Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Inputs, Outputs

Time takes on new dimensions in quarantine. Some people have time to kill. Others feel urgency — a reminder that time is short. For no one, it seems, is the relation to time the same as it was pre-pandemic.

This weekend, I did well with my time. I read a lot. I engaged in multiple intellectual conversations with authentic people. I scribbled in my journal. I moved regularly. Without delay I took care of small tasks of the sort that weigh me down when I put them off.

Sunday especially I tended to lean into soul expanding moments — filling spaces in my day with constructive words from books, podcasts, conversations, and the ones that come up when I have a pen in my hand.

“People are frugal guarding their personal property,” Seneca pointed out, “but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” If someone tried to break into your house to steal your TV you would, justifiably, be furious. Yet if someone steals a half hour of your Saturday afternoon in mindless chatter on the street corner, or in prepackaged form on a screen, you allow it happen. Sometimes with a smile on your face. I know from personal experience.

We go through life tacitly thinking we will live forever. We give up time so easily on frivolous conversation and facile entertainments. We all need escape, yes, but escape is only escape if you leave and come back. Escape is not supposed to be the permanent residence.

What is and is not a turning away from self and growth and duty and responsibility is not always easy to delineate. The umpteenth cat video on Facebook seems to be time you will wish one day to get back. Yet social media is useful and a value-add for at least some people at least some of the time. You can force yourself to read Chaucer, sure, but if he’s not speaking to you, if you are absorbing little or nothing of the text, is that time well-spent? Is going for a walk with your dog good for you if you are checking your phone every other block? Context matters. The individual must assess for himself or herself.

For me, something flips when I get tired yet remain wired. After I reach the point in the day of sensory overload, I am more likely to over-consume food and take in empty calories of junk media. In those moments I am a poorer decision-maker. The science proves this is not uncommon.

A smart person I Zoomed with yesterday made a useful analogy: He said we know that the food we put into our bodies changes us on a molecular level — that is, genes get expressed in different ways depending on what sustenance we consume. Why, he asked, would our reaction to the other forms of consumption be any different? The question suggests the answer.

Force and will only get me for far. Abstinence is a losing strategy. Black and white seldom serves. The goal is not perfection — whatever that would even be — but consciousness: to be more aware of what we’re doing and what what we’re doing is doing to us. Then move toward those things that inspire, calm, or offer catharsis. More and more fill up our days with those moments and fight like heck to block out all the rest.

It’s not all good. As they say. No way.

The good news is that the assessment of the bad is itself a great opportunity. The very act of noticing that you just gave away an hour is useful time because you learned not to give away another minute the same way.

Swing, Batter Batter

While watching the 2007 Sean Astin vehicle The Final Season this weekend I was surprised to hear Chief Bender quoted — and by none other than Rachael Leigh Cook. From his Ten Commandments: “You will never become a .300 hitter unless you take the bat off your shoulder.” Have truer words been spoken?

Grilling

If a man has frequent intercourse with others either for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will quench the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched.

-Epictetus, The Discourses (3.16, 1-2)

During shelter-in-place free time, I have been trying to learn about stoicism. This was not a conscious decision so much — the world presented opportunities and those opportunities stirred my spirit. It would be overstating my studies to date, but I guess you could say some of those I associate with lit a flame near this here piece of charcoal.

Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium, taught that virtue was the highest good. Those who are wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified as Fate and Providence) that governs all things in nature. The aim is to be more or less indifferent to good fortune as well as unexpected pain. The idea goes that events themselves have no bearing on us but rather it is our judgments about those events that do. We have control over our judgements. That is, we can choose to see good in, and make use of, every act or event. A stoic would say not only should one tolerate adversity and hardship but, in fact, one should love it.

Very possibly, then, the current moment is one in which the stoics were especially well suited to speak.

The above quote is otherwise a curious choice from which to try to draw wisdom while in quarantine — when your choice is, more or less, to spend time with no one at all.

Yet even during a pandemic, I am constantly making choices about what influences I allow into my sphere — and there is never a bad time to evaluate those. In fact, maybe there is no better time than when you are trying to stay physically well despite the presence of a highly contagious virus and mentally fit despite the upheaval of normality. If a pandemic is good for anything, it gives one time for self-reflection.

The news is a big pitfall for me — especially political news. On one hand, I feel it’s something I should follow. And, frankly, it’s something I want to follow. The election this November is eminently important — more important than any in our lifetimes, in my view. We have learned too well these past weeks and months how much our leaders matter. On the other hand, learning about staggering personal and political failings — and the effects of those failings — seldom lights me up in the same way that this 2,000-year-old philosophy has of late. Often the latest developments from the Trump White House do nothing less than “quench” my spark.

Willful ignorance. A thoughtful stoic I Zoomed with last week testified to the merits of choosing to consume less information, certainly if you know that information will stoke the coils of your ire. Seneca is one stoic who spoke to this: “It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything,” he said, “Many injuries ought to pass over us; if you ignore them, you get no more injury from them. You want to be less angry? Ask fewer questions.”

The idea is that you can’t control it, or effect it, and it does you harm so it would be best to tune it out and then go on and do your work.

Stoicism, to the extent this novice can make general pronouncements, is largely about this sort of question: it’s about control — about recognizing what you can control (how you live) and what you cannot (most everything else). Then living that out as best you can.

I wrestle with a fear of passivity — that by not saying anything I may be saying something. Yet, goodness knows, if I could control Trump, if I had any influence at all, by now I would have exerted it. (Specifically would have given him at least a modicum of compassion, a dose of humility, and definitely a respect for the objective truth.) There seems to be wisdom in not voluntarily subjecting oneself to things that make one feel less alive.

Things Related and (Maybe) Not

My car battery is dying.

My electric tooth brush is dying.

Both still can still take a charge but neither can hold it very long.

Come to think of it, this weekend I had to replace the battery in my kitchen clock.

I have noticed of late, too, that my phone battery drains noticeably faster than it used to.

What to do with the unrelated yet what-are-the-odds similarity of these events?

Batteries are power. Batteries give “life.” Or at least batteries give function.

Is my “battery” my brain? My heart? I suppose one could make the case for either since both are needed. Yet we do call the heart a ticker …

In all seriousness, I don’t like comparing the most complex system in the known universe, the human body, with objects manufactured in a factory somewhere in China. But you do have to wonder.

Is the world trying to tell me something?

In moments of unknown, one naturally turns to the great minds.

Synchronicity, Carl Jung said, is all around for those who have the eyes to see it.

Possibly the whole thing is about to shut down.

Or maybe I should, in fact, slow down.

After probing my soul, I must consider another possible truth: that is, I have to wonder, I must say, that there is also the very real possibility that what this set of events is telling me, if am willing to face it, head-on, if I am able to take a good long look in the mirror, is that it is time for me — that’s right — to invest in some new batteries.

Rava: Yes. That’s all. A coincidence.

Elaine Benes: A big coincidence.

Rava: Not a big coincidence. A coincidence.

Elaine: No. That’s a big coincidence.

Rava: That’s what a coincidence is. There are no small coincidences and big coincidences.

Elaine: No. There are degrees of coincidence.

Rava: No. There are only coincidences. Ask anybody.

Seinfeld, The Statue” (1991)

Happy Endings

I want to get better at ending my days.

I have gotten pretty good at starting my days. I know the things I need to do in order to don my metaphorical suit of armor. Writing. Workout. Dog care. Go.

I am less good at follow-through in the final hours.

When fatigue has set in.

After my body has exhaled.

Those moments of peace that come after you have done your best.

And eaten your day’s last meal.

And the sun has set.

The body speaks just then: sit down. Lie down. Enough with all this movement.

Yet the mind still has something to say.

The gears still turn.

The brain still moves.

Tired but wired. You hear that all the time. Yoga instructor as therapist. Talk show as sensei. We’re all psychologists now.

That is not necessarily what I am talking about. Certainly not all of what I am talking about. You can be tired but wired at noon.

As I sit outside with my dog on this early spring day, I am thinking about ways to end each day that help launch me into the next one.

Ways to sleep more peacefully than I otherwise might.

The phone is usually not involved, except to the extent that it is in another room.

In this electronic age, this is easier said than done. I write on my phone. I read on my phone. Of course, I also have notebooks and physical books. Which I much enjoy. But I do not edit, publish, or send my writings with paper. Sometimes, as is the case with a present project, I have required reading that only comes by way of pdf. And nighttime is often a right time to make a little progress.

What’s a guy to do?

I will figure out the answer to that question. At the moment, I am thinking more about the importance of stopping. Of completing. Of saying that you are done and then actually being done. How we end one thing plays a part in how we start the next.

There is something to be said here about active versus passive. The day is going to end whether you like it or not. Why linger past the de facto end just because the actual end is still three hours, two hours, thirty minutes, whatever, away?

My writing partner told me last night about a TED talk she heard recently on the topic of endings. This is probably what got me thinking about moments in life in which I have tried to squeeze something out of a dry sponge.

The fabulous vacation that climaxed half a day before boarding for the flight home began.

The party that stopped being fun an hour ago.

The job that was done months ago but you haven’t gotten around to updating the resume and so …

The relationship that plateaued a year ago.

The nights when you take on a problem that a good night’s sleep would be better equipped to solve.

Our days are opportunities to learn how to end well. Even the best days have endings, both as calculated by a clock and by the natural arc of our role in them.

To pursue more from something that has concluded seems so obviously unwise as to not require elaboration.

I have heard it said that how we do anything is how how we do everything. Taking the absolutes out of it, that seems about right.

Taken to its conclusion — the final ending — how do you plan to die — in a rush or in sweet release?

Back in the here and now, on my chair surveying the grass that wants to be green, two things we have are time and energy. Burning both unnecessarily is just wasteful.

Yet I do it all the time. I did it last night, in fact. Reading turned into tweeting turned into waking up when I wanted to be turning off.

There are things I can do — pulling out the gratitude journal and noting that day’s gifts is one; planning the following day being a second on the short list — to prime myself to say goodbye to the day just ended and hello to the one ahead.

At this point I am just looking for a good way to end this post.

Possibly I should have done so a few paragraphs ago.

Yet I didn’t. Here I still am. Searching for a good, or at least satisfactory, ending.

And then the squirrel — yep, the same squirrel who taunts my dog daily — scampers across the lawn, feet from where we are sitting, daring my little buddy to give chase. Which he does. Of course. Before you can say acorn. That is, until the squirrel scales the maple and takes shelter in an unfair perch immediately above and beyond reach.

The little buddy did what he could. Now he is resigned.

He walks back to over. He heads for the door. Time to go inside. I agree. It’s so done out here.

It’s About What You Expected

Everyone has an opinion about Mondays. Love ’em (some) or loathe ’em (most).

Wednesday has it own nickname. Hump Day. It’s maybe not the sort of nickname you wish for when you’re a kid on the playground. And, as an adult, it might keep first dates at arm’s length. But, hey — it’s better than nothing.

Thursday has promise. Only one more day, you can say to yourself and, more likely, to that coworker in the break room (back when people worked in offices), then it will be Friday!

Friday. ‘Nuf said.

On Saturday we sigh happy sighs.

Sunday is Fun Day.

But Tuesday? It’s the underrated (not rated?), overlooked (properly so?), under-appreciated (appropriately disregarded?) lacking in all distinction day. It’s the Kevin Pollack of days. People have stronger views on tartar sauce than they do about Tuesday, it seems.

So often when I get curious about something and I research that thing I am struck by all that I do not know — by all the connections that can be made. Almost without fail, I encounter surprising and interesting facts that I can use to annoy people with on public transit.

Not so much with Tuesday.

According to Wikipedia, the English name “Tuesday” is derived from Old English Tiwesdæg and Middle English Tewesday, meaning “Tīw’s Day,” the day of Tiw or Týr, god of “single combat,” and law and justice in Norse Mythology.

Yawn. Besides, my musket is in the shop.

In the nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child,” Tuesday’s child is, of course, full of grace.

So there’s that.

Tuesday is associated with the planet Mars and shares that planet’s symbol — which I thought was the symbol for the men’s room (sorry, lady!). As Mars rules over Aries and Scorpio, these signs are also associated with Tuesday. As I am a Scorpio, I guess I have to respect Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

A search for famous people named Tuesday turned up just one result: Tuesday Lynn Knight. I must confess that I did not know Ms. Knight met the criteria. She is, according to Babynology.com, “an American actress who has appeared in films and on television.” Babynology lists her most prominent role as that of Kristen Parker in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.

OK, then.

What is Tuesday good for anyway? Why do we continue to keep this day on the weekly calendar? Should we maybe ditch it for something more in line with the times? Something the kids can better identify with? We spend 1/7th of our lives on Tuesdays. Seems we need to make this work.

Let’s see …

Tuesday: a good day for coffee. That few days are bad days for coffee is not the point we want to focus on here. We’re trying to be positive.

Tuesday: the day you recover from the jarring you experienced on Monday.

Tuesday: because Tue is better than one!

Tuesday: at least one politician every four years thinks it’s super.

Tuesday: the day J. Wellington Wimpy (from Popeye fame) pays you back for all those hamburgers.

OK, I give up. I will leave you with this, by way of comedian Chris Rock:

“They don’t want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday.  In November. You ever throw a party on a Tuesday? No. Because nobody would come.”

Judgments Are Like Knives

It’s good to have them.

Try living without them.

Be careful how you wield them.

They can hurt. You. Others.

Both promote — bring about — separation.

Both can serve to protect.

Both can be used to harm.

They are, in specific times and places, both essential.

It’s a good idea to have a place to leave them when you are not using them.

If you carry them with you wherever you go, you might find people, even the ones you like, even the ones who like you, will keep their distance.

It’s not that we have them that should concern us.

Our concern should reside in how we use them.

Sparingly is usually best.

Yet do not fear them. They exist for a reason. They deserve our respect.

It Just Doesn’t Matter

In these troubled times, everyone needs a hero, someone they can look up to, a person who knows what it’s like to face adversity, a figure who shows us that we, too, can prove all the doubters wrong.

I speak, yes, most certainly I do, of the great Rudy Gerner.

Rudy, of course, is the lad who delivered camp North Star a highly improbable victory in the 13th annual camp Olympiad, circa 1979, against their more heavily funded, sharply tailored, and better-looking rivals at camp Mohawk.

Thrust into the spotlight to compensate for an injured teammate, Rudy is selected almost by default — if not as part of the master plan of his mentor, Tripper Harrison — to represent Camp North Star in the Olympiad’s final event, the grueling four-mile “marathon” with nothing less than the gold medal at stake.

Fortunately for Rudy, the marathon’s path cuts right through the cluttered woods in which he trained each morning without knowing he was — a daily regimen that was, no doubt, all part of Tripper’s master plan to show the young Rudy that he was more than a kid no one wanted to spend time with. (Not even Gerner‘s own workaholic father sees value in him, apparently, as the elder Gerner doesn’t so much as come to Camp North Star for Parents Day.)

What must it be like to be a kid who hasn’t before played soccer? Who can’t catch a football? How would it feel to have no friends? When all you got in the world is a sensitive nature and bus fare home, what do you do? You pack your cardboard suitcase, that’s what you do.

Enter Tripper, who buys Rudy some fries and takes him under his wing (never mind that that wing reeks of cheap alcohol and under-laundered T-shirts). Tripper puts Rudy’s development ahead of his own self-interest, getting up each morning of the summer, before the camp’s usual rounds, using energy he’d no doubt rather expend chasing co-eds (especially one in particular), to run with Rudy, pushing him to go beyond his limits — first two miles, later (the next day) a staggering two and a half.

Yet Rudy has not run four before. And the marathon is about to begin. How will he make it? How can he, with his pencil-thin legs, stay with the older, more experienced punk from Mohawk? Svengali Tripper has the answer. Of course. He channels an inner (albeit animated) totem animal inside Rudy in a last-minute skull session that gives Gerner the confidence he needs to toe the starting line.

After the gun goes off, Rudy Gerner shows himself, and all of us, that deep down in places inside we may not yet know, there is something no one can take away: the heart of a winner.

Hear the Silence

Scientists have known for decades that noise — even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic — is bad for us. ‘Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,’ former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said in 1978. In the years since, numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise ‘must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.’ Say you’re trying to fall asleep. You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: Your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure and heart rate are rising, your digestion is slowing down. Your brain continues to process sounds while you snooze, and your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels — slightly louder than a purring cat.

Days after reading it, I keep thinking about the article from which this quote comes: “Why Everything Is Getting Louder” by Bianca Bosker in the November 2019 issue of The Atlantic.

Why?

First, it’s just a well-written piece. Bosker organized the material particularly well — weaving a human-interest story about a bedroom community in Arizona that is home to a large and ever-expanding data center that makes the sort of sound that not everyone hears but that grates on those who do — around facts, history, and other frames of perspective, creating a highly coherent narrative about a universal topic. I am grateful for the information she conveys and the sensory experience the article provides.

Second, and I am not sure there is a higher compliment to offer a writer, the piece changes how I perceive the world, a little.

To clarify, beyond endorsing the piece, I have no larger argument to make in this post. Yet I do want to reflect more on that second point — to tease out and, hopefully, solidify the alterations in my perception.

Noise. The soundtrack of our lives: so obvious yet hardly considered. You just take the noise around you and go about your day. That is, unless or until that noise sends you to the breaking point. Until, for example, you move into an apartment and the renters upstairs have small children or large dogs. Bosker chronicles specific instances in which otherwise law-abiding citizens resorted to violent acts in their attempts to solve conflicts over noise with their neighbors. She tells, too, of the ways certain music is used in hostage scenarios as a way to break the hostage takers. Sound of an unpleasant variety being something that can make us lose our minds.

As I write these words in the early hours of the morning, I am newly aware of the sounds of my own life. My refrigerator whirs. The thermostat just clicked, signaling that that the furnace will soon fire up. A wall clock tick, tick, ticks. I can hear my own fingers tap, tap, tap out these words.

Sound is everywhere. What a stupid thing to say. Yet how often do I not realize the sounds that shape my mood, my thinking, even, as Bosker says, the functioning’s of my bodily organs?

It’s strange when I become aware there is no discernible noise. Though I like silence, while I need quiet to write, unconsciously, if you ask me to think of a silent room, the image that comes to mind — when I think in the abstract — is that of a boredom or a lack of aliveness. Especially if I am not alone. Two people in total quiet. It’s an Edward Hopper painting is what comes to mind.

Reflexively, sometimes I turn on videos even if I do not plan to watch them. Or I turn on music even if I do not plan to listen to it.

I have noticed that, on our walks, I will steer my dog away from two roads close to our place that incur the most traffic. These two thoroughfares are lined by sidewalks on both sides: it’s not a safety issue. It’s the sudden disruption of thought, of peace, or of the podcast I am listening to — really listening to — that, upon reflection, can sometimes feel like a violent act committed against me. Very possibly I am getting old.

Yet I do truly cringe — I do have a physical reaction — when certain cars — you know the ones — where it seems the driver made adjustments to the engine for the sole purpose of creating a louder noise as he — and it’s always a he — roars past. It’s as if he’s saying, “I have a small penis but look at my attempt to compensate.” OK, maybe he’s not saying that, exactly, and I get that car repairs are expensive and if you don’t have a lot of money — these aren’t the Prius drivers, to be sure — you aren’t going to spend it on the unnecessary fixes. Still, it does seem akin to the infant with a noisemaker and a wide smile on his or her face. Look at me!

To clarify: No, you don’t have to get off my lawn.

As a highly sensitive person, I am perhaps more keen to certain forms of sensory stimulation. But I don’t think I am at all alone here. Bosker’s piece makes that obvious. I think, too, of a post on social media recently in which a loud truck driver complained that some of his neighbors complained to him. They seemed not all to be doing this knee jerk; it was a more or less polite request. One person’s noise can disrupt a neighborhood.

Definitely, it’s not your location, city versus country, I mean, that determines the volume of your life. In many respects I feel I have a quieter home in the city than I did while living well beyond the outer ring of the Twin Cities suburbs.

The striking thing about the Bosker piece is that, as she points out, sound affects you even if it doesn’t bother you.

The furnace just finished warming us up. The fridge is sufficiently cool. The clock needs a new battery.

I am going to try to reframe my thinking on the relationship between sound and excitement.

Tap. Tap. Tap. My fingers form these sentences and, really, there is no reason to think this modicum of sound is boring. Right now, my fingers are taking silent instructions from my brain and creating some amount of order and stability — whether or not it’s an illusion, the effect is still the same — to my experience of being alive in this moment.

It’s a sound, in other words, that if not pleasing to my ears, is at least pleasing to the matter that exists between them.

Essay Added

I had mentioned I was at work on a post about grief. Turns out, I had more to say on the matter than I thought. I uploaded a piece to Writings + Resources. Thank you.