Shifting Gears

“Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.”

–Charles M. Schultz

“Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings.”

–C.D. Jackson

I take indoor cycling classes at a local gym several times a week, a fact you may not know about me. I also take other gym classes, such as bootcamp and Zumba because I’m crazy trying to stay healthy. You probably don’t care about my exercise habits. Fair enough. It’s not an exciting subject, but keep on reading anyway. There is a point, and it has to do with gears. Well, with shifting them.

BIKE TIRES

There are no actual gears on the indoor cycling bikes, but there is a knob or lever that changes the resistance. In the cycling classes, the instructors exhort us to raise the resistance (“Strong is the new skinny!”), and then sometimes to lower it (a bit) so we can sprint (“Break away! Break away from the pack.” “Let it go” OR—“Strong, but fast. Make sure you have some control.”). The idea is to mimic—to some extent—an outdoor ride with both hills and flat surfaces. The ride is more challenging when riders climb and jump, as well as sprint, and it is also more fun. (Fun on some days being a relative term.) During these cycling classes, riders must consciously turn the knob or move the lever to change the resistance and adjust positions. It becomes almost automatic, but not quite. After all, it’s hard not to notice if the resistance is up so high that you can’t turn the pedals, or if there is suddenly no resistance. Or if the pedals suddenly fly off the bike. Ooops! Nope, never seen that happen. Well, not more than 3 or 4 times. So, I’m sure big name gym, there’s no need to replace the bikes yet. It’s only been about 7 years, and what’s a pedal or two?

Sorry, got off on a rant there when I a really wanted to talk about was switching gears. You know, like on a bike—if you rode a bike that had gears. And pedals.

Most of us metaphorically switch gears throughout our days. We switch from talking to family or friends to interacting with co-workers, customers, or patients. Language, demeanor, and tasks all change. Sometimes we work against resistance, challenging ourselves to climb hills of indifference or scale the steep grades of drudgery. If we’re fortunate we sprint to the finish of a project. Ride completed. Woo hoo!

Hundreds of times throughout each day, our brains switch gears. We concentrate at various intensities and focus on a variety of tasks. We multi-task.

If you drive a car with an automatic transmission, like I do, you don’t think about switching gears while you drive. But you probably think about other things while you’re driving, even while you’re watching the road and singing along to the song on the radio. Most of the time, as we go about our daily life, we don’t think about how we switch gears either. We automatically switch our roles from parent to co-worker or from daughter to mentor.

Most writers work on different types of projects. Even bestselling novelists might take time from working on that next big novel to compose an op-ed piece, some poetry, or even something bigger, like a screenplay. Writers are familiar with switching gears as they move to or back and forth between various writing and editing projects. I was struck by the variety of topics I researched and wrote about for different projects this past week. As I worked on captioning the illustrations for my World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia and read through the copyedited manuscript (still working on that, folks), I was immersed in the American Revolution. There I was lost in the battle at Lexington and Concord for a time, or thinking about clothing and its care, or pondering the fate of soldiers who died or were disabled. Then I was researching topics for test writing: bridge barriers, sustainable green roofs, and color trend forecasting. Then I had a meeting to discuss food history, scholarship, and nutrition with a friend for a possible new project.

So these were some of the topics I researched and/or wrote about as part of my professional life. But, of course, in switching gears to my personal life, I read about, discussed, and experienced many more. For instance, there was a memorable family dinner discussion on The Diary of Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and poetry. Then there was THAT episode on Grey’s Anatomy this past week that had my daughter and me crying.

We need to be flexible in life. We have to be ready to shift gears when necessary—when pedals fly off of a bike, when projects get delayed, and when the cat steals the chicken from the roasting pan in the kitchen. (Umm. . .yes, it’s possible that might have happened here once.) But we also have to be ready with the landing gear for our amazing ideas. It’s all well and good to have a brilliant idea for a book, but it doesn’t get written and published without work. The ideas may soar, but you have to find a way to make them land, too.

Then again, sometimes life gets too crazy, and you need to just put the gear in neutral, sit down, eat chocolate, and watch Grey’s Anatomy. I lie. I always need to take some time during the day to eat chocolate.

So while you’re thinking great ideas, multi-tasking, and being a superwoman or superman, here’s a super easy chocolate treat to make. I made it this week. You can pretend it’s healthy because there’s fruit involved. And nuts, too, if you want. I’ll pretend it’s an actual recipe, when it’s only melting chocolate and dipping in fruit. Or whatever. You can make these fancier by piping white chocolate or coating them in nuts, but really, you know you just want an excuse to eat chocolate. So keep it simple. It’s still super. I suggest making these when no one is around so you can lick the chocolate off your fingers and from the bowl–when you’re finished I mean, not while you’re making them! Practice good hygiene, kids. Enjoying these treats with a glass of red wine is optional, but highly recommended. Also, chocolate covered fruit does not really keep—so you have to eat it within a day or so. Oh, the tragedy.

Super-Easy Chocolate Covered Strawberries or Other Stuff

Ingredients:

Good quality chocolate

Fruit, nuts, espresso beans

I used about half a bag of Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. You could use a bar of chocolate, but this is really easy. It’s 60% cacao, so it counts as dark chocolate, but it has enough fat to melt and coat the fruit. You could use semi-sweet, but really, use bittersweet. I covered about 6-7 strawberries, a bunch of blueberries, and some almonds. If you want to make more, just remember that the chocolate cools and gets hard quickly, so sometimes it’s better to make more in two batches.

Also, make sure the fruit is dry before dipping it into the chocolate, or the chocolate won’t stick.

Method:

Place chocolate in a microwave safe bowl. It should take between 1-2 minutes to melt the chocolate, depending on the amount of chocolate and your microwave. Don’t overheat it. The chocolate will cool quickly, so dip fruit into it right away and place on wax paper to harden. Yeah, that’s it. It takes about 10 minutes to do, but it looks impressive, and it tastes great. It’s chocolate–shift your gear to bliss.

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

Wheels Turning, but Am I Going Anywhere?

During a good spin class, my heart is racing, and I’m dripping with sweat (get your mind out of the gutter, spin class, I said); sometimes I even feel like I’m about to vomit (SPIN CLASS). Spinning, also known as indoor cycling, is odd though because the instructor urges the class to ride up and down hills, to race, and even to sprint across the finish line—except we don’t actually move anywhere. We’re riding stationary bikes, and at my gym, we’re packed into a small, sweat-filled room.

 

English: Spinning - static bicycle health regi...

English: Spinning – static bicycle health regime. Foundation Club Sandhurst UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think a writer’s life is something like that, at least for me. Thoughts are spinning in my brain, and sometimes I need to shift gears, as I move through projects.  No, usually my heart doesn’t pound as I write, and what I write seldom makes me want to vomit. But sometimes as I race to complete a project or meet a deadline, I wonder if I’m going anywhere.  (See, the analogy does work–even though I don’t work in a small sweat-filled room. Well, not too often.)

I believe most writers write because they have a story to tell or knowledge that they want to impart. Most, I’m fairly certain, do not write to become rich or famous, although who doesn’t dream of writing a bestseller? Writing is hard work, and it requires pedaling up steep hills with the hopes that you will reach that finish line. Hopefully, there will be at least one person to cheer you on, to say, “I really liked your book, poem, screenplay,” and that will make your heart race. But whether that happens or not, you get back on the bike and start pedaling. Because you know you’re not really doing it for the crowds or the praise, you’re doing it for yourself.

Food for Thought?

Food for Thought?

Dancing Off the Path of Life

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.

A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.”

George Carlin

Some mornings as I’m out driving, I observe a man in a bike helmet at a nearby intersection.  As I stop at the traffic light, I see him on the corner, on the other side of the street, and to my right. It’s a suburban area, but not part of a housing development, so there are few pedestrians. He stands alone, bike on the ground beside him, and then suddenly he’s dancing. His arms move; first one goes up in front of his body, palm out, and then the other arm comes up from the side, as if he’s directing the traffic through the intersection. He sways to a beat that only he can hear. I wave to him as I drive by.

I’ve seen this man several times now, and I can’t decide if he is truly dancing to his own inner drummer, or not. Is he insane because I can’t hear his music? Perhaps he’s doing some form of Tai Chi during a bike-riding break? I really don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

And who am I to judge? I was singing along to West Side Story (and picturing the dancers in my head) as I drove past him. We all have our own music; we all dance our own dances. Sometimes the music and the dance of life takes us straight down a path; at other times it turns and twists, and we march, crawl, leap, and pirouette along with it.

Martha Graham said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”  Dance exists in every society and culture. It comes in many forms. Babies dance before they can walk. They move and sway to music naturally and without caring what others think.

Sometimes as adults we need to be reminded that we should not be so conscious of what others are thinking. That we should “dance as if no one is watching,” as one Zumba instructor I know often says.

I opened a fortune cookie the other day to find a fortune that said, “Choose your own path.” Some circumstances are thrust upon us and unforeseen—illness, war, natural disasters, and accidents. Some people end up on a Bataan Death March. But most of the time we choose and take a variety of roads, some smooth and straight, and others bumpy and loaded with traffic humps, or tortuous twists. As we navigate the streets of life, we make selections about and choose destinations for education, relationships, and careers. I think of my daughters, two bright, talented, young adults, and I want them to choose their own paths. I want them to feel free to meander off the path to explore—and dance. I want them to create new trails and new ways of seeing, feeling, and experiencing the paths they choose. I hope they never stop hearing the music in their souls and in the world around them.

Perhaps today I’ll turn up the music and dance off the path—and I don’t care if anyone sees me.

Recess

Detail showing the "Prince of Hell"....

Detail showing the “Prince of Hell”. Gibson compares the monster to a similar figure in the 12th century Irish religious text Vision of Tundale, who feeds on the souls of corrupt and lecherous clergy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I remember the staff at our public school. You know, we had a saying, uh, that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. And, uh, those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school.”

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall (1977)

I have enormous respect for teachers—even gym teachers—but when I was in 7th grade I dreamt that my gym teacher locked me up in prison. She was probably not the ogre I imagined her to be. In my memory, she is a small, wiry, grizzled woman with short, gray hair, but my memory could be wrong. I’m certain she did not single me out for torture; I was noticeable to her only because of my clumsiness and my unfamiliarity with sports and sports equipment. Whether through lack of time or lack of inclination, she made no effort to find out anything about me. She didn’t know that I had no experience with an intense junior high school physical education program.

I was uncomfortable in my body, as many girls are at that age. Through a combination of willpower, diet changes, and walking, I had lost about twenty pounds between the end of 6th grade in Dallas and my move to Havertown the following spring. My body was lighter, but my soul was still confused. I had both the energy and the self-consciousness of youth.

I started thinking about my own relationship with exercise and how it has changed over my lifetime because of a recent discussion about recess on the wonderful Philadelphia public radio show, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. Many schools in the United States have eliminated, or are considering eliminating recess. How sad it is that having an opportunity to get up and stretch and relax is considered a luxury for both children and adults. When I was in elementary school we had free time after lunch to wander around the schoolyard (to me the space seemed enormous), to play on the monkey bars, jungle gyms, and swings, or to throw a ball around. Although I did not engage in vigorous physical activity, I enjoyed the freedom to walk around and think without being bothered by teachers or confined by desks or tables.

In elementary school, we had physical education classes two to three times per week. On gym days, we girls wore shorts under our dresses because we were not permitted to wear shorts or pants to school, but we were also not supposed to show our underwear. We did a variety of activities including relay races, square dancing, and calisthenics. My classmates and I were excited when we got to use scooters. These scooters were little wooden squares with four wheels. You sat on, or draped yourself over the square “seat” and pushed with your hands. I wonder—do elementary schools still have scooters like that?

My gym classes in 7th grade in Dallas were markedly different. Girls and boys were separated. We now had ugly white, cotton one-piece uniforms to wear during class.  At “that time of the month,” girls did not have to put on the uniforms or participate in gym. But I don’t remember ever doing anything very active in that class. We were being groomed to be young ladies who occasionally perspired lightly; we were not supposed to actually sweat. Once or twice a month, the teacher, a pretty young woman with red hair, would gather the girls around her to discuss questions we had posed via slips of paper dropped into a box. We sat on the gym floor in a circle around her. The questions we posed to her were about periods, personal grooming, and dating. She answered them in a hushed voice as we leaned in to hear her words of wisdom and advice—none of which I remember.

In March of that year, my mother, sisters, and I moved to Havertown, Pennsylvania. The junior high, constructed of fieldstone, looked like a prison to me. The basement with its dark, winding hallways, and exposed pipes, seemed like the gateway to some hellish torture area. Yes, it was—or as I referred to it, the gym. On my first day at this school, I walked into an area filled with gymnastics equipment. I had never seen such things, and to me it was as though I was walking into the torture panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Despite my nightmare, I survived the class, although I continued to hate phys ed. throughout my high school years.

My feeling about exercise and gym classes has changed. I now enjoy the physical activity, and even though I no longer have the energy of youth, I’ve lost most of the self-consciousness. Since I work from home, going to a gym is also my time to socialize with my gym pals. When one of the aerobics instructors exclaims in her boisterous trainer voice, “Are you here to talk or workout?” My answer is both. It is the time I use to recharge both my body and my mind.

I think we all need that time. Although not everyone has the means or desire to join a gym, we all need breaks and time to move about. When I am having trouble focusing on a writing assignment, sometimes all I need to do is get up and sweep the floor or play “Jump for the Cheerios” with the cats. One thing has not changed, however–I still have no interest in sports.

Routines and Writing

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist R...

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, seated in a chair and reading a newspaper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“So much of our time is spent in preparation, so much in routine, and so much in retrospect, that the amount of each person’s genius is confined to a very few hours.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday morning my usual routine was thrown off because my daily paper did not arrive. I realize that in the age of Kindles and iPads reading a print newspaper is almost anachronistic. Nevertheless, perusing the pages–sometimes attempting to read around a cat who has decided to nap on the page I’m reading–as I drink my coffee has been part of my morning routine for far longer than I want to think about.

Reading the morning paper goes back to my childhood. We always had a paper delivered to our house. My parents got the Dallas Morning News, and then later my mom subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Morning newspapers and coffee—there’s just something relaxing about the combination. Even when I worked away from home or had young children, I made certain to allow enough time in the morning to at least glance at the headlines.

In theory, the absence of the paper should have given me more time to do other things.  In fact, all it did was make me antsy. Most likely, I would have settled down to work if I had not had an appointment to get to–which further disrupted my routine and made me more annoyed. At least I had coffee, or I would have had to give up and go back to bed.

Yes, I am a creature of habit. For example, when I take classes at the gym, I usually set up and stand in one particular area of the room.  I usually go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends.  I know it is good to shake things up, to sometimes be spontaneous, but habits, such as remembering to take daily medication, can also be good things.

I am a morning person.  My mind is always sharpest and my body full of energy first thing in the morning.  I want to accomplish everything then—do all of my writing, go to they gym, and do various errands. With two book contracts right now, plus test writing, and other work, I’ve decided the only solution is to make mornings last for a 10-hour period. Then I can accomplish all my goals, and still have time to relax. Yes, that’s my plan, and I’ll get right to it—as soon as I read the paper.