The Agony of Da-Feet

Let’s get clear on something from the start: I’m a guy and I don’t like shopping. This is probably not news for most women married to one of us. Unless there’s manly things to buy (translation: necessary power tools or geek toys), shopping rates about as high as changing diapers on the guy’s guide-to-fun scale. We know it’s a necessary thing, but we don’t necessarily want any part of it. Guys subscribe to the go-get-leave theory of efficient shopping. Coupons? Wouldn’t be caught dead with them. Shopping list? Won’t happen. The fear of being caught by other guys with coupons and list in hand is, well, so upsetting I can’t begin to describe the terror.

So with great anticipation (not) last Saturday I took off in search of a new pair of hiking boots. The old Bass hikers had gone to that great trail in the sky, and the current weather begs to be outside. In Houston we have a guaranteed three-week nice-weather plan: three weeks in the spring, and again three weeks in the fall, and other than those twin three weeks, forget it.

Now you might think, since hikers are manly, that I’d enjoy shopping for them, and you’d be correct…except they are SHOES and if women are shopping obsessed about anything it’s shoes. So guys have years of torture imprinted in their psyche and thus unpleasantly associate shoes with shopping. Do you need proof? A real-life example: “Honey, do you like these pumps?” “Yes, but you already have three pairs of the same style at home.” “Yes, but I don’t have one in bone.” I rest my case, your honor.

If I could simply walk in, pick a pair and leave, shoe shopping wouldn’t be so terrible. But I’m cursed with 8’30” feet, i.e., I can last about eight minutes, thirty seconds before I become incapable of telling whether shoes are a) comfortable, b) fit, or c) the best choice of what’s available. After that I’m shoe blind and can’t tell size from suede. I’m exaggerating a little, but it’s definitely a short attention span and a pair of uncooperative feet.

So off I went to the local outdoorsy outlet and actually found a style I liked rather quickly. They had just one pair in my size and I thought “I’m home free in under five minutes.” Wrong. Standing there looking down for a final shoe blessing, I wondered how I could have not noticed that I woke up this morning with my left foot oddly attached to my leg at an inwardly pointing angle. You’d think I would have picked up on something like that at least by breakfast, if not before. Staring I finally realized that my foot was fine, but the highly paid skilled worker located in some distant land had inadvertently, or perhaps in silent rebellion, glued the upper leathers askew on the soles. The result was a visually creative, but annoying, angled effect. I did try to rationalize living with such an artistic display of assembly-line bravado, but ultimately decided I would subconsciously try to slant my foot to match the angled left boot. A sickening feeling told me that if I rejected this pair of boots, the only ones in this style in this size in this store, I’d have to accept that fate worse than shopping: comparison shopping. My mind panic as I visualized countless trips criss-crossing that vastness we locals warmly refer to as “Houston” in search of proper hikers assembled by another hopefully not-so-rebellious, highly paid satisfied worker from the same far-off factory.

Since no other style worked, I had a two-horned dilemma on my hands: go on a comparison shopping adventure (assuming the law allows that much fun), or be content to wear my faithful sneakers while blazing trails in the local forests. Since the sneakers were next up for replacement (perhaps NEXT month’s trek for more pure, shopping satisfaction), I sighed, resigned to my fate and ambled reluctantly to the service counter with those words in mind that make most men panic: “Where are your other stores located?”

This story would end happily if I could say that I simply drove a few miles down the road and found another pair of correctly glued hikers…but the shopping gods are never that nice to guys. I’m sure it’s punishment for something we’ve done through the ages, but there’s so much on that list it’s hard to say why we’re destined to endure shopping hell at every opportunity. And besides, we’re talking Houston, not Rhode Island. In the same time it takes to drive across Houston you could visit two or three European countries. It’s the only place I know of where you check your gas gauge before striking off for a day of shopping, and even then you mentally note the gas stations along the way, just in case.

Success was finally mine, but not after three more stores and many hours of driving. When I finally found THAT style in THAT size without THAT problem, well…all I can say is veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). By then I would have bought the display shoe, security cable and all, I didn’t care anymore. And it was all I could do to restrain myself when at the checkout counter the sales clerk opened the box, examined the hikers, and said, “We have to make sure you bought the right shoes.” But she was young, had her whole life ahead of her, and even though (assuming I had a male judge) I would have gotten off with probation for throttling her on the spot as justified homicide on the basis of all I’d endured that day, I just smiled and took my new hikers to the car and home.

The next day I’d forgotten all about the ordeal as I laced up the hikers to head for the nearest trail and start the breaking-in process. Guys may not be able to endure shopping marathons and the associated tests of patience and fortitude as well as women can, but we’re blessed with that magical male forgetfulness gene, and thus can easily recover from the likes of extreme shoe shopping. Maybe next time I’ll try catalog shopping, where the joy of shoe shopping can be mine in the comfort of my home sans the thrill of travel…unless you count the trip to the post office to return the shoes, no doubt because that same creative, rebellious shoe worker is still happily employed.

A Private Room

“We write alone, but we do not write in isolation. No matter how fantastic a story line may be, it still comes out of our response to what is happening to us and to the world in which we live.” – Madeleine L’Engle

The process of writing is generally perceived as a solitary event. Mention that you’re a writer and most likely images erupt of a lonely soul locked away in a dark and quiet attic, furiously streaming thoughts onto a typewritten page. And yet writing is really a highly social activity.

Surprised? If you think about it, what exactly are you writing about? Your experiences. And you gained those moments…when? Out in the real world mingling among other people. Writing is truly a connected process, one that first requires deep exposure to the world and it’s inhabitants. Through these experiences we pay our first set of dues: time spent soaking in all we see as observers and through fully engaged participation. How can you write about a snow-kissed winter stream in a quiet forest unless you’ve been there? How can you write effective dialogue between a nefarious antagonist and the heroine unless you’ve listened to countless conversations noting the nuances of speech and witnessing body language?

And how can you, through your voice, write about suffering unless you’ve held it’s bitter aftertaste too long? Some people may have the imagination to create these and other worlds without the experience, but for most of us mere mortals writing begins with experiential exposure. After absorbing everything, we are ready to earn our dues for the second part: time spent in intentional isolation to focus on the voices in our head recalling events and people from stored experiences.

Silence is a fickle master at best. There are times when I’ve written underneath silence so expansive I could hear my heartbeat. Such moments require supreme concentration since the distracting ones can easily break through and disrupt the process. At other times I’ve sat at coffee shops where the ideas have come so furiously that even fast typing cannot keep up with the avalanche of ideas. During these moments the enveloping cacophony becomes a white noise, blanketing me warmly from the cold intentions of the distracting ones, yet allowing a conscious flow of thoughts onto paper or screen. Each environment serves different purposes, and I’m never quite sure which one will be conducive to a good writing session until I’m well into the process.

When working out a perplexing personal problem through reflection, you can follow a three-step approach of meditation, journaling, and walking. The meditation clears away the fog, the journaling serves as a pressure-relief valve to spew forth what’s exposed after the fog lifts, and walking clears out the residuals and prepares you to repeat the process or move gracefully back into the day. In writing we can benefit from a similar process of mixing writing sessions with walks and social encounters, which should help your focus when you’re ready to translate those voices in your head into ever-improving prose. You could think of this as a balanced approach to writing, as opposed to an obsessive approach requiring sequestered retreats away from everyone and everything.

One of the college dorms at UT had a special room we lovingly called the “frustration room.” Aptly named, it consisted of nothing bounded by mat-covered floor, walls, and ceiling. The concept was a simple one: you entered the room, shut the door, and proceeded to mimic a ping-pong ball in a shoe box shaken violently. It wasn’t long before you were totally spent, yet released of any stresses, frustrations, or anger. In later years when I heard about pillow bashing as a therapy to release anger, I wryly thought back to moments spent bashing about in our frustration room, always a better choice that venting on fellow students, friends, or occasionally an unsuspecting teaching assistant.

I like to envision writing time as moments when I slip into a special room that only I have a key for and whose location only I know. Open all hours, my secret room is always clean, available, and automatically changes size if I need it bigger to pace my thoughts or cozier to focus on running that beloved streak when everything works and sentences seem to write themselves. But my special room’s best attribute is that I have this wall-less room with me at all times. I can even slip in and out as needed to visit with a friend or observe life in the world around me. You may have the best laptop, enough spare batteries, or a state-of-the-art PDA with which to write anywhere, but no mobile tool matches the value of being able to step into your private room when it’s time to let the voices loose. Mats on the wall are optional, but probably a good idea.

Good Intentions

“The road to hell is paved with works in progress.” – Philip Roth

Borrowing from the title of that 1969 movie, “If this is Tuesday this must be Belgium” I feel the equivalent this morning: “If this is Monday it must be blogging time.” Even though I’ve settled into a five-day blogging routine, each Monday morning I have to summon my internal Marine drill sergeant to get my mental troops marching. I just don’t jump up, raring to go at the start of the week, even though it’s gorgeous weather here, cool but a refreshing break from the early heat we’ve had for the last week. I take personal responsibility for bringing on this minor cold snap, since I performed the semi-annual changing-of-the-vents this weekend. Each year after I switch the vents for the home climate system we get a cold or hot spell, guaranteed. Doesn’t sound significant, except that if the upstairs vents are open and we have to run heat, wallpaper peels off the walls from the simulated Arabian desert created by our over-sized heat exchanger. Toasty, but not inhabitable.

Last week was Philip Roth’s birthday, and while listening to Writer’s Almanac I heard that opening quote. Always one to enjoy a clever twist of words, I thought this quote hit home in a number of ways. All writers have various projects sitting there waiting for activity or conclusion, and after a while they become silent road markers to perdition if left unfinished, constantly reminding us of our failure to continue or conclude their wondrous ideas or concepts to fruition. Maintaining a blog is a well-attended, never-ending work in progress.

Blogging is enjoyable, although I could debate against that on any typical Monday morning after too-little sleep and too-much relaxation over the weekend (not sure how you can have too-much relaxation except by comparison). The obvious secret to managing works in progress (wips) is to enjoy what you’re doing. The not-so-obvious secret is to stay on top of wips so they don’t die or grow stale from neglect.

If you think I’m leading up to some sage advice on managing wips, let me end the suspense now. I practice the time-tested squeaky-wheel theory of wip management: ideas most promising (i.e., won’t get out of my head until I flush them, either literally or figuratively) are embraced and worked. The others lie dormant, in hopes of improving with age. Unlike fine wine and wisdom, such improvement rarely happens, at least on my wip list. I’d love to have software capable of age-based deletion and I could set this feature for a 5-year fallow. If I haven’t flushed the idea during that time, then it deserves a nice burial and a ceremonious burning of the old, longer wip list leading to a newer, shorter one. Maybe then I’ll run out of paving material and make that road to hell a little harder to travel.

Goldfish Don’t Like Jell-O

Sometimes life confronts us in ways we don’t think we need, but with a little persistence and faith we can usually turn them into positives. I’m pretty certain that a goldfish would not enjoy swimming in a sea of wild-berry Jell-O, (mandarin orange, maybe, if the goldfish was perverse…). Colorful, yes, conducive to survival, no.

The saying “sometimes chickens, sometimes feathers” means the odds are against us winning all the time. Part of life’s irony is that our expectations are frequently challenged in ways that can potentially provide unexpected outcomes. If the universe didn’t work this way, then everyone would live like royalty without strife or suffering. But resiliency is part of our human abilities and thus we usually have the fortitude to bounce back from adversity or accept (and learn from) our failings and move on.

almost-fall
Photo by Gary. All rights reserved.

Change is something we have to deal with that can be difficult. Some of us deal with change well, so long as change is personally controlled or instigated. Others seem more flexible and able to deal well with change no matter the challenge. I’ll confess I fall into the first category: smooth acceptance when in control, but otherwise a challenge adjusting to outside change. Growing up in a military family and moving every few years probably conditioned me for change more than most people, but also instilled in me a certain nomadic tendency (which I have to guard against lest I get itchy to change just for change’s sake).

Unlike the poor goldfish which had no options, accepting change requires a lot of trust and faith, both in yourself and in those causing the change. We’ve all have events through the years when we’re asked to change from a comfortable environment, perform tasks in a different way, or alter our personas because someone else thought we should. There’s an old axiom in marriage that men want their wives to stay the way they were when first married, while women look to change men over time. While I won’t defend either approach, it’s more evidence that change in our lives is sometimes as ubiquitous as the very air we breath. You could even postulate that our lives are a moving, constant sea of change.

Managing change well depends on each person’s personality. But we are creatures of free will, so in a ultimate sense we all have final say whether any change is acceptable or not. If you live in a democratic part of the world, you do have final say whether to accept imposed change. Granted the outcome, if you don’t accept, may not be pleasant but you still have the fundamental choice.

If you’re confronted with serious change, you can turn to your journal for reflective writing to work through to change acceptance. Writing down a list of the pros then the cons of the change can help flush out hidden issues. Getting thoughts out in the open can bring clarity to issues while removing the emotional, first-reaction syndrome that may be clouding the decision-making part of your thinking. Sometimes using a decision matrix can also help, particularly if the change imposed has options to consider. A decision matrix is a grid that lists points or important aspects down the left side, and rates each one using columns along the right labeled from 1 to 5 (or whatever scale you want to use). At the end of the exercise you’ll have a score that may help you decide which way to go. While decision matrixes are great for choice issues, such as buying a house or accepting an assignment (as opposed to being told to move), they are useful for change issues as well.

I know people who relish change, who love nothing more than to have their lives a constantly moving experience. These types don’t exist well unless their lives are constantly turning over, as though the kinetic sensations feed their souls. Other people I know are so rigid that if the newsboy tosses the paper on the lawn one morning instead of the driveway, it sends them into a blue funk dealing with the ripple in their routine. Whichever type you are, take a deep breath when confronted with uncomfortable change then get your thoughts out there past your emotions. Who knows, you might even enjoy the change and prosper from the opportunity. And if you’re cooperative, you may even get to choose your Jell-O flavor. Make mine purple passion, please.

Shun the Bun

The scent of rebellion was in the air when I was a teenager in the late 60s. Being soft-spoken and quiet, my choice of anarchy was hardly world threatening. As most teens then, I was obsessed with my hair, or rather, obsessed with trying to make my hair rebel against its genetic nature. I’ve had wavy hair since I can remember, and in high school I slept many a night with damp hair neatly combed under a tight-fitting toque in vain hopes of having— viola—beautifully straight hair by morning light. Worked well…for at most 30 minutes, which meant by the time I actually got to school it was its usual random self.

I remember spending inordinate amounts of time trying to make it look longer (which amounted to stretching bangs for the appearance of long hair since that’s all I had to work with). I always envied friends with more liberal parents who allowed them the courtesy of growing their hair long enough to pass as girls (which is what my parents assumed was their intent). Eventually I did grow my hair long when I was 17 or 18, but to my utter dismay my hair bulked up instead of hung down…the curse of wavy hair fulfilling its prophecy. In later years, wavy hair was desirable and those poor unfortunates with straight hair poured money and products down the drain in vain efforts to put a natural curve in their otherwise straight locks. I guess I was just ahead of my time back in high school.

In my senior year, thoughts turned to cars (I’d say girls, but that was earlier). My Dad cut a deal with me to co-sign the note on my first car if I would cut my hair. To his shock, my shoulder-length hair (well it would have been had it been STRAIGHT) transformed one day into a near-Marine cut, evidence of my deep passion for those wheels. Got the car, but I think my extreme compliance made Dad feel bad. No problem, I was on my way to cruisin’ with the chicks in my top-down MGB….but that’s a story for another day.

Later during one of those whimsical stages of middle-aged male life that the power-that-be thinks is oh-so-funny, I yearned for the long hair of my youth. In the 80s it was considered hip to have a ponytail, if you were an artist type. I had just transitioned from architecture into graphic design and figured my trade demanded I look as hip as possible. So I avoided hair salons for months letting my hair lengthen (and thicken) until the day came to tie it back into a pony. As the saying goes, the “will is strong but the flesh is weak.” In this case, it was the hair that was weak. Imagine a nice, 8″ pony tied strategically at the base with just a little body to give it fullness. Now imagine letting go said pony and watching with horror as it instantly bunched up into a ball. I didn’t have a ponytail, I had a bun…neither cool nor hip. My naturally logical mind thought, “No problem, just need extra ties.” Now I had a pigs tail—a fat strand of hair curled in a corkscrew. Sigh…so much for ponytail dreams.

Off and on through the years I’ve grown, then cut, then grown my hair many times. On reflection I think those changes occurred during periods of increased creative restlessness, as though the mere act of growing my hair would allow deeper creative juices to surface. A strong taste of freedom is also associated with letting one’s hair down, another artifact from being a child of the 60s. Through the years I’ve found little compassion for my struggles getting my thick, wavy hair to behave from friends who struggle to keep what’s left of theirs. I still have all of mine (enough for several people at times), and my friend’s vain efforts at making the most of thinning hair is probably no less ironic than my fighting the waves.

And as you might guess by now I’m at one of those stages again, evidenced mostly from the recent cancellations of the last several hair salon appointments. And just maybe for the 2004 version of this life-long game I’ll keep it long longer. No pony this time (shun the bun is my new motto), just lengthening to waken long-dozing creatives that I think (hope) are still there waiting to go to work. Failing that, I can always dig in the closet and find that toque. Who knows…it might just work this time.

Faded

cokey.jpgThe familiar usually brings a promise of comfort. Like a pair of faded blue jeans, the things in life we’re used to tend to feel the best and silently assure us that everything’s okay in the world…at least for a little while. Slipping out of work clothes at the end of a tough day, the soft familiar of a well-washed flannel shirt and undemanding jeans for a brief time offers a relaxation unmatched by most artificial methods, and is fortunately calorie free as well. While some people head to bars to unwind after a tough day, you’ll usually find me heading towards my closet for textile relief before finding a long-ignored magazine and settling into the promised comfort of my well-worn reading chair. And if lucky, the nap fairy will ignore me long enough to get in some quiet, quality reading. Nap or not, the world’s chaos melts away in a very short time nestled with such familiar and comfortable companions.

Listening to a recollection CD of Van Morrison while I write this has me thinking how we define comfort in our lives. The soulful wailings of this Irish singer were often a mellowing influence back in college days, and on occasion I’ll listen and fade back to those times I perceive were more comfortable (whether they were or weren’t isn’t the point, only that the trigger works to invoke memories of comfort). While frequently defined by touch or absence of physical irritation, comfort also exists when there’s no emotional resistance. We look for friends and mates whom we can be ourselves with, where we can be comfortable expressing our ideas, or just hang out with. When we choose clothing and furniture, their comfort level is high on our list when making a final decision. And when we struggle with life’s little detours we seek the comfort of those close to us that can offer refuge from these sudden, temporary emotional storms that are often easier to weather than to fight.

What makes each person comfortable varies, of course. We could all list what we consider comforting and I’m sure these lists would reflect a wide variety of tastes. The important thing is not what’s on our lists but that we are conscious of a list and rely on it often. The demands of a driven life frequently don’t allow much attention to comfort in ways that could help de-stress us. Take five, take a breath, take a hike — all these can provide some comfort if we just stop and think often enough to allow them into our lives.

I’ve reached another traumatic level in my weight loss that requires me to let go of some comfortable friends. My favorite blue jeans have become too loose to wear. Unless I intend to let Gypsies camp in these pants while I’m wearing them, it’s time to move them on. The thought of breaking in new jeans is too much right now (or really ever), but fortunately there are resale shops where I can adopt some new-to-me jeans with some of that familiar comfort already built in. Part of the reassurance from faded blue jeans are the quick-flash memories of the years spent breaking them in. While that can’t be replaced by adopting abandoned jeans, I’ll have to be content with their velvet touch to carry me forward until a time when I can begin the familiar process of breaking in new jeans and once again start measuring the cycles of life by the fade of my jeans.