Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Reset Button

Sometimes a week goes off the rails.

I have not written much this week — a sign of stress and also an absence that exacerbates stress.

I have lifted little weight this week, too. Same.

I usually choose to stand much of the day at work. Yesterday, I sat more than usual. At one point, while needing to do a lot of reading, I slumped in my chair. A sign I am physically tired. If a log of such a thing were kept, my sit time would have to be significantly higher at the end of weeks than at the beginnings. This is good evidence to have. The body is such a useful barometer.

I woke up on time this morning yet decided against the gym. Body: not today, bro. I will do a light workout in the basement. That will be enough.

Sometimes you need to regroup.

I am grateful for these breakdowns. They force me to get back to basics. When your energy wanes you have an opportunity to reassess what is most important. You can’t do everything. When you are full of energy you sometimes ignore this fact and go ahead and try.

One of my favorite comedians, Steven Wright, used to have a line in his routine that went like this: “You can’t have it all. I mean, where would you put it?”

You can’t do it all. I mean, where would you do it?

The weekend is coming. At present, I have a fuller calendar of social commitments than usual. But I can pare back. You almost always can.

The reset button is not hard to find.

Out Sick

Sometimes you have an idea on how a day or a night is going to go and then life interrupts.

I came home from work Monday excited to see my little buddy, play with him in the basement on a chilly evening, make us some dinner, and maybe get a few tasks done. Nothing too ambitious but just enough activity on the first night back from a break.

Not so much. My little buddy was under the weather. He had gotten sick while I was at work. Initially, it appeared the worst had already passed — he seldom gets sick and when he does whatever bug he catches never stays long — but no. That was a wrong assumption on my part; it was wrong to think play might still go on. There would be no dinner, either. I put some stuff in pots for myself. I cleaned a couple of bowls in the sink and washed his blankets. Otherwise, no tasks were getting done; we needed a different mode. We needed to physically download.

He was sick, so we both went into sick mode. Rest — on the floor, on the couch. Light massage. Breathing. Time to just be.

We slept together that night so I could be right there to take him out if he suddenly needed to go. Also because he is most content when we are touching.

He didn’t have to go out at all in the night. He slept well, better than I did.

I really don’t like it when he suffers. But I am grateful for moments when we are pulled closer. When it’s just my skin, his fur, our breaths, that’s it.

Dis-Traction

I keep coming back to a draft of a post on the topic of distraction but I guess I am, um, struggling to focus on it long enough to form a coherent utterance. Let me try again. Sometimes bullets help:

  • I have been thinking a lot about distraction because I want to know I am making good use of my time. Not perfect use of my time. But good — very good — use of my time.
  • Few are the days when I feel I have wasted no amount of time. This despite the fact that few are the days when I get everything done I would like to.
  • Time: we only get so much of it.
  • We are human: the goal is not to be a robot. Very good use of time is when I feel productive while still experiencing pleasure; there is stress but a manageable level. My soul is happy because enough of the time I am doing what I am meant to do and need to do.
  • I took some time off work this past week. This means I have of late had greater control over my time than is usually the case. During this time I have had writing goals, a not-small domestic to-do list, and I have wanted to have some fun/relaxation. I am maybe thinking more about distraction because I have during this week been very productive. The to-list is in great shape and I have written a lot. I did not have maybe as much fun/relaxation as I hoped. (A couple of times I made the conscious choice to engage in writing or housework over fun.)
  • “A distraction is something we do that moves us away from what we really want.” That is how Nir Eyal, who wrote a book on the topic of distraction, defined the word during a recent appearance on the Mind Pump podcast. The opposite of distraction, Eyal says, and here I am borrowing language from his blog, is traction: “Traction is something we do that moves us towards what we really want.” These definitions tell me: You can’t know how distracted you are — can’t know if you are distracted in a given minute — if you don’t know when you are not. If you don’t, in other words, know what you want. I find the frame useful because, as strange as this may be to say, it is sometimes hard to know when I am engaged in activity that is, in fact, a distraction. As a writer, you are, in a way, always doing research.
  • They say Einstein used to stare out the window for hours. Was he distracted or was in he in traction?
  • My morning coffee conversation group this week took up a related topic: laziness. We read a provocative article by a social psychologist and psychology professor who argues that laziness does not exist. When we procrastinate on an essay, say, it really is a sign that we lack competence. What we think of as laziness is really suboptimal functioning. No one would long neglect a task that is important to her or him if she or he knew how to properly and efficiently execute that task. Laziness, it follows, is an invitation to learning.
  • The argument appeals to me. It also heightens awareness over my approach and/or avoidance of certain tasks. Yet I remain unconvinced that laziness does not exist. I wonder if it is more a matter of acceptance. In some moments, in some areas of life, I am more lazy than in others. When my functioning increases in the lazy areas I am less likely to put off the associated tasks. Yet we cannot do all things, perform all tasks, any more than we can be smart at all things. What if we took judgement out of the word? I am lazy at lawn care. See, that wasn’t so hard.
  • Our culture seems to encourage the notion that we are lazy if we do not work or vigorously play round the clock. It is heartening to encounter others, as I did in my group, who admit they feel lazy. Or do lazy things. Or have been told they are lazy. I think this is a common self-view. On the lazy scale, we are all below average.
  • Our culture also seems to be a landmine of distraction. It is so easy to slip into laziness.
  • Since it is inevitable that, even if we are clear on what we want, we are going to get distracted (and probably should), and so it seems important to choose the quality of one’s distractions. I can’t write all day. I can’t write really even more than a couple hours without a break. I could distract myself on apps or television or books or my dog or sorting the mail or dog videos on Twitter or watching Trump news on YouTube. Some of these forms of distraction are more constructive than others. Some of these forms of distraction actually help me get what I want. Others, let’s be clear, do not.
  • Eyal says technology is not to blame. We can always turn it off. Technology is just a common current culprit but, he says, we have always, for generations before the first flip phone, actively engaged in distractions. True, we can set controls for our phones, tablets, and televisions. But, I would argue, that is different than saying all distractions are the same. Technology has a unique capacity to arouse us — to keep us distracted. Distract yourself with a printed book and see how (a) hard it is to pry yourself away and (b) how you feel after you do. Technology sucks us in and scatters our minds. It doesn’t mean we should destroy our smartphones. Technology certainly can be used to foster what we want — connection, knowledge, and so forth — yet our devices are uniquely built to absorb more of our time than we mean to give them.
  • Rather than grand conclusions, thinking about distraction, I have found, has me thinking more usefully in the moment-to-moment about my decisions. As with most things, good questions are better than settled answers. I feel more attuned with what I want. This thinking has also helped me identify that I want to be able to focus longer on those things that I want, the things that most matter to me. It takes effort to make very good use of one’s time.

Nice Try

A sidebar story in the newspaper today tells of a man named Benjamin Schreiber, serving in the Iowa State Penitentiary for murder, who recently argued in court that he had fulfilled his life sentence. How could a living man make such an argument? Four years ago, a fall in his cell caused Schreiber’s heart to stop beating. In fact, doctors had to restart his heart five times. In other words, Schreiber said, he legally died. The Iowa Court of Appeals ruled against Schreiber, however, saying the 66-year-old must remain in prison until his heart stops beating on a permanent basis.

Every Bit Adds Up

I wondered why I felt sore Friday, a day after I squatted. Why I felt sore still today, two days later. (It’s always the second day that is the worst.)

Then I looked at my log.

This month I am doing five-set sessions in the rep range of 8-12. The first session I did five sets of 8 at 185 pounds. This is a moderate weight for me. I wanted to start moderate because I have been rebuilding my stance. You don’t rebuild your stance with max weight. Besides, even moderate weight takes a toll during five sets of eight-plus reps.

Here I thought in my second session I had increased the volume slightly by doing a couple more reps per set. No. In fact, I went from the bottom of the rep range to the top: I did 2-4 more reps per set and, in fact, felt so good on the last set that I did 5 additional reps — from the original 8 to 13 — so I pushed a bit beyond the range on the final set. (Sometimes, and not everyday, the hips feel so good.)

I was in a meeting this morning, thinking I had done maybe 10 more reps, total, increasing my volume by 1,850 pounds. In fact, I had done 19 more reps for an increase of 3,515 pounds. That is certainly enough to make one’s muscles a little cranky.

Just shows how it takes so little to make a difference in the loads we carry. Just a little more each time — a little more weight on the bar, a few more words on the draft, a little more emotional baggage in the proverbial overhead bin, whatever — can add up to a lot. And it can add up to a lot whether we initially notice it or not.

Everybody’s Got Talent

I don’t do many things well, especially domestically, but one thing I have come to count on about myself is the ability to get out of jam.

A specific sort of jam, I mean.

What I am saying is that I can unplug me a toilet.

‘Twas not always so. I don’t mind admitting that for years, many years, I could not be counted among the ranks of plunge-worthy men. As a de-clogger I was merely, um, cough, passable.

While I was a mere novice when it came to applying the working end of a plunger, unfortunately, what I was good at was the plugging.

And so I would get nervous when the water started to slow. I would cuss under my breath. And maybe a little out loud. When faced with the prospect of a non-functioning toilet it is a choice time to use the S-word. I tried with all my might and, I shall confess: I even resorted to chemicals.

Now? Now the bowl is my domain. I don’t even sweat it. I just know. I know I’m gonna get it to go.

Take the other night, for example. Encountered a stubborn son of gun. One of those times when the water starts down but then stops. Seemed like we were all clear, then nope. I whipped out the baking soda. I poured in the white vinegar. I waited twenty minutes, twenty five maybe. You don’t need a timer when you are a pro. I doused the pool with some hot water, straight from the stove.

Usually. I do not have to go to such lengths. Usually, I just need the right amount of water — enough to crests an unstoppable force, but not so much I make a mess.

You know how some people can look at a wave and know how it’s going to break?

Mozart was born to make music.

Michael Jordan was put on this earth to play basketball.

I can unplug my toilet.

Red Robbin’ Along

At approximately 12:18 p.m. today I turned the key in my car so as to go from Menard’s parking lot to a place I had not been to before called Red Robin (a cleaners, not the restaurant chain). The sound I heard at that very moment, coming from the car radio, unusually turned to a local jazz station, was the voice of vocalist Carmen McRae. Ms. McRae was singing “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.”

Frequency Redux

Ten minutes.

Ten minutes a day. Let us say that is all the time you have to write. To lift.

Consider: ten minutes a day adds up to an hour and ten minutes per week. An hour and ten minutes per week is more than sixty hours per year.

How many words could you write in sixty hours?

How much weight could you lift in sixty hours?

Keep in mind that sixty hours is 100 percent writing — or lifting — time. You aren’t eating or peeing or Facebooking or taking care of another creature during that ten minutes. Why? Because ten minutes, that’s why!

Now, I would argue ten minutes a day would amount to far more than ten minutes a day even if, truly, all the time you spent was ten minutes a day. That’s because the muscles, whether the one between your ears or the rest of them, respond very favorably to frequency. You come back every day, even for just ten minutes. and you reap the compound interest of all the unconscious priming your mind does for you the other twenty-three hours and fifty minutes you are not writing or lifting.

In other words, the difference between not writing or lifting ten minutes a day and actually writing or lifting ten minutes a day is so staggering it is hard to put into words all you can write or lift in ten minutes a day.

Ten!

The Hemingway Way

Leave something in the tank.

That is another parallel between writing and lifting. Both the writer and the lifter benefit when she or he learns just how hard to work. This means two things: (1) starting and (2) knowing the right time to stop.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I carry with me a story about Ernest Hemingway, which is more of a vignette than a story — more of a habit, really, come to think of it — that he used to end his writing session each day in the middle of a sentence. Or at least after reaching an aspect of his story that had him exited. The idea being that he put a proverbial bookmark in a place in his work that he knew would have him motivated to continue that work again the next day. So he didn’t have to start anew. He merely had to continue on.

The way Hemingway described it, he:

“Learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.

I want to parse that some:

– “Never empty the well.” There is such a thing as working too hard. You write to exhaustion, you lift to exhaustion.

– “Always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well.” You could write further, could perform another lift, but there is a cost: the extra effort would leave you with nothing left.

– “Let it refill.” The well, he means. The lifter needs allows the muscles to recover. The writer needs time to let the writing muscle recover. The process is similar; you break down so you can build back up better than before.

– “I always worked until I had something done.” I am saying a lot here about not working too hard; most definitely there is such a thing as not working hard enough. The writer is not going to be excited to work the next morning having written half a sentence; the lifter won’t feel pumped if she or or he has not at all pushed against the wall.

– “That way I could always be sure …” My personal theory — very possibly this is my own primary problem projected; I know for sure I am not alone, however — is that a writer’s primary challenge is simply not starting often enough. It’s the same problem for the lifter: not going to the gym regularly. The blank page — the thought of pain or inconveniencethese are primary barriers to finished books and better bodies.

I am a big believer in momentum. Hemingway published volumes read by large audiences decades after his death by writing 500 words a day. You expend energy to gain energy. Hemingway knew how to build and sustain momentum. He knew how to leave the right amount in the tank.

The To-Do List

How many things should you try to accomplish today? Any day?

Two?

Four?

Six?

Eight?

Who do we appreciate?

Clarity! Clarity! Yeah!

I will put my pompons away and say: What rates as an accomplishment anyway? Surely, anyone who bathes and brushes her or his teeth and shows up for a job, does that job at least passably well, takes care of their kids and/or their kitty, communicates with their partner or the phone company or the plumber, makes dinner, and/or does the dishes after dinner, has accomplished something. Yet do any of those daily-round matters rate a place on your list of to-dos? Does paying a utility bill? Doing the laundry? Getting to the gym?

I definitely do not think only momentous achievements should rate as accomplishments. After all, we, generally speaking, do not get to the momentous without a whole lot of the mundane. Yet if we rate everything as an accomplishment than nothing is.

I have heard it said (a wise friend) you should have a list of three things to get done each day.

I have heard it said (Zig Ziglar uses this number) you should have a list of six things to get done each day. (And these six things should be ranked in order of importance. If you do not get through all six then the remaining are on your list for tomorrow.)

Should you not settle on a number at all, which is, to be sure, arbitrary, and just do as much as you can? If you try to do as much as you can, do you feel like you should always be doing and not having any time for being?

The To-List: production tool or slave-driver?

I ask these simple questions because I am not a natural planner. Especially on days off, weekends and the like — days when I have a lot of “free” time, in other words — days like to today, as it would happen — I have a tendency to want to see what I am in the mood to do. I like leaving open the door for possibilities.

Especially as a writer, it is hard to judge how long it will take to get my words in — and how many words I will have to say to begin with. Many writers solve this by picking a number of words or by sticking to a set amount of time, regardless of how many keepers come during that time. This is sage advice. Here again, though, there are times when you are struck by a moment or an idea and want to write about that moment or idea while the iron is still hot. It is not, to be sure, always hot.

Of course, the answer to the question of what rates as a to-do and how many of those you should pursue is whatever works for you. Perhaps it is three things: perhaps it is six things; perhaps it is to have no to-do list at all.

Rather than even attempt to find an answer, I find value in scrutinizing the question. My psyche deals in answers. I just need to make sure I have usefully framed the questions.

I ask these simple questions also because I encounter people regularly who struggle to mange their time. A seemingly neurotic or basic problem about the structure of one’s day is not something to feel shame about. Freedom is a gift. But it is not a gift without cost. We were not built for a daily free-for-all. We evolved from tribes — not as solo rulers of our hours. We also evolved without our essential daily needs, especially those around food, being solved for us, like they are, more or less, today.

Some people are naturally better at deciding on how to spend their time. And those people might suggest, intentionally or through their lack of noticeable angst, that it should be easy for all. It is not easy for all. And it is a worthy subject for consideration. You do want to solve this riddle for yourself. For if you do not control your time there are all kinds of people, devices, and chemicals (in food and in non-food forms) waiting to eat that time up. The time you do not claim is time someone else or something else will instead claim: your unused time can easily be capitalized or monetized in way that benefits you not.

Time: you only got it until it is gone.