Thursday, January 30, 2014

In My Wheelhouse

Do you ever hear a phrase and wonder where it came from? I do, all the time. So much so, in fact, that I just hopped over and bought this book for some enlightening bathroom reading: Flying by the Seat of Your Pants.
A phrase I heard recently and have been thinking about is “in your wheelhouse.” I’ll be honest—the source, I think, was Keith Urban on American Idol, and I knew it meant the repertoire of a performer, or the set of skills a person possesses. But what IS a wheelhouse, really? It brings to mind a shed stacked with old bicycle tires, or a house that can roll on its side.
Here’s the scoop:

The idiom “in my/your/his wheelhouse” may have originated in baseball, circa 1950s, possibly earlier. It’s used to describe the zone that is most advantageous for a batter, the range within which he is most likely to hit. Like a sweet spot. This metaphor may allude to a railroad wheelhouse (also called roundhouse), a platform used to spin a train engine or car for transfer to another track. Or it may have a nautical precedent, the pilothouse or wheelhouse of a ship, from where the vessel is controlled. So in widening this beyond baseball, it becomes “an area of knowledge, specific interest, familiarity,” or to designate two things in the same category.

I really like the thought of each person having a wheelhouse, a set of capabilities or strengths. Doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t hit outside of them, just that you’re strongest within them. And if the wheelhouse is the place where the steering happens, your strengths provide the direction to your life and you can take them any place you desire. Every ship needs a captain. We are fueled by our talents but they don’t have to define us; we still have the capacity to turn this way or that.
The Urban Dictionary gives another definition. The wheelhouse, it says, can refer to someone’s mind. As in getting into someone’s wheelhouse to disturb them.

So stay in control your wheelhouse and where it goes, people! You’re the captain and don’t let anyone in to throw shade on your talents. Oh, no. Now I have to go look up “throw shade,” which I don’t even think I’m using correctly…

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stones by Polly Johnson

Stones by Polly Johnson is a coming-of-age novel set in Brighton, England. Johnson’s descriptions of the seaside community set the stage for this story about Coo, a sixteen-year-old girl still reeling from the death of her older brother some months before. Brighton is a cold, blustery and harsh place, as is Coo’s house, where she and her parents have settled into a chilly and silent impasse. Coo spends much of her time skipping school and hanging out at the pebble-covered beach. Here, she runs into an assortment of homeless characters and befriends one of them, an alcoholic named Banks. Her brother was an alcoholic as well, and the splintered events leading up to his demise are revealed slowly as Coo navigates this new friendship. She feels some measure of guilt about the circumstances of her brother’s death, and because after years of dealing with his abuse, she doesn’t miss him. Her best friend and schoolmate, Joe, seems to guard secrets of his own, and her parents stumble around in a haze, unsure of how to deal with Coo and her increasingly unpredictable behaviors.
I really liked that the setting mirrored the emotional strain of the characters; Johnson portrayed the struggle that exists in any relationship—the desire to know and to be known. It’s a story about what in modern parlance might be called codependency, the allowances we make in the name of love, the despair of addiction, and the often one-sided nature of any adoration. But this is a page-turner, too. The mystery of Coo’s guilt, the strange homeless man who threatens her, the building drama of her attempts to save Banks—the plot had me racing along while I was entranced with the beauty and insightfulness of Johnson’s writing. And I kept thinking about Carson McCuller’s observations about the beloved and the lover, and how they are “from different countries.” Every lover knows that “his love is a solitary thing.” Full quote from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe here. Each character in Johnson's story suffered from love in one way or another, and found that the beloved was perhaps an image of their own making.
Stones is a wonderful debut novel, and I’ll watch for what comes next from Ms. Polly Johnson. Available in ebook for a low introductory price here and very highly recommended by me!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Stenos to Touchscreens

Recently, we were teasing my sister. She works in accounting and one day at her office, she mentioned Stenos and no one knew what she was talking about. She has many younger coworkers, it seems. But you remember Steno notebooks, right? Green paper, red stripe down the middle. We always had them around the house and that red line continually irked me. I’m going to assume that people who work with numbers know something about its use but for me, it only got in the way. We teased my sister because no one uses or, God forbid, says “Stenos” anymore, do they?
Today, someone on Twitter asked about touchscreen desktops and what the pros and cons were. I have a touchscreen, I said, but rarely use it. I forget that I can, and I don’t want fingerprints, I told her. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a bit of the Steno in me. New tricks, older-ish dog, etc.
We’re lucky, aren’t we, to live in a time with so many tools for writing? In the movie 12 Years a Slave, there’s a compelling sequence in which the main character, enslaved after living his entire life free, educated, and privileged, tries to fashion a writing utensil and ink from the crude supplies at hand. Although his main goal was to get a letter out to his family, I took it also as a metaphor for how every aspect of his past, cultured life had been taken away.
A while back, I wrote a piece for Author magazine, tracing my own experiences with technology since I began writing. I’m re-sharing it here (From Hand to Screen: Technology and the Writer), in case you missed it the first time around. And now I'm off to look for those Steno notebooks, stashed away somewhere and filled with poetry…
* For those curious about the origins of the Steno pad (and it has nothing to do with numbers), click here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Blue Monday

Today's supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. This has been analyzed, apparently, by measuring the "happiness index" of a group of people. Post-holidays, everyone is overweight and overtired, you see, and already failing miserably at those New Year's resolutions. It's cold and everyone's back to work, with a whole year of drudgery ahead. And although women seem to fare better on the "happiness index" for "Blue Monday," it's the most popular day to file divorce.
I acknowledge that often, I'm against the grain on these matters. Because I'm a stay-at-home mom, Mondays are not necessarily my least favorite day of the week. I like September and yes, I like January. It's a good time to start fresh, make lists, put my nose back to the grindstone.
Buck up, people! Think opportunity, not past failures. It's still one day at a time, just like last year. And if you need some help deciding what to do about those writing and reading resolutions you made before your depression hit, check out my post about next steps over at the LitChat blog, where I'll be contributing my encouragement and opinions now and then:

Next Year's Words

(And if you're interested, they'll be discussing this post on Twitter today, 1:00-2:00 PST. Use #LitChat to join in.)
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka