erase every trace of loss with Lemon Pledge and Windex.

Story review: If I tell this story again, I will weave in Dave’s role in the events more, because it speaks to what was at stake in cleaning or leaving that dog-smudged window. Also, I’ll time myself more so that I am less panicky about going over.

As it was, I think the story was about four minutes long, so I had more time than I thought. But I’d rather be under than over.

And it was a great night of stories. Some really strong performances including the winner, who made us laugh and cringe over her incredible string of bad gynecologists; Nester Gomez, whose story of becoming the man in the family at 12 years old really hit me; the woman whose stories I’d like to hear more of who talked about a difficult foster care experience; Pearl Ochoa, who told a story about gardening with a happy ending—shocker! …and many more.

So to my friends who have seen me waffle about going to the Moth, here’s my takeaway:

I still don’t love the competitive thing, but I think the rigid time limit and the open judginess provide a good opportunity to sharpen your skills and sensitivity to how a story is living in the moment.