A Chance of Ten Times the Experience

“Ooof… I guess I should have brought food for the wolves…As soon as I make it to the village I’ll be safe.”

“What?!? This area’s not safe??”

(Quotes overheard, courtesy of Old School RuneScape’s Deadman Mode – a special mode in which other players can kill you anywhere, but you get a chance at ten times the normal rate of experience gain) 

No one said gaining experience was easy. 

In video games, they have a nice tidy leveling-up system. Usually it’s exponential – the first time you need x points, the next level you need x^(something) points, and so on. It’s a source of endless stress and focus and effort and (sometimes) rage and determination. 

But you know exactly where you stand, with experience. You get a number and everything. 

Clearly, life is lacking in this regard. How much experience am I going to gain from this whole pandemic thing? Do I gain more or less experience for sheltering in place? Do I have to actually contract the virus in order to face the final boss? Where are all my health potions? 

Is the experience different for those using Xbox? 

They really didn’t think this through. 

Of course, they tell me life isn’t a video game. Apparently it’s actually a stage, or something – I’m a bit hazy on the details. 

But – dear Lord – after this, can you imagine how much experience the next level will require?

Image courtesy of ihavekungfuphotography.com.

Remembering Resilience

Today – quarantine notwithstanding – you have a guest. Your guest is a very familiar stranger, and they have a very important matter to discuss. They sit down and accept their coffee fixed exactly the way you take it. They don’t bother with small talk. They lean forward, look you straight in the eyes, and say – “What do you have for me?” 

Let’s change the viewpoint: What do I have for you? Nothing, everything – something between the two. I have memories; I know that’s what you’re after. But I am not going to give you everything – no, I am going to give you the best. I have carefully picked what to remember from this period of time, this pandemic. There is a theme underlying each of these selected memories. It is called “resilience”. 

There is a story called resilience, “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.” The psychologists tell it, and they say it can be learned. They say it must be practiced, like any other skill. 

What does it feel like to practice resilience? 

It isn’t delusion. It doesn’t dull the pain or hide away. Rather, it says: “I won’t surrender life lightly – mine, or yours. We will make a Tomorrow – but first, we’ll face Today.” 

This pandemic has had a lot of Todays, so many that they all run together. I remember I didn’t face some of those Todays in a way of which I am proud. Those, particularly, I must not forget. Out of them I craft the memory of Learning. 

I remember working in a grocery store, shelves stripped bare. I remember anxiety under a facemask, breathing short and trapped. I remember fighting not to go home before the end of my shift. I remember every single minute of an eight-hour day.  I remember how people changed, the fight-or-flight reaction laid bare before my eyes, and I remember feeling myself change, too, becoming reclusive, angry, frustrated. 

I remember the rage and meanness sparked by learning my fellow citizens valued their entitlement and fairytale economy over my life. 

I remember weaknesses and stress points, a map of the ways in which I crumble. 

The psychologists say that resilience is not a fixed state. It arises as an interaction between us and the environments – physical and mental – that we inhabit. 

I remember a sudden gift of time. After three years of two jobs, four days off every week seems a miracle of shelter-in-place. 

I remember small things, experienced richly. I remember hummingbirds and sunshine, coffee and peach tea. Once there was a hibiscus blossom on the balcony at 3 a.m. on Easter morning.

I remember writing. I remember trying to craft different stories of survival, different paths towards strength and wisdom and healing in times of crippling helplessness. Change; normal; miracle; apocalypse; utopia – each of these concepts have something to offer us. In times of systemic stress, their meanings are rich templates of understanding that can be layered over the world around us, creating depth and shaping growth.

Growth. It’s an understanding shaped by the springtime outside my window, the peace of going home and the panic of going back out to work. Somewhere between the two, I understand that this is what growth feels like. 

Growth lives between terror and the everyday, or where terror picks apart and remakes the everyday. I know the stories, the history. I know the present. I know “growth” isn’t a guarantee of survival. 

But growth is a lifeline to the possibility of a future you. It’s the tether of a story, consciously crafted; the story of what you choose to remember, what you choose to learn, from catastrophe.

Make no mistake – catastrophe will shape you. There is no question, no exercise that offers control over that. 

What you must determine for yourself is how, exactly, you are shaped. That decision is best made early. If you decide right now that you will view each setback as a circumstance shaping you towards a more resourceful, empathetic, caring person – the chances that you will instead succumb to bitterness are reduced. 

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center – and its affiliate Greater Good In Action – offers these science-based practices for building resilience. I have found them useful, and hope you do too.

Of course, I’m making this up as I go along. All I have are experiences and memories, a few articles on the Internet. It’s a tenuous excuse for hope. It’s a tenuous thing to hand over to my future self, that imaginary being who comes calling for coffee and keeps me on track. 

She’s been stopping by a lot more frequently since quarantine started. She knows her life depends on the choices I make today, the memories I craft and keep. With her in mind, I try to acknowledge the panic and frustration, rage and restlessness, and use them as catalysts for learning and growth. 

So when she asks, “What do you have for me?” – I can answer, a resilient future.

Porch Swing Time

When was the last time you sat on an old-fashioned porch swing? It’s not something anyone forgets. The swing must be the right kind, made of thin wooden slats. If ever painted, the paint must have flaked off to the point where the wood’s present color is most accurately described as “lichen.” 

The swing must be suspended from chain, coupled to metal hooks screwed into the porch’s wooden ceiling. Both hooks and chain must have matching coats of rust. Extra length of chain must dangle down past the hooks so that it smacks against its tensioned, load-bearing better half, just off beat with each back-and-forth rock of the swing. 

Overlaid against this jangled smack is a dull creak of rust against rust, each chain link contributing its own tone to the whole. The sum is greater than its parts; there is no other sound on Earth that resembles an old porch swing in motion. There is no other sound quite as soothing for an afternoon nap. 

And because it’s a place heaven-made for napping, the swing must be covered in a quilt. The quilt will be ragged but clean; it has been selected from the “good” indoor quilts for this holiest of holies, the highest fulfillment of an elderly quilt’s days, covering the swing. This quilt is your protection against splinters and (remaining) sharp flakes of paint. It must be soft. There’s a special softness that cotton takes on after the colors have faded and the cloth has spent several decades in use and washing machines. That is the sort of softness you want your porch swing quilt to have. 

The quilt should be pink, yellow, or (rarely) white; soft shades of green are sometimes acceptable too. The pink copes the best with the inevitable Kool-aid stains. No other color blends so well with every flavor from Grape to Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst. Pink will also embrace watermelon drippings, popsicle melt, and ice cream runoff; looking ahead to the Fall, it will sometimes manage chili, although that is considered pushing your luck. 

The front porch swing is the Special Spot. If you look around a gathering, there are three groups who sit on front porch swings in company: the Older Folks, the New Mother, and the Little Kids. Not at the same time, of course – there is only so much forgiveness to go around in the face of sure disaster. 

Usually it starts out with the Little Kids, early in the evening. The New Mother will come next, after small bodies and enthusiastic swing rocking has been chased off the porch. A few Older Folks will gravitate over to the New Mother, and (if there’s room) the most senior may take their place on the swing beside her. When she leaves to “take care of” Little So-&-So1, the next senior takes her spot, and so it goes2

But porch swings are best, in my opinion, when there’s no one else around. There’s a special loneliness to a Midwestern summer afternoon. The streets and yards are empty. The birds have given up. The cicadas pursue their own noisy ends, competing with the hum of air conditioners. The shadows are harsh, the light blistering. And if you are outside, it feels entirely possible that you are the last human on the planet. 

But you are the last human on a planet with a porch swing, finally, to yourself. 

The smack of the chains and the creak of wood, the smell of sun-roasted cotton quilt. Everything is faded and a little out of place in time. You could be in the 1920s, the ‘50s, the ‘90s: when humanity meets the first time traveler, they will have just woken, confused, from a high summer nap on a porch swing somewhere in the Midwest. 

If the future is smart, it will ignore the time traveler and look at the porch swing. 

They will see an unfamiliar, unlovely object. The wood is worn and spintered, the chains are a tetanus hazard, the quilt is unsanitary and covered in blotches of red, brown and whatever color Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst dries into3

The smaller children will be the first to investigate. They’ll all pile on in a heap and rock the swing as far as it will go, to the sound of straining chains and their parents’ caution. After this trial by fire, the swing will be deemed safe. The new mothers and elders will carefully, gradually, test it. 

Very late at night, after most everyone has gone home, there may be young couples and teenagers who use the swing – but no one will know anything the next morning. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing. 

And in the late afternoon, when everyone really has disappeared, a lone child will sit rocking, half asleep, back and forth. There will be a hum; perhaps cicadas, perhaps air conditioners. 

The shadows will stretch, and the light will stay the same; the light will fade, and the shadows will remain. The years will rock back, and forth, back, and forth, a midsummer lullaby. 

Some sort of pendulum has set this motion, this archetype Foucault always caught between pegs. Some sort of time passes on an old-fashioned porch swing, but it’s the same time every time. It’s the time between Someday and Yesterday. The time of naps, loneliness, and cicadas, the only time measured on a Midwestern summer afternoon. Someday it might change; Someday always marks the time of change. 

Someday, in the very distant future – even the stains from the Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst might fade.

But not as long as there’s an old-fashioned porch swing around. 

1 No I don’t know the baby’s name, I’m just here for the porch swing, alright?

2 Very much later on, after the company has really cleared out, a fourth group consisting of young couples and teenagers may use the porch swing for their own nefarious purposes – but I’ve been advised it’s better to leave well enough alone. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing.

3 I’ve never actually seen a dried stain from any flavor with more than two fruits in the name. They just seem to turn into a progressively stickier gel, a sort of La Brea Tar Pit of fruit flies and mosquitoes.

The Great Wall of Text

If I can say less – why fight it?
Brevity is the soul of wit.
If someone else didn’t say it,
They may be smarter than I.

There’s an eighth wonder of the world out there. I’m not going to claim you can see it from space; it’s far more intimidating up close, in your inbox, mailbox, or browser. Every year it is visited by thousands of unwitting, unhappy pilgrims, and thousands more actually help build it. It is, in fact, the only Wonder of The World which has been under continuous construction since the advent of the written word. 

My friends, please consider The Great Wall of Text. It’s a legendary, awesomely impenetrable barrier of words blocking out light, sound, and your plans for the rest of the week. It’s a “Wonder” because it makes you wonder… what you’re doing with your life, and whether there’s anything really important buried in all that unwanted prose. It triggers an immediate “Look – A Distraction!” response. 

I should know about the suffering inflicted by the Great Wall of Text. I frequently build additions to it. Email, comments, posts… all written materials are suitable for the task. It pains me to admit that about half of my written “Great Wall of Text – Under Construction” projects see the light of day. But I’m learning from the ones I catch. For my sins, here are three helpful subtleties to consider when editing your own work.

  • Do I actively avoid re-reading my own words? This is a major red flag. Writers are egotists. We of all people should love to read our own words, like Narcissus with his reflection. If we don’t want to re-read it, we probably shouldn’t – and neither should anyone else. 
  • Do I wait to unleash the Big Idea? If I’m not riding the Big Idea from the first paragraph, rodeo-style, life and the lesson may be too tame – or too long. (As in, life is too short to hack through what should have been fed to the delete key.)
  • Can I remember Points A and B by the time I reach Point X? How many Big Ideas do you think one piece of writing can hold? Are you trying to set them against each other cage-match style, or re-make another Godzilla vs. Kong?

In closing, always remember one of the most eloquent responses in the English language is but a single letter: “ ‘K.”

Fifty Full Pages

Fifty full pages I can’t bear to see;
Fifty whole pages I can’t bear to read. 
Fifty dull pages of blood sweat and tears,
Angst and distraction and graduation fears. 
The words of tomorrow? The millstone, a test
Of discipline: failed, and after a rest
I see strong and clear the thing that I need – 
To write fifty pages whose words I can read.

True story – to this day I still don’t know what my undergraduate senior thesis contains, because I can’t stand to read the damn thing. I literally fall asleep over it, every single time. It’s one of those happenings which is hilarious, in someone else’s life. 

It is easy to write one unreadable page. It is actually quite hard to write fifty. I now have exactly one criteria for a piece: I must enjoy re-reading it. 

Perhaps the fifty full pages taught me something after all.

Feel free to share what you have (or haven’t) learned from your own unreadable pieces!

Hemingway Smile

Learn to say the truth of a thing –
That is all. Wisp and crackle, storm and fade –
End while the picture still holds. 

Truth, so spoken, is fate:
Do not fold
What life lays square. 
Gravity slings planets to a star
And Galileo towards his high perch –
Not for some revelation, but a simple sight. 

He learned to speak the truth of a thing 
In art as in science, make it be:
Centuries later, Hemingway smiled.

A rather well-known quote, but one that both simplifies and re-defines the job of writing:

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Earnest Hemingway, The Moveable Feast.

Silver Towards Salt

“That liquefaction of her clothes” – 
They must have seen her eyes, 
Wide plains and oxbows, 
Silver dawnlight glow 
As the heart of a continent pours towards salt. 

Mineral mine, jewels that adorn
The calcification of shells –
Did they see her in the deep river cliffs,
The soundings off a shoreline ever-changing? 

They saw her when she rose – 
“Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows- ” 

Heart given forth its life to salt. 

Quotes drawn from Robert Herrick’s poem “Upon Julia’s Clothes.”