Adventures in Cycling – Push Through

I mentioned before that I am not an athlete. Yet the second half (so far) of my adult life has been filled with sports. I played indoor soccer for a decade. Volleyball filled several years prior to my stroke in 2010. At the time of the stroke, I was training to run a 5K. And bicycling has been my challenge of choice over most of the last fifteen years.

The change has two important aspects, one in inspiration and one in performance. The inspiration part is easy. I’m getting old. Slowing metabolism, diabetes, general dissatisfaction with how I look and feel. All of these give me a reason to move, to exercise. The performance change was a mental adjustment.

In simplest form, I discovered the necessity of not quitting. For years, I would give up as soon as the physical work got hard. MY lungs would begin to burn, my muscles to ache, and I would quit.

It’s a very ineffective way to exercise.

At some point, I decided that quitting was no longer an option. While playing indoor soccer, I discovered that there was a different level beyond that wall. (This is different from “the wall” that you hear about from elite athletes. Their wall comes late in the event. It is the point when you push a body beyond normal exertion to its maximum potential. They breach my “wall” routinely and without thought. I’m getting there. I come closest to their wall on the Capitol Trail rides.) My wall is based on laziness and built with fear of the unknown and doubts about my ability. Today I know it to be a mental one. It is primarily just the physical warm up to my activity. My body is naturally at rest. It doesn’t like having to work hard. If I listen to it, I won’t achieve any of my goals.

So, the important change I’ve learned is to ignore the “moaning” of my body at the start. Once I’ve warmed up, there’s a joy that I’ve discovered in these activities. All those lovely brain chemistry changes that come with the effort. The longer lasting enjoyment that comes with goals achieved.

A lesson that took too long to learn.

Push through.

Peace,

J.D.

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Writing – Guilty Pleasures

Most writers seem to agree that reading is a vital part of the writing process. My bet is we all began our journey as writers by falling in love with stories that we read. Beyond the “Dick and Jane” readers that were the standard starting point in school, my earliest memory of a book was “The Bobbsey Twins”. They seem to be largely forgotten today. I grew as a reader moving to Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, launching my lifelong love of mysteries and science fiction. After that came all kinds of reading. I’ve read Twain, Shakespeare, and Dickens. LeCarré, Baldacci, and Grisham. Rice Burroughs to Asimov to O. Scott Card. I read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that I hated (“Humboldt’s Gift”) and many indie author books that I’ve loved.

It sounds so grand to list all those great authors and classic books. But some folks will look askance at some of those titles. There’s the traditional (and in my opinion, irrational) disdain for genre fiction. Some will sneer at best selling authors, which is equally irrational. Being a best seller doesn’t make you a great writer, but it doesn’t equate to hackery either.

Having said that, I suppose I shouldn’t feel “guilty” about anything I read. But I have a love for the novels of Jack Higgins that has no equivalence to the quality of the books.

Higgins is a thriller novelist who hit it big with “The Eagle Has Landed” in 1975. The novel takes place toward the end of WWII and involves a last-ditch attempt to change the inevitable outcome. It moved fast, had compelling characters, and launched a career. All of his following books have sold well.

Higgins is a solid storyteller and has created some enduring characters. Sean Dillon, a “reformed” IRA gunman, now works for Brigadier Ferguson and Scotland Yard (Detective Inspector) Hannah Bernstein as the Prime Minister’s “private army”. After years of honing, the characters are precisely drawn and fleshed out. The books maintain Higgins’ reputation as a storyteller.

The downside is that they are utterly predictable. The author has a successful format and cranks one gloriously enjoyable tale after another. It’s also amusing to read the dialogue for his American characters. I just re-read 1995’s “Angel of Death” and the words he puts in President Clinton’s mouth are, well, just wrong.

But I truly don’t care. I enjoy them all too much. Like the foods I turn to in moments of stress, these are the books I turn to.

I think I’ll change the name of the category to “Comfort Reading”.

Peace

JD

A Life In Faith and the Lorica of St. Fursa

(My faith is an important part of my life.  I do not set up my life or my beliefs as anything other than my understanding of the Divine.  If they shine some tiny light on your journey then I will be happy for us both. YMMV)

A few years ago, I was given the chance to take a sabbatical. If you’re not familiar with the term, it is time away from the job that is often associated with some course of study or self-improvement. It’s not a vacation, but a time to recharge batteries while you grow professionally. It was an amazing time for me.

My study was on some of the foundations for prayer in the Anglican tradition. This was new territory for me, as the churches I grew up in didn’t spend much time on things like this. As a youth minister, I was growing concerned about some of the gaps in the faith foundations of many of the young people in my ministries. Those same gaps were evident in a lot of adults as well. So, this was “removing the plank” in my own eye time.

Triquetra - Holy Cross Monastery

I discovered this triquetra while on the retreat at the end of my Sabbatical. Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson River

I learned a lot during that sabbatical. I continue to be fascinated by the Rule of St. Benedict, a system of living designed for monastics. I expected it to be austere and perhaps a little grim. Instead, it was concise and even a bit funny. There’s a rule for what to do when your superior tells you to do an impossible task! Benedict knew real life.

Then there’s Julian of Norwich, one of the great English mystics. Her reminder that “All will be well” has become a touchstone in times of trouble.

But I particularly fell in love with a prayer, The Lorica of Saint Fursa. A lorica is a protective prayer. Probably the best known is “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”.

We don’t know much about Fursa (also called Fursey). Legend tells us that he might have been an Irishman who came to England. The stories say that he was respected for his holiness.

What strikes me about this prayer is how it involves all the senses. This isn’t a prayer solely from the mind or heart. It is an all-encompassing sensory response to God’s presence. This is the immanent Divine, surrounding us in all things and at all times. That we can engage with the holy through any and all of our senses is a tradition of long standing. I think it’s one that the modern church seems to forget. We do sight and sound and don’t consider anything else. There is a richness that is lost along the way.

This prayer is a wonderful expression of my understanding of the Divine. No part of us is apart from the relationship. No part escapes God’s attention. That’s pretty cool, I think.

The Lorica of St. Fursa

The arms of God be around my shoulders,

the touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,

the sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,

the sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,

the fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,

the vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,

the conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,

the work of God’s church in my hands,

the service of God and the neighbor in my feet,

a home for God in my heart,

and to God, the Father of all, my entire being.

Peace

J

 

Writing – On History and Monuments

I came across an interesting challenge a couple months ago.

It said every writer should try working in six different writing forms.  The idea was that we should challenge ourselves.

To stretch creatively by stepping outside of our usual forms.

If memory serves it showed up in a forum that focused mostly on long-form writing, which would explain the choices.  They are:

  • Poetry
  • Six Word Story
  • Flash Fiction (50-1k words)
  • Short Story
  • News Article
  • Opinion Piece

I’m always up for a creative challenge, so let’s give it a try.

This month’s challenge was the Opinion Piece.  It’s not really that novel an experience for me since I’ve been doing commentary (which is just opinion) for my radio program (The View From The Phlipside) for nine years now.  I could have taken the easy way out and just re-used one of those pieces.  But I wanted to be fair to the challenge, so I wrote something brand new.

Here’s the other thing about opinions – if you don’t have the courage to take a stand, you should just shut up.  What I’ve chosen to opine upon is very controversial at the moment.  It also felt right for the day after Independence Day.

My goal was to offer a possible solution along with the opinion.  So I ask that you read the whole way through to the end.

On History and Monuments

Over 150 years separate us from the national trauma of the American Civil War. Long enough that the anguish of the attempted rending of the nation can be treated in mythic and symbolic terms. At this distance, we can pretend that human suffering played a lesser role than high flown philosophical issues. It is only through such a pretense that anyone could suggest that others should “get past” the issues of that part of our history.

Sadly, I do not believe that the United States ever healed from the wounds created by the Civil War. Lincoln’s assassination allowed Reconstruction to be steered away from healing and reconciliation. The process was soon subverted to lock freed slaves out of their rightful place in our national family. The “Lost Cause” was allowed to persist, which perpetuated the division of the nation. Out of that rose veneration of the heroes of the rebellion against the Union. Today, the question of that veneration is the focal point of national strife again.

I live just outside Richmond, Virginia, the historic capital of the Confederate States of America. Drive in any direction from that city and you will quickly find many if the important battlefields of the war. Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, the Wilderness, Appomattox. You will also discover many parks and monuments to the men who led the fight to dissolve the United States of America.

Running down the middle of the grandest street in Richmond is a series of five monuments to such men. Monument Avenue features statues dedicated to the memories of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and with the grandest monument of them all, Robert E. Lee. Like many cities with such monuments (there are others as well, elsewhere in Richmond), there is a growing discussion of what to do about them. The conversation in Richmond has been calm so far. But there are fundamental questions that must be answered if we are to put the war behind us and heal as a nation.

The central question concerns the role of monuments and our history. Those who would preserve these objects are quick to claim that the effort to remove them is an attempt to “erase history”. Using the Richmond monuments as an example, let’s examine that argument.

Are these monuments memorials? In other words, do they recall to mind some event in the place where they reside? Alternatively, do they memorialize a native son/daughter associated with that place, like the sixth monument dedicated to tennis star Arthur Ashe?

The answer is no. None of the five are natives here and there is no particular historical event associated with the statues or their locations. So, they are not so much historic memorials as monuments. They are intended, including the Ashe statue, to aggrandize the memory of the men represented. Ashe is remembered for his dedication to sports and the young people of his hometown. What memory is attached to the other five?

They rose in rebellion against our nation, led a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, in large part to defend the pernicious institution of slavery. And they lost.

So, what then are these statues intended to aggrandize? History, like elections, has consequences. These men chose their cause and failed. There is no part of American culture that offers glory to failures.

So, is this than an attempt to erase history? Shall we make this chapter of our history “vanish from the earth”? Certainly not. Just a couple miles from the statue of the President of the Confederacy stands the house from which he performed that office. Known as “The White House of the Confederacy”, the building is an important piece of American history. Should the suggestion be made that this edifice be destroyed, I would stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the people who would oppose my stand on these monuments.

Because I believe these monuments should come down. They venerate men and ideas that our nation defeated and rejected. They serve as focal points for the ongoing division within our national psyche. Their time, if it ever existed, is over.

Rather than simply calling for their removal, let us use the opportunity to make a positive contribution to healing. Take the locations and erect new monuments. Monuments to American ideals like the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Richmond has a deep association with the freedom of religion and conscience, the “First Freedom”. By choosing five concepts on which we agree, these monuments become symbols of our ideals and our culture at its best.

If monuments intended to glorify leaders of a failed rebellion were to be replaced by those that remind us of our shared goals, we may finally begin the process of healing. A process too long delayed.

As before, you are invited to play along.  Either here in the comments on your own somewhere.

 

Author Interview – Bill Ciccotti “”

I have gotten to know some other writers over the last couple years.  To break up the sound of my own voice on this blog, I thought I’d ask them to answer a few simple questions about their most recent work and how they create.
This month is an author I met in a professional setting.  I just finished doing the audiobook narration for Bill Ciccotti.  The book is “The Dead Never Sleep – The Long Walk II“.  It’s available at Audible.com.
Bill is a fairly prolific author, with titles covering adventures in Key West, the Old West, WWII and more.  He struck me as an interesting addition to the series.
1. Introduce Yourself – I an not a retired NAVY SEAL, but do have an overactive imagination and a lifetime full of wild adventures that may have been embellished (slightly?) in my books. I did lose my job but found another. As well as a love for writing.
2. And now introduce your book –  This book is based on a factual trip and altercation in Canada. My best friend Brian (AKA Ryan) and I have had some wild times and more than a few road trips, including Cuba. The Ukrainian Club  9 theme has been used in all my Key West books. It started as a light side note but morphed into a book of its own, To Russia Without Love is the story of two friends who have been hounded over the years by the Russian mob. All over a bar fight in Canada. After death attempts and destruction of my boat and Ryan’s home, we decided to head to Russia after those tattoo thugs and finish this once and for all.
3. Why did you write this book? Why write the book? Because I love writing and I have a funny storytelling ability, The driving force in writing, for me is to put all these wild storied down before they are forgotten. Also hopefully sharing these adventures with others and putting a smile on their faces as they read my books or listen to the great audio production. My inspiration is my life. I have had a lifelong friend in Brian and out adventures in craziness have fueled my imagination with the raw basis of these great tales.
4. What was the hardest part of writing this book?  The greatest challenge was spelling. Thank God for spellcheck. I have a vivid imagination. And great memory of a wonderful life. all of this makes writing easy for me. 

5. What do you hope your readers get from your book?  I hope my readers get a smile out of my books and audios. Laughter is underrated.

6. What are you proudest of about your book?  I am proudest about being able to read my works several times and still laugh at what I have come up with. I have written many books Some I am not so proud of but as I wrote more, I have improved greatly and smile a lot more
7. Other writers and some readers are fascinated by the writing process.  Please describe yours.My writing process is come up with an idea. Then figure a storyline. Then concentrate on each individual part of the story presented in each chapter. One small section or step at a time. Rewrite often. Reread it often. Switch out parts you don’t like, add inspiration from life experiences. Change the names of your friends if they are characters. But not enough that people who know them wont recognize who you are talking about.

Never delete anything. Save it all in files on your computer for later possible se. Maybe that same book or a future one.

8.  Who or What Inspires You? My inspiration is my life and friends. I have led a wild life and have a handful of true friends. Ryan is Brian, my best friend for over 50 years. Use reality, then embellish the hell out of it.
9. Are There Any More Books Coming? Many more books in the future. Several completed, and a few being worked on as we speak. The ideas never stop. Think wild. Normal is overrated.
My books are available on Kindle, Paperback, and Audio Book format at Amazon.com. Check out my Author Page.

Writing – Write The Crap

Looking back over my last couple posts, it feels like I’m trying to convince people not to write. They seem to focus on how hard the whole process is and might serve to discourage rather than encourage aspiring writers. My first impulse is to say that I wasn’t intending any such thing. Upon further reflection, I realize that I do want to discourage some writers. Then I realize what I just wrote and think “you can’t mean that.”

I do.

And, I don’t.

I have referred elsewhere to the present time as “The Golden Age of Independent Authors.” I still believe that. Now is a time when more authors, especially those outside the mainstream, can get their stories in front of an audience. That is a truly great thing.

It’s also truly awful.

All you have to do is read some of the badly written, badly edited, badly formatted, and badly structured stories that have flooded the market. The biggest obstacle for good writers today are the ones who publish before they are ready. It is harder to get a reader to try a new writer’s work if they have suffered through several poor offerings.

So, yes, I want to discourage writers from pushing a story or book into the market before the work has been done to finish it, or before the writer has developed their art and craft enough to be ready to offer up a story.

A few years ago, I read a science fiction novella set in a very interesting and unique world. The problem was that the author never did any work establishing the world, its technology, or culture. Names and functions were just tossed out without any context and the reader had to do the best they could to figure it all out.

I had the chance to discuss that with the author and was told they didn’t like “information dumps”. That’s the writer terminology for passages that do nothing but explain how things work. As a general rule, “info dumps” are dull and not good storytelling. So, to a degree I agreed with the author. My issue is that they didn’t try to find a way to weave that background into the story. If you study great writers that’s what you will find they do. The result is a more fully realized world for the reader. And as a consequence, a more enjoyable one. Both the book and the author disappointed me. I’ve never bothered to read anything else by them.

So here is the middle ground where I find myself. I want everyone to find their creative center. Whether it is fine art or simple creativity, go for it. But never settle for less than your best. Continue to grow and learn. If you want to tell stories, then by all means do it. Read and write. Polish your words, learn the skills you need.

There are plenty of places, online and in the “real world” where people will be willing to help. Sometimes that help will be painful. It should never be vicious or ill-intended. There are plenty of those as well. Run from them. But don’t become so enamored of the sound of your own voice that it drowns out the good advice that will strengthen your story.

It’s easy to string words together on a page or screen. Making them tell a story is harder. Creating a world that draws an audience in is the sign that you are mastering your craft. Getting there requires practice and failure. You will write some absolute crap along the way.

Write the crap.

Don’t publish it.

When you create something good (don’t wait for great or perfect. Most of us never get there.) publish the hell out of it.

Encourage others whose work you like. Spread the word about the good stuff. That’s how we create a true “Golden Age.”

(The quote above is from advice given to F. Scott Fitzgerald by Ernest Hemingway)

Peace

JD

Short Stories – Seven Icelandic Short Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Seven Icelandic Short Stories

I’m trying to offer as much variety in this series as possible. So, when I saw this collection, I grabbed it. Something from a different literary tradition offers a great chance to expand horizons.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short StoriesThere’s always a certain “loss” in a translation. Rhythms will change, idiomatic and colloquial phrases will suffer because they never make the transition cleanly. This translation seems very good. There are no awkward, overly formal English sentences which seem to be a telltale of bad translation.

The introduction offers a very interesting background to the stories. The idea that the Icelandic language remained largely unchanged from the 13th century to the 20th century fascinates me.

The stories are:

  • The Story of Audunn and the Bear (13th century) by Anonymous – The oldest known Icelandic short story. Language hasn’t changed since it was written.
  • A Dry Spell (1905) by Einar H. Kavaran – A story of death and sadness
  • The Old Hay (1909) by Gudmundur Fridjónsson – An old man can help all his neighbors if he is willing to give up something he has saved for years.
  • When I Was on the Frigate (1910) by Jon Trausti – A curious trip with a captain who might be mad.
  • Father and Son (1916) by Gunnar Gunnarson – A boy and his father are inseparable even in death.
  • The Fox Skin (1923) by Gudmundur G. Hagalin – A story of status and obsession
  • Laxness in New Iceland (1927) by Hallder Kiljan – A family leaves Iceland for the New World and aren’t impressed.

The stories that I keep coming back to are “A Dry Spell”, there is something about the sadness of this story.  “When I Was on the Frigate”, the image here was an Icelandic “Old Man and the Sea”. “Father and Son”, the amazing story of dedication at the core of the concept of family.

The Icelandic approach to the short story form is different than much of the Western European style. I’ve gotten criticism of some of my own stories that they are focused too much on a single moment or character. There seems to be an expectation of the classic novel format – exposition, rising action, climax, descending action, denouement. The classic model for this shows a steep rise and fall. It never felt that way in these stories. The action felt more “real”, coming at an even pace and without a dramatic climax. I came away with a feeling of calm from the stories. They give the reader something to think about rather appealing to emotion. On the whole, I found the experience different and interesting.

Another great collection of short stories to add to your list!