Summer Slowdown

Maybe I like this joke because tortoises are my totem animals (they remind me to take life in turtle steps, keep a tough outside but stay soft inside, stick my neck out to move forward, etc., etc.).  Here’s the joke:

 A turtle gets mugged by a large, hostile snail.  When the police ask him what happened, the turtle stammers, “I…I don’t know, officer.  It all happened so fast….”

That’s the way this summer is going for me.  It’s very, very slow, but when I look back on it, the time seems to have gone in a flash.  I used to worry about this, but I’ve recently been convinced that it’s a good thing.  Those of you who’ve roamed within earshot of me this past month have heard me raving about the process of skill development in the brain.  It turns out those “turtle steps” I take may actually be more useful than a jackrabbit sprint.


How Slow Can You Go?

My obsession with skill development comes from reading a book by Daniel Coyle, entitled The Talent Code.  Coyle describes the way the brain develops high levels of skill—basically, by wrapping a neural synapse in more and more layers of myelin, the waxy substance that coats our nerves like the plastic on a copper electric wire. 

The more myelin you’ve got, the faster and more preferentially the neuron will fire.  And the way to develop more myelin is something Coyle calls “deep practice.”  Repeating a skill-based action rapidly over and over won’t develop as much skill as doing it slowly, correcting your errors, then doing it slowly and correcting each tiny error again.  “It’s not how fast you can do it,” Coyle writes, quoting a famous tennis coach.  “It’s how slow you can do it right.”

Me gusta mucho.

The Firebirds

We residents of Phoenix should rejoice at this discovery, especially in the summer, because Phoenicians slow down this time of year.  I mean a lot.  In case you didn’t know, it gets hot here.  No, really.  This city was named after the mythical bird that burned itself up every so often, only to be reborn from the ashes, because birds that venture out during summer days frequently burst into flames.

Phoenix pigeon spontaneously combusting.

Or possibly the Holy Ghost.

The sun does not rise over Phoenix on a summer morning; it heaves itself over the horizon like a World Wrestling Federation steroid abuser and beats the crap out of the earth for fourteen straight hours before grumbling off to its locker room in the west, where it prepares for another onslaught.

So yeah, we slow down in the summer months.  A couple of times a day, Phoenicians may percolate from one air-conditioned space to another, but slowly, so as to generate no temperature rise within the body.  Walk at a normal pace in a Phoenix summer, and your brain will solidify in your head like a poached egg.  Errands are best run—or rather, ambled—between two and four o’clock in the morning, when you stand a reasonable chance of opening your car door without searing all the flesh off your palms. 

As someone who works from home year round, preferably in pajamas, I do what turtles do: lurk in shady places, take an occasional step forward, and watch out for hostile snails.  I strongly encourage this for you, too.  You can learn a lot living like a tortoise.  Here are some of my activities this summer, and what I am very slowly learning from them:

Self-Improving Thing One

This summer, I have watched every episode of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.  This has not taught me to dance.  (Are you serious?  There’s not enough sweat in the world to cool a dancing Phoenician).  What it’s taught me is that there are human beings who get more exercise in three minutes than I’ve accumulated in my entire lifetime. 


Mary Murphy Rendering an Opinion    Daughter of Zeus and Barbie

I’m talking, of course, about Mary Murphy, a delightful woman and one of the show’s judges, who gets her workouts by shrieking about Mexican food at a decibel level that requires all the other judges to wear adult diapers.  The dancers themselves are not actually human beings.  They are the result of sexual congress between Greek gods and Barbie dolls.  If you haven’t watched them, you should.  Seriously.

Self-Improving Thing Two

After climbing a mesquite tree in the middle of the night to hang up a squirrel-proof birdfeeder, I learned that squirrel-proof bird feeders are also largely bird-proof.  However, after weeks of depressingly low sales to neighborhood birds, my feeder was discovered by two Gila woodpeckers, who now show up every morning.  I named them Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Just because.  They did nothing to deserve it.)  Their daily visit are a high point in my life, probably because, as has so often been noted, I am on the wrong medication.


                       Animal-proof feeder.            Sodom.  Or maybe Gomorrah.  I can’t really tell.


Self-Improving Thing Three

Boldly mastering my DVD player after a mere six years of skill development, I just managed to watch the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson.  From this I learned that if you haven’t really been there for your kids during their childhood, you can make up for it when they’re teenagers with a rampage of torture, murder, and car theft.  The police, realizing that you are merely parenting, will leave you alone, especially if you shoot their wives in the arm.

Loving father, inspired by the movies, winning his children’s hearts.


Self-Improving Thing Four

Um…er….  Actually, there isn’t a Thing Four.  I’m trying to pace myself, dammit!


Signing Off for Myelin Synthesis

So that’s what I’m doing, thus far, on my summer vacation.  If you’re out there in Winnipeg or Pluto or other places that are notable for cool weather, you may not have slowed down quite as much as I have. This means that your myelin sheaths just aren’t going to build as effectively as mine.  

 It may not look as though I’m doing all that much, but I’m developing skills, baby—deep skills that will make your speedy accomplishments look like just another layer of shallow frippery.  I figure it will only take me about 687,950 more Phoenix summers.  Come turtle along with me!

31 replies
  1. Robin
    Robin says:

    I’m so glad that you’re back to blogging! You make me smile! Keep ’em coming. I’ve missed you.

  2. Layla
    Layla says:

    LOL! Martha, what a great movie review for “Taken”! I love it!

    It’s also good to know someone else shares my fascination with all of turtledom. Especially sea turtles. It’s really amazing to see an animal so awkward on the land be so graceful underwater. They’re just like angels.

  3. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I’ve been seeing so many turtles this spring and summer. I’ve been worried about them because I haven’t seen too many the past few years. This may be apropos of nothing, but they do make me think about the importance of protecting myself, staying slow and steady, and poking out my head to look around every so often.

  4. Andrea in Westchester
    Andrea in Westchester says:

    Martha- thanks for the refreshing shift in perspective. I have realized that I’ve been so busy trying to get it all done- that I missed enjoying the doing… thanks for the adjustment.

  5. Caryn
    Caryn says:

    I read Daniel Coyle's book last weekend. The book was a revelation because Coyle explained a lot of my strange behavior over the years. I'm spinning with ideas about how to use it now. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm also glad to hear that someone else also took away such classic "lessons" from the movie Taken.

  6. Gail Blesch
    Gail Blesch says:

    Hey Martha
    I see your sense of humor hasn’t slowed at all! Let me just say, the world’s a better place with you in it. You’ve already brought so much value, you could continue at a quarter of a turtle’s pace and still be providing light speed brilliance – it’s who you are, rather than how you are.
    Can’t say we love you enough.
    Take care.

  7. Ruth Nelson
    Ruth Nelson says:

    Thank you Martha. I named my dictator Helga–with apologies to my German ancestors–, my wild child is Matilda, and my observer is Martha. All three of us talk regularly and it has been a big help to me. My sisters think I am crazy but I know you understand. I had to order Coyle’s book because none of the local bookstores have it. I know it will be a help.

  8. Marilyn
    Marilyn says:

    Thank you, Martha. I’ve been spinning with anxiety about making changes in myself and life, and in a dream recently a man called me “Turtle,” and I’ve been trying to figure out what that meant for me. I read this and the lightbulb went on. I also had a dream of Africa… as I was trying to get my dream group to get moving I looked out the window and saw hippos swimming toward us (it was beautiful), and later African dolls floating… and following them a joyous tribe of African people walking through the water. I think I’m trying to do too much and move too fast, and am missing the amazing things that are happening around me. So thank you for this, and happy slow summer!

  9. Helen Shultz-Kamadulski
    Helen Shultz-Kamadulski says:


    Thank you for another enjoyable blog entry. Your wit is truly something to be envied, but instead I think I will just relish the fact that I’ve stumbled on to you and your wisdom. I totally love the idea of learning a skill deeply by practicing it slowly and correctly. That’s what I’m doing with my eating and exercising: very slowly moving towards better habits in both areas. So slowly in fact that you’ll have to watch me for a long, long time to see any progress.

    Seriously tho’it does bring to mind the whole baby step thing: small changes, slow changing? I think the two techniques have much in common. Plus I too am a fan of turtles. I think they are among the most wonderful of God’s creatures.

    Thanks Martha for being you and sharing yourself with those of us lucky enough to have found you and smart enough to be reading your offerings.

    Enjoy that Phoenix heat.

  10. Anne
    Anne says:

    Very funny, I enjoyed this. It also speaks to some anxiety I’ve had about getting my son up to speed in school. He is in a new environment and has to do all his studies in a second language that he has a basic knowledge of. I know our work needs to start slowly, but I was still starting to feel like he would never be able to put in enough time to be able to get to were he needs to be. However, he can’t really go any faster. It will come in time.


  11. Rose
    Rose says:

    Hey, I’m actually from Winnipeg. It actually does heat up here quite nicely for the whole 2 months of summer that we get! And in contrast to what you guys do down there, everything speeds up here in summer. Everybody is cramming as many events, weddings, camping trips, beach days, and pool parties into 8 weekends as possible. It’s nuts! Our turtle time is during the 6 months of winter, where going outside can be a life-risking adventure.

  12. phyllis matalis
    phyllis matalis says:


    Do you read the paper? Last month 477,000 more people are unemployed. Pain, pain, and more pain.

    All the roads lead to dead ends of misery.

    All the bandages in the world will not heal the hurts of the capitalist killing fields.

    The woo woo stuff doesn’t cut it. Soon, the hungry will be eating those birds outside your windows.

    If climate change doesn’t smother us, homelessness and job loss misery will.

    Address the issues of how to re-employ the homeless, the foreclosed people, the unemployed college grads. Come up to San Francisco for a look at the street people and their woes. I don’t the bird story will fly.

  13. Moira
    Moira says:

    You’re the world’s best undoscovered comedian Martha. And you waste it all on random hilarity in self-help books that really shouldn’t be funny, but really, really are. How “sad”.

  14. Emiko Jaffe
    Emiko Jaffe says:

    Like your other posts, insightful AND entertaining! I have been SO benefitting from applying turtle steps. It’s the most effective approach for recovery from overtraining as well as accomplishing new goals. So glad you taught us that! I’m still learning to apply the whole patience thing in other areas of my life, but I’m, um, turtle-stepping it . . . Thanks Martha!

  15. Katie Peterson
    Katie Peterson says:

    Hysterical! And happy to know I’m not the only one on the wrong medication. 🙂

  16. Layla Fowler
    Layla Fowler says:

    Dear Martha, fellow shaman-born & mystical tribe members–I would appreciate your ideas!!!

    I had in a dream last night what I think was a vision of religious ecstasy. I’m used to having crazy dreams, but this one felt completely clear & real. A beautiful lady in white robes appeared in a ball of golden flame, & just sort of… hovered there ahead of me. She didn’t say anything, but I was overwhelmed w/this feeling of kindness and compassion. All I could do was drop to my knees and weep with relief. Even thinking about it now makes me weepy. It was the most intensely wonderful feeling, & in my dream trying to tell others about it it was so intense I couldn’t stop weeping. In my dream I thought she must be an angel because i’m used to seeing the Virgin Mary in red and blue. But I don’t know.

    The thing i’m wondering is, what now? Does this mean i’m supposed to go take care of lepers in India, or lead the Jews out of Egypt or something? I was raised by hippies & although my family is Catholic, i’ve never been a traditionally religious person. I’m a little baffled & lack the proper context on how to react to this.

    Thanks y’all! I appreciate your help!

  17. Marilyn
    Marilyn says:

    Martha, you give me hope. I am off work with anxiety and fibro. (I nurse kids with cancer usually and everyone else I meet.) I’m learning that doesn’t work for me any more.
    I like your turtle comment. It is my biggest frustration. I’m not getting well as quickly as I like. However, I am learing to embrace a nap, a lazy day and being off in the summer in the Toronto/Niagara area.
    I only hope I can have your courage.
    I love the idea of being in a tribe too!!!!
    Every tried belly dancing?

  18. DoodleMama
    DoodleMama says:

    Hi Martha,

    I was laid off a few weeks ago (3rd one in 5 years – ahhh, the southern california job market!) and normally I go into super-hyped-up OMYGOD! mode and move into the careerbuilder website. This time, I am trying something new . . . breathing. Your turtle descriptions describe, well . . . me, these days. Thank you for sharing! I am practicing serious dog therapy (Turtles must love dogs 🙂 with my 3 precious labradoodles who are great listeners and think I am the coolest thing since chicken strips. Mama Turtle and her 3 Doods . . . slowing down to feel it all. Unemployment might be just what the Great Turtle in the sky ordered. Thank you for being you. Hugs, Alysia

  19. Carrie Schmidt
    Carrie Schmidt says:

    Reading your blog has been my first laugh today of a very long day. I’ve been reading your Oprah articles and books, and I appreciate your sarcastic wit. I’m working my way through Steering By Starlight. I had to laugh after the chapter where I’m supposed to write down my dreams. Well, on my first night of attempting this I had only been woken up no less than 4 times by my children, so no coherant dreams were remembered that night. I’m just lucky if I can get enough sleep to remain sane the next day.

    Anyway, I really enjoy your writing and best wishes!

  20. Janelle
    Janelle says:

    Oh, I love it. Summer is for slow progress, and even in the North, where things speed up because we are thawing out for once, we like to slow down and smell the roses. Thanks again for blogging. You are wonderful!

  21. twokaren2
    twokaren2 says:

    Martha, I know this is not a contest but I have been to Phoenix and I live in Houston (I was happily livng in Colorado when my then-soon-to-be-ex-husband tricked me into moving here, where I’ve been ever since 1974) and here it has been heat indexes of 100 something plus every day for 2 months and I have had it! Thanks for your entertaining wisdom. I’ve often thought about the irony of hibernating through brutal summers……

  22. Iyabo Asani
    Iyabo Asani says:

    This is what I love about Martha Beck! You are smart and funny!

    OK, I will purposely develop my myelin sheaths by slowing down.

    Atlanta is hot too but different hot from Phoenix!

    Iyabo Asani

  23. Mary Kay Walsh
    Mary Kay Walsh says:

    Hi Martha,
    I’ve read your books and now your blog. Thanks for keeping it real. You are so funny!

  24. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    To Martha and all who follow this blog, our beloved dog Shelby had a massive hemorrhage along his spinal cord of unknown origin on Wednesday, had surgery to decompress the spinal cord Wednesday night, and has been at a fine veterinary teaching hospital for recovery. His prognosis for his nerves “waking up” is not good. However, my husband and I are keeping hope that he will regain his ability to walk. Please pray, chant, meditate or anything helpful for our Shelby. I would appreciate it so much.

  25. Layla
    Layla says:

    Hey Martha, me again. Just wanted to say thanks for the tip on “Lie to Me”. I’ve been watching the episodes online on the Fox website, & I love it! Great show!

  26. Amy Lawrence
    Amy Lawrence says:

    I loved your latest blog. I have been rereading one of your books today about Square One. That’s where I am. I decided to close my tea room and keep my on-line tea business. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore and I wanted to do more things in the tea world. It was a decision I made myself and am very happy about, but sometimes like today, I’m feeling a bit blah and uninspired. After reading your book today and reading your post, I realize it’s all about turtle steps. I know I will feel the passion again, I’ve made changes in my life before and I know it takes a bit to re-energize myself. It will come, I just need to be patient. So thanks for your reminder to stop and enjoy life now and take turtle steps.

  27. Bark Off Reviews
    Bark Off Reviews says:

    As a new puppy owner I value all the advice in this article. I really want my four-legged friend to be properly trained and have a healthy and balanced setting to live in. Many thanks for the info.

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