Biking and Fear

Yesterday it was almost a hundred degrees in Chicago—the kind of heavy, humid heat that hits you like a rolling wave when you step outside. The cicadas were crazy buzzing, the beach was mobbed by high schoolers and mothers and babies escaping stuffy apartments, and Curtis (he's very wonderful) spent the day drinking gallons of water and sweating more while he worked at a picnic in the park.

I set out to ride my bike to the store. Put aside the granular details about context (do you really care how high the curb was or how busy the road was or how it seemed like THERE WAS BROKEN GLASS EVERY 20 FEET?).

About three minutes into the ride I started regretting it—but by then it was too late to turn around. I continued along the narrow street with too much traffic and not enough space for me and my pretty red bike.

A metallic grey Audi whizzed past me, notable only because it was going a little too fast. Moments later, after I'd passed the line of traffic in the constant ebb and flow of biking patterns, the Audi reappeared. The driver, a well dressed, manicured woman, had rolled down her window in preparation for the moment when she would pass me again, so she could give me 

a
piece
of
her
mind.

I still don't understand what she thought I was doing wrong—something about me being on the sidewalk or not. It's probably hard to be articulate while yelling expletives and instructions at a biker out of your passenger side window as you're driving 30 miles per hour.

I spent the rest of my afternoon thinking about what would prompt someone to react in that way, and had a few ideas:

  • A past offense. The biking culture in Chicago is startlingly arrogant. Bikes do whatever they want, wherever they want to, with little regard to rules of the road and other cars. An accident or two and about a half dozen close calls later, I try not to ride this way—but when there aren't any cars at a four-way stop, yes. It's very hard to want to obey the law on a bicycle.

Maybe the nice lady hit a biker the day before and was still upset about it. Maybe she was a biker once and got hit and was trying to help me. Maybe her husband works in the emergency room and always tells her about the bike accident patients he has to stitch up, and she's secretly trying to put her husband out of a job by preventing bike accidents. Maybe she just hates Chicago bikers.

Your guess is as good as mine.

  • A bad day. She could have just been fired. Maybe her teenage daughter got a tattoo that says, "My mom's breath smells awful in the morning" and she was upset about it. Her husband could have walked out on her, her neighbor could be stealing her mail, her father could have told her he was disappointed in who she's become.

If these are the case, I'm happy to help her out, though I'd rather do it by expressing sympathy for her than by being a human punching bag.

  • Fear. It's likely that the first time she whizzed around me, she was closer to my shiny red bike than she wanted to be. In some combination of being afraid to wreck her car and not wanting to hurt me, she decided to express how she felt about me (which wasn't great).

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I think her fear motivated her. If you have any experience with fear (if you say you don't, I'm moving into your house and taking your job and stuff and hoping that works for me too), you know it's a strong motivator—unfortunately, often it motivates us to make poor decisions.

David Ogilvy, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, lays out ground rules for clients to keep a good relationship with an advertising agency. One of them is to "emancipate your agency from fear."

Most agencies run scared, most of the time. This is partly because many of the people who gravitate to the agency business are naturally insecure, and partly because many clients make it unmistakably plain that they are always on the lookout for a new agency. Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising.

After I resigned the Rolls-Royce account, I invited myself to visit the Ford Motor Company, "to get acquainted." To his everlasting credit, the advertising manager of Ford refused to receive me. He said: "Detroit is a small town. If you come to visit me, you would be seen. Our present agencies would hear about it, and they might be alarmed. I don't want to alarm them."

It's not that fear automatically makes people make the worst decision (i.e., agency sees client with other agency and all copywriters automatically commit suicide). It's more of a chain reaction: fear often brings out the worst in people as they scrape around for a shred of protection (e.g., agency sees client with other agency and everybody assumes they'll lose jobs so stop trying to write ads and start looking for other jobs). When I'm operating at my worst and seeking protection, I don't think about the implications of my actions. I become reactionary, lash out, and hurt the people who are closest to me, all for my own safety.

I used to think I was the only one responsible for being afraid—if I'm scared of the dark, of war, of death, of insignificance it's up to me to get over. But I think there are two parts.

One part is the story I'm telling myself. Do I believe there's a monster in my closet that only comes out at night? Is death going to be eternal separation from all that I love? Is war coming over Lake Michigan at every second? Will my grandma and my mom be the only ones in the world who ever read any of my books?

The stories you tell yourself become your reality, so work to keep your reality grounded in the truth.

Look in the closet.
Know the truth about death and eternity—that while we yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Read the news, pray for the authorities, trust God's plan to do good to those who love Him.
Remember that your significance doesn't hinge on the number of people you impact, it hinges on Who you're doing things for.

But the second part is new to me. As far as you are able, surround yourself with people who help bring you freedom from fear. Make friends who tell you the truth—both when it's hard, and when it's easy. Don't jump to conclusions when people say something, ask for clarity. Find colleagues, associates, and relationships that care enough about you to work on protecting you from fear. Know too, that in His very nature Jesus is freedom from fear. Find refuge in that.

I'm still learning to do both, and it's not easy. But it is healthy.

That way I don't go out and scream at an innocent biker on the side of the road.

It's Summer and I Can't Write

It's summer and nothing I write sounds good. Normally I wouldn't give up like this, but . . . Actually, I have no good excuse.

Instead, here are my three favorite things about summer (and if you pushed me, also life in general).

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Beet Red in the Elevator

I constantly say things in the elevator that label me as consistently incapable of social interaction.

One time I told a gentleman and a lady that their shirts matched. They both muttered and avoided eye contact. I tried to help the situation by talking about the weather. It didn't work. Another time, I told a stranger I'd seen him arrive in the parking lot earlier that day, and noticed he was from Colorado. I thought I was trying to be friendly. He looked at me like I'd asked for his wallet.

Another time, I had a Wall Street Journal under my arm when I saw my boss's boss's boss. He made a comment about how I was smart to read it, and I said, "Oh, I just pretend." He answered, "It's okay, if there's any good month to invest it's this month."

And I had nothing to say.

So, I got off the elevator and did that thing where you just kinda say words and hope they make sense. "Oh yeah, that's what they're saying." I don't know who's saying it though, because I don't really know anything about investing.

Another time, after a particularly busy week, I got on the elevator and said to the gentleman I stepped on with, "We made it to Friday—with some dignity, some poise, and a whole lot of desperation." I said it as soon as the doors closed, and he was silent ALL THE WAY UP TO MY FLOOR at which point he responded with that noise people make when they're agreeing, and he said, "You said it absolutely right."

My insecurity had a heyday.

Other things I've said about elevators (I'm quoting myself in messages I sent to a friend):

"i had to wait for the elevator for like 8 minutes and when it finally came it was full of people. My worst nightmare."

"The elevator stopped on every floor. I could have walked faster."

"But I have to wait for those people to get on the elevator before I go out there I so don't have to ride with them. I just heard it beep. Any moment now." (I have apparently said this multiple times)

"This is about as awkward as a full elevator."

"I’ll come down on the next elevator. Two people are coming down on this one and leaving with them would mean social interaction."

You get the picture. It's not that I don't like people—I love people. I just can't function in elevators. My parents always tried to teach me to think before I speak. It worked so well that I often can't think of things to say in normal situations because I'm thinking so hard.

But when I get in the elevator all constraints fall aside and I'm just muttering and beet red.

The redeeming part of the story is other people. They are gracious and kind even when they don't know the turmoil in my introverted soul (or maybe it's because they know it). Another redemption is the people I tell the stories to afterward, who listen and laugh and reassure me that my social career is not quite ending yet.

And the best redemption is that it gives me something to write about—which is great for me, and a bummer for everyone else in my life who will probably end up in a story someday.

A Great and Mighty Wonder

A great and mighty wonder,
a full and holy cure!
the Virgin bears the Infant
with virgin-honour pure:

The Word becomes incarnate,
and yet remains on high;
and cherubim sing anthems
to shepherds from the sky.

While thus they sing your Monarch,
those bright angelic bands,
rejoice, ye vales and mountains,
ye oceans, clap your hands.

Since all he comes to ransom,
by all be he adored,
the Infant born in Bethl'em,
the Saviour and the Lord.

Repeat the hymn again:
'To God on high be glory,
and peace on earth to men.'

—St. Germanus (634–734)

Some people understand what life is really about. Others can write well. There are a few gifted souls who know both—one of them was St. Germanus. In his hundred years of life, he wrote only a few hymns and A Great and Mighty Wonder isn't even the most popular.

Maybe he penned it sitting in front of a 700 A.D. Christmas tree—or perhaps he was on silent barren hills at night, contemplating the miracle that God sent his Son as a baby to save His people from their sins.

This we do know: St. Germanus understood both the miracle of the incarnation and exactly what life is about.

Since all he comes to ransom, by all be he adored . . . To God on high be glory, and peace on earth to men.

A Thousand Story Ideas

Part of being a writer is looking at the people around you. Orson Scott Card, author of more than 50 books, said,

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.

Watching for stories all the time takes practice—but if you do it consistently, soon you won't be able to turn it off. Then, like me, you'll trip over sidewalks and your toes and turn your ankles all the time, as you think about the person you just passed, or the couple arguing in the drink aisle. I make it sound painful and hazardous, but it's worth it.

When you look for the stories in life, you'll suddenly have more than enough stories for your writing.

The Tiny Tiny Baby

This weekend, Curtis (he's very wonderful) and I drove three hours twice just to hold a perfectly cute brand new baby (I have a friend who says not every baby is cute, but every baby is beautiful. This baby, I can assure you, is both).

Our close friends' baby was due a few days ago but when they visited the doctor two weeks back, the baby was measuring small (around the eleventh percentile). The nurses said to come back the next day, hopeful the baby would be bigger. 

The next day the baby was in the fifth percentile (equals bad for 38 weeks, if, like me, you know nothing about childbirth, etc.). The nurses tried to check mom in and induce birth immediately, but after some bargaining she was allowed to go home and pack a bag.

The next afternoon the tiny baby girl was born, weighing five pounds something ounces. Her umbilical cord had been wrapped around her feet, stifling the nutrient flow and keeping her from growing past a certain point. But she's fine and healthy, just a little on the tiny size. Newborn clothes dwarf her, and her tiny legs aren't much bigger than my thumbs.

I could gush about her tiny hands, soft, flexible toes, and gaping yawn and miniature pink gums . . . But you've probably seen a baby before. She's absolutely perfect, though—a miniature baby, a tiny tiny human being. And right now even at her tiny size, she is completely equipped for her entire life on this planet (though she has to pass through some developmental phases). She's not missing anything important—like a nose or a brain.

God creates with us in mind, and he gives us exactly what we need for life. He gives some people the ability to be athletes, others musicians, others artists, others surgeons . . . The list goes on and on, but the point is this:

God gave you talents for a reason (i.e., legs to walk, mouths to talk, gifts to glorify Him with). It's important to use them for Him.

How to Receive Critique

Everyone comes in contact with critiques and criticisms at some point in life. When you're under critique, it's good to remember a few things:

1) What you think about my work does not define me. I don't have to build my character house on the foundation of your opinions.

2) My style isn't wrong just because it's not how you would have done it. Compare Shakespeare to Dr. Suess—surely one wouldn't have liked the other's style, yet each is a master in his own right.

3) A little bit goes a long way. Don't dwell on the negative criticisms you receive, or you'll see them as truth. Don't just listen to the people who constantly sing your praise, or you'll earn an inflated ego and an inability to see your own mistakes. Hear criticism, evaluate it, and let it go. The past is the past, and you don't owe it anything.

4) You always have something to learn. In the vein of a humble and teachable spirit, listen carefully for the lesson in every critique. It could help your art, your style, or just your ability to critique someone else well.

5) Graciousness is king. It's hard to smile and say thank you when you hear something negative about your work—but the people who are willing to tell you the negative things deserve commendation for their honesty. And even though you may not want to hear how your work is missing the mark, it may help in the long run. No matter if it's off base, unfair, or poorly delivered, say thank you. In anything from a sticky to an explosive situation, it builds relational equity. And we all need more of that.

And, most of all, remember Who you do your work for, and what He thinks of you.

A Small Brown Bird

This morning I saw a dozen sparrows chipping through the ice of a frozen puddle in the parking lot. Each one persistently pecked and suddenly when one broke through the ice, they all did. They did small birdlike things with the water—drank, bathed, refreshed—and hopped around merrily.

Few things look as cheery as a sparrow. He hops around, tilting his head left and right, leaning forward to peck the ground, hopping more, and flitting a yard at a time. The staccato precision of his movements and the sparkle in his beady black eye signal mischievous intent, and his mottled brown feathers, though not vivid, are beautiful.

Civilla D. Martin was also fascinated by sparrows. Born in 1866, she was a schoolteacher. She likely spent her days surrounded by children who were keen on awe and wonder—and you'd imagine that's where she noticed the sparrow, but it wasn't.

In the spring of 1905, Civilla and her husband, Walter, were in New York. They became close friends with a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. The wife was 20 years bedridden, the husband an incurable cripple who traveled to work in a wheelchair. Yet, though their griefs should have been many, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to everyone they met. One day, Walter asked the Doolittles for the secret of their bright hope. Mrs. Doolittle had a simple response:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Walter and Civilla, gripped by her simple expression of boundless faith, wrote a song. It drew from Mrs. Doolittle's original inspiration, Matthew 10:29–31.

Conviction well expressed carries art a long way. More than a hundred years later, a hymn inspired by a bedridden woman and a small brown bird is still around—and still rings absolutely true.

* See the whole story of His Eye is On the Sparrow.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, 
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, 
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, 
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

 

What Takes My Breath Away

A lot of things in life take my breath away:

  • The "Hallelujah Chorus," from Handel's Messiah. I've heard it probably a thousand times in my life—and my heart still swells with the crescendo and glory of the conclusion.
  • The sunrise every morning, even though I can't see most of it through tall buildings. That's the biggest reason my heart longs for the country.
  • The memory of people I know and love who are in heaven—and the knowledge that someday I'll be there too.
  • Curtis's face when he buys me flowers, or does the dishes, or sees me after I've been at work all day.

There are more, many more, but then you'd be bored and I'd get too distracted.

As a writer, I'm constantly looking for other writers who can make me feel and take my breath away. I read a lot of things every day—and many of them leave me completely unmoved. Writing can be perfectly functional, but it can still leave me uninspired and uninterested. It's a consistent treat to read something excellent.

Today, I read three things that took my breath away.

The first is a casual obituary, more of a tribute, written by Jerry Jenkins about Kent Puckett. I started reading by accident, as I flipped through a 7-year-old publication looking for ideas for a project I'm working on. What began as a casual glance turned into elbows on the desk and complete absorption. I've never heard of Kent Puckett until today—but after reading a 400 word tribute, I feel like I know him. I'm happy for him that he's in heaven, but suddenly I'm missing someone I've never met. Jenkin's concluding remarks are as follows:

Kent said, “Yeah, I’m trying to take care of myself. Who knows, I might live to be a centurion.” I only wish he had.

This marks an outstanding piece of writing. Well done, Mr. Jenkins. (Click here to read the whole tribute.)

The second is an email from a friend. Writer's block is something I write about with relative frequency, because I experience it with relative frequency. Whenever I have it, I write about it. It's always vaguely startling when someone tells you something about yourself that you didn't know. Then when you hear it or read it, you can actually hear the thud of the hammer on the nail. Today, a friend gave me advice on writer's block—but it was really advice about life. After rereading the email a half dozen times, I printed it off to put in my special book of writing that has warmed me, cheered me, chilled me, and inspired me. It concluded,

Those aspirational writers—the ones wearing a French beret and listening to Miles Davis and sipping lattes at Starbucks while waiting for inspiration to strike—they’ll never get it, because they don’t have the discipline to crank out 2,000 words a day, every day.

I promptly threw out all my French berets when I got home. (Just kidding. Haven't owned one since I was a kid—my brother got me this cool maroon beret for either Christmas or my birthday one year, and I wore it every day until the Fourth of July. I think since then it's gone the way of all the world.)

The third and final is a book. For my birthday, Curtis (he's very wonderful) got me How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. After opening it and seeing the font and and formatting (and because the cover is BRIGHT ORANGE with BRIGHT YELLOW letters), I checked the copyright date. It's 1981. Almost dinosaur ancient—but, my parents are proof that good things did happen in the 1900s before I was born, so I kept reading.

And it's absolutely excellent. It's a personable, humorous, helpful how-to book about writing, publishing, and editing, but mostly writing. It's spectacular. The title of chapter three:

The changing marketplace
OR
I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.
— Dean Koontz

I've added something else to my list of personal goals: I'd like to learn how to take someone's breath away (in a brief, good sort of way) with my writing.

90 Days

90 days ago, I took a job as an editor at an Integrated Marketing and Communications department for a large non-profit organization. There are different theories about how long it takes to settle in at a new job, but most people say it takes about 90 days.

If you learn something new every day, then I should have at least 95 things to tell you. However, I am not Martin Luther, and this isn't the door of a church in Wittenberg. Therefore, I compiled a brief list of the first three dozen things I thought, and they fit into three categories: skill (editing), relational (coworkers), and work ethic.

Skill:

i'm not the expert
don't be afraid to ask
when you want to know something, go straight to the source
editing is not a one-and-done kind of job
the more you see something, the less you read it
[Insert lots of editorial mechanical jargon here about dos and don'ts]
learning is like putting tools in your toolbox. The more you know, the more you can do
positive energy inspires creativity. Negative energy quenches it
work with confidence, but always double (triple, quadruple) check
editing is rewarding
everyone can teach you something

Relational:

social reality is best navigated in first person
never assume anything about anyone
never make someone feel ashamed of doing what they were told
you impact people in more ways than you know
someone is always watching to see how you handle things
trust is a two way street
some people aren't as funny as they think they are—others are more funny than they know
don't play favorites
don't talk all the time
choose your coworkers freely (you probably don't have a choice anyways)—choose your friends carefully

Work ethic:

work hard
do it right the first time
don't complain
there are two kinds of people in the world: people who go to work to work, and people who just go to work
employees work better if you tell them how well they're doing
the person in charge makes a big difference in the environment
the better you like something, the better you try to do it
work is not a contest
attitude makes all the difference
change isn't immediate
work with confidence, but always double (triple, quadruple) check
take pride in your work
using Pinterest and doodling all morning should not count as "Too busy to finish that for you this week"
being faithful in the little things gets you far in the big things

It's a different pace of life, and time and energy compete more than they used to—but it is worth it, for the learning.