Walking on two wheels

Check out my new bike! It’s an Electra Loft 7i, built for comfort and practicality, not speed, which is exactly what I’ve wanted for many years. In the United States for way too long, bicycling was seen as a sport or something only kids did, not as a normal way to get from point A to point B. In an ideal world, I’d bike, walk, and take public transit everywhere (I spent the first two years of my working life using my car once a week only to get groceries). Unfortunately, since I now live in the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile, that’s not feasible. Yet.

My two-wheeled history

When I started biking as an adult, the only options were road bikes or mountain bikes, and as a 5′ 2′ short-waisted woman, choices were limited. On top of that, I reluctantly learned how to ride on the road with cars, but it took only one close call near Capitol Hill to send me back onto the nice, quiet multi-use paths, which were fine as long as I didn’t want to actually go anywhere.

When I moved back to Michigan, I rode very little except for a few times when I got my hands on a 1970s Schwinn and a 1940s British bike, both of which were the kind of sturdy, utilitarian bikes I longed for. Like Jason Slaughter of Not Just Bikes, I’m not a cyclist. I don’t care about speed, the sport, the latest tech gear, or ::shudder:: Lycra. I certainly don’t want to sit leaning forward and messing with my lines of sight, back, shoulders, neck, and wrists all in one go. I just want the equivalent of walking on two wheels so I can ride places without worrying I’ll get hit by a car.

Things change, slowly

Many years and a pandemic later, some leaders in the U.S. are finally figuring out that perhaps making bikes and cars duke it out in the same road isn’t such a great idea. They recognize that maybe we need to design human-scale places that accommodate multiple ways for people to get around, whether it’s by foot, bike, mobility scooter, wheelchair, mass transit, car, whatever. It’s long overdue. Some countries, especially The Netherlands, are decades ahead of us, but we can learn from them if we’re willing to.

My county has a transit proposal on the ballot this year and three towns near me are in the process of improving their streets to be more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. My town isn’t terrible, and I see people of all ages outside walking/sometimes biking/doing their thing, but it can be so much better. I’m glad there now seem to be more people who want what I want. I only hope that if/when things change, I’ll live long enough to enjoy it.

Enjoying my obscurity

Last month, I published my first novella in over 10 years. The last time I released a novella, I worked with a small publisher and was required to do a bunch of promotion, such as hawk it on social media, do a blog tour (remember those?), beg for reviews, and waste money on swag to give away at a conference I attended.

This time around, as an indie writer, I hit “Publish” and went grocery shopping.

My bio on my website contains the phrase “enjoying my obscurity.” I haven’t had a social media account since 2015, and I don’t kid myself expecting that anything I write will draw tons of readers, but I’ve stopped caring because I’ve learned to value the process more than the results. With no imagined audience to perform for, I’m free to experiment, practice, and create on my own terms.

Austin Kleon has a great message for recent graduates about the advantages of obscurity:

There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better.

. . . .

You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.

So if you’re struggling with “what will people think?” in your creative projects, it might be a good idea to turn off social media for a while, or even delete your accounts. I know it’s hard because we want people to care about our work, but acknowledging the reality that few people care resets your expectations and makes you truly appreciate any attention that you do get. Best of all, you can focus on the one thing that actually matters: practicing.

Overthinking and performance don’t mix

Last month, my guitar teacher held a group class/recital where all of his students play two pieces for each other and receive feedback. As you can imagine, in the weeks leading up to the group class, all four of us freaked out to varying degrees. At the last group class in December, one student even refused to play and attended the class only as an observer. Did I mention we’re all adults?

Knowledge isn’t the same as skill

Culturally, it’s hard being an adult beginner in anything. Children are expected to screw up while they’re learning, but for some reason we expect adults, including ourselves, to be good at a new skill right away. Why? I’ve observed a lot of adults who erroneously equate knowledge with skill and believe they can read/watch/think their way to acquiring a skill.

It doesn’t work that way at all. I understand why people do it, though. Actually practicing a skill, as opposed to simply reading about it, smacks us into our real-world limitations, and that can be too humbling an experience for some people. We’re learning–of course we’re not going to be perfect. We never will be. Yet we put so much pressure on ourselves that we either shy away from the challenge or we overthink the challenge and end up sabotaging ourselves.

Overthinking and getting in my own way

I’m no exception to this. In last December’s group class, I didn’t exactly choke, but I played scared. I chose tempos that were too slow for the pieces and overthought each chord change and right-hand fingering. Sure, I didn’t make too many mistakes, but my playing was robotic at best. My teacher often tells me I’m a control freak (guilty) and I need to trust my ears and fingers more. Think in phrases and the piece as a whole, not the individual notes and chords. Perform and communicate emotions rather than simply execute what’s on the page.

He’s right, of course. As Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim says, the job of a musician is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing. If I play something note-perfect but don’t make listeners feel a thing, I missed the mark.

Turning off my critical brain

So for the June class, I purposely chose two pieces with wildly different styles. One was a romantic, moody piece and the other was a playful piece called “Danza del Gatto” (“Dance of the Cat”). After the usual hours of practicing, I made up my mind that the group class was simply another thing to practice. I have very little experience performing music as an adult, and the group lesson would be a good opportunity to get more used to it.

So when it came time for me to play, I turned off my critical brain and focused completely on the music and the emotions I wanted to convey. I managed to forget that I was even playing in front of other people.

My teacher said it was the best he’d ever heard me play those two pieces. I finally got out of my own way. The new challenge: remembering how I did that and repeating it.

There are no end goals: it’s ALL practice

People who play sports understand that overthinking ruins performance. Overanalyzing causes players to choke, I think people in creative fields can learn a lot from sports psychology in this area. Everything is practice, including things we consider THE end goal–big games, job interviews, auditions, performances, published stories. We believe that a particular event is the be all and end all capping off our hard work.

Nope, it’s just another practice session. I think that’s a healthier way to approach whatever we set out to do.