Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Who Do You Want Me to Be?

I’m grateful that I can write in any style. Well, maybe not any style. But most styles. A lot of styles.

I cut my teeth as a writer in newspapers. So I can write journalism. Whether the standard inverted pyramid — just the facts, Jack — or as the house organ (editorials). Columns were fun. (I always wanted to be a columnist.) And features were maybe my favorite.

In later adulthood I have gone back to school. And then gone back to school again. (Someday maybe I’ll be smart enough to stop going to school. Don’t count on it.) So I know academic style. I perfected the personal response paper. Term papers? Puh-leez. Word caps — rather than word counts — were made for discursive schmucks like me. I also wrote my share of theses (plural).

One of my degrees is in creative writing — I took a creative nonfiction tract but some of my best teachers and favorite courses were in fiction — so I guess you could say I have some literary chops. Though I have too much respect for people who spend their writing lives making fine art from words to suggest I can rip off works in the same way they do. No.

My only book is a biography and they gave that book an award. So there’s that style, too.

In the professional arena, when you have non-writing jobs but happen to be a writer, you are often assigned tasks that involve putting words together. I can write a letter on behalf of the company — whether we wish to sincerely apologize or send you the important information you requested.

Copywriting. Press releases. I once kept up a daily blog writing as a bird for a bookstore. Who here’s got that one on their writing resume?

Now I began this post expressing my gratitude for my writing dexterity. And it’s true — I am grateful. I have been given great opportunities to try out different styles and try to reach different audiences. Oh, I just thought of another: I have even educated under-served populations through printed pages, as I once had a staff job at an educational publishing company. I wrote and edited booklets that aimed to teach life skills. (I joke that I have written in all sub-genres of nonfiction save for power tool manuals.)

In truth, too, I wonder if my ambidextrousness is a byproduct of an absence of Self. Maybe I can write in so many styles — using so many different voices — not because of enviable skills so much as because the center isn’t (or at least wasn’t in my formative years as a writer) stable.

Maybe I imitate because I am, well, an imitator.

An actor might say something similar, I suppose.

In the end, I have come to appreciate this ability — I rewrote an entire thesis in a whole new style after one advisor retired mid-stream and the new advisor was more by-the-book; I’ll also never forget when the editor of the publishing company read a rewrite of one of my booklets and looked at me and said, “I couldn’t do that” — meaning, he couldn’t write the same material in two wholly different voices and styles — as there is an upside to being able to speak in different voices to different audiences.

The downside: I do have some jealousy for those of more limited range — very possibly they get more meaningful work done. Certainly, they spend less time looking at the menu of writing styles than I do.

Freedom can be restricting.

I do best when I’m boxed in — when you tell me who you want me to be.

Baby Doesn’t Need a New Pair of Shoes

 

I’m not sure how they did it — or why they did it — but at some point since I moved into my home someone (or some industrious squirrel) hung a pair of Air Jordans on the power lines that run through the alley adjacent to my driveway. I love the horizon view from my backyard. Except after the shoes showed up they became eye magnets. I couldn’t not see them. Even if I did successfully look above and beyond to the great yonder those shoes still loomed like an itch you can scratch. Over time the shoes seemed to get bigger. As if eventually their souls would fit the feet of a giant.

More than anything, they just seem trashy.

Cars on cinder blocks.

Broken windows.

Shoes on a wire.

Talking to my more world-aware neighbor one day some months ago, he said that when he lived in Chicago shoes on a wire meant “drugs are sold here.” Doing a little Snoping around on the InterWeb, it seems shoes on a wire might symbolize more than one thing — such as a delineation of a gang’s territory, a declaration after a recent loss of virginity or another coming-of-age pronouncement, or, as my neighbor suggested, the availability of medications of the sort that don’t require a doctor’s order.

I don’t want any passersby to think my house is an option to get their mind-altering needs met. For they would surely be disappointed. I might have some rapidly aging gin in the cupboard — and that’s about it. Nothing that lights up — or lights you up, for that matter.

In any event, the shoes were slung on a wire high enough and away from garages or other structures, making them hard to reach using a ladder or other common means. I counted the shoes as a permanent part of the landscape. For more than a year … through wind and sleet and snow … they dangled there.

Except! When my handyman was over the other day and we were tending to my garage sensor lights when I made a sneering remark about the shoes over our heads.

“Do you want to get them down?” Bruce asked.

“Are you kidding?”

Bruce has at least one of everything in his hatchback. And, sure enough, he had an extension pole. It had not occurred to me that trying to remove the shoes was even an option. I had a long list for Bruce — items that had lingered since spring when the pandemic struck — and it had not crossed my mind that shoe removal could be added to this roster of tasks.

The pole itself didn’t do it. The shoes could be reached but not with enough leverage to swing them loose. Then Bruce duct-taped a flat iron to the pole and, after a struggle to heighten the drama, I finally flipped left over right — or was it right over left? — and, anyway, the shoes came tumbling to the ground and forever out of sight.

It was emotional.

Do the Work

Recently, I moved my writing desk from one room to another. The desk went from the living room, through the kitchen, into a small room labeled as a bedroom in the house plan because possibly you could get a twin in there (though, sorry, little room left for a nightstand and a dresser is out of the question.) The total distance the desk transversed was about forty feet.

This might have been the most significant thing I did all week.

Eighty-five percent of this distance was a smooth slide across the floor. The other fifteen percent required me to shoehorn the desk around and between the back door and the steps that lead downstairs. The space between these two entries is easily tighter than the width of the desk.

I wish I would have timed how long it took me to traverse this canal — raising and lowering the height of the desk, seeking angles that generated sufficient force but not too much, using every inch of real estate but not a centimeter too much, as I did not want to leave evidence of the journey on the walls (too late). It would, no doubt, shock you how hard this was for sensate-world-challenged me.

After, mercifully, I reached the other side, stood the desk up, and wiped the sweat off my brow, the first thing that came to mind was a book I read in grad school, back when I knew so much more than I do now.

Oh how I railed against the Handbook for Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds when it was assigned in an inter-disciplinary course I took on the topic of the Self. (Even just the title — ick.) I went back just now and reviewed my notes as well as a written contribution I made to the class discussion. Such derision. Such snark!

It’s been too long to give an honest review of the book in toto, but, in my memory, the author seemed to have a rudimentary view of the mind. He discounted the very real challenges some of us have faced reconciling the complexity of our confusing combo platter of thoughts and feelings. He also projected an altogether dismissive — one might say hostile — view of every person now or ever employed in the mental health field.

So why did I recall this book, read eight-plus years ago, that I didn’t like then — heck, hated then — and have heard or read mentioned directly or in print absolutely zero times since?

Because amongst all the chaff the author did make a single point that has stuck.

That point is this: Do the work that needs doing.

We often look for answers or inspiration — we look to solve the future — in order to clear the way, in order so that we may do the work. We get it backwards; do the work, then you will have energy for the neurotic rest. Or, even better, the barriers before you magically lower. The work makes you taller.

I run within circles of people, sensitive, thoughtful people, who strive hard to be good and do right and heal wounds and cause little or no angst, and I have a couple of decades of self-reflective answer-seeking under my belt and, well, sometimes the best thing I can do is move a desk. Sometimes I have to roll up the proverbial shirtsleeves. Sometimes I just have to do the work.

Not feeling well? Hurting? Frustrated? Angsty? The cure might well be not in meditating or journaling or lighting incense and trying to become one with the universe but rather in just doing the work.

Now, what is the work, exactly? Good question. I don’t think the answer comes easily for most of us. It certainly has not for me. For some, therapy — formal or informal therapy — might be necessary work. It has been for me at times and very possibly it will be again. But that is not what I am meaning in this context when I use the word work. In fact, I mean not-therapy.

Work: the thing you need to do to honor and live out your purpose.

Your art. Your business. Your contribution.

The reason you are here. The thing you must do.

Again, I’ll be the first to admit it’s often easier said than done to know always what that is and distraction is omnipresent. Too, the same task could be a distraction or part of the work. It’s not always easy to know. Some of this is in the eye of the beholder. (I would say you know it when you feel it but that could just be what works for me.)

I would say also intention is key and having some strong connection to the larger vision (purpose) is essential.

Was I put on this earth to move that desk?

I wouldn’t say it that way. What I would say is that that I had decided, in lieu of the changing world in which I found myself — like many, the pandemic necessitated that work-at-home arrangements be made — that moving the desk was the right thing for both my physical space and my headspace. Yet, knowing it would be a chore, and involve some cost — I had to upgrade my internet service; long story but the alternative involved cords through the kitchen — I had put off the move. The longer I did the more this got in the way of the work (personal work — purpose — not so much the work I do for pay).

The move created a better space for me to do the for-pay work that sustains me. And made me feel more content and capable to take on the rest.

Moving furniture around a room could be a distraction from doing the work that needs doing.

In this one case, for me, moving this one piece was a necessary part of the work.

Restart

Essay filed. In the meantime, illness paid a visit. Nothing serious, nothing that could not be endured, certainly nothing of the order of which many deal daily, but enough to cause a downshift in gears.

Is there any moment better in life than the one in which your become newly aware malady is on its way out? You are perhaps not free, not yet, but the door is open and the visitor’s backside is in view?

The breath resumes its optimal cadence.

Pause

This space has been vacated of late as my meager writing bandwidth is being taken up by an essay I am writing for a regional magazine. I will note the occasion of its publication at that time.

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.