The Reason for Your Problems

I received a call yesterday: my wife took our youngest daughter swimming, and our five-year old wandered from the three foot deep section of the pool to the four foot deep section.

The water was over her head.

My wife recounted how, completely clothed and with preternatural calmness, she walked into the pool and retrieved our daughter while she dipped underwater. The call was a cinematic comedy, save for the tragedy at the end when my wife recalled that she had her phone in her pocket.

The phone which I had taken the insurance off two weeks prior in an effort to save money.

I want to live my life in a continual state of equilibrium and peace, to find places to be thankful (my daughter didn’t die!) amidst the innumerable small setbacks that I encounter each day. Instead, however, I grew quiet and distant, running the numbers of how much we owed on the phone.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to review story structure. One of the fundamental elements of story structure is the interplay between the external problem — the bad guy kidnapped the girl — which is meant to surface the internal problem — the hero’s mother died when he was young, and he blames himself.

The external problem forces the hero to face his internal problem, mainly (as in almost all movies): does he have what it takes to save the day?

My wager, however, is one of two options. Either story structure, and the interplay between external and internal problems, is a cultural construct that is an ingrained method to understanding our lives, or it is a metaphysical reality that humans have discovered.

Either way, whether it is a method or reality itself, my wager is that applying story structure to my life brings clarity. Or, the external problems in my life are meant to manifest the internal. Or, most relevant, the sudden financial setback manifests what’s going on internally in me.

Here, I see that it’s not the setback that upsets me — it’s my unique bundle of neuroses around money, my miser-like ways, my inability to trust (either myself, the Universe, God — depending on your theology) that we have enough. We are some of the wealthiest people in the history of the world merely by the fact that we have two cars, and an iPhone that even needs replacing.

The external problem manifests the internal.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that our external problems are good, or even there for a “reason,” as if they are a series of lessons for us to learn. But insofar as it is up to me, or to us, our external problems are chances to show us what’s going on inside of our own heads and hearts.

And, just as it does to the summer blockbuster, this awareness — what is going on inside — brings new depth and color to my story.

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Criterion Collection, Part II

Part II

The challenge? Your top ten books, leather bound, on the mantle. I limited it to fiction. The first part is below.
akAnna Karenina
Anna. Vronsky. Levin. Kitty. The novel is a beautiful story, first and foremost—hopeful and tragic at the same time. Tolstoy cannot help be compared to Dostoevsky, and while the latter pounds philosophy into your head, the former focuses on the art. From the famous opening line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the lengthy novel moves with surprising pace: each chapter is only a few pages, as Tolstoy shows his mastery over rising action, letting each scene contribute to the whole. We start by seeing an affair; we end by seeing a man come to belief and commitment (of course, there’s that suicide in there, too). When I think of characters, though, I think of no one who does them better than Tolstoy. He captures the essences, the paradoxes within people. Yet, he watches with a moral eye, as told from the foreboding epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

pgThe Power and the Glory
The whisky priest rushes from town to town, ahead of the authorities. He’s a broken man, an alcoholic, with a child, yet he will not relinquish his duty as a purveyor of grace. What I like about Greene is that he delves the existential questions: what it means to be moral, to have faith in something. For the whisky priest, faith means walking into a likely trap. Morality doesn’t mean always doing the right thing, but stumbling blindly toward what we think is best, despite the mess we’ve made. Greene plots surprisingly tightly, and his novels acutely point out moral failings: and how we live on in spite of them. For the lieutenant chasing the priest, everyone must conform to his philosophy in order for his beliefs to succeed. For the priest, people can be as bad as he is, and his faith still succeeds.

bmBlood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy might be insane. That was one critic’s opinion after reading his most well-received work (until, that is, The Road). Blood Meridian is one of the most violent books I’ve read: it is jarring, intense, and unrelenting as the kid joins the Glanton gang and they run amok through the desert country. We see the destructive and expanding nature of violence, and the novel takes on an apocalyptic note (again, as The Road would more ostensibly later) in its scope and allowance for evil. The form McCarthy uses—unsentimental, spare prose—has influenced writers; he is the natural continuation of Hemingway in some sense (with bigger words). Like Hemingway, if fiction is meant to be a lucid dream, McCarthy has penned a nightmare, an indictment of America—a book that is both hard to pick up and put down.

frwlFrom Russia With Love
I figured any good criterion collection ought to have a guilty-pleasure novel. For me, it’s James Bond. While I grew up with the movies, I discovered the novels later in life: the vigorous prose, the tight set pieces. From Russia With Love is probably my favorite (followed by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), though the movies bleed into my readings, as I saw them first. We can claim much wrong with James Bond: the misogyny, the plots that are incredulous, the way it has spawned a whole industry making fun of it. But it’s been able to do this for a reason: Ian Fleming writes surprisingly well, and it’s a fun story. From Russia With Love details Bond’s trip to Istanbul, after the first third of the novel sets up the backstory: what the Russians are doing. The creative storytelling strengthens Fleming’s oeuvre (he also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as he seeks to keep the series fresh. The set piece on the train, as Bond discovers the Russian agent, is taut and pulls you along. Plus, the surprise ending differs from the movie: Bond falls to the floor after being stabbed with poison. A tight page-turner from another era.

toThe Odyssey
The final spot in the criterion challenge was the toughest, and I debated a variety of 20th century novels that I love before “settling” for one of the greatest stories ever written. Why The Odyssey? I like the non-linear storytelling, the long effect it has had on Western culture, the central issue of a man trying to journey home that resonates throughout the ages (Chesterton would write about finding home and seeing it with new eyes centuries later in Orthodoxy—which would fall on my non-fiction criterion list). But this motif is one of, if not the most, central motif in storytelling. For that reason, too, I enjoy myth: the stories that are True for a culture, whether or not they really happened. They help us see what we value, who we are, and where we’re going. While The Iliad might have larger resonance for an entire culture, The Odyssey’s theme of man suffering (versus man being angry), translates better—certainly to the 20th century, and perhaps to the 21st. Thus, The Odyssey gets the final spot (especially the readable Robert Fitzgerald version). I find hope in it. I’m still on the hunt for a first edition, though.

Criterion Collection (Part I)

Criterion Collection

The challenge? To choose your top ten books that you would want, leather bound, and placed on your mantle. I decided to limit it to fiction. Here are the first five in no particular order:

don quixoteDon Quixote
The titular character and his squire, Sancho Panza, travel throughout Spain on hilarious adventures. It’s worth reading because you’ll laugh out loud (especially if you choose the John Rutherford translation, which focuses on making things accessible to the 21st century reader, rather than a literal interpretation). But it isn’t just the first modern novel—a hundred years before anyone writing in English would gain acclaim by following suit. It’s the first postmodern novel, with its direct references to the writer, to the reader, to other texts. Part Two of the book refers liberally to Part One, and Cervantes references another author who tried to write Part Two (this was real) and throws him under the 17th century bus. When I read it, I was astounded that it was written 500 years ago.

wolf hallWolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies
From the oldest book on my list to the most recent (and I’m awaiting the final book to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light). Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies follow the story of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. More than bring a sympathetic look at Cromwell, they are a master class in writing fiction. Mantel gets in and out of scenes with incredible pace, each scene buzzes with conflict, and yet themes such as power, fear, and faith. If you just read one, I’d actually recommend the second: Mantel has less propensity to use “he” without proper referent as she writes of Cromwell (in the first novel, “he” almost universally refers to Cromwell, despite who has been referenced last). Also, in tracing the fall of Anne Boleyn, it has a stronger plot structure. But both are rewarding—especially to the writer trying to pick up some tips along the way.

for whom the bell tollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway burst onto the scene in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises and followed it three years later with A Farewell to Arms. After his career hit a lull in the 1930s, For Whom the Bell Tolls revived it, as both a critical and commercial success. It follows Robert Jordan as he fights in the Spanish Civil War and is assigned to blow up a bridge. Hemingway uses archaic language to translate the Spanish “vos” and “vosotros,” which lends an air of credence to the novel—it sounds, at times, like a translation. This is the most gripping of his novels, with a pitched battle scene at the end, and it deals unsentimentally with the atrocities of war. A beautifully written book with memorable characters. For me, it is Hemingway’s novel that most provides what good fiction is meant to be: a lucid dream.

bros kThe Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, with some of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It had me laughing at points, from the first pages when Fyodor decides to confront his wife, congratulates himself with a bout of drinking, and promptly is too drunk to go through with his original design. But that’s simply the underestimated side of the novel. From Alyosha leaving the monastery, to Ivan meeting with the devil, it’s a powerful novel of ideas (in fact, it embodies what it means to be a novel of ideas). While Tolstoy admired him, he thought Dostoevsky wasn’t artistic enough. True, the novel pounds ideas into your head (like a good Russian?) rather than exploring them simply through story, but the ideas are some of the most profound in all literature, and the story itself ends with a fascinating trial.

love in choleraLove in the Time of Cholera
When I first thought about which Marquez book I’d include, One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed the natural answer. But upon a second thought, I moved toward Love in the Time of Cholera: the story is stronger, I think. In keeping it more dense and focused on a love triangle (though, over a very long period of time), it holds conflict better. The theme of love, and the various types of love and how it affects us, is intriguing, and Marquez deals with a deft touch. Of course, his prose is wonderful. What does it say about the writer that I also thought about Chronicle of a Death Foretold? On another day, I could probably be persuaded to any of the three, but today I’m going with Love in the Time of Cholera.

What I’m Reading 2.12.16

A writer reads in order to learn. The novelist reads novels to see what’s working and what isn’t, to learn his or her own likes and dislikes. One eye is on the story and one eye is on the craft: pulling apart the story to see how it works, like a mechanic would with an engine.

The fuel of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is the backdrop: seven people who are in Seattle during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. We see how their lives intersect, and Sunil Yapa gives their backstories—how Victor, a nineteen-year-old, thinks about his travels throughout Latin America and around the world while tear gas descends. The prose is vigorous. It reminded me, a bit, of Junot Diaz: conversational and robust.

The prose is both a strength and a weakness. From the first pages, there is an energy to it:

“Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor, with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and this thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.”

The energy sparkles when it’s in the action, in the present. It pulls you in as Yapa details the atrocities of the five-day riots:

“Victor’s eyes exploded. His whole face attacked by a wall of head. He was on his hands and knees, blinded, hands reaching out for something, anything, and there seemed to be a pile of bodies. Everything was arms and clothes and legs. He eyes like hot coals in the cave of his sockets. He wanted to tear them out.”

But, in telling the backstory, too often the author falls into purple prose—overwriting the scene. This comes in tandem with a tendency to advance the story only at the end of each chapter. As we move, chapter by chapter, into different character’s points of view, we are removed from the present action. As Victor thinks about joining the protest, he goes back in a reverie to his deceased mother, and the books she let him read. At the very end of the chapter, he decides to join, despite coming to the protests simply to sell his weed.

The problem this reader feels with relying on so much backstory is that it seems an artifice. For one, during moments of great emotion—tear gas falling at you, for example—you’re not taken away to what you were doing three years ago and ruminating on how all the intervening time has led you to this point. You’re focused on the gas, man. Second, a character’s past is always known to her or him. There’s nothing ostensible that triggers Victor’s memory of his mother and his subsequent change. Memories must be triggered by something if they are to produce change. But even better than memory is something someone says—a challenge for the character we’ve come to know that stretches him.

And that ties to my third point: tell the story. The backstory is relevant—we see how characters are acting out of their fear and pain—but it can be hinted at, or told to raise the stakes in breaks in the action. But it distracts from the action, pulling me into backstory when riots are happening all around. Tell me the story.

Then, once the story is told, the energetic prose doesn’t distract from the story—it adds to it. I found a scene toward the end of the book, when violence explodes, to lose its significance because the prose wasn’t able to take a step up, encompass more energy: it was at a fever pitch throughout.

In the end, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist tells about a forgotten event in America’s recent history. It’s ambitious. It’s interesting. The prose and the vision of redemptive suffering, of offering sympathy to almost every character, is enough to keep me reading the author (this is his debut novel). But, I hope he focuses more on telling the story itself, not the myriad backstories that lead to the story. Fiction writers are constantly told to be careful of backstory, because it doesn’t advance anything. This was my main frustration in Yapa’s writing (and, often, my feeling when rereading my own writing), and a good reminder: tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.

On Hiding and Anger (Part II)

A few years ago, I realized that I was generally angry on Saturday mornings. I stomped around the house, hiding away in my office, fuming at whatever perceived slight had set me off. Brooke would take the girls outside, trying to be quiet and give me space, and it wouldn’t be until that evening, once the girls were in bed, when she would wonder aloud what was wrong. By that time, I’d made enough peace with the anger to shrug and say I didn’t know, and that we should watch a movie.

Kick the anger down the road.

Over time, I began to do two things. If I felt angry on Saturday morning (I don’t know why it always came then: perhaps, after performing all week, I could finally let down and let people know how fed up I felt—it was just that Brooke and the girls were the wrong people), I would tell Brooke how I felt, and that she did nothing to cause it. And, just as I had, I would hole up in my office. Instead of surfing the internet or distracting myself, however, I sat with my anger. I wrote in my journal.

It was fun, as you can imagine.

I don’t know that I necessarily solved anything. I had the same job, the same life. I didn’t make a career change, though I felt what most middle-class Americans feel: the possibility of career change on the horizon. We have the possibility, this perceived freedom, in the 21st century. We don’t choose a career as much as we continually choose one, debating the merits of a job after a long vacation or turn of the calendar.

But I had to make peace with this reality. There are other options, and I have chosen this one. It’s important, for our anger, to realize that this is the life we have chosen, and if it gets too uncomfortable, we have the ability to choose another. Until we’ve done the latter, however, complaining about the former is a rather fruitless endeavor.

That’s not to say we can’t complain. In writing about my anger, I had to name it. Acknowledge it. I’m mad because I feel disregarded at work. Because I feel frustrated with our finances. Because, too often, I don’t get to do exactly what I want to do.

This last is the reason for most of my anger. Life does not unfold as I will and imagine it. If I am honest, I feel hurt by life, or by God if he is in charge, or whatever deity you would like for me to blame. But the problem with a God who is seemingly in control is that he also seems absent at the wheel. At least when it comes to all of my wants and wishes.

I’m not, however, incredibly interested in solving the unsolvable riddle of the good God who lets bad things happen. I’m less concerned with how to explain God’s absence with some proofs that I don’t fully believe, or with the step of denying God altogether, and more interested in the existential reality. How do I move forward?

For the present, it naming what I see. Removing myself not to escape, but to engage. And, of course, playing hide and go seek with a four year old and seven year old. Ellis has really come into her own. The other day, I was at a meeting, but Brooke told me how she perched herself on a window ledge behind the curtains and remained absolutely still.

The innocence of her hiding.

On Faucets and Anger (Part I)

My mom told me recently about how she was changing lanes on the highway, but a car was in her blindspot. The car beeped, and she swerved back into her lane. As the car came past her, she went to wave to the man. But he was yelling (fruitlessly, one supposes, through two panes of glass at 65 miles per hour) and gesticulating at her. He zoomed past, veered in front of her, and pressed on the gas (fortunately—I imagined him pressing on the brakes at the telling of the story).

I think most men are angry. We are angry about feeling disregarded at work, about the impingements on our free time at home. Middle-aged men are trapped mid-career: without the authority they crave, locked in a track without the ability to switch vocations unless they start over. Which seems impossible with a family. But this is not about how you can start over and be your best self. It is about what everyone faces, the trap of living.

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes that “We can’t imagine our lives without the unlived lives they contain.”

This is the tyranny of Facebook and status updates. Everyone is happy and smiling (and also why, after spending time on Facebook, most people are more depressed), although it often isn’t real. I spoke with a friend a year ago and he confided to me how his marriage was falling apart. “How can that be?” Brooke asked. “I just saw a picture of their family at the park yesterday.”

We imagine the lives others are leading, or at least what they say they’re leading. But they don’t include the fight last night, the children arguing that morning, how they had to scoop dog poop and repair the leaky faucet before the park. And the faucet is still dripping. We only see the park.

And we imagine, too, what our lives ought to be if everyone else lives this way—going to parks and restaurants, surrounded by happiness. Because our lives are not this way. We have a limited number of choices, despite what society says, and all of them have downsides. The idea that, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” is laughable. Even in the good jobs. So we imagine our life as something it isn’t, and it makes us angry.

It simmers beneath the surface on highways. It thunders out at our wives and our children, when they are not the culprits at all: but if tooth-brushing at bedtime takes too long, we are exasperated. Our children and our wives—these are the areas where we ought to have control, right?

But people, and life itself, will not bend to our will, despite what we thought when we were 20. So we get angry. We look for ways forward. Dreaming of other jobs. Pouring ourselves into our work—perhaps that can bend to our will. Or, we drink.

On Writing 2.5.2016

Every two weeks, I sit down on Wednesday nights and Skype with a friend from Bellingham, Washington. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this—a few years. We met on Skype, actually, if that is such a thing. But our relationship formed because he is a writer, and I am a writer, and we writers need all the relationships we can get to tell us that we’re okay.

Really, his dad knows my brother, and through that relationship we came to find each other, 1,000 miles away. His dad connected him with my brother, who in turn connected R with me.

I don’t recall the first few Skype conversations. I know we met each other there, although we’ve since met in person. We began to figure out what this writing relationship would look like. He sent me stuff he was working on, and, since I was older, I gave my feedback. I realized that this routine of reading and giving feedback was life-giving to me. As I searched his writing for plot or character issues, it reminded me of what I needed to fix in my own writing. It kept me sharp.

As writers, it’s enough, sometimes, to jot down a draft. It’s plenty, in fact. Staying sharp, having what Hemingway called a built-in, bulletproof bullshit meter, is crucial to moving beyond the first draft. My bullshit meter gets stronger the more I use it—both on my own work and on others’.

Critiquing others—helping others—is a way to help ourselves as writers. The same has happened as I have taught public speaking: all this thinking and critiquing has made my own talks stronger.

Beyond this, R and I naturally began to exchange writing: he gave me his, and I gave him mine. We spoke on Wednesday, and he gave feedback on a short story I had written. I liked the story, and where it was going. He had already given me some feedback in email form (which is always tougher—what’s the tone?), but he gave more detailed thoughts. It was a moment where I wanted to slap my forehead. Why hadn’t I seen what he was saying?

Perhaps because he was saying the short story might work better as a novel, for which I both wanted to nod readily and hit him (why don’t men ever want to throw a drink in someone’s face—we go straight to fists?). He was, of course, right.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the story. It’s like painting a room only to see that you need to remodel the house as a result.

But I’m grateful. And encouraged. And energized in my confusion.

Creative endeavors are often necessarily solitary. I’m reminded of the second chapter of Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” These opening chapters are called a myth because the emphasis is less on what actually happened, and more on what happens. Their truths echo through the millennia. It is not good to be alone.

Especially at the center of your creative work, where you are pouring yourself onto the page, or into the business, or even into your children.

It is not good to be alone.

On Hiding and Remembering

Last night, we played hide and seek. It’s been a favorite pastime lately, and the girls and I took turns seeking. Our four-year-old, especially, has finally mastered the art of staying quiet. Six months ago, she reveled in being found. If you entered the room she was in, Maci would pop out and yell, “You found me!” Now, she stays quiet. Quietness, combined with the size of a four-year-old body, can make a difficult combination.

I looked in the closet for her last night, but our older daughter, Ellis, had helped Maci hide behind my workout bag. It may not have been the most aromatic place to hide, but it was effective. At other times, my wife and I will take turns hiding the girls. This is an exercise in paranoia: we scour through cupboards and closet shelves, searching for where the other perched one of the girls. Again, Maci fits neatly on a closet shelf, six feet off the ground. As long as she doesn’t roll.

I try to constantly remind myself that these years are short, and the memories are long.

We also started reading the Narnia series. Maci generally plays while I read to Ellis, but the older of the two listens, rapt. We read about the thaw of the winter last night, and Ellis squirmed on the couch while I began describing it: Lewis does a lovely job of showing rather than telling, and Ellis could see that the snow was melting long before anyone acknowledged it directly. She often surprises us with her ability to predict and decipher stories. Perhaps, by now, we are at fault for being surprised.

I need to write these moments because, otherwise, I will forget them. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, has defined our “experiencing self,” and “remembering self.” While our experiencing self may move through the world on a daily basis, our remembering self has actual control, despite the fickle and often erroneous nature of our memories. It’s our remembering self that helps control major decisions, that helps us see what certain times were like.

This is an exercise in reinforcing my remembering self.

What I’m Reading – 2.3.16

A professional does it.

Most writing advice boils down to this: sit down and write, every day. There are endless caveats. Read, too. Show, don’t tell. Arrive late to scenes and leave early (the same good advice goes, of course, for parties). But few professions seems to engender procrastination—talking about it, reading about it, thinking about it—more than writing. This goes for novels, articles, sermons, reports. We form the habit in middle school and continue it forward into our adult lives.

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a writing book, yes. His background is writing, and most of his advice seems to be aimed at writers, even if he tries to expand it to anyone involved in creative work. It’s a pep talk in 160 pages, something you could read in a sitting or two.

What he does that is most helpful: he names what we face each day. Resistance. “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it,” he writes. He lays out the terrain of how Resistance works, where we find it, how it operates. This is why it’s called The War of Art—not only does he invert Sun Tzu’s famous title, but he mimics it, laying out the basics for laying siege against Resistance. He talks about how the more we fear doing the work, the more sure we can be that we are called to it. Resistance and fear go hand-in-hand.

The solution? Turn professional. He doesn’t say to only write for money (though, that’s a different debate waged often today). He says treat your writing, or your creative endeavor, as your vocation. Do it. Do it every day. Avoid excuses.

I think of this and the solitary life of the writer—or the artist, or the entrepreneur, or the pastor, or anyone involved in creating—and the misery that our vocation sometimes calls us to. Rejection, for writers. Slogging away. One of my professors in graduate school said there is a point where the manuscript turns into the “damn manuscript.” Pressfield writes about being miserable.

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

Sometimes, I don’t like to tell people that I’m a writer because I have so little to show for it. A few published short stories. Novels that are repeatedly rejected. I wonder aloud to my wife if I should continue.

I asked a teacher at a workshop this question, once. I took her out for a beer to talk more about a writing career, and I told her of my self-doubt. Really, I expected her to offer me some platitudes, to tell me that I was better than I thought.

She didn’t. She told me I have to decide for myself.

I was surprised in the moment. Aren’t we supposed to just give someone nice words when he’s feeling down? But she gave me more. As Pressfield tells it, we cannot write for the audience—the hierarchy. Writing for the hierarchy is an attempt to get noticed, to be okay in the eyes of others. To move up the hierarchy.

Instead, we must write only if it comes from our center. No one can answer if I ought to keep writing, because, even if I have talent, it must be my answer. Now, a year and a half removed from that conversation, I’m grateful for the answer my instructor gave me. I had to find my own answer. I write because that’s who I am.

I had to get accustomed to the rejection and self-doubt, the isolation, to find out that I needed to do this. I still need to be reminded that this is the war of art: it is often miserable. (I’m sure others want to sign up as writers now, as if they don’t regularly engage in tasks that are uncomfortable and with no guarantee of success. Maybe engaging in such tasks is simply wired into us as humans.)

Should you read The War of Art? Perhaps. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s a simple reminder of the role you have to play, and that the best contribution you can make is to show up, every day, and play your role. We all need that pep talk sometimes. We need someone who can define the enemy and the objective, and call us again to engage.

On Dogs and Improvisation

We’d been watching a Bernese Mountain Dog as a trial, to see if she might fit in our family. (She didn’t fit with her last family, which is why she is at ours.) Sunday, we made the decision to adopt her.

We sat the girls on the couch and told them that afternoon. Ellis, our soon-to-be seven-year-old, squealed and hugged us. Maci, our four-year-old was quiet. We asked Maci if she wanted a dog, and she said yes, and she said she wanted this dog. But she insisted that she didn’t want to be too excited. She is hard to read and we always place it on her German ancestry. It’s the same reason that, every four years when we watch a German soccer game, my wife laughs at me: the heavy brows and strong chins.

I cannot help but wonder if the dog will work out the way we imagine now, and when she will be a joy and when a nuisance. I suppose there is no relationship without both, broken as we are.

I wonder, too, about Maci. Ellis is demonstrative and outspoken; her body language is impossible to misinterpret. What she feels is directly acted out. Maci, however, is more like her dad (again, the German ancestry). She will have her feelings hurt and disappear to her room to cry. When she was younger, she would get angry with us if we made too much out of a skinned knee. She would be crying, yes, but she wouldn’t want too much sympathy.

See what I mean?

So we embark on another body in the house. Just an animal this time. I am adamant about not becoming one of those people who confuses his dog with a person. In fact, this afternoon as Brooke went to buy some supplies for the dog, she mentioned the dog’s lumpy bed. It couldn’t be comfortable, she said.

I reminded her that neither would the floor be comfortable for a human to sleep on, but it suits the dog just fine. So does a lumpy bed, as long as she is familiar with it.

I’m reminded how with the dog, or with Maci, we are tenuously doing our best. We may make false steps, and assume too much or too little. But this is what it means to be a parent or a dog owner, to pour ourselves into any worthy endeavor. Writing a novel is the same, and I imagine starting a business would be, too. We jump with all the knowledge we have, and we make the rest up. We improvise. This is, evolutionarily speaking, one of the traits that set humans apart from other animals: our ability to improvise. To take known information and apply it in a new situation. I’m glad our ancestors had millions of years of practice at this. Because I need it on Sunday afternoons just as I do on while teaching a class on Monday morning. Life has much to do with our ability to improvise.