Category Archives: Ramble

The Obstacle Is the Way


I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.

The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.

They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.

This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)

Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.

See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?

But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.

Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.

We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.

And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.

But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.

And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.

The obstacle is the way.

Are you on the path?

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


This is Fine


Just as a brief follow up to my story from a couple of weeks ago — these handsome fellows have been on my lawn this morning. Literally for hours. Working over a dead squirrel that got mushed yesterday.

And yes, that is a graveyard behind them. Yes, I live across the street from a graveyard.

This is a good sign, right? No chance at all that this could be a horrific omen of disaster, right?


Nobody Knows How to Do the Thing Until They Do It


Once in a while, a man of a certain age gets it into his head that he’s capable of certain things; certain things that he never thought about before. And depending on how much of an idiot he is, he may actually try his hand at these things with varying levels of disastrousness.

Which is my cheeky way of saying I re-did the floors in my basement this weekend.

I should preface by saying I don’t feel I’m particularly handy, which I will then undercut by saying that over 10+ (help!) years of homeownership I’ve done drywall repair, replaced toilets, fixed a ceiling (never do this by yourself) twice (definitely don’t do it twice), replaced faucets, rewired lighting fixtures and garbage disposals, and any number of tiny fix-it tasks around the house.

So maybe I’m slightly handy.

The usual pattern — almost without deviation — is as follows.

  1. Notice the thing that needs doing
  2. Ignore it for a few months
  3. Get annoyed by the thing in a heated moment
  4. Get good and angry and watch a few how-to videos
  5. Go to Home Depot and buy about 2/3 of the required supplies (possibly also buying the wrong items)
  6. Attempt the repair, in the process removing the original thing or damaging it beyond repair, thus moving past the point of no return
  7. Screw up and start over
  8. Slink back to YouTube covered in grime to watch more how-to videos
  9. Attempt the repair again, going slower and super cautious not to make mistakes and screw it up even worse
  10. Realize I’m short on supplies or have the wrong equipment, go to Home Depot again
  11. Finish the job in roughly twice the time the how-to videos suggested it should take
  12. Feel immensely satisfied
  13. Spend the next several weeks to a month cleaning up the mess from the job
  14. Get annoyed over new thing, repeat process

I’ve done this over a dozen times, now. So I dunno what I was thinking, thinking I could handle a large basement room (plus an angled hallway) in a single day, but there I found myself, standing by a stack of floor planks, ready to rip up the carpet.

Needless to say, the pattern held. I was a box short of enough planks to finish the job, necessitating a return trip to the HD. I didn’t know what the fargo I was doing installing the stuff, resulting in a totally crap job after four hours of work covering about 15% of the room that had to be disassembled and started over. I tore up the walls taking the baseboards off, a subsequent repair I have yet to properly tackle. And instead of finishing the job on Saturday evening, it took me until late Sunday afternoon before I was satisfied enough to call the job “done” (barring the unfinished baseboards and the aforementioned holes in the wall).

And as with everything, or at least, as should be the case with everything, there were some lessons to be learned in the doing. Here they are, in no particular order.

The hard part is starting.

Before. Bonus points: All those plaques and awards belong to my wife. My awards are on the same wall. There just aren’t nearly as many of them.

This isn’t news to me: every time I run, I have to convince myself to step out the door. And the first mile is nothing if not mild self-torture. Every time I sit down to work on my novel, I hesitate: do I really want to put myself through the pain of working on that project? Can I really face the task of pulling words out of the nothing in between my ears? The starting is the hardest part.

As I stood there, pliers and pry-bar perched in my hands, staring at the carpet before me (which I hated), I hesitated. Once I start, there’s no going back. And the doubts were the same. I’m not up to this task. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I shouldn’t be doing this at all; I should hire a professional.

But up the carpet came, and from there, it never made sense to stop. Just like the run — as soon as I’m out the door, it feels foolish to even think about going back. Just like the novel — as soon as I’ve written the first word (or deleted it, as the case is lately), stopping or going back seems idiotic. Take the first step, and the rest of the steps follow after quickly, almost automatically.

You’re going to screw it up

Finally making progress … eight hours later.

Fix-iteering is about trial and error, it’s about testing yourself, it’s about learning. And unfortunately, nobody starts life knowing how to lay down laminate planks. (Or, for that matter, knowing how to write a novel, or how to run long distance.) You figure these things out by taking that first step, screwing it up (perhaps even catastrophically), learning your lesson, and coming back to the task like Rocky getting up after Creed has brought the thunder to his skull for the forty-seventh time.

Once the carpet was up, I started the job the way I thought it was to be started — and it didn’t work. So I scrapped it and started over, and it still didn’t work. So I started over again and I thought it was going better, until the wife came down to check on me and the look on her face told me I still didn’t have it right. This was four hours into the work, by the way. I was ready to stop, return all the flooring to HD and pay triple to have the carpet replaced.

But I didn’t. Partially because that’s not how you grow, partially because I’m penny-squeezing cheap, and partially because …

You can’t do it alone

Laying the floor turned into a family affair. First the wife came down — bless her — and helped me puzzle over the process, pick a new starting point, and convinced me to apply a little more force — a little more EFFORT — to the task than I had been comfortable doing before. I had been afraid to damage the flooring, but it turns out, to make this stuff click together, it takes a bit of percussive maintenance (i.e., a few — or a few dozen — whacks with a mallet). Then my father — bless him — came over to help out when he learned that I was not nearly finished with the project by 7pm as I had naively boasted that morning, but rather just starting over. We listened to the Beatles, who usually I can’t stand, but somehow under the circumstances quite enjoyed, and laughed as we figured out the tricks and the techniques to get the job done.

Come to think of it, my brother helped me move the furniture out of the room before I actually started the job — and would come over again several days later to help me bring it back in. My mom would offer to help re-paint the trouble spots afterward. Even my seven-year-old son would help me out with the cleanup afterward, doing what would have been the backbreaking work of pulling spacers off the walls, had I been the one doing it.

We all have a lot of sweat equity in the finished product, which makes it feel a little sweeter, a little more satisfying, a little more ours.

And, you know, the running and the writing are like that, too. Sure, these are activities completed mostly on one’s own — but comes a time you need other people to check on your work, because they’ll see it in a way you don’t. Comes a time you’ll want a running partner, because it’s too hard to get out the door on your own if you don’t have the extra obligation of somebody counting on you (even if the somebody goes on four legs).

Point is, no man is an island, even when he’s laminated himself into a corner.

Starting day two.

Finishing feels incredible, no matter how long it takes

Long story short (too late!) we have brand new floors in the basement. And they look bloody awesome.

Not bad for a Drama major. Now about that drywall…

And yeah, it took about nine hours more than I expected. And yeah, working my butt off for two days wasn’t what I wanted to wrap up our vacation days. And yeah, I was sorer than I’ve been in recent memory. But the floors are done, and I love them; not just because they look great, but because they’re also a symbol.

They’re a symbol for all that hippie-dippy stuff I was talking about up there; a symbol of teamwork and of willpower and of tenacity. And above all, they’re a testament to the fact that if you put your mind to it, as George McFly once said, you can accomplish anything. If you decide to do the thing, and undertake the task, you can get it done — as long as you’re willing to suffer a bit, learn from your mistakes, and keep hammering away, you can do the thing. Be it running your first mile, writing your first chapter, or laying down the floors in your basement. Do the thing.

Even if you have no idea what you’re doing.


Unexpected Fauna in Suburbia


The first one I noticed was a cat.

Actually, I’m not sure what the first one was; but the first one I knew for what it was was a cat.

See, any animal in the wild will startle and then stare at you. They suss out the danger, watch you for movement, decide whether to run or fight. But not these things. Not this cat. They stare through you, like you wandered into a place you’re not meant to be, seen things not meant to be seen. They stare at you like they’re waiting on the word from some master you can’t see for permission to tear you apart.

You might think that suburbia is a totally tame place to go running for exercise, but any place can seem alien at four AM, especially a place where civilization and vast stretches of untamed land butt up against each other. (I run at four AM because I have to — it’s the only time of day that really belongs to me. The kids and wife are asleep, work is still a long way away. It’s quiet, peaceful, calm. Perfect for running. And despite living in the suburbs, the regular route snakes right out of the neighborhood and onto a road that carves through a forest, dipping and winding through trees and growth that feel old, the way only an old forest can feel old. Like if you stepped off the road and wandered fifty yards into the trees, you might find yourself lost for days.

It’s not quite like that, but at four AM it definitely feels like that.

Wildlife is common at this hour. There’s the neighbors’ cats that stare, golden eyed and still from front porches and from under bushes. Sleepy dogs out in their pens that come to and give chase along the edge of their fences. The occasional stray that pursues for a while, but gives up rather than follow too far. Then, across that imaginary border between civilization and the woods, things get a little more exotic. Squirrels and rabbits everywhere, poking their heads up for an instant then bolting for cover. Coyotes aren’t unheard of; I never see them up close but have glimpsed them at a distance. Unlike dogs, who will head right for a person, a coyote will see you from afar and melt into the trees before you can even tell what it is.

Then there are the deer. There’s something magical about deer at four in the morning, gliding like shadows across fields or through the trees, sometimes alone, more often in herds whose size is only grasped when they all suddenly explode into movement together. But these, too, just startle and run.

But like I said, the first one I saw — the first one I knew — was a cat. It came into view at the top of a hill as a flurry of movement, hard to identify but clearly animal. Then it froze. But not the freeze of the spooked animal; this was that other freeze. It halted mid-stride and didn’t move again, didn’t take eyes off me, until I rounded the next bend and it disappeared behind me. I kept my eye on it the way you keep an eye on the potentially dangerous person talking out loud to nobody in particular on the city street — you don’t think it’s out to harm you, but you can’t be too careful.

Then, there were the rabbits. A whole crew of them, about six or seven, in a clearing in the trees, just staring. A lone rabbit will freeze, hoping to avoid notice, but a group of them will always break and run: when one goes, they all go. Not this group. Being watched by them felt like being watched by people: people who didn’t want you in their area, people who wanted you to leave.

Then I started noticing the deer. Normally you glimpse them at a distance and they ghost away, but they started appearing in more and more obtrusive places. Closer than usual, too. They started showing up in the middle of the road sometimes, or right at the edge of the trees, just off the road. And they didn’t spook, either, not until I’d get almost close enough to reach out and touch them. Their heads just swiveled as I’d plod past. Watching.

Until finally, this morning, the latest. This was in that really dark stretch, trees creeping close at both sides of the road, thin hazy fog blocking out the starlight. Troublingly dark. One of those real man-goes-missing-on-his-early-morning-run-in-the-woods kind of moments. And there it was — a shadow coming out of the fog. Not aggressively or curiously, but steadily and inevitably. At first, it seemed to be a dog, but as it grew closer, it was obviously too big. A deer? Maybe, but it was too heavy set, too plodding.

A few more steps, and it was undeniable. A human. Or at least a human shape. In the dark, it was more like a human-sized hole in the night.

I froze, my heart pounding. There was no discernible face, no discernible features. I couldn’t tell you how tall it was, but I could tell it was staring at me as it came nearer, as it passed just on the other side of the road. I tried to call out, weakly, some sort of greeting, but the voice died in my throat. You don’t really feel fear like that as an adult in this world, but I felt it then, and I found myself the frozen animal, spooked and startled, ready to bolt. It glided past, and it was gone; not gone like it retreated into the mist and out of sight, but gone like the mist had swallowed it up or spirited it away. Either way, it was gone, and I ran home in uneasy silence.

I don’t know who that person was, but I hope I don’t see them out there again.

It’s actually funny; as I’m writing all this out, there are deer gathering in the yard, just staring at the house.

I wonder what that’s about.


The Perfect Way to Do the Thing


That thing you’re thinking of doing. You know the one.

Maybe it’s the big project you’ve been putting off starting. Or maybe it’s the habit you’re trying to set. Or maybe it’s just some daily drudgery you have to get through. Maybe it’s even a thing you really, really want to do, but you just haven’t been totally sure how to get the ball rolling.

Whatever it is, you have this thing you want / need to do, but you don’t want to screw it up. Screw-ups are the last thing you need. What you want is perfection. A no-mistakes, no-time-wasted guaranteed method for Doing the Thing without the costly and stressful cock-ups along the way.

Have I got news for you!

What follows are the 100% perfect, tried-and-true tips, tricks, and toodlepips to make your time as productive as possible.

Ignore these tips at your peril.

  1. You need a space. This space should be dedicated to your Thing and shouldn’t share form, function, or storage with any other Thing.
    1. The space should be in a location within your home or your regular area and should always fit the optimal conditions for your work. It should be quiet, insulated from distractions like family, internet, and sadness.
    2. The space should incorporate natural light, face the rising sun at an oblique angle and the setting sun at an acute one.
    3. The space should have a ready supply of oxygen in tanks for emergencies.
  2. Do not embark on your Thing without the perfect soundtrack. The perfect soundtrack depends on you and your Thing, but here are some guidelines:
    1. The beats-per-minute, should you choose music, must match up with your effort and output precisely.
    2. The thematic content of your soundtrack must align perfectly with your Thing. A thematic mismatch leads to disharmony, disharmony leads to frustration, frustration leads to failure.
  3. Do your thing before sunrise. It is well known that the only time for the doing of Things is before the sun is up, for the very simple reason that inspiration and motivation can find you more easily while everybody else is sleeping.
    1. Set at least sixteen alarms in three-minute intervals to ensure that you don’t do something stupid like sleep while the sun is down.
    2. If you do sleep through your sixteen alarms, forget about engaging in your Thing even a few minutes after the optimal time. The train doesn’t come back to the station until the next day.
  4. Gear and equipment are everything. You can’t do your Thing without the proper kit; don’t waste your time trying.
    1. Lay out your gear the night before. In fact, lay out your entire gear for the entire week’s worth of Thinging a full ten days in advance; this creates a subconscious contract with your future selves that, should they break it, entitles you to legal redress.
    2. The best gear is the most expensive; cheap gear will poison your entire process. If you take your Thing seriously, expect to sink serious coin into the pursuit.
    3. If you can’t get the right gear, put your Thing on hold. The shelf life on any Thing worth Thinging is like, super-long.
  5. Under no circumstance should you attempt to do your Thing while you’re not “feeling it”. Best case, your Thinging will be crap. Worst case, you risk serious injury or death.
    1. When you are feeling it, you should do your Thing at a brutal rate. Some might say an insane rate. When the moment strikes, abandon all else: family, friends, day job, personal health, to do your Thing, as you never know when the moment will strike again.
    2. When you are not feeling it, all bets are off. Do nothing. At all. You never know what might recharge your batteries, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to “feel it” because you were distracted doing something less important than your Thing.

Ok, so, this post is crap. The fact is, when you’re thinking about doing a Thing, you can find any number of reasons why you can’t do the Thing, most of them crap-scented tripe aimed at convincing you that there’s only one way to do your particular Thing properly.

But that’s crap.

You do your Thing where you can. My “dedicated workspaces” are anything but: at home I share an office with a couple of high-traffic catboxes and my wife’s side-hustle, and at work my writing space is also my main “work” workspace. In both places, cross-contamination is unavoidable, in every sense of the word. (Ew.)

I like podcasts while I’m running and instrumental music while I’m writing, but sometimes I run with music and sometimes I write in silence and sometimes the music or the podcasts are dumb and make me angry and the point is, I run or write anyway.

I run — and write — before sunrise because if I don’t, it ain’t gonna happen. I work full-time and parent sometimes and once the day begins, there are too many demands on my time to steal an hour for a run. And I steal ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there to work on the novel during the day. You find the time to do your Thing like a puddle filling a pothole.

Gear doesn’t mean a dadgum thing, but it’s an easy thing to hide behind. All you need to write is a pencil, some paper, and the drive. All you need to run is some sneakers (and depending on how much of a hippie you are, maybe not even those). Gear is an excuse. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

“Not feeling it” is the easiest way to hide from doing your Thing. It’s also the most insidious, because it’s a term absolutely without meaning. If you really know why you’re doing the thing, there’s no such thing as “not feeling it.” The motivation finds you when you care about the Thing. But even when you’d rather do something else, you know that you should be doing your Thing, so you do your Thing anyway. And you end up glad you did it.

Point is, if you want to find a reason not to do your Thing, the excuses are plentiful. But when you get serious about doing your Thing, you realize how stupid all the excuses are.

The time and place to do the Thing is here and now.

The way to do the Thing is whatever way you can get it done.

Don’t get hung up on the particulars.

There is no perfect way.

The only wrong way is Not to Do It.


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