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  1. If Life is What You Make it, Make it Matter

    July 23, 2017 by Diane

    You live in a world where you wake up and the sun shines, coffee percolates, teeth gleam, and breakfast waits on the table on good china, next to rolled napkins of the finest cloth. Where politics is a word buried in a dictionary. Where windows are floor to ceiling, and the view is a white sand beach, with seagulls dipping into gently rolling waves. You live in a world where nothing matters except good food, good wine, good company, a good view, and something good to fill the days—something that does matter.

    Or…

    You live in a world where you drag yourself from bed thirty minutes after the alarm goes off, and rush through a bowl of cereal to arrive late at a job that bores you. Where the workplace is poorly lit with no windows. Where every surface is piled with clutter, the internet screams politics, and the only view is your own. Where nothing matters except quitting time, making it through traffic, opening a can of soup without slicing your thumb, and numbing your pain with reality television.

    Who visualized that life?

    Someone who didn’t visualize their ideal.

    Are you filling your days with what matters, or with what doesn’t?

    Let’s face it: unless you have a helper, you do the housework, wash the dishes, clean the clothes and get the groceries. Chores take up a portion of your waking hours. Can those hours matter more than something to get through? Can they be times when you do your best creative thinking, times when you practice gratitude for earth’s bounty, times when a clean home makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into House Beautiful?

    Do you know what matters to you?

    Is it writing five pages in your novel, or shopping for another pair of shoes that you don’t really need? Is it time spent reading, or time spent searching for your car keys under the clutter on your desk? Is it walking along the shoreline with a loved one, or standing in line at Starbucks checking your Twitter followers? The world is full of choices, isn’t it? Dizzying.

    What’s your vision?

    Without a vision and a plan to get there, we live our lives dealing with matters that don’t matter. And to make matters worse, sometimes we don’t even know it.

    Brian Tracy, in his book, Goals! How to Get Everything You Want—Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible, says, “If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want, you end up getting something else.”

    So: visualize what you want, every morning when you wake up, and every night when you turn out the lights. See it, feel it. Engage the senses. Make it as real as possible. A funny thing happens. With a clear target to aim for, like a magnet, the brain focuses in that direction.

    Make it matter

    Every waking hour, touch upon those things that spark your life force. Ask yourself periodically, does it matter, what I’m expending time and energy on? If not, can I make it so, or let it go?

    We live in a world of matter, shaped by our thoughts, our actions, and the thoughts and actions of billions and billions of others. Shape it wisely, and with an open heart.

    Because it matters.


  2. What Keeps a Reader Up at Night?

    July 16, 2017 by Diane

    In high school, there was a guy (wasn’t there always?) named John McLean. He strode across campus in his long pea coat with epaulets, hands jammed in the pockets. He had pale, lightly freckled skin, brown hair that flopped across his forehead, and a small red scar across the bridge of his nose.

    I was mad about him.

    He hung out with me, once. I sat on the front lawn at school with my best friend, when John passed by, saw us, and kicked back next to me. He plucked at the grass, and a bee stung his index finger. It was Karen who took his hand and removed the stinger.

    Oh, how I envied her, holding John McLean’s hand.

    John’s feelings for me were probably non-existent, although I saw him at a party once through a haze of marijuana smoke. Later, I typed a poem about it—which was less a poem and more a wishful journal entry in stanzas—with a line about him looking up and “reaching out without reaching out,” and how I suddenly felt “tired, so tired,” (but in a good way, in a “I can sleep for a long, long, blissful sleep” way, because John McLean had looked up and reached out, sorta).

    No, John had feelings for a girl named Cathy, who lived on the same mountain where I lived, and rode the same school bus as me.

    Oh, how I envied Cathy, waiting for the bus with John McLean’s arm around her.

    Why am I telling you this?

    Story.

    So far, you might be intrigued, but you’re not really invested in John McLean like I am. I haven’t fleshed him out on the page, like I have in memory. As a reader, you’re not ready to stay up late flipping pages to find out what happens next. Sure, there’s a hint of conflict, a want that I, as the protagonist in this real-life drama, have, and something in the way of me achieving it.

    But what if I add this:

    Forty-odd years later, on a July night, I decide to look up John McLean on the internet. I want to see if he’s overweight and bald, or slim and rich, or married with kids, or divorced and wandering Nepal in his long pea coat.

    Why am I so curious at 11 pm on a weeknight, knowing I need to rise and shine for work the next day? What compels me to go down this rabbit hole on the internet at this point in time? And why am I fascinated by a guy I haven’t thought of, except fleetingly, since high school?

    Story.

    I want to know: whatever happened to John McLean?

    First, I try to find him on social media. Nothing. Then, I Google his name and the city of my high school. I find a woman whose last name was McLean. Her obituary says she was preceded in death by her nephew, John McLean.

    Wait, my John McLean?

    Okay, technically, not mine. But still. I need to know: is John McLean dead?

    I sign onto my high school alumni site, something I’ve never done, browse the yearbooks, and narrow down a year when he appears. I scroll through the grainy photos one by one, wondering if I’ll even recognize him, until…bingo! There he is, with the eyes and nose of a lion, grinning like someone who’s just been reprimanded and doesn’t give a shit. I must have drooled over that photo all summer long when I was fifteen. Of course I’d recognize it!

    Where did he go after high school? I spend another hour searching through archives of old newspapers, and then…this:

    John McLean was found dead near his truck in Half Moon Bay. He was 29 years old.

    It can’t be!

    I count back from the year of publication, and that puts this John smack-dab in the middle of my high school, at the exact moment of time that I attended.

    I’ve found him.

    Dead. At 29.

    So young!

    No wonder he never appeared on Facebook or Twitter or any social media site. He died before they were invented!

    According to the obit, John was an avid pilot. A pilot?—I had no idea he loved to fly. He raised bunnies and cattle. John McLean? A rancher?

    Now, I’m consumed by his story. I need to know what happened. But it’s 2 a.m., time to turn off the light, which I do, feeling spooked and saddened and wistful, spinning “what-ifs” in my brain.

    What if I track down his sisters? According to the newspaper, they lived in San Jose at the time of his death. Do they still live there? Would it be weird to ask them what happened? (Yes! Not to mention creepy.)

    What if I dig into the archives of the Half Moon Bay Review to find out about the accident that killed him?

    What if I search his college alumni website?

    What if I phone Karen, who I haven’t seen in thirty? forty? years, and say, “Remember John McLean?”

    “Who?”

    “John McLean. From high school.”

    “Nuh-uh.”

    “Oh, come on.The guy with the long pea coat.”

    “I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”

    “He died when he was twenty-nine.”

    “Ohhhh-kay.”

    What if I talk Karen into flying to California to join me as an amateur sleuth?

    What if, by finding out what happened to John McLean, I am somehow changed in the process? (Having less to do with the boy I remember, and more to do with the youth I’ve lost.)

    Then, I’ve got the makings of a memoir.

    Unless…

    What if I fictionalize this story? I’m agoraphobic, haven’t stepped outside my cottage in ten years, and this obsession over John McLean is the one thing that gets me to face my fear. It’s no cake-walk, going out into the world, tracking down the sisters, retracing his steps from high school to his final day on Earth. There are obstacles I need to work around (with the help of a side-kick, of course), not to mention the fear I need to overcome. But something drives me to answer the riddle, which says volumes about me. And what if all my detective work digs up something about John McLean that rocks my world in ways I never could have imagined?

    Then, I’ve got a novel.

    Story is answering the question: what happened? Supply an interesting premise with a universal theme (who hasn’t wanted to track down an old crush?), appealing characters, a mystery, and a quest that forces the protagonist to change, and you’re well on your way to keeping your readers burning the midnight oil.

    Whatever happened to John McLean?

    I’m hooked.

    Is it just me?


  3. Book Review: The Productivity Project

    July 9, 2017 by Diane

    The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and EnergyThe Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    A guy takes a year off from work to experiment with ways to be more productive, but experimenting to the extreme. Like meditating for 35 hours a week. Or taking in no nourishment (because it’s too time-consuming!) other than a powdered drink called Soylent, which sounds like something made from humans, but isn’t. And isolating himself in a basement for 10 days. Is this guy a monk yearning for a cave? No. He’s Chris Bailey, and he’s come up with a whole new way of looking at time management, procrastination, and being more productive which, to my mind, is refreshing.

    For starters: evidently, it’s human nature to procrastinate. Chris looks at this bad habit as, basically, putting something off for your future self to deal with. Personally, I never thought of it that way. And he offers suggestions for connecting to that future self. Like a nifty website called FutureMe.org, where you can send yourself an email that arrives days, weeks, months, or years from today. How cool is that!?

    Time management gets a new spin with Chris, too. He talks about scheduling three things a day, releasing the unimportant, plowing through chores on a “Maintenance Day,” rather than getting sidetracked with them throughout the week, and working on projects in less time to force yourself to focus.

    To be productive, we need to manage more than our time. We need to harness our energy, too. We need to track our most energetic times of the day and schedule important tasks during those times, and unimportant tasks when we’re brain-dead (like at 3:00 in the afternoon). We need to eat, exercise, and sleep well, and Chris covers tips on how to do all three (which doesn’t involve Soylent).

    The third ingredient of productivity, along with managing time and energy, is managing attention. Here, Chris brings up the benefits of a meditation practice, and reassures the reader that meditation doesn’t require sitting in a lotus position for hours. He talks about working slowly and mindfully to work more deliberately, and introduces the twenty-second rule for avoiding distractions. He busts the myth that multi-tasking makes us more efficient, and hails the art of doing one thing at a time.

    This is the best book on productivity I’ve read, and I’ve read many. Not only does the author shine new light on the subject, but through his year-long experiment and the knowledge gained through interviewing productivity experts, he’s put together a program that’s imminently doable. As a bonus? He starts each chapter with an estimated reading time, down to the second. And it was spot-on, for me.