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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 21-Day Reading and Writing Challenge

The past several months have been a bit rough. I went through a breakup with a wonderful girl that was taxing on both of us- emotionally, physically and spiritually. My ex-girlfriend was in the middle of her medical residency and let's just say that it took its' toll on our relationship.  Tarah was the first woman I have ever lived with, and also the first with whom I talked seriously about wedding arrangements.  I had funds set aside in a separate savings account for an engagement ring for when the time was right.  Although several older and wiser folks gently warned me that I might be doing things in the wrong order, I assured them that I knew exactly what I was doing.  After a wonderful year together, things began to unravel in our relationship, and gradually over the next several months, a breakup seemed inevitable.


I know that despite the difficulty of the decision to go our separate ways, we will both carry plenty of great memories from our time together, and I know that I learned quite a bit about myself in the process.  I also learned (the hard way) that as fun and exciting as it can be, jumping headfirst into a relationship and throwing caution to the wind may not always be the smartest approach, and is an approach that is bound to wind up hurting someone.

Last month, I found myself beginning to slip into the once familiar forest of depression (I think I realized this on the night I listened to the last track- "Still Life"- on the new Bob Schneider album for the seventh time in a row), so instead of dwelling on the negative, I have made a decision to begin cultivating (or in several cases re-cultivating) some positive habits in my life. They say it takes 21 days for a habit to become part of your routine. I'm not sure I agree with whoever says that, or at least I would have to add that it only takes a long weekend in New Orleans to fall right back out of any one. My 21 Day challenges will simply consist of taking action 21 days of each month, because I know that life happens, my schedule is usually booked pretty solid and I want to set a goal that is attainable without being daunting.

Somewhat in the spirit of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, which I just read on a plane ride, but more in the spirit of my own desire to make some positive changes in my life and attitude, I am about to embark on a journey of successive challenges. Some of them may seem less like challenges and more like intensive college courses or electives.  The first challenge will be the cornerstone of all the rest, and a habit I hope to begin re-cultivating immediately, and then continuing for the next month and the remainder of my lifetime. Challenge #1 is my 21 day Reading and Writing challenge (but no arithmetic will be involved). I have always loved to read. I have always loved to write. The problem is, lately I have been finding it easier to make excuses for why I'm not reading and writing as much as I'd like to. "I'm around books all day at work." "If a book doesn't keep my interest, I don't feel like I have to finish it." "There's a classic movie on TV." "Once I started watching (insert HBO series here), I just couldn't stop until I was finished."

At our recent neighborhood Garage Sale, I decided to start off the challenge on the right foot by getting rid of the TV and Playstation 2 (which I basically used as a DVD player) which sat in the armoire in my bedroom. Too many times I have opted for popping in a movie before bed instead of indulging in the pleasures of a good book, which although it is the more difficult option, tends to be the more rewarding and mentally stimulating choice.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not planning on eliminating TV from the diet entirely during these 21 days. No, no, no...not with the U.S. Open at Congressional coming up, my regular morning fix of the local paper's Sports page with SportsCenter on in the background and halfway into one of the best TV on DVD series I've ever watched, HBO's "Treme." (Might only be second to Season One of David Simon's other riveting inner-city TV series drama, "The Wire.") I simply vow to change my evening/pre-slumber ritual to include reading and writing instead of television for the next month, at least. I would like to continue this practice for at least 21 days out of the month, every month for the rest of my life. I have always felt that my quality of life increases dramatically with every hour during the day spent reading or writing.

This evening, I began the conversion of my armoire into yet another bookcase in my home. If you know me or have ever visited my house, you know that I have books in every room in my house- cookbooks in the kitchen, reference and business books in the office, decorative books in the living room, trivia and humor books in the bathroom, writing books in the writing room and the basement is just...well...some of my friends refer to it as the Andover Borders.

I have begun to stack books in the armoire that have been on my "To Read" list for the past several months. A sampling of this already growing selection includes, but is not limited to:

-Tim O'Brien's July, July (I plan to tackle all of his that I haven't yet read)

-A small selection of books about the life of the impostor poet Thomas Chatterton

-Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" series of children's adventure books, which I'd like to preview for my niece and nephew this summer, to determine if they would be appropriate bedtime storytelling material

-The usual slew of personal finance, marketing and business inspiration books by Seth Godin, David Bach and the like

-A heavy stack of coffee table books on how to use books to decorate the interior of your home
-Books on day-trips and traveling in the state of Kansas

-My friend Ron's book on Jesse James and my friend Brooke's debut work of fiction, both of which I have been meaning to read for months!

The list goes on and on.

In addition to my reading list, I have a slew of writing projects which have been on the backburner for too long. For at least 21 days out of the month, I also vow to contribute a smattering of words in some form or other, although status updates and tweets don't count. Each day, I can decide to:

-Use one of my favorite prompts from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones

-Post a tip for online booksellers (I plan to continue to incorporate these as the primary focus of this blog, and will either lead with these tips or post them separately from the challenge check-ins)

-Work on an article for BookThink or a local book related events article for The Wichita Examiner

-Edit and/or revisit old material from the closet full of untapped legal pads from the last decade or so

-Write the old-fashioned way: 3 pages of longhand

-Send a letter to a friend, family member or author whose work I have enjoyed reading during the challenge

I look forward to embarking upon the first of many challenges I have planned to encourage growth and development in my personal life.  Some of the other ideas, with plenty of room for modification and/or improvisation, I have in store for the next year include:

-21 Days with No Microwave Oven (or, cooking healthy from scratch, inspired by a recent conversation over lunch with my friend Evan, the master chef)

-21 Days of learning Web Design (teaching myself a little more than the absolute basics.  Again, I hope to draw upon the resources of a good friend whose website I hold in high regard)

-21 Days of Golf (just because I really want to, and because I was recently inspired by reading John Richardson's Dream On: One Hack Golfer's Challenge to Break Par in a Year)

-21 Days of P90X (because 90 days of P90X just seems like overkill)

-21 Days of Carpentry (a skill I've always wanted to learn which would certainly come in handy in my profession and constant need for shelving)

-21 Days of DIY Home Improvements and Car Maintenance (why didn't they teach us this stuff in school?)

-21 Days of Gardening (can I get a tomato to sprout in three weeks?)

-21 Days on a Strict Budget (don't worry, books will be a large portion of my expenses)

-21 Days of Writing Letters, Thank You Notes and Birthday Cards (an extension of the current challenge, and one I'm stealing from my friend Anne)

-21 Days of Guitar (because it's been gathering dust in my closet and I know how much joy and fulfillment that strumming and penning the ocassional tune brings me)

-21 Days of Piano (I've always wanted to walk into a room and be able to improvise on the ivories, although I'm not sure 21 days would get me anything other than a shaky rendition of "Hot Cross Buns".  My goal will be to master the bassline of Salt N' Pepa's "Push It" on piano)

-21 Days of Meditation & Yoga (I never seem to be able to stick to this one, as much good as it does a scatterbrained and inflexible lout like me)

-21 Days of Dancing (I know that my godfather Uncle Freddy aka "Stardust Ricky" will be able to help me out here.  I've always wanted to learn how to dance formally, as talented as I am at the freestyle format).  See below:

OK well, it's day one of the challenge and I'm already up past my bedtime.  It's 2:30 AM now, with at least a chapter or two of good reading ahead before I grow weary.

Also, any friends, family or bloggers that would care to join me on my series of challenges, or those of you who might like to invent your own, please feel free to share and comment along the way:)
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