Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Give Up the Dream

Sometimes an utterance — whether an essay, a book review, a personal communication, whatever — comes to mind with such clarity. It makes me giddy. It’s about all I can think about. Or want to. For an hour or more. In my head, it’s forceful or sweet or tender or provocative. But then … when I actually compose … not so much. It’s like the version in my mind put together parts that are truly disparate and should remain so, at least so far as written communication is concerned. The demands of words on page or screen, if they are to be understood by another, break up the seemingly brilliant utterance, humbling me. Sometimes the disparity between what is perceived and what can be produced makes me feel like a fool. I used to get frustrated by this dissonance. I wonder now if it’s not merely another form be enjoyed. The movie-of-the-mind version. So what if it cannot be exactly transcribed? Does that make it lesser?

Work-in-Progress

I am trying to draft an essay. I am putting pressure on myself to make it good. This is not advised. First drafts and good are mutually exclusive.

When I start an essay I am cranky until I have a solid draft. When I have a solid draft, I can fly. I can edit and rewrite until the cows come home. But until then, it’s wheelbarrowing uphill. With a load of rocks.

Anyway, the essay is about baseball. And one baseball player in particular. It’s about summer memories. It’s about Time.

And, well, it’s why I have not been writing in this space of late.

I only have so much time — and the bandwidth gets drained quickly by these dang first drafts.

I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up

What is the story with the beetles we encounter on our walks who manage to go belly up on the sidewalk with no apparent ability to right themselves? They move their myriad legs as if they are running in the park yet they are not moving. They are going nowhere. Maybe not ever again. Unless aided by a human passerby. Is this a blind spot in evolution — that a creature no taller than a pinkie toenail is so back heavy it is helpless if tipped over? I did my deed for the day. I rescued one such beetle. But it wasn’t easy, let me say. He didn’t want to stay on the leaf I used for transport. This is your magic carpet ride, buddy! Sit back — like the only thing you can do — and this will only take a minute. You can thank me later.

Expand the Problem

I have been drawn of late to the remarks and writings of certain politically conservative intellectuals — contemporary critics guided by principles rather than power or policy agendas. People who do or did identify as Republicans all of their lives but who at this critical time are willing to speak truth even if it means blowback in the form mean tweets — people who don’t change or hide their values because their political party would have them do so. If the president is ineffective and/or unstable, they say so. Data and science are important. Intelligence matters.

David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current writer-editor at Atlantic magazine, is one of my favorite examples. When he is on, I tend to watch. When he writes an essay, I tend to read. And so when he was a recent guest on the Daily Stoic podcast, which is otherwise hit-or-miss for me, I made a point to listen. The topic of the interview was that of political courage. Quick review: it’s worth the time.

Among the reasons why I am drawn to thinkers like Frum is that he is, well, really bright. He has the fearlessness of security that comes from earned intelligence: he has read the books. He doesn’t try to shock, he doesn’t try to be provocative — even when he is doing and being exactly that. When you are secure in yourself you don’t worry much what others think. Frum also has a gift for words; he turns a good phrase. He is an independent thinker and often his takes are unique. Read his essays and it’s not hard to tell he was a speechwriter for the highest office in the country.

Most of all, what I appreciate even more than the flourish of his words is the economy of same. So often when I listen to people who have viewpoints with whom I generally agree — political pundits or opinion journalists, even legal minds with high profiles — my reaction is to scratch my head. They use too many words. Sometimes so many words that the point is lost — forest for the trees.

I wonder if there is something to be said here about the downside of empathy, sensitivity — that when your tentacles are acute you tend to pick up too much. You try too hard to be inclusive. It’s good to see all sides, of course, that is part of intelligence, but, to be effective, conversation must be clear. While nuance matters, and few matters in life are black and white, if you only have sixty seconds to speak — if you only have 1,500 words of space — you don’t get to say everything. And to try is to often say nothing at all.

Frum seldom fails to say something and one line from the aforementioned podcast interview has stuck with me a few days after I listened to it: “Expand the problem,” he said.

The conversation at that point was about the number of significant problems our country currently faces and will continue to face in the decade to come. Pandemic. Health care. Climate change. Jobs. Rather than tackle one or the other of these problems, he said — and he acknowledged this was not an original thought; he said it’s been attributed to Dwight Eisenhower — expand the problem. Meaning, look for a solution that addresses all or many of these challenges at the same time.

Leaving aside public policy — as much as I would like to, it’s not my goal to solve the pandemic, health care, climate change right here in this post — I find the idea personally useful. How often do I see a problem, or a series of problems, as isolated issues to be addressed until I can get on with the real business of life — the so-called “important” parts, the ones that matter to me most? And how often is it the case that as soon as I engage the problem I lose a sense of perspective — that these matters are part of my larger purpose? Expand the problem. When I connect to something larger in me, the small things stay small. They may still take time and attention, sure. But they don’t weigh me down as much as they would if I made them my focus with blinders on.

I am talking, of course, of purpose. When we look at life as one to-list item after another it starts to feel like we are always working at a job that doesn’t mean much to us — and doesn’t pay well. Flip those same tasks around — paying bills, the chores of maintaining a home, even in some cases the jobs we do for monetary pay — and they can be seen as part of a larger life purpose. When moments have meaning we have energy for life in those moments.

On my to-do list write now are a few stale items: a thank you note that is overdue, a purchase I want to make, a short task I want to learn how to do. On one hand, I think of these things as mundane matters that at one point I thought I should do. I can also think of them as part of my larger purpose — that by doing them they speak to my reason for being, that not by not doing them they are holding me back from that same reason.

The analogy is breaking down here some, a clear thinker like Frum would likely point out. I may also have lost any readers who wanted to stay with me. I’m OK with the imperfect analogy, and I apologize if I am at all not clear on how that analogy is useful to me. I suspect my thinking will sharpen in response to this post. The key at this point is to introduce the idea to the psyche so that the psyche can add it to the mix when I am on autopilot.

To expand a problem is, by definition, a way to expand one’s thinking. Hopefully, I will do so in my mind as concisely as Frum articulates his political points in the public square.

Beautiful Morning

The squirrel, my dog’s arch nemesis, showed up first thing. So did the birds — so many small birds gathered around the feeders, on the tree limbs. And bunnies. We must have just passed mating season for we see so many young rabbits on our walks right now. This morning, we had the neighborhood to ourselves. Seemingly. The park was empty. The sidewalks were clear. The high humidity broke some days ago. The mornings, like today, are as close to perfect as we get to experience in this life — cool enough to be comfortable, not chilly enough to need more than a T-shirt. Thank God or whoever or whatever forces or factors made possible these breaths in this place, so grateful am I that I get to live where I do and walk with my little buddy, who is still so curious about the world, stopping us every few feet to smell, if not roses, then at least bushes and posts and trees and a million things I cannot see. I try to feel the bottom of my feet, try to see the clouds, and grab a street sign, and watch the tuning-fork nose at the end of the leash. We take in what he can. It’s all we can do.

Misty, Water-Colored

Today is 7-11. When I wrote those numbers at the top of a fresh page in my notebook this morning I heard the sound they made in my mind and my mind sent me back to a day more summers ago than I care to count when we rode our bikes what seemed like a really long way from home but which was probably about 10 blocks so that we could get a Slurpee at 7-Eleven. I am recalling not a usual act but a specific day when buddies around our age had the idea and, surprisingly, I was allowed to go that far. I recall one of their older brothers showed up, too, and I think he could drive a car by then, not just a dirt bike like us suburban scrappers, and he bought a Big Gulp — a soda poured into a container that in my memory was as large as a tub of popcorn at the Apache movie theater. And not the small tub of popcorn, either.

The closer convenience store — the one that was not the seeming day trip of 7-Eleven — was called Brooks. I remember the name because there was a girl in school named Brooks and I was almost as sweet on her (though I would have denied it to your face had you asked me at the time) as I was on the dental-destroying slabs of hard, bright, colored candy I bought at Brooks when I was given the money to go. Another memory just joined this collage of crazy scenes and this one is especially hazy: did one of us steal from Brooks? Was the one of us in question me? As a kid, I was very much the good boy. I did not engage in even the most of the usual adolescent misbehaviors. If I thieved something, it was extremely rare. My conscience would have been weighed down as though I carried rather than road my bike. Thinking … I don’t think I did. I think a buddy did. This was almost as bad.

In any event, Brooks the store did not remain open long and, more sadly, Brooks the girl went away even sooner than my last placed memory of being in the store. Her family moved out of the district before we reached middle school.

If I am not mistaken, the Brooks clan moved because her father got a new job. I remember sweet-talker me once asking the comely and bright brunette Ms. Brooks on the school bus whether her father worked at the store where I got my slabs of candy. I mean given the name of the store. I recall when she told me “no” that she did so without taking the very real opportunity she had at that moment to laugh at me.

More Is Less

I notice how frequently I negotiate with myself in the gym: you should do more reps, more sets, more weight.

This is good so more must be better.

This is flawed thinking. I am still working my way back and, frankly, also searching for a smarter, new normal. What I did before was good but not always optimal.

I still have a lot to learn but it seems what my psyche is teaching me now is to do enough.

Enough is enough.

More than enough is too much.

Take your progress to the bank. Come back tomorrow — or the next day — and make another deposit. You cannot, should not, spend all of your energy all at once.

To be sure, it is not always easy to know what is enough. And, no doubt, perfection — whatever that is — is not the goal.

But you know enough as soon as you cut your set short.

You also know enough as soon as you do one rep too many.

The voice in your head tells you. The body tells you. They may not always be right. But usually they are and, besides, they’re all you’ve got.

The Endless Search: A Life Story

There is death happening all around me.

After I found a couple of carpenter ants in the house, I called an exterminator. Mostly, he put down preventative — he’s trying to thwart the ants’ pheromones; trying to make them think otherwise about taking up residence here with me and the little buddy. It’s a sort of Jedi mind trick for creatures without nervous systems. No, you do not want to go over here. You want to go over there.

Also there may be a nest in my ash tree. There the goal is not scent confusion but rather execution. I have nothing against ants, carpenter or otherwise, and I don’t think they mean to do me harm. But they could; they could cause damage to my home and that leaves a guy with no choice.

To be sure, I don’t have a problem today. I am simply taking steps to make sure I don’t have one tomorrow.

The stuff went down two nights ago. Earlier this afternoon I thought about a carpenter ant I found crawling up the side of my living room wall, the reason for my call. He was all alone roaming and moving his tentacles, crawling this way and that, headed up, over, back, up, again, up. If you look close — or try to catch one in close quarters — there is an intelligence there. They may not know how to conjugate a verb or make a TikTok, but ants do know well the business of being ants.

We think we are so smart but are we so different from ants roaming around on a wall?

Of late, when even friend gatherings are conducted through a screen, I have stood back — which is the advantage and disadvantage of a Zoomed experience; detachment — and observed smart, thoughtful, sensitive people as they wrestle with intellectual and emotional challenges of the sort that have challenged human beings for millennia. You see lights go off during moments of clarity that you know will be fleeting; you see projections of hopes-fears onto others; and you see good questions that want answers but don’t have them. And, well, we’re all roaming and moving our tentacles, crawling this way and that, headed up, over, back, up, again, up. (If not, all of us, thankfully, on my living room wall.)

That is the point of writing for me — to crystallize thinking, to consolidate experience, to see what I am too distracted or distorted to fully process in the moment — so that my experience registers more keenly, leaving me (hopefully) a wee bit more conscious of what it means to be alive. This is possible whether I’m looking at an ant — or at the guy who appears when I stand before a mirror, the one who finds fleeting clarity and casts projections, and asks questions without answers.

The same questions, by the way, that have always been asked.

And may always be asked.

We’re all roaming about along the vast terrain of uncertainty.

Monster Mash

American exercise habits seem to fall into two predominant camps at present: many people seldom move beyond that which is absolutely necessary and many others don’t think they have gotten a good workout unless they are unable to easily move their extremities the next day.

One sign you worked out well is that the next day you don’t feel sore. That’s right. You should not. Feel. Sore.

Pain is your body telling you something and that something isn’t “more, please.”

Now maybe in certain muscles you exerted strenuously you will, 12 to 36 hours post-workout, feel a tightening or a mild level of soreness — when you specifically move those muscles. So, say, the morning after leg day, you might feel a dull sensitivity on your way down a flight of stairs. Or after doing some overhead presses, you extend your shoulder to reach for a shirt in the back of the closet and you feel it in your rear deltoid. That type of sore is fine — let’s you know, in fact, your muscles were exerted. But if the pain is constant, you went too hard, used poor form, or both.

What I can say about my workout yesterday is that I didn’t use poor form!

Alas, I am more sore than I should be following my most aggressive comeback sequence of squats to date: six sets of eight reps.

Specifically, I feel the Frankenstein leg stiffness not just on the basement stairs but also when I sit in the kitchen chair. That is a maneuver is should not have to consciously think about avoiding pain to perform.

At this point, I am fully committed to form. Of my 48 reps, there was one where I went a wee bit shallow. Otherwise, I went though the full range of motion with solid technique, no undue strain,,on each rep of each set. As this was quite a bit of volume for less than a month in, I must have been a bit too aggressive with my weight.

How much to push yourself is never easy to know — in weightlifting and in life.

Lift and learn. Lift and learn.

Badass

It’s strange to have a song stuck in your head when you don’t know the last time you heard the song, you haven’t before especially liked the song, and, in a way, the song predates you.

In fact, Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was recorded the year I was born. The following year it became the number one song in America. It ranked second on the charts for all of 1973.

Here I am at the end of a weekday more than four decades later, for reasons passing understanding, singing the refrain under my breath.

Upstairs, downstairs, backyard, shower.

C’mon, sing it with me. You know you want to.

And it’s bad, bad Leroy Brown/The baddest man in the whole damned town/Badder than old King Kong/And meaner than a junkyard dog

In truth, this is the only part of the song I know — the same part everyone knows.

Needing to expand my mindless lyrical range, I looked up the rest of the words. Turns out, the song tells a decent story, that of a man who commands respect — maybe even fear — all over town by way of his size (he is what the ladies call a “Treetop Lover”) and his manner (“meaner than a junkyard dog”). Leroy thinks, with his money (flashing his fancy clothes and his “Eldorado”) and his ability to intimidate both genders, that he can do and say whatever he wants. He thinks nothing, for one thing, of flirting with a married woman.

Eventually, Leroy gets his comeuppance. The woman’s husband takes Leroy aside and has more than a word with him.

Well the two men took to fighting/And when they pulled them off the floor/Leroy looked like a jigsaw puzzle/With a couple of pieces gone

As I said, I have never before voluntarily played the song — never before thought “I’m in the mood for Leroy.” So why is this song coming up for me? At all? Right now? So strongly?

I ask such questions because, of course, the universe is all about me.

Seriously, I can only truly view matters through my own lens … it’s all I got — to the extent I even have that.

I don’t have a great answer, which is why the question is, to me, worthwhile. Possibly I am being bad? Hmmm. Though capable, I have been pretty good of late! My demeanor doesn’t much intimidate — I don’t think — not even my own dog is intimidated by me.

Well, now that I think of it, sometimes I think I possibly present has having myself more to together than I do — I sometimes articulate myself well enough that I may sound smarter than I am. Maybe there is something “intimidating” there but it seems to be overthinking things a bit. Seems too literal of an interpretation to be plausible. The psyche is far more interesting than that. Most of the time, frankly, I do not have the means or the manner to be a modern-day Leroy …

… maybe instead there is a warning in here about the shortness of life. Croce himself died not long after this song was released. He would not have been able to play it live much …

… where I go, though, what seems truer to me, is I wonder more about tone. I can always use reminders to take life less seriously. Croce delivers the seemingly serious tale of bad Leroy in an upbeat, almost childlike, sing-song sound. Despite the adult themes — and at the time it was very rare, even controversial, to use curse words like “whole damned town” in a song that played on the radio — to be sure, “99 Problems” didn’t play in the background at the shopping mall — this is a fun tune.

Not sure. Maybe clarity will come. Or maybe it won’t. In the meantime:

And it’s bad, bad Leroy Brown