Posts by camaduke

Reader. Writer. I taught time management and study strategies at Appalachian State. I blog at camaduke.com.

So other than everything, how is it going?

Even before the pandemic, I wouldn’t always treat the question, “How are you?” as an empty exercise in good manners. If the right person asks and there is something to complain about, my answer was almost never “Fine.” Still, I also sometimes answer “Great,” in a hearty voice, mostly to show how happy I am to see the person again (or at least, the box with their face in it on my computer screen). But given the state of things in the U.S. right now, that answer seems off the rails. Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are contracting a disease that carries a risk of permanent disability, even death? And the risk of passing that fate to others, carrying the weight of that knowledge forever? Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are unemployed with every option running dry and the U.S. Senate is dominated by a man only interested in legislation that will protect businesses when they carelessly expose their employees to the disease?

Meanwhile, an election year that has been a decade long inches to a close, as voters choose between someone who has the potential to conduct a FDR-like Presidency or someone who will help us find out what would have happened if Gollum didn’t bite the ring off of Frodo’s finger. (Well, maybe we’re already finding out. I read today that the current administration is trying to undermine Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Human Rights Watch. I guess I should know better now, but it still feels so disorienting to imagine the people who orchestrate these policies. What can it be like to be so deeply indifferent to human suffering?)

So much is going wrong that I feel like a character in one of those movies when the asteroid is about to hit Earth or space invaders are filling the sky, shooting laser beams at anyone who is in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Yet unlike those movies, instead of uniting to stave off the asteroid or aliens, we are supposed to find ways to go about business as usual. Ding! My phone reminds me of my next online meeting. Kaboom! Somewhere outside my window, another one bites the dust, stricken by disease or economic despair.

I don’t know what will happen on Election Day. I’m hoping for the FDR-like guy to win, of course, preferably surfing a wave of blue. No matter who wins, a long winter lies ahead. And rebuilding the Shire may take a lifetime.

Seven months in

On March 23, 2020, I recorded the following numbers on my blog: 

341,500 identified with Covid19 worldwide; 15,187 have died. 33,018 identified in the U.S., and 428 have died.

Today, Sunday, October 11, here are the numbers:

Worldwide: Over 37.2 million cases: over 1 million deaths.
US: Over 7.7 million cases; Over 214,000 deaths.

I know we don’t have a way to process these numbers—to understand the significance of it all. I don’t know how to make sense of one death, let alone numbers at this scale. 

There was an interactive graphic on the Washington Post that let me try to connect, for a moment, with the scale of grief: 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/coronavirus-deaths-neighborhood/

Currently my own county has become a hotspot, and I keep reviewing in my mind how to be safer, after months of trying to be safe. How to help my children make sense of being careful even if there are people around us who aren’t.

One of the challenges, of course, is that the threat of Covid19 is not simply death, though there have been far too many. It is one of risk. Every case contracted carries the risk of more. Just look at where we were in March versus now. Every time Covid19 spreads, it doesn’t mean the person who got it will die. That person may not even experience symptoms. But they might spread it to someone who will. And these numbers don’t tell us how many people will deal with long term consequences of an illness that can harm organ function, even brain function, in ways we are not yet prepared to measure.

I stare into this landscape of grief, not just for the loss of lives but in some cases, for the loss of empathy, the numbness and indifference that some people embrace as an armor against it. I know that we still should avoid doing anything that isn’t 100% necessary. We should still embrace social connections but physically distant—ideally around 12 feet apart, outside, masks on. Or online. We can complain about life on screens but accept that this might keep us safer than the alternative.

I will keep doing what I can to be safe, and I will keep hoping that others will find their way to do so, too. It seems as if too many people prefer to fight over problems, rather than fix them. And this time, the solution is to take care of one another and to be safe for one another. How odd, too, to think that we may be saved not by some miracle vaccine or expensive treatment, but something as cheap and simple as wearing a mask.

A playful approach to revision

Lately I have been making tiny steps forward in my writing. The most effective strategy for me to be able to write anything is to NOT look at the news or social media. Because the news is so terrifying on so many levels (with the occasional flash of hope for something better in the future… which is almost painful given the circumstances), I can’t quit reading the news. But if I want to get anything done, I need to try to do my work before I let myself peek at the latest scenes from this slow-motion disaster. There are true villains in this drama, and I am also carving out time to try to change that by working with Vote Save America, which provides some solace, at least, to know I am not alone in wanting something better.

So anyway, that is step one for me to get writing done. But the other challenge is the same challenge as always: I just don’t feel as excited about revising my writing as I do writing first drafts. When I write first drafts, I am a rock star. I am creating something new and amazing. When I am revising, I feel like the lowest form of life imaginable. I can’t believe how much is missing or poorly executed. You won’t be surprised to hear that procrastination is a challenge right now.

I have found this blog a useful accountability partner, so I may start posting progress reports on here again. So for today, I want to remind myself of the ways I can make revision feel more creative and rewarding.

1. Journaling.
I love journaling, free writing, brainstorming. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing first drafts, I guess. There is no standard to achieve when I journal. It’s just a chance to let the ideas flow. And it seems to cheer me up if I tell myself, okay, journal a bit about what you are going to write or revise today, and then you can journal afterwards on how it went. If I journal specifically about the novel, I call it process-writing, and keep those notes in the same Scrivener file as the novel. If I journal more generally, that part stays in my journal file on Ulysses.

2. Timers
I know that timers are a source of torture for some people, but I have found it inspiring to set a timer to see how much I can get done within a time limit. This works with fresh drafts, yes, but it is a powerful tool with revision because it helps me commit to the moment rather than pondering ways to procrastinate. I can also count on the time running out, and then finding some small reward. Or even better, to get so wrapped up in the work that I keep writing, even though the time ran out.

That’s the irritating thing about my reluctance to revise. It’s so doable. If I can just start, I discover all sorts of ways back into the work, little fixes that are easy to make.

3. Reread my work.
Sometimes, when I feel most resistant to the work, I say, okay, that’s fine, why not just reread it? Just by reading over what I’ve written, I usually find myself making changes. It’s super easy and doable. It also helps to read the work aloud, but I tend to save that for editing, not revising.

4. Creative writing prompts
I love working on writing exercises from creative writing books. I think there are probably tons available online or via apps, now, too. It is perhaps what I miss most when I am trying to be disciplined about focusing on one main project. But creative writing prompts can be applied to revision, too.

5. Switching Point of View
If there is a section that needs work, I can try writing it from a different point of view to see what happens.

6. Conversations with the characters
I can write a conversation with a character asking them for advice on a section. Sometimes they are wiser than I am. And it’s just fun, too.

Takeaway: Be playful.

I have to admit that I prefer to approach writing with a sense of play rather than with some serious, grim Calvinistic demeanor. It is the joy of creative play that draws me to this work. It seems to me revising should be, or could be, just as playful as writing the first draft.

So my goal this week is to find ways to enjoy and look forward to the time I spend revising. I will report back here now and then on my progress.

I hope you all are finding ways to write, too, and possibly to find moments of joy in defiance of all that is so grim right now.

If I were to write about Black lives…

I would begin by reminding you that there is no such thing as race in terms of biology. Biologically, we are all the same. And one need only engage in a modest amount of logical thinking to know that we all rise or fall together.

I also recognize that culture is more powerful (and violent) than biology, and I value the power of identity embraced by those who identify as Black people. So if I say race does not exist in biology, I also know that identifying as Black (and being identified as Black) is real and, at times, empowering.

On the other hand, I dread the way white privilege flows towards me regardless of my desire to support sweeping reforms or my grief for the losses experienced by what are, biologically-speaking, my siblings. I cannot renounce this privilege nor claim that I am somehow not responsible until I find a way to dismantle it. And by I, I mean we, of course. Anyone who tells you that “I alone can fix it” is trying to sell you something. Don’t buy it.

I have hesitated to post anything lately because the only voices I want to hear right now are those best situated to guide us forward, the we who wish to dismantle the violence of white privilege. It does not feel as if my voice is needed right now.

But, for the record, I am quietly cheering on the steps forward and grieving the steps backward. It is hard to know what to focus on in the chaos of this moment in our history. It is chilling to observe the indifference with which so many people in power embark on what can only be defined as mass homicide and suicide in the name of a boost to the stock market, like giving up our world to build the grandest of sandcastles. Any success is fleeting, but the losses could be lasting.

I will venture back onto this blog gradually. The violence and grief existed before this year; it’s just more visible right now, and it feels more egregious. I must continue to navigate the same challenges, contradictions, and injustices of daily life as always, doing what feels ordinary during a time that calls for something extraordinary. And hoping that we find a better way.

As someone who cares about democracy, justice, and humanity, I will say as often as necessary: Black lives matter.

I also want to amplify three articles that provide an important counter narrative to racist mythologies and manage at times to carve out a space for hope and even moments of joy.

One is the article by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 series that I blogged about earlier. Title: “Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true”
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html

Next is the podcast version of Wesley Morris’s contribution to the 1619 series, “Black music, forged in captivity, became the sound of complete artistic freedom. It also became the sound of America.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html

Finally, I really loved this article:
Imani Perry “Racism is Terrible. Blackness is Not.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/

My Goodreads Review of the novel 2020

As a starting point, it was impossible to suspend disbelief when I discovered this book centers on a character two parts buffoon and one part dictator who believes he owns our country thanks to a few backroom deals with various autocrats around the world (plus a special thank you to Deutsche Bank and Facebook). It is disappointing given the array of examples of finely constructed villains throughout literature to be offered one so completely devoid of any redeeming qualities that it beggars all belief.

While it is typical for this kind of thriller to continue to raise the stakes, I question the decision to include both a deadly pandemic and sweeping protests against police brutality that are then met with relentless amounts of police brutality. For that matter, the entire premise of the pandemic doesn’t make any sense. I mean, what country would dismantle all of its governmental functions, place stooges in charge of every government agency (and the Senate) with the explicit goal of making money for themselves and undermining the agency’s ability to protect its people in the case of a crisis? The narrative behind the spread of the pandemic itself is so poorly constructed—the administration didn’t bother to quarantine or restrict the travel of people returning from other countries if those people were easy to recognize as American citizens? As if being white, rich, and an American citizen makes them immune??

And then we are supposed to believe the administration would seriously offer, though it sounds like a parody, solutions to a pandemic along the lines of “cut taxes and regulations, destroy the environment, and block all immigration.” Are there any readers who would believe in characters this incompetent and immoral? I struggled to keep reading when the author thought it would make sense that any American leader would suppress all information about the virus in a transparent effort to boost the stock market, as if time would somehow stop at that moment. The author was so pleased with this scene that it was repeated with little editing in response to a not-especially-meaningful jobs report.

And it wasn’t enough to make visible the ongoing violence of anti-Black racism upon which this country was founded, but then the author decided, hey, let’s randomly impose curfews as a way to increase violent treatment of both peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders, as if the police were otherwise incapable of recognizing who was peacefully protesting and who was breaking windows with their skateboards (because it’s apparently confusing if the former is Black and the latter is white?) The entire novel is so chaotic, depicting what it might be like to live in a country dominated by selfish people with short attention spans and no awareness of history. I rate this book a 0 out of 5, and I beg the author to take a history class.

One month (or so) in

I have wondered how to take stock of one month (or so) of the pandemic and ongoing extreme social distancing measures. There are the good parts—my family and I have fallen into something of a routine, finding ways to get things done, work, chores, hobbies, and various diversions. We’ve found ways to connect with friends and family online and (at a distance) in the neighborhood.

The hard parts, of course, are watching what seems like so much incompetence and avarice by the U.S. executive branch and its enablers in the Senate, versus the valiant efforts by people at all other levels, regardless of political affiliation, to rise to this challenge. As someone who cares deeply about protecting and exercising the right to vote, I am still reeling from what took place in Wisconsin. Truth to tell, the hardest part of this pandemic hasn’t been social distancing, nor even worrying about how everyone will recover from shutting everything down (as frightening as that can be), but the pain of reading so many reports on all that is going wrong, of the pain and suffering caused by the illness and by the economic hardships, and simultaneously the horror of knowing that there are people whose only reaction is to figure out how to grab power and money in the midst of it. There are no monsters in fiction that come close to the cruelty and depravity on display in our country right now (and alas, similar patterns are emerging in countries led by autocrats around the world). I am a bit ashamed to admit that this still surprises me. I like to see the good in people, and I believe in the radical embrace of hope in the face of daunting odds. Yet what I am forced to witness these days beggars my attempts to describe it, let alone absorb it.

I have heard that emailing our representatives in Congress is as effective these days as calling, and as a writer, email has always seemed easier to me than calling. If you care about the vote as I do, and you happen to be a citizen of the U.S., please consider emailing your representatives (or filling out their website forms) urging them to

-Pass a fourth Coronavirus relief package that includes at least $2 billion in “safe election money” and protects the U.S. post office
-Require states to invest in expanded vote by mail and early voting
-Ensure that in-person polling locations have the resources they need to operate safely and efficiently

(talking points provided by Vote Save America)

Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

Hold on.

This weekend I was pondering what to write on my blog today. I thought I might list all the people I am worrying about, fellow humans who I do not know but who are in extreme danger. Syria comes to mind often. Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan. People around the world and within my country living in places in a permanent state of violence and/or deprivation. All the refugees adrift in a world that itself is coming adrift with each passing day. Individuals who are made vulnerable by circumstances or systematic oppression. And the people who are not in extreme danger but who are experiencing heartbreak of the small kinds. Perhaps something they have worked for and planned for is suddenly crashing to a halt due to this pandemic. Or who took what seemed like a small risk in 2019, a new venture of some sort, that now appears catastrophic in 2020.

I am not especially comfortable with organized religion, but I have a spiritual side. A phrase from the American Friends Society always resonates with me: I will hold you in the light, one says, the way others might say I will pray for you. I like the idea of light, the echoes of healing, of renewal, of better days, of hope and possibility. I like the idea that I might be able to hold someone in the light, that this is an action I can take to make the world a better place. I am holding you in the light. Everyone, really. I send out light, hope, and love to the world.

As I write these words, the first two weeks of Full Scale Pandemic Alert have passed, and the threat has become very real, and in some places, nightmarish. It is predicted that in two more weeks, we will reach the peak moment when we are least able to manage the spread of Covid19.

I don’t know how to prepare for that. I hide away. I peek at the news, then turn it off when it threatens to overwhelm me. I take deep breaths, trying to make sense of the knowledge that a worldwide disaster is unfolding, slowly in some places, and at light speed in others.

Hold on.

End of week one

It may be helpful that my current goal is to blog once a week on Mondays. Weekly posts may give me some kind of measure to keep track of what is happening, so many seismic changes even as time seems to slow down. Today marks the first full week of Nothing Is Normal in my neck of the woods (schools closed, work halted, more people have heard of Social Distancing). So here’s a weekly check-in, of sorts.

On March 12, I began jotting down key data points from the New York Times map of the virus (and it is true that different sources provide slightly different counts). At that time, 127,800 people had been tracked with the virus. 4,718 had died. In the US, around 1,200 had the virus. I didn’t jot down the number of US deaths until a few days later.

As of this morning, 341,500 identified worldwide; 15,187 have died. 33,018 identified in the U.S., and 428 have died. And based on the slowly improving but still insufficient amount of testing available, those numbers likely do not show the full picture. The story of what is actually happening will not be told for several years, I fear.

An odd thought came to mind just now. In movies, there is sometimes the dark trope of a person falling from an airplane or off a tall building, plummeting to a certain death. I have always wondered what someone thinks about during such a fall, because nothing hurts yet. Everything that you know, everything that you are, is still the same, still intact. The ground below must seem like an illusion. And all of the actions that one usually takes for self-protection or survival are suddenly futile.

It’s not a pleasant thought, I know, and I am hoping that human ingenuity, compassion, and sense of community will outpace human frailties to help us survive this current state of free fall.

One note: The New York Times shared a report today based on extensive interviews with health experts (rather than the random guesses of someone who studied something once) that laid out what needs to happen, so I will share that link here, in case you are curious   https://nyti.ms/3dkfoCc

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.