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Saturday, September 28, 2013

But who's counting?

You know what it is about writing that’s nearly pathological?

When serious writers sit to write, we embark on the private agony of birthing a child conceived of our creativity. Yet we are desperately apprehensive about how our offspring will fare before a judgmental public. 

I write about this in my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun:

“Jenny detested the act of writing, but she savored the career it enabled, one that was the ambition of so many of the determined young women who issued forth from liberal arts colleges each Spring with their caps set for glamour jobs. The bedrock under Manhattan Island groaned under the weight of them: attractive, able -- and girded against the private agony of stepping out onto the taut high wire that awaits young women of purpose. They could rely on only monumental self-assurance to maintain their balance despite the blinding spotlights trained on them in anticipation of a slip.”

Why do writers endure this most tormenting of pursuits? 

Perhaps we are mysteriously drawn – like Wallenda wannabes -- to that “taut high wire.”

The Flying Wallendas

Again, from Cold Stun:

“She toasted a slice of bread, buttered it generously and spooned on a dollop of honey, hoping to quiet her stomach. Jenny was uncertain if her nausea was the result of the vodka she had drunk last night -- or her apprehension about writing a speech this morning. It was always the same for her, not knowing what her computer would issue forth on any given day. Like an Inuit carver believing he is freeing the figure from the frozen stone, she considered the speech a tenant of her computer, not of her mind. She was like a fearful swimmer focusing on the deep bottom of the pool instead of the surface, where buoyancy prevails. From assignment to assignment, she was never sure that the next speech would emerge. It always had, but someday it might not. That someday might be today. What was it that John Cheever’s wife said about him? ‘His was the loneliness of a writer, when he would sit by himself working alone. They all complain about it. It’s not a social craft.’”

But when your writing works – when it’s good and true, to paraphrase Hemingway -- there’s nothing more gratifying. 

So I’m gratified that, four months after its launch, my Paradise Diaries blog has garnered almost 5,500 reader visits.

Especially when I receive comments from readers like my swim buddy from Martha’s Vineyard, Margaret Harrison, who said of “A boy named Josh”: “… brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips!”

Of course, I’m always kept honest and humbled by my friend and professional ne’er-do-well, Parker Godwin, who emailed: “You’ve got ‘novelist ... innkeeper ... marathoner ... sailor ... snorkeler ... cyclist’ in your About Me. But what about a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king?'“

Either way, I thank you all for logging in every week.

As I try to build the “platform” of followers that publishers typically demand before taking on a new novelist, I invite you to sign up as a subscriber to Paradise Diaries -- if you’re inclined. 

Together we just might get the long-anticipated Cold Stun novel out the door.

In my next blog: Trees from hell

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Goddess of the Hunt

Fifty-three hours of blue-water swimming … 110 miles from Cuba to Florida … … her fifth try in three decades.

It was just about 30 years ago that I was on a first-name basis with the living legend who is Diana Nyad.

Diana Nyad, when I knew her

I had just been named chief communications officer for IBM’s newly launched software business unit, and I was pulling together the unit’s first conference for 700-some managers. I hired Diana to be our motivational speaker.

It was 1985 and Diana Nyad, then in her mid-thirties, had become a national celebrity for her 28-mile swim around Manhattan in less than eight hours.

She had already made her first attempt at the Cuba-Florida run in 1978. When that effort failed, she followed a year later with a successful 102-mile swim from the Bahamas to Florida in 27 hours.

I no longer recall exactly what she said at our 1985 conference, but I do vividly remember two things about her as she sat beside me in the front row waiting to give her talk:

1.    Her beautiful legs, as sculpted as a Greek statue from untold hours of flutter kicks in pools and oceans

2.    And, unseen by the audience, her pre-speech jitters

It was an odd thing to observe how someone as fearless as Diana Nyad – someone accustomed to being on the professional speaker circuit all those years -- could be so nervous about getting up on stage.

After all, her very name summons up images of the strong females of antiquity.

Diana, for example, was the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt.

And the name Nyad was explained in a Newsweek story:

When she was around six years old, her stepfather [Aristotle Nyad] showed her the word naiad (the original spelling of the family name) in a dictionary. The time, she stated, was "just at the juncture when I was developing an ego, the id of self-definition. The first meaning of naiad: 'from Greek mythology, the nymphs that swam the lakes, fountains, rivers and seas to protect them for the gods. The second meaning: 'girl or woman champion swimmer.' Aris winked at me, and we both understood that this was my destiny."

I guess we have to call to mind Jerry Seinfeld’s unforgettable stand-up routine about the stress of public speaking:
“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
During the years since Diana Nyad spoke to our IBM conference, she went on to be a respected media reporter and commentator.

And earlier this month she made her career dream come true when she shuffled onto the shore of Key West.

In overcoming four Cuba-to-Florida setbacks and in dealing with her fear of public speaking, Diana Nyad surely followed her own mantra:
''All of us suffer heartaches and difficulties in our lives. If you say to yourself, 'find a way,' you’ll make it through.''
In my next blog: But who's counting? 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do on Cape Cod This Summer

1.    Lie on the beach
2.    Get a tan
3.    Lose weight
4.    Acquire a Golden Labrador (or any other dog)
5.    Watch the Independence Day Boston Pops Concert on TV
6.    Make a left-hand turn against traffic
7.    Eat lobster stew served by a window with an ocean view
8.    Make love at midnight on the dunes
9.    Make love at midnight
10. Make love

Any explanation I offer – busy with work, busy with guests, busy with travel -- sounds like what it is. An excuse.

But heck! Isn’t the history of the Internet one of missed opportunities? The major record labels allowing Apple take over the digital music business? Blockbuster refusing to buy Netflix for a mere $50 million? Excite turning down the chance to acquire Google for less than a million dollars?

Aren’t cult movies basically the ones Hollywood missed -- that the fans made successful?

Despite the missed opportunities, there is an Internet anyway.

Despite the missed opportunities, Hollywood continues anyway.

Despite my missed opportunities of the Summer of 2013, wait ‘til next summer!

In my next blog: Goddess of the Hunt

Friday, September 6, 2013

A boy named Josh

My Advanced Snorkeling class had gathered in a gazebo overlooking the beach at Columbus Landing Park on the paradise island of Grand Turk. It was the afternoon session on the second of our eight-day course.

We were students of Melon Dash, founder of Miracle Swimming, which specializes in teaching adults to overcome their fear of deep water. It’s been 30 years since she devised her swim instruction methodology – unique in the world. In that time, Melon has brought thousands of men and women from sheer terror of water to perfect comfort in both pools and the open ocean – including SCUBA certification.

Our class routine – integral to the Miracle Swimming process -- was to hold a discussion period of 10 minutes to a half hour or more, during which we would talk through the plan for the class, voice any concerns or fears we might have, and set some goals for what we wanted to accomplish in the next couple of hours. After instruction in the water, we would gather again to process what we just learned -- experiences, breakthroughs, aha moments … whatever.

Except that this week, we came to know a little boy none of us will ever forget.

We had decided as a group to swim out to a reef farther from shore than any of us had ever ventured. It was marked by an orange buoy that I couldn’t even see from the beach. The return swim would be against the current, so as much as it sounded like a fun thing to do, we were a bit antsy.

Chris Canaday, our Miracle Swimming instructor for this class, had just begun to facilitate the opening discussion period.

And then along came Josh.

Josh lives on this capital island of the Caribbean nation of Turks and Caicos. At 11 years of age, he is a chest-thumping 70 pounds of uninhibited attitude.

With him was his cousin, Silvano, and a pack of eight feral dogs – known as Royal Bahamian Potcakes.

Garrulous Josh was obviously the alpha -- of the pack, of Silvano, and probably of his entire neighborhood.

Josh bounded into the gazebo, shouting a loud, authoritative command for the Potcakes to remain out. Silvano was allowed in.

The gazebo is public, so there was nothing we could do to preserve the privacy of our discussion period.

The two boys joined us on the bench that wrapped around the interior of the gazebo and listened to Chris describe what our trip to the buoy would entail.

For about 15 seconds.

In his gravely voice -- much louder and deeper than his small frame would seem to house – Josh commenced to help Chris facilitate.

He warned us of Shirley the Barracuda … of ugly octopuses … of a schoolmate who had drowned in these waters.

Just what we needed to hear!

Then – dismissing a core Miracle Swimming principle -- Josh proclaimed: “Why don’t you stop talking about it and go do it!”

Just what Chris needed to hear!

As will happen with children, familiarity took over and Josh helped himself to one of my fins and tried it on for size. Then my wife’s fin. Then he hung on Chris’s arm.

Chris cut the discussion period short, and the boys followed us into the water. They did dolphin dives around us as we industriously tried to get into our snorkel gear.

They asked if they could try our snorkel masks, and each of us said no.

But here’s what happened … and why I am writing about Josh today.

When we returned from our swim to the reef, Josh and Silvano were waiting for us in the gazebo. This time they listened attentively as we spent a few minutes discussing our lesson.

When we finished, Josh took Chris’s hand … took my hand … Silvano took my other hand … and my wife’s hand … and our group joined hands because Josh told us to.

With no embarrassment or awkwardness, this little macho man said we were going to pray now.

And in his deep, gravely voice and his Creole accent, Josh offered the most articulate prayer that I, for one, have heard in a long time.

He thanked God, whom he called “Father in Heaven,” that we had been able to swim to “the booby” and return safely. He prayed that we would come back to Grand Turk so we could all see each other again.

I found out later that each one of our small group had worried that while we were in the water, Josh and his cousin would surely rummage through the belongings in our swim bags.

We each admitted feeling guilty of unfairly and wrongly judging the boys.

The next day, my wife and another student went to the dive shop and purchased two snorkel sets – expensive ones that neither boy could hope to afford.

A boy named Josh

I had more than a snorkeling lesson that day:

And He said, ‘Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter into Paradise.’”

In my next blog: Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do on Cape Cod This Summer