Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Preparation Not Procrastination

Looking for something to listen to as I dosed off — something that didn’t involve Trump news — I stumbled last night upon close to the opposite: “Roy’s Writing Tools,” a “podcast” version of the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark’s book, Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Exactly eleven years ago today tool No. 41 dropped: “turn procrastination into rehearsal.” In it, the well-known and highly regarded journalism instructor asks a provocative question: what if we viewed procrastination not as a vice but as a virtue? All writers procrastinate to some degree, he says, but what if procrastination were constructive? Maybe even necessary? While he suggests things to help combat procrastination — write right away in the morning, write early in the process, and discount nothing — I found this a useful frame. It’s another example that we almost always have a choice in how we think about something. I am not sure I will use the term “rehearsal,” but the idea is the important thing. What if I am preparing? Building? Gathering? Of course, there are limits here — many people never write the essay, the manuscript, the book. But if you stay close to a project and not sling too many arrows at yourself, it can be that there are right times — better times — times when we are strong enough — to research, draft, revise, and rewrite. In other words, it’s OK to wait. It might be important, in fact, not to rush through the space between idea and execution.

Be Careful What You Wish For

While I am not in favor of destruction, and I take a strong stand against accidental death — most especially if innocent animals are involved — I do like me a good summer storm. Give me rolling thunder and flashes of light that cut through windows and bounce around the room. Rain. Is there any better way to sleep than to the steady patter of rain on your roof?

I lamented aloud to colleagues last week that in recent years, or so it seems, we have been slighted our share of storm time. When the thunder clouds do come, they don’t stay long. As soon as you settle in, you look outside and see the post-game glow.

As I write these words, it’s been storming off and mostly on for seventeen straight hours and, well, I just woke up from a nap. Usually, storms calm me, inspire me, yet this one has left me low on energy and not especially high in spirits. The little buddy and I missed our morning walk — I still would have gone but he’s not the fan of rain I am — and life is not the same when we miss our morning walk.

We still do have the couch. On it, we stay close. I keep him stable and he keeps me comfortable. No destruction here.

Attention!

Mindfulness is all the rage right now.

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but for some time I have noticed a mild but adverse reaction arise inside when I hear that word. This even though I know — even though I have seen in my own life — that locating oneself in the present brings about myriad benefits, not the least of which is a focus on the only moment that can be reconciled — this one.

Yet word I like instead is attention.

What are you paying attention to?

What has your attention?

To attend to something or someone.

Perhaps it’s a semantical distinction only but the difference between the new-agey “mindfulness” and the old-school “attention” (the word the Stoics used) processes in my mental gear-shaft differently. Attention is less a calming technique and more a word that speaks to and helps fuel a person’s purpose. To be mindful is to observe; to pay attention is to apply that observation — to act, specifically, in a deliberate and conscious manner. Mindfulness is airy, attention is practical.

(I have no doubt that a mindfulness expert, and I am decidedly not one, might parse the word and its application differently than I am here. I want merely to note my observation/reaction. If you owe something to mindfulness I do not, to be sure, wish to take it away.)

Attention, too, to me at least, speaks to choice. You are not merely allowing the proverbial river to run — the proverbial clouds to pass gently by, carrying with them all your ego-driven thoughts — but rather you are engaged in the writing, the speaking, the listening, the reading, your relations, your work.

Certainly, you could pay attention to frivolous things. But if you are, you have chosen to do so. Besides, it seems unlikely if you are one who pays attention that you will fritter away much off your time. I could be wrong.

Time: that is what we are talking about — right?

How are you using your allotment?

This seems not an insignificant question for every person.

Of the infinite options we have with our minutes, are we making wise choices?

I have a complicated relationship with time. On one hand, I have long held a keen sensitivity to its finiteness. I know life is short. I don’t have to be told. On the other, as a result, I have sometimes placed too much weight on every moment, downplaying endeavors I value thinking that I should not. Another way to put it: Unless I am doing significant things, I am wasting my time. And, well, life is full of mundane moments. It’s a high bar to think you must clear high bars all day long.

For example, I find writing to be a worthwhile use of one’s time — a way for some of us to discover and synthesize our thinking, to make use of an effective form of communication, and a means to move the world a little (such as with the creation of art or any thoughtful utterance). Yet not every sentence is going to sing — not every thought is worth putting into words, not every story is worth telling. To be a writer is to squander time on a whole lot of bad work. Sometimes the shit turns into something. Sometimes you are just shoveling shit for seemingly no reason.

There is, of course, a reason — it’s a necessary part of the process.

Yet it’s not easy to be, ahem, mindful of this when you look at the clock and see that you have spent two, three hours putting sentences together that aren’t worth sharing or preserving. (More than once as I have read through this very post have I wondered whether these specific sentences fall into that precise category.)

I have little in the way of grand conclusions here. What is coming up for me is that it’s pretty hard to write — even if the writing is shit — if you are not paying to your thoughts and the words that aim to uncover and convey those thoughts. In that way, writing is, in its essence, a form of — a way to pay — attention.

And so in that way is its own reward.

All the Way Down

The guy working in the rack next to mine the other day was back-squatting. He had more weight on the bar than I did. He was younger than I am. What he wasn’t doing was getting as low I do. He wasn’t going through the full range of motion. He wasn’t even going through close to the full range of motion.

When he brought his butt back, he did not get low enough to sit in the proverbial chair. Not really close to sitting the proverbial chair.

My goal always — and I can confirm it was achieved in all five reps of all five sets in my squat workout this morning — is to go below parallel. There is a sweet spot down there, from which you seemingly “bounce” back up. Bounce even with three-plus plates on each side.

It takes trust to go so low.,There is a chance you won’t come back up. Such is life — nothing is a given, certainly not when you’ve got more than your body weight on your back.

Possibly this young lifter was injured or recovering from injury. Or maybe he plays a sport — like basketball– where there is value in the half-squat. There was no visible sign of injury and he didn’t look like basketball player. But I did not know him; I did not talk to him; I cannot say anything about him for certain. While I watched him I felt a tinge of arrogance — as though I know, he doesn’t, I am smart, puff-puff-puff, haughty me, oh my.

You know, it was one of those moments we use to secretly inflate our self-importance so as to build up our egos falsely, possibly to compensate for something we don’t like about ourselves.

Yet I do not find this nameless lifter in my thoughts days later so as further put him down but rather to remind myself what I do know: that how much weight you put on a bar is not the only factor in on how strong you get.

Form and tempo also play a part. I think it’s fair to say that they play a larger part. Especially the former, form. The body doesn’t know how much weight you have on the bar. Seriously, it doesn’t. What the body does know — what it responds to — is how much resistance you place against it.

The parallel to the rest of life is obvious.

Do somwthing well, do it right. Don’t worry what number you have on your back or what amount you can write in your log.

How you do something matters so much.

The Intellectual Gymnasium

This morning between sets of deadlifts and overhead presses I pulled out my copy of The Manual for Living by Epictetus (Hallmark edition). I did this in response to a discussion during book club last night. We are reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy by David Robertson. In a chapter on the history of philosophy, the author describes the ancient gymnasium as a place where men* worked out both their bodies and their minds. That is, they did gymnastics as well as mental calisthenics.

I like the idea of of combining exercises of the mind with those of the body. I am not sure why or when our culture separated the two. For years I have been asking people, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to tell me where the mind ends and the body begins (and vice versa) and no one seems to have an answer. This is likely because the distinction is impossible to discern. Yet we seem to strongly desire to keep them separate.

There are few more freeing moments of intellectual stimulation than those immediately after one has just engaged in vigorous physical exertion. Why we plant the butts of kids in chairs for 90 percent of their learning lives is beyond me. Listen to a poem (or another form of music) while walking. Try a math equation after a few push-ups. Have recess all day and you will never stop learning.

I have written before about parallels between my primary pursuits, intellectual (writing) and physical (lifting), and I am curious to further explore the possibilities of combining these two practices. In the current climate, in which I must and want to limit time spent in the public space of the gym, I am mindful not to linger unnecessarily at the squats rack. Yet I do need to take time between lifts. To get stronger, slow down. There are small spaces of time in which I can pick up a book when I am not holding a barbell. At least I tried that today, to good effect.

The current theme of my bodily training, as I continue my restart following the lock-down shutdown, is “don’t do too much.” It is counter-intuitive to most, myself included, but, when it comes to resistance training, more is sometimes less. You should seldom even try to reach your limit. You want to stop a couple reps short of failure. Always. Leave something in the tank. Perform enough to push yourself to grow but not so much that you cannot recover in order to do so.

It’s about the every day, not the single extraordinary day.

With barbells. As with books.

 

* Women were not allowed. Most thankfully, this wrong has been righted.

Starting Over Again

Editor’s Note: The intention here is to start a Workout Journal. Who will want to read such a Journal is not especially clear. Mostly, the benefit of such a journal is likely to be entirely the author’s, When it comes to fitness, he considers himself a learned Everyman — one who aims to feel good, look good, and foster longevity. Be warned that, like most long-term projects undertaken by the author, the odds are good execution here will be erratic and may, in fact, cease altogether without warning.

I went to the gym this morning. Let me repeat: I went to the gym this morning.

I had mixed feelings when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz amended the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on fitness facilities, allowing for a return to operations with modifications. Suddenly, I had to decide whether I was going to use my membership — i.e., regularly go to the gym and increase my risk of exposure to coronavirus — or cancel my membership. I definitely want to support the place. I am not, I’m afraid, in a financial position to pay for services I don’t use.

One thought: maybe put my membership dues toward additional in-home equipment. An advantage of working out at home, of course, is time — you don’t have to commute to the basement, to the backyard, the garage. I don’t, however, have an ideal place to put a rack and plates, and, well, there is no way to replicate the gym’s intangible. Namely, having a place to do this one certain thing. When you go to a gym, you are there to exercise and so is everyone else you encounter for that hour or whatever. This creates a motivating and energizing energy. The energy of a place is a highly underrated factor in where we spend our time.

I decided I would try — I would see how I felt when I was there. Besides, I had to go at least once: I had a locker full of shoes and gear and shampoo I was not going to leave behind.

This morning’s workout was not my first time back. So I guess that answers how I felt; I was surprised at how good it was to squat with a bar on my back again. I went from March 16 to June 11, so not quite three full months, between gym sessions. I have since been a half-dozen additional times, including this morning‘s session.

While I remained active during the hiatus, trying to take advantage of the greater opportunity for frequency that is possible when you workout out at home, there is no doubt I lost muscle and muscle memory in my months away. I absolutely believe you can get a good workout anywhere with any amount of equipment but, after the early weeks of adjustment, which I made fairly easily, my enthusiasm for progress turned to mere obligation. I simply did not work as hard or as well. Those welcome-back squats felt so good the other day, yet the amount of weight I was moving was much less than I put on the bar three months ago. No doubt, I have regressed.

In many ways, then, it feels like I am starting over.

Rather than deflate me, this fact has, surprisingly, invigorated me.

My gym did not open back up with its previous hours. This has limited my opportunities to go — I can’t go everyday or, really, more than three or four times per week — and when I do make it I can stay for no more than an hour (per policy). Even here these limits have been blessings rather than barriers. They force me to focus while I am there and take much-needed time off to recover when I am not.

I have so far kept my workouts short and moderate. I have planned my visits at times when the gym is not even at the 25-percent allowed maximum capacity. I use a minimal number of bars. I focus on the foundational, compound lifts to get the most bang for my buck.

I love when I come at something I know a lot about with the Beginner’s Mind. The time off forced me to restart my approach and re-evaluate my priorities. I now have the advantage of being able to see positive change without putting forth excessive effort. I can leave several preconceptions behind. I want to think I will be better, smarter, about my workouts.

Failure Is Definitely An Option

One thing I’m going to have to face is the fact that I’m going to come up short in this life. I am going to fail to create what I am capable of creating. Or — either that — I am not as capable as I think I am. I am not sure which it is. Or which is worse. You would have to say the former would be the greater tragedy. Yet it would be a sad state of affairs for a man to go through the decades with a single fundamental guiding belief that turned out to be wholly mistaken. In the end, which it is may not matter. Certainly, no scoreboard will tally one side over the other — as though points against the “Home” team versus that of the “Visitor.” There is but to be one overall loss. The loss of that which the world will not know.

For that reason, there will be no outcry. There will be no lament. Not publicly, at least. The tears and the toil will be all mine. As they should be. I will endure them and I will endure them alone.

To be sure, I do not yet fully accept that the music will die inside me. Somewhere rattling around in this six-foot, two-hundred-pound container is the belief, a mostly vague notion, really, that I have within me the power to assemble words in a way that would move the world a little. Even as I compose the present mini-manifesto, I don’t fully believe what I am saying right here, right now. Some part of me thinks if I merely make this statement, or one like it, that the act will help me get out of my own way and I will proceed toward that which I have long fancied. I still think, even in this very moment, that I will arrive.

The belief that I am more than I really am comes out in all kinds of disparate acts — projects and posts and plans that are conceived with great vigor but that nearly always die in stillbirths.

More problematic than failed attempts, which have value, are the hours spent in quiet desperation: I am fired up but unable about to do anything much with that fire.

Some specifics: Books. One in particular. This blog — it could be so much more. Essays. Stories. Public performances.

Sometimes I can see such creations in a single flash on the big screen in my mind and when I do they are so seemingly realized there that I nearly weep.

I keep thinking I will get there in the sensate world, too — that I will go from mere vision to actualization. Sometimes I think that I am almost there. But — truth — if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. It’s rather silly to keep going on like this. Today is a bright, beautiful day. I could be doing so many different things. Instead, I have been sitting in the proverbial dark thinking the energy inside me is sufficient to a power a flashlight that reveals hidden words. About what I have no idea.

It’s really a question of purpose. And my purpose has long been clear: to write my experience of this world. The execution, though, is spotty at best.

Oh, sure. I have my moments. I am blessed with inspiration and I love my sensitivity and I can — I do — sometimes simply roar. There are instances in which I hear the words as I place them on the page, or let them out of my mouth, and I think, whoa, who else could do that right there? Not too shabby, good boy! But the steady, everyday, voice required to do what I am talking about … to create something great … it’s either not there or it’s there and too often muffled to be put to anything resembling full use.

You may take from this summation of self-immolation that I am, as so many of us are, merely my own harshest critic. That is sometimes the case with me. No doubt. But not always. Sometimes, in fact, I think I’m pretty hot shit. I am not writing about a lack of confidence here. If anything, it’s the opposite.

I think I am good but if I was good I would be doing good. I would be fulfilling my purpose. I would be writing my book, a better blog, and on.

This here post is really a matter of putting on the table what needs to be on the table. Simple as that.

There is power, I think, in seeing what is. For its own sake. I am terrible,,utterly brutal, at knowing what will come from that seeing. And so I make no predictions about how I shall proceed — about what energy is likely to arise next. It is time to take my dog for a walk. That much I know. And not much else.

Stop Signs

As my dog and I approached the street corner, a gentleman in a jeep drove through the stop sign we were headed for. We were far enough away that our safety was not in question but close enough that what I had seen was not in doubt: the guy ran the stop sign. He may have taken his foot off the gas for hot second but he did not so much as tap the break.

He went. Straight. Through. The sign.

Instinctively, I raised my arm overhead and yelped.

We cross this intersection nearly every day. And we are not the only ones. Our corner market is right there. Our neighbors live and walk here, too. Some have young children. Lots have dogs.

The jeep, now through the intersection, stopped. It backed up. It stopped right where it should have seconds before. The passenger-side window came down. The driver, in the jeep solo, leaned in our direction.

I pointed at the stop sign. Possibly the gentleman had not seen the stop sign. It was still early in the morning. There was no one else around, no other cars went by.

The gentleman saw the stop sign. He did not miss the stop sign.

In high school, around the time we were learning to drive, we had a joke that the stop signs with the white lines around them were optional. We would tell this to a gullible newbie driver, make him question what he had learned in driver’s ed. This gentleman must have gone to the same driving school. He was old enough, looked like, to have done so. He was old enough, at least, to know that all the stop signs have white lines around them and none of them are optional.

Turns out, I was the idiot.

For the gentleman lectured me. I was the problem, he said. People like me. People who don’t mind their own business.

“Was your life in danger?” He asked me this more than once. There were question marks and exclamation marks at the end of his sentences.

“That’s why I backed up,” he added. “That’s the problem with the world today. People don’t mind their own business.”

This gentleman was, in other words, fighting the good fight.

To extend his theory, had he stood at the same intersection he had driven through and fired a gun down the avenue, I would only be in my rights to object if I happened to have been in the line of his fire.

Or let’s say he had driven his car through the front door of the corner market, I would only be in my rights to object if I had happened to be on the other side of that door.

Of course, there was nothing I was going to say to this man to make him alter his argument. When you’re right, you’re right.

I ended the conversation and my dog and I crossed the intersection and on with our morning walk.

Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Squirrel

This morning’s walk began with a first: I was touched by a squirrel.

No — not in that way (you sickie).

The little buddy and I were stroking along the southbound sidewalk, approaching a young woman waiting for her early-a.m. bus. To maintain distance, I steered us slightly onto the edge of the lawn of a nearby house. That is when the squirrel dropped out of a tree branch I wasn’t even aware was above me and right onto my chest. Fortunately, the squirrel did not stay long, bounding down and quickly across the street safely ahead of the woman’s soon-to-be approaching bus.

“Was that a squirrel?” she asked. I had made audible utterances though nothing resembling words. “Those squirrels up there” — she pointed to the tree — “they are crazy. I don’t know what’s going on this morning but they have just been crazy.”

I can’t speak to my bosom buddy’s sanity but without question he did not follow Dr. Fauci’s guidelines for social distance.

Because I am a fan of symbolism, I took to the interweb to search for meanings ascribed to squirrels generally, if not squirrels on one’s chest specifically. One commonality on the highly authoritative sources I consulted — spirit-animal.com was one that came up, but you probably knew that — was to have more fun and take life less seriously. Well, OK. You caught me there, flying squirrel. I have been so charged before.

Very probably the fact that I looked up the meaning is a case in point.

Another source, universeofsymbolism.com, offered a different interpretation that would come into play on the back half of the same walk. You’ll think I am making this up but that would severely overstate the powers of my imagination.

Here is the interpretation: The squirrel “also loves a bargain and knows where to find it, he knows the houses that have the goods he wants overflowing in gardens and patios …”

Here is what happened: Meandering from a usual path, we walked down to and along the river parkway and then turned into the neighborhood of fine homes that align that thoroughfare. A block after the turn we encountered a stack of four chairs — yes, they were patio chairs — with a “Free” sign on them. I have needed additional outdoor furniture for more than a year now but have been reluctant to spend money in this area given higher financial priorities, the fact that I host seldom (especially during a pandemic), and the length of the season in which such furniture can be used. And, well, the stack of plastic Adirondack-style seats we found go well with the little outdoor furniture I already have. And you can’t beat the “bargain” price.

The little buddy and I carried those chairs all the way home, 10 blocks or so. Occurs to me now that I did this by holding the chairs against my chest.

Three Things

I have over time discovered that there are three things I must do each morning in order to have any semblance of a chance to win the day:

  1. Write something that moves me.
  2. Move me (work out).
  3. Take care of my dog (walks, meals, meds, bath*).
  • While the dog still gets his daily doses, I have, of late, gotten away from the first two tenets.
  • About this fact I am neither going to beat myself up nor give myself a pass. The point here merely is to acknowledge.
  • We always want to know what to do about a problem. We want solutions. We want to solve the future. I know — I have looked for answers high and low. There is more power, I have come to believe, in the act of merely acknowledging — of recognizing, of stating, of identifying — personal truth. The psyche knows what to do from there. And is probably way ahead of you anyway.
  • For me, things don’t seem to be real until I externalize them. Well, that’s not always true. But it is the case since my processing mode is writing that the act is going to help me see myself with clearer eyes than if I merely look inside my “head.” (I know, I know meditation is good — but writing, for me, gets the job done more effectively — or maybe it’s my form of meditation … but I am not interested in further pursuit of this line of inquiry.) Besides, there’s so much to wade through up there in this noggin of mine that you would need a pretty strong flashlight and a pair of specs so powerful they don’t yet have available a prescription for them.
  • A friend mentioned the other day that empathy (and this is a paraphrase of a quote she was reading, the source of which I do not recall) is seeing another person from the inside and seeing yourself from the outside. That rings true. And the latter is far easier to fail to do. At least for me.
  • Writing is one way to do that. I usually tend to stay away from too much self-analysis in this space because, really, who cares? And yet I wonder if I might do more of that. The current moment is a time that calls for reflection. I am in my head a lot and, well, that is what is. I am neither going to beat myself up about that fact nor give myself a pass. I will instead see what comes up. And hope my psyche puts it to some use.
  • * Depending on the path and performance during the walk.