Writing in the morning

I know that I need to write in the morning if I’m going to be productive at fiction. Even just 20 or 40 minutes of early morning writing gets my head into the story space, and once it’s there I’ll continue to have story ideas through the day.

I’ve had trouble making this work since I started teaching taiji. For most of the year I need to start getting ready early enough to be out the door no later than 8:40 AM. I’m only gone for a couple of hours, which isn’t such a big hole in the day, but it’s big enough that it’s made it hard to get in the necessary early-morning writing session.

But after months—years, really—of not getting my fiction writing in, I’m taking a fresh stab at making an early-morning writing session happen.

I started a week ago so I could test-run the new schedule and get the kinks worked out before the last week of August, when the first fall taiji session starts. So far it’s working pretty well. I got my early-morning writing done every day except one, and that day I managed to get in a good writing session in the afternoon.

The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to just start even earlier. That isn’t easy because I’ve put together an early-morning routine that I’m finding really satisfying:

  1. Do a tiny bit of mobility work first thing.
  2. Weigh myself and check to see what my Oura ring says about my sleep.
  3. Sit down at my computer and record that info.
  4. Drink some coffee.
  5. Do the Daily Jumble with my brother and my mom.

After Jumbling and a couple of cups of coffee, I generally have breakfast, after which is my window to get some writing done before taiji.

What I’m doing differently is simply that I’m trying to start breakfast no later than 7:00 AM (ideally a little before), so that I can finish before 7:30.

I need to leave by about 8:40 to be sure I get to the Rec Center in time for my class, which gives me a generous hour to write.

If I manage that—spend enough time writing to get immersed into the story space of whatever I’m working on—then my brain gets started working on story problems. All through the rest of the day I’ll have plot points, possible story twists, clever turns of phrase, bits of dialog, and so on, popping into my head.

Until I start writing, none of that happens. It’s actually kind of awkward when I don’t get a chance to write during the day, and then try to squeeze in a writing session late, because then I’ll be getting those ideas while I’m trying to go to sleep.

Actually, it turns out it can be kind of awkward even when I do what I’m trying to do. Two days last week I skipped the group taiji practice session, but on Friday I did pretty much just what I’m planning to do going forward, and the result was that my brain was fairly fizzing with story stuff at the point I was getting set to head out the door. That’s fine for the summer practice sessions where I’m just a participant and not in charge of anything, but when I’m the teacher it’s my job to be fully present and mindful in the class, not in my latest fictional world.

It was okay this time; my fizzy brain had settled down by the time I was in the car ready to drive. But it’s another thing to take into account as I calibrate this new routine, which is why I wanted to have these couple of weeks for a test run.

Still, if I want to get fiction written, it’s best to get started early. And for a week now, I’ve been managing it. (And as a consequence, have finished a draft of my first new short story in a long time.)

Jumbling with the family

Almost every morning I sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee and solve the Daily Jumble with my family.

We had each done the Jumble from time to time. (I did it occasionally until we quit getting the local paper.) But at some point a few years ago my brother must have mentioned in a chat session that he and my mom were working on the Jumble, and I must have asked if I could help, and he must have sent me a scrambled word.

Since then we’ve worked out a whole procedure for jointly working on the Jumble. My mom wields the pencil and reads off the clues to my brother, who types them into a chat session for me. Then we all work to unscramble the letters until one of us gets it. We continue until we have all the words. (Sometimes we’ll give up on one word or another.) At that point my mom goes through our answers to produce the list of letters available to use, counts the letters in the words of the answer, describes the cartoon and reads all the text from it, up to the prompt to finish. Once again, my brother types all that into the chat session. Then we solve it.

We’ve gotten pretty good at this whole process, and can usually knock of a Jumble in just a few minutes.

It has turned out to be a wonderful way to stay connected with my brother and my mom (and occasionally my nephews when they feel like participating).

Mornings hardly seem complete when I don’t get in some family time with the Jumble—to the point that, when I visit Steven in person, we still do the Jumble the exact same way, with him typing to me in a chat session, even though I’m sitting right next to my mom. (I’m way better at solving a Jumble with a keyboard than I am with pencil and paper.)

(Posting this mainly because I’m working on a post about my daily routine and I didn’t want to excise this important piece, even though my description of it had exploded out of all bounds.)

Writing in 2018

My writing this year ticked along at a low level, so low I was almost tempted not to bother reporting on it.

I continued to work on fiction by fits and starts, but I don’t think I finished a single story.

I want to be sure to thank Elizabeth Shack whose Thursday evening writing group, even though I didn’t make it as often as I meant too, still got me writing more than I otherwise would have. (It’s not a critique group at all. It’s a way to make writing a little bit less of a solitary activity. We gather in a coffee shop and spend a couple hours quietly working on our own stuff, with a few minutes of conversation at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It’s all very companionable and I miss it when I don’t go.)

I can’t even say I’m disappointed in myself for not writing more (which I used to be): Every day I get up and do exactly what I want all day. Sometimes that’s writing, and when I write I really enjoy it. Other days it’s something else, which I usually enjoy as well.

I used to put a lot of effort into arranging my life with writing in mind—making sure I had large blocks of time to write, making sure I had time to write every day, making sure I could get started writing early in the day. I think that worked after a fashion, perhaps more so for the non-fiction than the fiction, but I have largely given up on fussing about that stuff.

Along about the middle of the year I got email from the admins at Wise Bread saying that they were “switching gears” and would “no longer be commissioning articles” as they had been.

Once again, I’m not really disappointed. I was much more suited to their old model where I wrote whatever I wanted and then posted it. There were good reasons for them to hire editors—and the editors they got were great—but the way you have to work when you have an editor didn’t suit the way I wrote. (If I wanted to pitch stories and work on deadline I could make a lot more money writing for magazines.)

Before that shift I did publish two stories at Wise Bread:

I also did a ground-up rewrite of my old post “Treasury Bills for Ordinary Folks,” which they published under the old URL but with inexplicable title Why Treasury Bills Are Always a Worthwhile Investment. (I say inexplicable because the whole reason it was worth a rewrite is that, after 10 years during which Treasury Bills were a terrible investment, they were were finally once again paying a competitive rate.)

I have one more post that they bought, but which hasn’t gone live yet. They say it’s currently scheduled for early January, so I guess I’ll be able to include a Wise Bread section in my 2019 end-of-year post as well!

One place I have been writing pretty actively is here on this blog. A quick count just now found 67 posts published in 2018, and I may post another one or two before this post goes live.

Some of that number are trivial status posts—for which I have the glimmerings of plan. I’d like to post everything which goes to social media here first, and then share it on social media. Working out the logistics has proven problematic, which gets me discouraged. (My glimmers of a plan involve my microblog at micro.blog, but I don’t quite have everything working yet.) When I get discouraged, I go ahead and post stuff on social media—but almost always I end up regretting it. That’s when there’s another small flurry of status posts here.

Besides those, there are plenty of more substantial posts here as well. Since you’re here reading this, I assume you don’t need me to link to those.

A simple daily routine, with writing

I visited my dad in Kalamazoo last week, and managed to establish a bit of a routine for both of us:

  1. I’d get up around 6:00 AM and spend some time on-line, checking my feeds and email, and doing the Jumble with my brother and my mom (and anyone else in his household who was available).
  2. My dad would get up around 7:00 AM and we’d each fix our breakfasts and eat them.
  3. Around 8:00 AM we’d each settle down to do a couple of hours of writing.
  4. Around 10:00 AM we’d stop for a coffee break.
  5. After coffee we’d go to a natural area and walk until we got tired or hungry, at which point we’d break for lunch.
  6. After lunch we’d put some time in on our assigned non-writing task for the week (getting as much as possible of my dad’s old papers and junk gathered and sorted for shredding, recycling, or taking to the dump).

That was the end of the productive part of the day. After that was cocktail hour followed by dinner, typically followed by streaming a Cardinal’s game.

It was a pretty satisfying schedule—productive, but with plenty of time to be social, both with my dad in person and with my other relatives on-line, and plenty of time to be outdoors in nature. (My dad has been keeping up on the latest research on how being in nature is good for your mood, as well as many other aspects of your health.)

Because it was so satisfactory, I’m going to try to maintain a version of this schedule going forward. One complication is that Jackie’s work schedule has her breakfasting very early on days that she needs to be at the bakery early, but not necessarily that early on other days. Still, that’s just a detail that can be worked around.

The picture at the top shows a buttonwood plant that my dad and I saw while walking in the fen at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum near where my dad lives in Kalamazoo.

Movement in 2017

I’m pretty pleased with 2017 on a movement front. As I sat down to write this, I had been feeling a little discouraged about how slow my progress seemed on the strength front, but when I looked back at where I was one, two, and three years ago, I can see that I’m actually making steady progress. (And, after I’d started drafting this post, I managed to do a chin-up, so I’m especially pleased about that.)

I feel like I’ve pretty much managed to internalize my realization that movement trumps exercise. I certainly don’t move enough, but I’m much more inclined to notice now whenever I do something that minimizes or outsources my movement. This gives me a chance to say, “Never mind. I’ll go ahead and do that myself.”

Since I don’t move enough, I have to add exercise to the mix. Especially in the winter, when the cold and the dark and the ice make it tough to fit all the movement in, I exercise. And I pick my exercises with the goal of improving the capabilities—mobility (especially), strength, control and access to appropriate movement patterns—that I found were limiting factors last summer.

This last—access to movement patterns—is new. I’m just coming to realize that in many cases my limitations are not (or not entirely) a lack of strength or flexibility, but rather are due to poor patterning of the movement. More on that below.

Exercise

I stuck with the exercises I’ve been focusing on for three years now, and added a couple.

Squatting

I finally made real progress in squatting, and it turned out to be a really simple thing that made the difference—and probably a movement pattern thing.

In one of the classes I took with Ashley Price, she had us find the best squat we could do with perfect form. That is, we got in neutral posture with our feet hip width apart, our feet pointing straight forward, our femurs neutral, and then we squatted down only as far as we could go while keeping our shins vertical.

My discovery was that by first getting as far down as I could with my shins vertical, I was in a posture that let me easily lower down the rest of the way into a deep squat. It’s not a perfect deep squat (I wouldn’t want to load up my back with a heavy weight and lift it) and it’s not quite to where I can comfortably rest at the bottom of a deep squat (although it is getting pretty close), but it is now a useful capability. For example, on the last day of the year I got down in a deep squat to look over the choices in our liquor cabinet, and ended up lingering there for some little time. (The range of choices is rather large just now, thanks to a generous gift and a bit of splurging on our own.)

Basically, I’m happy with my progress on squatting.

Hanging

Here I’m finally making great progress—chin-up!

Other than that I’m pretty much doing what I’ve been doing—negative pull-ups. Sometimes I do them for volume (I’ve done as much as 3 sets of 7, or 2 sets of 8 plus a few). Other times I’ve been doing many fewer sets and reps, concentrating instead on doing them very slowly.

Just since doing my chin-up I’ve begun to recognize a movement pattern issue here as well. Based on how sore my traps were after my first chin-up, while my lats weren’t sore at all, I think I’m failing to initiate the pull with my lats. I’m addressing that two ways. First, I’m doing the negative pull-ups very slowly, trying to find the point where I transition to using my lats and emphasize that part of the move. Second, I’m trying to specifically engage the lats by pulling my shoulders back and down before trying to pull myself up.

Besides all that I’m sticking with my other hanging exercises—swinging side-to-side and back-to-front, leg raises, knee-ups, and I’ve added some twisting knee-ups as well, turning my hips to alternate sides and raising my knees toward my elbow on that side. I’m also ready to start doing some traversals along the bar.

Wall dip

I haven’t made much progress here, for much the same reasons as last year: wall dips are hard, and I’ve been working on various progressions instead. I play around with bench dips and (rather shallow) parallel bar dips and wall supports.

Another reason I’m not making much progress here is that for my main pushing exercise I’ve been emphasizing pushups.

Toe stretches

I’m reasonably pleased with my progress on toe flexibility as well, even though I haven’t actually increased my range of motion much. What I’ve done is improve my ankle dorsiflexion enough that I’ve been able to start doing the things I couldn’t do because of limited toe flexibility.

There’s a particular move I wanted to be able to do, that involved shifting from a squat to a deep knee bend, then lowering the knees to the ground and then kneeling. It can also be reversed by flexing the ankles to tuck the toes under, rocking back to get into a deep knee bend, and then shifting to a squat for standing back up.

Among other things, this is a martial arts move: You can move from kneeling to standing while keeping your hands free to block an attack (or prepare to launch one).

I can sorta do that now. Not smoothly, and not without an amount of toe stretching that feels a bit excessive, but vastly better than two years ago where a single attempt hurt my knees and toes enough that it took weeks to recover.

Pushups

As I said, instead of dips I’ve instead been focusing on pushups. I’ve made good progress here as well: I can now do 8 pushups (up from 1 a little over a year ago). I’ve also greatly improved my form—keeping my elbows tucked in close to my sides, rather than letting them flair out as I’d probably done since I was a kid in gym class. (Your humeri should be neutral with your elbow pits pointed forward.)

Now that I can do 8 pushups it’s about time to start doing multiple sets—maybe starting with 2 sets of 5? I’ll try that in a couple of days.

I don’t have long-term plans to emphasize pushups though. I’ll keep doing them, but once I can do a couple of sets of pushups and still have some strength left in my triceps, I’ll get back to work on the various sorts of dips.

Kettlebell swings

This year I added kettlebell swings to my exercise regimen. I want to talk about this a bit, because there’s a story here.

About a year and a half ago I was out on a very long walk with Jackie. Toward the end we sat down on some concrete benches for a short rest, and I found that there was an uncomfortable lump right behind where I was sitting. Shifting around to find a lumpless spot was not successful. Eventually I figured it out: I had lost enough weight that I no longer had enough cushioning to keep my tailbone up off the bench; the lump I felt was my coccyx.

Figuring that bigger glutes would be a better choice for keeping my coccyx up off the bench than fat anyway, I started boosting the weight I used in my goblet squats. Then I remembered an old post by Tim Ferris that recommended kettlebell swings as the best glute exercise. Then some anonymous kind soul donated a 45 lb kettlebell to the Winfield Village fitness room.

Looking at my training log, it appears that I started doing kettlebell swings in January, and worked up to 3 sets of 25 by April. As Tim had recommended 75 reps as a target, I’ve left it there. I don’t have data on the size of my glutes, but I’m no longer bothered when I sit on a hard bench.

I use the kettlebell swings as my high-intensity interval training as well. A set of 25 swings spikes my heart rate up right toward my max heart rate. (I’ve actually seen heart rates above my estimated max heart rate, which just means that the estimate is a bit off.) Each set takes about 50 seconds, and I follow it with as much rest as I need to get my heart rate back down around 100, which works out to two or three minutes.

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a fourth set, and might yet do that.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking. It was a bit limited in the second half of this year because I hurt my feet, and one foot in particular has taken a long time to recover.

I think what happened was this: I was waiting for the bus, which unbeknownst to me had been rerouted due to road construction. Seeing the bus zip past a block away, I took off running to try to catch it at the next stop. In the rush I think I must have fallen into an old heel-strike movement pattern, bruising my heels, resulting in this nagging foot pain. Only in the last few days of the year does it seem to finally be completely resolved.

Walking

I still walk a good bit for transportation, just less than I was doing before I hurt my feet. I’ve also done less walking with Jackie since she started working at Great Harvest bakery. (This does not mean less walking for her—she walks to work most days.)

I expect my walking quantity to return to its old baseline quantities in the new year.

Running

Running was also curtailed by my foot injury. Before I hurt my foot I had been increasing my running distances as well, working my way up to where I did an 8-mile run for the first time in many years.

Some of my running is exercise, but a good bit is movement (as, for example, the sprint to catch the bus where I injured my feet.)

Parkour

I did spend a little time with the campus parkour club, but once again timidity (both movement timidity and social timidity) kept me from doing as much as I might have.

Each summer I mean to step this up. Maybe 2018 will be the year.

Taiji

For most of the year I teach two taiji classes—a beginners class that meets for an hour twice a week, and a group practice for continuing students (we don’t consider ourselves “advanced”) that meets for an hour three times a week. Besides that I do some taiji and qigong throughout most days. I do some qigong to loosen up in the morning. I do some before lifting to warm up, and then I do some between sets as “active recovery.” I might do a whole short form when I feel like a little moving mediation would do me some good, or even a whole long form when I feel like a lot of moving meditation would do me some good.

Basically, I do a lot of taiji.

Even when I’m not teaching I include it as part of my daily movement, simply because it has proven itself such a powerful tool for helping me move and feel better.

Push hands

Over the summer I got back together with my friends who practice push hands a few times, but we were never able to get a regular thing going, which is very sad. I’ll try again next summer.

Stewardship work days

I have continued my practice of joining Jackie for occasional stewardship work days at natural areas in and around Urbana. (I even did one without Jackie—a prairie burn.)

These are perfect examples of non-exercise movement: We don’t do them for the exercise (although we get plenty); we do them to improve the land.

They are very satisfying for many reasons—doing hard work with friends is always satisfying, contributing to the community (making the parks better) doubly so. I think an additional reason is that the actual physical movements and mental activity that we do while locating and removing invasive plants is virtually identical to those that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors must have done for most of the past two hundred  thousand years. (I see now that I made exactly the same point last year.)

Looking ahead

With one possible exception, my plans for the new year don’t include big changes, just continuing progress. (The possible exception is treating myself to a month pass to Urbana Boulders and putting my new upper-body strength to work climbing walls.)

I have had some success in getting my mind right with the cold, this year in particular, but also gradually over the past several years. I’m getting in more outdoor exercise this year than last, and a lot more than I did five or ten years ago. That, plus the indoor strength training and the taiji, look to stand me in good stead for getting 2018 off to a good start.

We’re planning a spring trip to some national parks in southern Utah which will entail a good bit of walking, so we have that bit of extra motivation to keep up with our walking over the winter.

Happy New Year!

Inktobering

I’ve been doing a pen-and-ink drawing each day this month for #inktober. I’ve been sharing them on Twitter, but obviously I should be sharing them here on my site as well.

So, here’s a gallery with my #inktober drawings, I’ll try to keep the gallery updated as the month of #inktober proceeds.

On Oliver Sacks

On Oliver Sacks: his writing process, how he used notebooks, and his views on creativity. Via Field Notes.

Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation’” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

Source: Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

Humor just for me, by Holly Theisen-Jones

There’s a certain category of joke called a “three-percenter,” the sort of joke that’s only going to appeal to 3% of your audience, but that will really, really appeal to them. (Part of the appeal is knowing they’re in the select group that gets it.) You have to be careful using them: At the first sign that a piece is full of inside jokes that they’re missing, the remaining 97% of your audience is gone.

Still, it’s worth embedding the occasional three-percenter in your humor, because for its select audience a three-percenter can really make a piece. What’s best, though—what’s comedy gold when you can pull it off—is a joke that feels like a three-percenter, but that feels that way to the whole audience.

With that in mind, let me say that My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours by Holly Theisen-Jones is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Sitting alone in my study, still tired after cranking out three sets of twenty kettlebell swings, I laughed so hard I could barely breath. The whole thing read like one three-percenter after another, with me being in the 3% the whole time. Gloriously, hilariously funny. Even the lists of trendy superfoods in the smoothies were funny.

So now, the question is: Is this a humor story with six dozen three-percenters and I just happen to be in the 3% for all of them? This is possible. Perhaps even likely. But maybe the audience is a bit bigger than that.

At 3 pm, it’s time to hit the gym. After years of research, I have engineered the most efficient possible workout, which is a single, 100-pound kettlebell swing, followed by four and a half minutes of foam rolling. (See my e-book for step-step instructions)

Source: My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Let me know if you’re in the 3%.