My Treadmill Studio: Yes, I Know I Am Ridiculous

The snow, oh, the snow. One must have a mind of winter, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens (as a certain folk-rock band once did), not to think of the inherent misery of the extreme cold, the extreme inhospitableness, the extreme annoyance of snow. But I am pretty sure Mr. Stevens was not a working parent who had to stay home with stir crazy, and often ill, children who have tasted of the fruits of Good and Evil (AKA ipads and other screens), and who have been given a deathtrap (AKA a mini tramp) by their foolish parents, and who are screaming for blood, (AKA more Harry Potter movies, especially those way above their Screens Guild Suggested Rating).

As I type this, my 6 year old just got up from his fever-induced nap. My 8 year old daughter is bringing me her 5-6 sheets of “homework” I discovered this morning in her knapsack. She watched Harry Potter 5 this morning while my son slept. Now she wants to watch HP7-A, but I insisted she do her homework first. And I? I am trying to write, even just a little fluff post on my treadmill. I am trying to care for my dear ones, while at the same time working an album release schedule replete with radio interviews, press set ups, and gigs. I have a retreat in Florida next week THANK GOD!, and I need to send out an email to the participants to see how many are vegetarians and how many are cave people, or whatever you call those paleo-types. (I am one of those, which is why I can hurl slurs around like this.)(Speaking of cave people, my kids turned me on to the movie The Croods, which I love! It’s by John Cleese, Monty Python alum, but I digress…)

My big insurrection against the winter was the vision and eventual purchase of a treadmill so that I could create a treadmill desk situation. My friend Gayle Huntress came over a few weeks ago and gave me a major organization consultation for my small office space. As we poked around my ridiculous amounts of stuff, I mentioned, almost off-hand, that my dream was to set up a treadmill with a desk so I could shuffle my feet and be standing for more of the day. Though I am a regular runner (AKA “plodder”) and visit the gym three times a week for weight training, plus do my daily sun salutation, I am extremely sedentary otherwise. I work from home, so I don’t even have a walk from the parking lot to my office. The most exercise I get outside of my 20 minute a day workout is when I go to the co-op for groceries. Since the weather’s been so horrible, I haven’t even gone out for my run. Instead, I’ve been trotting up and down my stairs for 20 minutes, usually while talking on the phone or texting to people, but also listening to audiobooks on my iphone (I am re-listening to Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful “Tiny Beautiful Things” right now. Highly recommended.)I should also say that for the past 6 years, I have bundled up and run in every kind of weather, doing my 20 minute plod no matter what. This year I began to wonder if this behavior had any correlation to my tendency to get sick and stay stick for six weeks each time I caught a cold. I am happy to report that, with the new stay-inside-and-climb-stairs regime, so far I have had only one cold, and it has only lasted for 10 days.

Gayle looked alarmed as I told her all this, mostly out of concern that in my stair-climbing workout I would take a tumble while texting. “Go on Craigslist,” she said. “You can get a great treadmill there.” And together we made an algorithm of the steps I would need to take to get from where I was (a hugely cluttered office with two desks, two desk chairs and a closet full of clothes I never wear) to the office of my dreams, with treadmill and treadmill desk.

I searched craigslist for a few weeks. My eye caught on an affordable NordicTrack c900 that seemed the right balance of serious and…well, affordable. I consulted with my sister Abigail, expert on both treadmills and buying stuff in general. My husband warned me that, while he supported the purchase and general concept of a treadmill/desk set up, he would under no circumstances participate in getting the behemoth into our house and up the stairs to my office. Fair enough; his back is as valuable to me as it is to him. So I re-checked the Nordic post and saw that the poster promised “may be able to help with transport.” So I called him. Long story short, the treadmill of my dreams was…right next door. My neighbors have recently moved out of state, and they left all their stuff in their house for this guy I was on the phone with to sell. Top of his list was this gigantic treadmill.

All that was left was writing a check and trying to figure out how to get it up the stairs. My poster immediately rescinded his offer to help, citing a hernia, and I called Smooth Movers. After about three days of moving the treadmill incrementally closer to my office, it’s finally here. And today, I found a loose board in the attic that fits perfectly into the odd armholes.

A few words about treadmills, that I should have voiced before I let my kids on it. Treadmills are NOT for kids! This caused a lot of tears and consternation. Both kids had been huge cheerleaders of the treadmill as it rose on our horizon. But on day one, Jay shot backwards right into the door jamb and got whacked in the buttocks. An inch or so to the right and he would have jammed his spine. This is unfortunate. The kids really do need exercise, and I wish there were a safer way to get them moving when it’s so cold out.

A few weeks ago, they started a snow shoveling business. Maybe I should hire them again. When they get well. Anyway, Abigail tells me that treadmills’ belts go, and they will need to be repaired. I will keep you posted on my progress. Do you have a treadmill? Do you use yours? Since it took three entire days to get the thing up the stairs, I fully intend on ponying up and making this thing work––before the snow melts. Next up: I am going to buy a keyboard and practice piano as I plod!

Wormholes, Best Trick in Beating Resistance, and Perfectionism

Wormholes
And here’s where the concept of Wormholes comes in. Wormholes, as I define them, are these little breaks of opportunity in my great wall of resistance. They’re the moments when I feel like maybe, if the circumstances were just right, I might possibly be talked into:
• Giving up bananas (they are SO not local)
• Organizing my office
• Writing a new song
• Doing more than just my one sun salutation in the morning
• Doing more than just 2 miles in my morning run
• Doing whatever totally heinous chore has been on my To Do list since two years ago Christmas (Today it’s finding a new stylus for our aged turntable; last week it was filling out copyright forms to register the songs on our new CD)

Now, if I take advantage of these miraculous wormholes, the impossible not only can happen, but usually does with remarkable ease, especially if I have a little grace and humility about it. I resist playing the guitar until I stop telling myself I’m supposed to be playing the guitar. Then, usually, I want to play it. I go through phases with it, and today I know that about myself. Some years I practice diligently, with love and great enthusiasm and creativity. Other years, I coast along. Even though I have made my living as a singer-songwriter who plays the guitar, I know I will never be a virtuoso. What I have done is evolved my own style, and today it’s good enough for me. And I got that style from a certain amount of “just doing it,” as a certain shoe company would say. Just showing up and gritting my teeth and pushing that Sloth to play scales and figure out songs. On the most wonderful days, actual enthusiasm would appear in the middle of a practice session, and I know there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than just joyfully banging away at my guitar.

Best Trick Beating Resistance
“Play till you feel like resting. Then rest till you feel like playing.”––Martha Beck

When I have a lot to do and I don’t feel like doing anything, I make a deal with myself. I say, “Okay, then: do nothing. But really do nothing.”
Doing nothing involves reclining on my couch and staring into space. I do not get to talk on the phone, read, check my email, or sleep. On the other hand, I do not have to meditate, count my breaths or practice any kind of spiritual discipline whatever. All I do is space out. Somehow, this always relaxes and refreshes me, and before too long, my spinning mind has a million things it wants my body to do. I jump up and start accomplishing all the tasks I was fixing to resist.

Perfectionism is the Enemy
So when I look back on my “goals” list, my IAP sees all the things I haven’t done and won’t ever do. (Not going to be the next Beatles. I am clear on that. Don’t think Harvard Div’s in my future either, but that’s another story.) My IAP can sometimes be quite disappointed. But the truth is, I played the guitar well enough to make a career that has sustained me emotionally and financially and artistically for the past 22 years. Instead of becoming the next Beatles, I have this fantastic patchwork life: a manageable, wonderful music career, and a life as a freelance teacher of writing, music and life. I get to write books, go to my kids’ assemblies, and have date night with my husband once a week.
Like the person who really wanted to be a gardener in Ogunquit, the Real Me chooses the life I have made over the life I thought I should have when I was 22. This life, as they say, is right-sized. But I am also glad I gave it my all and “went for it.”

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties, by Nerissa Nields, Mercy House 2013

Setting Goals and Resistance, Part 2

The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals

I am working on songwriting even as I post this. So far, so good, but man is it hard to get me to sit still!

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties

The trick for me is to get the IAP and the Willful Child talking calmly to each other instead of having one of them throw a tsunami-size tantrum while the other one nags like a critical op-ed writer. For this is the challenge. As soon as I set a goal––like getting in shape so I can look great in a Betsey Johnson dress—my inner six(teen) year old (WC) immediately rolls her eyes and curls up in bed with a book. Meanwhile, my IAP goes ballistic on the poor reader, screaming, “Your thighs! That bulge above your triceps! Not to mention you’re going to get osteoporosis and heart disease! Get out of bed and do forty laps around the park!”

Eventually I learned to treat these two opposing personalities the way I would treat a cat. Cats (at least the ones I lived with) don’t respond well to direct orders or being scooped up and cuddled. They like to be wooed, approached at a 45 degree angle. Slyly. Gently. Coyly. And so when I am feeling listless, I have my IAP say, ever so slyly, gently, and coyly, “Wow, remember how nice it was to go for a run? You used to bring your iPod and listen to Anna Karenina. That was fun. Hmmm. Maybe if we go back to running, we can download Middlemarch. You could start by just walking, and call Susan on your cell phone… no pressure.” The six(teen)-year-old responds much better this way (though she negotiates for Patti Smith’s Just Kids in lieu of Middlemarch), and there is peace, harmony and fitness in the kingdom once again.

But this diplomacy has been long in negotiation. This should give you hope: in order to meet my second goal (to be the next Beatles) I knew I would have to practice my guitar a lot more. (I am undisciplined about practicing my guitar, and I pretty much always have been.) When I started at age eleven, that directive: “I should practice more!” rang in my ears every time I came home from school and saw my little nylon string guitar safely tucked away in its black pleather case. What did I do? Sometimes felt kind of sick and guilty and stuck the guitar in the nether regions of my closet. But often the desire to make music would come and pull at my heartstrings, and I would pull the guitar out of the case and open my Beatles for Easy Guitar book, sit down on the carpet and painfully play a few songs with especially easy chords. But I’d get so frustrated because the songs sounded nothing like the Beatles LPs I’d put on the record player that I’d slam the book shut in frustration and lock my guitar up in its case, to be ignored for the next few weeks. Still, the IAP had some effect, as I eventually played the guitar for my living.

Setting Goals and Resistence, part 1

Today, Katryna and I rehearsed (and even kind of wrote!) songs for our new CD. So my post is from my book How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties. Makes an excellent graduation gift. Just saying.

Setting Goals
Goal-setting is probably not new to you. Who hasn’t at some point tried to achieve something just beyond one’s reach? How does one do such a thing? By working a little harder, a little longer, a little more often, in a focused way. We can set goals for ourselves around almost anything: making it through school, training for a race, mastering an instrument, achieving a social status, winning a chess ranking, winning first prize at a Rubik’s Cube tournament. When I was 22, my goals were: to never have to feel lonely again; to start a band that would be the next Beatles; to write a hit song; to look great in a Betsey Johnson dress; to have a daily yoga practice; to run every day; to keep a daily journal; to (eventually—many years in the future) have a family; to go to Harvard Divinity School and be a minister living in western Massachusetts.

Dealing With Resistance
The problem with setting goals is that as soon as we do, 95% of us come up against the source of all evil: Resistance. [For more on Resistance, you must MUST read the excellent Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art.] Resistance, as I am defining it here, means not doing something you know you want to do, ought to do, love to do, and won’t do––yet have no logical reason for not doing. There is something about the nature of resistance that speaks to the very heart of this question of maturity. We all know resistance in some aspect of our lives; we all know that huge creature slouching toward the mall, if not Bethlehem, this three-toed sloth who sleeps all day in the cool of the trees and rouses itself only to eat and excrete. We all know the frustration of setting a goal—to keep our living room tidier, to jog three miles in the morning, to practice the guitar, to send out that resumé, to straighten out our finances––only to watch as the weeks go by and helplessly observe that sickening refusal in some deep part of ourselves to participate. What is it? Where does it come from?

I have no idea. All I know is that I recognize this sloth in myself, and it baffles me that I have accomplished as much as I have, given its hegemony over me. But I do have some observations.

Of course, if we never set goals, we’d never have to deal with resistance. I tend to see the whole issue of resistance to goals in myself as a conversation between a very willful, creative child and a very ambitious parent with the “Real You” stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sigmund Freud uses the terms “id,” “superego” and “ego” here, but some of us have problems with old Siggy, so I’ve provided some alternative jargon for you. Perhaps your resistance is actually healthy and self-protective. What if the goals you are setting for yourself are the wrong goals anyway? What if these particular goals do not support your true dreams and desires? What if the Real You––your true self before socialization, the unique person you were meant to be during your brief sojourn on this planet—what if this You does not care about glamour and fame and money? The Real You might think your perfect manifestation to be a gardener in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. The Real You might fall in love with an overweight, illiterate cab driver with eyes like Tom Hanks’ and a heart as big as Canada. The Real You might just want what it is meant to want.

Your Inner Ambitious Parent (IAP), on the other hand, is who and what our peers, People magazine, The New York Times and perhaps our actual ambitious parents tell us we should be––what we should look like, how much money we should make and what we should accomplish in our lifetime. Your IAP has been told to follow in the family business, or to be a doctor or a lawyer or something (please, God) that will provide our parents with some security upon retirement. Your IAP might want you to be straight, though sometimes, in some communities, gay. Your IAP wants you to contain your feelings (unless it’s Italian, which means it wants you to be extremely emotive, operatic, and a good cook and lover to boot. Pardon the “boot” pun). In short, the Real You and your IAP might be worlds apart.

Maybe the reason you keep procrastinating on your screenplay or sleeping through your morning workout is that you don’t really want to be an award winning documentary filmmaker or a triathlete. Maybe your house continues to be a disaster area, even though you subscribe religiously to FlyLady , because you don’t really want your house to look like it sprung from the pages of House Beautiful. Maybe this resistance is some kind of divine protection, a cry from the dark saying, “This is not me!”

The Willful Child on the other hand is not that helpful either, though some of us in our teens and twenties champion our WC and follow her on a long goose chase to degradation (see The Prodigal Son and a bazillion other characters in literature). The Willful Child is not that keen on making money, friends, or attending to personal hygiene. She’s fun for awhile, but not for a lifetime. You really don’t want her running the show, or you’ll end up like one of my actual willful children who, on occasion, refuses TV and candy simply because their actual IAP (me) is offering it to him or her. Or in my case, the WC is that same sloth spoken of earlier who doesn’t so much stamp her foot but rather curls up on the couch for an entire season if left undisturbed. Life, of course, is a process of finding that balance between chaos and rigidity. The balance point changes over time, which is why we need to practice balancing a lot.

(For tomorrow: The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals)

Sandra Tsing Loh and the ‘Pause


I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing Sandra Tsing Loh on Monday night. She spoke to a group of fabulous 40-60 something kick-ass Northampton women at Cathi Hanauer’s house, and read from her new book The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones. We were all in hysterics (“hysteria” comes from the Greek “hystera” which means womb, people) at what Cathi had termed “a ‘pause party.” And it’s a great thing to laugh at what we most fear and relate to, with a group of others who seem to feel the same. I swore ahead of time I would not buy another book, since my list is so terrifyingly long, as is the stack by my bed, but I was first in line after the reading, and I haven’t been able to put it down since.

I’d wanted to come because in 2011 my friend Jess Bacal (whose great book Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong also just came out) had sent me a link to this excellent article from The Atlantic. I think it’s poetic and also scary that when I spoke to Sandra, I had no memory of what the piece was about, only that I had loved it.

“It was about menopause,” said my friend Lisa, who is younger than I by a good five years. (Younger as in she can remember what she reads, not as in: “she added, ‘Duh!'” Which she could have.)

“It was?” I said.

So that was why, when she told us on Monday, that we should think of “menopause” not as a change from the regular state (fertile) to the abnormal (infertile), but a return home to the state we knew as girls, it rang familiar.

“IT’S INTRIGUING TO ponder this suggested reversal of what has traditionally been thought to be the woman’s hormonal cloud. A sudden influx of hormones is not what causes 50-year-old Aunt Carol to throw the leg of lamb out the window. Improperly balanced hormones were probably the culprit. Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that—look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: she can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is. (And so what if get-well casseroles won’t get baked, PTAs will collapse, and in-laws will go for decades without being sent a single greeting card? Paging Aunt Carol! The old Aunt Carol!)” (from The Bitch Is Back, Atlantic, Oct. 2011.

Of course, I have lots of thoughts and feelings about this, but right now, today, it’s refreshing to remember that I am in a cloud of estrogen which propelled me to take a break from my work to jog down to the Smith Botanical Gardens and spend five or ten minutes holding my son’s hand as his Kindergarten class got a tour. I’m glad for that cloud; and I am glad that it will end, and that someday I will go back to putting my writing front and center. Or sit on the couch and read a novel. Or just take more evenings off to watch a hilarious and brilliant woman share her life and her art with a bunch of other hilarious brilliant women.