Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Amateur Hour

When the idea arouse to go to Sisyphus Brewing for a taste of their weekly open-mic comedy hour, I imagined our small group being among a smattering who had ventured out on a Thursday night for overpriced microbrews and free guffaws. I pictured a makeshift stage, one that no doubt otherwise hosted try-hard no-name cover bands on Friday nights, a room with plenty of light and even greater opportunity for conversation, as weekend wannabe comics found their way to the stage and tried to find their footing as weeknight jokesters.

Instead, I walked into a room that fits about 100 people — and did; the place was packed — with similar lighting and layout of a traditional comedy club. In fact, the atmosphere in this side area at a joint with a menu seven items long (four of them made in-house, all of them beer) had more of an air of authenticity than did the professional comedy house I visited four weeks before, Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America.[1] Watching people walk in during the half hour or so before show time the sense was clear that this is a place friends come to see each other.

Sisyphus, of course, is a figure from Greek mythology condemned to the eternal task of rolling a large stone to the top of a hill, from which it always rolls down again. A curious name for a bar. When I asked why, a barkeep told me the brewery was so named because it is the smallest in Minnesota.[2] In fact, on their website there is a perhaps more salient explanation in the form of a first person essay, unsigned, by what I presume is Sisyphus owner Sam Harriman. In this account, Harriman tells of past mental health challenges and what it meant for him to encounter “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the famous Albert Camus essay,[3] during a particular time in his life.

Why Sisyphus Brewing so supports comedy is a lot easier to answer: Harriman used to be a comic himself. I have no idea how good he was — the bartender told me Harriman never made a living at it (few people do) — but clearly he acquired a gift for creating a comedy-house mood. The audience was there for laughter, and good beer,[4] and it was just a fun place to be.

Each comedian was allowed 10 minutes on stage and the headliner — “the only person we’re paying tonight,” the emcee declared in his introduction — maybe got a few more.[5] One quibble: I would have appreciated a printed roster, however makeshift (signups aren’t done far in advance of show time) and, in the spirit of the evening, supporting fledgling comedians, providing one could have served to enhanced name recognition. As you would expect, some acts were more honed and heady than others; I wish I could recall a name or three.

Though I might have been the only one with this want; few in the crowd seemed to have been there for the first time — and it’s not hard to figure out why.


*          *          *

[1] Curiously, the third comedian to take the stage at Sisyphus was a featured under-card comic the same night I went to RB-MoA. His first name is Brandon. Spending more than a few minutes searching for him on Google did not turn up his last name (my apologies). What I can say is Tight-10 was improved by the time constraints at Sisyphus.

[2] I pushed back: really? That distinction must have a lot of competition these days; you can’t swing a dead cat and not hit microbrewery in 2018-2019. The barkeep confessed: “well, we were when we opened.” That was in July 2014.

[3] Camus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart and one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

[4] I had the Irish chocolate stout (solid) and then tried the Peanut Butter Jackpot! Stout (could have done without). Note: contrary to my preconception, the prices were very reasonable.

[5] And deserved them. He was clearly the most polished performer of the night.

Thou Shall Not Steal Thy Toilet Paper

At what point did we decide that the paper dispensed in restrooms requires impenetrable casings?

Are we not wanting to see the toilet paper? The hand towels? Or were people making off with rolls in a rash of thefts undetectable by the authorities?[1]

Now I can see the advantage of having a contraption so big you only have to add a roll once every other year and be done with it. Yet these doohickeys make it near impossible to get the paper out. Or, more likely, if you do get the paper out, you get it out in tiny ripped fractions of squares you must twist into thin balls of nothing.

The total amount of plastic required for just one of these … I mean, how much must it cost to avoid putting normal sized rolls out like was done for decades?[2] This one, pictured, is located in a combination studio, both yoga and martial arts, the average class size of each, anecdotally, being about eight people for classes that meet for only parts of every day. In other words, this behemoth is not positioned to accommodate a stadium full of human excrement — it only looks that way.

And the “handless” paper towel dispensers: it’s possible those might be worse. In theory, yes, it’s perfectly sensible to not have to touch a germ-infested canister  immediately after washing one’s hands. The problem is that the motion sensors on these things, well, not so much. I swear, one of every two I try these days is not functioning — often with no mechanism to manually twist out a sheet.

If you want to reduce waste and spend less on paper, I get it, and I appreciate it. But as long as paper is a permitted option for our restroom needs, can we please have some way to get a slice without ripping out shreds from a plastic armory? Without waving our hands over and over like a failed magician?


*          *          *

[1] Perhaps the villains flushed the evidence? Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

[2] When, no doubt, a plastics company invented the answer to a problem no one realized existed.

Can I Get Fries With That?

Impressions on my first visit to Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America:

– Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America is the comedy house equivalent of fast food. It’s McComedy. It’s slick. It’s get in, get out, the next show starts in a half hour … and, besides, our tables aren’t nice enough that you want to linger at them any way … oh, by the way, did we mention we have a margarita special going … and the people serving you on stage may or may not be wearing clothes that reveal they care at all about the matter at hand.[1][2]

– They charge $4.75 for water. I just wanted a glass to sip with my adult beverage.

– At the end of the night checks are presented in aggressive, almost militant fashion, with all of the servers seemingly coming out at once carrying an arsenal of black books. Even the headliner was distracted by the parade and made a joke about it.[3]

– That headliner, Jimmy Shubert, exceeded my expectations.[4] He went to the toilet a little more than he needed to, and more than suits my taste, but he’s a pro’s pro. You might say a poor-person’s Rodney Dangerfield. He was simply in a different league than the undercard comedians and emcee who took the stage before him.[5] Among his best bits is one on therapy cats on airplanes and, in my favorite, he says what we’re all thinking[6] when we encounter the self-checkout aisle at the grocery store: “I don’t know the code for the mango.”

– At one point it seemed clear Shubert was having more fun than the audience. This could be taken as a put-down of the comedian. It’s really a put-down of the audience. Not a lot of energy in the room is what I am saying.[7]

– I love stand-up and want to support places that support comedians. The place was maybe half full on a Saturday night in winter when indoors-only activities were mandatory. The venue felt like a showroom for the place we were already in. The first bit of entertainment you get is a marketing video about Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy and, in case you forgot on your way in past the roller coasters and J. Crew, this was the one at the Mall of America.[8]


*          *          *

[1] The headliner excepted.

[2] No one goes to see a comedian’s attire. And a three-piece would be weird. But you can wear a T and jeans and still look you give a shit.

[3] After Shubert was shooed off stage by an aggressive blinking red light and while the emcee was giving away cheap prizes to people who were willing to hand over their contact information for marketing purposes, I got up to use the restroom. In the ninety seconds I was gone my credit card was swiped and the server took it upon herself to add a 30-percent tip I had not authorized. I certainly planned to add a gratuity but wanted to wait until the lights came on and I could actually read the bill so as to calculate an amount. I didn’t know about the 30-percent tip until I checked my bank statement. Contacts to the club for clarification required more personal information than is required to get on a flight. Within 12 hours of initiating contact my email address had already added been to their mass marketing e-list. Something else I didn’t authorize.

[4] I wasn’t expecting to see Seinfeld, of course.

[5] I have since checked out Shubert on YouTube, including some clips from his specials on Comedy Central. Yeah, he’s been on Comedy Central, for those with television.

[6] Or at least what I am thinking.

[7] But then is there a lot of energy in McDonald’s?

[8] Not necessarily in billions but others are served at Rick Bronson’s in Edmonton and Phoenix.

Character Scorecard

Just from what is known:

– Braggart about sexual assaults of women.[1]

– Detractor of the military record of men who fought, served, and suffered — in some cases enduring personal torture — while overseas on behalf of our nation.[2]

– Accused violator of myriad state and federal laws, including the Constitution he swore to uphold and defend.[3]

– Repeated adulterer, including with at least one adult film actress.[4]

– Supporter of national rulers known to mutilate and kill citizens, including at least one citizen of his own country.[5][6]

– Sympathizer of white supremacists.[7]

– Serial liar.[8]

Can you think of a person[9] of lesser personal character than the current president of the United States? How many come to mind that are in the conversation? How many of those people are Americans?


*          *          *

[1] “ ‘Of course, He Said It’: Billy Bush Counters Trump’s Pussy Tape Claims,” Ben Jacobs, The Guardian, December 3, 2017.

[2] “Trump’s Military Insults are Piling Up,” Nicole Gaouette, CNN.com, November 19, 2018.

[3] “Testimony from Cohen Could Compound Legal Issues for Trump,” Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, February 27, 2019.

[4] “Judgment Days,” Stephanie McCrummen, The Washington Post, July 21, 2018.

[5] “Responding to Trump, Otto Warmbier’s Parents Blame Kim Jong-un and ‘Evil Regime’ for Son’s Death,” Christine Hauser, February 28, 2019.

[6] “Chris Wallace Asked Why Vladimir Putin’s Critics End Up Dead; Here Are the Details,” Manuela Tobias, PolitiFact.com, July 19, 2018.

[7] “Trump Makes Good on Another Promise to White Supremacists,” Luke Darby, GQ, October 30, 2018.

[8] “President Trump Made 8,158 False or Misleading Claims in His First Two Years,” Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, The Washington Post, January 21, 2019.

[9] In real life or, if necessary, in all of popular fiction.

The Kids Aren’t the Only Ones

A recent headline in The New York Times: “Groups Say Facebook Duped Kids.”[1]

Seventeen children’s advocacy groups are accusing Facebook of wittingly deceiving kids into spending money while playing games on the site. The groups believe Facebook violated consumer protection and child privacy laws in the way it encouraged kids to make purchases, many in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, while playing games such as Angry Birds, Petville, and Ninja Saga. Court documents that include internal Facebook memos and e-mails suggest site developers aimed to create features that would encourage credit card purchases while playing the games, the article reports. The children were not aware that that they were spending real money via their parents’ credit cards, which were stored on the site. Facebook did not respond to requests to comment on the article.

No one requested but I have comments on the article:

I wonder how many of the affected parents still have Facebook accounts.

I wonder how many of those parents who still have Facebook accounts use their Facebook accounts nearly every day.

People give credit card information to Facebook?

Kids are left alone for long periods of time with Facebook?

As of December 31, 2018, Facebook has 2.32 billion monthly active users.[2]

Sixty-eight percent of adults in the United States use Facebook. Roughly three-quarters of Facebook users visit the site daily.[3]

The average Facebook user spends almost an hour on the site every day.[4]

Forty-eight percent of Americans say they do not have enough time in the day.[5]

The most popular types of Facebook posts: inspirational quotes, pleas for support/pity, personal boasts, random thoughts (politics, sports, dinner), rants (politics, sports, dinner), and “love-you-guys” notes to partners, individual friends, or groups of buddies.[6]

A Google search for “Facebook” AND “depression” found 378,000,000 results.

The more you use Facebook the worse you feel.[7]

Social media sites such as Facebook have been attributed to poorer cognitive functioning, including in the areas of independent thinking, multitasking, impulsiveness, and the ability to conduct real-life conversations.[8][9]

Russian disinformation reached at least 126 million Facebook users during the 2016 United States presidential campaign, Facebook has conceded.[10]

I am old enough to remember a world before Facebook.

I am young enough to have used Facebook over two different periods — once for less than a year in the late 2000s and again for about three years starting in 2015.[11]

I wonder what life is like for someone who doesn’t know a world without Facebook.

How many years will it be before there is no sizable population in America who does know a world without Facebook?

Will there be a time when there is no sizable population in America who spends an ordinary day without Facebook?


*          *          *

[1] Cecilia Kang, February 21, 2019.

[2] “The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics,” Dan Noyes, Zephoria Digital Marketing, zephoria.com, January 2019.

[3] “Social Media Use in 2018,” Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, Pew Research Center: Internet & Technology, March 1, 2018.

[4] “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel,” Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis, Harvard Business Review, April 10, 2017.

[5] Frank Newport, “Americans’ Perceived Time Crunch No Worse Than in Past,” Gallup, December 31, 2015.

[6] “The Ten Most Common Facebook Statuses,” Sarah Fader, HuffPost.com, April 9, 2014.

[7] Shakya and Christakis.

[8] Damon Beres, “10 Weird Negative Effects of Social Media on Your Brain,” Reader’s Digest, Aug 20, 2018.

[9] Correct: I am not very fun at parties.

[10] Jane Mayer, “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2018 issue.

[11] My account is currently deactivated.

Home Is In Your Art

I’m writing an essay on the topic of Home. I have an idea of where this might go — I have some anchor details and a vignette that most certainly will be a hook here — but in the beginning stages of an essay it’s fun to shoot at a topic from all sorts of angles. To read. To explore. To see what comes up when you write things down.

At this point, it’s best if I dwell more in questions than answers.

I don’t like the term brainstorming so much. I do believe in asking yourself good questions and sifting through, as best you can, the responses you get. A good bit may be rubbish but every so often you find a ruby.

What does home mean to me?

Home is a place to set your things. It’s where your stuff is.[1]

One way to look at life, it seems to me, is that it is a search for home. To make a home and be at home in the world. Home in all its elements — the physical structure, the items and appliances, the people and creatures in it, around it, a part of it, visitors to it. The aspects of like that sustain and create your home.

The history of for your home.

I’m someone who loves history but for me I need a connection, a reason, to delve into the past of a place. The history of one’s home — it seems important to know something about that inherent connection.

I have always liked the Phil Collins song “Take Me Home.”[2]

Some people stay in the same place their whole lives. I admire them. I have not been such a person.

I wonder if it’s healthy to remain in the same place your whole life. I once heard one of my old neighbors remark to another old neighbor, one who had stayed in the same house for decades, well past the point at which her adult children had moved out, that it was not good for the soul to stay in one place so long. Probably, this, like most things, is individual. Some people stay because they are afraid to leave or, for whatever reason, cannot. Others stay because they just know there is no better place in the world for them.

There is something to be said about knowing the history of a place because you lived it.

“Home is where the heart is.” Gosh, I hope this phrase doesn’t appear in my essay, for I fancy myself as more original than that. Let us steer clear of clichés, as best we can, in all endeavors.

Though, of course, there is something to be said about home in the figurative sense. Home is wherever you are, one might say to a lover.[3]

That’s all fine and nice but in this essay, and really where I am at present, I think this is going to be more about tangible home. It’s going to be about leaves. It’s going to be about snow. Grass. Dirt. And poop and leaks — water leaks, not just the kind you were thinking. It’s going to be about walls. And basements. It’s going to be about small rooms. About what we need and what we do not. It’s going to be about a fence.

I moved into my current home this past fall. The leaves fell like confetti at a tickertape parade that day. Yellows, browns, and deep oranges had mostly covered my front lawn by the time this home was the place that contained my stuff. I sat a moment on the front step. The moving truck hadn’t left yet. The couch was diagonal in the middle of the living room. My small car, on the street before me, was still packed to the ceiling. There would be other loads. But I was here. I would sleep in this house for the first time that October night. I am usually one to immediately move things around in a new space, set things up, put things away, but this time I felt compelled to sit and breathe on the front step. That morning had been chilly; I had even seen some snowflakes. But by this moment in the late afternoon I sat there without a jacket. I squinted into the sun and watched those leaves fall.

That is one image I carry in my short history here. Another: raking those leaves. In particular, I expect to long recall one late, rainy night soon thereafter of raking leaves and mud and more leaves well past dark. Feeling my freezing fingers on the rake, creating piles, filling bags, trying to finish the chore before more than few snowflakes fell.

It takes a while for me to feel at home in a new place. Why? There may be something to explore there. What makes a given place one’s home? Papers are signed, sure. But it’s more than that, I feel certain most people would say. Raking leaves that night made me feel more at home than did sliding the couch against the wall.

Everyone needs a home. We move out of our parents’ homes at 18, 25, whatever.[4] Even if we want to live in the same city as our parents, at some point we need our own homes.

Home can be a house. An apartment. Condo. Flat. Cardboard box. It’s four walls and at least one hook on which you hang the keys.

Home is familiar. We are most ourselves at home.

Home is a status symbol. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing even for those of us who live in small homes. What does your home say about you to you? That seems to be worthwhile trail to take.

When you first meet someone we do not ask each other questions such as: what fears influence your waking hours? What is your life purpose? Why do you think you were born to your parents? No. We ask: where do you live?[5]

I’m something of a homebody. I like to go to a show or to the gym or to hang out in a coffee shop talking to friends. Yet I always look forward to getting home after.

Done with work? Beam me home, Scotty!

Home base. Homerun. Getting home is big in baseball. And, by extension, sex.

Homepage is one of our modern uses of the word. All those destinations we can visit in the whole of cyberspace and we still want to know when we’re home.

To be in the home stretch is said to be good. You are almost done with a long or difficult task.

Homely. No one likes that term said about him and, let’s face it, it’s usually said about her. But then it seems to me there are worse things to be called. Ever seen a homely looking axe murder. I think not!

To feel homesick: the absence of feeling at home. There is no drug for that. And it’s a downer, man, no doubt.

If you go to an analyst, you might find that in our dreams, a house can be seen as a physical presentation of the self. The house, in other words, is a reflection of who you are, where you are, and what your psyche is up to at present. The home in which you reside, then, is a physical, waking-life manifestation of same. Who we are, what we value — what we are capable of, whether because of our own making or someone else’s (likely a combination thereof). Or at least that is my understanding. I would like to learn more about that. My bumper sticker: symbolism rules.

That is, by the way, a great reason to write an essay: to learn. To learn about people and places, ideas and concepts. To learn, foremost, about oneself.

And what says more about you than where you leave your stuff?


*          *          *

[1] That this was my first thought may mean a few things: there might something important there. Or I might just be clearing cobwebs.

[2] From his 1985 album No Jacket Required.

[3] And, in fact, Billy Joel does this in “You’re My Home” from Songs in the Attic (1981).

[4] My childhood home holds a special place in my heart. But that place is no longer my home.

[5] Or, I suppose, what do you do? To put it another way: where is your work home?

On Air

5:39 p.m.
You’re nearly done making dinner. You’re favorite radio talk show is on live in the background.

You check the steak. They go to commercial.


5:40 p.m.
You set down the oven mitt and pick up your phone.

In the segment before the commercial break the host of the show[1] had summarized a football game played on January 9, 1988.[2]

You thumb an e-mail to the booth, asking a question about that football game played on January 9, 1988.[3] You know the answer to your question.


5:42 p.m.
You put the steak on your plate. The potatoes need another couple minutes.


5:44 p.m.

The show comes back from commercial. The host says, “it just shows you how smart our listeners are …” The host then reads, word for word, the question you had e-mailed to the booth.

“The answer,” the host says, “is yes.”


5:45 p.m.
The potatoes are now ready. You grab a steak knife.


*          *          *

[1] The top-rated talk show in the Twin Cities.

[2] The Minnesota Vikings upset the San Francisco 49ers in a divisional playoff game that day. Among the key plays for the victors, Reggie Rutland (who later changed his name to Najee Mustafaa) intercepted a pass thrown by Joe Montana and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.

[3] You recall a story about what took place in the press box the moment Mustafaa intercepted that pass. Specifically, you ask whether this was the moment longtime Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman stood up in an otherwise quiet press box and yelled, “go baby, go baby, go.”

Be the Koala

When I was a kid, my favorite animal was the koala.

I had no actual experience with koalas. I have never been to Australia. Perhaps I saw one at the zoo. I have no memory of seeing one at the zoo.

I had a stuffed animal koala. I have memory of this but it is vague. I recall the stuffed animal koala being small. Maybe as small as a key-chain. Much smaller than an actual koala at any rate.

An average adult koala is about two and three-quarters feet tall. An average adult koala is about thirty-three pounds.

Cuddly and kind. I’m not sure why I was initially drawn to koalas but these are the first two words that come to mind when I think about why maybe I liked koalas as a kid.

I would have called them koala bears back then. A koala is not a bear. This is the case even if in their native Australia they are referred to as “native bears.”

A zoologist would tell you that koalas are completely unrelated to bears.

The koala is a bearlike marsupial.

Marsupials are mammals of an order whose members are born incompletely developed.

Koalas are born blind.

Adult koalas have small eyes. Especially as compared to the size of their heads. Koalas don’t have outstanding vision.

Those proportionally big heads do not house especially big brains. Koalas aren’t brilliant thinkers. You would not call a koala brainy.

On Sunday morning I looked up information about koalas. After all this time I still react when I see one in my mind’s eye.

On Sunday evening I turned to the Travel section of the newspaper and found a photograph of a koala. A reader had submitted the photograph from his travels. Specifically, the photograph was taken from a sanctuary for sick, injured, or orphaned koalas near Brisbane.

The thing that stands out about the koala in this photograph is the fur flaring from its ears. Koalas have bushy ears. These ears serve as insulation, keeping koalas cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They also keep the koala dry.

Koalas spend most of their time in trees. Even when it’s raining.

Koalas have claws suited for climbing trees. These claws also allow them to hold onto branches for long periods of time.

I’m no expert but the koala in the picture seems old.

In the wild, Koalas live an average of 13 to 18 years.

Koalas look wise. They seem calm. They are good listeners.

Koalas are not high-energy animals. They sleep up to 16 hours a day.

Koala energy is energy devoted to helping the ecosystem. Koalas play a critical role in the health of the whole environment.[1] Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves. Browsing eucalyptus leaves has an effect on solar energy levels hitting the earth. The wastes from such feeds have an effect on the terrestrial ecosystem. According to one researcher who has written a natural history of koalas, for millions of years koalas have played a critical role in creating and maintaining the upper eucalypt environment that is distinctively Australia.[2]

Koalas live a solitary life. They mate once a year. They don’t have lifelong partners.

Koalas aren’t going to provoke you. They aren’t going to try to eat you. Even if you are a rodent or a rabbit. If you mess with them, though, koalas can be assholes. Cut you up with those claws.

They are the original Edward Scissorhands.

I never saw that movie. Johnny Depp is a good actor but come on. Scissors as hands?

I recently watched a different type of video, one of those self-help jobs during which the woman on the video told of a trick. When you want to embody yourself, especially, say, at a particular moment when you notice you are not already doing so, think of your animal. That is, think of the animal you are. Immediately, the woman said, people will see a difference in you.

In the past, when asked to think of my spirit animal I have thought about lions. I have wanted to be a lion. Roar.

On my desk at work … I had forgotten this … the Monday after the Sunday in which I looked up facts about koalas and then saw the photograph in the newspaper I looked anew at a valentine I received last year that I kept and which sits near some photographs and knick-knacks. It’s one of those 2 x 2 Valentine’s Day cards. Same ones you would have given and received to all your classmates in grade school, saving only the one from the girl who made you feel warm inside when you talked to her. I kept this particular valentine for a different reason; it was given to me by one of my supervisors, who is one of the reasons why I work where I do. On the front of this valentine is one of those 3D tilt-it pictures, in which you see a different image and color depending from which angle you hold the valentine.

One image is green, one image is yellow, one image is blue. Right, left, up, down. That is four directions but who is counting as you move it this way at that?

One image is of a koala climbing a tree.

Another image is of mother koala with her joey.

The image that shows when the valentine sits still on my desk is of an adult koala staring back at me.


*          *          *

[1] Koala numbers are a fraction of what they once were. Many fear the species is slipping away.

[2] “Koalas: A Retrospective,” by Glenna Albrecht, written in the year 2000 for a QLD Koala Conference, posted January 17, 2017 at glennaalbrecht.com.

Practice, Practice

“So it was mostly hard work?” an off-camera journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Company poses this question to Wayne Gretzky. It is 1982.

Gretzky initially answers that, yes, it did take hard work. Then he sort of corrects himself. He says his father used to show him articles, and he would also talk to people, about various training methods some players used. How some lifted weights, others ran long distances, and the like.

“For me,” he adds, “when I was 6 [years old], I would skate eight hours a day and people would say, ‘jeez, he’s working hard’ or ‘look at all the time he puts into it.’ For me, if I would have thought of it that way I wouldn’t have did it. I enjoyed it. What I enjoyed was to skate all afternoon. That’s why I did it. And it wasn’t work. And it wasn’t something I had to do. I just enjoyed it.”

During this interview Gretzky is 20 years old. He is in the midst of a season in which he will score 92 goals, still the single-season record, and also record more assists than all but four other players will record total points. He will win the scoring title by 65 points. He will, that is, produce 30 percent more than the next closest player, further earning his famous nickname, The Great One.

In this interview, which I happened across the other day, Gretzky is being asked about the secret to his success. He is really being asked about practice. Practice: the act of repeatedly or regularly engaging in acts in order to improve your proficiency. Practice: that necessary aspect of getting good at something, anything.

Practice is a word I realize that I resist.[1] For to practice is to state that you are in training — not really doing the thing. Practice is work. And while work has value — I value my job, for example, value, too, having worked to clean the floors or shovel the sidewalk — practice is different than those necessary forms of work. Practice is voluntary work. One must choose to practice and one must make time for practice.

Of course, even the best at their crafts and careers practice. LeBron James practices. Bruce Springsteen, even after all these decades and all those sold-out shows, still practices. Why, then, do I think there is anything in this world I can do, ever will do, that could not benefit from practice?

Why do I resist the notion of practice?

Perhaps it’s because practice seems like work without reward. Or at least the reward is delayed.[2]

Practice: if you need it at all it means you probably need it a lot. Which means you should probably do it every day.

I don’t have time for practice. Certainly not for endless practice.

Also, what am I practicing for? I’m not exactly getting ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs here.

It wasn’t always that I resisted practice. Later during that year, 1982, after Gretzky had won every individual award a hockey player could, I turned 10. At this time, and for years to come, I loved hockey practice myself. Not only the scheduled practices required to be on the team but also the voluntary practice I engaged in on the frozen pond behind our house. For hours, even in the dark, even after all the other kids went inside, I would stay out on the rectangle of ice carved from snow and skate and shoot and yell back at my mother “five more minutes” when she yelled out the kitchen window to tell me it was time to come in, time for dinner, time for a show to start, time for bed.

I have long loved to read the sorts of articles Gretzky said his father showed him[3] — to read about people who are the best at what they do and specifically about their work habits. It usually fires me up to do my own work.

As an adult, the closest thing I have to what hockey used to be for me is writing. As a boy, I was a hockey player. As a man, I navigate the world foremost as a writer.

Except I have regarded practice for these respective endeavors very differently. Whereas I seldom missed a hockey practice,[4] I have skipped writing practice for any number of reasons.

The dog needs to be walked.

A bill needs to be paid.

I could put in some overtime at work — if I leave now.

And the easiest: I could use a little more time under these warm sheets.

The missing element here is pleasure. Gretzky talks about it in the above clip. Recently, I also listened again to the audiobook version of Stephen King’s On Writing. King talks about the pleasure he gets from writing and reading and it’s not hard to believe him. You hear it even when he’s not speaking of it. And, really, he can’t possibly churn out so many books if he doesn’t derive pleasure from the thing. It’s not like he needs the money at this point.

At some point in my hockey career, which, of course, fell far short of Gretzky’s level, the game started to feel like more work than pleasure. Practice was something you had to do. During stretches of two-a-day practices on my college team, I recall feeling like I had to crawl out of bed some mornings. The games were still fun, usually, but the desire to skate for four hours a day, much less the eight Gretzky describes, was no longer there.

There is a comment to be made here about how our society, which so praises hard work, can sometimes take something pleasurable and turn it into labor. Gretzky, King, many other accomplished persons one could name, never allowed this to happen. They made millions but you believe them when they say they would have done it for free.

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes the difference in behaviors when people do things for money or they do them for other reasons. We operate under social norms and market norms. Social norms have us help our buddy move a couch. Market norms have us expect a fair wage at work. When these two things are blurred, trouble begins. As soon as market norms enter the picture, social norms are obliterated.[5]

Writers and other artists inevitably reach a similar nexus: once the work is a way to make a living, the work could easily be distorted by market norms. The art can feel like any other job. I don’t know if there is a trick to holding both but it seems clear to me that one must be especially cautious about keeping market norms out of one’s head when it comes to doing art. Or athletics.

“For me,” Gretzky said, “if I would have thought of it that way I wouldn’t have did it.”

We are conditioned to believe that everything done well could be monetized. Perhaps it’s just because I have been a writer most of my life but it seems especially for those of us who want or need to put words together to make any sense of things. You could have that published, people will say. You could have a bestseller. You could have that made into a feature film starring Ben Affleck.

The things people always ask when they learn I wrote a book: Was it published? Who published it? How did you get a publisher? How many copies have been sold? How much money did you make from it? They don’t ask about what is it like to write a page, finish a chapter, unearth an interesting detail. They don’t ask about the pleasure of the process of writing a story.

Takes some work, then, not to see the work as, well, just that, work.

Maybe I resist the word practice for that reason. I’m not sure. I don’t have the answer. There is something in here, though: if you derive pleasure from something it seems imperative to keep going back to that. Call it practice if you like. But whatever you call it, do it for the pleasure of the thing.

Otherwise, as The Great One said, you might not do it at all.


*          *          *

[1] At yoga, they always refer to it as “your practice.” Never liked that. Yeah, I can be cranky sometimes.

[2] One difference is that as an athlete or performer you are practicing for something — the next game or gig. There is a clear, time-bound goal.

[3] In fact, I still have a yellowed stack of those articles from my days as a hockey player.

[4] I would even go sick, if I could.

[5] Ariely uses an example that I’m not sure is the best but it serves: consider a man who has invited a woman to dinner then, at the end of the date, asks her to split the check. The social norm is that, in this case, the man pays. The market norm is that, hey, we both ate, we both drank, so we should both pay. Let’s see how far that courtship goes.

Phone, Home

Yesterday morning I walked out the door to start the day thinking my phone was in my jacket pocket when in fact it was sitting back, at home, on my desk.

I didn’t realize this dissonance until I drove to work, closed the car door, and headed across the parking lot. It was at that point too late to do anything about the hole in my holster.

During early pauses and breaks in my day, I reflexively reached for the phone that wasn’t there.

Imagine you’re at the end of your life and you realize how much time you wasted on the specific task of thumbing through your phone …

Of course, everything can be used as an advantage if you look for it. Our smartphones can be used to connect to others, stay on track with tasks, and to learn about the world. Some amount of time spent with them can be useful, worthwhile, and sometimes you need escape for its own sake. Smartphones can help with that.

Our smartphones are also uniquely designed to grab and keep our attention. I look down at my phone on lunch breaks, look back up, and, poof, there went a half hour. Without question, when you are on your phone, your mind is not in the room with you.

The first half of the day yesterday I reached for the phone without thinking about it. I reached for the dopamine hit I couldn’t take.

Eventually, sans the phone, specifically during my lunch break, I noticed I had casually observed people walking and talking in the cafeteria. I engaged a group of colleagues who had dined together and were walking by me. And I wrote — using old-fashioned pen on paper. I even had a lucid thought or two.

At some point I noticed I was having a really good day.

I noticed I felt more or less calm.

I felt more present.

I was in less of a hurry to do everything.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Hey, it’s not like I am going to toss my phone into the snowbank. It will no doubt accompany me to work today.

But I do know I don’t want to be addicted to a device.