Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

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.

Let’s. Play. Ball!

When I say that adding carpet to the basement was a game-changer, I mean that. Literally.

The little buddy and I suddenly have a significant indoor space in which to play our game.

Our game being snout-soccer. Or wind-free fetch. Or chase. Depending upon the minute, the day, the mood. Anyway, you get the idea.

And just in time for winter.

Few decisions I have made have made me instantly happier.

I had known from before we moved in that I wanted to put some sort of flooring down on this half (actually a little more than half) of our otherwise unfinished basement. Not just for B. but also for me. I imagined creating a space in which I could also get a home workout in, especially on days when I cannot get to the gym before work. I didn’t think carpet; I thought more of a rubber floor, a cheap alternative to the sort of tiles you see in gyms. Whatever the surface, I didn’t expect the budget would allow any such option anytime soon. The idea was added to the home-improvement dream list.

That is, until, feeling the Minnesota air shift from summer to fall to (it’s nearly here) winter, I kicked around make-shift options. I became open to something less than ideal, but functional. You can always get remnants from carpet stores, or even big-box stores. I am also becoming a fan of our neighborhood RE Store. Almost always they have slabs of used carpet of various sizes you can buy on the cheap. I went there a couple of times: nothing quite worked; too wide, not long enough. Even for patch-work, it didn’t suit. And, let’s face it, I care enough about aesthetics that one of my hang-ups was that if I was going to do anything at all I wanted it too look good.

When I more or less stuck out at carpet stores I went to Menard’s and talked to a floor guy who has the same last name of a famous comedian (but who clearly had heard enough jokes about his name so I held back and told him only of the time I saw his namesake live). He, as did a handyman I trust, steered me away from the rubber. Dog toenails too easy to slip through the cracks, they said. Good point. He also showed me something better than a remnant: a cheap new carpet that, shockingly, was the right color for the room (Tuscany gray; not sure who thinks gray when they think Tuscany but OK!) . The price was affordable, there was a long enough roll at a Mendard’s on the other side of town, and on the morning I called to prepay, I learned they were having a sale starting that very day. Yay. Also, and this is key, the carpet came padded.

Suddenly, our functional floor space increased by a shade under 300 square feet. And, in our humble abode, that’s no small expansion.

Now the little buddy has a place to run and roam sans the cold and wind and rain and snow. It’s been less than 24 hours since the carpet went down and already we have played down there twice.

I now have a mobility room. I have started scoping options on cheap equipment (when pressed, you can resistance train effectively with surprisingly very little equipment). So it should not take much to have alternative way to train on days when I am too short on time to get to the gym or not wanting to take the car out in the midst of Minnesota weather.

Like with resistance training itself, there is a sweet spot between effort and ease. So happy-making when you find yourself there.

Shoulder to Shoulder

Like most people, I made a birthday wish. Unlike most people, my birthday wish involved the voluntary exhaustion of my deltoids.

I cross paths nearly daily with Calvin, Ed, and Nayo, three bodybuilders who train together at our gym during the early morning hours. The three of them are like synchronized swimmers, constantly moving between sets and supersets with minimal rest and even less conversation. Rather than move to a shared beat, they each have their own headsets on. In place of splashes, they toss dumbbells, barbells, and plates around, always seeming to know where the other two guys will be. Sometimes they will give a quick hand signal. Light dancing is not uncommonly involved — most usually on leg day.

Earlier this week, I asked Nayo and Calvin what was on their docket for today.

Shoulders.

Perfect. Easily my weakest of the major body parts areas.

I asked if I could try to keep up. My birthday challenge to myself. They were totally down with that.

“It would be my pleasure,” is how I think Calvin responded, “to inflict pain on you.”

We did presses, a lot of raises (front, side, over), and some pulls. I was, not surprisingly, always the one using the the lightest weight — or doing the fewest reps. But I almost always stayed within their hypertrophy-building range of eight to 12 reps. I followed my personal rule to not go to absolute failure and, in the end, I, more or less, kept up.

Most importantly, I learned new ways to grow my delts — if you look closely in the picture while using powerful instruments you can see that I have them!) — and I had a lot of fun. My kind of fun — purposeful activity shared with good people.

I should say it made for a great start to my birthday.

Beginner’s Mind

Yesterday I was thinking about resistance training and the beginner’s mind.

Later, in bed, I read my horoscope and that phrase, beginner’s mind, was in the first line.

I like to look at things as if for the first time.

There is simplicity in stripping away conceptions about how things are, where we are, and how good we should be at them. (I tend to carry a lot of these notions around in my proverbial nap-sack.)

I wrote a book — then went to graduate school for writing.

I have been back-squatting for years. I am considering starting over with my squat as if for the first time. I was talking to a personal trainer yesterday about the way, like a hitter who is pitched inside, I have a tendency to open up my stance a little on my squat. I turn my right foot out a bit, in other words. Even when I am conscious of this fact. You could watch me move weight and not notice; it is subtle this turn but it is often there.

Recently, I vacuumed over the closet door floor guide in my second bedroom, inadvertently sliding over this little piece of plastic that keeps the double door in proper alignment. Even broken, the door still works; look at it, slide it left and right, and you might not even notice the broken guide. But the doors do now go, if slightly, back and forth as well as left and right. They are not in exact alignment.

Being off track even a little has consequences. Sometimes when I go heavy on my squats I can feel a tenderness in my right knee, on the same leg that opens up as if to turn on a curveball. (I was a left-handed hitter. To extend the metaphor, I guess I still am.)

I went to the hardware store to buy a new guide. The door will be fixed this week.

I went looking for a trainer because I want to fix the misalignment in my squat. I want to make sure I am properly moving through other lifts as well. I am thinking this will mean, at least for a time, reducing the weight and doing a lot of repetition. It will be less about working out and more about practicing. The fix will take, in other words, application of the beginner’s mind.

Finding It

You know.

You know what you must do.

You know what you must give up.

What (or who) holds you back.

You don’t always know the how. Or the when. And why bother with the why.

Be gentle. But listen.

Listen to the voice that tells you. To pick up the pen and write that thank you. To put the phone down and love. To fix that door. To fold those clothes. To not start the week without groceries or else you’ll eat too much junk and spend too much money on junk. To take a day off. To pick that weight up. To write that story while the fire still burns.

Certainly, you can get better at execution, at craft, at technique. There are brilliant people in this world who are ready and available to teach you, often free of charge. Apply their teaching. New learning is not anathema to the voice. No.

There is this, though: if you can’t listen to the voice, if you do not act on the voice, no teacher can save you.

It is not either/or, external or internal. It is both. Strive for both.

Yet if in a given moment you have to choose between the two … there is no choice at all.

To go against world wisdom is to possibly look foolish or fail. This can be overcome. To live is to occasionally lose.

To go against the voice is to wage a fight with yourself. And then how can you possibly win?

Anxiety Incarnate

Like a window shutting in front of your face. That is what it is like.

A window you didn’t know was there.

That you did not shut.

Not wittingly anyway.

You just could tell the view was being … skid, skid, skid … reframed.

Thump.

After this window closes you see as you did before but now everything is colored anew — colored with a new feeling.

The lens of perception senses more urgency to every word, every thought. This urgency is not necessarily tied to anything real.

It happened to me yesterday. I had not experienced this palpable, abrupt shift in sensation in a long time. A year? Maybe more than a year. I think maybe two or three years.

The feeling is unmistakable.

You don’t forget this feeling.

As it is happening it is, occurs to me now, the memory of a feeling.

This time I could tell what was happening right off. I felt the change before the shift in perspective had fully arrived. I felt it as it was coming to me.

The window slid down before my eyes. My heart pumped faster.

To the extent I recognized that it was happening at all, in the past, I used to fight it. This time I did not fight it.

I remember the conscious thought yesterday: allow.

My belly. The nerve endings in the belly vibrated.

I let it be. All of it.

I let myself feel the sliding down. The shift.

I let my mind go into hyperdrive while I told my body to remain still.

I backed off from my day for a moment.

No one in my sphere could have sensed what was happening. Even if they did, I did fear that they were.

I do not like the feeling. Make no mistake. But this time I did not fear the feeling.

This time, I regarded it curiously.

Like an interesting stranger with an abrasive personality. He interrupts your day but it’s really not about you.

I know now that the feeling, like all feelings, passes.

I see now that I tried to be a witness to my own experience.

I want to say it passed in the usual 90 seconds or so. No, not that fast. The intensity ratcheted up, then plateaued for some hours.

It was manageable. I breathed. In order for the feeling to have arrived I must have shortened my breath. Before or at the beginning. So just then I corralled it, slowed it. The breath is the ultimate mitigator.

I was revved, more or less, for hours later. A functional nervousness.

Like a pitcher in baseball, sometimes you have to try to win without your best stuff.

A day later, I see now that it took a longer time than I realized after the intensity of the thing passed for me to return to baseline.

Probably why I stayed up so late last night. I was still settling down.

I am writing again so I think we are there.

Reverberation

Being a personal writer means being comfortable with vulnerability.

Well, That Is Nice to Hear

You don’t generally like email, and you tell yourself not to check it too often. But then you wake up one Wednesday morning and see a message. This one came though overnight from your website.

It’s from a history professor. He is temporarily teaching at your alma mater. He just wanted to let you know something: your book is part of his curriculum this fall. His students will be reading it next week.

There are worse ways to start a day.

Habit Forming

One way to form a habit is to make the matter your day’s first priority. If something is important to you, after all, you put your attention to it first thing.

This is where the writer-lifter runs into trouble.

For here’s another parallel: the later the day gets, the harder it is to lift — the harder it is to write.

I exaggerate but only by a little. (And, of course, this does not apply to all writers or all lifters. Some are night owls. Some have schedules that allow them to work mid-day. Others can do their work at any any hour equally well. Note: We don’t like this last group very much.)

For those of us who work full-time daytime hours (at the paying jobs, I mean), whatever amount of free time we have for these other forms of “work” is found on the edges of the day: you go to the gym before work, or after. You write before work, or after.

I don’t know about you, but after work I want a pizza. I want a steak. I want to get outside — if it’s nice out. I want to lodge my butt on the couch — if it’s not.

Lift? Write? But I just worked all day!

Given such realities of life and life energy, I have made it my habit to lift as soon as I can in the morning. And this works. I have been a stable 5 a.m.-er for years now. I get my sweat in and then I take on everything else in the day. It works, yes, but it doesn’t leave much morning time for writing.

As I have found it easier to navigate the stress of the day with a workout sans a writing session than I have with a writing session sans a workout I have … if I must choose one or the other … well, then, now you know why daily writing is a less fully formed habit for me. (The need to do something to put me physically into my body is real and strong and what I must do.)

Which leads me back to the matter of finding the sweet spot between intensity and frequency. When it comes to lifting, I am trying hard not to try as hard. I am, in other words, embarking to stay on the low-end of the making muscle continuum: schedule rest days (rather than wait until my body tells me I must take one), shave extra sets during workouts that only serve to make me more tired, focus more of my attention on compound lifts — these sorts of tweaks.

The good news is that cutting back might be better for both my writing and my lifting.

There is a prevailing view across the American fitness space circa 2019 that in order to make progress in the gym you have to hurt yourself. Every day. No puke, no gain. (I know this view well. I did CrossFit for five years.) This is not only not accurate, it is misguided; exhaustion for its own sake is, simply put, counterproductive. Sure, you have to put in the work. But that is different than saying you must be writhing in pain on the floor in order to have done that work.

Yet I fight against that sort of ingrained ethos every day. I tell myself more is better, that heavier is greater.

No. Not always.

I don’t have it all figured out. Not in the least. But that much I know is not true. In writing and in lifting there is truth in the adage that steady wins the race.

Enough is enough. In lifting. In writing. In most anything. You just have to find it.