#januwordy: Magic formula

Over the years, a few fantasy stories relying on magic (Harry Potter, The Green Rider) have captured my interest. The crux of the stories is often formulaic.

Generally there is some hereditary component. In some cases, certain species wield magic while others cannot. In other stories, children whose parents were adept at magic typically have some power, even if they were not raised by their parents. Of course, as with many genetic traits, magic sometimes “skips” an individual or generation.

Occasionally you also find individuals from “non-magic” lineages. Perhaps if you trace back family history, you might find an ancestor with magical abilities. Or maybe it’s just a random mutation.

Whether inherited or not, though, a character has to start with an innate ability. A kid with no magic power doesn’t develop it just by trying really hard. (Magic clearly provides a basis for exploring genetics, and the world does not disappoint. It’s part of a lesson in the National Library of Medicine exhibition Renaissance Science, Medicine, and Magic in Harry Potter’s World.) Perhaps on occasion, magic is “bestowed” upon an individual but usually at a price.

A core tenet of magic stories is that those who do have an ability have to practice. They can use their power without training or practice, but typically there are limitations. The results of “raw talent” are sporadic or uncontrolled or exhausting. They need instruction and guidance to harness their potential. On the flip side, someone with average magical talent can excel by spending a lot of time practicing, doing a task over and over again until mastered. (We hear similar true stories of individuals with incredible aptitude for sport, music, chess, and other activities.)

Another central theme is light versus darkness. Inevitably there is someone with great magical power to fight. (Let’s face it: They’d be pretty dull stories otherwise.) Often they have a similar origin story as the protagonist or another “good” character in the story. In fact, it’s not uncommon that they were trained by the protagonist’s mentor but became corrupted in some way. This is the ages old story of power and the effect it has on people.

The antagonist typically has greater power and a mighty force behind them. They may draw in those at the fringes of society, sometimes those who have suffered from or been left behind in the progress of the dominant “good” society from which our protagonist hails. Sometimes they create their armies, from the dead or by transforming captives or bending creatures to their will. The recruitment approach can prompt us to examine what the cost of “progress” and how “good” societies are built. The creation strategy is effective from a storytelling standpoint, because it clearly communicates to the reader that the antagonist has no boundaries.

The end comes down to a showdown. The odds are stacked against our protagonist. There’s no way they should be able to win. They struggle valiantly. They come to the verge of defeat. Then, just as all hope is lost, a solution appears—sometimes magically. Our protagonist overcomes. It is the antagonist who falls, shocked by their demise at the hands of this underdeveloped upstart.

Despite the formula, these stories of magic can still be fun to read.

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#januwordy: Collectors

Humans are collectors.

You may not consider yourself such because you don’t have art on your walls or a curio case filled with trinkets or a box where you store figures. But there’s almost certainly something that you collect.

Over the years, I’ve moved multiple times, from 10s to 1000s of miles between places. Each time I feel compelled to reduce my belongings. I know that they’re likely to expand again, but in moving, there’s an opportunity to consider each item and the space it fills—literally and metaphorically—in my life.

I am a collector of books. I have at times culled deeply, yet there are ones that have followed me to four different cities and more phases of my life. I am a hopeless practitioner of tsudonku, buying a book and leaving it unread.

I have held on to fewer and fewer trinkets over time. A few hold particular meaning, in how they came to me, who held them before.

I’ve kept my finisher medals for the half marathons and marathons and other runs I’ve done. In part, they take up comparatively little space. In part, they serve as reminders of what I’ve accomplished, things that at times seemed almost out of reach. In part, they also serve as prompts to set new goals and to test my limits in some way.

These baubles are tangible expressions of something else we, something that even the most minimalist person can and often does, collect: experiences.

Certainly there are experiences we’d prefer not to collect, though each one shapes and influences who we are and who we are becoming. But I’m thinking more of the experiences we seek out—the races we choose to run, the places we travel to, the challenges we set for ourselves.

Running coach David Roche suggests that race day should be a “celebration” of your training. It may be tough, but it’s the pinnacle, the thing you’ve been working toward a long time. It’s something you wanted, something you chose—shouldn’t it be a commemoration not a commiseration?

Sometimes the experience disappoints, and sometimes it exceeds our wildest expectations. What we can often miss is that the experience isn’t just this one moment in time. It’s the work in the moments leading up to it as well. It’s the efforts we expend building, preparing, testing ourselves.

The trinket is just a reminder of the celebration. The celebration is just one point along the way. The preparation is what truly changes us.

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The Anger of a Woman Running in the Dark

I had been running 2.5 miles already as I started the familiar loop around a small lake. I cruised along, clad in a reflective vest and using a headlamp to illuminate the feet of path in front of me and to be sure drivers and bikers could see me.

There didn’t seem to be as many runners as normal. It was dark and a bit later than my usual time. Though it had let up by now, the rain had been rather heavy earlier. I passed a pair of women heading in the opposite direction, and then was alone again.

I continued. Unexpectedly a figure emerged from the shadows of the path ahead, clad head to toe in black, face mostly hidden by a dark cap. I tensed. It took only a few seconds, honestly probably fractions of a second, to process that this was just another pedestrian—light bounced off the tiny reflective logo, hands in pockets and head tucked down against the cool air and the drizzle of the night, traveling a straight line, no sudden or unexpected movements.

Though my feet kept moving, there was a brief debate in my head. This was one of the “better” parts of the path. The trail I was on is literally next to the road. Some of the parallel streets are heavily trafficked, others often quiet, but if something were amiss, would any drivers even notice? The trees and bushes along the way aren’t densely packed, but they are sizable, large enough to obscure a figure in the dark.

I decided to keep going. This was fear not caution, and I wasn’t cutting my run short for that. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the scenario. Kelly Herron fought off an attacker in another Seattle park two years ago. Three women runners have been grabbed and groped, not far from where I was running, in recent months. Nationally there have been many others, women harassed, assaulted, disappeared, murdered just going out for a run.

When something prompts me to run through the scenarios and the precedents, the fear doesn’t last very long before it turns to anger. When something happens to a woman runner (and other women as well), there’s a chorus of scolding and advice, not just for the victim but for all women engaging in similar activities.

She shouldn’t run alone.

She shouldn’t run at that time of day/night.

She should carry pepper spray.

She shouldn’t run there.

She should take a self-defense class.

She shouldn’t be distracted by music.

She should be alert at all times.

She… she… she…

Broadly I’m the sort of person who considers risks and what I can do to mitigate them. But I run for the joy of it. I don’t want to carry a reminder of my insignificance. I know that these are relatively rare events, but I also know that, should anything ever happen, I will, in many eyes, bear some responsibility for it.

Then I see men post about lacing up and heading out for a late night run. By appearances, they don’t give it a second thought. They may even laud the tranquility of the hour. I wonder whether anyone’s warned them about the dangers of their activities.

Or is it just the women who are supposed to guard themselves in the spaces we dare to take up in the world?

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#januwordy: Writing When the Words Won’t Come

On its surface, the mantra “write everyday” makes sense. Make writing a habit. It doesn’t matter what you write about, just write. It builds the writing “muscles”. 

But I’ve never been any good at it. It takes just a quick glance at the archives here to see I’ve never been a model blogger. Consistent, predictable post frequency has never been my strong suit. Over the last few years in particular, I’ve been sporadic at best.

It’s not so much about finding the time. The time is there if I wanted it. It’s about finding the focus and the followthrough.

Some days I want to write, but there are too many ideas competing. I might start with one, but then it fizzles. It didn’t have as much fuel as I thought. Or I try to bring together a couple of things that seem connected in my head, but I just can’t seem to thread them together eloquently.

Other times I find that I need more preparation, more time. I need to read up on a topic to give it the treatment I desire. I worry about being wrong or expressing myself clumsily.

The folder of forgotten drafts speaks volumes about these scenarios.

Then there are the days like this, when I’ve set aside a time to write and nothing clicks. The prompts don’t spark ideas that I want to actually pursue. I try to think of something else to write on, to recall one of the topics from the collection when I’ve had competing ideas, just to find my mind blank. I might even look back to electronic notes I’ve jotted down of things I once considered exploring, but I find no interest in delving into them today, or maybe ever.

So I stare at a blank screen a while. Maybe I wander to Feedly or Twitter, perhaps hoping some inspiration will hit there but knowing that’s unlikely to happen. My head—or maybe it’s my heart—just isn’t in it that day.

The difference today is that I made some unspoken commitment to myself to write more, to reconnect with this act that has, in the past, brought me joy and clarity.

I’ve written 350 words about the Step 1 challenge of writing. That’s not even all the words I’ve written today. A hundred others were typed and deleted before these. There’s a hesitation even to post these.

Perhaps the only reason that I’ll hit that Publish button today is that indistinct pledge I made and some sense that putting this into the ether will make me a little more accountable to it tomorrow. It’s certainly not perfection. I’m not sure that it’s even progress. But it’s something, and maybe that’s all I need to keep the momentum going forward. Or maybe it stalls out tomorrow, but that’s not the work for today.

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#Januwordy: The Deceptive Course

Since Saturdays oft entail an early start and a lot of running (almost six hours on trails yesterday), I’ve decided that Saturday will be my “rest day” from Januwordy. For Sunday, I’ll pick from the four prompts of the weekend (or something else if I’m not feeling them). This post brings together two: “deceive” and “course”.

Around the time I started driving regularly, MapQuest became a thing. It was a fantastic tool. Plug in the start and end points, choose the route, and print out the turn-by-turn directions. No more squinting at maps with small markings and using measuring tools to figure out distances. A few years later, I had a GPS gizmo in my vehicle, so I didn’t even have to print anything. Within a few more years, my phone had a GPS transceiver and Google Maps on board. Over time, more options and information were added to Google Maps, and it became a useful tool for driving, and in some locales, public transit, walking, and biking.

We’ve come to rely on these devices and applications. They’re wonderful tools not just for getting from point A to point B by the fast route. Through integration with other apps like RunGo, MapMyRun, and GarminConnect, we can plot our own course, meandering through places, playing with distances and elevations, choosing routes to take us by points of interest.

These technological solutions work great—when they have good data. Good data abound in municipalities and places that are easily accessible by car. If you begin to venture into more “remote” areas, natural areas and forest accessible only by foot or bike, the data quality at the heart of Google Maps—and thus the utility of the tools relying on it—begins to break down.

Here is Google Maps view of the trail system in a Washington state park.


Admittedly it carries more detail than I might have expected. But let’s take a look at another representation of the same area (from AllTrails).

screen shot 2019-01-06 at 1.58.36 pm

The first thing you might notice is that Google’s version is missing several trails. You might also notice that Google’s version lacks a bit of detail in the trails it does have, essentially showing a smoothed curve version of the trails.

There are two problems here.

The simplified map means that you will come to intersections that don’t exist or look different in Google’s map. Trails are confusing enough as is, and unknown forks become more challenging to navigate. It looks like the mapped course goes straight, but is it the one to the left that heads down hill or the one to the right that heads up the mountain and sort of parallel?


Even if you’re paying attention or have an app/device to tell you you’re off course, you’re still spending time retracing your steps and adding distance beyond what you planned.

The other problem is related to planning. Hiking and biking trails tend to wind a bit and have switchbacks to take you up and down hills (the 10-15% grade on switchbacks is probably preferable to tumbling down a 40% grade for the most part). Google Maps lacks a lot of that detail, which translates to shorter expected distance than actual distance—sometimes by more than 10%. From a physical fitness and planning perspective, that might not mean much when you’re talking about three or four miles, especially if they’re flat. But 10 or 20 when you’re heading up and down a mountain? That kind of accuracy probably isn’t dangerous if you prepare for the unexpected (as one should on trails), but it can be painful.

The truth is, even good maps suffer these issues but to a far lesser degree. And of course no map is immune to trail changes—washouts, closures, detours, reroutes—that haven’t been reported yet.

This turned a bit more technical than I’d planned, and if you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Somewhere in my head (which is currently muddled by running 28 miles with 5500 ft vertical gain over two sessions in ~26 hours), this connects to life more broadly.

Throughout life, we often look for guidance, something or someone to show us the way to where we need or want to be. Advice can be incredibly valuable but also unwittingly deceptive. Sometimes advisor doesn’t have (and never had) the full picture, either of the individual or the environment. Sometimes the landscape has changed. New paths have emerged, while others have become more difficult to traverse. We can fall into a false sense of, perhaps not security, but knowing. We come prepared to face challenges, even planning for the unexpected. Yet somehow we still fail to account for errors between the expected and the actual and are surprised by how long (or how far) the planned course takes us. We also might not appreciate the physical, mental, or emotional toll that it’s going to take.

Even the best laid course, perfectly executed, won’t match precisely with the plan or the vision. Some of its error in the tools we use to plan. Some of its error in the tools we use to measure our effort. Ultimately we have to decide how to manage our expectations and what metrics truly matter.

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