Tag Archives: writing

Spinning My Wheels

Sometimes I spin my wheels.

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I map out a week, a day, a list of directions with mileage and time apportioned to each part of the journey. I ascend the stairs to my expectant workspace, turn on a lamp, plug in a single string of red Christmas lights, light a candle and lift the laptop lid. Outside my windows, tiny snowflakes fill the air. The old-timers here say, “Little snow, big snow,” meaning small flakes indicate significant accumulation. I don’t know if this is always true, but I notice the size of the flakes. As I check the weather forecast, my e-mail and the headlines, my gaze is drawn repeatedly to the window. The hypnotic falling snow is the same color as the sky. Disordered ranks of brown cattail stalks stand ankle-deep in the sleeping pond. An infinity of branch, needle and twig is adorned with an even greater infinity of frozen white crystals, falling soundlessly and blurring the colors of stone and wood.

No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place — Zen saying.

It is then that my wheels start to spin. I have set aside this morning to write. I stare at the laptop screen, fingers on the keyboard. Nothing happens. Seeking inspiration, demanding creativity, I make notes, review notes already made, catch up on reading from favorite blogs and my current stack of books. I search for some solid traction so I can move through the day according to my tidy, efficient plan, but I find myself returning to the window, spellbound, empty of creativity or inspiration but full of wonder at the subtle beauty of the winter snow.

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It’s the contrast that catches my attention. My aerie is filled with books, beloved objects, the tools of my life. The warm sticky scent of a red candle fills my space. The red desk lamp I bought at Goodwill more than 10 years ago lights my worktop. My comfortable chair and footstool beckon me to sit and read. The room is warmed by the chimney that rises up through it from the wood stove below. I hear my partner talking to our old cat in his office below me; not the words, but the loving sound of his voice that is reserved just for her. He is at his work and I am at mine, cocooned in our private spaces in our slouching farmhouse with lights and heat and the rinsed breakfast dishes stacked on the counter waiting for hot water and soap. We have things to do today, errands to run, people to talk to. We have plans and intentions.

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But outside, just beyond the single pane of glass in the old attic windows, is a monochrome world, delicate and cold, still and peaceful. The snow falls without effort. Each flake finds a resting place on the bodies of the trees or the water or the earth. The wood and stone have no place to go and nothing to do. They dwell in the vast power of simply being. The snow settles lightly.

I think about living minimally, weeding out my clothes, the week ahead, money, the perfect Christmas gift I can never find for a loved one, and whether or not we’ll make it into town to do the errands today. I think about drafting a query letter to send out with my first manuscript, which I just finished editing for the fifth or sixth time. I think about reviewing the water rescue information I’ll need next weekend when I travel with a couple of colleagues from work to get deep-water lifeguard certified. It will be a busy week. My careful plan blocks out this morning for coming up with this week’s blog post. I will write … I will begin now … My idea is … Ready, set, go!

My wheels spin, and I look out the window at my little black car, which is wearing a white blanket, and recognize the sinking feeling of no traction. No amount of urgency or frustration makes snow, slush and mud into solid ground. No amount of bullying makes my creativity compliant. I get up. I sit down. I glance at my journal, reread a paragraph in a book, look at some poetry. I feel restless and resentful at my own recalcitrance.

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Outside, the snow falls, serene and inexorable as the fading light here in the last handful of days before winter solstice. I open the window and lean close against the hushed, frigid world outside it. My little candle, my lists, my inconsequential blog and my plan for this morning make no impression outside the window screen. It’s time for sleep and dreaming, time for rest. The forest knows, the earth and water know. They lie peacefully under the low sun and the long nights.

My wheels spin, making a noisy mess, throwing clods of half-formed ideas, provocative questions, lingering music of beautiful words, comments and conversations and observations, going nowhere. No traction. The morning is passing. I have not accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve neither rested with the winter snow nor produced a post. I’m torn between self-disgust, resignation and amusement. I think about heavy, cold chains; red, numb hands; wet jeans and sodden gloves; the steady clicking of hazard lights; the feeling of being late and time running out; the texture of wood ash, cat litter, sand and salt thrown onto snow and ice; and the futile laboring of spinning wheels.

The morning is gone. In half an hour we’ll try to go into town. My partner is out with the snow shovel. I shut the window, sit down and open the laptop. I type “Spinning My Wheels” and begin to write this post.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Emotional Deception

My partner and I have been watching Lie To Me, a television series that ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011. The show is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s greatest expert on facial expression.

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I am absolutely fascinated.

All my life I’ve been extremely aware of body language and what I’ve always called the “energy” of the people around me. I’ve frequently had the experience of picking up the hidden emotions of others and taking on responsibility for them, a result of ineffective boundaries. When I was trained in emotional intelligence I cleaned up my poor boundaries and many other destructive habits. I also began to openly and unapologetically trust myself after a lifetime of cognitive dissonance caused by the difference between words and nonverbal cues.

Now, at last, I have real world validation for the way I can sometimes “read” others. It’s not magic, and I’m not a freak, a fantasist or crazy. Science now recognizes the universality of human facial expressions for basic emotions (fear, surprise, contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, shame), and technology allows us to slow down video footage and capture microexpressions, which occur in much less than a second, as we speak and interact with others.

Our words can lie, but Dr. Ekman’s work reveals that our bodies give away our emotional experience in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even conscious. The way we hold our hands, a slight shoulder shrug, the way we move our heads, how we direct our gaze and small, fleeting expressions that pass across our faces with the help of 42 complex muscles can contradict our words.

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We know that some people have a great deal of difficulty reading and interpreting body language and subtle cues, while others are skilled at it. Paul Ekman’s work and research makes it possible for anyone to consciously learn how to detect emotional deception. Every episode of Lie To Me incorporates not only a story line told by actors, but also footage from real people — politicians, leaders and other famous and infamous folks — displaying exactly the same facial expression or body movement. It’s amazing.

Some people are difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to develop a stone face and have often been told I’m opaque. My oldest son is extremely provocative, and my expressionless countenance stood me in good stead when he was a teenager and woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he was going to ski naked at midnight with a girl in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Any show of outrage or upset only egged him on, so I learned to control myself. I’ve also had some exposure to narcissists and other Cluster B people, who feed on emotional energy, and I know the best way to deal with them is to become a grey rock, that is to be so completely flat, uninteresting and uninterested that they move on, a technique far more effective than trying to get rid of them directly. Yet even though I may be harder to read than average, I know my body language gives me away every time, or would to a trained observer.

(Fortunately, my teenage sons were not trained observers. Let us be thankful for small mercies.)

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Sedating substances and Botox injections can interfere with or blunt muscle movement and smooth out microexpressions, but eventually we all give our truth and lies away. We can’t help it. Microexpressions and body language are often totally unconscious on our part.

I’ve been told I have an intense gaze that can make others feel uncomfortable. I suspect this is a function of the focus and presence necessary to evaluate how the people around me present themselves as I compare what they say with what their expressions and bodies tell me. If I feel confused or receive a mixed message, I always go with body language. Words lie too easily and too frequently. We lie to ourselves and we lie to each other. When I experience cognitive dissonance as I observe and interact with others, now I no longer tell myself I’m making things up. Even more importantly, I don’t allow other people to make me feel bad and wrong. Nobody likes to have their cover blown, and someone with things to hide is naturally not going to appreciate feeling exposed. Rage, denial, projection, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can all be effective distractions from the truth.

A lie comes with a cost. The truth may come with a cost as well. We navigate our lives between the two, making the best choices we can. I have no desire whatsoever to uncover the secrets and lies of others, but I am interested in being able to evaluate if there are secrets and lies. I don’t believe we owe others 100% of our emotional truth, but every healthy relationship and connection requires some level of trust, and I don’t want to be with people I can’t trust. I think of mixed messages as a red flag.

It’s amazing to learn, after all these years of mysteriously and often uncomfortably picking up more information from others than I ever wanted to know, that inconsistency is a red flag. Words that are incongruent with facial expressions and body language are untrustworthy. My ability to recognize concealed emotions is not hateful or crazy.

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Frequently we don’t seek to deceive others as much as we wish to deceive ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are perhaps the most powerful of all, and we protect those kind of lies the most ferociously.

It’s important to understand that recognizing the presence of a lie does not mean we know the substance of the lie or why it’s being told. As a writer, I find that why infinitely interesting in its possibilities. What kinds of things do we conceal? What motivates us to do so? What are the consequences of our various lies, great and small, to ourselves and to others? How do our bodies unconsciously communicate our emotional deception? If we spot emotional deception in someone we’re close to, what do we do with that information? What kinds of lies are terminal in relationships, and what kinds survivable? How do we forgive ourselves and others for emotional deception?

The looming presence of social media in our culture means many of our daily interactions, perhaps most, are not face to face, which greatly diminishes the complexity and depth of human communication and makes emotional deception easy. Body language is invisible. Tone, pitch and other verbal clues and idiosyncrasies are unheard. We use sanitized little emojis to represent our meaning, or at least to represent what we want others to believe our meaning is.

Paul Ekman has written several books I’m looking forward to exploring, and one can take online classes and learn more. I intend to learn a lot more.

Detecting emotional deception. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

This, That and the Other

It’s been a busy week. I haven’t done a lot of writing. Some weeks are about notes, research, sudden creative inspirations, edits and days with a foot in two worlds, the world of the auto shop I’m sitting in this minute with a rattling air conditioner in the window to combat the 100 degree heat index outside while mechanics do surgery on the inside of my old Hyundai to fix the air conditioning, and the world of my imagination.

Other weeks are just about life — activity, interaction with others, appointments, friends and unexpected opportunities, along with the small stories of household and routine, like the AC in the car suddenly ceasing to breathe chill and becoming as thickly humid and overheated as the land’s late August exhalations here in Maine.

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A long time ago, when I was a teenager, I got my first job as a summer lifeguard at the local outdoor pool. I loved it. I got trained as a water safety instructor, which means a swim teacher. I was also an IV-certified EMT doing volunteer fire and rescue work.

I’ve never lost my love of water and swimming, and I visit the pool once a week here in Maine. As a regular, I’m familiar with the staff and the facility. A couple of weeks ago one of the pool staff mentioned to me that a part-time position was opening up. Before I left that day I applied for the job and was set up to re-certify as a lifeguard, more than 30 years after the first time. Thirty years. How did that happen?

Now, of course, the process for getting certified is all online. There’s a book, a big, brightly illustrated textbook filled with pictures and graphics, but all the material in the book is also online. The first time around, I learned out of a small paperback manual with black-and-white line-drawn illustrations. The online course is about seven hours of audio, video, multiple-choice questions and written material. At the end, there’s a test. A few hours at the pool in order to practice skills (the most important part) completes the re-certification process.

I’m a good student and confident of my skills, but I unconsciously expected much the same learning experience I had the first time around. However, lifeguarding techniques have changed. The emphasis used to be on personal safety, as drowning people often panic and become dangerous to their rescuers. I spent a lot of practice time in the diving well with a huge college kid built like a tank while he pretended to drown and then tried to drown me as I tried to save him.

Now, there’s great new equipment and gear that make water rescue considerably safer, and the techniques have changed accordingly. Also changed is the way one approaches CPR. When I learned and performed ventilations as a first responder, it was, literally, mouth-to-mouth. Now, lifeguards are equipped with fanny packs in which they carry plastic ventilation masks and Nitrile gloves as protection from body fluids and possible pathogens. Everything, practice included, is done with the mask as a barrier between victim and rescuer.

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It’s a strange feeling to revisit this information. Lots of memories. I don’t know if I’ll get the job, but even if I don’t I’m pleased about the chance to review. I think everyone should take basic first aid and CPR, and it’s been a long time since I had a refresher. The first time around, I was the youngest lifeguard on the team. This time, if hired, I’ll be the oldest. What an interesting circle.

My partner and I love cats. For several years I’ve been uncomfortable with the problem of cat litter disposal. I’ve tried some of the more organic litter, but never found anything both the cat and I liked. The clumping litter is convenient, but I collected it in plastic grocery bags and never found a way to compost it. We’re trying to reduce our use of plastic and our non-compostable waste, and dealing with cat litter has become more and more of a problem ethically. My partner recently came across the idea of using wood stove pellets as cat litter, so we tried it.

I’ve never had a pellet wood stove. It turns out the pellets are small and made of compressed wood scrap, a little bit like animal feed to look at. They’re cheap to buy, especially if you buy a pallet at a time. Cat litter costs three times as much. When they get wet, the pellets dissolve into sawdust. Cleaning the box is like cleaning an animal stall bedded in shavings. I scoop out the damp sawdust and solid waste and throw in a new scoop of pellets. There’s absolutely no smell and less mess outside the box. If our old cat does get pellets between her toes and tracks them outside the box, they’re easy to pick up.

Best of all, we can compost now, and I can stop throwing away any kind of plastic shopping bags. We can switch entirely to canvas bags. Less to haul off to the dump.

My partner has a fleecy polyester blanket in deep, rich colors of brown, black and green that has been a bed for multiple cats for years. We recently cleaned out the little niche it was lying in. I went over both sides with a stiff dry scrubbing brush trying to remove grey and black hair belonging to long-dead cats and then we washed it, but it was still coated with cat hair. I had a lint brush, but that didn’t work at all. I also tried a damp sponge, which is what I’ve always used on upholstery and cloth to remove cat hair. A damp sponge works well if you do it once a week, but this blanket had no attention for years.

So, I googled it. As you can imagine, this is a common problem.

My favorite solution was to obtain a paint roller, wrap the roller in duct tape, sticky side out, and store it, along with a roll of tape, in a closet, bathroom or with cleaning supplies. What a great idea! Fast, easy and cheap. However, I wasn’t sure we had a clean paint roller, so in the end I found a clean plastic dish glove, hung the blanket over the back porch railing, and rubbed it with my gloved hand. I didn’t have much hope, but it worked like a charm. Who knew? Cat hair came away in clumps and clots and floated down onto the grass, as well as adhering to my sweaty face. Too bad it’s not nesting season. I wore out my arm and the blanket looked a lot better, but there was still plenty of hair adhered to it. When I’d rubbed away all I could, I put it in the dryer with a fabric softener sheet on the air setting. A half hour later the dryer trap was filled with cat hair and the blanket was like new.

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I also spent part of a day kayaking with a friend on a lake. Too bad I’m not as graceful with paddling as I am swimming. Too bad my arms are about as strong as spaghetti noodles. Too bad I’m so inept the paddles clunk against the side of the kayak with every stroke. Too bad I can’t get the hang of using the paddles without having water run down them and into my lap, or inadvertently bumping my long-suffering friend in the head.

I had a fantastic time.

Then we spent a hot afternoon with an old friend of my partner’s shooting at round metal targets with various firearms and varying degrees of accuracy while I asked a thousand and one questions and continued my education on handling guns safely and developing confidence and skill in using them.

So that, friends, is what I have been doing instead of working on the sort of post I usually write. In the pause from writing, I’ve been refilling the well of creativity with everything, and with nothing. With what it’s like to be alive in the world. With sore shoulders from paddling, remembering old rescue skills and long days on a lifeguard stand in the sun, the challenges and joys of living with cats and the smell of cordite. With spending a morning working in my friend’s farm store chatting to locals, enjoying the animals and studying my lifeguarding manual. With heaving boxes around and shelving books during my volunteer hours in the used bookstore. All of this will somehow, some way, someday recycle into my writing, because everything does.

My car is ready. I’m off to pick up my partner’s laptop at the computer shop in air-conditioned comfort. Then I’ll go home and give this draft another look; decide either to delete the whole thing and start over or get it ready to publish in the morning. I wish you all a good week and a safe Labor Day.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted