It seems as if all my life I’ve been pushing on a button in my brain—perhaps linked to the startle response, perhaps to the pituitary gland and adrenaline release—which sets me up to do the things I must. From twelve years in school, and then through college, followed by forty more years in the business world, I have been responding to the needs of the outside world, the commitments I’ve made to meeting them, and to my own demands upon myself.
The alarm rings at four o’clock in the morning—push the GO! button to rouse myself, get out of bed, stumble through my get-ready routine, and sit at the typewriter for an hour or so to work on the novel I am trying to write before leaving for school or work.
When the clock edges up on seven—stop what I’m doing, push the GO! button again, and prepare for the morning commute. For the last ten years of my working life that meant putting on my riding gear, wiping off and wheeling out the motorcycle, and driving through traffic on the two worst commute-hour corridors in the country: westbound I-80 toward the Bay Bridge, then southbound I-880 through Oakland. San Leandro, and Hayward, with the San Mateo Bridge toll plaza jam-up and then its seven-mile, arrow-straight slog still ahead of me.
When I arrive at work, pour my first cup of coffee, sit down to log in at the computer, and while the machine is churning—push the GO! button to deal with an unknown number of voicemail messages behind the phone’s blinking light. These will have collected overnight because this is a global company with people calling or returning my voice messages from the East Coast, England, and Singapore. Ten minutes later, with every voicemail either answered or logged for subsequent action, push the GO! button again to enter the slipstream of overnight emails and deal with every new alert, request, and problem each one brings. Forty minutes later, I can take my second sip of cold coffee and begin the planned part of my day.
As the hour of each scheduled meeting or interview appointment approaches—push the GO! button to prepare my mind, psychologically and emotionally, for the meeting agenda, for the new information and directions the session will likely bring, and the pitfalls it will probably hide, or—equally stressful—for the questions I must ask my interview subject, the amount of blind probing I must do, and the unique personality I must deal with in order to get information for the next article I must write.
If the meeting is the quarterly internal business review with all employees, push that GO! button dozens of times in the weeks beforehand as I prepare slides for the various speakers, make arrangements for the meeting space and video connections, send out companywide announcements and reminders, and remember to order an assortment of refreshments—tempting but not too rich and costly—for the estimated number of attendees. And then one big push as the hour of the meeting approaches and the hall starts to fill.
If the interview subject is a company officer, press the GO! button a couple of extra times to deal with schedule changes, session interruptions, and the Shadow Kabuki–like play of his or her political and personal sensitivities. Even if the officer is known to me from past associations, and even if our past discussions have been cordial and even friendly, the subject itself will be new, and a whole kaleidoscope of novel implications will overlie the results from our previous dealings.
Then, when my schedule opens up and it’s time to write the next article, or prepare the next set of speaker slides, or pull together the next issue of the newsletter or the next refresh of the internal website—press the GO! button to steel my mind for diving into this set of details, driving toward this overarching message, and bending the arc so this story finds a strong, logical, and credible resolution in the reader’s or viewer’s mind.
Finally, when the five o’clock hour, or six o’clock, or sometimes seven or eight, comes around—press the GO! button once more to prepare myself, physically and emotionally, to swing my leg over the motorcycle again and face the reverse commute over that bridge and through those commute corridors from hell. Riding a motorcycle is usually exhilarating, and doubly so when I’m headed home and know there’s no scheduled arrival time for which I must push the travel envelope. Motorcycles in California are automatically entered into the carpool lanes, and if traffic in all lanes grinds to a stop, I can still split them to get through the jam—although that involves its own repeated pushes on the GO! button: look ahead, figure the available width, divide it for the size of my bike and clearances, watch out for that car wobbling in its lane, keep an eye on that semi crowding the line, and so on for mile after mile of jangling alerts.
If it’s raining that day, and I’ve chosen to drive the car rather than wrestle with my rain gear and deal with the stresses of wet tires on grooved pavement, the commute adds the dimension of sitting in stalled traffic, where I’m safe, dry, warm, and have the radio or a CD to listen to, but also trapped, staring at the bumper of the car ahead of me, counting the minutes as the flow creeps forward, brake lights winking, making excuses in my head for the meeting I’m going to miss on the work-bound commute, or the apologies I’ll have to make on the home-bound route.
Twenty times a day, a hundred times a week, for year after year, my brain has taken that shot of psychic energy and adrenaline.
It wears you down.
Now that I’m retired and working on the sort of writing I used to do at four o’clock in the morning, I have to push the GO! button a lot less often. I might have a doctor or dentist appointment to go to during the day, or a lunch with friends for which I don’t want to be late. Some Saturdays I might have a war game scheduled (see War by Other Means …), and the house of the gamer who’s hosting the event might be as far away as my old commute, but the traffic on Saturdays is usually light and the motorcycle ride is fun rather than nerve-racking. I still get emails every day, but they are usually chats from friends or commercial messages that I can safely ignore. I still get the occasional unprovoked phone calls and voice messages, but they are easily screened.
Curiously, one of the stressors I once experienced at work, plunging into the details of the next article or speech that would have to be completed on deadline and then sent for review with both the subject matter expert and other approvers—which usually entailed its own set of stressors returning through the voicemail or email stream—does not carry over into my fiction writing. Although I try to maintain a schedule with my writing, working to an outline, in order to bring out a new novel every year or so, the pace is at my discretion. And, unlike an article where the objective, the points to cover, and the details not to be missed are directed by somebody else, my own writing is under my control and that of my subconscious mind (see Working With the Subconscious from September 20, 2012). When I sit down to write fiction, it is because the story has been percolating through my brain, the pieces have started coming together, I’ve just thought of the opening line of dialogue, or incident, or sensory image to start the scene—and the keyboard draws me to it like an old friend. I don’t have to push any internal buttons because my mind is already flowing in that direction, eager to get these new ideas down in specific words, images, and plot structures, creating an experience that will feel real and concrete in the reader’s mind, where before there was only a blank page.
After all those years in school and then in the working world, I can wake up when the birds start singing and the dawn light shows in my bedroom window. I move through my morning routine out of unforced habit, taking a few extra minutes here and there if I want. I do my karate exercises (see Isshinryu Karate) before breakfast because the workout makes me feel better and lighter during the rest of the day. I read the newspaper with as much attention as I want while I eat, because I’m interested and not because it’s an assignment. Then I turn on the computer, pour my coffee, and see if my subconscious has sent me more of the novel to salt away as finished scenes and chapters. And if not, I can go sit in my chair and read a book. Or I can get on my motorcycle in the middle of the day and ride out across the countryside, picking my own route, enjoying the sun and wind, and not minding a schedule.
This is good because, after all those years of pushing, pushing, pushing, my GO! button is broken. My life is in my own hands at last.