Practice Your Life
Ten thousand hours. That's how long it takes to be great at something, if you're ever going to be. (Or so says Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.)
I don't know how long it takes, but I do know that we become what we do, over and over, whether we intend to or not.
So, what are we doing?
What am I doing?
Right now, I'm working on this optimism thing, which is not my area of expertise.
The Bookshelves of My Mind
I grew up around a lot of intellectually skeptical, highly analytical folks.
(I love intellectuals! Let's think about stuff!)
The downside was that it felt dangerous to make mistakes.
It was safer to filter your own thoughts and feelings through someone else's supercool genius theory (say, postmoderism or feminism or depth psychology, or whatever--every community has its jargon). Then when you said something, you'd always sound smart.
Put in 10,000 hours, and you'd sound like a parrot on Foucault.
This started to happen to me (and I was far from alone). You know how adults say to little kids, "Use your words!"
Instead, I was always using T. S. Eliot's words or somebody's. Oh, not always. But yeah, when I wanted to sound profound or when I didn't think my words counted, which was kind of a lot.
I wanted them backed up by someone else's, in print.
This bugged me. I tried various things to clear my mind.
Seven years ago, round about now, I got rid of my books.
(I love books. Let's read stuff!)
I think about this every summer when the corn crop pumps so much water into the air you can almost see it. (It really does. The weatherman said so. )
I had bookshelves against every wall of my tiny apartment.
I sold books, gave them away, and finally *small eek* I put the leftovers in a big, black Hefty garbage bag and threw them into the dumpster of the apartment building next door.
I did this because I wanted to figure out what I thought on my own, in my own words, even if they were stupid and wrong.
And the books had become like ever-present judges, or fathers:
"Let us speak for you, my child, we are so much more worthy."
Of course you can't empty your brain like you can your bookshelves. I wouldn't want to. All those geniuses are worth knowing.
I wanted to clear some psychic--and physical space--where I could sit with my brain and let it tell me what it saw, what it thought, what it felt.
Like sitting with a little kid and patiently letting it untangle its words. (Ohgod, so boring.)
Basically, I wanted to be the author of my own life.
This all ties into what I said about optimism the other day.
With my rigorous-skeptic background, I've tended to equate optimism with naiveté. And some forms of it are a stupid mind-fuck, like when a friend is dying in the hospital and a bus driver tells you, "Smile, it can't be that bad."
But when I clear my brain of the scoffing, I see there's a mature form of optimism, on the other side of culpable ignorance. Something like Intentional Optimism.
bink mentioned Bishop Tutu in a comment. Like what he does.
This is a learned skill, an art, something that takes, maybe, 10,000 hours to be great at.
(The word "optimism" maybe isn't the best one? Because it's so associated with the obligatory faux happiness of U.S. mall culture. My brain isn't coughing up another one, though, so I'm using it.)
My brain is telling me I want to learn and practice optimism. That means admitting I want to work and look toward the good .
If I let it speak up, my brain can be very insistent, like four-year-old. (Did you see the video of Geoffrey Jr. at the zoo, upset because they were "only seeing the gentle animals"? Like that.)
So I'm creating space for optimism. I'm going to have to be brave and take the emotional kickback that insists optimism's prissy. (And those emotions kick like a mule.)
When I quoted Jim Carroll saying life is short, we may as well show our bare asses--
(I love quotes! Let's quote each other!)--
in that post I wrote about blogging naked, it could have seemed like I meant showing something dark and edgy.
Really, though, the cynical side feels pretty safe. I'm more scared to tell you that I like this rather optimistic video, below.
In fact, I love it. It made me cry.
It's instructions for something that almost every voice in the mainstream culture equates with being a loser: Being alone. I hear that as being alone intellectually as much as anything.
Thinking for myself.
Watching the video felt to me like a kind person coming up and massaging my shoulders, and me realizing how tightly clenched I usually am. Because I'm bracing for a blow, like someone's going to throw a book at me.
"How to Be Alone"
--By fiilmaker Andrea Dorfman and poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis
So... seven years choosing not to let books speak for me. (Math people? How many hours is that? It's gotta be more than 10,000, right?)
I'm not great at being alone. I'm pretty good, but there are moments when I feel like I'm alone in a public square, surrounded by pale-pink brick block walls topped with coils of razor wire and I don't know what to do. (Whoa.)
I'm not great at always thinking in my own words. But I never quote T. S. Eliot anymore, and that pleases me.
I'm not great at optimism.
But I could be.
 "Some days dew points are higher in Iowa and southern Minnesota than along the Gulf Coast, which is odd, considering the Gulf is our biggest source of moisture.
A number of leading scientists point a finger at corn. Yes, corn.
Improved farming techniques have packed more corn rows into an acre, which results in more "evapo-transpiration." Simply put, corn "sweats" at night, it releases water into the air. The more corn, the more water leaking into the lower atmosphere, the higher the dew points and relative humidity."
--from Paul Douglas, weatherman
 "Work and look toward the good" is the motto of C-KAPE (the Captain Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence). As of today. C-KAPE is a work in progress.