Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taking the Plunge

A pause that refreshes ...

For some time now my friend Laura Cerwinske has been conducting classes in what she calls Radical Writing. Simply put, it's a technique for using writing to dig into what's up with yourself and to clear up the log jams that most of us experience as getting in our way as we try to navigate down the tumultuous river of life. (Lookout, matey -- thar be rapids up ahead!)

In a former incarnation, these classes were titled "Writing as a Healing Art," which is another good way to describe what happens in them. But lets face it, Radical Writing has more panache. It also captures something about the way you are supposed to launch into your assignments. This is not "creative" writing, or memoir, or even journal writing, though it may have elements of them all. More than anything it is "automatic" writing -- an attempt to let the words flow as uninterrupted as possible from as deep a source as possible, close to the unconscious itself.

This weekend I participated in a two-hour workshop with Laura, my wife, and several other acquaintances and strangers (no, they weren't so strange, only people we hadn't met yet). I thought I might share what came up for me as a way to give an example, so here goes ...

Our first task was to state why we were there:
"My intention for coming here today is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible while delving into some of the scarier parts of my internal nature and sharing them with a combination of intimate friends and complete strangers - an experience no doubt to be be fraught with qualms but which I am quite prepared to plunge into as if taking a dive off the high board - which I did once as a teenager."
At this point Laura pounces on everyone's hot spots and assigns a different task to each one. Mine was to revisit that plunge that I only took ONCE and never again.

"What it was like to look down at the water, so far so far below, and come to the brink and be afraid and do it anyway, the bang of the impact, glad I did but not ever going back for more - so what is the plunge now? not the old ones, the starting of a business, the selling of it, marriage and divorce and marriage again, the change of career - too late? too high? and the plunges yet to be - yet another career, more creations, more disasters, vortexing whirlpooling closer to the last disaster of all that awaits somewhere down the line - to plunge into life as if into death, to commit all, hold nothing back, to be all in the game, to be alive-dead, to be dead-alive, without any hope or dread."
And then a follow up: What if disaster does NOT lurk as a result of my plunge?

"In spite of my fear of rejection I submit my novel and the publisher despite some misgivings agrees to publish it and Oprah loves it as do her millions of viewers and the movie version collects Oscars for the director and cast and I start turning out sequels at the rate of one every 2 or 3 years while the royalties add up and my biggest concern is how to distribute all the money among various charities because my own needs and those of all my family are long since satisfied and I can go to my final rest knowing I have lived the life I was meant to live and given it everything I have and learned all there was to learn and done as much as I possibly could and have no regrets and no apologies to make and know that this is just about the most perfect way for things to be."
Now finally, as a sort of combination graduation exercise and final exam: What I'm feeling now:

"I'm able to breathe - a relaxed feeling in the chest and solar plexus - goes along with a feeling of standing straighter with my feet solidly on the ground, legs extended without slouching or stooping my shoulders, goes along with seeming to see more clearly and attentively - but breathing above all, drinking in the air like cool water, cleansing and life giving, healing, maybe blessing as in holy water, maybe flowing as in streams, cold mountain ones that melt from the glaciers or deep blue ones that melt from the polar ice, a feeling of melting, of thawing, as at the end of a freeze, a relaxing, a seeping into moist earth from which things can grow - and what might sprout, I wonder, what green shoots of dormant things might emerge - everything that has been buried and lost - everything of life that has been dormant and in hiding - out into the clear air - into the lungs and out again - merging with the vapors of the world by inhaling them, waking up from a dream."
Pretty cool, no? And don't worry that I've spilled the beans. If you should take the class (which you can also do online in the comfort of your own room) I guarantee your results will be completely different -- as mine would be if I did it again right now. Hmmm...
"My intention for being here tonight is ..."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Going Electric

It's all about the green ...

If you're a homeowner you can take advantage of a proven technology that will save you money, time, and trouble while at the same time lowering your energy consumption, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the air quality. You might even prevent yourself from going deaf. Interested?

No, you don't have to park your SUV and invest 30K in a hybrid car. All you have to do is dump your humble gas guzzling lawnmower and replace it with an electric one. I did it myself about 3 years ago and I'm here to tell you it works.

The way it happened is, my old lawnmower was giving me problems. I had just spent about $120 having it refitted with a new blade, spark plug, air filter, and oil change. It worked for about a month before it became impossible to start. Then I noticed the metal housing of the whole thing was beginning to rust through and was almost ready to fall apart. So I went shopping for a replacement.

Not finding anything that didn't seem overpriced, I returned from the store with only an electric weed-whacker, which was another tool I needed. I thought I could at least do some trimming while I figured out what to do about the mower. The new machine was light weight and fun to use. I quickly cleaned up all my edges, then paused and considered how much grass was left in the remainder of the front lawn. Hmm ...

Twenty minutes later I had mowed the entire front yard with the weed whacker. My back was a little sore but I'd hardly broken a sweat. That was enough for me. If I could do it with a weed whacker, then a scaled up version with 4 wheels had to be that much easier. For less than $200 -- that's almost $100 less than the price of a Kindle Reader -- I came back with an 18" Black and Decker Lawn Hog electric mulching mower that made short work of the back lawn, and has served me faithfully now for 3 South Florida lawn mowing seasons.

Trust me, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Let's take the usual objections one at a time:

  • The extension cords are a hassle*. Not really. I have two 50-foot cords that I plug together, and two exterior outlets to choose from. All you need is enough wire to reach the farthest corner of your lot. Uncoiling them and wrapping them up again at the beginning and end of the job takes about 2 minutes and is less work than yanking a rope trying to get a gas engine going when it's not in the mood.
  • You get tangled up in the cords. Not if you give it any thought. The only concession I had to make was the time honored pattern of mowing from the outside of a square to the center. Of course if you insist on that you will get tangled up. The thing to do instead is to start from where the cord plugs in and work your way back and forth away from it so the cord just unfurls as you go.
  • Electric motors aren't powerful enough. Baloney. I don't know how a 12 amp motor converts to horsepower, but I know that my gas mower used to stall if I plowed it into a clump of tall weeds. The electric has never done that. It slows but does not stall and has cut down everything I have asked it to.
  • An electric mower won't last. We'll see. Three years and counting. My gas mower gave up after less than 10. One thing I do know is that I will never spend time and money on oil changes, tuneups, or trips to the gas station to fill my 2-gallon can.
  • Your electric bill will go up. Can't say I've noticed anything there. If you think about it, buying 2 gallons of gas every few months is not a noticeable expense either, so why should electricity be any different? I trust the electric company to use its fuel more efficiently than the noisy, polluting engines that they slap on mowers.
And then there are the pluses of going electric:

  • Maintenance-free, or very nearly. I suppose I may need a new blade someday.
  • Quieter - more like a vaccuum cleaner than a mower.
  • Light weight - again, more like a vaccuum cleaner. Even gas mowers that drive themselves are beasts to wrestle around corners, or to lift into the back of your car when you take them to the repair shop.
  • No fumes - remember you're not the only one who has to breath that exhaust.
  • Safety - my gas mower caught on fire once when dry grass clippings were ignited by the hot engine. Remember, it has a gas tank on it, too. Whoops! Another time I splashed gasoline into my eyes when the filler hose came out of the gas tank while I was pouring. Those things are dangerous!
There are some amusing estimates of how many miles per gallon a gas lawnmower gets. This one, for example, concludes: "If you mow for 1 hour and your mower uses say 1/2 gallon ... then in 2 hours you would have walked 8 miles and used 1 gallon. So your MPG is 8 gallons to the mile!" In my case my yard is much too small to walk 8 miles in. I would say maybe 1 to 2 miles max, especially because I walk so slowly while pushing a mower. That gives me between 32 and 64 gallons per mile -- yikes! [Note: this math is backwards, see comments below.]

But mpg is not everything. This article delves into the pollution caused by gas lawnmowers and their noisy brethren -- leaf blowers, chain saws, and trimmers. They say that every week 54 million of us mow our lawns, so you have to multiply what you do by a very large number. 20 million small engines are sold each year, which is another measure of the scale of the problem, as well as how many old ones must be disposed of each year. Altogether they contribute a whopping 10% of our annual production of hydrocarbons.

Convinced? Please, give it a try the next time your mower causes you grief. I promise you won't be sorry, and you'll feel good about yourself, too.

[*You can also get electric mowers that run on rechargeable batteries, but I don't recommend it. They are more expensive, much heavier, lower powered, and have higher maintenance costs because of replacing the battery. Engineers tell me AC motors that run on wall current are always more powerful and longer lasting than DC motors that run on batteries. Let's let them do the math and take their word for it.]

Friday, October 09, 2009

Atoms of Empire

Judging a book not by its cover but by the author's name ...

While browsing on one of my favorite sources for online books, Feedbooks.com, I stumbled across an obscure work called Atoms of Empire. The title caught my eye first, but what really hooked me was the name of the author: Charles John Cutliffe Wright Hyne. How's that for a mouthful? And what an epitome of Victorian respectability it captures in its ringing tones. That settled it. I had to see what Mr. C.J.C.W. Hyne had written.

The concept behind the title is that each individual is an indivisible atomic unit of the society as a whole. Specifically, in whatever far flung reaches of the globe they might find themselves, the intrepid subjects of the Crown were each a representative microcosm of the British Empire. Keep in mind that the work dates from the late 1890's when Victoria was still "Queen of England and Empress of India."

What follows in this collection of short fiction is a marvelous variety of period pieces ranging from droll plots hinging on matrimony to Indiana Jones-style adventures that stretch credulity to the breaking point.

In the opening story a priggish newcomer to an African colony decides to march into the jungle to impose law and order on the cannibal king, armed only with an umbrella. Having made himself universally unpopular, no one sees fit to prevent him from sallying forth to meet his fate.

Elsewhere various adventurers find themselves in the wilds of American swamps, falling victim to brazen train robberies, and fighting a cholera epidemic aboard ship. Then, on the fantastical side, we find out what lurks in an unexplored cave in the heart of the British Isles, and interview a mummy on the floor of an Egyptologist's study. Often the denouement of the story involves an encounter between two of the characters back home in Piccadilly or in the snug confines of their gentlemen's club.

What's enjoyable about these yarns is not just their dry wit but their unselfconscious belief in the triumph of pluck and daring-do. It's like watching old Hollywood movies where the writers, directors, and actors had absolutely no qualms about good triumphing over evil and America vanquishing fascism.

But more than just escape fiction, these stories have acquired a layer of historical interest for what they reveal about the attitudes of their intended readers. Racism, for example, is portrayed in a matter of fact way that has long since (thankfully) ceased being politically correct. Still, there is something refreshing about the use of the word "nigger" by someone who intended no insult by it. Now we are stuck with using the infantile phrase, "the N-word." That's progress for you.

There is precious little biographical information to be found about Hyne online, but in his day (1866-1944) he was a prolific popular novelist who cranked out a whopping 46 volumes during his career. There are a few others available on Feedbooks, including The Lost Continent, and still others thanks to the efforts of Google Books (check on Barnes and Noble), including the likes of Kate Meredith, Financier.

So if Atoms whets your appetite there is plenty to feast upon.