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“‘Start as close to the end as possible,’ suggested writer Kurt Vonnegut.”

Today’s prompt is brought to you by Plinky, only it was December 15’s prompt, and I hung onto it in my inbox because I thought what a great end-of-year post it would make.  Unfortunately, the end of 2012 saw us up to our necks (figuratively) in snow, so I’m only now getting to it.  Hence, the title of this post.

The rest of the Plinky prompt was to “write something that does that without spoiling the ending.”  See, this is why this kind of prompt doesn’t work for me as a writer:  I never know the ending of my books.  If I were a mystery writer, I would need to know the ending so that I could litter my writing with clues for the reader, and if I were writing non-fiction I would have to keep the point of my text in mind as I wrote.  But I am neither; I write about fictional relationships, and people’s growth within those relationships.  And even when people’s lives appear to have an ending, they don’t (or else, why bother calling yourself a Christian?), so how can a book about relationships really have an ending?  One episode can end, but the people live on and on.

One of the characters in my favorite television show, NCIS, is an author as well as a federal agent, and one of the episodes dealt with a book he was writing:  Someone was getting hold of his copy and committing murders on the basis of his book.  Towards the end, his boss tells him that he needs to find the killer and let him know how the book ends.  “I don’t know how the book ends!” exclaims the writer, and that pretty much describes my style of writing.

What I find is that people live inside my head – a whole family of them, plus peripheral characters.  Periodically, they have a story to tell, and I’m the lucky duck who gets to tell it.  Every once in so often, I’ll think of something that happened to me, or an anecdote I’ve heard, and think, “That’d be a really neat thing to have happen to So-and-so.”  But So-and-so doesn’t think so, and that’s when I get writer’s block.  Then I have to go back to the point where the writing was going smoothly, clear everything else out of my head, and let the character do the talking.  I can edit, once the character “powers down” for the session; but there’s actually very little creativity involved.

Not knowing the ending is how one of my characters who started as a stereotypical “dirty bird” became the guy who saved the day, while someone I had intended to be a true gentleman turned out to be the worst sort of cad.  Meanwhile, the hero of the story is just trying to keep his head above water throughout the book!  This is how I stay engaged in my own tales; if I don’t know where it’s going, neither will the reader, and if that’s what keeps me writing, then – theoretically – that’s what will keep my reader reading.

One more writing-related anecdote (which I freely admit I may have told before, but it describes the writing life so perfectly):  A writer wrote of accompanying his wife to church one Sunday, and afterwards, the pastor said to him, “You need to get out and meet more people.”  “At that particular point in time,” wrote the author, “I was intimately involved in the lives of no fewer than eight people, all of whom lived inside my head, and meeting more people was the last thing I needed.”

I can relate.

Aptly Named

At what time of day do you feel the most energetic and productive?

Oh, dear.  People are going to hate me for this.  My only excuse is, I was born at 6:30 in the morning, and have never gotten over the impression that 6:30 – or 5:30, or sometimes even 4:30 – is the right and proper time to get things done.

Which is to say, no matter how groggy I am when I get out of bed, by the time I have completed all the necessaria of daybreak, I am up and at ’em and rarin’ to go!  Just ask my poor, long-suffering husband.  He is by no means a night owl, but when he gets up, he stumbles out to the kitchen, puts on the kettle, and makes coffee basically on auto-pilot.  If I have wakened before him, and am full of whatever I found in my inbox or on Facebook, I will leap up to tell him and be met with “Shhhh” before I have uttered a word, by which I understand that he is not yet ready to face the day.

This can have its problems, however.  Back when we were a Normal couple – that is, before he was retired, when he had a place where he had to be by 8:00 a.m. – back then, he would be out the door by 6:30 or 7:00.  I would have been awake since 5:00 or so, and, fully breakfasted, would be ready to get into my own workday, putting on laundry and completing the basic housework chores before I set foot out the door.  Now that he is retired, I can’t get anything done before 9:00 a.m. – and by that time, my level of productive energy has already begun to decline.  By 11:00 a.m., it will be gone completely, and I will be good for nothing but needlework, reading, or fooling around on the computer.

I have schooled myself, over the years, to put some effort into producing a pretty darn good evening meal; but I am secretly greatly in sympathy with the way things are done in Europe (big surprise), where they eat their main meal in the middle of the day.  If I had my druthers, I’d get the meal prep done in the morning, eat around noon, and have the dishes out of my hair by 2:00 the latest.

So I have come to accept that I am wired differently from pretty much all of America.  As a young woman, before I was married, I was the world’s worst date – I’d be ready to go home by 10:00 p.m., and heaven help you if you found me still awake at 11:00.  Then I met a guy whose last name was Lark.  There actually are other reasons I married him.  But if I had thought about it, I would have seen the handwriting on the wall the moment I heard his name.

“What is your favorite way to recharge when you feel drained of energy?”

There’s a reason this blog is called “Muttonings,” and there’s a reason I post as “Mrs. Mutton.”  It has everything to do with sheep, to wit:  Somewhere around 1977, I suddenly got into knitting in a big way.  Up to then, I had divided my time fairly evenly between knitting and cross stitch, but in 1977, my daughter was two, and the thought of those little fingers and eyes around sharp, pointy objects was too horrific to entertain; so I turned to the less-sharp pointy objects known as knitting needles, and for many years afterwards, knitting was my sole handwork.  In fact, my son, born in 1979, has never known me to do anything else.

In 1982, I became acquainted with the knitting philosophy of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman was an utter genius at combining art, math, and practicality, and her chosen medium was wool.  Not just generic yarn – wool, “from the simple, silly sheep,” as she put it in one of her books.  It was largely due to her influence that I gradually became a Wool Snob, and began accumulating wool yarn to such an extent that my family teased that I was becoming a sheep.  These days I have stuffed sheep, pictures of sheep, sheep calendars, books about sheep…well, as you can see, the thing has taken on a life of its own.

So I am “Mrs. Mutton” (actually, that is the name of one of my stuffed sheep, who began life as “Ms. Mutton” of the famous brokerage firm, E.F. Mutton, until my husband rescued her from a life of Ms.-ery), and the odd pronouncements I mutter to myself have become known, locally, as “muttonings.”  All of which I offer as background to my favorite way of recharging when I am drained of energy.  Which is only partially with knitting.

There actually is something very, very soothing and mindless about repetitive hand motion.  Mind you, there is nothing relaxing about learning to knit; like any other unknown activity, it’s very stressful to learn.  But the rewards of sticking with the effort are completely disproportionate to the effort involved in learning the craft; you can actually knit your way to lower blood pressure.  And while your hands are occupied, and your brain either goes blank or focuses on the intricacies of, say, Aran knitting, other, more convoluted knots are unraveled.  I daresay that many a mental-health issue could be successfully treated by teaching patients to knit.

But as I say, recharging my personal batteries is a two-pronged process.  Knitting – or counted cross-stitch – is one prong, having something to occupy my mind that is completely unrelated to whatever it is that’s sapping my energy.  The other prong is classical music.

I’m not talking about the Bombast, or the Searching-for-the-Lost-Chord kind of cacophony that has become associated with classical music.  That stuff has its place (I guess), once you’ve become accustomed to the very different tempo of classical music, so much slower and more thought-infused than what currently occupies most space on the airwaves.  But if you want to relax, or if you’re really new to classical music, you want Baroque – Vivaldi, say, or Handel.  Or Bach, who wrote the music that is the title of this post, Sheep May Safely Graze.  Bach’s music covers every range of emotions, from utterly sublime to rollicking fun to just plain funny (his Coffee Cantata begins with a father grumping, “Ain’t it a fact that our kids give us a hundred thousand different kinds of heartburn,” or the eighteenth-century Germanic equivalent thereof).  And Vivaldi is such easy listening that a friend of ours once joked that “Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 425 times,” there being 425 works listed in the “Ryom Listing,” the most commonly used catalogue of Vivaldi’s compositions.

Knitting to the Oldies.  Works every time.

“Which daily tasks take up the most of your energy?”

It’s a funny thing about getting older.  You never realize it when you are young, but when old people talk about “not having their get-up-and-go,” they’re actually talking about losing energy.  Now that I am in my sixties, I look back on the things I did when I was in my forties – full-time job, night classes, plus keeping house for a husband and two teenagers – and I shake my head:  How on earth did I do all that?!  Nowadays it takes me all morning to do chores that used to take an hour.  And the one that wipes me out the most is…making beds.

When I was young, I was taught to make my bed as soon as I got out of it, and I did this for years.  It was one less chore to clutter up my mind, and the bedroom always looks tidier and more serene with a bed that’s been made up.  Then I began married life in Germany, where you Just Don’t make your bed before airing it out thoroughly.  And I mean “thoroughly”:  People sleep beneath duvets, those puffy feather-filled comforters that are always covered in a big envelope, and first thing in the morning, the window is opened and the duvets and pillows are hung out for at least an hour.

(A funny aside here:  When my daughter was a child, I took her to Saturday school to learn German.  One of the mothers had just returned from a two-year sabbatical in Germany, and couldn’t stop talking about how grateful she was to be back in the States.  Since I was aching with homesickness – no, I’m not German, but the whole way of life had really clicked with me – I couldn’t imagine why she’d be grateful to be here.  Her answer:  “Those women and their featherbeds!  Every morning, at punkt seven o’clock, every window in Stuttgart would bang open, and out would come the featherbeds.  You could set your clock by the way those women hung out their featherbeds!”  Oh-kay.)

Well…it’s a habit that has stuck with me (one of many).  I won’t say I’m so fanatic as to get my bedding out the window by seven o’clock – for one thing, in the winter in New England the sun doesn’t rise until seven-thirty at the earliest, and I like it to be fully up before I put things out in the frost, or dew, depending on the season – but every morning by nine the latest, I drag the featherbeds off my husband’s and my bed and get them out for at least an hour, and usually, until the afternoon.  I used to yank them off and whisk them out the window.  These days, I drag them off and carry them through the hall and kitchen (we have a one-story house) and hang them off the back porch.  Then I put the pillows next to an open window so they can air, too.

By the time that’s done, I need to sit down and restock my energy.  I tell myself that this is because I’m so short, and lugging those featherbeds all through the house, holding them up so that they don’t drag on the floor (yes, I fold them in my arms – that’s how short I am), is bound to take the stuffing out of me.  But the truth is – I’m getting old.  And, as the saying goes, “My get-up-and-go has got up and gone.”

Let’s see if I can do any better at this than I have in the past two months.  To be fair, I did spend November writing a novel, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, in case you’ve ever seen the reference and not known what that was about).  And December is, well, December.  Everybody’s busy in December.  Even Scrooge – gotta close out the books for the year, you know.

The theme for this month’s National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) is Energy, and I’m all worn out just thinking about it.  However, on the theory that a new year means a new start, I’m willing to take a new shot at this.  So, the first topic of the month:

From where do you draw your energy?”

It depends on the task at hand.  If I’m cleaning house, for example, I draw my energy from doing the worst task first.  I can certainly see the rationale behind leaving it for last – you could get so wiped out from doing the worst first that you’d have no energy left over for everything else – but for me, getting that out of my hair makes everything else seem like such a breeze that I get it all done.  Leaving the worst for last would sap my energy just thinking about it.

If it’s anything to do with desk work, or office work – organizing, paying bills, keeping track of finances – that in itself gives me an energy boost.  I can’t believe what a born Office Worker I am; most people I know hate, loathe, and despise office work, and will do anything to get out of it.  So why is it so difficult for me to find a volunteer job doing office work?  Any time I hear of volunteer opportunities, they’re looking for people to spend time with other people, a guaranteed energy drain for me.  (Can you spell “introvert”?)  Give me a pile of envelopes to stuff or to label, and I’m happy for the rest of the week.

However, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that we can’t spend our time doing everything that comes naturally to us.  Those puzzling and bizarre people called extroverts do, eventually, have to sit down and do some office work, unless they can find someone to pay the bills for them.  And those of us who thrive on solitude, peace, and quiet eventually do have to have something to do with our fellowman.  Or, as Linus (I think) once put it, “I love Mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”

When there’s no other choice but to interact with flesh and blood – that’s when my religion is most helpful.  Orthodoxy not only encourages us to see others as icons of Christ, it actually shows us that that’s the case – during every service, the priest or deacon censes the people in front of him.  Since you only cense holy things or holy people, his doing so illustrates sharply that each of us standing before him is an image of God Himself.  Take that awareness out into the world, and people become…not so pesky.  More of an opportunity to serve Christ.

I’m aware, of course, that most religions see service to mankind as a necessary part of their practice.  But there’s a huge difference, for me anyway, between being exhorted to do so and being helped to do so. Having somebody tell me, “Go forth and serve the Lord” tells me that I’m supposed to expend most of my precious energy on somebody who will not only not appreciate the enormous effort I have to put into meeting his needs, but will gladly leach all the energy out of me altogether.  Being shown that I and all the others around me are icons of God illustrates to me why they are worth the effort and expenditure of my energy.

And that gives me all the energy I need to do it.

Well, so much for daily blogging.  It’s been wild around here, and I’m not even talking about Christmas activities – but it’s been wild in a good way.

I thought I’d combine two blog posts in one, by combining two themes from the NaBloPoMo prompts:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?” which is tomorrow’s, and “Do you enjoy your current job (or your last job)?” (today’s prompt).

When I was working, I was most enjoyably employed as a secretary.  Being a secretary has a bad reputation nowadays, being seen as a scutwork job for the nearly brainless; in reality, it was the gateway to a wide variety of fields.  Working solely as a secretary, I worked in textiles, publishing, education, law – and law enforcement – and advertising, this last as a secretary in one of the top three advertising agencies on Madison Avenue.

My last job in this field was as a secretary for my parish church, and that was the most fun of all, because the office had been neglected for so long that it was in complete disarray, and I got to construct it from the ground up, creating the filing system, a tracking system for parishioners’ contributions, a parishioner database, the Rolodex for the parish, and a means of tracking parish vendors, as well as keeping track of work done to the physical plant – this way, it was easier for  the Parish Council to see when a contractor had last shown his face in the door, and to follow up on jobs in progress.  I actually was not finished setting up this last vendor system when I was replaced with someone younger and – I can only assume – more ethnically desirable, since I was not of the same ethnicity as the rest of the parish.  That still hurts, though not as much as it did at the time (see beginning posts from January 2010).

So.  If I could have any job in the world?  It would be my old job, or something similar.  The problem is, I’m now of official retirement age, the point at which your shelf life in any field has basically expired, and you’re expected to go out to pasture and vegetate, until the point where the goal of your life becomes providing an income for the health-care industry.  No, thank you.

Since this line of work is now closed to me for good, I’ve made the adjustment – somewhat – to the idea that hey, I’ve worked hard all my life and earned my retirement, and I’m going to get what I can out of it.  An education in art, something I’ve always wanted to understand.  Expanding my knowledge of music, my chief recreation in life.  Most of all, I’m going to focus on the things that matter most:  spiritual warfare, reconciling the demands of this age, and of old age, with the requirements of eternal life; becoming, as best I can, more conformed to the life of Christ, without losing one iota of the snarkiness that is the hallmark of any good New Yorker.  I figure, if God put me in New York at the beginning of my life, He must have meant it to shape my personality.  Now I just need to develop it into a tool for introducing people to the novel notion that Christians aren’t necessarily pious wusses.

Hah!

Living La Vida Loba

Prompt:  “Do you feel most comfortable being a leader, a follower, or a collaborator?”

First, I would like to say that my absence has been due to National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo – “thirty days and nights of literary abandon,” in which one writes a 50,000-word novel during November.  Well, the 50,000 words are written.   The novel is not complete, and it’s virtually all dialogue and no action so will require major revision, but it’s written.

Now, as the English say, “to our muttons,” the prompt.

There’s no way I could be a leader.  I hate being out front and visible.  I was a choir director for almost three years, and while I loved the rehearsals, and I loved when things came together for the choir, I hated having to get people from Point A to Point B.  Those people simple did not want to learn new music, and would dig in their heels, well, like recalcitrant sheep.  And there were several who could not get it through their heads that rehearsals were a good thing; they’d show up and attempt to sing music they’d never sung before, throw everybody off, then say, “We know all this already.”  And there was no way to motivate them to change.

Nor do I especially care to Follow.  Following can get you into big trouble.  Or, as our mothers used to say when I was young, “If everybody jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, are you going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?”  Everybody’s mother said it, and it was the standard (New York) response to the standard kid whine, “But everybody’s doing it!”

I like collaborative effort.  Not that I’ve ever experienced collaborative effort, but it sounds good in theory.  Everybody gets their ideas out on the table, and you sift and sort through them to see what works.  It takes longer, but in the end, you have something that works.  In theory.  Actually, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are a perfect example of a collaborative effort that really worked.  So are Craig Benson and Robert Levine, who started out in a garage and built Cabletron, one of the computer giants of the 1990s (and a classic lesson in securities fraud:  Read all about it here).

But what I really like is the Lone Wolf approach.  Stick me in a room with a project, describe the parameters, and let me puzzle out what works.  My Lone  Wolf efforts are the ones that are always the most successful; I can work at my own pace, dope out the most efficient way to get the project done, spend the least amount of money doing it, and have fun in the process.

It’s certainly the way novels get written.