Friday, April 30, 2010

She's With The Band

Since I unfortunately still don't have much to report, I thought I'd use today's entry to tell you about one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. (But don't worry! I've promised myself that this blog will NOT become a diatribe of self-pitying whining. There will be some positive news on the goal front tomorrow if it kills me.)

I first met Jan about three years ago. She was quite the woman - a former competitive skier and physiotherapist, she was brilliant, funny, kind, and beautiful. She was also dying.

Jan, a vibrant mother of three grown and equally gorgeous children, had been diagnosed with scleroderma, a rare condition that was slowly hardening her skin and internal organs. Her body was basically turning into scar tissue. As her condition worsened, she lost an incredible amount of weight, her facial skin tightened and pulled back so she could barely smile, and she began having trouble walking. She couldn't even sit down or stand without help, and she must have been in incredible pain.

I say "must have been" because Jan never complained. Even when her illness was at its most pronounced, she fought to live a normal life--and what was normal for Jan would be considered extraordinary for most people. She still went to movies, danced at socials, and sang karaoke to the best of her ability. Most of all, she loved music and went to every concert she could. She even took her three kids on a concert tour across Europe and Canada. She gave everyone in her life generous presents, had a million friends, and adopted just about as many homeless animals. Jan was a force to be reckoned with.

I often wondered what it was like for this dynamic woman, who used to be a star athlete, to lose her mobility little by little each day. Jan managed to have enough energy for three people, and let me tell you--it was pretty embarrassing to be pleading exhaustion from a social and wanting to go home when she was still on the dance floor.

When Jan was first diagnosed with the most aggressive form of this terrible disease, they told her she wouldn't see her fiftieth birthday. Everyone who loved her (and there were many who did) cried, but Jan had other ideas. She decided to prove those doctors wrong, and she did. She celebrated her fiftieth birthday with style and the disease went into remission. Everyone was hopeful that she would live to a ripe old age.

Jan loved almost any kind of music, but especially classic rock n' roll. One of her favorite bands was Aerosmith. During a recent concert tour, she seized the chance to bring some awareness to the disease that was threatening her life. She came to the concert in a wheelchair, bearing a huge sign directed to the lead singer's attention: Kiss Me Before I Die, Steve. And Steve Tyler noticed, and kiss her he did. This was only one highlight in an extraordinary life.

Jan passed away this month at age fifty-three. To show you what kind of amazing person she was, even her ex-husband moved back to the city to take care of her when her disease progressed.

Why am I telling you about Jan? Because Jan is a great example of living your best life. She didn't start living this way because she found out she had a terminal illness - she'd always lived this way. Jan took risks, and she didn't let other people's judgements or opinions get in her way. I wish I could have spent more time with her. I wish I could have known her longer. But I knew her well enough to know that the lady didn't have any regrets.

In Jan's honor, I challenge each one of us to live our lives a little more fearlessly. We never know when scleroderma, cancer, or even a misguided bus will suddenly bring a tragic end to our plans.

I'm not sure what kind (if any) of afterlife I believe in, but I like to think Jan has found her Rock n' Roll Heaven. She's with the band now.

**Thanks to Jan's daughter Laura for the photos.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good in Bed?

Hello Dear Readers,

I'd like to be better in bed. No, not that way - get your mind out of the gutter! I mean that I'd like to spend more time in bed. Asleep.
During reasonable hours.

I was always that little kid who didn't want to go to bed. I seem to remember my dad bribing me with piggyback rides, but I also remember a lot of books read under the covers with flashlights. I'd throw a blanket over my little black-and-white television to block its tell-tale glow, and peep underneath to watch late-night Canadian programming. Anyone else remember He Shoots, He Scores or Remington Steele? I thought Pierce Brosnan was quite the babe back then. He may have been my very first crush.

Once I finished college and began life as a freelance journalist, I was thrilled to be able to set my own schedule. I stayed up until 4 a.m. , slept until noon, did a few hours of work and then headed to the dojo at 4 p.m. I was able to make quite a nice living that way, and I never felt sleep-deprived. Of course, my novel writing went on hiatus for years.

Unless you can find night-shift work, companies don't embrace the kind of hours I like to keep. And just like I didn't cut back on my spending when I started working for "The Man", I didn't change my sleep patterns either. I still stay up way too late and usually end up falling asleep on the couch, finally stumbling bleary-eyed to my bedroom at 4 a.m. I'm still that little kid who doesn't want to go to bed for fear I might miss something. I love the feeling of being awake when the rest of the world is asleep.

The obvious problem is that if I'm going to bed late, I'm not getting up at six a.m. to write. Some people have suggested I write at night, but too much can go wrong during the evening. Unexpected plans, headaches, exhaustion...there's too many obstacles that can keep me from achieving my goals. Consistently going to bed at ten p.m. will be one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced. For years I've had people tell me that I should go to bed earlier, and I've argued passionately against it. A ten p.m. bedtime will become even more difficult when I return to kickboxing, which means not getting home until 7:30 at night.

As for the writing end of things, not much to report. I was exhausted yesterday, but still went to bed too late, so I slept through the six a.m. alarm and now have to do the outlining thing when I get home tonight. Not feeling optimistic. Any other night owls finding it difficult to leave the life of constant sleep deprivation?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Seventy-Three Year Old Grandma Kicks Butt...So What's My Excuse Again?

Hello Dear Readers,

I'm ba-ack! The parental unit set off on their journey back to northern climes this morning, leaving me with a fridge full of fattening leftovers, three repaired toilets (yay for free plumbing!), and a newly fertilized and weeded garden. I tried to draw the line when my mom wanted to iron my clothes, but my parents like to feel useful when they're here. Obviously, I am clearly drowning in a backlog of housework, yard work, and just plain ol' work-work.

I'm a little concerned about how difficult it's going to be to get back on track. There's been several late nights, way too much unhealthy eating, and absolutely no work on the novel (although I did have to write at least one freelance story each evening during my parents' visit, hence the late nights). Ordinarily, I would use this interruption of routine as an excuse to blow off the entire week and start anew on Monday. The only problem with that plan is that Monday never comes. At least, not the Monday where I bounce out of bed promptly at six a.m., ready to write five chapters and run a few miles before work. My circumstances are never going to be perfectly aligned with my goals, so I need to learn how to accomplish my objectives in spite of my less-than-perfect situation. Anyone have any tips for squeezing more time out of the day?

Saw a story today that really inspired me. Ernestine Shepherd started body building in her sixties because she didn't like the way she looked in a swimsuit. Now she can bench press 150 pounds and run marathons. And she looks amazing, of course. You would never guess she's in her seventies.

If that isn't enough, I watched a man on The Biggest Loser finish a 5km jog yesterday. This man weighs 330 pounds! The distance he jogged yesterday is the very same The Boy and I are signed up to do on the 16th.

Both Ernestine and Michael are living proof that it never is too late to get in shape, and that there really are no excuses for not looking and feeling our best. Who would have ever suspected that a man weighing over 500 pounds (Michael's starting weight) could jog? Or that a seventy-three year old woman could bench press more than people half her age? If that isn't inspiring, I don't know what is.

Please post your best tips for prying your butt from the couch!

Saturday, April 24, 2010


My parents live in a small northern community where the fine dining choices are somewhat limited. Whenever they visit, I have to show off some of our best and most interesting restaurants. However, three meals in restaurants per day (even during a short, four-day visit) gets to be a bit much. They arrived late yesterday afternoon, and already I've eaten....

  • Seafood fettuccine Alfredo w/bread sticks and salad
  • Mini donuts
  • Gourmet chocolates (each one split with The Boy, thankfully)
  • Wasabi peas compared with non-wasabi peas (impromptu taste test)
  • Chicken fingers, fries, salad
  • Dinner crepe (Japanese style) w/chicken, peanuts, red bell pepper, and peanut sauce. Green apple bubble tea
  • Dessert crepe (Japanese style) w/dulce de leche, strawberries, and coconut

Ugh. Too much food. By the end of this visit, I'm really going to need to get back to the gym! To paraphrase the immortal Irish Rovers,

"My stomach is like a beachball. I think I'm gonna die...."

Now it's 11:30 at night, the parents and The Boy are deep in a carbohydrate-induced coma, and I have to write a freelance story about growing crocuses. Followed by one on container gardening. Ah, the glamorous life I lead!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Writers' Groups: To Join or Not To Join

Last night I attended a murder mystery play that was written by a member of my old writers' group. Many friends from the old group were there to show their support, and most urged me to return to the monthly meetings. I haven't been to a writers' group meeting in over a year for a variety of reasons, one of the most significant being that I'm conflicted about how helpful they are.

One of the problems with writers critiquing the work of other writers is that each writer has his own voice and style (if you don't have your own voice and you're hoping to be successful in this game, good luck!). Whatever voice we write in is the one we like the best - otherwise, we wouldn't use it, and we certainly wouldn't be able to endure it through the writing of hundreds of pages. When we hear or read the work of other (especially unpublished) writers, it stands to reason that we are usually hearing a voice that is not our own, that we don't like as much. There is the temptation to try to change another writer's voice into something we like better - to have him tell his story the way we would have told it. That's why agents often complain that manuscripts they receive from writers' group members are a hodgepodge of different styles and voices.

This leads to another problem with writers' groups. While they are probably most helpful in polishing second or third drafts, many writers share their works-in-progress, which can lead to disaster. The first draft is when most of our insecurities and self-doubt come to the forefront: is this good enough? Will anyone care about this story? Will they like my characters? Do I even like my characters? It's difficult to stay invested in a story before you've spent the required time and effort to finish it. Once you've written 500 pages about Ike and his dog, you know Ike pretty well and you're more apt to stand your ground if someone insists you need to change his personality. During the first draft, things are a lot more tenuous.

My old writers' group is filled with immensely talented people who mostly write for fun. The majority have never tried to get their work published, but if they put their minds to it, they certainly could. Every group attracts a few bad apples, though, and in our time we've experienced our share of egotistical know-it-alls who recite high school creative writing rules as if they're the holy grail. The man who used to lead our group was a kind, soft-hearted gentleman. He cared a lot about what others thought, which made him especially vulnerable to the group's critique and feedback.

At one meeting, he decided to share the first chapter of the new novel he was working on. His protagonist was a nurse who'd just discovered that her husband had given her AIDS. As she reels from the news, she immediately suspects that her husband is gay. One of the more opinionated members of the group (thankfully she moved to another country soon after) had a conniption. How dare the protagonist assume her husband is gay, just because he has AIDS! The critic then proceeded to lecture the writer on all the ways people can get AIDS, how prevalent it is among heterosexuals, etc. All the while, the poor man seemed to shrink smaller and smaller in his chair. A few of us argued for the protagonist's right to think anything she pleased, even if it wasn't true or unbiased. She could be completely homophobic, and that would be her right. And even if she was, that didn't mean that the same went for her creator. Both sides argued their point passionately, with the end result being that the writer threw his manuscript in the garbage when he got home. He might have had a great story there, and now we'll never know. In this case, the writing group was not helpful.

In my experience, you'll meet three types of people at writers' groups. There's the Nice Writer, who is sweet and supportive. She will love everything you write. This feels good until you realize she loves everything everyone else does, too, which makes you start to question her honesty and/or taste after awhile. Then there's the Know-It-All, whom we've already touched on. This person is also The Best Writer Who Ever Lived, except he's not published, or if he is, it's with a very small press. Perhaps a vanity one. He is there for three reasons: to get the ego strokes from The Nice Writers; to give the poor lesser writers the benefit of his wisdom; and three--to hear himself talk. The third type is the most rare. This is the Helpful Writer. This person usually has more experience than you, or just a really good eye for editing. She can help you make your work better without making it sound like her own. You may find one of these Helpful Writers in your group. If you're lucky, you'll have two or three. Rarely are there more than that. If you think your entire group is comprised of Helpful Writers, chances are you're mistaking Nice for Helpful.

However, there is another great advantage to being part of a writers' group. It's the simple camaraderie that comes from being with like minded people. Writing can be the most isolating, lonely exercise in the world, and being able to discuss the challenges and triumphs with people who truly get it is priceless. Some of the closest friends a writer will ever have will inevitably be other writers. It makes all the Know-It-Alls and bad writing worth it. Hmm...maybe I will attend a meeting next month after all.

How about you? Ever been a member? And if so, what has your experience been like?

***My parents are in for a brief visit for the next four days, so it will most likely be next Wednesday (April 28th) before I post again. Unfortunately, the novel will be put on a brief hiatus as well, but I'm hoping this break won't derail me too much.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Life Is Beautiful

I first heard about kickboxing when I was in high school. Growing up in a small northern community, I had no access to martial arts or even boxing classes, so I had to content myself with watching Rocky movies and fighting multiple "opponents" (such opponents included garbage bins, chairs, huge stuffed animals, etc.) Then this guy who was a "black belt" kickboxer came to town, and I was enthralled. (I now know there's no such thing - Muay Thai doesn't have a belt system the way karate does.) The Karate Kid was one thing - kickboxing sounded so much cooler.

After graduation, I left my small town for a city of nearly 700,000 people. My new city was big enough to offer access to martial arts, but unfortunately, before I could get there, I was attacked by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. He repeatedly slammed his mother's station wagon into the truck my friend was driving. Seven times, he hit us. I plunged forward in my seat each time, only to be pulled back by the seat belt. As a result, two of the vertebrae in my lower back were broken. I wasn't even twenty years old, and a doctor told me I'd be confined to a wheelchair by twenty-three. Kickboxing seemed out of the question.

Back then, chiropractor treatments were a way of life for me. I saw a chiropractor at least four times a week, along with massage and physiotherapy. I really lucked out with my first chiropractor here. He was a great guy: young, caring, and incredibly understanding. By some strange coincidence, he was also the official chiropractor for one of the most established Muay Thai clubs in the city.

At that point in my life, I was in constant pain. I couldn't stand, sit, or lie down in the same position for more than a few minutes before my lower back shrieked in agony. This didn't deter my chiropractor from encouraging me to try Muay Thai. He really believed I could be a kickboxer, in spite of my obvious limitations.

Going to the dojo for the first time was really scary. Only three other women belonged to the club back then, and they didn't have a proper changing room for us. It was just a piece of plywood leaning against the wall. A line of men were waiting just inside the entrance to the club, and you had to push past them to get inside, while they stared at you and jeered. I brought a friend with me for emotional support, and she only lasted one class. I was completely on my own, and this was a no-frill's gym. The owner had me sparring on my first day against much more experienced students, when I barely knew what a roundhouse was.

The idea of someone with a broken back taking up kickboxing may horrify you. (It certainly had that effect on my mother.) But it literally changed my life. Muay Thai is one of the best full-body workouts on the planet. It increases your flexibility, balance, strength, and speed. It's a mental, physical, and emotional workout. If you have a good trainer, you leave the gym completely drained but euphoric.

Muay Thai strengthened the core muscles that supported the fractured portions of my back. It improved my posture and flexibility. Soon I was having less pain, and today I rarely ever have problems with my back. Sure, I've had nasty bruises, cuts, and broken wrists, but none are half as painful as the life I lived before I became a kickboxer.

I will never perfect my technique, no matter how long or hard I train. I don't think anyone ever does, although my first coach (kru) came pretty damn close. Muay Thai is a lot like life that way. You have good days and bad days, but you can never quite reach perfection. It's always a journey. When you fall down, you get up, dust yourself off, and try again. You enjoy it as much as you can while you have it.

So, here's to you, Arthur - you taught me how to push myself in this incredible martial art, and for that, I can never repay you. You gave me back my life, and although it's not perfect, I'm damn lucky to have the life I do. Thank you for everything.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Book is a Mystery...Even to Me

Hello, friends.

Seems like yesterday may have been beginner's luck. The writing didn't go as easy for me this morning, although I did wake up at an ungodly hour and plunk myself at my desk. I'm comforted by the thought that that was half the battle - just getting into a good routine again

The problem is, I finished the chapter. The chapter I'd first started writing over two years ago and continued writing yesterday. Now I'm not sure where to go with the story.

My novel-in-progress is a paranormal mystery, which basically means it's a mystery with some supernatural (or is it supernatural? Figuring that out is part of the fun!) stuff happening to the protagonist.

I've always been an organic writer. An idea comes to me, a character pops in my head and starts telling the story, and the rest is very much like taking dictation. It seems like the characters are the only ones who know how the story will unfold. As the writer, I'm always surprised, but everything comes full circle and all the seemingly meaningless things end up having meaning, etc. Even when I'm semi-panicking because I have no idea how the characters will ever find their way out of the mess, I have faith in the process because it always works. I never outline, except to jot down ideas I'm afraid I may forget.

BUT...(cue ominous music here) while this style of writing works well when I'm in "the zone" and writing everyday, I'm finding it doesn't work so well when I've taken two years off. In order to insure tomorrow's writing time is productive, I need to figure out exactly what happens in this novel! Currently, all I've got are a bunch of maybes: 'maybe that person did it, or maybe that person did'. That's not going to work, unless I want to waste a lot of valuable time writing material that will end up on the cutting room floor. And I don't. I'm behind the gun as it is. So I'm heading into foreign territory today and taking an hour to craft an outline so I know where I'm going. This is no time to be traveling without a map.

I'd love some more feedback on this blog. So far, the only mild criticism I've had was that there's not enough kickboxing content. Writing about kickboxing is a little tough right now, because I'm not back at the dojo until the next session, which will start in May or June. I broke my right wrist, and it still needs time to heal. But I promise tomorrow's entry will be a kickboxing story!

I'm proud to report that I did run last night, even though I really didn't feel like it. I did an interval run, of increasing speed and elevation, at level seven out of ten on the treadmill. I felt close to puking when my twenty minutes were up, and I was drenched with sweat, so I figure Jillian's on to something. I have an inkling that I could push myself even more, though. I'll see how that works tonight.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Bucket List

Almost everyone has their own "bucket list"...that compilation of amazing experiences, adventures, and goals they'd like to accomplish before they die. While my two biggest bucket list items are becoming a published author and fighting in the ring (I should change that to "winning in the ring", because--let's face it--only having one fight and losing would suck!), I have many others on my list. Most of them have to do with traveling. I haven't seen nearly enough of the planet. So far, I've only been to Africa (Zambia and Zimbabwe), London, the Mayan Riviera, the Dominican Republic, and some parts of Canada and the United States. I started a travel fund last year, and I contribute a portion of every pay cheque, including my freelance income. I'm committed to going on a trip a year, even if it's a small one. My trip this year was to Mexico, where I got to scratch "swimming with dolphins" off my bucket list.

Some of the items still on the list include: walking the Great Wall of China (yes, all of it, at least the parts that are still mostly intact), visiting the panda bear orphanage where they let you hold a baby panda, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, white water rafting somewhere amazing, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Being a full-time novelist would make world travel a lot easier. No longer would I be confined to a desk in an office! Have laptop, will travel. What's on your bucket list?

Great news on the writing front today! For the first time in YEARS, I hauled my sorry butt out of bed at 6 a.m. and worked on the novel-in-progress for an hour. It wasn't the hell I thought it would be, either. I wrote 4.5 pages before it was time to stop. Not a bad beginning.

As for the kickboxing part of this equation, I plan to go for a run on the treadmill when I get home tonight. I'm also going to do some ab work. I can't do push-ups yet, as my recently broken wrist is still healing. I'm a big fan of Jillian, one of the trainers on "The Biggest Loser", and she says that people need to push past their comfort zone to get the best results. I normally only run at a pace I'm comfortable with, so tonight I'm going to take her advice. I'll let you know how it went tomorrow. Thanks for keeping me honest!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Epic Fail

Well, the weekend was a total bust for both goals. I don't know what happened to Saturday...seems like I just turned around and it vanished. I planned to work on the book after Chris and I returned from the opera (my Valentine's Day gift to him - can't say I'm a huge fan), but it was over three hours long. We didn't get home until midnight, and at that point, I felt completely drained. (But of course I still made time to watch a movie. I am failing miserably thus far!)

On Sunday, my friend Donna had invited us to a behind-the-scenes tour of said opera, which was very, very cool, but way longer than I expected. I again wasted the rest of my time instead of working out or writing, but at least it was an enjoyable evening. I made pasta carbonara from The New Best Recipe cookbook by Cook's Illustrated for dinner and painted my nails pretty spring colors while watching yet another movie. We did walk home from the opera tour - wonder if that counts as exercise?

This day started out classic Monday - everything that could go wrong did. I woke up with a migraine. I took my trusty meds, which worked, but knocked me out, with the end result being that I slept in and almost missed the web training session at work that I was put in charge of (my boss, lucky man, is currently in New York). Then it turned out that none of the equipment was set up for the session, and no one had any idea where anything was. Our library tech saved the day, but it looked pretty bad for a second. I feel sorry for the web design company that built our new site - we must seem like the Keystone Kops sometimes!

It's now 8:35, and I'm determined to spend an hour on my novel before I call it a night. I'm supposed to get to bed at 10 in order to wake up at six to write and go for a run before work, so I'm definitely cutting it close. I'm nervous about it. So far, all I've had to do is re-read the 200 pages I wrote for this book a couple of years ago, but today I'll be picking up where I left off...hopefully. I know that this will all be worth it when I'm back in the zone and actually enjoying the process again, but for the first bit, it's gonna be hell.

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to start getting rid of or limiting things that tend to suck up a lot of my time. Facebook, a stupid computer game called Burger Rush, watching movies I've already seen a million times, etc.

Do you find your time slipping away too quickly as well? What are your biggest "time sucks"?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Breaking Out of the Rut

So here I am, staring my late thirties in the face, and my life is nowhere close to what I thought it would be. I grew up surrounded by the expectation (both internal and external) that I would be a famous novelist, or, at the very least, a full-time one. Yet, year after year goes by, and not much really changes. I planned to live by the ocean in a warm place that soothes my soul, but I'm still camped out here on the frigid prairies, with no ocean in sight, endlessly talking about moving.

Make no mistake - I have a lot of reasons for not living my ideal life. I was a freelance journalist with my own business for twelve years, too busy chasing the story to write my own. I survived personal turmoil and upheaval, and plenty of it. I write for my day job, so the last thing I want to do with my limited spare time is sit here, at the computer. But you know another word for reason? Excuse. Stephen King was married, with three kids to support, working a full-time teaching job and taking on a driver's ed gig in the summer, and he still managed to churn out book after book. Anything is possible if you want it badly enough.

Truth be told, I spend way more time talking about how I'm not writing than actually writing. I spend more mental energy on finding excuses than on creating exciting plots and characters. Until I change this and basically get off my lazy butt, nothing else is going to change, either.

Some of you may be wondering how the heck kickboxing fits in. Well, I love Muay Thai. It became a passion for me, much like writing. I've been training in the art for nearly fourteen years, and I've never once tried my luck in the ring, beyond the odd sparring match. I've had an Olympic coach. I've had teammates who were some of the best in the world for their weight class. And still nothing. Sure, I broke my wrist three times. I lost coaches, over and over again, for a myriad of bizarre reasons (more on that later). Dojos shut down, life got in the way. It seems there's always a convenient reason for not doing something you love.

Living well should be easy, but in truth, it's a hard slog. It's difficult to consistently eat well, exercise, do your best, be kind to others, give 100%. Another blog I love, Annie's Eats, is written by a full-time physician who manages to find the time to cook amazing meals and desserts every day (including unbelievable dinner parties for fifty of her closest friends), while raising a toddler and being a good wife and homemaker. I have no idea how she finds the time. I love to cook, but these days my dinners have consisted of popcorn or Chef Barf. I haven't made the time to exercise in weeks. And my novel? Um, what novel?

It's easy to start something new. The very newness of it is exciting. I can fully absorb myself in anything for a short time. It's consistency that's the bitch. So this blog is basically a tool to keep me honest. I will share my daily struggles here as I fight to make my dreams come true - both inside the ring and out. Sure, this blog is about writing and it's about kickboxing, but it's mostly about living up to one's full potential. I'm sure there's a lot of people out there who feel guilty about what they're not doing, and who have no clue how to break out of the rut. I'm one of those people.

If you're reading this, please tell me about your goals. What would you most regret not doing, or experiencing, or having, if you died tomorrow? And if you're a guru of motivation, please share your tips! I need all the help I can get.