Thursday, October 01, 2015

Confessions of a Tooth Grinder

The pain started about 10 years ago. That's the part I'm most ashamed of. I'd bite down in just the right way, and a quick jolt centralized on my right back molar would shoot through my jaw. Usually it would fade just as quickly, but at times it would linger. I told myself to make an appointment with the dentist.

For too long, the pain served as a reminder that I hadn't yet made any type of phone call to get it checked out. Over time, the duration would expand: a second would turn into a few, a few would turn into 30. And every time I said, "Maybe this is the one that finally convinces me. I need to call. I need to have it looked at."

Then the middle of last year, I would be jarred awake in the middle of the night. What used to be a momentary discomfort had turned into something that burned the entire side of my face, part of my neck, my inner ear, and my head. I had ignored something long enough for it to become serious. It was time to call.

I am a notorious grinder. I used to grind my teeth when I was awake, but I've been able to break that habit. However, I still grind at night. Coffeewife has told me numerous times that she hears it when I'm asleep. When I finally visited the dentist last year, he discovered that I'd ground so hard that I'd split my molar right down the middle. It had to be removed and replaced with an implant and crown. An over-the-counter bite guard would help prevent any further damage.

I'm on my fourth such bite guard. I've chewed through the last three. Granted, the store-bought ones aren't meant to be a long-term solution. But they're at least supposed to help protect my other teeth from my subconscious anxiety.

Last month I discovered that I'd cracked the molar opposite the one that had to be removed. Not nearly as bad, thank goodness. And now that I'm on a regular schedule of check-ups it was caught much sooner so it could be fixed without being pulled.

Now, I could tell you that I don't feel that anxious during the day. Sure, I'm busy enough: I have a family to support and help chaperone, I have a daily pastor's schedule to keep track of, I'm maintaining a modest spiritual direction clientele, and I have writing deadlines to meet. I have all kinds of relationships and obligations and finances to keep track of, often demanding my attention at the same time. Would that I could address them in the same manner that they make their wishes known.

I'm much more anxious than I think I am.

People cope with their stressors in their own ways. Some eat, or drink, or smoke, or paint, or go to dark corners of the internet, or make music, or a million other things that are more or less healthy. One of my less healthy habits, beyond my control, is to grind my teeth. And as I've seen, such a thing left unaddressed can be destructive.

I wonder how aware we really are about the downsides of our chosen coping methods. Do we see how we might indulge in certain pleasures too obsessively? Do we have much of a grasp on how our ways of escaping are causing us to avoid truths we need to face? Do we often pay attention to the ways ignoring something will eventually do us or others more harm than good? It's good to manage anxiety through expending energy in other ways, but what if that diverted energy is given to something that will only add to the weight we carry?

I'm consulting with my dentist for a bite guard. A permanent one. A real one. I have to manage the way I manage, or things will only get worse.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Five Tips for Being a Writer

It took me a long time to realize and accept that I'm a writer. I thought that I needed to contribute an article for a notable magazine or website or sign a book contract in order to do that, but that is simply not the case. I'm pleased that some of those things have happened in recent years, but for a very long time I operated under some false assumptions that you can only consider yourself a writer if you achieve some measure of success.

Simply put, writers write. If you write something, you're a writer. And some writers want to write things that reach a wider audience, whether through a personal blog, periodical, or book. That takes a little more effort and discipline. It's not impossible, but it does call for intentionality. So a writer who wants to set some higher goals will need to buckle down in order to pursue them.

I'm far from an authority on what works, as I'm still discovering that myself. But here are five things that I've found helpful to do in order to improve my writing while striving for larger platforms.

1. Sit down and write. It seems like such a no-brainer, doesn't it? And yet for a very long time I thought and talked and talked and thought about being a writer; going after those magazines and books and whatever else. But there was one problem: I didn't actually sit at my computer to draft inquiries and proposals, let alone an actual manuscript of any kind. Thinking and talking about it was the easy part.

Now, sure, it may be that when you do make it a point to sit down and open the laptop, you'll still end up staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. But hey, that's still progress! You've taken a step! Hooray! At this point, it may be beneficial to just start typing and see what happens. This will help get you into Writing Mode, and develop a habitual ease with moving beyond talk and getting to work. When it comes down to it, the only way you're going to write something is if you actually write something. Again, this seems so simple, but it can take quite a bit of self-starting.

2. Carve out the time. Closely related to sitting down to write is to make time to do so. I can't recall just how often I've said to myself, "I'd love to write, but I have so many other things to do." I have a wife, two kids, a career, I try to maintain a workout routine, and I have several other obligations. It's natural to look at all that and think that there will never be any time to write anything.

To be honest, this will take creativity and, no surprise, intentionality. Carving out the time to write will mean sacrificing something else. It may involve setting the alarm earlier or staying up later than the rest of your household. It may involve hiding in another room of the house away from the family for a while. It may involve giving less attention to another hobby or interest. If you want to sit down and write, you have to make the time to do it.

3. Outline, outline, outline. Okay. You're sitting at your desk after canceling your Saturday tee time or after everyone else has gone to bed. And that blinking cursor is still taunting you, daring you to make it do something. You've accepted its challenge, and you've got some ideas forming. But how do you flesh those out into an 800-1000 word essay or a 4000-5000 word book chapter, let alone many essays or chapters?

My solution has been to outline what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. First, list off the main ideas that you want to include and see how they fit together. What makes sense to come first, then second, and so on? Then return to each main point and figure out what information or illustrations might be helpful in developing them. Again, this will help you discern how the main points fit together. You can see whether the story you tell at the end of Point One helps segue into the start of Point Two, whether you'd be better off moving Point Three to the top, and so on.

4. Take breaks. An otherwise busy person may treasure the time he or she has set aside to write, and may feel an obligation to produce something during those sessions. But there also come times when, if you've been at it long enough in one sitting, your brain might start to feel a bit crunchy and the quality of your work is going to suffer. While I'd argue that you have to give yourself a significant stretch to get the muse rolling during a writing session, there also comes a point where you might want to step away instead of willing yourself forward.

Sometimes, this may just be a few minutes. Stand up and stretch, go get a cup of coffee, walk around the house for a bit, and then get back to it. Other times, you may just find that you've hit a good stopping point and it's better to recharge than to force yourself to continue. No matter our work, being able to rest is what helps us return and keep working at a productive level. This includes the work of writing.

5. Treat yourself. I've found that having something to look forward to is helpful to my own writing process. Whether I'm working with a deadline or just want to be able to get something done, I like having a carrot dangling at the finish line. At times this has been giving myself permission to order a new book or album, at others it's been ice cream. You know what your favorite (legal, healthy) indulgences are, so make a deal with yourself that once you finish a writing project, you can enjoy it. Even name the specific thing that you'll go after, e.g., "Once I turn in this essay I'm going to download the new Dead Weather album," or "I won't head out to see this movie until I finish this chapter draft." This is different for everyone, but giving yourself positive reinforcement; knowing what awaits you when you hit your latest goal, can help you stay motivated and focused on the task at hand.

There are plenty more writing tips out there, and I haven't really covered any new ground. But these are at the top of my own list. I'm also not an expert. I just figured out what works best for me. So take what's helpful for you and add your own. Have at it, fellow writers.

Friday, September 25, 2015

September 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for September...

1. I read and enjoyed Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football by John Kryk this month, which chronicles the early days of college football when the Ivy League schools ruled the East, and a handful of schools that would eventually be part of the Big Ten ruled the West. The teams in the West really revolved around the rivalry between the University of Chicago coached by Alonzo Stagg, and the University of Michigan coached by Fielding Yost. Access to a large volume of official documents from both schools as well as personal correspondence allowed Kryk to reconstruct the ways teams even in the earliest days constantly tried to one-up each other for recruits, including cutting corners and offering benefits. The big takeaway is that there was never a "good old days" where college football was pure; free from all the temptations and extra incentives offered to today's players. I had a personal interest in learning more about one of Michigan's legendary coaches, but this is a great historical gem for any college football fan regardless of affiliation.

2. I followed up Stagg vs. Yost with Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon. Previously, Bacon presented an inside look at the troubled tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's football coach in Three and Out; this is his oral history of the equally troubled tenure of Brady Hoke as the coach, which actually focuses much more on Dave Brandon's public and private miscues as Athletic Director (of which there were many). Sharing accounts from a variety of former players, alumni, past and present AD employees, and others who knew the University best, the result is story after story of what happens when well-meaning people get it exactly wrong by putting themselves first, not appreciating the culture of where they are, and not listening to their primary constituents. For me, a lot of it seemed to be a rehashing of what I already knew, since Brian Cook of MGoBlog was right on top or in the middle of much of it. But it is well-researched and well-written, which I've come to expect from Bacon.

3. I'd been meaning to watch the movie Birdman since it came out to critical acclaim last year, and I finally sat down to watch it this past month. Michael Keaton stars as an actor on the downside of his career, trying to shake the stigma of a past Hollywood superhero role that was his most notable accomplishment by staging a play on Broadway. He wrestles with issues of relevance and mortality as he tries to keep his show together. Ed Norton stars as his method acting foil, and Emma Stone is his estranged daughter in recovery, among a host of other recognizable names. It's part ode to theatre, part reflection on existence itself in all its messiness, and is shot mostly as a long continuous scene while evoking an extended piece of improvised jazz. I wish I'd watched this sooner, because the whole thing is incredibly well-acted, philosophically rich, and creatively filmed.

4. I've been keeping up with Fear the Walking Dead, the Walking Dead spinoff series that premiered last month. This show begins just before the zombie outbreak really begins taking over, and features a family trying to keep themselves together as events start ramping up. While The Walking Dead certainly has a bleakness to it, that bleakness takes a different tone on this show because you know where everything is going: the good guys don't win and it's just going to get worse. Still, I like that they began the series the way they did because even though the viewer has a pretty good idea about how things will go, the characters don't; they have to react to each new piece of information about their situation as they discover it. It's been a good complement to the original. And as a bonus, Elizabeth Rodriguez from Orange is the New Black is a supporting character.

5. Ben Caplan came out with a new album this month, Birds with Broken Wings. I loved his previous album In the Time of the Great Remembering, and had been waiting for news of a follow-up ever since. It again features his unique mix of folk, blues, and bluegrass. Here's a track from it, "40 Days and 40 Nights:"