Sunday, September 26, 2010

Numbers 2-5

Pretty much every day this week, someone said something like “Can you believe we are already in the fourth week of the semester?”  It does seem like we’ve entered into a time warp that makes me think I’d better get busy.  Not on the day to day tasks—they always seems to get done-- but on the big things—the things I really want to do in my life.  That top 100 list, things that matter but don’t quite bubble to the top of my daily priorities or that present a significant challenge.  I mentioned one of those items back in August
1.       See the aurora borealis.
That one will pretty easy once I decide to do it.   A little research, easily accomplished on the web, would help me identify times and places where I would be likely to be rewarded.  Not a personal challenge, more one of planning, organization, and perhaps persistence if my first attempt fails due to bad weather or other bad luck.  There is no sense of urgency with this. There will be plenty of opportunities and there is plenty of time.
No, the things that are starting to nag at  me will be significantly tougher, requiring a much more sustained effort.  I pretend they are secret desires, but anyone who knows me probably already knows what is coming next.  I want to
2.       Write a book that, at least in principle, could be purchased at Barnes and Noble.
3.       Learn to play the piano well enough to do a credible job on the Chopin Nocturnes.
4.       Complete a mini-triathlon

Oh.  Is that all?

These three things represent huge challenges to me but are things that I have been yearning to do for a long time.  So far, I have not made much progress.  Actually none.   But if I am ever going to do them, I really ought to get started, don’t you think?

So, what is stopping me? 

I first wanted to do a triathlon when I was still in high school.  Back then, I thought that someday I’d do a full Ironman- 26 mile run, 112 mile bike ride and 2.4 mile swim.   Because I do have some sense of what is possible,  I have scaled back considerably, and now have my sights on a mini or sprint triathlon.  I prefer the term mini-triathlon because I will not exactly be sprinting, but whatever you call it, the race is composed of a 3 mile run, 12 mile bike ride and a half-mile swim.  The bike ride and swim are no problem at all.  Really the only snag is that I am not a runner, in fact, I hate running, but I have run 5K before, so I know I can do it.  The biggest problem is a bad left knee that is sometimes painful when I run.  But, it isn’t so bad that it will shut down this dream.  I bought some good shoes to minimize discomfort and now it is just a matter of persistence.  Although I have never thought of myself as athletic, I actually think that this will be the easiest of the three items on my list.  I am pretty sure that I can do a mini-triathlon, and have set a goal of doing so next summer.  I feel best when I am exercising anyway, so why not direct it towards fulfilling a long-time goal, albeit adjusted for age?!

Now about numbers  2 and 3.

Ah yes, that book.  I love to read.  I love to write.  I have written lots of scientific articles that have been published, but they are not especially accessible, except at university libraries and aside from a handful of scientists engaged in similar research, no one would really want to read them.  The writing that I long to do is the sort of writing that  could be found in a regular public library or in a regular bookstore.  I can’t remember a time that writing a book was NOT one of my lifetime goals.  

What stands between me and that book?  Well, a major problem is that I don’t really have any idea what it would be about.  No clue at all.  For a while, I thought that I could write a book about science or a scientist for a general audience.  Something like A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson or The Elegant Universe  by Brian Greene.  There are lots of those in print already, but there is plenty of room for more.  There are lots of stories to tell about how science and scientists work.  This remains a possibility, but I am not sure.   I love to read  fiction, but have never even tried to write fiction.  That alone suggests to me that I am not likely to start now.  If I were destined to make up stories about people and places, I think a certain propensity for imaginative writing would have already emerged.  I like essays, but I think you need to be famous or at least a whole lot more interesting than I  am before anyone cares what you think about life in general.  So, I just don’t know. 

Then of course, I can’t forget those hostile, internal critics.   They really do get in the way.  They are nasty, snarky and just plain mean.

My desire to play the piano seems a little more accessible.  This can be done in 30 minutes a day, with small manageable intermediate goals.  I already can play the clarinet and bassoon.  I can read music, both treble and bass clef.  I have a decent start.  But in walks the alter ego to my internal critics, another demon named Impatience.  I have actually attempted piano lessons a couple of times.  My progress and the outcome are predictable.  Initially, it is very easy and I feel bored by the process and want to move rapidly to real music.  Then suddenly, when left and right hand are expected to be rhythmically independent and more than whole notes appear in the bass clef, my brain and hands freeze up.  The problem is that I KNOW what I am supposed to do, I can hear the music played correctly when I read the parts.  I  just can’t seem to communicate what is in my brain to my hands to produce those sounds.  I imagine it is like recovering from a stroke – I know what I my hands should do, but making them do it is slow, difficult and frustrating.  So frustrating that I give up.   I have no  patience whatsoever with being a beginner.

However, I do see some good signs.

Thanks to this blog, I  am already writing a lot more these days.  In fact, I am very excited because my friend Nancy has organized a small writing group, so maybe I can explore what kind of writing I really want to do.   Maybe having an external audience will give me some direction and feedback that is a little more constructive than that offered by the internal critics and Impatience.   Maybe the barriers to writing and piano playing are really the same.  I expect to be playing nocturnes when I should be worrying about scales and chords,  and I expect to be writing books when I should be worrying about sentences and paragraphs.

As I begin to think about major projects like writing and learning to play the piano, it is tempting to point to a lack of time and to some extent, that is a real problem. No one has any time.  I can’t remember the last time I asked someone how they were and the answer was something other than “too busy.”   Not having time is the cliche of our age.  But, at least for me, I think that blaming my lack of time is just an excuse for not wanting to start the hard work to accomplish big goals.  It takes patience, self-discipline, and the willingness to slog through the tough spots. 

Patience is not my strong suit.  Never has been, probably never will be.  Self-discipline isn't high up there either.  But unfortunately,  I don’t think there is another option.  One of my favorite books on writing is titled  Bird by Bird by  Anne Lamott.  In it she tells the story about her little brother who had to write a report on birds and procrastinated so long that it seemed an insurmountable task.  He asked his father, also a writer, how he would ever get it done and his father replied, “Just take it bird by bird.”

Bird by bird.  Word by word.  Scale by scale.  Yup.  That sounds about right

As for my internal critics:   I think they need to go on an extended vacation.  When they get back, hopefully relaxed, rested and in a better mood,   I’ll  fill them in on my progress.  Maybe.

At this point, you may be thinking, “But Deb, you titled this entry Numbers 2-5, but you have only written about numbers 2-4.   What about  Number 5?”

I am glad you asked.  Number five is
5.        Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
I am very excited to report that I did that on Friday!   I am currently in San Francisco and took the opportunity to ‘check off’ number 5!
Number 5-- Check!

Among other things we did on Friday, we attended a free concert by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the great Michael Tilson Thomas.  There were a couple thousand people in Justin Herman Plaza, enjoying the lovely weather, take out lunches and most of all, the music.  It seems that people usually enjoy music privately, using their Ipods.  This is fine and I too enjoy my Ipod, but today I am grateful that music also  has the power to draw people together in communal celebration of beauty and joy. 

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